‘The party’s strength comes from organization.’

—Xi Jinpingfootnote1

That the people’s Republic of China is led by the Chinese Communist Party is a truth universally acknowledged. Yet the modalities of this leadership—the organizational underpinnings of the party-state complex and their political significance—are rarely discussed, outside highly specialized circles. Party and state are typically assumed to overlap, or to have merged, or to be, at bottom, one and the same thing. As a result, the dynamic coordinates of the Chinese polity may be misunderstood.footnote2 There is nothing simple or obvious in the relations binding party and state in the prc, any more than in other communist-led regimes, starting with the Soviet Union itself. How does a political party go about steering a state in the desired direction, keeping a firm grip on an administrative apparatus much larger than itself, without dissolving into the bureaucratic morass that it seeks to helm? Many defunct communist systems, the ussr’s included, were said to be ruled by the bureaucracy in essence, and by the party in name only. This makes it all the more vital to grasp the character of relations between party and state in today’s People’s Republic—the awesome survivor of twentieth-century socialism’s ruination.

This essay investigates the party-state tandem in the prc through the prism of the post-Stalin ussr. The Khrushchev and Brezhnev years, in so far as they correspond to a period of institutional stabilization, offer a sounder basis for party-state comparisons than the dramatic decades of Stalin’s dictatorship or the turbulent 1980s of Andropov, Chernenko and Gorbachev. The point is not to suggest an essential identity between the Chinese and Soviet polities, still less a common historical destination. The aim is rather to cast light on the Soviet origination of many features of present-day China, and on the important ways in which China has departed from the Soviet template—and continues to do so today, in the context of ongoing organizational change under Xi Jinping. To that end, what follows will first discuss the communist party structures and state forms that emerged from the turmoil of the Bolshevik and Chinese revolutions. The mechanisms through which the party leaderships have attempted to direct the state will then be examined, before going on to consider how these have been re-codified historically, in response to periods of crisis. If the perspective adopted here is chiefly formal and organizational, this is not to say that other factors—social and economic pressures, ideology, coercion—do not matter; they do. This study’s premise is rather that any assessment of the prc, whichever way it leans, requires a realistic understanding of its organizational substratum.

The model of party-state relations that emerged during the first decade of Soviet Russia’s existence was not anticipated, let alone intended, by the Bolsheviks. In State and Revolution, penned just weeks before the storming of the Winter Palace, Lenin had looked for inspiration to the Paris Commune, seen through the lens of Marx’s Civil War in France. Post-October, however, it gradually became clear that this particular prefiguration—a ‘simple organization of the armed people’ dutifully keeping watch over ‘technicians, foremen and accountants, as well as all officials’footnote3—would never come to pass.

Historians of early Soviet Russia have provided detailed accounts of the dramatic upheavals between 1917 and the mid-1920s through which the inner workings of the Bolshevik Party were radically transformed and its relation to the former Tsarist government apparatus redefined.footnote4 The Civil War and Western invasions of 1918–20, which threatened revolutionary Russia’s very existence, were major catalysts for the Bolsheviks’ organizational reinvention. The existence of the Politburo was only formalized at the Eighth Party Congress in 1919, for instance. It was in these decisive years that the party’s fledgling Secretariat—led in succession by Sverdlov, Stasova, Krestinsky, Molotov and eventually Stalin, in 1922—began to grow, forming specialist departments to oversee data collection, cadre assignments, coordination with local party committees, agitation and propaganda, etc.

By the beginning of the nep in 1921–22, the Secretariat was taking over cadre appointments in party and state, while government officials were increasingly in the habit of seeking the Politburo’s word on matters of administration. Heading the Sovnarkom—the Council of People’s Commissars, the earliest form of Soviet central government—Lenin observed these developments and did not appear to approve of them. At the Eleventh Congress in March 1922, he openly complained that ‘everything that comes up on the Sovnarkom is dragged before the Politburo’—adding however: ‘I, too, am greatly to blame for this.’footnote5 His failing health, followed by his death in early 1924, only diminished the Sovnarkom’s standing further. By the mid-1920s, little doubt was left about the dominance of party bodies—Politburo and Secretariat foremost—within the political system. ‘Gradually and insensibly, the party had been transformed into a machine geared to conduct and supervise the affairs of a great state.’footnote6

In 1926, Stalin argued in Concerning Questions of Leninism that this emergent configuration constituted ‘the system of dictatorship of the proletariat’. The party’s function here was ‘to combine the work of all the mass organizations of the proletariat without exception and to direct their activities towards a single goal, the goal of the emancipation of the proletariat.’ This did not mean that the party should ‘be identified with the Soviets, with the state power’: