By the way, which one’s the Great One?

Reviewing five recent books on the Russian Revolution of 1917 for the LRB, Sheila Fitzpatrick quotes S. A. [Stephen Anthony] Smith, professor of history at All Souls College, Oxford:

The Soviet Union proved capable of generating extensive growth in industrial production and of building up a defence sector, but much less capable of competing with capitalism once the latter shifted towards more intensive forms of production and towards ‘consumer capitalism’. In this respect the record of the Chinese Communists in promoting their country to the rank of a leading economic and political world power was far more impressive than that of the regime on which it broadly modelled itself. Indeed, as the 21st century advances, it may come to seem that the Chinese Revolution was the great revolution of the 20th century.

By the absolute number of its victims, it was the great revolution of the century. Other than that, it wasn’t even capable of “generating extensive growth in industrial production.” China only started developing in earnest when the revolutionary strictures were relaxed or reversed.

A separate question is whether the military-driven Soviet growth of the 1930s and the 1950s, against a backdrop of hecatombic repression, is a sure sign of greatness. It’s not that Russia had never experienced economic growth prior to 1917. For example, Russian industrial production grew by 8% per annum in the 1890s – so it must have doubled during the decade – without mass famines, deportations and executions. Historians appreciate finance minister Sergei Witte’s contribution to that growth but manage without extatic paeans to his grandeur.

Fitzpatrick comments on S. A. Smith’s warning:

Now that’s a conclusion that Putin’s Russia – still uncertain what it thinks of the revolution, and therefore how to celebrate it – needs to ponder: the ‘Russian Revolution’ brand is in danger.

Putin’s team are not the greatest brand managers out there, and this particular label makes them uncomfortable whenever they have to bring it up. They would gladly retire it if they only could.


  1. “China only started developing in earnest when the revolutionary strictures were relaxed or reversed.”

    Yes, the Mao era was an utter and pointless disaster. Had Chiang Kai-Shek’s KMT won the civil war then China would have been a corrupt and authoritarian right-wing regime for a few decades but the death toll from repression would probably not have exceeded a few hundred thousand maximum rather than the tens of millions Mao, his ideology and his ego killed. It would have become prosperous much, much earlier and maybe even developed into a democracy. You can see this from parallels with other “Asian Tigers”: Taiwan (of course), Singapore and South Korea. Had Chiang won there would probably have been no North Korea either. As it is, the world is still stuck with Mao and Stalin’s toxic creation in North-East Asia.

    • Stalinists sometimes claim that without the industrialization of the 1930s, the Soviet Union wouldn’t have been able to resist Hitler. I don’t think there’s much merit to this claim but one cannot even replicate it in China’s case.

      • I don’t buy the Stalinist excuse either.

        Mao was pretty much Stalin II with added stupidity. I think Mao apologists claim he freed China from “imperialism” * and gave his people a renewed sense of national pride, presumably by showing that a native-born leader was far better at slaughtering Chinese than the Japanese had ever been. This was a defence later reused by Mao’s even more imbecilic disciple Pol Pot in Cambodia.

        *While invading Tibet and East Turkestan.

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