It would be impossible to read the correspondence from an Intendent of the Ancien Régime to both his superiors and his subordinates without being struck by how the similarity of institutions made the administrators of that era like those of our own day. They seem to reach out to each other across the chasm of the Revolution which separates them . . . Let us cease to be surprised at the marvelous ease with which centralization was re-established in France at the beginning of this century. The men of ’89 had overturned the building but its foundations had stayed in the very hearts of its destroyers and, upon these foundations, were they able to rebuild it, constructing it more stoutly than it had ever been before.

Alexis de Tocqueville, The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution

The collapse of the Soviet Union had a profound impact on China’s thinking about political ideology, institutions and development.footnote1 The disastrous consequences for social welfare in Russia arising from the cpsu’s demise reinforced Beijing’s determination to resist external and internal pressure to move towards parliamentary democracy. Why did the Communist Party of the Soviet Union disintegrate while the Communist Party of China (cpc) was able to survive and strengthen its position? The dramatic divergence in the trajectories of the two Communist superpowers has been of incalculable significance for the global political economy of the twenty-first century, with effects potentially enduring far into the future.

The two regimes had a common point of departure in the political-economic system established in Russia in 1917–21. Its essential features—a monopoly of political control in the hands of the Party, state ownership of the means of production, state control over finance and trade—were devised during the extreme violence and struggle for survival of the fledgling Bolshevik regime during Russia’s civil war. When it was founded in 1921, the Communist Party of China adopted fundamentally the same political structure and the same approach to economic organization. As Xi Jinping put it in 2017: ‘The salvoes of the October Revolution brought Marxism-Leninism to China. In the scientific truth of Marxism-Leninism, Chinese progressives saw a solution to China’s problems.’footnote2

In both the ussr and China, civil war and the struggle for national survival against an invading power—respectively, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan—reinforced the centralist, disciplinarian aspects of the Communist Party. In both countries, the period of the ‘New Economic Policy’—in the early 1920s, under Lenin, and the early 1950s, under Mao—temporarily modified the approach to economic strategy, but the philosophy of the ‘whole economy as a single factory’, including the organization of the rural population in collective farms, was quickly re-established as the key to economic organization on both sides of the Amur River. This ‘Stalinist’ economic system, alongside monolithic political control by the Party apparatus, persisted in China up to the death of Mao in 1976 and in Russia until the ascent of Gorbachev as General Secretary of the cpsu in 1985.