Khrushchev’s speech in 1956 denouncing Stalin’s crimes was a political act from which, as his biographer William Taubman put it, ‘the Soviet regime never fully recovered, and neither did he.’ Although it was plainly opportunistic, there was just as plainly more to it than that, a kind of reckless excess that cannot be accounted for in terms of political strategy. The speech so undermined the dogma of infallible leadership that the entire nomenklatura sank into temporary paralysis. A dozen or so delegates collapsed during the speech, and had to be carried out and given medical help; one of them, Boleslaw Bierut, the hardline general secretary of the Polish Communist Party, died of a heart attack. The model Stalinist writer Alexander Fadeyev actually shot himself a few days later. The point is not that they were ‘honest Communists’: most of them were brutal manipulators without any illusions about the Soviet regime. What broke down was their ‘objective’ illusion, the figure of the ‘big Other’ as a background against which they could exert their ruthlessness and drive for power. They had displaced their belief onto this Other, which, as it were, believed on their behalf. Now their proxy had disintegrated.
Khrushchev was gambling that his (limited) confession would strengthen the Communist movement, and in the short term he was right: one should always remember that Khrushchev’s era was the last period of authentic Communist enthusiasm, of belief in the Communist project. When, during his visit to the US in 1959, he said to the US agriculture secretary, ‘Your grandchildren will live under Communism,’ he was stating the conviction of the entire Soviet nomenklatura. Even when Gorbachev attempted a more radical confrontation with the past (rehabilitations included Bukharin), Lenin remained unassailable, and Trotsky continued to be a non-person.
Compare these events with the Chinese way of breaking with the Maoist past. As Richard McGregor shows in The Party, Deng Xiaoping’s ‘reforms’ proceeded in a radically different way. In the organisation of the economy (and, up to a point, the culture), what is usually perceived as ‘Communism’ was abandoned, and the gates were opened to what, in the West, is called ‘liberalisation’: private property, the pursuit of profit, a life-style based on hedonist individualism etc. The Party maintained its hegemony, not through doctrinal orthodoxy (in official discourse, the Confucian notion of the Harmonious Society replaced practically all reference to Communism), but by securing the status of the Communist Party as the only guarantee of China’s stability and prosperity.
[Extract. Appeared in London Review of Books, on October 21st, 2010. (full text).]