Soviets, Cybernetics, and China: A Reading Program

Two years ago I ran a small reading group that met over zoom. Our reading topic: Leninism. Curious about the claims that modern Chinese politics are an outgrowth of Marxist ideas and practice yet feeling insufficiently familiar with the Leninist political tradition to properly judge its influence on contemporary Chinese politics, I organized a group of China-watching politicos to read both classic Marxist texts and historical studies of the Soviet Union and Maoist China. I posted an early outline of our reading here (the actual readings we ended up reading deviated from this list in a few places).

I thought the group was a smashing success. Reading groups have some advantages over formal schooling: the members of a reading group are not there because they seek a credential, but because they want to learn. We discovered that a small group earnestly committed to learning will do so.

Reading groups have a few weaknesses. The natural law of reading groups is that the number of readers decreases steadily over time; on any given meeting some of the regulars will be missing. For everyone except the organizer the reading group will always come second to the demands of life. But the biggest weakness of learning via reading group is not a question of commitment, but knowledge: unless the organizer wants to retread familiar texts, she finds herself choosing selections from books and pairing together articles that she has yet to read.  

Which brings me to the two reading lists that follow. Both are connected to projects the Center for Strategic Translation is, or soon will be, engaged in. The topics in question are 1) the collapse of the Soviet Union and 2) cybernetics and systems thinking. The lessons Chinese intellectuals and CPC cadres have drawn from their study of these topics has had a powerful influence on Chinese statecraft. The reading lists are intended to provide myself and other CST staff with the conceptual grounding we need to write the introductory essays and glossary entries that accompany our translations.

 I post the tentative reading plans here in search of feedback. Some of my readers may have more experience with the topics in question than I do, and might have ideas on how to improve the list. If so please sound off in the comments, tweet me your suggestions, send me an e-mail, write a substack essay, or find some other way of making your thoughts known.

List I: The Fall of the Soviet Union

Reading One: The 1980s Baseline—China            

•    Gerwitz (2022), Never Turn Back: China and the Forbidden History of the 1980s, pp. 1-235.

Reading Two: The 1980s BaselineCold War    

•    Miles (2020), Engaging the Evil Empire: Washington, Moscow, and the Beginning of the End of the Cold War, entire.

•  Li J. (2023), Sovietology in Post-Mao China, ch. 2

Reading Three: Chinese v. Western Lessons from the Soviet Collapse (I): Man Enough

•    Kotkin (2010), Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment, parts I & II.

•    Sarotte (2012), “China’s Fear of Contagion: Tienanmen Square and the Power of the European Example.”

•    Gerwitz (2022), Never Turn Back: China and the Forbidden History of the 1980s, pp. 236-295.

Reading Four: Chinese v. Western Lessons from the Soviet Collapse (II): Problems in the Productive Forces    

   •    Miller (2016), The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy, pp. 1-74, 145-185.

•    Gaidar (2007), “The Soviet Collapse: Grain and Oil.”

•    Li (2023), Sovietology in Post-Mao China, ch. 4.

Reading Five: Chinese v. Western Lessons from the Soviet Collapse (III): Reform vs. Opening?

•     Zubok (2022), Collapse, pp. 1-153.

•    Gelland (2023), “The Censor Who Ended the Soviet Union.”

•    Li J. (2023), Sovietology in Post-Mao China, ch. 5.

Reading Six: Chinese v. Western Lessons from the Soviet Collapse (IV): Nationalist Rejuvenations   

•     Zubok (2022), Collapse, pp. 153-439.

•    Li J. (2023), Sovietology in Post-Mao China, ch. 3, 6-7.

Reading Seven: Chinese v. Western Lessons from the Soviet Collapse (V): Hostile Forces 

•    Evagelista (1999), Unarmed Forces: The Transnational Movement to End the Cold War, selection tbd.

•    Snyder (2011), Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War: A Transnational History of the Helsinki Network, pp. 217-243.

•    Sine (2022), “The Cold Wind of Historical Nihilism.”

•    Li S. (2023), “The Fundamental Reasons, Lessons, and Insights of the Fall of the Soviet Union’s Party and State.”

Reading Eight: Xi’s Andropov Moment?

•     Gao Di (1991), “Problems posed by the Soviet Union – a talk given by Gao Di, editor of the Renmin Ribao, to Communist Party editors and cadres on August 30, 1991.”

•     Jowitt (1991), New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction, pp. 1-49, 88-158.

•    Fewsmith (2019), Rethinking Chinese Politics, pp. 1-18, 109-130, 143-150, 170-184.

The general principles of the reading list should be clear: readings are generally in the 180-220 page range (Reading #6 is an exception because schedule wise outside events require postponing the reading discussion by two weeks, giving participants double the time to do the reading in question). Each reading tries to pair Western analysis of a particular aspect of the Soviet collapse with Chinese reactions to the same. Reading #7 is the one I am least sure aboutI would like to investigate claims that human rights rhetoric, activism, and the like contributed to the fall of the iron curtain, but have yet to read either of the two books included. I will probably have to read them both ahead of time and select the chapters in question at that point.

The second reading list requires an introduction. Most Americans are unfamiliar with cybernetics or its “systems thinking” descendants. Forged by American and British scientists following World War II, cybernetic and systems thinking have been enormously influential in China. These concepts have guided or inspired numerous aspects of Chinese governance since being introduced to China back in the Deng era: population control, the PLA’s “systems of systems” operational concepts, smart cities, the Chinese surveillance regime, agricultural planning, and AI applications are all downstream this stream of Chinese cybernetic thought. (If this is completely new territory to you, I recommend Dylan Levi King’s essay in Palladium on this topic, as well as pages 45-60 in Huifeng Xue and Feng Zhang’s insert in Science, for an introduction).1


Huifeng Xue and Feng Zhang, The Rise of System Engineering in China, sponsored supplement to Science, 23 September 2016; Dylan Levi King, “The Genealogy of Chinese Cybernetics,” Palladium, 17 October 2022.

List II: Chinese Cybernetics

Foundations: Feedback (I)

• Weiner (1950), Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, Preface, Ch. 1-4 (pp. 1-94).

• Galison (1994), “The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic Vision.”

• Pinkering (2010), The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future, pp. 1-89 (skim ch. 1-2 [pp. 1-34])

Foundations: Feedback (II)

• Rosenbluth, Weiner, and Bigelow (1943), “Behavior, Purpose, and Teleology.”

• Weiner (1950), Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, Ch. 5-8 (pp. 94-130).

• Pinkering (2010), The Cybernetic Brain, pp. 91-170.

Foundations: Control (I)

• Simon (1996), “The Architecture of Complexity: Hierarchic Systems,” in Sciences of the Artificial, pp. 183-216.

• Beniger (1989), The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society, pp. tbd

Foundations: Control (II)

• Beniger (1989), The Control Revolution, pp. 291-344, 390-439.

• Gerwitz (2019), “The Futurists of Beijing: Alvin Toffler, Zhao Ziyang, and China’s ‘New Technological Revolution,’ 1979–1991.”

Foundations: Information

• Weaver (1949), “Some Recent Contributions to The Mathematical Theory of Communication.”

• Wiener (1961), “Information, language, and society.”

• Gerovitch (2002), From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics, ch. 1-2

Socialist Cybernetics

• Medina (2006), “Designing Freedom, Regulating a Nation: Socialist Cybernetics in Allende’s Chile.

• [OPTIONAL but highly recommended: Pinkering (2010), The Cybernetic Brain, pp. 215-308].

• Peters (2016), How Not to Network a Nation: An Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet, pp. 1-81.

• Gerovitch (2002), From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics, ch. 6.

Foundations: Systems Thinking

• Meadows (2008), Thinking in Systems: A Primer, entire.

• Qian, Yu, and Dai (1992), “A New Discipline of Science: The Study of Open Complex Giant Systems and Its Methodology.

Applications: Population Control

• Greenhalgh (2005), Governing China’s Population: From Leninist to Neoliberal Biopolitics, selections tbd.

• Greenhalgh (2008), Just One Child: Science and Policy in Deng’s China, selections tbd

Applications: Security

• Hayles (1999), How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, ch.6 (pp. 131-160).

• Foerster (1960), “On self-organizing systems and their environments.”

• Hoffman (2017), “Programming China: The Communist Party’s Autonomic Approach to Managing State Security,” PhD diss., entire.

Applications: Surveillance

• Bush (1945), “As We May Think.”

• Edwards (1988), “The closed world: Systems discourse, military strategy and post WWII American historical consciousness.”

• Chin and Lin (2022), Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control, entire.

I am significantly less confident in this reading list than in the previous. I suspect it will experience changes by the time we get to it. But the basic goal of the list is easy to understand: a tour through some of the foundational texts and popularizations of cybernetics theory is followed by a historical survey of cybernetic influence in the socialist world of the Cold War, which then transitions to several areas of Chinese statecraft or administration that have been influenced by systems thinking today.

The weaknesses of the list are as follows: English-language analysis on Chinese cybernetics is thin, the existing literature on many aspects of Chinese policy is often unaware of the contribution that systems thinking has made to their respective policy space, I am not deeply versed in the cybernetic tradition myself (and so may have missed a critical text), and the list has very little formal systems engineering texts. To meet the last two deficiencies, I considered adding several other texts to the list: Herbet Simon’s Sciences of the Artificial (3rd ed), De Weck, Roos and Magee’s Engineering Systems: Meeting Human Needs in a Complex Technological World, and chapters from Leveson’s Engineering a Safer World: Systems Thinking Applied to Safety.

If readers have ideas on how to improve either of these lists, I would love to hear them.


If you found this reading list useful, consider some of the others I have created: “Leninist Politics: a Reading Course,” “Pining for Democracy: A Few Readings,” “Making Sense of Chinese History: A Reading List,” “A Guide Map for Reading the East Asian Canon,” “The Rise and Fall of Civilizations: A Reading Course”  of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage substack mailing listfollow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.


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Good stuff Tanner.

You may find Victor Petrov’s work on socialist Bulgaria interesting and applicable to this project (the new book Balkan Cyberia, as well as his older PhD thesis “A Cyber-Socialism at Home and Abroad”). I started reading this in light of the recent flood of techno-optimism following in the wake of ChatGPT. It seems that our Silicon Valley crowd are not the first to believe technological progress would wholly vindicate their ideology.

From the latter text:

“The vast majority of experts under study here, however, did not employ the computer to reach the “freedom” of the internet – they were the bureaucrats rather than the wizards…Computing was thus mostly in the service of the state, and in service of a Marxist ideology that is a far cry from the largely libertarian views that it began to be associated with under the Silicon Valley champions.”

On surveillance, David Brin’s _The Transparent Society_ remains a classic. It’s a quick read, and while its thesis and worldview are only indirectly applicable to the question of Chinese cybernetic strategy, they’re arguably at least as applicable as “As We May Think”.