Volume 6, No. 2, February 2024
Editor: Rashed Rahman
The expectation amongst Marxists that there could be no wars between socialist states received a rude awakening in the aftermath of the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s as a result of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) accusing the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) of revisionism, starting from Khrushchev and escalating later to charges of ‘social imperialism’ against the Soviet Union (SU). Incrementally, not only did Moscow and Beijing expect and even demand of the communist parties and national liberation movements globally that they support them and not the rival (aspiring in the case of China) centre of world revolution, the conflict split parties and movements virtually throughout the world. This applied to western parties as well as Left parties and national liberation movements in the Third World. These splits and splintering proved negative and in some instances, such as the liberation movement in Angola, led to civil wars between the contending factions, often, in the case of Africa at least, reflecting fissures along tribal and ethnic lines. But most tragically of all, the Sino-Soviet split’s aftermath saw the hitherto unthinkable: wars between socialist countries.
The SU and China fought a series of border wars in 1969 at the height of their mutual recriminations and tensions, exacerbated by the shrill ultra-Leftism that the Cultural Revolution in China deteriorated into. These borders on the Ussuri River near Manchuria in northwestern China and Xinjiang in the west were historically contested, some territory having changed hands during China’s imperial dynastic rule and the Tsarist Empire in Russia. These border wars lasted seven months, with the most serious clash occurring in March 1969 near Zhenbao (Damansky) Island on the Ussuri (Wusuli) River, which brought the protagonists to the brink of all-out war. Both countries were by then nuclear-armed, but the SU was obviously superior in such weaponry, while China posed the threat of a protracted war based on its huge military manpower. Both sides blamed the other for starting hostilities, although most scholarship by now places the major blame on Chinese unrelenting provocations and nibbling attacks. In 1968, China began preparations for a small, localised border war. The Chinese troops indulged in a series of brawls with Soviet forces on the border amidst the Cultural Revolution, which fed into increased tensions. Prior to March 1969, Chinese troops twice attempted a clash along the border but the Soviets retreated. On March 2, 1969, Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops ambushed Soviet border guards on Zhenbao Island. A full exchange of firing, tank and armoured personnel carrier (APC) and artillery exchanges followed, with the Chinese claiming a clear victory. But on March 15, 1969, heavy Soviet shelling and rockets forced the Chinese to vacate Zhenbao Island. The Soviets withdrew to positions on their bank of the Ussuri River.
Eventually better sense prevailed and a ceasefire was followed by a return to the status quo ante. The border disputes included not only the Rivers Amur and Ussuri river boundary that according to an 1861 treaty ran along the Chinese bank and not the middle of the rivers (on the normal thelwig principle), but also 52,000 square kilometres (20,000 square miles) of Soviet-controlled land on the border with Xinjiang, the border with Tajikistan, and the Bear Island and eastern border Heilongjiang disputes. China argued these were all the result of unequal treaties that had been imposed on it during the period of its weakness under the last imperial Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty, also known as the Manchu or Pinyin Manzu dynasty. Normally (with significant exceptions such as the Sino-Indian border dispute that led to the 1962 war and continues unresolved to date), states are expected to resolve such historically received boundary disputes through negotiations. Socialist states would have been expected to go even further to avoid hostilities and rely on talks for a resolution. However, in the climate obtaining in relations between the SU and China in 1969, exacerbated by the Chinese Cultural Revolution’s unrelenting political attacks on Soviet revisionism and alleged social-imperialism, military conflict could not be prevented. A significant factor in the escalation was Mao Tse Tung’s profound belief in the victory of people’s war even against superior nuclear weapons (the latter dubbed ‘a paper tiger’ by the Chinese). It was not till 1991 that the border disputes were resolved through a treaty that rested on compromise, exchange of territory, and a burial of the conflict.
In the background to this conflict lay the history of Soviet military interventions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, the first under Khrushchev, the second under Brezhnev, to overthrow regimes considered straying too far down the road of liberalisation, a development seen in Moscow as threatening a pro-western counter-revolution. In both cases, the Imre Nagy government in Hungary and the ‘Prague Spring’ in Czechoslovakia were considered to be defying Moscow’s overlordship of the Eastern European socialist community. After the Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in 1968, Moscow declared the Brezhnev Doctrine, whose core spirit was that Eastern European socialist bloc countries had to toe Moscow’s line or face military intervention by the Warsaw Pact forces. Mao believed the Brezhnev Doctrine also constituted a threat to China because of its central argument that the SU constituted the undisputed and not-to-be-challenged centre of the world revolution.
However, Moscow’s claim of control over the Eastern European socialist bloc was not without contestation and challenge. Soon after WWII, after Eastern Europe was liberated from the Nazis’ grasp by the Soviet Red Army, which led to the setting up of socialist regimes in Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia, which had liberated itself largely through its own guerrilla war against the Nazi occupiers under Tito, refused to bow to Moscow’s will even when Stalin was still alive and in power. For its defiance, Yugoslavia was cast out of the Moscow-led Eastern European socialist bloc but remained unrepentant. What happened in Yugoslavia after Tito’s death we will deal with later, but ironically, the first indirect attacks on the SU by the CCP were directed at Tito’s Yugoslavia, castigating it for its turn to ‘market socialism’ and questioning whether it was in fact still a socialist country. These veiled attacks were understood by Marxists as being actually aimed at the SU.
Not much controversy amongst the socialist countries is on record regarding the overthrow of the Imre Nagy regime in Hungary in 1956 with Soviet military might. However, the Czechoslovakia invasion and overthrow of reformer Alexander Dubcek’s government provoked Romania’s leader Nicolae Ceausescu to deliver a speech on August 21, 1968 (the second day of the intervention) denouncing the Soviet invasion. After this falling out, Ceausescu incrementally moved away from Moscow and closer to Beijing. The Sino-Soviet split therefore also served to start the process of the crumbling of the Soviet-Eastern European socialist monolith under Moscow’s hegemony.
Following the Ussuri River clashes, Brezhnev called a Warsaw Pact emergency meeting in Budapest, Hungary to condemn China. Romania’s Ceausescu refused despite Soviet pressure to sign a condemnatory statement against China. This led to no statement being issued, widely seen as a Soviet diplomatic defeat. On March 18, 1969, a meeting of 66 communist parties (CPs) was convened in Moscow to discuss preparations for a world summit in Moscow, scheduled for June 5, 1969. The Soviet-moved motion to condemn China failed as the CPs of Romania, India, Spain, Switzerland and Austria supported the Chinese position that it was the SU that initiated the attack, not vice versa. These hitherto unthinkable setbacks reflected the fraying of Moscow’s past unassailable authority in the world’s communist movement. The Soviets similarly could not persuade the pro-Beijing North Korean leader Kim Il-sung to support its campaign against China. They even approached India’s Indira Gandhi with a proposal to forge a Soviet-Indian alliance against China, no doubt keeping in mind India’s humiliation at Chinese hands in the 1962 border war.
The Sino-Soviet split and subsequent hostilities persuaded US imperialism to throw feelers for a normalisation of relations with China. Nixon’s administration approached China through Pakistan (the Yahya regime in 1971) and Romania. US imperialism’s effort to take advantage of the Sino-Soviet schism produced a profound transformation in international politics. Beijing having elevated the SU as the main enemy of revolution, over and above even the US-led west, this rapprochement with Beijing, in the context of some other fundamental changes, produced some unexpected outcomes.
China’s militant campaign against the SU in an anti-revisionism, anti-social-imperialist vein before, during and after the Cultural Revolution ended up with the SU’s collapse in 1991, preceded by China’s embrace of Deng Xiao Peng’s capitalist road in 1978. In the process, the world revolution, for all intents and purposes, stood abandoned.
In the continuation of this series, we will examine the wars between socialist states in Indo-China after Vietnam’s liberation in 1975 and the horrible, bloody breakup of Yugoslavia, rooted in nationalism triumphing over socialist internationalist solidarity.
(To be continued)