Stalin's book, 'sacred' to Mao, provided short cut to uniformity

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Huy-yu Li with Li Rui, Mao's former secretary in the late 1950's.

When Hua-yu Li interviewed elderly former officials of China's ruling Communist Party in Beijing recently, she was surprised by their candor given that the apartments were known to be bugged with government listening devices. This wasn't a problem, said her sources, as long as "they weren't plotting revolution." Rather than plotting, they were giving Li an insider's view of a long-ago revolution, the ideological transformation of China based on Stalinism beginning in 1938.

That's when Stalin's book Short Course of the History of the All-Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) was published. Between 1938 and 1953, over 42 million copies of the book were issued, in 301 printings and 67 languages. Most often referred to simply as the Short Course, the book was viewed as the encyclopedia of Marxism until de-Stalinization occurred in the Soviet Union in 1956, when its importance diminished everywhere apart from China. There, said Li, it remained central to elite economic decision-making into the 1970s.

A Research Fellow and assistant professor of political science at OSU, Li is working on her second book Stalinism and the Ideological Transformation of China, 1938-76. Her first book, Mao, Stalin, and the Economic Stalinization of China: 1948-53, is forthcoming from the Harvard Cold War Studies Book Series, Rowman, Littlefield. Chinese people, from the uneducated to the ruling elite, were required to study Stalin's book and then pass a tough written examination.

"In the new book I examine how Stalin's Short Course shaped Maoism, a national ideology for China, and how it was used as part of the political and ideological Stalinization of China's party elites and rank and file," said Li. She has interviewed dozens of party elites under Mao, including former ministers, and those with senior positions in the fields of art and culture, agriculture, economics, education, and propaganda. A major focus of the interviews concerned the officials' recollections and reflections on how they were influenced personally by the Short Course.

The Short Course was written under the supervision of Stalin and then heavily edited by him. Although Stalin's actual contribution was limited to only one section of Chapter 4, where he wrote about dialectical and historical materialism, following World War II he claimed sole authorship of the work. "In contrast to influential books in the West, which usually enjoy a wide appeal due to the originality and power of their ideas, Stalin imposed the Short Course on the communist world and used it as an instrument in its Stalinization."

The book covered the early history of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union and the historical stages of the revolution and socialist transformation of the Soviet Union during the period from 1883 to 1937.

"The history was written in a way to suggest that every significant development was the result of political struggles between the correct line, represented by Lenin and Stalin, and incorrect positions, adopted by various anti-party groups. Historical facts were twisted and ideas were distorted to show the correctness of the party's policies, even during the darkest days of Stalin's policies. For many years, the Short Course was believed to contain authoritative answers to questions concerning ideology, party politics, economic policies, and socialist transformation."

Even after the de-Stalinization campaign in the Soviet Union, Mao continued to revere the Short Course as a sacred text and remained uncritical in his embrace of it, said Li. "Mao, who read very few orthodox Marxist texts, was the least informed among the Chinese Communist Party leaders concerning Marxist theories. Stalin's ideas provided Mao with handy short cuts for learning communist ideology and utilizing some of its concepts in carrying out revolution, managing intra-party politics, and in building socialism."

Li speculates that the simple language in the book made it easy for many to understand. "Perhaps more fundamentally, it provided a basis for building the uniformity of thinking needed to maintain the legitimacy of communist rule. This view is supported by the fact that the Short Course gained renewed prominence during the rule of Brezhnev, a time characterized by conservatism and political stagnation."