The Historian Who Came in from the Cold

New Book: While much has been written about the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Jeremy S. Friedman’s Shadow Cold War: The Sino-Soviet Competition for the Third World is the first book to explore in detail the significance of the “Second Cold War” that China and the Soviet Union fought in the shadow of the communist and capitalist struggle.
  • Author Interview

Researching the "Second Cold War" Competition Between China and the Soviet Union

Interview by Dina Gerdeman

As an American researcher, Jeremy S. Friedman knew he had to be careful about how he requested to see Cold War–era archive documents while visiting Moscow.

“You have to ask the right questions and pitch it the right way to be able to see the material,” says Friedman, an assistant professor in the Business, Government and the International Economy unit at Harvard Business School. “The Russians don’t want to feed an American narrative that the Soviets were behind the dark forces in the world. There was also a certain amount of pride in what they accomplished.”

“They both thought they had the same cause, but they both viewed the problem differently”

As Friedman studied reams of diplomatic correspondence and other documents in 10 countries, a picture began to emerge of the intense conflict between China and the Soviet Union—one that played out globally as the agendas of the two governments clashed and as their leaders competed in attempting to find a workable model of political and economic nation-building for the newly independent states in the Third World.

Friedman writes about the struggle in his newly published book, Shadow Cold War: The Sino-Soviet Competition for the Third World. While much has been written about the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, this is the first book to explore in detail the significance of the “second Cold War” that China and the Soviet Union fought in the shadow of the communist and capitalist struggle.

Dozens of newly independent states emerged from decolonization terribly poor and politically scattered. In the book, Friedman explores how China sought to mobilize Asia, Africa, and Latin America to win the mantle of revolutionary leadership—and how the Soviet Union adapted its strategy to win it back.

Initially, the Chinese approach gained sympathy in the developing world. To defeat the Chinese, Soviet leaders ended up adopting the Chinese revolutionary agenda to a large degree, shifting from peaceful coexistence to militant anti-imperialism; focusing less on class struggle than on national, racial, and ethnic issues; and changing from an emphasis on socializing the means of production to a model based more on changing the international terms of trade.

Eyes not on the prize

But were the Soviets better off as a result? This Cold War story provides an important lesson for business leaders, Friedman says: Sometimes you can focus so much on beating out competitors that you end up doing yourself more harm than good.

“The Soviets went all out to defeat the competition and by doing so, lost sight of their own interests and ended up in a worse position in the end,” he says. “They adopted a Chinese agenda. By the 1980s, China is free of the Third World, and the Chinese economy is growing. But the Soviets are fighting wars in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Angola, and elsewhere, and supporting the Vietnamese, Cuban, Mozambican, and other economies, and now the whole Third World is on their backs.”

Friedman’s research timing couldn’t have been better, as it turned out. When he visited China in the late 2000s, it was around the time the Chinese Foreign Ministry was declassifying records, so he was able to view numerous documents about the nation’s foreign policy through 1965. Since then, China has massively curtailed access, decreasing the number of open documents from about 80,000 to 8,000.

In Moscow, many of the former Communist Party archives remain off-limits, but the archives for the Soviet Foreign Ministry were more open, at the discretion of the ministry. Careful with his approach, Friedman succeeded in gaining access and discovered interesting correspondence, not only on China but also on the Third World countries that China and the Soviet Union battled over.

He found, for example, 300-page files for every year in the 1970s about China’s relationship with Burma (now called Myanmar), Tanzania, and other countries, illustrating just how much the Soviets were keeping tabs on the Chinese.

“I was very lucky,” Friedman says. “I came along at a bit of a fortunate time. I have friends doing dissertations today who are trying to buy documents on the black market.”

Different Views on history

What Friedman ultimately discovered was that both nations believed they were behind the same cause, communism, yet each saw the task differently.

The Soviets were initially focused on inequality and a conflict between classes; the priority was replacing capitalism with socialism. For the Chinese, anti-imperialism was the guiding force behind the revolutionary process, and socialism was seen as the best way for a country to assert itself and develop its own economy.

The different agendas became apparent, for example, in how the two countries viewed the struggle between France and Algeria. The Chinese believed colonies should liberate themselves, so they gave Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN) weapons and supported them in their struggle against the French government. But the Soviets did not help, concerned that if they backed Algeria, the French Communist Party wouldn’t do as well in the elections.

“They made different decisions about what priorities there should be on a global scale,” Friedman says. “They both thought they have the same cause, but they both viewed the problem differently.”

One idea became clear from Friedman’s research. Other countries, especially in the developing world, didn’t necessarily make policy decisions the way some Westerners believe they should. When Westerners considered giving aid, he says, they looked at what would produce the most GDP growth or lead to the lowest unemployment. But many countries’ economic policy decisions were tied more strongly to their own identities rather than these economic factors.

“It’s not always money that changes people’s minds,” he says. “We can’t dismiss the political and ideological elements that don’t fit into our strict economic calculus.”

Friedman points out another lesson business leaders might be able to take away from the Sino-Soviet conflict: The way the message is crafted is key to gaining widespread acceptance. The Chinese Communist Party reformed itself in 1978 and remains stable today, still in power. As long as the party can present itself as making the country more powerful and prosperous, it is seen as doing its job.

“It doesn’t have to mean creating perfect equality inside China,” he says. “The Chinese Communist Party is still in power, and the Soviet Communist Party is not in power. There’s no expiration date on Chinese Communist Party rule. It’s not inevitable that it will have to collapse and go the way of democracy at some point.”

The survival of capitalism

The Sino-Soviet battle for global revolutionary leadership was certainly shaped by capitalism. The Soviet strategy was built on the idea that after World War II, an even greater depression would settle in, capitalism would fail, and unemployed workers would overthrow their “masters.”

“The Soviets believed you didn’t need war to win,” Friedman says. “Once capitalism collapsed, socialism would be seen as superior.”

But what happened instead was that capitalism enjoyed a 30-year boom, making it clear that in the United States, the working class was not going to vote for communism.

“That changed the whole dynamic,” he says. The Soviets realized they weren’t going to win this Cold War through economic competitions, so they seized on the themes of imperialism and racism. “That’s how capitalism helped shape the story, by not collapsing.”

Friedman is now in the middle of writing his next book, tentatively titled “Revolutionary Dreams: Constructing Third World Socialisms,” which will look at the impact of the Second World on the process of revolutionary transformation in the Third World, with chapters on Angola, Chile, Indonesia, Iran, and Tanzania.

His larger research theme is to tell the history of the struggle against inequality.

“Social scientists spend so much time analyzing the causes of inequality they often don’t seem conscious of the historical context of their work.”

  • Book Excerpt

A Tale of Two Revolutions

from: Shadow Cold War: The Sino-Soviet Competition for the Third World
by Jeremy Friedman

For the leaders of the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China, formally committed to an ideology that predicted world revolution, establishing their leadership of that world revolutionary process was both an ideological necessity and a grand strategic imperative. The latter was the case because neither Imperial Russia nor Republican China enjoyed the economic and political conditions that seemed necessary to build a socialist utopia on its own, and both Bolsheviks in Russia and the Chinese Communist Party found themselves surrounded by hostile forces upon taking power.

Though the imperatives of more narrow Soviet political interest would at times override those of world revolution, the claim to be the leader of the world revolution remained central to the role the USSR attempted to play on the world stage and to the support that it commanded around the globe. Emerging victorious after World War II, with expanded global influence and a phalanx of satellites in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union could claim more strongly than ever that history was on its side. It soon found itself in a direct confrontation with the United States, first in Europe and then in the rest of the world, over ideology and influence.

In time, though, the revolutionary battleground shifted, away from the booming West toward the decolonizing South, and with this shift the degree of unity that Moscow had managed to achieve within the Communist movement at the end of the war began to crumble.

Decolonization changed the terms of the anticipated world revolution. It put the question of revolutionary war squarely on the table in a way that it had not been arguably since the Red Army was stopped outside Warsaw in 1920.

It changed the economic questions from ones about how to reorganize an industrial economy along socialist lines to others about how to rescue nations from abject poverty and construct an industrial economy from the ground up. Finally, it put race and nation, rather than class, at the center of revolutionary discourse in many places.

By itself, this placed the Soviet leadership, in competition with the West for influence in the decolonizing world, in a difficult spot. However, despite the best efforts of some, the postcolonial states never managed to form a united front that could have offered an alternative to the USSR as the leader of the world revolutionary process. It took the People’s Republic of China, a power of similar ambition and immense size, to crystallize the threat that decolonization posed to Soviet revolutionary leadership into one that could actually present a true alternative. The PRC, a nonwhite, non-European, primarily agrarian nation which had suffered tremendously from the depredations of imperialism, managed to rally others in its challenge to the Soviet agenda and revolutionary model, and, for a while, it threatened Soviet influence in Asia, Africa, and to some degree in Latin America as well.

In part, the Chinese leadership felt compelled to mount this challenge in order to build its own global constituency to protect it from American aggression and Soviet betrayal. As a result, the Soviets now were waging a two-front struggle against the United States on one side and China on the other. While much has been written about the first of these struggles, much less has been written about the second, and that which has been written has focused on the bilateral Sino-Soviet relationship rather than the competition between these two nations for influence around the world.

Viewed from the perspective of the global competition between the USSR and the PRC, it becomes clear that the divide between the Soviets and the Chinese ran deeper than personal rivalries or domestic politics. It reflected a much more profound tension between two different revolutionary agendas, agendas that were not the sole province or concern of either Moscow or Beijing.

Reprinted from Shadow Cold War: The Sino-Soviet Competition for the Third World by Jeremy Friedman. Copyright  2015 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. 

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