You Can Get Here from There — Soviet historian Stephen Kotkin on Xi Jinping’s China

Watching China Watching




Since the 1980s, the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc have loomed large in our work on China’s People’s Republic. Historians, thinkers and social critics from the Soviet era, and those who continued to study USSR/Russian affairs as well as the Central and Eastern European world following the dissolution of the Soviet Bloc in the 1990s, have similarly offered unique insights into the Chinese party-state.

In the 1980s, the work of Miklós Haraszti, Hungarian author of The Velvet Prison: Artists Under State Socialism, for example, framed our discussion of reform-era Chinese culture and dissent. In the 1990s, Eastern European and Russian historians, dissidents and philosophers grounded our appreciation of the systemic Communist canker as it warily melded with the ebullience of state-guided capitalism. Their work underpinned my book In the Red: on contemporary Chinese culture (New York, 1999), just it influenced my consideration of the longevity of the Mao cult in contemporary China (see Shades of Mao, 1995). They also helped guide me towards a deeper understanding of China’s ongoing Historikerstreit and the allure of totalitarian nostalgia. Similarly, the Soviet Union cast a stygian shadow over Morning Sun, the 2003 documentary film about the Cultural Revolution that I co-directed with Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon, the meta-narrative device of which was The Gadfly, a Soviet adaptation of the novel of the same name.

During the Xi Jinping era, we have drawn on the work of Isaiah BerlinRobert Conquest, and Václav Havel, among others, while in our series on Homo Xinensis we noted the historical resonances with China’s defunct Western cousin. Similarly, we delved into post-Soviet Russia in We Need to Talk About Totalitarianism, Again, the first chapter in Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium.

[Note: See also Prelude to a Restoration: Xi Jinping, Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun & the Spectre of Mao Zedong and You Should Look Back, 1 February 2022.]


Having first encountered Chinese interpretations of Marxism-Leninism in the late 1960s, and never forgotten the classes I endured on the subject in late-Maoist China, it is reassuring that in international discussions of Xi Jinping’s China, the term ‘Marxism-Leninism’ has come to enjoy a renewed valence. In China itself, the expression is often simply referred to as 馬哲 Mǎ zhé, a new shorthand for 馬克思主義哲學,  ‘Marxist Philosophy’, although it really means Marxist-Leninist dogma as propounded by the Chinese Party.

For our part, we have long preferred to refer to the ruling system of China — its ideology, institutional practices and pervasive culture — as ‘Stalino-Maoism’. We do so because it reflects more precisely the historical melding of the Stalinist interpretation, and practice, of Marxism-Leninism with on-the-ground Chinese thought and experience as interpreted by Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi and their comrades from the late 1930s.

During the three-decade Reform Era (c.1978-2008), the Janus-mien of the Chinese Party was too readily overlooked. For the more observant, however, be they in- or outside the People’s Republic, the retrospective gaze of the Communists to Yan’an and the 1950s was inextricably interwoven with the forward thrust of economic policy and nebulous utopianism. The ‘pragmatism’ of the reforms was as much about the practical preservation of Party dominance as it was about ‘seeking truth from facts’ that aided in the creation of a wealthier society and stronger nation.

Xu Zhangrun, the Beijing-based scholar of jurisprudence and modern history whose work features in China Heritage, coined the term ‘Legalistic-Fascist-Stalinism’ 法日斯 Fǎ-Rì-Sī to describe the dispensation of the Chinese party-state. It is one ‘cobbled together from strains of traditional harsh Chinese Legalist thought [法 ; that is, 中式法家思想] wedded to an admix of the Leninist-Stalinist interpretation of Marxism [斯 ; 斯大林主義] along with the “Germano-Aryan” form of fascism [日 ; 日耳曼法西斯主義].’

Professor Xu has also summed up the party-state system of the Reform Era with the expression 毛體鄧用 Máo tǐ Dèng yòng, ‘Maoist essence employing Dengist exigencies’. It recasts the slogan 中體西用 Zhōng tǐ, Xī yòng, ‘Chinese essence combined with Western knowhow’, which dates from China’s first wave of Westernisation during the Tongzhi Restoration of the 1860s.

As part of our ongoing pursuit of New Sinology, we noted at the advent of the Xi Jinping New Era that:

Xi Jinping’s China is a gift to the New Sinologist, for the world of the Chairman of Everything requires the serious student of contemporary China to be familiar with basic classical Chinese thought, history and literature, appreciate the abiding influence of Marxist-Leninist ideas and the dialectic prestidigitations of Mao Zedong Thought. Similarly, it requires an understanding of neo-liberal thinking and agendas in the guise of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics 具有中国特色的社会主义.

It is still essential to be aware of the consanguinity of the Soviet and Chinese systems while also appreciating the post-dynastic evolution of translatio imperii and what we call China’s mytho-poetic regime of hyperbole and ‘imagineering’. (See, for example, When Comrade Xi invited Monsieur Macron to tea, The China Project, 26 April 2023.)


Stephen Kotkin is a formidable scholar of Soviet history. His Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization published in 1997 remains a significant contribution to understanding Stalin’s Russia, and its aftermath. It influenced my own work on Chinese culture and society.

Professor Kotkin is now best known for his biography of Stalin, the third and final volume of which is scheduled to appear in 2024 under the title Stalin: Miscalculation and the Mao Eclipse.

Informed by insights into the Soviet past and his study of the People’s Republic of China, this scholar’s observations on Xi Jinping’s China are timely and valuable. We are therefore delighted to be able to publish an excerpt from Professor Kotkin’s recent observations on the subject.

We are grateful to Jordan Schneider of China Talk for permission to reprint the following exchange as part of our series Watching China Watching. It is also included as an appendix in Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium. The style of the original transcript has been retained. (For an audio-visual version of the conversation on YouTube, see here.)

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
9 May 2023
Victory Day (Russia)

Stamp issued to commemorate the signing of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance in 1950


Kotkin on China

“You can’t be half Communist, just like you can’t be half pregnant.”


Stephen Kotkin is one of the greatest historians of his generation — the closest thing we have to a Robert Caro for people with an unhealthy fascination with Communism. He’s most famous for the first two parts of his Stalin biography. Magnetic Mountain, Armageddon Averted, and Uncivil Society are also must-read classics.

Stephen has a deep interest in China, as shown by his 96% open rate on the ChinaTalk newsletter over the past few years.

Below is part one of our conversation, in which we discuss:

  • What Xi learned from the USSR’s fall;
  • Kotkin’s assessment of the main threat to Communism — what “Communism with a human face” means, and why Gorbachev’s reforms ultimately destroyed Communism in the USSR;
  • Why the CCP fears color revolutions more than, say, NATO expansion — and why Xi snapped on Hong Kong in 2020;
  • The twin components of Marxism-Leninism: anti-capitalism + anti-imperialism; and,
  • An understanding of Lenin’s “commanding heights,” and what China’s commanding heights are today.

China Talk


Xi’s Worst Nightmare

Jordan Schneider: I want to start by reading you some Xi quotes. Let’s start with 2013:

Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Communist Party of the Soviet Union fall to pieces? An important reason is that in the ideological domain, competition is fierce! To completely repudiate the historical experience of the Soviet Union, to repudiate the history of the CPSU, to repudiate Lenin, to repudiate Stalin was to wreak chaos in Soviet ideology and engage in historical nihilism. It caused Party organizations at all levels to have barely any function whatsoever. It robbed the Party of its leadership of the military. In the end the CPSU — as great a Party as it was — scattered like a flock of frightened beasts! The Soviet Union — as great a socialist state as it was — shattered into pieces. This is a lesson from the past.

Stephen Kotkin: He’s right. His entire life is dedicated to preventing this from happening to the Chinese Communist Party. This is what is uppermost in his mind; it’s what he inculcates in the Party cadres incessantly. Let’s remember who ran the Party School for a while [Ed. Xi was the president of the Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party from 2007 to 2013].

There are two subjects at Party School that are absolutely dominant in the Chinese case. One is the supposed decline of the United States — about how the United States is decadent, the United States is a power of the past. This [viewpoint] is completely wrong, and more and more Party officials are coming to understand this — thanks to Matt Pottinger in the Trump administration, thanks to Putin’s criminal aggression in Ukraine which has backfired on both him and Xi Jinping. But we’ll have to wait for that to play out — the realization that teaching about the end of American power is a fallacy.

But the other big subject — in fact it’s an even bigger subject for them — is not having a Soviet collapse in China, and therefore studying the Soviet collapse all the way, every way, every angle, and making sure it doesn’t happen [in China]. That is Xi’s life project, [and] the big subject at the Party School — and it’s one of the reasons why I think my own work was pirated, translated into Chinese and, at least for some people, was a text to study.

Jordan Schneider: Let’s talk about Uncivil Society. The idea that you put forward in that book: the Western vision that dissidents and folks around the margins were the real cause of the fall of the Soviet Union is in fact not the case — that a collapse of a Marxist or Leninist regime doesn’t necessarily need an intelligentsia or a broad civil society to push you there. In fact, the system can just collapse on itself very quickly, in almost a bank-run-style development.

Elaborate on that, and then apply it to China today. What do you see and not see as parallels between the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s and China in the 2020s?

Stephen Kotkin: Let’s acknowledge that the courage of the dissidents is often just astonishing and inspiring: people willing to suffer potential expulsion, forced exile, imprisonment, or worse because they stand for freedom, against the regime’s dictatorship and monopoly over the public; it’s very impressive to see these people.

But the main threat to Communism is Communism. This is the paradox of the system.

The Communist Party is a Leninist organization. Now, if you were in China studies, you probably read the book by [Franz] Schurmann many years ago — which happens to be an adaptation of Philip Selznick’s book, The Organizational Weapon; it’s one of my go-to books on all Leninist regimes, including the Chinese one. [Jordan: I read this book after recording this interview and can confirm it is fantastic.]

And the most remarkable thing about Leninist regimes is that they’re all-powerful and brittle simultaneously. The Party is ubiquitous. It shadows every single institution, every organization — whether that’s in the state bureaucracy, in the military, in the education system, and, in China’s case, in the quasi-private sphere. It’s hard to know what to call it now — we’re following [Barry] Naughton’s important intervention, CCP Inc.

But in any case, the Party is this great weapon for control. At the same time, however, you can’t be half Communist, just like you can’t be half pregnant. So the Party is either a monopoly, or it begins to unravel. There’s no political-reform equilibrium.

[Let’s say] you begin to open up the party, you begin to say, “Okay, let’s have debate inside the Party, let’s have some opening. Let’s maybe even have some competitive elections inside the party.” And what happens, Jordan? What happens is some people come forward and they say, “I don’t want the Communist Party. I want another party.” And the Party officials say, “No, no, no — that’s not what we’re allowing. We’re only allowing debate inside the Party. We’re keeping the Communist Party monopoly; we’re just liberalizing it a little.”

We saw this in Hungary in 1956. We saw this in Czechoslovakia — the so-called “Prague Spring” in 1968. We saw this in [Mikhail] Gorbachev’s reforms. As [Leonid] Brezhnev said in 1968 — he was the general secretary watching [Alexander] Dubček in Prague, and they were reporting on the unraveling of the system as Dubček was trying to re-energize it, liberalize it, open up Communism while keeping the monopoly — and Brezhnev said at a Politburo meeting, “Reform is counterrevolution” — or what we would call auto-liquidation. And we lived through the Gorbachev period as well — where you start the opening politically, and where does it stop? Because people keep pushing and pushing and pushing until they’re outside the Communist monopoly.

And so you have a choice. You can end the political reform, and you can crack down, and you can say, “We’re putting this genie back in the bottle; no more political reform.” Or, you can let it unfold, and you can think, “It’s going to work at some point — it’s just a little bit more chaotic than we anticipated.” So Gorbachev was true to his beliefs: he believed in this Communism with a human face; he believed in the possibility of reform; he believed in a liberalized Communist Party monopoly — and as a result, he destroyed Communism in the Soviet Union.

And because the Party overrode the federal structure of the Soviet state (that is to say, the Soviet state was a federalism: there was the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, and they were all equal members of the federation) — but the Party was a pyramid with military discipline; the Party overrode the state’s federalism in practice. But once the Party disintegrates as a result of Gorbachev trying to open it up politically, you lose the Soviet’s centralized state, you get the voluntary federation, and the federal pieces decide they want out as well — just like many people wanted out of the Communist Party monopoly.

And so Xi Jinping is now looking back at this history, and God forbid some “Communism with a human face,” Communist political liberalization is going to take place — because it would be the unraveling of the system if it were allowed to go all the way.

So, this is the paradox of what Selznick called the “organizational weapon,” borrowing Lenin’s terminology. This is the paradox of a Leninist structure: all-powerful and brittle at the same time, with no political-reform equilibrium. Therefore, for us a Gorbachev in China would be salvation, because a Gorbachev could potentially bring down that regime. And for Xi Jinping, that is to be prevented at all costs.

Now, if you think about this a little bit more deeply: sure, they can open up the economy, they can do economic liberalization. The Soviets did this, by the way, under Lenin in the early 1920s, where they actually strengthened the Communist monopoly in the 1920s, and yet they opened up the economy to allow legal private markets and market behavior; this was called the New Economic Policy, or the NEP. There was never a political NEP — they didn’t open up the political system; in fact, as I said, they tightened the political system, and they experimented with the market economy for a time. But they were Communists, so the market was not an end in itself: it was a means to an end. Once the country wasn’t starving anymore (as it was when they launched the New Economic Policy in 1921), once things had stabilized economically, you had Stalin eliminate markets and private property once again. Because for Marxists, the base can’t be capitalist, and the political structure or the superstructure can’t be Communist and survive — because the base (the socioeconomic relations, the means of production, who controls them) is determinative for Marxists.

Now, you have Deng Xiaoping and the Chinese Communists as well — it’s a version of the New Economic Policy. There still is a Communist monopoly — no political NEP to speak of. Sure, eventually you get some village elections; they’re gone now, for the obvious reason that they threatened the Communist monopoly.

And so all the time I’ve been watching, saying, “How far can this go before the Communist Party leadership begins to feel that it threatens their monopoly?” Because accumulation of wealth — independent, private wealth — is the accumulation of power. And so ipso facto, even if you don’t adhere to the Leninist ideology about the base and the superstructure, even if you are just pragmatically driven, nonetheless, people with a lot of money have a lot of power, and they could ipso facto threaten the Communist monopoly.

So at some point, I’m thinking, they’re going to need to crack down on the private sector again, because they’re going to feel that it’s threatening their Communist Party monopoly over the political system and the public sphere. Now of course, they need the private sector for GDP growth and job creation — but the private sector is a threat. So you have the opening and then the strangulation, and the opening and the strangulation; this is the dynamic you would expect — because once again, you can’t be half Communist.

So [the Chinese] regime is limited in what it can do, because it doesn’t want to give up its power voluntarily. And so the space in which it can operate — how much private sector it can tolerate and what kind, whether it can open up at all politically, including relaxing censorship — these are limited by the nature of the regime, by the organizational weapon, by the power of the system.

If you put this together, it turns out that every day is existential for the Communist regime. Now, we are in democratic, rule-of-law systems: we worry about this policy and that policy, this norm-busting and that norm-busting, this political figure and that political figure — but we survive the craziest political figures, the most inept political figures, the most corrupt political figures; it’s not existential for us, because our [system] is based on resilient institutions.

And so to answer the quote from Xi Jinping that you presented: not only is every day existential for them — in the sense that if they allow too much opening, their entire system can begin to unravel — not only that, but they think that we [in the US] can accelerate that process, that we can influence that process.

The great fear of Xi Jinping and Putin when it comes to the US is not something like NATO expansion. It’s so-called “color revolution.” It’s so-called “democracy,” “Western values,” “rule of law,” “universal human rights” penetrating the Chinese public sphere, penetrating the consciousness of the people, and spreading — and therefore giving rise to calls for opening up the political system.

And they must live with this every day: try to reap the benefits of the global economy, and import the technology, and import the foreign direct investment [FDI], and make sure they deepen the trade ties and some of those dependencies on the Chinese economy that they’re able to manipulate — but when they do that, the ideas and the values and the practices sometimes ride along with the technology and the FDI. And so that’s a very difficult proposition to manage on a day-by-day basis. And we see how worried they are about this — and you know what? He’s right to be worried.

True Deterrence: Threatening the Communist Monopoly

Jordan Schneider: You’ve spoken before about the idea of leverage by creating the possibility of political alternatives. Can you expand on that?

Stephen Kotkin: These regimes can be inept. They can fail at everything. They can repeal zero covid in the middle of the night. The people can see how inept they are. The people can suffer the consequences — whatever the number that we can guesstimate of deaths of people who are vulnerable to the reopening in the dead of night — and yet they can stay in power provided they can suppress, deny all political alternatives. So the game with all of these regimes is the cultivation, the appearance of possible alternatives in the political realm.

And so that’s where we come in. You think about deterrence for a regime like this. Sure, you have to have military capabilities that they’re afraid of; sure, you have to have other instruments in the toolkit that you can use, potentially coercively, but also just as a threat, so that they’re intimidated to take some actions that might transgress international law or the sovereignty of another country, or the sovereignty of a self-governing island; yes, you must deter them militarily and economically for sure.

But deterrence is ultimately a political proposition. If you shave a couple of points off of their GDP, they’re okay with that. They’re not private equity moguls. Xi Jinping shaves his own points off his GDP. But if, all of a sudden, there’s the possibility of an alternative political system — of an alternative rule-of-law, self-government, where there are genuine elections, where the party doesn’t have a monopoly anymore — that scares the Jesus out of him. And that’s our strength and power.

And so we saw this with Hong Kong. How much did Hong Kong threaten this gigantic mainland? Hong Kong was this amazing resource gifted to the Chinese by the British. If you look at the 1945 moment when the Japanese are in occupation of British Hong Kong, and the Japanese have now lost the war — and the Americans declare that Hong Kong is supposed to go back to China, to Chiang Kai-shek, not to Britain; and the British decide, “Oh no, the Chinese are not getting Hong Kong. We’re taking Hong Kong back for ourselves.” And the Americans try to negotiate a face-save or a compromise — but the British are not interested in anything other than reseizure of Hong Kong; and they carry it out.

Could Chiang Kai-shek have taken Hong Kong back before the British? Maybe, maybe not — because of the complexity of where his troops were located, because of his focus on Manchuria, because of his reliance on America for airlift power, and all the variables that you know well.

The point is that the assertiveness of the British — rather than the acquiescence which we could have seen from the British in this moment — meant that Hong Kong did not go to Chiang Kai-shek, which meant it did not go to Mao in 1949, which meant that Hong Kong developed as a British-controlled international financial center under the rule of law where capital was allocated on the basis of market criteria rather than political criteria, cronyism, or Communist Party decision-making.

And so you look at Deng Xiaoping, and you look at the Chinese miracle, and you look at the story of modern China — and people say to me, “Why didn’t Gorbachev do a Deng Xiaoping?” And I say to them, “Where was Gorbachev during Hong Kong?” Where it was not just the FDI and tech transfer that came in from Japan and Taiwan into China — but was funneled in through Hong Kong? And so that’s the key variable, that’s the key instrument.

And then it turns out that this is so valuable [that] the British handed it back to the Chinese when the lease expires. I myself would not have done that, but once again, I wasn’t in power.

And so here we have, then, a system that works for China. It delivers enormous value for the Communist regime in Beijing. Sure, there are protests in the streets, there are calls for democracy, there are real elections — there are things which you don’t get on the mainland. How threatening was it to the regime in China? On an objective basis, it’s hard to measure — but on a subjective basis, it was everything. It was not just a blackeye — it was an alternative political system on what was now Chinese Communist territory. And so how long was it going to last? [Until] Xi Jinping decided it was not going to last anymore. And we saw that.

And so, this political alternative story, this ability to imagine a China which is successful and free and proud and Chinese — it’s not some foreign-manipulated thing. It is, in fact, a domestically created Chinese aspiration. That’s really where we come in as, potentially, working to put deterrence here in between Xi Jinping and some of the freedom and international-order countries and self-governing islands that we’re trying to protect.

Did Marxism-Leninism Ever Really Die?

Jordan Schneider: You mentioned Selznick. What’s another book people should be reading in 2023 from the canon of Soviet or Communism studies that you’d hope folks thinking about China today would take seriously?

Stephen Kotkin: The problem we have is that we focused on the Chinese political system and thought it evolved out of the Leninist structure. So we have a million really good books on China that imagine that China has transcended the Leninism. And then we discover that the Leninist structure never went away. And in fact, they’re trying, as one would expect, to reinforce it, to bring back its dynamism, strength, and energy — not with political opening, but with the opposite, with the hardline version of the Leninist structure, with the Stalin version of the Leninist structure, with the Mao version of the Leninist structure.

It’s time to return to that work. It’s time to return to the work that we thought was done, that our field — China studies, Communist studies, Soviet studies — produced and is of tremendous value still today, despite all the changes that you know about.

However, having said that, it’s also necessary to understand that the ideology story is more complex, both from those who dismiss it and those who now say that it’s back and really important. The Leninist structure doesn’t necessarily determine policies or ideologies completely. Yes, it limits the scope of action in terms of political reform (unless you want to commit suicide). But it doesn’t determine what policy you might have on x, y, and z — those are determined in the competition among interest groups, in the leader’s preferences, in the international environment in which they find themselves (is it conducive or corrosive to their aspirations or aims?).

And so the complexity of understanding motivation and decision-making, the role of ideology and how far ideology goes — this is something that the old literature sometimes was simplistic about or dismissive about on the other side, where people said it was all cynicism and not ideology.

Here’s what’s really important to understand about these kinds of things, in going as well as looking back: when you think about Marxism-Leninism — which is Marxism in power — it had two fundamental aspects.

One was anti-capitalism: meaning that markets, private property, wage labor (or “wage slavery,” as Marx called it) — these were not just exploitative but fundamentally alienating in a humanity or humane sense. It was worse than inequality. It was worse than exploitation. It was the fundamental destruction, alienation of the human spirit. The anti-capitalism was deep and fundamental; and so the way you transcended capitalism (in the Hegelian, Aufhebung, Marxist sense) was to eliminate private profits, eliminate legal markets, eliminate wage labor for a time — thinking that you were going to get to the other side because you were going to remove all of these things. And of course, this led to complete statization of the economy and the kind of incentive problems in other things that we know from the so-called “planned economy” — which, as you know, was not planned but was a statized, centralized allocation of scarce resources that made resources even scarcer.

But the other piece of Marxism-Leninism was anti-imperialism. And anti-imperialism was just as big, in some ways. This was the idea that the West — Western power, Western countries, predominantly Europe at the time (the West is something larger and non-geographical, much bigger now) — but at the time, the idea was that the West was evil because it was imperialist: it took over other countries, it ended the sovereignty of what came to be called the Third World, it [employed] direct-rule imperialism — and sometimes indirect-rule imperialism, where they coerced you to do things in your economy or in your foreign policy without necessarily directly ruling your territory. And of course, this happened to China during what they call the “Century of Humiliation.”

So the anti-capitalism and the anti-imperialism are the two component parts — and you can have more or less of one of those components. You can diminish the anti-capitalism, but you can actually enhance the anti-imperialism in the Marxism-Leninism. Some people thought (I didn’t) that Marxism-Leninism had died because of the diminishment of the anti-capitalism for a time. But the anti-imperialism never went away: you could argue that it was, on a scale of one to ten, an eleven the whole time, and maybe even went to a twelve. So the anti-imperialism means that Marxism-Leninism never actually did vanish or die — even if you allow for the anti-capitalism to have been diminished somewhat in the thinking [or] teaching of the regime. So you could go to Party School, and maybe they could teach you to get rich and use capitalism to reinforce the Chinese state — but they never relinquished that story of the Century of Humiliation, of anti-imperialism.

So now today we see a version of a revival of the anti-capitalism: not getting rid of the markets but taming the markets, not having the markets be in charge but having the markets solely subservient to Party rule. And that goes for the biggest fears that the Party determines, what Lenin used to call the “commanding heights” (and what the Chinese might not call the commanding heights in all cases; but when you’re at Party School, that’s the vocabulary you’re going to hear).

And so that means, for example, the public sphere (education, socialization of youth, tech companies) and then private education, tutoring, all of the things that are about values and control over what’s permissible in the public sphere — that’s going to be commanding heights. And then of course, the tech superpower stuff, in the sense of AI and biotech, is also going to be commanding heights; and then of course [the commanding heights are] the other things they might deem — whether it’s natural resources, where you have massive cash flow and possibilities for corruption and patronage, which Party monopolies always love.

So you put all of this together, and you begin to see that the common prosperity idea has resonance because it’s rooted in the Marxism-Leninism social justice fairness — “capitalism is evil,” “capitalism creates inequality,” “capitalism creates all sorts of injustice”; it’s rooted partially in that.

And so you see that [the Party] can resurrect even the anti-capitalist side of the Marxism-Leninism — they can breathe life into it — without necessarily eliminating the markets, but getting the markets to work for them.

And after all, the New Economic Policy (once again in Lenin’s conception) was not an end in itself: he hated capitalism; he hated markets; he hated private property; it was just a means to an end — and when that means was no longer serving that end, you could get rid of it.

And so we see now that even the ideology never went away because of the anti-imperialism piece of it — which is a big chunk, as we said. And the anti-capitalism can be resurrected or re-energized (depending on how you look at it, how much you think it went away).

And so here we are, where even the ideological stuff — from the Sovietology, from the Mao era — needs a revisit. Although going forward, it’s not going to look identical to what it looked like before: there have been tremendous changes; there’s a huge middle class; there’s a quasi-sort-of-almost financial system (it’s hard to know what to call things in China, because they don’t correspond to the kind of stuff that’s equivalent in our system, and so we always have trouble calling the Chinese stuff with the same vocabulary that we have; that’s why the CCP Inc. was an improvement on the China Inc. story).

But anyway, you get the point: there’s Schurmann, and before that there’s Selznick. And then there’s rich literature about Mao and ideology and the Cultural Revolution, and how Mao was constantly upending the system for his own power: he was attacking the bureaucratic structures of his own state to keep them off balance for his own power. Will Xi Jinping do something like that? I’m not predicting anything, but I’m just saying that that history is worth understanding. Why did that happen? Was it solely the caprice of Mao, or was there something inside the system that went that way?

I recently read Xueguang Zhou’s Logic of Governance in China. I mention it because it’s a fantastic example of using org theory to understand China. Organizational theory was once in the sociology department and other departments here at Stanford; it was once the jewel in the crown here: we had Jim March, with whom Xueguang studied. And [Zhou’s] book incorporates so many of the insights of that literature that’s been forgotten. It’s not the Philip Selznick “organizational weapon,” “Leninist Party structure” stuff — it’s org theory, really org theory 101 in some ways, but also 201 and 301 and 501 and all the way up to and beyond the PhD level.

And if you look at it, he shows you that organizations have a certain inherent logic and a dynamic, and that sometimes you don’t fully control this. And he goes through the introduction and evolution of competitive elections in villages (in a township that he’s chosen, which has a certain number of villages). And it’s a remarkable story because it doesn’t end well. The elections turn out not to enhance Communist Party monopoly, but to destabilize Communist Party monopoly, to unbalance the Party’s monopoly — and they peter out. And so we don’t have those competitive elections; we don’t have the experimentation at the local level. But what we do have is the localities trying to cope with centrally imposed mandates that are unfunded and that put the localities into massive debt and ruin their fiscal situation — but also create the incentive structures for them to actually work in the fiscal situation in an attempt to fix it.

And so it’s a brilliant book about perverse and unintended consequences, about org theory, about the limits of Communist Party experimentation, even in villages with opening the system up. And the lessons are eternal there.

Jordan Schneider: So let’s talk about another fantastic book: Joseph Torigian’s recent work about succession in Russia and China. What’s your take on the lessons that his work — and other scholarship around transition moments, both in the USSR and in China — tell us about what we are going to face at some point in the coming years in China?

Stephen Kotkin: So Joe’s work is absolutely outstanding, and there are many aspects that we should emphasize here.

One is Joe has returned us to comparisons of the Soviet regime and the current regime in Beijing — that is to say, comparisons of Communist regime types. Once again, there are differences, not just similarities; even within the Leninist structure, there are important differences, and Joe is alive to these differences. But the idea that they can be put together once again is a major achievement in my view.

Then of course, Joe has the empirical dimension down. He’s got the research. He’s got the actual primary materials on both cases, the Soviet case and the Chinese case, in terms of succession politics, succession dynamics, and outcomes. It’s very important to be able to do this with primary-source material, with real evidence, rather than just speculation or educated guesses or generative AI–style riffing (which is very popular, unfortunately). Joe’s got the fact that he’s comparing properly the regimes once again — not simplistically, but properly. He’s got the fact that there’s a massive evidentiary base.

And then he has got the fact that this is a monopoly, and there are specific dynamics to the monopoly. In so many ways, it’s returning us to an understanding with much deeper empirics that this is about the rule of an individual, which comes about not accidentally through the monopolistic rule of the party. So you get this from [Leon] Trotsky. Before Trotsky was on Lenin’s side, he was against Lenin. And he wrote this famous passage about how Communist monopoly would produce individual dictatorship — and there it was: that individual dictatorship that he predicted would come about killed him, after he, was a major facilitator and an enabler of the creation of that system. And so you have that dynamic in Joe. And I could hit many more aspects to it that are really amazing.

The succession dynamics are really hard for all authoritarian regimes — they’re always vulnerable on this question, because they don’t have a legal way for people to be chosen or to assume the next leadership. It’s existential. It’s uncertain. All the stakeholders don’t know what happens to their power and ill-gotten wealth when there’s regime change, when the leader inevitably dies (which happens to all mortal human beings): it happened to Stalin seventy years ago; it happened to Mao not quite forty-seven years ago; they say that “graveyards are full of indispensable men,” et cetera.

But in the meantime, it’s hard for them, because the succession piece is so uncertain that people who want to protect their power and ill-gotten gains may want to move inside the uncertainty themselves to try to protect their ill-gotten gains. And so you have intrigue and destabilization over succession before succession even happens.

And then you get the succession politics — which we sometimes attribute to political differences, sometimes we attribute it to philosophical differences. Joe shows in these cases that the policy differences were not there, and that’s a really big achievement on his part.

So let me just say the final piece: the other thing he shows is that these people were all powerful, and there was no collective rule. There’s the appearance of collective rule; there’s the simulation of collective rule; there’s the pretense that there’s some type of collective rule. But one person is in charge here, even under that pretense. And there’s no institutionalization of succession, neither in the Soviet case nor the Chinese case.

So when we say that Xi Jinping “broke the rules,” “broke the taboo,” what Joe was able to show was that nothing in that was hard and fast. Nothing was really broken in a “Leninist, Maoist, Deng Xiaoping” sense. There’s more of a continuity than a discontinuity.

And so let’s all make sure we go back and read Joe’s book, or reread it if we’ve read it already. And let’s talk about it again and again, because it is a massive point of departure for understanding how this place is going.