The Anatomy of Collapse

In Moscow, 1991, as in Beijing in 1989, eight hard liners made a last-ditch stand to preserve communism. Yet in both cases, the Communist party was left on the sidelines and no appeal was made for support in the name of Communist doctrine. Politics and persuasion were thrust aside in favor of force. The big difference in the two cases was that in Beijing in 1989, the chief reformer, Deng Xiaoping, sided with the hard liners. His authority was just sufficient to overcome divisions in the military and to engineer the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Conceivably, if Gorbachev had gone over to the Moscow plotters last month, the Communist system might have been preserved in the Soviet Union.

The collapse of communism in the motherland of the revolution is a devastating political and psychological blow to the gerontocratic leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But while the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) seems on the verge of extinction, the CCP has survived the challenge to its existence and has regrouped. Histories, chronologies, memoirs, documentary collections, and picture books have been streaming off Beijing’s presses to mark its seventieth birthday in July. Having made it past the second anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre on June 4 with only a few covert campus protests to justify their paranoid preparations, the ruling gerontocrats are celebrating their glory as never before.1

A visit to China this summer revealed a country unaffected by Soviet-style confusion and upheaval. The demonstrators of 1989 are imprisoned, silent, or abroad. Reform-minded intellectuals, resentful or resigned, are keeping silent as the regime attempts to track down and punish the last sympathizers of the student rebels. In strong contrast even to pre-coup Moscow, where the CPSU was hemorrhaging badly, Beijing has announced an increase in Party membership to over fifty million people. The CCP seems immune to the biblical mandate of “threescore years and ten.”

What accounts for the resilience of the CCP when East European Communist regimes have disintegrated and the CPSU, having already ceded much power to non-Communists, now seems to be on its last legs?

The essential difference between China and Eastern Europe is that China’s Communist regime is indigenous, the product of a domestically led military victory, not imposed by Soviet arms.2 Many Chinese dislike their government; the desire of intellectuals for democracy apart, dissatisfaction in urban China over corruption and inflation was clearly very high in 1989. But national liberation was not an issue as it was later that year in Poland, East Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.

China’s aged leaders were offered a peaceful revolution by the students in the uprising of 1989, but they feared the emergence of an independent workers’ movement like Solidarity. They could have followed the inclinations of some senior colleagues and refrained from military suppression, as the East Germans did. Instead they chose what could be called a Romanian solution, but made it stick.

Why did they not follow Gorbachev in trying to turn political democracy to their own purposes? Here the explanation seems to depend on generations. Gorbachev is a fourth- or fifth-generation leader, who was not yet born when the Bolsheviks carried out their coup in 1917. He came to power to find that the Soviets had lost the sixty-year competition with the West, a competition which began with Stalin’s Five-Year Plans and Roosevelt’s New Deal. Without drastic economic reform, the regime that he had inherited would run down, and without political reform there was no hope of breaking through bureaucratic inertia and popular apathy that seventy years of Soviet rule had produced. Even when the going became rough, he knew that turning back would be even worse.

In China, by contrast, Deng was able to give new impetus to the economy during the 1980s by unleashing the peasantry from the burdens of Soviet-style collectivization. By 1989, despite serious problems with industrial reform, he could reasonably hope that a Communist-led China could be transformed into a powerful, modern state, without fundamental concessions being offered to political reformers. In this apparently promising situation there was no way that a first-generation revolutionary, who had been political commissar of one of the CCP’s victorious armies in the Civil War, and then further hardened by struggle during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, would hand over the fruits of a lifetime’s work to unarmed young people demonstrating peacefully in the streets.

What still needs explaining is why the monolithic Communist parties, from Berlin to Beijing, that were almost universally thought to be iron-disciplined, tightly organized, and self-perpetuating, nevertheless cracked. It is not difficult to identify the events—like the sudden death of the popular one-time general secretary Hu Yao-bang in China—that set off the challenge from below to the hitherto unchallengeable ruling parties. But why did they give way?

The model Stalinist state can be depicted as a totalitarian triangle, with a second triangle within it. At the apex of the outer triangle is the charismatic leader, the source of official inspiration and the person owed obedience. One side of the triangle supporting the apex is the bureaucracy of the Party-state, which executes the leader’s commands. The other side of the triangle is the doctrine of Marxism-Leninism (plus Mao Zedong Thought, in the Chinese case), which provides the leader’s legitimacy and is constantly supplemented by his ideas. The base of the triangle is the military, the ultimate guarantor of the entire structure. Inside this outer triangle is an inner one made up of the various police systems, which reinforce the ability of the outer triangle to keep society penned in.

In Eastern Europe, the domestic political structures contained alien elements. At the true apex of the triangles were not local satraps such as Honecker or Jaruzelski, but Gorbachev; it was he, not they, who interpreted Marxism-Leninism. And the ultimate guarantor of the regime was not the national army but the occupying Soviet Red Army. This was demonstrated most forcibly in the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolution in 1956, when the Communist premier Imre Nagy led an abortive attempt to take his country out of the Communist bloc in response to domestic nationalism. Satellite rulers never had a free hand in dealing with their societies, and were also subject to the overall policy concerns of Moscow. Brezhnev’s desire to pursue détente in the 1970s encouraged social groups in Eastern Europe to take the initiative under the umbrella of the Helsinki accords; Western credits became available to Poland but only in exchange for domestic liberalization, which encouraged the ferment that eventually produced Solidarity.3 When Gorbachev decided he had no choice but to abandon the Soviet empire, and, in particular, when it became clear that the Red Army would no longer bail out the Soviet satraps in trouble as it had in 1953, 1956, 1968, and 1979, the inner triangle alone proved insufficiently strong to keep on suppressing dissatisfied citizens.

In the Soviet Union, glasnost weakened the doctrinal side of the outer triangle, while perestroika weakened the bureaucratic side. Intellectuals, professionals, workers, ethnic minorities, even dissident members of the nomenklatura seized the chance to obtain greater freedom by taking advantage of the cracks in the monolith. Most Soviet citizens seemed agreed that anything is better than life within the triangular system. Their reaction to the coup proved this, and here was where the hard liners miscalculated.

But both in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union, the nationalist or intellectual dissidents seized opportunities that in all likelihood would not have existed without Gorbachev. Gorbachev’s decisions were the crucial ones: to allow Marxist-Leninist doctrine to be questioned, to encourage the bureaucracies to be attacked, and to withhold the use of force.4 While one respects the courage of, for instance, the Polish workers who spontaneously rose in 1970, 1976, and 1980, indicating the latent power of civil society, the monolithic triangles of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union did not explode as a result of intolerable social pressures from within; rather, they were shattered by blows delivered to them from the apex. It is here that the similarity with China emerges.

“Spiritual pollution” from the West may have been among the factors that inspired the Tiananmen demonstrators, as the octogenarians of Beijing allege. But Western ideas were able to penetrate only because Mao and Deng had already weakened China’s totalitarian structure from above. In 1966, Mao unleashed popular social forces in the form of the student Red Guards against the bureaucrats of the Party-state. For several years afterward, the CCP had no institutional life, other than the fevered machinations of a few cabals of high-level officials. When the history of the period was rewritten after Mao’s death, it was even suggested that the CCP’s Ninth Congress be expunged from the record because some of the appointed delegates were not Party members.

In effect, Mao at the apex used two sides of the triangle—the weapon of his “Thought” and the support of the People’s Liberation Army—against the third, proposing ultimately to substitute the best of the Red Guards for the old Party bureaucracy. When internecine student warfare forced him to suppress the Red Guards, the PLA took over the Party’s functions. Mao and subsequently Deng had to struggle hard to get the PLA to relinquish its political power and allow a supposedly reborn Party to occupy its normal position.

But despite its formal rehabilitation and restoration, the CCP never recovered the authority and legitimacy it had before the Cultural Revolution, and it is not difficult to see why. In one of his most famous articles, written in 1927 during his rural revolutionary years, Mao wrote:

“Crowning” the landlords and parading them through the villages…. A tall paper-hat is stuck on the head of one of the local tyrants or evil gentry, bearing the words “Local tyrant so-and-so” or “So-and-so of the evil gentry.” He is led by a rope and escorted with big crowds in front and behind. Sometimes brass gongs are beaten and flags waved to attract people’s attention. This form of punishment more than any other makes the local tyrants and evil gentry tremble. Anyone who has once been crowned with a tall paperhat loses face altogether and can never again hold up his head.5

Anyone who saw the film The Last Emperor and remembers how the prison governor was paraded through the streets with other “counter-revolutionaries” in the Cultural Revolution sequence will recognize the tactic Mao describes.

It was not just disgraced leaders like Deng Xiaoping who lost face during the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s; it was the CCP itself. Mao may have believed that he was simply purifying the Party of “counter-revolutionaries,” but to the “broad masses” the distinction between disgraced leaders and the organization they served was hard to perceive. If most US senators and congressmen were suddenly convicted of corruption and sent to federal prisons, the institution of Congress could hardly survive untarnished.

Although virtually all of Mao’s Cultural Revolution victims were rehabilitated (sometimes posthumously), the CCP itself could not be restored to its former eminence. Deng himself contributed to its further de-legitimization, albeit with very different methods. When he finally reemerged as Mao’s successor in late 1978, he told his colleagues that

the quality of leadership given by the Party committee in an economic unit should be judged mainly by the unit’s adoption of advanced methods of management, by the progress of its technical innovation, and by the margins of increase of its productivity of labour, its profits, the personal income of its workers and the collective benefits it provides. The quality of leadership by Party committee in all fields should be judged by similar criteria.6

In other words, the criterion for Party leadership and thus membership was economic efficiency. This is not surprising after what Deng and his colleagues saw as the wasted decade of the Cultural Revolution; but it is a far cry from Stalin’s concept of the Party as “the only organization capable of centralizing the leadership of the struggle of the proletariat” and Liu Shaoqi’s assertion that the proletarian character of the CCP was determined by “our party’s political struggles and political life, its ideological education and its ideological and political leadership.”7

By stressing managerial skills and economic leadership and insisting that the mandate of power was based on competence, Deng undermined the right of the CCP to rule by virtue of its being the proletarian vanguard. He compounded the Party’s difficulties by putting into question the principal role of Marxism-Leninism—Mao Zedong Thought, to give the party its legitimacy. Although Deng continued to describe Mao’s thought as a “cardinal principle” which could not be questioned, he also decreed that “practice is the sole criterion of truth.” Taken to its logical conclusion, this left little room for ideological guidance.

Deng even disarmed his own position at the apex of the leadership by refusing to accept any of the top positions that Mao had held, except the chairmanship of the military affairs committee. To his credit, he took this line because of the high-level consensus that never again should any Party leader be able to dominate his colleagues as Mao had done. But it meant that while Deng was known to be the ultimate arbiter, the triangle had become blurred at the top and cracked on the sides. Only the military base seemed as firm as ever. Deng weakened the inner triangle, too, by playing down class struggle and proclaiming the equality of all before the law.

Simultaneously, Deng emboldened the three large penned-in forces of Chinese society: the peasants, by removing the CCP control exercised through the collectives and allowing them to farm as families; the urban residents, by encouraging the growth of private factories and service trades; and, above all, the intellectuals and students, by “opening up” the country to the outside world and allowing foreign travel and the relatively free flow of ideas. Each of these groups became restlessly aware of how far behind China had fallen under the CCP; particularly galling was the way in which war-devastated countries and defeated enemies—Japan, South Korea, Taiwan—had demonstrated that China did not need to be backward.

The death of Hu Yaobang happened to be the spark that lit a prairie fire of social protest. Whether or not the students had a clear notion of democracy was irrelevant: they and their fellow citizens, in Beijing and the many other cities where demonstrations occurred, knew they wanted freedom from oppression. Bureaucrats, propagandists, and even Party leaders began to support the students; the end of Party ideology as an effective force was underlined by the erection of the “goddess of democracy” opposite the portrait of Mao in the square. Unsupported from the outside, the inner triangle of police power proved ineffective. To restrain society once more, Deng’s only recourse was to the PLA, which became the inner and outer triangles for a time.

The critical common factor, then, that contributed to similar upheavals throughout the Communist bloc has been assaults from above, not pressure from within. Totalitarian systems can withstand pressure from social forces; they tend to fall apart when their leaders, out of a desire for radical change ignited by some external challenge,8 take actions that help to destroy the system.9

“Democratic centralism” has been the cover for a hierarchical system based on unquestioning obedience. Without genuine popular roots, local Party cells have no capacity for independent survival. They are sustained by the powers granted to them from above, not support from below. When the supreme leader has used his position to destroy his subordinates, the characteristic reaction has been petrified acceptance, as in the Soviet Union in the late 1930s, China in the 1960s, and in most of the Eastern European countries in the 1980s.

The difference between Stalin on the one hand, and Mao, Deng, and Gorbachev on the other is that Stalin never unleashed society against the bureaucracy; he used one part of the state apparatus to destroy another. For a time, the secret police took over important aspects of the Party’s job in the Soviet Union, while simultaneously carrying on its normal tasks of social control. At no stage was the man in the street allowed to think that the Party’s destruction presented him with an opportunity to act on his own.

Can such an interpretation of the collapse of Communist systems tell us anything about their future in the USSR and the PRC?

Even before the August coup, leading Russian politicians like Boris Yeltsin had resigned from the CPSU and indicated their intention of forming new political organizations. Marxism-Leninism was widely scorned and even the legitimacy of the Bolshevik revolution and Lenin himself were in question. Had the coup succeeded, its leaders could not have rehabilitated these discredited elements of the Soviet system; rather, they would have had to erect a military dictatorship, the Bonapartist regime long dreaded by Soviet politicians. The collapse of the coup revealed that even the base of the Soviet totalitarian triangle, the Red Army, had been undermined by internal divisions resulting from glasnost ant perestroika. A similar fate has befallen the mainstay of the inner triangle, the KGB; and the toppling of Dzerzhinski’s statue symbolizes its future.

Deprived of the traditional props of Party, doctrine, and military, and lacking a territorial base, Gorbachev’s position as Soviet leader is extremely tenuous. Despite his ill-judged if understandable reaffirmation of the importance of the CPSU and the Bolshevik revolution on his return to Moscow, Gorbachev’s own actions during the past six years have ensured that the only true source of legitimacy in the USSR today is a popular mandate.

But it was Boris Yeltsin who grasped this and who transformed his political status by getting himself democratically elected as president of the Russian Republic. With his position enormously strengthened by his courageous stand during the coup, it is Yeltsin who will in the end decide if there is any value in retaining a Soviet presidency as a link between the Russian and other republics and, if so, how much real power it should have.

Yeltsin’s post-coup announcement of his desire to form a military force for the Russian Republic, and the restrictions placed on the CPSU in Moscow and elsewhere, indicate that the complete dismantling of the Soviet totalitarian triangle is now only a matter of time.

In China, also, the rot has gone too far. Totalitarianism is kept shakily in place only by the united determination of the octogenarians under Deng. Only their historic roles as revolutionary heroes, and not the CCP or Mao Zedong Thought or, after Tiananmen, the PLA—all now discredited—can provide the regime with tattered shreds of legitimacy and some semblance of continuity and impregnability. They will not be around to do so much longer.

Indeed the political situation in China in the last decade of the twentieth century looks strangely like that in the first decade. Then, too, the traditional ideology that once conferred legitimacy on rulers was discarded, as the nation sought to modernize its institutions. Then, too, the bureaucracy based upon that ideology lost its authority, and new officials with new skills were sought. Then, too, despite popular unrest, a bankrupt regime was kept in place by the determination of a paramount ruler from behind the scenes. But with the death of the Empress Dowager in 1908, the traditional triangle lost its last and most powerful element, and within four years the imperial system had disappeared.

In the power vacuum left behind by the Empress Dowager, only the military proved capable of using power. The leading general of the day, Yuan Shikai, acted as broker in arranging the abdication of the last emperor; he then overthrew the successor republic and made an abortive attempt to restore the old system under his own rule, succeeding only in precipitating the decade of warlordism.

Eighty years later, part of that may be reenacted. As a result of the Tiananmen events, the military seems destined to take a crucial part in shaping the arrangement of power after Deng leaves the scene. A likely general, Yang Beibing, is already in place, though recent events in Moscow have exposed the weaknesses of military leaders who preside over divided armed forces as the totalitarian triangle crumbles. It remains to be seen if the bitter political experiences of the twentieth century and the unprecedented liberation of the past decade have produced social forces willing to cooperate to bring about a more hopeful outcome than that of 1911.

Certainly the Communist system in China cannot survive. The elements that kept it in place have been destroyed by its leaders, and the CCP has lost its purpose. When it was born seventy years ago, it sought to reunite the country, avenge its humiliation at foreign hands, develop the economy, and transform the society. The 1949 revolution led in fact to reunification of almost all the old imperial territories, and China “stood up” as a world power more formidably than it had for over a century.

But in the succeeding forty-two years, after a series of disastrous economic and social experiments, Deng initiated a reform program that represented an admission that Communist economics did not work and that the Communist social transformation was a disaster. At seventy, the CCP, like the CPSU, survives only in order to retain the power it seized at the revolution. As younger Chinese leaders take over from the founding generation, other causes besides maintaining Party power will come to seem more important in the national interest, as they have to Gorbachev.

About the normal human life span, the Psalms say:

The days of our years are three-score years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

The CCP, too, may linger with labor and sorrow; after all, inertia is one of the most powerful political forces. But if the Tiananmen events of 1989 proved that society can challenge the totalitarian state too soon, the failed Moscow coup of 1991 proved that there comes a time when the totalitarian state can no longer save itself. Indeed, the Tiananmen massacre can now be clearly seen as a Pyrrhic victory. Two years ago, I suggested in these pages that communism in China would not long outlast its founding generation. Two weeks after the events in Moscow, even that prediction may be overcautious. In the not-too-distant future, the CCP will follow the CPSU into the dustbin of history, along with the system it spawned.

August 29, 1991

  1. 1

    So far they have had no nasty surprises such as Snow White, Blood Red, a strikingly honest history published in 1989, which caused its author Lieutenant Colonel Zhang Zhenglong to be imprisoned last year because he exposed CCP ruthlessness in one triumphant but ferocious civil war campaign in the late 1940s. 

  2. 2

    Of course, the Comintern was heavily instrumental in forming and guiding the fledgling CCP, but once the Party had shifted to guerrilla warfare and especially after the rise of Mao, Moscow’s influence was marginal. However, the Soviets did give valuable assistance in Manchuria after World War II, at the outset of the Chinese civil war. Snow White, Blood Red has something to say about this, and the best source in English is Steven I. Levine, Anvil of Victory: The Communist Revolution in Manchuria, 1945–8 (Columbia University Press, 1987). 

  3. 3

    See Timothy Garton Ash, The Polish Revolution: Solidarity (Macmillan, 1984), p. 19. 

  4. 4

    Force has of course been used within the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, and not just interposed between interethnic violence, but directly against nationalists in Georgia and the Baltics. The difference was that, unlike in the past, its use was no longer assumed as inevitable, and therefore it no longer restrained dissidents as before. 

  5. 5

    “Report of an investigation of the peasant movement in Hunan,” Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1965), I, p. 37. 

  6. 6

    “Emancipate the mind, seek truth from facts and unite as one looking into the future,” Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping (1975–1982) (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1984), p. 162; emphasis added. 

  7. 7

    Stalin, Leninism (International Publishers, 1933), p. 78; Liu Shaoqi, Three Essays on Party-Building (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1980), p. 181. Liu’s characterization was made at the CCP’s 7th Congress in 1945 when he and Mao were close allies, so it clearly also reflected Mao’s views. 

  8. 8

    Romania seems an exception in which not the leader but the party and the army brought about self-destruction by failing to support the leader. But what the Romanian case probably proves is that, despite Ceausescu’s independent line, his country was no more outside the Soviet imperial system than Albania proved to be. Even Yugoslavia, free of Moscow’s domination for forty years, has not been immune to the seismic shocks within the Soviet Union. 

  9. 9

    In Mao’s case, the negative challenge of a “revisionist” Soviet Union; in Deng’s case, the positive challenge of the flourishing East Asian economies and the negative example of the Soviet economic model; and in Gorbachev’s case, the realization that the Soviet command economy was no match for the capitalist system.