Leninist Politics: A Reading Course

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This post is a reading list. It is not a list of books I recommend for I have not read them all—at least, not yet. But it might form the center kernel of a top-notch reading group. The topic: Leninist politics. The importance of understanding Leninist organization, ideology, tactics, symbolism and so forth is something many observers of Chinese politics in the Xi era have emphasized (see here, here, and here for examples). Others view these links between Xi Jinping and China’s Stalinist past as highly overblown (see here and here). It is a difficult debate to navigate, however, without a strong grasp of the political history of both the PRC and the USSR.

This is not often taught. Some people, such as myself, first traveled to China because they were grasped by a fascination with the world of ancient China. The impulse of my type is to compare events today with the happenings of dynasties past. Another common route is a degree in Asia Studies. Those degrees situate Chinese politics not in the Leninist political tradition, but in cross regional comparisons, or in excursions to Chinese art, film, anthropology, economics, and so forth. You also have those whose primary expertise is in energy policy, business negotiations, economics, or what have you; this group is the least likely of all of them to know anything about Soviet or Eastern European precedents. Even political scientists trained in the comparative politics, who you might think would be especially attentive to these things, tend to situate their study of Chinese affairs in the overly-broad study of “authoritarianism.”

None of these approaches to Chinese affairs is a bad thing in and of itself. However, they do not prepare one to answer—or even attempt to answer—what I consider some of the most interesting and crucial questions concerning the current Chinese regime.

Some of these questions include: What ideas from the Marxist tradition still matter in today’s China? Can there be a Leninism without Marxism? Was Leninism ever Marxist? Was Maoism truly Leninist? How do the organizational structures of Leninist systems constrain the statesmen who helm them? Are there common principles or patterns to all of Leninist politicking? What are the greatest strengths and weaknesses of a Leninist regime—both in comparison to liberal societies and in comparison to other authoritarian systems? What is the suite of possible options Leninist leaders have to manage war, mass mobilization, modernization, and diplomacy? What different approaches can they take when faced with dissent, factions, separatism, and problems in civil-military relations or regime legitimacy? To what extent are these different from the way non-Leninist systems deal with the same problems? Is there a Leninist way of “state building”? Why have Leninist systems veered so often into totalitarian horror shows? What explains why totalitarianism endures longer in some times and places than others? Why has state capacity differed so much in different Leninist regimes? Why did the Leninist regimes in Europe and Russia fall apart in the 90s, but their counterparts in Asia still stand? What lessons do the communist leadership in Beijing draw from the successes and failures of this tradition?

The following reading list cannot provide definite answers to these questions. But it is a good starting place for thinking through them. It is designed as something like a graduate seminar or a book club. If a group was to meet and discuss these readings once every two weeks it would take them exactly one year to go through the entire list. Now I am not sure how much general interests there is in a full year-long discussion group over Leninist politics. It is a topic guaranteed to veer between the depressing and the dry. But I present it anyway.

The first few months revolve around the theoretical foundation of Marxism and Leninism, with an eye towards the elements of each that are most relevant to 21st century Leninism. The rest of the course surveys the history of Soviet and Chinese politics. In all cases, I’ve striven to include books that promote different points of view. On some questions, such as why most of the Communist world fell apart between 1988 and 1992, I have included multiple weeks of readings. The largest weakness of this course is that (with one Eastern European exception near the end) it does not take into consideration communist case study outside of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, nor does it spend any time on non-communist regimes with Leninist structures, such as the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek. Studying these things would be great, but there are only so many weeks in the year. I fear this list is already too much with just these two regimes.

I’m open to suggestions for switching some of the readings out for different ones. I have read almost none of the books about the U.S.S.R. and only about half of the ones on China. I am, however, satisfied with the general shape of the course. I go out of the way to mix famous books with some that are less known, but which have been recommended to me as especially useful for understanding the full gamut of Leninist politics. The list is not completely beginner friendly. Some of the works are monographs written for an academic audience. They often assume familiarity with the events covered. I would not recommend trying to join into a reading group based around this list if you are not familiar with the broad course of Soviet and PRC political history. Thos looking for concise refreshers might consider Mary McAuley’s Soviet Politics 1917-1991, Stephen Lowell’s The Soviet Union: A Very Short Introduction, Delia Davin’s Mao: A Very Short Introduction, Rana Mitter’s Modern China: A Very Short Introduction, S.A. Smith’s The Russian Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, or Richard Pipes’, Concise History of the Russian Revolution.


Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Marx Engels Reader, 2nd ed., (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978).

Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Lenin Anthology (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1975).

Andrzej Walicki, Marxism and the Leap to the Kingdom of Freedom: The Rise and Fall of the Communist Utopia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997).

Niel Harding, Leninism (Durnham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996).

Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks in Power: The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008).

Stephen Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, 1888-1938, rev ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980).

Oleg V. Khlevniuk, Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).

Lucien Bianco, Stalin and Mao: A Comparison of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, trans. Krystyna Horko (Hong Kong: Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 2020).

Franz Schurmann, Ideology and Organization in Communist China, 2nd ed. (Berkely: University of California Press, 1973).

Moshe Lewin, The Soviet Century (New York: Verso, 2005).

Francis Spafford, Red Plenty: Inside the Fifties’ Soviet Dream (New York: Faber and Faber, 2007).

Mihael Dutton, Policing Chinese Politics: A History (Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

Andrew G. Walder, China Under Mao: A Revolution Derailed (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015).

Lowell Dittmer, Liu Shaoqi and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, rev. ed. (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1998).

John Garver, China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Vladislav Zubok, A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

Chris Miller, The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

Stephen Kotkin, Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment (New York: Modern Library, 2009).

David Marples, The Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1985-1991, (London: Routledge, 2004).

Ronald Coase and Ning Wang, How China Became Capitalist (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

Daniel Koss, Where the Party Rules: The Rank and File of China’s Authoritarian State (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Sebastian Heilmann Red Swan: How Unorthodox Policy-Making Facilitated China’s Rise (Hong Kong: Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 2018).



Reading 1: Alienation, Freedom, and the Marxist Critique of Liberal Politics

Andrzej Walicki, Kingdom of Freedom, 1-90.

The Marx-Engels Reader

  • “On the Jewish Question,” part I (pp. 26-46).
  • Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, “Estranged Labour” and “The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society” (pp. 70-81; 101-105).
  • The German Ideology, part I (pp. 147-200).

Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism, vol I, pp. 5-8, 146-149.

Reading 2: Historical Materialism and the Revolutionary Program

Walicki, Kingdom of Freedom, 112-196.

Marx-Engels Reader

  • The Communist Manifesto (pp. 469-500).
  • “Preface to the Critique,” (pp. 3-6).
  • “Excerpts from Socialism: Utopian and Scientific” (pp. 683-717).
  • “Letters on Historical Materialism” (pp. 760-768).

Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism, Vol I, pp. 335-344.


Reading 3: Leninism in Theory (I)

Walicki, Kingdom of Freedom, pp. 208-269

Harding, Leninism, 1-51

Lenin Anthology,

  • “What is to be Done?”

Reading 4: Leninism in Theory (II)

Harding, Leninism, 51-280.

Lenin Anthology,

  • “Imperialism: The Highest Form of Capitalism.”

Reading 5: Leninism in Theory (III)

Walicki, Kingdom of Freedom, 310-397

Lenin Anthology,

  • “The State and Revolution”

Reading 6: Leninism in Practice (I)

Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks in Power, selections tbd

Reading 7: Leninism in Practice (II)

Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution, entire


Reading 8: The Stalinist Program in Europe and Russia (I)

Khlevniuk, Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator, entire

Reading 9: The Stalinist Program in Europe and Russia (II)

Walicki, Kingdom of Freedom, 398-495

Lewin, The Soviet Century, part I (“A Regime and its Psyche”)

Reading 10: The Stalinist Program in China

Bianco, Stalin and Mao, introduction, ch. 2-3, 6, 8-9, conclusion

Stalin, Short Course, selections

Reading 11: The Limits of Stalinism in China

Schurmann, Ideology and Organization in Communist China, selections tbd


Reading 12: Soviet Political Economy

Spufford, Red Plenty, entire.

Reading 13: Soviet Foreign Policy

Zubok, Failed Empire, entire.

Reading 14: Soviet Bureaucracy and Ideology

Lewin, The Soviet Century, parts II-III.


Reading 15: Maoist Leninism

Dutton, Policing Chinese Politics, 1-197.

Gao, How The Red Sun Rose: The Origins and Development of the Yan’an Rectification Movement, 1930-1945, selections tbd.

Mao Zedong,

Reading 16: Maoist Anti-Leninism

Walder, China Under Mao, 82-123, 180-347.

Dutton, Policing Chinese Politics, 197-247.

Reading 17: Non-Maoist Leninism?

Dittmer, Liu Shaoqi and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, 1-221.

“Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party,” June 27, 1981, https://www.marxists.org/subject/china/documents/cpc/history/01.htm

Deng Xiaoping, “Uphold the Four Cardinal Principles.” March 30, 1979  (excerpts)

Zhao Ziyang, “Report to the 13th Party Congress” (excerpts)

Reading 18: Maoist-Leninist Foreign Policy

Garver, China’s Quest, 1-232; 286-383.

SECTION V: Soviet & Eastern European Collapse

Reading 19: The Ideological Explanation

Walicki, Kingdom of Freedom, 495-end.

Raymond Taras “The Meltdown of Marxism in the Soviet Bloc” in The Road to Disillusion: From Critical Marxism to Post-communism in Eastern Europe, 3-19.

Martin Malia. “A Fatal Logic,” The National Interest 31 (1993): 80-90

Reading 20: The Economic Explanation

Richard E. Ericson. “The Classical Soviet-Type Economy: Nature of the System and Implications for Reform.Journal of Economic perspectives 5.4 (1991): 11-27.

Miller, The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy, entire.

Reading 21: The Political Explanation – Eastern Europe

Mark Beissinger, “Nationalism and the Collapse of Soviet Communism,” Contemporary European History 18, no. 3 (2009): 331–47

Kotkin, Uncivil Society, entire.

Reading 22: The Political Explanation – USSR

Stephen Cohen, “Was the Soviet System Reformable?Slavic Review 63:3 (2004): 459-488.

Marples, The Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1985-1991, entire.

SECTION V: The Resilience of the CPC

Reading 23: Political Factors

 Frederick C. Teiwes, “The Paradoxical Post-Mao Transition: From Obeying the Leader to ‘Normal Politics’,” The China Journal, no. 34 (1995): 55–94.

Koss, Where the Party Rules, selections tbd.

Reading 24: Economic Factors

Frank Dikotter, “The Silent Revolution: Decollectivization from Below during the Cultural Revolution,” China Quarterly Volume 227,(2016), pp. 796-81

Coase and Wang, How China Became Capitalist, entire.

Reading 25: Institutional Factors

 Andrew G. Walder, “Bending the Arc of Chinese History: The Cultural Revolution’s Paradoxical Legacy,” The China Quarterly 227 (September 2016): 613–31.

Sebastian Heilmann, Red Swan, selections tbd.

Reading 26: Strategic Factors

Garver, China’s Quest, 463-578, 607-705, 758-787.

If you found this post on China’s political ideology useful, you might also find the posts “Xi Jinping Explains His Political Philosophy,” “Xi Jinping and the Theory of History,” A Note on Historical Nihilism,” The World That China Wants,” “Case Studies in Communist Insecurity,”  “Reflections on China’s Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II”  of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

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Surprised you didn't already know about it, but I have found the best book on the theory of Leninism and why it is such a powerful weapon to be this book:
Philip Selznick. 1952. The Organizational Weapon: A Study of Bolshevik Strategy and Tactics. 1st ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Freely available on here:

Also, Joseph Torigian has a very interesting syllabus comparing Russia and China as revisionist/revolutionary powers here:

Tanner — This is a very interesting idea and list. A suggestion: what is most important here for contemporary policy is not just the comparative history of Leninism in China versus elsewhere, but also the comparative history of non-Leninist, modern governance systems in Korea, Japan, and Taiwan from similar (but far from identical) political backgrounds to that of the PRC.

This second comparative lens would more fully address the configuration of key policy questions today for China under the CCP: will Leninism persist? If not, what are the conditions for the transformation from within our outside of the CCP of the structure of Chinese politics?

Unfortunately I don't have a lot of great suggestions for the reading list, other than to suggest that it should go beyond political theory and superficial political histories of Meiji, democratic transformations in Korea and Taiwan, etc. The key question of contemporary "democratic" governance in East Asia is, in my view, the nature of East Asian "liberalism" today, and specifically the extent to which non-liberal political and cultural norms still sit under the surface in many of these countries.

Would be interested in such a reading group.

An excellent list. While no list can ever be comprehensive, I would strongly recommend adding Trotsky. Revolution Betrayed or History of the Russian Revolution. He's a brilliant writer, and of course the source for a lot of the ideas in the academic works that you list.