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17 November 2021

From the NS archive: Fidel, Mao and Nikita

22 March 1963: The Soviet Union and China battle for control of world communism.

By KS Karol

In 1963, the Cold War was not the only global conflict bubbling away; the two leading communist powers – the Soviet Union and China – were in a proxy war for leadership of the communist world. The Soviet Union’s previously unchallenged authority was being whittled away by Mao’s China, and the battle for ascendancy was playing out in Cuba and Latin America. Mao’s propaganda set out to show that Nikita Khrushchev, especially in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis the previous year, was not a reliable friend to the continent’s revolutionary movements. They would do better, China suggested, to take their lead from Mao. However, as KS Karol notes bluntly, “The real irony of the Sino-Soviet dispute, of course, is that it is taking place over the possession of something which is already a corpse – the concept of a unified world communist movement.”

For the past fortnight, the Peking papers have been publishing violent attacks on Nikita Krushchev almost daily. The nominal subjects of these articles vary. One is devoted to Thorez, another to Togliatti, a third to the US communists. But in each, one finds the same Public Enemy No 1, the same traitor to the communist cause – the Soviet premier. In Moscow, foreign correspondents predicted a Soviet counter-attack. But suddenly, instead of an aggressive response, Moscow has replied with a series of good-will gestures. Krushchev has accepted, in principle at least, the idea of a “summit” with China. The flirtation with Tito has been broken off. He has promised to restore relations with Albania – has, in fact, admitted his inability to expel even this tiny member from the communist fraternity.

The Russians in fact appear to be capitulating, or at least to be completely on the defensive. Krushchev’s own embarrassment is understandable. In the quarrel with Peking he stands to gain nothing, and he loses something with every day that passes. A few years ago a speech by the Secretary General of the Soviet Communist party carried the authority of the Evangelist. Now everything he says is critically analysed in China and elsewhere to see whether it betrays Marxist-Leninist doctrines. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that the Russians, who no longer expect to regain their old authority, should at least seek a cease-fire with Peking and draw up rules which will prevent an exchange of insults fatal to Moscow’s prestige. They know that their stock response to the Chinese (“You are trying to push Russia into a nuclear trial of strength with the US because you underestimate the effects of thermonuclear war”) furnishes powerful arguments to anti-communists throughout the world. For if the Chinese are irresponsible warmongers, heedless of the fate of mankind, how can the Russians, who share the same basic doctrines, be the custodians of world peace?

This is not the only trump card in the Chinese hand. Mao Tse-tung denies indignantly that he is pushing Russia to war. He simply argues that the property-owning classes in the non-communist countries cannot be made to vanish by the wave of a magic wand. Today, as in the past, revolutions and civil war will be required to destroy them. This fundamental premise of Marxism-Leninism has been in no way changed by the invention of the H-bomb. The Chinese, in their Spanish-language broadcasts, deploy this argument powerfully and incessantly throughout Latin America – with the rider that revolutionary forces in these countries can no longer rely on Krushchev in their struggle, for Russia is now preoccupied with her “great power” concerns.

The violence of this campaign suggests that Mao no longer believes in a reconciliation with Moscow. It looks as though he is already thinking of creating a new International with headquarters in Peking. And there is no doubt that his campaign is already producing dividends. Throughout Latin America, for instance, the Chinese are steadily undermining the authority of the pro-Soviet elements who, until now, have dominated the Latino communist parties.

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The Chinese success is due to two reasons, the first purely psychological. The extreme left in Latin America is virtually in a state of war with the United States. Its leaders believe neither in a peaceful transfer of power nor in the possibility of a successful revolution without an actual showdown with the US. They are therefore highly susceptible to Chinese propaganda claims that Russia is willing to carve up the world into spheres of influence – with Latin America assigned to the US.

Cuba, the second reason, is a concrete case. As long ago as last November, when the Russians admitted the presence on the island of long-range offensive missiles, the Fidelistas were already divided. Some argued: “We are ready to fight for the Cuban revolution, but not for the existence of Soviet bases in the Caribbean.” Others replied: “The Soviet missiles were sent at Castro’s request, purely to protect Cuba from American invasion.” The shocks of the crisis, the astonishing way in which Krushchev, without even consulting Castro, accepted the principle of international inspection in Cuba, only added to the disarray of the Fidelistas. They were no longer able to provide, even to themselves, a convincing explanation of Krushchev’s behaviour.

Only one man can tell them which explanation is correct: Castro himself. He alone can say if Krushchev was telling the truth when he told the Supreme Soviet: “We sent our missiles to protect Castro and we withdrew them after we bad got adequate guarantees from Kennedy that Cuba would not be invaded.” Equally, Castro alone can confirm Mao’s view, expressed in the Peking press, that Krushchev is an adventurer who installed Soviet bases in the Caribbean without any regard to Cuba’s safety and who then, thrown into a panic by US threats, withdrew them without regard to the interests of the Cuban revolution. For only Castro knows whether he asked for the missiles in the first place, or whether they were imposed on him by Krushchev in order simply to strengthen Russia’s strategic posture.

So far Castro has refused to give his version of the crisis, at any rate in public. But in private, according to reports reaching me from Havana, he makes no bones about it: Mao is right. The offensive bases were put there at Krushchev’s insistence. Castro still hesitates to reveal this publicly because he does not want to side too openly with the Chinese against an opponent who is much richer and who, when all is said and done, is still Cuba’s chief protector against America.

Latin Americans, in the meantime, have not failed to notice that Revolución, Castro’s paper, regularly publishes anti-Krushchev diatribes from Peking. Those who know Castro believe he may at any moment throw a dialectical H-bomb into the Sino-Soviet argument by publishing the inside story of the missiles deal. Such revelations would not of themselves swing the dispute decisively in China’s favour. But they might well be a death-blow to the pro-Soviet Old Guard in the Latino communist parties. As so often in the past, these men have given unconditional support to the Krushchev line. The senior Cuban communists, such as Blas Rocca, even tried to persuade Castro to accept international inspection. Needless to say, this merely produced a catastrophic decline in their influence with Castro, who now refers to them contemptuously as “satellites”.

This repudiation of the old leaders is taking place elsewhere. In Brazil, Luís Carlos Prestes has virtually lost all his authority. His ex-followers now look to Francisco Julião, the leader of the Peasant Leagues who, though not a communist, is a genuine revolutionary. There are many other examples. The Chinese offensive, in fact, has served to bring a process to a head. But if the Latino revolutionaries are turning away from Moscow, this does not necessarily mean they are turning towards Peking. Fidel Castro may have lost his illusions about Moscow, but he has not become a Maoist either. He does not accept Peking’s crude analysis about the “decline of imperialism”, he finds it difficult to follow the Stalinist scholasticism of Mao’s language, and in any case he will not accept the ideological and intellectual dogmatism which lies behind it. When he claims that “Cuba is the only free country in the world”, he is making fun of the Chinese as well as Russians and Americans.

The real irony of the Sino-Soviet dispute, of course, is that it is taking place over the possession of something which is already a corpse – the concept of a unified world communist movement. The idea that there can be real solidarity and unity between different communist countries has failed to survive five years of de-Stalinisation and Sino-Soviet wrangling. Every day the crumbling edifice sinks farther into the sand. Hence even before Krushchev meets Mao – if this ever takes place – it can be said with some certainty that there will be no victor and no vanquished.

If Mao eventually brings a Fifth International into the world, the child will be still-born. But the decline in the power of the communist giants may lead to the appearance of independent revolutionary movements throughout the world. Fidel Castro is already setting the example in Latin America. He may eventually be followed throughout the rest of the under-developed world.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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