Downfall of Relations Between Mao and Khrushchev


By Richard Baum, Ph.D.University of California, Los Angeles

Whatever the truth of his motivation, Mao Zedong’s relation with Nikita Khrushchev started showing clear signs of strain from 1956. Shortly after Khrushchev’s February 1956 de-Stalinization speech, China’s flagship daily newspaper, People’s Daily, published a lengthy, unsigned theoretical article which defended Stalin as an ‘outstanding Marxist-Leninist fighter’ and refuted Khrushchev’s verbal attack on Stalin.

Illustration of the flags of the Soviet Union and China
Mao believed the Russians had abandoned Stalin’s vision. (Image: Sakchai.K/Shutterstock)

Mao, Khrushchev, and a Series of Misgivings

While acknowledging that Stalin had made some serious mistakes, the People’s Daily article defended the historical contribution of strong leaders: ‘Marxist-Leninists hold that leaders play a big role in history … It is utterly wrong to deny the role of the individual, the role of forerunners, and the role of leaders.’ Though Mao did not personally write this article, he did sign off on it.

In the aftermath of the Hungarian revolt of 1956, Mao’s relations with the Soviet Union leader grew even more strained. He sharply criticized the Russians for sending Soviet tanks into Budapest without first consulting with other members of the Socialist camp.  

In Mao’s view, such Soviet unilateralism violated the spirit of fraternal consultation and deliberation and was symptomatic of Khrushchev’s growing attitude of ‘great-nation Chauvinism’.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of ChinaWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Peace, an Absurd Road to Victory

At a November 1956 meeting of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, Mao openly voiced his concern over the implications of Khrushchev’s February speech; and for the very first time, he issued a critique of another one of the Soviet leader’s recent ideological pronouncements, to wit, Khrushchev’s claim that in the era of nuclear weapons, socialism could achieve victory peacefully, through parliamentary means, without necessitating revolutionary armed struggle.

To Mao, the idea of a ‘parliamentary road to socialism’ smacked of heresy since it directly contradicted a principal axiom of Lenin’s theory of imperialism, namely, the inevitability of war. In an obvious angry fit, Mao complained to his comrades:

Image of Lenin behind a desk
Russians were criticized for abandoning ‘the sword of Lenin’. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The Sword of Stalin has been abandoned by the Russians … As for the sword of Lenin, has it too now been abandoned? … In my view, it has … to a considerable extent … Khrushchev’s report … says it is possible to gain political power by the parliamentary road, [and that] it is no longer necessary for all countries to learn from the October Revolution. Once this gate is thrown open, Leninism, by and large, is thrown out.

Now, up to this point, Mao’s quarrel with Khrushchev had been kept separate and distinct from his rising alarm over the nefarious activities of rich peasants and bourgeois intellectuals at home. But, over the next few months, these two different concerns would begin to converge.

Mao’s Modern Revisionism

Increasingly, Mao viewed Khrushchev’s abandonment of the Leninist principles of revolution and war as the flip side of China’s own intensifying class struggle. To these twin heresies, Mao now affixed a new label. He called them ‘modern revisionism’ (xiandai xiuzheng zhuyi).

Mao defined modern revisionism as the abandonment of core Marxist-Leninist principles, and he traced its origins to a resurgence of bourgeois ideology and liberalism in the post-revolutionary socialist society.

Addressing his comrades in mid-May of 1957, Mao signaled a shift in his thinking:

Over the past few months, everyone has been repudiating [ideological] dogmatism, but [we have] done nothing about revisionism … Now we ought to pay attention to repudiating revisionism.

Learn more about Mao’s proposed liberalization toward intellectuals.

Mao’s Frustration with Rich Peasants

As Mao’s unhappiness with Khrushchev intensified, so, too, did his impatience with the strategy of blindly imitating the Soviet model of socialism. Characterized by central planning, agricultural collectivization, and rapid urban industrial growth, the Soviet model had become bogged down in China.

Rich peasants were sabotaging the collective farms, agricultural productivity was stagnating, and the resulting lack of extractable revenues from the countryside was hampering the country’s urban-industrial growth. 

Moreover, in the aftermath of the divisive Anti-Rightist Rectification movement, China’s industrial experts—engineers, scientists, and technicians—had become demoralized, showing little enthusiasm for socialism. In Mao’s view, something needed to be done to jump-start the moribund economy.

At the Eighth Party Congress in 1956, Mao’s colleagues had opted for a prolonged period of economic ‘consolidation and adjustment’ to resolve existing economic problems and put the economy back on a sound footing. But Mao was far from satisfied with such a conservative game plan. For him, more of the same was not the answer; it was precisely the problem.

Learn more about Mao’s efforts to galvanize China’s economic development.

Mao’s Shift Toward the Left

By the spring of 1958, Mao’s thinking had undergone a profound shift toward the Left. He now began to envision an entirely new form of socialist economic construction based on the twin ideas of continuing the revolution and liberating the subjective energies of the Chinese masses.

Image of two Chinese women with simple dark jackets while working in a factory.
Mao wanted to apply the lessons of People’s War to the problem of economic growth. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

There would be no more emulating the old Soviet model; there would be no more relying on bourgeois intellectuals for economic and technical progress; there would be no more advancing at a snail’s pace, “tottering around like women with bound feet”; and there would be no more nay-saying. The chairman had made up his mind.

A ‘Great Leap Forward’ was at hand. For the next three years, Mao would apply the lessons of People’s War to the struggles against nature. Objective limits on economic growth would be overcome through mass mobilization.

With proper motivation and leadership, said Mao, there was no mountain that the Chinese people could not climb, no obstacle that they could not surmount. When the chairman confidently proclaimed that China would overtake Great Britain in a little more than a decade, the people believed him. No one dared to say, “No, that’s impossible.”

Common Questions about the Downfall of Relations Between Mao and Khrushchev

Q: Why did Mao think the Russians had abandoned the sword of Stalin?

Lenin’s theory of imperialism basically meant the inevitability of war. Mao thought Khrushchev didn’t believe in this and began to speak out publicly.

Q: How did Mao define modern revisionism?

Modern revisionism was the abandonment of the core Marxist-Leninist principles. Mao thought it was because of a resurgence of bourgeois ideology in the socialist society.

Q: What did Mao’s shift to the Left entail?

After Mao’s relations with Khrushchev spiraled downward, he believed China would move at a much faster pace if it stopped emulating the Soviet model. He also thought the bourgeois sort of intelligence wasn’t needed.

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