Understanding the Sino-Soviet Split: The Great Leap Forward

Author: Dominique Jones

Sub-editor: Tahlia Antrobus

Editor: Julia Richards

Russia-China relations have undergone many ebbs and flows. One of the most contentious periods of Sino-Soviet relations began at the introduction of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) Great Leap Forward in 1958. The Soviets’ disapproval of the Great Leap Forward initiated discontent with the Chinese Communist Party which precipitated the Sino-Soviet split. This article will examine the reasons which underpinned the Soviet Union’s dismissal of the Great Leap Forward. The Great Leap Forward thrust the Sino-Soviet relationship into an antagonistic standstill where jabs were delivered by both leaders in a bid to undermine the other. 

It must first be acknowledged that the Soviet Union’s disapproval of the Great Leap Forward was not immediate. The Soviets expressed praise for the contributions the Great Leap made to socialist theory and practice. During a visit to China in the Summer of 1958, Khrushchev commented that the Soviet Union had ‘no doubts’ about China’s ‘ability to fulfil these plans.’ Thus, at the outset, the Soviets eagerly validated the Great Leap Forward and the ‘enthusiasm and vigour’ of the Chinese people in pursuing the advancement of socialism. Such approval was maintained by the Soviets until as late as June 1958. Whilst the sincerity of Khrushchev’s remarks has been questioned, with some claiming his compliments were given blindly, it remains that the Soviets did not publicly disapprove of the Great Leap immediately. It was only until late 1958, when concerns regarding the people’s communes grew, that the Soviet Union’s accolades dissipated.  

However, the end of Soviet public praise did not necessarily result in the outright criticism that would later transpire. In late 1958 the Soviet Union recognised the need to maintain the socialist bloc’s image of unity, leading to the decision to conceal its concerns regarding the Great Leap. A politburo study group attests to this, outlining that the USSR’s publication of its concerns regarding the leftism of the communes would ‘widen the divergence between the two parties.’ A disunified socialist camp would be vulnerable to the polemics of Western powers. Therefore, even as doubts grew among the Soviet Union’s leadership about the feasibility of the Great Leap Forward, these remained private. The USSR only then publicly and explicitly voiced its disapproval of the USSR after the PRC began to acknowledge problems itself in the last few months of 1958. 

The Soviet Union, under Khrushchev, was disgruntled by the Great Leap Forward’s rejection of orthodox Marxism. Mao’s goal of bypassing socialism to enter communism through a concentrated period of accelerated production violated what the Soviets considered the immutable laws of Marxism. These immutable laws were reiterated in Khrushchev’s 1957 Moscow Declaration which pronounced socialist construction must be ‘gradual’ and that ‘national development should be planned.’ The rash advancement of surpassing the greatest economic powers Mao sought to achieve through the Great Leap was diametrically opposed to Khrushchev’s ‘basic laws.’ Khrushchev despised Mao’s belief that historical materialism was negotiable and should be ‘rewritten,’ noting that under Mao ‘the Chinese interpret Marxism-Leninism any way they please.’ The ambitions of the Great Leap sought to reconstitute Marxist theory on socialist construction, much to the dismay of the Soviet Union. Thus, the Soviet Union categorically rejected the Great Leap Forward as being unfounded in the pure Marxist tradition. 

The Great Leap Forward’s resurgence of a Stalinist model of economic development also unsettled the Soviet Union. The collectivisation of domestic items and consumption was received negatively by the Soviets. They saw the act as an abominable and unnecessary repeat of the mistakes of Stalin’s commune experiment. Mao’s unforgiving Stalinist posture was growingly irreconcilable with Khrushchev’s policy agenda of de-Stalinisation and peaceful co-existence. The Great Leap Forward exemplified Mao’s discontent with what he believed was Khrushchev’s bourgeois back-sliding thathad led the USSR to become complacent. Such complacency, for Mao, was vested in the USSR’s relatively unambitious industrial targets which Khrushchev estimated would see the Soviet Union reach communism by 1980 at the latest. Thus, Mao’s scheme to hasten the path to communism was antithetical to the USSR’s adherence to gradual growth. Whilst Khrushchev attempted to remove the Stalinist legacy from the socialist movement, Mao sought to reinvigorate Stalinism through the labour-intensive methods of the Great Leap. The Great Leap Forward’s attempt to ‘out-Stalin Stalin’s economic policies’ was in direct contradiction to the new conciliatory path Khrushchev sought to pursue.  

Moreover, the Great Leap Forward represented Mao’s challenge to the USSR’s hegemonic leadership of the socialist bloc. The Soviet Union enjoyed sole leadership of the socialist camp as the first socialist state. However, the Great Leap Forward bolstered the PRC into leadership contention through its potential of realising communism in China. The Great Leap Forward provided an alternate model of achieving communism from the traditional Soviet model. In doing so, Mao broke China’s trend of merely imitating the Soviet Union with the intent of eclipsing it as the first truly communist state. In private Mao proclaimed that the USSR’s assertions of entering communism were only ‘noise on the staircase’ as ‘you don’t see anyone coming down.’ It was through the Great Leap that Mao believed China would be the first to come down the staircase and successfully arrive at the Marxist utopia. The Great Leap represented a shift in Sino-Soviet relations that indicated China was no longer content with being the Soviet Union’s apprentice. 

By revisiting communes as a method of collectivisation, the potential success of the Great Leap Forward would have meant that Mao had resolved the issues that paralysed the Soviets decades earlier. Khrushchev acknowledged Mao’s resurgence of the commune project as evidence of his intent to ‘outdistance the Party of Lenin.’ The Leap’s success would serve to highlight Mao’s theoretical mastery which would inevitably have pigeon-holed Khrushchev as a mere practitioner rather than a revolutionary leader. The Great Leap Forward dared to discredit the Soviet Union as the undisputed figurehead of the socialist bloc. To the alarm of the Soviets, this threat no longer remained abstract. Bulgaria and Albania both began to show a strong interest in the ideology of the Great Leap Forward and had conceptualised plans to implement similar systems. 

Finally, the Great Leap Forward also threatened to uproot the Soviet Union’s authority in the developing world. The Great Leap Forward was purported by Mao to be uniquely applicable to colonial and semi-colonial nations, highlighting their different socialist needs and capacities. In doing so, Mao sought to differentiate the Great Leap model from the Soviet model by positioning the Soviet model as disconnected and unsuitable for developing nations. The Great Leap’s ambition to reach communism in a ‘quicker and more effective way’ provided a blueprint for developing countries to follow that the USSR did not. As Clubb highlights, the GLF provided a ‘universal pattern for resolution’ to the agrarian nations of ‘Asia, Africa, and Latin America.’ Thus, the developing world was a route through which Mao could challenge the USSR’s leadership of the socialist bloc. 

An analysis of the USSR’s reception of the Great Leap Forward indicates that the Soviets overwhelmingly disapproved of Mao’s scheme, spurring the beginning of the Sino-Soviet split. For the Soviets, the Great Leap Forward botched Marxist lore, reinvigorated Stalinism and sought to oust the Soviet Union from its traditional seat as the figurehead of the international socialist camp. However, it is important to recognise that such disapproval was not immediately held and voiced in fact, since seemingly genuine support was given by Khrushchev. Ultimately, the Great Leap Forward was the PRC’s first defiance of the Soviet Union which would later culminate in the Sino-Soviet split. 

Image Credits:

Unknown photographer. Nikita Khrushchev talking to Mao Tse-Tung during his 1958 visit to Peking. 1958. Accessed at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mao_Ts%C3%A9-toung,_portrait_en_buste,_assis,_faisant_face_%C3%A0_Nikita_Khrouchtchev,_pendant_la_visite_du_chef_russe_1958_%C3%A0_P%C3%A9kin.jpg .

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