Xi Jinping’s China & Stalin’s Artificial Dialectic

Spectres & Souls


The following is part of a series focussed on China’s long century of revolution, starting with the Wuchang Uprising in 1911 and the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. These essays are also chapters in our China Heritage Annual: Spectres & Souls.


In 2022, they will be followed by a multi-part series marking the end of Xi Jinping’s first decade in power:


Below we reproduce ‘The Artificial Dialectic: Generalissimo Stalin and the Art of Government’ by Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), a noted thinker and historian of ideas, written in 1951 and first published in Foreign Affairs. We preface this illustrated reprint with a number of interconnected essays that help illustrate points made by Berlin just as Mao Zedong, and his colleagues, were deploying a Stalinist-style artificial dialectic of their own in the newly founded People’s Republic of China (it should be remembered that, although predominant, Mao was primus inter pares within a complex and volatile ideological collective). It is a form of governance that has held sway in China ever since. This chapter adds both to our previous work on Homo Xinensis, as well as Jianying Zha’s study of Xi Jinping and Han Fei (for details and links, see Related Material below).

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
10 June 2021


Related Material:

Homo Xinensis

Prince Han Fei & Chairman Xi Jinping

Struggle as Modus Operandi

‘A Communist is supposed to work hard and to serve the people with his whole heart, not with half or two-thirds. Those whose revolutionary will has been waning should have their spirits revived through rectification.

‘We should maintain the same vigour, the same revolutionary enthusiasm and the same death-defying spirit we displayed in the years of the revolutionary wars and carry our revolutionary work through to the end.’

from Mao Zedong’s comments on the
1957 Rectification Campaign


As we noted in ‘A Protracted People’s Struggle’ (China Heritage, 14 September 2019):

On the eve of the celebration of the 120th anniversary of Mao’s birth, 24 December 2013, the official media reminded Party members and cadres of his militant spirit. In an article titled ‘Thoughts Inspired by a Quotation from Chairman Mao’ 一句「毛主席語錄」引發的思考 the author told the faithful that they needed ‘more calcium’ 補鈣 to strengthen their backbones and that they should ‘recharge batteries’ 充電 depleted by an era of laziness and luxury. ‘It is the right time to reacquaint yourselves with some Red Classics’ 紅色經典, the writer said, in particular people should mull over a famous inscription that Mao Zedong wrote for himself in 1917 titled ‘Struggle — A Reminder to Myself’ 奮鬥自勉:

Find boundless joy in the struggle with Heaven;
Find boundless joy in the struggle with Earth;
Boundless too the joy you’ll find in Human Strife.


Today, Party commentators prefer to interpret the last line of this exhortation to mean that one should unite with one’s comrades to pursue the struggle for the Party’s enterprise. But Mao’s life was often anything but that and he gloried in the wars he waged with his opponents, both real and imagined, whether they were outside or inside the Communist Party. Today, despite a constant refrain about social harmony and peace, the Communist Party remains a political organisation founded on and engaged in ceaseless travails 奮鬥 and conflict 鬥爭.

‘Struggle’ 鬪/鬥 dòu, or 鬪爭 dòu zhēng, lies at the heart of China’s revolutionary history. And the word 鬪 dòu  encompasses all forms of struggle, fighting and contestation — battling for survival; fighting military opponents; doing battle with one’s comrades. For some 鬪 dòu evokes the German word Kampf.

With a genius for summing up complex ideas in a lapidary form, Mao summed it up in the line:

‘With a population of eight hundred million, how can you avoid the need to struggle and fight?’ 八億人口,不鬥行嗎?

This quote was first published on 16 May 1976 marking ten years since the formal inauguration of the Cultural Revolution. During those long years of civil war (Mao’s term) the propagandists summed up the nation’s mission with similar brevity:

‘Constant struggle will create a new world.’
七鬥八鬥, 鬥出一片新天地。


It is that new world that tempered Xi Jinping’s personality and, in his rise to power since 2007, he has repeatedly shown himself to share Mao’s obsession with the rhetoric, as well as with the advocacy, of aggression and violent struggle. As the Politburo man charged with overall security during the 2008 Olympic Year, Xi orchestrated the militant long march of the Olympic Torch Relay, turning what by all rights should have been a global celebration into an ugly advocacy of Han-Chinese nationalism (for more on this, see my comments in ‘Torching the Relay’, The China Beat, 4 May 2008).

Today, commentators foreign and Chinese alike may fixate on Mao-like features of Xi’s rule such as his amassing of power (although Xi has more titular positions and greater real power than Mao) and a rather shoddy personality cult (the focus of which, as we have previously noted, is relatively ‘personality-free’), but what perhaps is more significant is his obsession with conflict and struggle, in particular, his helping to foment and prosecute a series of civil wars. Instead of being part of a concerted effort to address the social and economic issues that contributed to the violent uprising in Tibetan China in 2008, Xi and his colleagues purposefully turned a conflict that had been simmering since the protests of 1988 into an ongoing state of emergency. (That earlier period of repression in Lhasa was a factor in the political rise of the local Party boss, Hu Jintao, just as the crushing of student protests in Shanghai in late 1986 enhanced the career of that city’s satrap, Jiang Zemin, following the 4 June 1989 Beijing Massacre.)

The advocacy of a unitary ‘China Story’ since late 2012 is aimed at reimposing a dull national homogeneity, one that is subservient to the cyclops-like view of the Party. It also contributes to Xi Jinping’s ‘forever war’ on history, truth-telling and political and social diversity.

More recently, Xinjiang has fallen under the deadly sway of Xi’s aggressive centralising authoritarian vision and, for the foreseeable future, the territory will remain in a state of high tension and quasi civil conflict. Meanwhile, Xi’s Communist Party’s ‘war on people’ — that is, the marginalised and disadvantaged, social activists, independent religious figures, free thinkers, writers, etcetera — continues unabated. And then there is Hong Kong, a Chinese territory that, even before Xi Jinping’s ham-fisted autocracy, was a locus of civilian unrest. Now its rebellion has been quelled and the Party has launched a ceaseless struggle against its spirit.

The constant refrain heard in Communist China may talk about the need for social stability and unity — policies first articulated by Deng Xiaoping in the early post-Mao era — but official thinking and language never strayed that far from the campaign-style or militaristic origins of the Communist Party (for a discussion of China’s militant language, see On New China Newspeak 新華文體). Under Xi Jinping, it has been evident since late 2012 that the leader’s Maoist origins and obsession with struggle as the core value of political and civilian life have come to the fore as he has consolidated his rule over China.


In a speech to the incoming class of Party cadres at what is sometimes coyly referred to as China’s National Academy of Governance (aka, The Party School of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party) on 3 September 2019, Xi Jinping managed to outdo himself by using the term ‘struggle’ 鬥爭 over fifty times, breaking the record he set in January in a chilling New Year’s Address to the nation.

The ‘struggle philosophy’ 鬥爭哲學 of Xi Jinping inherits the tradition of his predecessors, just as Mao and his generation of revolutionaries inherited and adapted Marxism-Leninism as practiced by Joseph Stalin.

Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Mao and his cohort would face the dilemma confronted by all rebels since the time of the French Revolution some one hundred and fifty years earlier. As Isaiah Berlin puts it in his study of what he calls ‘the artificial dialectic’:

‘The avoidance of … opposite dangers—the need to steer between the Scylla of self-destructive Jacobin fanaticism and the Charybdis of post-revolutionary weariness and cynicism—is therefore the major task of any revolutionary leader who desires to see his regime neither destroyed by the fires which it has kindled nor returned to the ways from which it has momentarily been lifted by the revolution.’

He points out that:

‘Stalin made use of an original expedient, thoroughly in keeping with the inventive spirit of our time, and in particular with the new fashion of producing synthetic equivalents of natural products. As others produced artificial rubber or mechanical brains, so he created an artificial dialectic, whose results the experimenter himself could to a large degree control and predict. Instead of allowing history to originate the oscillation of the dialectical spiral, he placed this task in human hands. The problem was to find a mean between the ‘dialectical opposites’ of apathy and fanaticism. Once this was determined, the essence of his policy consisted in accurate timing and in the calculation of the right degree of force required to swing the political and social pendulum to obtain any result that might, in the given circumstances, be desired.’

Regardless of all the talk about ‘inheriting red genes’, ‘Yan’an Spirit’ and struggle in China today, just as it was during the Maoist era (1949-1978) and the Reformist era (1979-2008), the creation, guiding and managing of just such an artificial dialectic, and the need to keep the nation on edge, is the guiding spirit of the Chinese Communist Party. It is a spirit that also informs the ways in which the Chinese monopoly capitalist party-state (and its plutocratic fellow travellers) interacts with the rest of the world, and in particular its evolving struggle with America Inc.

In a Season of Return

Geremie R. Barmé

‘The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

‘Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.

There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.

Ecclesiastes, I:  9-11

As we have observed previously, the ‘conciliation of history’ in the Xi Jinping era is not a departure from previous Party administrations, an aberration, or solely the result of personality, proclivity and perversity. It is an outgrowth and logical development of what preceded it.

We have also argued that the seeds of the Xi Jinping Autocracy, or what we think of as ‘The Xi Jinping Restoration’ 習近平中興 can be found in the evolution of the Open Door and Economic Reform policies, and the Deng era, that resulted from the reorientation of the General Line of the Chinese Communist Party in late 1978.

De-Maoification ended with the 1981 historical decision on post-1949 China, it did not begin with it. Although Mao’s legacy, and the meaning of Mao Zedong Thought, were expanded under the interregnum of Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, his accidental successor, by the early Naughts Mao Zedong was on the way back. The final passage in ‘The Irresistible Fall and Rise of Mao’, the introductory essay to my  Shades of Mao: the posthumous cult of the Great Leader, written in mid 1995, I noted that:

‘Chairman Mao has entered the stream of Chinese history as man, icon, myth, and there is little doubt that the Cult of the early 1990s is only the first of the revivals he will experience in what promises to be a long and successful posthumous career.’

Shades of Mao: The Posthumous Cult of the Great Leader,
Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1996, p.54

A decade later, when reviewing Jung Chang and John Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story in 2005, I would go on to observe that:

‘In a speech delivered on the occasion of the centenary celebrations of Mao’s birth in December 1993, Jiang Zemin had at least made mention of Mao’s errors. For Hu Jintao, on the other hand, the banner of Mao Thought had “always to be held high, at all times and in all circumstances”, and he had nothing but praise for the man who, with his death in September 1976, had bequeathed his country a legacy of arrant politics, economic ruination and profound social anomie.

‘Hu Jintao has pursued a politics that was evident in his pro-Mao speech of 2003, ushering in a period of increased ideological policing.’

‘I’m So Ronree’, The China Journal
No.55 (January 2006): 128

And, just over a decade after that, the advent of the presidency of Donald Trump during the first years of the Xi Jinping era, led me to remark:

‘Some writers in China’s contemporary alt-left have identified in Trump’s winning electoral strategy elements of Mao Zedong Thought and, in so doing, they remind us of the malleability of Mao’s dialectical magical thinking, the questionable history of this ginned up Chinese political tradition (to which Xi Jinping doggedly cleaves) and the cracked mirror in which such commentators see distorted reflections of themselves.’

There, I also referred to the aphoristic saying:

A touch of yin, a touch of yang,
That is the nature of the Tao.
A swerve to the left, a swerve to the right,
This is the way of Mao.

Furthermore, I observed that:

‘Since its founding in 1949, the People’s Republic of China has lived in a post-truth bubble. With its guided media and vast propaganda-industrial complex the Party maintains its rule over facts with relentless vigilance. The neo-liberal West has, from the days of the Reagan-Thatcher duumvirate, increasingly relied not merely on economic growth, but also on the distortion of reality to bolster its hold over consumers hearts-and-minds. We have lived into an age in which the Lying East and the Lying West are reaching a new kind of equilibrium. Some call this not-cold, not-hot war a chilly war of ideologies, a 涼戰, or at least of vested interests. It has created a face off of like-against-like and, for students of the political and cultural dilemmas of the twentieth-century it provides a harrowing lesson in real-time politics.’

‘A Monkey King’s Journey to the East’
China Heritage, 1 January 2017

The autocratic mind, regardless of the sphere or the era, shares many qualities in common. However, as Isaiah Berlin points out in his study of the artificial dialectic, when an individual penchant for purblind tyranny is informed by a sophisticated political theory, moreover, when it claims that it has History on its side, and that it is the agent of change and that the individual who embodies is convinced that they are L’homme providentiel, a breathtaking and deeply troubling vista unfolds. It is a vista the defining features of which are political campaigns, movements, actions and purges.


Although the further revival of Mao Thought and aspects of High Maoism is a feature of the Xi Jinping ‘new epoch’ (2012-), it is an enhancement of a previous demeanor within the Chinese Communist Party rather than being a radical departure.

The reconciliation of the first with the second thirty years results not in some crude return to late Maoism, rather it further justifies the Communist Party’s historical narrative and political practice. Yes, in crucial areas Xi Jinping is repeating, reinterpreting and updating policies of the past but he is not thereby doomed to repeat the failures of the past. He and his cabal are repeating history because they are supremely confident that will not only learn the lessons of history but they will repeat the failed history of the past confident that this time they will get it right. The CCP’s self-description as a ‘party of study’ should be taken seriously and it is a theme of A Short History of the Chinese Communist Party, published to commemorate the 2021 centenary.

Absent the cyclical dramas of market democracies, the socialist state has a rhythm of its own. Elsewhere I have dubbed this the ‘movement mentality’ 運動意識, one inculcated by the campaigns initiated by the Chinese Communists starting with the Yan’an Rectification of the early 1940s. As I noted when commenting on the mass movements of the 1980s in China, ‘Like the Soviet Union, history in Communist Chinese society was delineated by party congresses, speeches, state plans, and anniversaries. But the Chinese calibrated party life according to a new timetable, one that was set by the political movement, the government-orchestrated purge… The abiding essence of Mao Zedong Thought was the political purge and counter purge that would unfold during a movement’. Again, I observed in 1991, ‘Purges provided people with an opportunity to settle old scores and restart stalled careers.’ In fact, I would estimate that on average over the seven decades since the founding of the People’s Republic there has been a political movement, purge or mass action once every two years. ‘Over the years, movements became for the people of mainland China the most natural form of popular political expression, although the style of participation was rigidly limited and the process itself quite routine. It was a charade with a deadly significance, a form of mass theatre that could have devastating consequences.’

After all, in 1982, then Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang declared that ‘Communism is, first and foremost, a movement.’ And He Xin, a protege of Hu Qiaomu, Mao’s former political secretary and a key ideological adviser to Deng Xiaoping, put it like this:

‘… people plunge into one “craze” after another—frenzied activities related to politics and ideology or some form of economic Great Leap Forward.

‘The quintessential expression of this kind of frenzy is the “movement”, including movements that are not so called, and they have occurred time and again. For decades now, Chinese society has been caught up in a cycle of repeated movements.’

this and the previous quotations are taken from Barmé, ‘Traveling Heavy: The Intellectual Baggage of the Chinese Diaspora’, Problems of Communism, January-April 1991; revised as a chapter in my In the Red: contemporary Chinese culture, New York, 1999, pp.56-57

He Xin, one of the more perceptive mavens of the 1980s, was reluctant to point out that frenzied movements, mobilisations, purges and a plethora of party-led activities were not peripheral to China’s political life, they lay at its heart.

As we observed, the string of movements or campaigns that have delineated the life of China since 1949, began with the Yan’an Rectification Campaign, a movement aimed at ‘aligning’ the thinking, actions and speech of all Party members to an ideology summed up at the time as Mao Zedong Thought. There have been over a dozen ‘rectifications’ — or realignments, also known as focused education campaigns — since Yan’an. Some have enveloped the whole nation, others have identified party-specific problems and have only involved Party members. In the early 1950s, a series of mass, nationwide overlapping campaigns were aimed at: re-orienting Party members and converting their battle-tried experience into social management skills; the ideological transformation of Chinese educators along Stalinist-Maoist lines; and, intensive pro-party, patriotic education. The nation was remade into what would become by the late 1950s a party-state, or what the prominent journalist and editor Chu Anping 儲安平 famously called a ‘Party Empire’ 黨天下. Subsequently, Tibet and Xinjiang were subjected to a similar process, just as Hong Kong is being ‘realigned’ following the imposition of Beijing’s National Security Law on 1 July 2020.


When discussing ‘totalitarian nostalgia’ in the concluding chapter of In the Red (New York, 1999), I wrote that:

‘Totalitarian nostalgia’ as Svetlana Boym writes is ‘primarily an aesthetic nostalgia for the last grand style in the twentieth century—the Stalinist Empire Style—and even more, a “nostalgia for world culture.”‘[1] Boym also points out that in 1990s Russia totalitarian nostalgia was the product of an environment in which culture had ‘to survive a balancing act between the old…ideology and mentality, the demands of art, and new commercial imperatives.’

Here I argue that the totalitarian temper in 1990s China, one that remains in evidence in the new millennium, constantly harks back to and feeds off abiding totalistic and totalising temptations. They are temptations evident in Chinese political and cultural debates since the end of the nineteenth century; they are present in the intellectual and political projects that seek to formulate holistic systems, paradigms and arguments for the salvation of China; they persist despite the relative decline of the official ideocracy since the 1970s. …

I also noted that:

The language of totalitarianism itself operates according to rules and an internal logic that aid and abet a thought process conducive to its continued purchase on power and authority. In the decades of its ascendance, as well in the long years of tenacious reform, the totalitarian in China has exhibited an intriguing versatility, ‘commodifying’ culture, ideas and even opposition in the general cause of its re-definition and self-affirmation.

It is the concern of many students of things Chinese that the yawning gap between reality and rhetoric must surely, in the long run, make things untenable, or lead to some massive collapse of the vestigial ideological power of the Party-state. I would argue, rather, again taking a sidewards glance at the parallels between Soviet and Chinese socialism, that Communist rule in China has created a range of ideological simulacra that have to date incorporated cultural alternatives and opponents in a postmodern pastiche of the kind described in the Russian philosopher Mikhail Epstein’s work on the Soviet ideological landscape.

In his work on relativistic patterns in totalitarian thinking, Epstein analyses totalitarianism as ‘a specific postmodern model that came to replace the modernist ideological stance elaborated in earlier Marxism.’ He argues that the use of ‘descriptive-evaluative’ words, that is terms that combine both descriptive and evaluative meanings, what Epstein calls ‘ideologemes’, deployed universally in Soviet speech communicate not only information but also a particular ideological message, or concealed judgments that take the form of words. His arguments are too elaborate to reproduce here in full, however, Epstein’s analysis of how ideologemes functioned in Soviet public discourse has striking parallels in contemporary China. In short, he notes that a key to the function of ideologemes is that they can encompass both leftist and rightist concepts, encompassing the spectrum of utilitarian shifts made within a totalitarian or totalising system. A simple example of this can be found in the Chinese usage of the expression ‘socialist market economy’. It is a term created to convey the extreme contradictions of contemporary economic realities and to allow for an ideological underpinning to what, superficially at least, appears to have been an example of the Party’s retreat from its avowed Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideals. According to Epstein, this kind of linguistic formulation is not the result of clumsy pragmatism, but rather the reflection of the core philosophy of totalitarian politics which ‘uses leftist slogans to defeat the right, rightist slogans to defeat the left’ while maintaining its own primacy.

reprinted in G. Barmé, ‘1989, 1999, 2009: Totalitarian Nostalgia’
China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 18 (June 2009)


In the People’s Republic, this linguistic realm and historical timescape have melded China’s dynastic approach to historical repetition and self-perfection with Stalinist experience and top-down bureaucratic dirigisme. And it is here that we would point out that despite the Chinese Party’s claims about the traditions of Marxism-Leninism, it is more fruitful to appreciate the Communist Weltanschauung as essentially Stalinist-Maoist. As we noted in our review of the Yan’an Rectification Movement (see here), it is the spectre of Stalin in combination with the moral cultivation of Confucio-Mencian late-imperial practice that form the essence of the Sinified body of ideas and political practices known as ‘Mao Zedong Thought’. It is for good reason then that, on the right-hand flank of Xinhua Gate, the entrance to the Party-state enclave of Zhongnanhai in Central Beijing, a slogan from the era of High Maoism still issues its exhortation:

‘All Hail Invincible Mao Zedong Thought!’


Below, we offer the insights of Isaiah Berlin on what, in 1951, he called the ‘Artificial Dialectic’. Mao, who was a creative student of the Stalinist concoction of Marxism-Leninism, used just such an ‘artificial dialectic’ as the core of his own post-1949 revolutionary and political enterprise. Indeed, the Maoist interpretation of the artificial dialectic came into its own just as that of Stalin went into decline in the Soviet Union following the generalissimo’s death in 1953.

Under Mao, the constant tensions, the struggle, the campaigns, purges, motivational rectifications and actions were not merely about what the Communists spuriously claimed was the ‘ongoing and ever-present’ class struggle that was the engine of social change and advancement, they were created, nurtured, guided and enhanced by the Party. As in the Maoist heyday, so too in 2021, the Communists thrive on a sense of embattlement, of looming danger, of constant internal and external threat, of social tensions and an ever-present need to impose political guidance that will never allow anyone to rest.

One of the great ironies of the Deng era — roughly 1978 to 1992 — was that, despite its formal undertakings that the Party would henceforth move away from the political movements and purges of the Maoist era of 1949 to 1978 (during which, we would note that Deng and his fellows were, for the most part, enthusiastic participants), the authorities launched a new purge or ideological campaign on an average of every two years (details of these can be found in my co-edited books, Seeds of Fire, 1986, 2nd ed., 1988, and New Ghosts, Old Dreams, 1992).

So too were campaigns, actions and rectifications a central feature of the Jiang-Hu decades (1992-2012). From 2013, Xi Jinping has reinvigorated the artificial dialectic as a central, if little appreciated, feature of his party-state enterprise.

Isaiah Berlin calls the artificial dialectic an ‘astonishing invention’ that:

‘… is as mechanically powerful and comprehensive an instrument for the management of human beings—for simultaneously breaking their wills and developing their maximum capacities for organised material production—as any dreamt of by the most ruthless and megalomaniac capitalist exploiter.’

Writing in 1951, Berlin said this style of rule deserved careful study. It was, he argued, ‘the most important, most inhuman and still the most imperfectly understood phenomenon of our times’. Seventy years later, it is a style of rule adapted by the Xi Jinping leadership collective of China’s party-state, via Mao-Deng-Jiang-Hu, that is of critical relevance to all who would grapple with China today. Just as Mao Zedong would, in the words of Simon Leys, ‘stir up artificial gales in order to get some wind back under his pinions’, so too do Xi Jinping and his coevals of the Cultural Revolution generation, thrive on a politics of ceaseless, often manufactured, conflict and struggle.

‘All Hail Invincible Mao Zedong Thought!’ New China Gate, Zhongnanhai, Chang’an Avenue, Beijing


A Very Mobile, Shifting, and Slippery Pole

The cadres serve as transmission belts between the summit and the base. They have some privileges, of course, but before reproaching them for that, we should consider how unrewarding and dangerous their job is. They are perpetually torn between the leaders and the led. Directives from on high are deliberately ambiguous; in case of failure, the leaders thus have a fall-back position, while those who applied the policy are stranded and unprotected, and can be sacrificed to the rancor of the masses. It is unfair to criticize Maoist bureaucrats for their slowness and inertia: most often nonaction is their best chance of survival. How could they go forward? They must set their compasses on the Thought of Mao Tse-tung—a very mobile, shifting, and slippery pole.

Judge for yourself. One should avoid leftism, neither should one fall into rightism (sometimes, as in the case of Lin Piao, leftism is a rightist error), but between those two pitfalls, the cadre will seek in vain for a “middle way”—this being a feudal-Confucian notion. Since the right, the left, and the center are equally fraught with danger, the cadre may be tempted to shut his eyes and follow the successive and contradictory instructions of the Great Leader without a murmur. Another error! “To obey blindly” is a poisonous error invented by Liu Shao-ch’i in pursuit of his unmentionable project of capitalist restoration.

In such a situation, the downcast and fearful cadre has his courage renewed by daring new watchwords: one must dare “to swim against the current”; “not be afraid of being in the minority”; “not be afraid of disgrace, even of exclusion from the party.” However, before jumping in the water to swim against the current, the cadre cannot but recall that “the current of history is irresistible” and the Communist Party that embodies it is “grandiose and infallible.” His resolve weakens; then he is reminded that “rebellion is legitimate.” Ready to act now, he gets another cold shower: “in all circumstances, strict Party discipline should be maintained.” Whom to believe? “Truth is quite often the position of the minority.” This helps, but its value is reduced by another basic axiom: “the minority must always submit to the decisions of the majority.” Should decisions be taken by a vote? Not at all, since “respect for majority voting is a bourgeois superstition.”

Faced with all this, the cadre who lacks a philosophical turn of mind may feel giddy and be tempted to leave these thorny theoretical problems and tackle more concrete tasks. But these are also booby-trapped. If he wants to interest himself in culture and literature, how can he reconcile “the need to produce more interesting and living works” with “an active repudiation of the vulgar and bourgeois idea of interesting works propagated by Liu Shao-ch’i-type crooks”? If he is a soldier, he must “avoid giving priority to professional competence”—a rightist error inherited from Liu Shao-ch’i and P’eng Te-huai—while guarding himself against the “metaphysical prejudice according to which politics are more important than professional competence,” a poisonous theory coming from Lin Piao, in which is manifested the true nature of an apparently-leftist-deviation-which-is-in-fact-rightist-sabotage.

Economics, agriculture, and industry are still more dangerously mined fields: one must keep the distinctions clear between phenomena that are identical except in the ideologues’ minds. How can one see the difference between “material incentives,” the base weapon used by Liu Shao-ch’i to restore capitalism, and “just rewards according to the work done,” which is a legitimate and necessary encouragement to the creativity of the masses? This is not of purely academic interest: to tolerate the first is to restore the Liuist policy, to forbid the second could well be a Lin Piaoist sabotage.

Simon Leys, ‘Chinese Shadows: Bureaucracy, Happiness, History’
The New York Review of Books, 9 June 1977


Spears & Shields
Heads & Tails


In Ruling the Rivers & Mountains 穩坐江山, the first essay in our 2018 series on patriotism in China today, we quoted Czesław Miłosz’s description of ‘Ketman’ in The Captive Mind (1953), a form of double-think that allows an individual to retain their own ideas while expressing the opposite in public. Previously, in Totalitarian Nostalgia, we introduced the Russian philosopher Mikahil Epstein’s analysis of ‘ideologemes’, that is those ideas and word-clusters that embrace both leftist and rightist concepts, as well as seemingly contradictory ideological gestures. Epstein argues that such ideologemes encompass the spectrum of shifts constantly made in a totalitarian or totalising system that employs ‘dialectical materialism’ (唯物辯證法 in Chinese) to justify policy volte-face. It is a mental orientation that lies at the heart of Communist Party thinking and policy making. The Chinese interpretation of dialectics was initially outlined by Mao Zedong in his August 1937 tract On Contradiction 矛盾論 which, along with On Practice 實踐論, formed the fluid ‘philosophical’ basis of Sinified Marxism-Leninism contra the narrow Soviet-style ‘dogmatism’ of his then-opponents. To appreciate ‘contradiction’, 矛盾 in Chinese, is to grasp how the ‘spear’ 矛 goes with, rather than against, the ‘shield’ 盾.

In the present, what to ill-informed observers appear to be irreconcilable differences between the socialist system (or what is coyly termed ‘the initial stage of socialism’) and its market orientation, or what some call China’s ‘socialism with capitalist characteristics’, is in fact the latest dialectical evolution of long-term party-state thinking. Here, as we delve into the background, history and makeup of Homo Xinensis, it is necessary to introduce readers to contemporary Chinese ‘dialectical materialism’. In practical terms, this signifies the intellectual trickery involved in justifying the glaring contradictions in thought, word and deed that form the underpinnings of Xi Jinping Thought. This Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist Socialism with Chinese Characteristics continued to evolve from 1978. It now suffuses ‘China’ 中華 itself: this is simply the geopolitical territory of the People’s Republic, one that also constitutes a ‘mytho-poetic realm’, something that we have discussed in Homo Xinensis Militant’.

An Approach Dialectical

First, a few perspectives on the theory and practice of dialectical materialism:

Q: ‘Which deviation is worse, the Rightist or the Leftist one?’
A: ‘They are both worse!’

Joseph Stalin

We are waiting for the withering away of the state. But at the same time we are in favour of the strengthening of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the strongest and mightiest state power that ever existed. The highest development of state power in preparation of the preconditions for the withering away of state power — that is the Marxist formula. Is that ‘contradictory’? Yes it is ‘contradictory.’ But this contradiction is inherent in life and it completely mirrors the Marxist dialectic.’

Joseph Stalin, ‘Political Report of the
Central Committee at the
Sixteenth Party Congress’, 1930

Dialectics is a way of moving blindfolded in an unknown empty space filled with imaginary obstacles; of moving without support and without resistance. And without an objective.

Zinoviev, Homo Sovieticus (1982), p.73

BEIJING, Oct. 20 (Xinhua) — Everyone who followed Xi Jinping‘s speech at the opening of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) got the message loud and clear: A new era has begun.

Central to Xi’s declaration that socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era, was his statement that the ‘principal contradiction’ [主要矛盾] facing Chinese society, a maxim that has stood for 36 years, has changed. It is a shift that ‘affects the whole landscape.’

The ‘principal contradiction’ is a term most Chinese are familiar with from grade school, but only a tiny number of foreigners, experts in sinicized Marxism will know this seemingly obscure piece of political jargon.

Marxists interpret the world through dialectical materialism 唯物辯證法. Contradictions — or ‘dynamic opposing forces’ — are omnipresent in society and drive social change. The ‘principal contradiction’ is what defines a society. By identifying and solving it, society develops peacefully. Left unsolved, it can lead to chaos and eventually, as Marx predicted, to revolution.

Since coming to power in 1949, the CPC has identified the principal contradiction, and, as the times changed and contradictions changed, crafted new policies in response. …

In 1981, the CPC changed its assessment of the principal contradiction to ‘the ever-growing material and cultural needs of the people versus backward social production,’ a historic policy shift at the heart of reform and opening up. Developing the economy, mainly through growth, was thus endorsed by the CPC as the ‘central task’ [中心任務]. Market economic reforms, seen at the time as a magic bullet to transform production, were unleashed on an unprecedented scale.

The rest is a history we all know well. …

‘What we now face is the contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life,’ Xi said.

China embraces new ‘principal contradiction’
Xinhua News, 20 October 2017

The Chinese Communist Party is a principle-driven political party that believes in Marxism. It is a collective vanguard whose historical mandate, revealed by Marxism, is pursued with commitment and a spirit of sacrifice. It is a highly secular, rational and organized organ of political action. For this reason, the Party’s first mission is to resolve the tension between philosophical truth and historical practice, to unite the universal philosophical truth of Marxism with the concrete, historical reality of China’s political life, producing lines, orientations and policies that can provide concrete guidance in practice. This process is one where theory guides practice and practice tests theory, and where practice allows for the evaluation, improvement, and creation of theory. This process of dialectical movement between theory and practice, philosophy and history, is precisely the ‘Sinification of Marxism’, which has created a long and rich intellectual tradition. The Party’s new thought can only be understood, inherited, and carried forward when viewed within a tradition beginning with Marxism, Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Important Thought of the ‘Three Represents’, Scientific Developmentalism, and Xi Jinping Thought for Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era, revealed at the Nineteenth Party Congress.

Jiang Shigong, Philosophy and History: Interpreting the Xi Jinping Era
强世功, 哲學與歷史—從黨的十九大報告解讀 ‘習近平時代’, 開放時代, 2018年第1期
trans. David Ownby, Reading the China Dream


The moulding of Party loyalists is a long-term undertaking, the background to which we have outlined in Homo Xinensis. For Communist educators it is, to use Maxim Gorky’s well-known line about socialist realism, ‘the ability to see the present in terms of the future.’

As with any cult or sect, unless its members are isolated from the secular world, they can easily fall prey to various enticements; they find themselves torn between lofty beliefs and worldly desires. The Marxist-Leninist worldview is at its core contradictory. It demands that devotees accept two or more mutually exclusive ideas or practices as being simultaneously correct. As the compilers of the official history of the People’s Republic of China put it when establishing the National History Institute in Beijing in 1992, the rise of the Communist Party was both ‘an historical choice and the inevitability of Chinese history’ 中國歷史的選擇和必然. Homo Xinensis is the product of this knot of contradictions. As the Party focusses once more on creating the latest version of the New Socialist Person:

An ancient form of the character 矛, ‘spear’
  • It continues to maintain that while it is subject to the inexorable processes of History, at the same time it holds a unique Chinese mandate to shape and lead History
  • Its Party Constitution promotes the ‘Grand Vision of Communism’ for the future while declaring that China will be going through the ‘primary phase of socialism’, including the market economy, for at least a century
  • Its 1982 Party Constitution expressly forbade any and all expressions of a personality cult, yet its 2017 revisions allow for the ‘unquestioned authority of Xi Jinping as the core of Party Central’
  • It claims that ‘What we now face is the contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life’ while re-invigorating Party policies based on austerity, anti-consumerism, self-negation and sacrifice for the party-state
  • It wants to eliminate the state but to do so it argues that it must enhance state control to historically unprecedented levels
  • It wants social stability and harmony, but to achieve these it must wage war on its own society, homogenise difference, police dissent, crush discord and obliterate ethnic and religious uniqueness
  • It claims that The China Race 中華民族 is made up of multiple ethnicities but they must now all conform to Party-legislated ‘Chineseness’
  • It encourages constant economic growth and quarterly profits in every sector, yet it rejects as a matter of principle both luxury and consumerism
  • It advocates frugality and simplicity 艱苦樸素 yet maintains a complex and secret system of luxury provisioning for Party functionaries
  • It has a brazen capitalist-oriented outlook while championing socialism and state control
  • It claims a unique approach to consensual or ‘representational democracy‘, but no one is allowed to express dissent
  • It champions ‘democratic centralism’ that it describes as ‘a political environment in which there is both discipline and freedom, unity of will and a relaxed and lively individual politics’
  • It imposes a Party-led patriotism that contributes to a grand vision of the nation, but it demands absolute devotion to a single, self-appointed organisation — the Communist Party
  • It supports an advanced form of state-capitalism that exalts neo-liberalism calling it Socialism with Chinese Characteristics
  • It promotes initiative and creativity, but demands that scientists and technicians must be first Red (politically loyal) and then Expert. Under Xi Jinping the party-state is reshaping entrepreneurial culture to conform, at least superficially, with its political dogmas
  • It declares that The China Race has a Peaceful DNA 和平基因, but it aims at regional military dominance. In the coming years, Xi Jinping’s China will give new meaning to the slogan in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-four: ‘War is peace… freedom is slavery… ignorance is strength’
  • It cautions against the dangers of paternalism but its behaviour and values re-inforce gender stereotypes and practices
  • It claims it is building pre-eminent, global universities while demanding ‘correct political thinking’ from faculty members. The policy is called Dual Pre-eminence 雙一流, or ‘China Style, but World Class’ 中國特色、世界一流
  • It talks of equality but every aspect of its world view is hierarchical, be it in relation to gender, identity, ethnicity, power, economics, society, culture or international affairs
  • It preaches amity and friendship, but is aggressively inimical to anything perceived as being non-compliant with its own policies
  • It wants to build the broadest possible United Front to support its efforts both at home and abroad, but it demands that everyone involved in the Party’s China Dream must comply with its vision
  • It promotes The China Story to express the variegated world of Chinese lives, hopes, ideas, traditions and achievements, but in the process it imposes a crafted monologue that accords with the Party’s historical view
  • It promotes the Yan’an-era Party tradition to Seek Truth from Facts 實事求是, but in the process it eliminates Facts that don’t accord with its Truth
  • It constantly preaches the need for morality and righteousness, often using traditional Confucian-inflected terms, but it denies that these have any abstract, humanist value
  • It claims the inheritance of ‘5000 years of history and continuous civilisation’ but denounces as ‘historical nihilism’ any academic views or historical facts that clash with those of the Party
  • Its historical narrative from 1921 claims Party wisdom as the culmination of China’s search for wealth and power, its journey to modernity
  • It promotes Party martyrs who are selfless, frugal and hard-working, but its economic policies demand consumption, indulgence and frivolity
  • It boasts that ‘criticism cannot threaten the Communist Party’ 中國共產黨是罵不倒的, but it is intolerant of any opposition
  • It claims it is uniquely capable of self-correction 自我糾正 and perfectibility 自我完善, but the Party has no independent mechanisms of oversight, such as a free media or judiciary
  • It celebrates the peerless wisdom and infallibility of its party-state-army chairman, Xi Jinping, while decrying the autocracy of the past.
‘Shield’ 盾, in ‘grass script’

Like any quasi-religious organisation, the Communist Party maintains absolute control over the way it speaks and is spoken about; interpretation of dogma is the task of priest-like cadres and ‘thought workers’. People are exhorted to internalise the ideas, language and standards of behaviour of the Party. Massive budgets are allocated for the training of tame intellectuals at universities and Party-affirming research projects. Regime apologists also vie with each other to provide the Party with new catch phrases, theoretical formulations and policy points. Although still preaching reform, Xi Jinping’s Communist Party regards the Reform era of 1978-1989 as being problematic since it allowed limited pluralism and experimental social evolution and was marred by the popular protests of 1989. The Party praises its own flexibility and massages the abiding contradictions of its rule with education, thought re-moulding, propaganda, economic tools, rewards and punishments, as well as the tireless monitoring of individuals and groups. This will intensify with new technologies, the development of the Social Credit System 社會信用體系 and the overlordship of the National Supervisory Commission. The party-state:

  • Claims to represent the dreams of all Chinese but strictly controls the One Dream
  • Claims the May Fourth tradition but crushes student protest
  • Wants creativity and innovation but considers individuality dangerous
  • Wants to encourage imagination and but imposes bans on Sci-Fi themes in audio-visual culture
  • Treats adults as children and children as adults
  • Praises Core Confucian Values but encourages children to report on their parents, students to betray their teachers, brothers and sisters to sell out their siblings
  • Demands unswerving loyalty to the Party and offers a distorted interpretation of such key Confucian ideas as Righteousness 義 and Humanity 仁
  • Constantly preaches peace and security in the global environment but extols militarism and aggrieved ethno-nationalism through education and the media
  • Calls for human aspiration but its radical materialist philosophy negates the concept of unique and individual human worth and by extension human rights
  • Claims that the Party represents the collective and has the numbers, and the might of arms, to crush any opposition
  • Wants to forge a Unified Field combining Party and Society under Central Control and Command (known as the Central Supervisory Commission) but expects the society to blossom with pluralism
  • Claims that having coming to power in 1949 (through warfare, propaganda, artifice and the betrayal of its promises about democracy and human rights), it can never be unseated
  • Claims to be the culmination of Chinese development and the means for achieving all national goals. It will refuse to give up the historical stage and maintains both political and historical hegemony. In effect, the Chinese Communist Party poses itself as the End of Chinese History

The Chinese Party, like the regimes created by Germany’s National Socialists and Russia’s Bolsheviks, is the product of modernity and evolving twentieth-century technologies. Today, it is guided by statistics, targets, technological innovation. Its world view is materialist, it denies the value of humanity in its own right, limits the full range of human expression and, in its pedagogical aim to instruct and mould the nation, it is and remains the ultimate ‘engineer of human souls’ 人類靈魂的工程師.

A Prefatory Note


Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) was a noted thinker and historian of ideas. ‘The Artificial Dialectic: Generalissimo Stalin and the Art of Government’, reproduced below, appeared under the pseudonym ‘O. Utis’ (from ‘outis’, Greek for ‘no one’) in Foreign Affairs 30 (1952): 197-214. The present subtitle served as its title on that occasion; the main title is Berlin’s. The essay has been illustrated by China Heritage.

This essay was included as a chapter in Berlin’s The Soviet Mind: Russian Culture under Communism (1957), edited by Henry Hardy and reprinted by Brookings Institution Press, 2016.

A Chinese translation of The Soviet Mind was published in 2010 by Yilin Press in Nanjing under the title 《苏联的心灵:共产主义时代的俄国文化》and, on 1 October the following year, Xu Zhangrun 許章潤 put the finishing touches to meditation inspired by ‘The Artificial Dialectic’. In it he discussed the relevance of Isaiah Berlin’s 1951 argument to understanding the People’s Republic of China in its sixtieth year. See: Xu Zhangrun, ‘Delusion, the Gallows and “The Artificial Dialectic” ’ 許章潤, ‘譫妄、絞刑架與「人為的辯證法」’, 2011年10月1日.


‘Our Great Victory — Stalin & Mao Zedong’, 1951

This ‘artificial dialectic’ is Generalissimo Stalin’s original invention, his major contribution to the art of government, even more important, perhaps, than ‘socialism in one country’. It is an instrument guaranteed to ‘correct’ the uncertainties of nature and of history and to preserve the inner impetus—the perpetual tension, the condition of permanent wartime mobilisation—which alone enables so unnatural a form of life to be carried on. This it does by never allowing the system to become either too limp and inefficient or too highly charged and self-destructive.


The Artificial Dialectic

Generalissimo Stalin and the Art of Government 1952

Isaiah Berlin

There was once a man who had taken employment as a steward on a seagoing ship. It was explained to him that, in order to avoid breaking plates when the ship was rolling in heavy weather, he must not walk in a straight line, but try to move in a zigzag manner: this was what experienced seamen did. The man said that he understood. Bad weather duly came, and presently there was heard the terrible sound of breaking plates as the steward and his load crashed to the ground. He was asked why he had not followed instructions. ‘I did,’ he said. ‘I did as I was told. But when I zigged the ship zagged, and when I zagged the ship zigged.’

Capacity for careful co-ordination of his movements with the dialectical movement of the Party—a semi-instinctive knowledge of the precise instant when zig turns into zag—is the most precious knack that a Soviet citizen can acquire. Lack of facility in this art, for which no amount of theoretical understanding of the system can compensate, has proved the undoing of some of the ablest, most useful and, in the very early days, most fanatically devoted and least corrupt supporters of the regime.


We are living in an age when the social sciences claim to be able to predict more and more accurately the behaviour of groups and individuals, rulers and ruled. It is strange, then, to find that one of the political processes which still causes the greatest perplexity is to be found not in some unexplored realm of nature, nor in the obscure depths of the individual soul, intractable to psychological analysis, but in a sphere apparently dominated by iron laws of reason, from which, supposedly, the influence of random factors, human whims, unpredictable waves of emotion, spontaneity, irresponsibility, anything tending to loosen the rigorously logical nexus, has been remorselessly eliminated. The process to which I refer is the ‘general line’ of the Communist Party of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Its abrupt and violent changes of direction puzzle not merely the outside world, but Soviet citizens; and not merely Soviet citizens, but members of the Communist Party itself at home and abroad—to whom, as often as not, it occasions disconcerting, violent and even fatal surprise.

Inability to predict the curious movements of the line is a crucial failure in a Communist. At best it upsets all his personal calculations; at worst, it brings total ruin upon him. Thus the history of Communist Parties outside Russia—and notably of the German Party—provides many instances where sudden switches of the Moscow ‘line’ have involved these Parties in major disasters. The spate of books by such well-informed ex-Communists as Barmine, Ciliga, Rossi and Ruth Fischer, as well as the romans-à-clef by gifted authors who have turned against the Soviet regime, such as Arthur Koestler, Humphrey Slater and Victor Serge, deal vividly with this phenomenon. Both in the ideological realm and in the concrete economic and political aspects of Communist foreign policy, much of this uncertainty can doubtless be put down to the predominance of Russia’s national interest over the interests of world Communism in general, or of the local Parties in particular. Moreover, since even the Soviet leaders are not all of them men from Mars, they must be credited with the normal coefficient of miscalculation, stupidity, inefficiency and bad luck. But even allowing for disparate factors such as nationalism, human fallibility and the confusion of human affairs in general, the irregular path traversed by the ideological policy of the Soviet Union still remains abnormally puzzling.

Here perhaps some recourse to Marxist doctrine is inevitable, for it is reasonable to assume that Soviet leaders do not merely profess to judge events in the light of some form of Marxism, but in fact sometimes do so. No doubt the intelligence of the members of the Politburo is of a practical rather than a theoretical bent; nevertheless, the fundamental categories in terms of which the outside world is apprehended, and policies are framed, continue to derive from the cluster of theories put forward by Marx and Hegel, and adapted by Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Tito and others, as well as, in a distorted and inverted fashion, by Fascist dictators. According to this developed Marxist theory one must distinguish between ‘crests’ and ‘troughs’—periods when ‘history’ appears to be in a state of rising ferment and moving toward a revolutionary climax, and, on the other hand, those more frequent times when things tend, or at least seem to tend, to be quiescent and stable. And while, of course, the theory teaches that underneath the placid surface there is always a clash of factors that will ultimately lead to the inevitable collision (which constitutes progress), the process may at times still be latent, invisible—the revolution still burrowing away, in Marx’s (and Hegel’s) image from Hamlet, like the old mole underground.[1] These are the periods when revolutionary parties should husband and consolidate their resources rather than spend their strength in battle. This theory of alternating phases, which is at least as old as Saint-Simon, appears to be the only hypothesis which offers a plausible explanation of Stalin’s policies in the late 1920s and the 1930s.

[1] ‘Well said, old mole. Canst work i’ th’ earth so fast?’ says Hamlet to the Ghost in Shakespeare’s play (act 1, scene 5, line 162). ‘Well grubbed, old mole,’ says Marx at the end of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte(1852): Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 11 (London etc., 1979), p. 185. Hegel appears not to have used the image directly, though the tenor of Marx’s remarks is broadly Hegelian.

One of the best examples of the halting of an ‘activist’ policy is found in the liquidation of Trotsky’s aggressive line in China. The reasoning of Stalin and his allies seems to have led to the conclusion that one of the ‘quiescent’ periods had begun, and that as a result the making or support of violent revolution would ‘necessarily’ lead to frustration. Conversely, the most spectacular example of a call to arms is the notorious directive to German Communists in 1932 to concentrate their fire upon the Social Democrats as being more dangerous enemies than Hitler. Stalin’s speeches of that period are very instructive in this respect: he seems clearly to have assumed that after a long trough of despond in the 1920s the crest of the revolution was beginning to rise once more. He looked upon the economic crisis of 1929–31 as the most violent indication which had yet occurred that the contradictions of the capitalist system were at last about to perform their historic task of finally blowing up the entire rickety capitalist structure. (Nor, incidentally, was it to him alone that the situation appeared in this lurid light; many observers, in lands far apart and belonging to many shades of political opinion, spoke at this time in terms no less dramatic.) In a so-called ‘revolutionary’ situation the Communist Party advances. The period of quiet incubation during which it is obliged to lull potential rivals and enemies into false security is over; it drops all pretence of solidarity with other left-wing and ‘progressive’ forces. Once cracks have visibly begun to appear in the capitalist order, the decisive moment cannot be very far off, and Lenin’s preparation for his coup in September–October 1917 becomes the proper model to follow. The Communist Party, bold, strong, alone knowing what it wants and how to get it, breaks off its false (but at an earlier stage tactically necessary) relationship with the ‘soft’ and confused mass of fellow-travellers, fellow wanderers, temporary allies and vague sympathisers. It takes the great leap across the precipice to the conquest of power for which it alone is—and knows that it is—adequately organised.

The order to advance which Stalin issued to his German allies in 1932 had consequences fatal to them and nearly as fatal for himself— consequences, indeed, familiar enough to the entire world, which has been paying ever since with incredible suffering. Yet even this did not shake Communist faith in the simple formula. It remains unaltered and says again and again: In revolutionary situations, liquidate your now worthless allies and then advance and strike; in non-revolutionary situations, accumulate strength by ad hoc alliances, by building popular fronts, by adopting liberal and humanitarian disguises, by quoting ancient texts which imply the possibility, almost the desirability, of peaceful mutually tolerant coexistence. This last will have the double advantage of compromising potential rivals by taking them further than they wish to go or are aware of going, while at the same time embarrassing the right-wing oppositions—the forces of reaction—by ranging against them all the best and sincerest defenders of liberty and humanity, progress and justice.

And indeed it may be that this simple maxim will to some extent account for the oscillations of Soviet propagandist policy after 1946, when Soviet planners began by expecting a vast world economic crisis and became correspondingly aggressive and uncompromising. There followed a gradual and reluctant realisation (prematurely foretold by the Soviet economist Varga, who was duly rebuked for ill-timed prescience) that the crisis was not materialising fast enough, and might not come either at the moment or with the violence expected. This may account for attempts in the last two years to replace (at least for foreign export) straightforward propaganda, framed in old-fashioned, uncompromising Marxist terms, with appeals to non-Communist values, such as the universal desire for peace, or local or national pride in the face of American dictation, or alleged traditions of friendship between, let us say, Russia and France as contrasted with no less traditional hostility between, for example, France and England. Soviet reliance on this historical schema of alternating periods of quiescence and crisis (which has a respectable pre-Marxist pedigree) may not be a complete key to all the convolutions of its ideological policies abroad, but without some such hypothesis these policies become totally unintelligible, and can be accounted for only by assuming a degree of blindness or stupidity or gratuitous perversity in Moscow which, on other grounds, can scarcely be imputed to the present rulers of the USSR. And this is a powerful argument for believing the hypothesis to be correct.


‘A Momentous Meeting’, 1951

‘There can never be enough victims to expiate a crime which no one has committed.’



But whatever may be the theory of history which guides the Soviet government’s policy toward its agents abroad, it will not explain the zigzag movement of the Party line within the Soviet Union itself. This is the arm of Soviet policy of which its own citizens stand most in awe, in particular those whose professions cause them to be articulate in public—writers, artists, scientists, academic persons and intellectuals of every kind—since their careers and indeed their lives depend upon their ability to adjust themselves swiftly and accurately to all the alternating shapes of this capriciously-moving Protean entity. The principles of its movement are not always, of course, wholly inscrutable. Thus the adoption of the doctrine of ‘socialism in one country’ in the 1920s could not but alter the entire direction of the Party’s activities. Nor could an intelligent observer have felt great surprise when the ideological followers of the earlier, so-called ‘Trotskyite’, line, or even the individuals personally connected with the banished leader, were, in due course, purged or ostracised. Similarly there was no cause for wonder at the ban on anti-German or anti-Fascist manifestations after the Nazi–Soviet Pact of 1939. Nor yet at the rise of a nationalistic and patriotic mood, with strong official encouragement, during the war of national resistance against the Germans.

On the other hand, no one expected or could have foretold such curious incidents as the denunciation of the official Party philosopher Georgy Aleksandrov for maintaining that Karl Marx was merely the best of all Western thinkers, and not, as he should have pointed out, a being altogether different from, and superior in kind to, any thinker who had ever lived. The Party authorities maintained that Marx had been described inadequately—almost insultingly—by being called a philosopher; the impression was conveyed that to say of Marx that he was the best of philosophers was much as though one had called Galileo the most distinguished of all astrologers, or man himself the highest and most gifted among the apes. Again, no one had, or perhaps could have, predicted the explosion of feeling (so soon after the mass murders and tortures of Jews by the Nazis) against the older generation of intellectuals, mostly writers and artists of Jewish origin, as a gang of ‘rootless cosmopolitans’[2] and petty Zionist nationalists; nor the summary disbandment, not long after, of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Nor, again, could any of the philologists who for so many years had faithfully subscribed to the highly fanciful (but officially approved) doctrines of the late academician Marr be blamed for not foreseeing his sudden eclipse. How could anyone in the world have imagined that so much devoted sacrifice of knowledge and intellect upon the altar of duty to country and Party would be visited by so eccentric a fate as intervention by the Generalissimo himself, with an ex cathedra pronouncement on the real truth about the interrelationships of language, dialects and the social structure?

[2] The usual translation of ‘bezrodnye kosmopolity’ (‘bezrodnyi’ literally means ‘without relations’ or ‘without a native land’), which was used to refer to Soviet Jews. In a speech given on 10 November 1933, and published in Völkischer Beobachter (Berlin), 11 November 1933, pp. 1–2, Hitler said of Jews and others: ‘Es ist eine wurzellose internationale Clique, die die Völker gegeneinander hetzt’ (‘It is a rootless international clique, which incites peoples against each other’: p. 1). The context suggests that the reference is not to Jews alone (though they are certainly included), but also to liberal intellectuals and international businessmen generally. The specific Russian phrase first appears in print (so far as I can discover) in an article by the editor of the journal Ogonek, A[natoly Vladimirovich] Sofronov, ‘Za dal’neishii pod’em sovetskoi dramaturgii’ (‘For the Further Development of Soviet Dramaturgy’), Pravda, 23 December 1948, p. 3—though ‘kosmopolit’ on its own had certainly been in use since the 1930s, if not before, as a derogatory tag for anyone who did not toe the official political line; it had also been used pejoratively of Westernisers by Slavophils in the nineteenth century. The Pravda article was preceded by an anti-Semitic letter to Stalin from Anna Begicheva, an arts journalist at Izvestiya, about ‘enemies at work in the arts’ (letter dated 8 December 1948, currently [November 2003] in the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History [RGASPI] 17, 132, 237, 75–81), but this formulation does not appear there.

Everyone who has ever been in contact with Soviet writers or journalists, or for that matter with Soviet representatives abroad, is aware of the extraordinary acuity of ear which such persons develop toward the faintest changes of tone in the Party line. Yet this is of little ultimate avail to them, since it is accompanied by a helpless ignorance of the direction in which the ‘line’ is likely to veer. There are, of course, endless hypotheses about each individual lunge and lurch, some frivolous, some serious; in Soviet Russia itself they are at times characterised by the sardonic and desperate quality which belongs to the humour of the scaffold, that typically Soviet Galgenhumor which is responsible for some bitter and memorable shafts of wit. But no general explanation seems to have been advanced to cover all the facts. And since it is, after all, unlikely that human beings so coldly calculating as the masters of the Soviet Union would leave the central line from which everything derives, and on which everything depends, to chance or the snap decision of the moment, we may find it a not altogether idle pastime to consider a hypothesis which may account for much of this peculiar situation.


Sino-Soviet Friendship, 1951

‘The danger of this kind of move is that it places power in the hands of a class of zealots dedicated to the unending task of purifying the Church by severing all offending limbs—and presently of anything remotely capable of promoting growth.’



Our theory starts from the assumption that there are two main dangers which invariably threaten any regime established by a revolution. The first is that the process may go too far—that the revolutionaries in their excessive zeal may destroy too much, and in particular exterminate those individuals upon whose talents the success of the revolution itself and the retention of its gains ultimately depend. Few, if any, revolutions bring about the ends for which their most fervent supporters hope; for the very qualities which make the best and most successful revolutionaries tend to oversimplify history. After the first intoxication of triumph is over, a mood of disillusionment, frustration and presently indignation sets in among the victors: some among the most sacred objectives have not been accomplished; evil still stalks the earth; someone must be to blame; someone is guilty of lack of zeal, of indifference, perhaps of sabotage, even of treachery. And so individuals are accused and condemned and punished for failing to accomplish something which, in all probability, could not in the actual circumstances have been brought about by anyone; men are tried and executed for causing a situation for which no one is in fact responsible, which could not have been averted, which the more clear-sighted and sober observers (as it later turns out) had always expected to some degree. Trials and penalties fail to remedy the situation. Indignation gives way to fury, terror is resorted to, executions are multiplied. There is no reason why this process should come to a stop without external intervention or physical causes, for there can never be enough victims to expiate a crime which no one has committed, to atone for a crisis which must be attributed to a general and very likely inevitable failure to understand the situation correctly. But once the nightmare of mutual suspicion, recrimination, terror and counter-terror has set in, it is too late to draw back: the whole structure begins to crumble in the welter of frantic heresy-hunts from which scarcely anyone will escape. Every schoolboy knows of the violent climax of the Great French Revolution in 1794.

The second danger is precisely the contrary: and is often the natural sequel of the first. Once the original afflatus of revolution is exhausted, enthusiasm (and physical energy) will ebb, motives grow less passionate and less pure, there is a revulsion from heroism, martyrdom, destruction of life and property, normal habits reassert themselves, and what began as an audacious and splendid experiment will peter out and finally collapse in corruption and petty squalor. This, too, happened in France during the Directoire, and it has marked the end of the revolutionary phase in many other cases. It seems to be the unavoidable aftermath of many a romantic rising in Latin and Latin-American countries.

The avoidance of these opposite dangers—the need to steer between the Scylla of self-destructive Jacobin fanaticism and the Charybdis of post-revolutionary weariness and cynicism—is therefore the major task of any revolutionary leader who desires to see his regime neither destroyed by the fires which it has kindled nor returned to the ways from which it has momentarily been lifted by the revolution. But at this point Marxist revolutionaries find themselves in a peculiar predicament. For according to that element in Marxism which proceeds from the doctrine of Hegel, the world—everything animate and inanimate—is in a condition of perpetual inner conflict, mounting ceaselessly toward critical collisions which lift the battle on to a new plane—tensions and conflicts at a ‘new level’. Consequently the ‘dialectic’ itself—for this is what the process is called—should in theory be a sufficient guarantee of the vitality of any genuine revolutionary movement. For since the dialectic is inexorably ‘grounded in the nature of things’ and can be neither stopped nor circumvented, the course of the post-revolutionary regimes must—cannot help but—obey its laws. And just as the French Revolution broke out in obedience to those laws, so it declined and ran into the shallows of the Directoire, and, worse still, was followed by the Empire and the Restoration, presumably in obedience to the same dialectical process. Whatever degree of determinism Marx’s historical materialism is held to entail (and the doctrine is far from clear, either in Hegel or in Marx, and grows particularly dark in the later works of Engels), Stalin seems to have resolved that the gloomy fate apparently in store for previous revolutions should not overtake his regime. Although the majestic self-fulfilment of the world pattern cannot be tampered with or deflected to suit capricious human wills, yet history (to judge by its past performances) did not seem too sure a guarantee of the survival of what Stalin and his Party considered the most desirable features of the Russian Revolution. Nature herself (although in general dependable enough) sometimes nodded; and some slight adjustments could perhaps be made to render her processes even more regular and predictable. Human skill would be employed in aiding the cosmos to fulfil even more faithfully its own ‘inner laws’.

Consequently, Stalin made use of an original expedient, thoroughly in keeping with the inventive spirit of our time, and in particular with the new fashion of producing synthetic equivalents of natural products. As others produced artificial rubber or mechanical brains, so he created an artificial dialectic, whose results the experimenter himself could to a large degree control and predict. Instead of allowing history to originate the oscillation of the dialectical spiral, he placed this task in human hands. The problem was to find a mean between the ‘dialectical opposites’ of apathy and fanaticism.[3] Once this was determined, the essence of his policy consisted in accurate timing and in the calculation of the right degree of force required to swing the political and social pendulum to obtain any result that might, in the given circumstances, be desired.

[3] The problem was not, of course, one of pure theory, and did not arise in the void—in the course of abstract contemplation of history and its laws on the part of Stalin or anyone else. When the excesses of the first Bolshevist terror and ‘war Communism’ were followed by the compromises of the New Economic Policy, the danger of repeating the pattern of the great French Revolution, or, for that matter, of the revolutions of 1848–9, must have appeared very real to Bolshevik leaders. They were certainly reminded of it often enough, especially by foreign critics. The technique of political navigation here described was therefore born, as most notable inventions are apt to be, of urgent practical need. — Isaiah Berlin.

Let us apply this hypothesis to the conditions of the Second World War. In 1941, when the fate of the Soviet system seemed to be in the balance, full vent was given to patriotic sentiment. This acted as a safety-valve to the pent-up feeling which the population had had to repress during the two previous decades. The Party leaders clearly realised that this rush of national feeling acted as the most powerful single psychological factor in stimulating resistance to the enemy. The process clearly was not compatible with keeping Communist indoctrination at its full pre-war pressure; the war was won on a wave of patriotic rather than ideological fervour. A certain loosening of bonds began to be felt. Writers wrote more freely; there was, temporarily at least, the appearance of a slightly less suspicious attitude towards foreigners, at any rate those connected with the Allied countries. Old-fashioned, long-disused expressions of Great-Russian sentiment, and the worship of purely national heroes, once more became fashionable. Later, however, the victorious Soviet troops who came back from foreign countries, filled (as so often after European campaigns) with a favourable impression of foreign customs and liberties, began to give cause for anxiety; after all, the great Decembrist revolt of 1825 sprang from a similar experience. It became clear to the authorities that a powerful re-inoculation with Communist doctrine—ultimately the sole cement which binds together the ethnically heterogeneous peoples of the Soviet Union—was urgently required. The returned soldiers—both victors and prisoners of war liberated in Germany and elsewhere, as well as those likely to come into contact with them at home—would need careful supervision if centres of resistance to the central authority were not to spring up. Unless such re-indoctrination were done swiftly, the entire pattern of Soviet life, depending as in all totalitarian States on ceaseless discipline and unrelaxing tautness, might soon be in danger of sagging—notoriously the beginning of the end of all such regimes. Toward the end of 1945, a call was issued for stricter orthodoxy. The policy of encouraging nationalism was halted sharply. All were reminded of their Marxist duties. Prominent representatives of various nationalities were found to have gone too far in glorifying their local past, and were called to order with unmistakable severity. Regional histories were suppressed. The all-embracing cloak of ideological orthodoxy once more fell upon the land. The Party was commanded to expose and expel the opportunists and riff-raff who had, during the confusion of war, been permitted to creep into the fold. Heresy-hunts were instituted once more (though not on the appalling scale of 1937–9).

The danger of this kind of move is that it places power in the hands of a class of zealots dedicated to the unending task of purifying the Church by severing all offending limbs—and presently of anything remotely capable of promoting growth. Such men will be effective only if those, at least, who compose their central nucleus are fanatically sincere; yet when this happens their activity will inevitably go too far. After purging major and minor dissentients, the inquisitors are perforce carried on by their own sacred zeal until they are found probing into the lives and works of the great leaders of the Party themselves. At this point they must be swiftly checked if the whole machine is not to be disrupted from within. An added reason for stopping the purge and denouncing its agents as deranged extremists who have run amok is that this will be popular with the scared and desperate rank and file, both of the Party and of the bureaucracy (not to speak of the population at large). A mighty hand descends from the clouds to halt the inquisition. The Kremlin has heard the cry of the people, has observed its children’s plight, and will not permit them to be torn limb from limb by its over-ardent servants. A sigh of relief goes up from the potential victims; there is an outpouring of gratitude which is sincere enough. Faith in the goodness, wisdom and all-seeing eye of the leader, shaken during the slaughter, is once more restored.

Something of this kind occurred after the great purge of 1937–9. It occurred again, in a much milder fashion, in 1947, when purely doctrinal persecution was somewhat relaxed and gave way to a period of national self-adulation and a violent assault on the very possibility of foreign influence, past and present. However grotesque this ultrachauvinism may have looked when viewed from abroad, and however ruinous to the few representatives of a wider culture still surviving in the Soviet Union, it was probably not ill-received by the mass of the population (when has nationalist propaganda been unpopular among any people?); and it did stay the hand of the Marxist inquisitor in favour of the more familiar national tradition. On this occasion the pendulum was swung in the direction of Russian pride and amour propre. But just as the earlier ideological purges went too far in one direction, so this reaction in its turn duly overreached itself.

The Soviet government wishes to preserve a minimum degree of sanity at least among the elite upon which it relies; hence any violent swing of the pendulum always, sooner or later, demands a corrective. In normal societies a movement of opinion, whether spontaneous or artificially stimulated, does not occur in a vacuum. It meets with the resistance of established habits and traditions and is to some degree swallowed, or diluted, in the eddying of the innumerable currents created by the interplay of institutional influences with the relatively uncontrolled trends of thoughts and feelings characteristic of a free society. But in the Soviet Union this random factor is largely absent, precisely because the Party and the State are engaged in sweeping away the smallest beginnings of independent thought. Hence there is a kind of empty region in which any artificially stimulated view (and in the USSR there can scarcely be any other) tends to go too far, reaches absurd lengths, and ends by stultifying itself—not merely in the eyes of the outside world but even within the Soviet Union itself. It is at this point that it must be swung back by means which are themselves no less artificial. This is what occurred when the nationalist-xenophobic campaign reached a point almost identical with that of the most violent phases of the brutal policy of ‘Russification’ of tsarist days. (The recent denunciations of cosmopolitan intellectuals were framed in language almost identical with that of the reactionary, anti-Semitic, fanatically anti-liberal press and police after the repressions following the Revolution of 1905.) Something had evidently to be done to restore the fabric of Soviet unity. The Party can, ex hypothesi, never be mistaken; errors can occur only because its directives have been misinterpreted or misapplied. Again, no serious alteration of the bases of the Marxist theory itself is feasible within a system of which it is the central dogma. An open attempt to modify—let alone cancel— any Marxist principles in such central and critical fields as political theory, or even philosophy, is therefore out of the question: for there is too serious a danger that, after so many years of life in a straitjacket, confusion and alarm might be created in the minds of the faithful. A system which employs some hundreds of thousands of professional agitators, and must put their lessons in language intelligible to children and illiterates, cannot afford doubts and ambiguities about central truths. Even Stalin cannot disturb the foundations of ideology without jeopardising the entire system.

Hence safer areas must be found for the ideological manoeuvres required in situations which seem to be moving slightly out of control. Music, poetry, biography, even law, are peripheral territories in which doctrinal pronouncements modifying the ‘line’ can be made without disturbing the vital central region. The moral of such public statements is very swiftly grasped by the (by now) highly sensitised eyes and ears of intellectuals working in other and often quite distant fields. Philology is still remoter from the centre and, consequently, even safer. Perhaps that is why Stalin chose the theory of language, in what seemed to the uninitiated so whimsical a fashion, to indicate that the ‘clarion call’ for Marxist purity had had its full effect and must be muted. The mild rectification of the line ordered in the field of linguistics was no sooner made than other relatively ‘non-political’ specialists must have begun hopefully to ask themselves whether their windowless worlds too might not expect some small relief—perhaps a chink into the outer universe, or at least a little more breathing-space within. Bounty to grammarians and linguists means that musicians and acrobats and clowns and mathematicians and writers of children’s stories and even physicists and chemists cower a little less. Even historians have raised their heads; a writer[4] in a Soviet historical journal in the summer of 1951 argued timidly that since Stalin had said nothing about historical studies, might not they also, like linguistics, be excluded from the Marxist ‘superstructure’, and possess an ‘objectivity’ and permanent principles which Stalin had so sternly refused to artistic or juridical institutions? Physicists, chemists, even the harassed geneticists whose studies lie so unhappily close to the heart of the historical dialectic, may presently be afforded some relief; certainly the vagaries of the ‘line’ in their subjects seem to spring from internal political needs more often than from metaphysical considerations or from an incurable penchant for this or that philosophical or scientific ‘materialism’, to which some of their more hopeful or naïve Western colleagues, in their anxiety to understand Soviet scientific theory, so often and so unplausibly try to attribute them.

[4] Presumably Igor Kon, mentioned in the following note.

The themes of ‘peace’ and ‘coexistence’ indicate unmistakably which way the dialectical machine is veering after the Korean misadventure: hence faint and pathetic attempts to hint at ‘Western’ values again on the part of professors whose love of their subject has not been completely killed. And if such first timorous feelers are not too brusquely discouraged, those who put them forth know that they may at last begin to look to a period of relative toleration. But the more experienced know that this is unlikely to last for long. Presently symptoms begin inevitably to indicate that the ties have been loosened too far—too far for a machine which, unless it is screwed tight, cannot function at all. Presently new calls for conformity, purity, orthodoxy are issued; elimination of suspects[5] begins, and the cycle repeats itself.

[5] These are as often as not the orthodox of yesterday. One wonders what is to be the fate of Igor Kon, who sought, in the summer ‘breathing spell’ of 1951, to protect history from the fanaticism of the ultra-Marxists of 1946–7 [in ‘K voprosy o spetsifike i zadachakh istoricheskoi nauki’, Voprosy istorii 1951, no. 6 (June), pp. 48–64]. — Isaiah Berlin.

Yet something depends on the force with which the pendulum is swung. One of the consequences of driving the terror too far (as happened, for example, during the Ezhov regime in the late 1930s) is that the population is cowed into almost total silence. No one will speak to anyone on subjects remotely connected with ‘dangerous’ topics save in the most stereotyped and loyal formulae, and even then most sparingly, since nobody can feel certain of the password from day to day. This scared silence holds its own dangers for the regime. In the first place, while a large-scale terror ensures widespread obedience and the execution of orders, it is possible to frighten people too much: if kept up, violent repression ends by leaving people totally unnerved and numb. Paralysis of the will sets in, and a kind of exhausted despair which lowers vital processes and certainly diminishes economic productivity. Moreover, if people do not talk, the vast army of intelligence agents employed by the government will not be able to report clearly enough what goes on inside their heads, or how they would respond to this or that government policy. When the waters are very still, and their surface very opaque, they may be running much too deep. In the words of a Russian proverb, ‘Devils breed in quiet pools.’ The government cannot do without a minimum knowledge of what is being thought. Although public opinion in the normal sense cannot be said to exist in the Soviet Union, the rulers must nevertheless acquaint themselves with the mood of the ruled, if only in the most primitive, most behaviouristic sense of the word, much as an animal-breeder depends on his ability to predict, within limits, the behaviour of his stock. Hence something must be done to stimulate the population into some degree of articulate expression: bans are lifted, ‘Communist self-criticism’, ‘comradely discussion’, something that almost looks like public debate is insistently invited. Once individuals and groups show their hand— and some of them inevitably betray themselves—the leaders know better where they stand, in particular whom they would be wise to eliminate if they are to preserve the ‘general line’ from uncontrolled pushes and pulls. The guillotine begins to work again, the talkers are silenced. The inmates of this grim establishment, after their brief mirage of an easier life, are set once more to their back-breaking tasks and forbidden to indulge in any interests, however innocent, which take their minds off their labours—the great industrial goals which can be accomplished only with the most undivided attention and by the most violent exertions. Communication with the outside world is virtually suspended. The press is recalled to a sense of its primary purpose—the improvement of the morale of the public, the clear, endlessly reiterated sermons on the right way of living and thinking. When this state of things grows too dreary even for Soviet citizens, the ‘line’ oscillates again, and for a very brief period (the penultimate state of which is always the most dangerous moment) life once more becomes a little more various.


‘…no serious alteration of the bases of the Marxist theory itself is feasible within a system of which it is the central dogma. An open attempt to modify—let alone cancel—any Marxist principles in such central and critical fields as political theory, or even philosophy, is therefore out of the question: for there is too serious a danger that, after so many years of life in a straitjacket, confusion and alarm might be created in the minds of the faithful. A system which employs some hundreds of thousands of professional agitators, and must put their lessons in language intelligible to children and illiterates, cannot afford doubts and ambiguities about central truths.’



This—the ‘artificial dialectic’—is Generalissimo Stalin’s original invention, his major contribution to the art of government, even more important, perhaps, than ‘socialism in one country’. It is an instrument guaranteed to ‘correct’ the uncertainties of nature and of history and to preserve the inner impetus—the perpetual tension, the condition of permanent wartime mobilisation—which alone enables so unnatural a form of life to be carried on. This it does by never allowing the system to become either too limp and inefficient or too highly charged and self-destructive. A queer, ironical version of Trotsky’s ‘permanent revolution’, or, again, of his ‘neither peace nor war’ formula for Brest Litovsk, it forces the Soviet system to pursue a zigzag path, creating for its peoples a condition of unremitting tautness lest they be caught by one of the sharp turns made whenever a given operation begins to yield insufficient or undesirable returns.

Naturally, the need to keep the population on the run in this way is not the sole factor which shapes the ultimate direction of the line. This is determined in addition by the pressures of foreign policy, national security, internal economic and social needs, and so on—by all the forces which play a part in any organised political society, and which exert their influence on Soviet policy too, albeit in a somewhat peculiar fashion. The Soviet Union is not a Marxist system working in a total vacuum, nor is it free from the effects of psychological or economic laws. On the contrary, it claims to recognise these more clearly and shape its policies more consciously in accordance with the findings of the natural sciences than is done by ‘reactionary’ policies doomed to be victims of their own irreconcilable ‘internal contradictions’. What, then, makes the political behaviour of the Soviet Union seem so enigmatical and unpredictable to Western observers, whether they be practical politicians or theoretical students of modern politics? Perhaps this perplexity is due in some measure to the failure in the West to realise the crucial importance attached by the makers of Soviet policy to the zigzag path upon the pursuit of which they assume that internal security and the preservation of power directly depend. This technique of determining the ‘general line’ in accordance with which all the means available to the Soviet State and to Communist Parties at home and abroad are to be used is a genuinely novel invention of great originality and importance. Its successful operation depends on a capacity for organising all available natural and human resources for completely controlling public opinion, for imposing an ultra-rigid discipline on the entire population; and, above all, on a sense of timing which demands great skill and even genius on the part of individual manipulators— especially of the supreme dictator himself. Because it requires this— because the exactly correct ‘line’, undulating as it does between the equally unavoidable and mutually opposed right-wing and left-wing ‘deviations’ (extremes out of which it is, like the Hegelian synthesis, compounded, and which, in the shape of its individual human representatives and their views, it destroys)—it cannot be determined mechanically. It is an artificial construction and depends on a series of human decisions; and for this reason its future cannot be regarded as altogether secure. So long as someone with Stalin’s exceptional gift for administration is at the helm, the movement of the ‘line’, invisible though it may continue to be to many both within and outside the Soviet Union, is not altogether unpredictable. Its destiny when he is no longer in control (whether or not the Soviet Union is involved in a general war) is a subject for hope and fear rather than rational prophecy. For it is certainly not a self-propelling, or self-correcting, or in any respect automatically operating piece of machinery. In hands less skilful or experienced or self-confident it could easily lead to a debacle to which human societies are not exposed under more traditional forms of government.

Will Stalin’s successors display sufficient capacity for the new technique, which calls for so remarkable a combination of imagination and practical insight? Or will they abandon it altogether, and, if so, gradually or suddenly? Or will they prove unable to control it and fall victim to a mechanism too complicated for men of limited ability—a mechanism whose very effectiveness in the hands of an earlier and more capable generation has so conditioned both government and governed that catastrophe is made inevitable? We cannot tell; all that seems certain is that Generalissimo Stalin’s passing will sooner or later cause a crisis in Soviet affairs—a crisis which may be graver than that caused by the death of Lenin, since in addition to all the other problems of readjustment peculiarly acute in a tight dictatorship, there will arise the agonising dilemma created by the future of Stalin’s elaborate machinery of government, too complex to be used save by a great master of manipulation,[6] and too dangerous to interrupt or neglect or abandon.

[6] I do not wish to imply that Stalin is solely responsible for all of even the major decisions of Soviet policy. No system so vast, however ‘monolithic’, can literally be directed by any single individual, whatever his powers. But, on the other hand, we have no reason for supposing that Stalin’s henchmen, however competent under his leadership, will prove any more capable of carrying on his methods after him than were the companions of Ivan the Terrible or Peter the Great, in whose hands the system of their master disintegrated very fast. On the other side we must place the opposite experience of Kemal’s Turkey. Time alone will show. — Isaiah Berlin.

One other thing seems moderately clear: those who believe that such a system is simply too heartless and oppressive to last cruelly deceive themselves. The Soviet system, even though it is not constructed to be self-perpetuating, certainly bears no marks of self-destructiveness. The government may be brutal, cynical and utterly corrupted by absolute power: but only a moral optimism fed by passionate indignation or a religious faith rather than empirical observation or historical experience can cause some students of the Soviet Union to prophesy that such wickedness must soon itself erode the men who practise it, render them incapable of retaining power and so defeat itself. The governed, a passive, frightened herd, may be deeply cynical in their own fashion, and progressively brutalised, but so long as the ‘line’ pursues a zigzag path, allowing for breathing spells as well as the terrible daily treadmill, they will, for all the suffering it brings, be able to find their lives just—if only just—sufficiently bearable to continue to exist and toil and even enjoy pleasures. It is difficult for the inhabitants of Western countries to conceive conditions in which human beings in Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union (or for that matter India or China) can not merely survive but, being surrounded by others in no better plight, and with no alternative forms of life visible through the curtain to attract and discontent the imagination, adapt themselves to conditions, look on them as normal, contrive to make arrangements, like soldiers in an unending campaign, or prisoners or shipwrecked mariners. Such arrangements may seem intolerable to the average citizen of a civilised community, yet because, if not liberty, then fraternity and equality are born of common suffering, a human life can be lived—with moments of gaiety and enthusiasm, and of actual happiness—under the most appalling and degrading conditions.

And it should be remembered that the art of manipulating the ‘general line’ consists precisely in this—that human misery must not, taking the population as a whole, be allowed to reach a pitch of desperation where death—suicide or murder—seems preferable. If the citizens of the Soviet Union cannot be permitted a degree of freedom or happiness which might make them too unruly or insufficiently productive, neither must they be permitted to fall into a state of panic or despair or indifference that would in turn paralyse their activity. The oscillations of the ‘general line’ are designed to be a means which avoids precisely these extremes. Hence, so long as the rulers of the Soviet Union retain their skill with the machinery of government and continue to be adequately informed by their secret police, an internal collapse, or even an atrophy of will and intellect of the rulers owing to the demoralising effects of despotism and the unscrupulous manipulation of other human beings, seems unlikely. Few governments have been destroyed by a process of inward rotting without the intervention of some external cause. As the Soviet government is still conspicuously in the full possession of its political senses, the experiment of a nation permanently militarised has, in the long terms of historical periods, hardly reached its apogee. Beset by difficulties and perils as this monstrous machine may be, its success and capacity for survival must not be underestimated. Its future may be uncertain, even precarious; it may blunder and suffer shipwreck or change gradually or catastrophically; but it is not, until men’s better natures assert themselves, necessarily doomed. The physical and nervous wear and tear exacted (to no purpose, at least no discernible human purpose, beyond the bare self-perpetuation of the regime) by the system is appalling: no Western society could survive it. But then, those finer organisms in which, before 1917, Russia was no poorer than the West have perished long ago. Many decades may be required to recreate them—as recreated one day they surely will be, when this long, dark tunnel is nothing but a bitter memory.

In the meanwhile, the astonishing invention itself surely deserves the more careful study, if only because it is as mechanically powerful and comprehensive an instrument for the management of human beings—for simultaneously breaking their wills and developing their maximum capacities for organised material production—as any dreamt of by the most ruthless and megalomaniac capitalist exploiter. For it springs out of an even greater contempt for the freedom and the ideals of mankind than that with which Dostoevsky endowed his Grand Inquisitor; and being dominant over the lives of some eight hundred million human beings, is the most important, most inhuman and still the most imperfectly understood phenomenon of our times.


‘All Hail Invincible Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought!’


Dialectics is the jolly art that enables the Supreme Leader never to make mistakes — for even if he did the wrong thing, he did it at the right time, which makes it right for him to have been wrong, whereas the Enemy, even if he did the right thing, did it at the wrong time, which makes it wrong for him to have been right.

— Simon Leys, 1989