shadow cold war

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

Eric Loefflad

Department of Law, University of Kent


While the Sino-Soviet spilt may have been one of the largest Left political schisms in history, comprehensive analysis of it is relatively rare. In this review-essay on Jeremy Friedman’s detailed historical account Shadow Cold War, the context and contemporary relevance of these events are thoroughly engaged. Towards this end, particular focus is placed upon Friedman’s depiction of a predominantly ‘anti-capitalist’ Soviet strategy and a predominantly ‘anti-imperialist’ Chinese strategy. Here an application of international legal theory as an analytical lens provides contextualisation of the historically contingent construction of ‘anti-capitalist’ versus ‘anti-imperialist’ strategies, as well as an explanation as to how the existing order’s rules and structures contributed to the contentious division between these two revolutionary movements.


Cold War – international law – sovereignty – revolution – Soviet Union – People’s Republic of China – Third World – decolonisation

Jeremy Friedman, (2015) Shadow Cold War: The Sino-Soviet Competition for the Third World, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.


In Shadow Cold War, historian Jeremy Friedman provides a rigorous and comprehensive account of the Sino-Soviet split in relation to Soviet and Chinese competition for influence in Asia, Africa and Latin America, with a core analytical focus on 1956–76. In framing this account, Friedman’s central point is that while both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China (‘PRC’) were opposed to the Western capitalist order, their strategies differed in deeply consequential ways. This divergence is analysed under the banner of ‘Two Revolutions’, whereby the Soviet agenda was predominantly ‘anti-capitalist’ and the Chinese agenda was predominantly ‘anti-imperialist’. According to Friedman, when it came to building alliances with Third World states and national liberation movements in the era of decolonisation, these two revolutionary approaches addressed different issues, called for different tactics, and together form a vital, yet neglected, vantage point for understanding conflict and ideology during the Cold War.

          In terms of the substantive divergence that justifies this ‘Two Revolutions’ label, for Friedman the Soviet Union’s predominantly ‘anti-capitalist’ approach could be viewed as confronting the primary problem of inequality within nations (with the issue of Western dominance being a consequence of capitalism’s expansive logic). As such, the solution consisted in transforming global relations of production through proletariat self-organisation within the world’s most advanced economic sectors. This was to be achieved by the promotion of ‘Peaceful Coexistence’, whereby the possibility of armed confrontation amongst the ideologically divergent superpowers would be displaced into the realm of competing socioeconomic models. By contrast, the PRC’s predominantly ‘anti-imperialist’ approach could be viewed as confronting the primary problem of inequality between nations (with the issue of capitalism’s dominance being a consequence of Western imperialism). Under this view, the solution was to establish the colonised/postcolonial world as a base of global power capable of actively confronting the West. The intended mode of achieving this being militant ‘anti-imperialism’, whereby foreign influence was to be expunged in order to create the conditions whereby the non-Western world could pursue its destiny unimpeded.

Shadow Cold War’s Account

As a preliminary matter, an overview of Friedman’s account is in order. In terms of structure Shadow Cold War is divided into seven chapters, including the introduction and conclusion. While the introduction and conclusion provide theoretical reflections on the respective origins and legacies of the ‘two revolutions’, the five substantive chapters detail the specific instances of interaction between Third World states/liberation movements and the Soviet and Chinese governments from 1956 to 1976. In capturing the uniqueness of this history, Friedman’s treatment of the United States, while acknowledging its importance, is minimal for two reasons: ‘The first is that far more scholarship is available on its role in the Third World than on the Soviets or Chinese, and this book seeks to help bridge that gap. On a deeper level, however, the attention given to the United States is limited because this book is about the policy and ideological debates on the left, among those who already took the role of Washington as the leader of the imperialist powers to be axiomatic.’ (p. 22.) In making his argument, Friedman draws upon an impressive array of archival materials from ten different nations. Thus, Shadow Cold War provides an invaluable resource for those undertaking detailed contextual study of Cold War political/diplomatic interaction.

According to Shadow Cold War’s historical narrative, the Russian Revolution occurred with the expectation that the revolutionary current would move westward through Europe. This is reflected in the fact that ‘[m]any of the key figures of the Bolshevik Revolution – Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev and others – spent most of the decade before 1917 in European exile, in constant contact with their French and German comrades and viewing Russia from a distance.’ (p. 7.) Given its failure to spread in this capacity, it was only after the Second World War that the Soviet Union actively sought alliances with non-European revolutionary forces. In this context, early interactions between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China (‘PRC’) were largely characterised by Soviet patron and Chinese client status. However, largely through the efforts of Mao, the PRC ultimately asserted an alternative revolutionary approach that drew upon its colonial experience and placed primacy on differences between European colonisers and the people they ruled.

This approach reflected two elements: a nationalist desire to incorporate as much of the nation as possible in the effort to build ‘New China’ and a consequent shift in the notion of class from one built strictly on one’s relations to the means of production to a more a more malleable one based on loyalty to the political system and its ideology. (p. 11.)

While largely concealed by the display of a united front against the capitalist powers, Shadow Cold War’s first chapter shows how these ideological tensions became increasingly unavoidable in the late 1950s. This was motivated immensely by Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 statement calling for ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ between the Soviets and the West that ‘… dispensed with the traditional Leninist notion that war between capitalism and socialism was ultimately inevitable’ (p. 25). While the PRC’s initial internal instability and lack of broad international influence limited its immediate ability to contest this idea, it became increasingly clear that ‘China’s priority was to unite as much of the world as possible in a broad anti-imperialist coalition for the sake of confronting the West.’ (p. 40.) In this capacity it was ‘meticulously analyzing class origins of individual leaders, class compositions of movements and regimes in order to better understand which leaders, movements, and states could be expected to be reliably anti-imperialist …’ (p. 40.) From this basis, Friedman shows how this tense dynamic manifested in a wide array of Soviet and Chinese interactions with Third World actors whereby ‘Sino-Soviet divisions exploded into the open in the spring and summer of 1960’ (p. 51).

          From here, Chapter Two details how contentions were furthered when in 1961 the Soviet Union began to apply the originally Western-focused project of ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ in the postcolonial world by promoting socialist socio-economic development projects. While the Soviets were able to take advantage of colonialism-based anti-capitalist sentiments, its own approach of ‘scientific socialism’ had to adapt to popular local projects ‘… ranging from Nasser’s “Arab Socialism” to Nkrumah’s “African Socialism”’ (p. 70). Moreover, in the process of doing so, the Soviets were competing with a West pursuing its own development agenda. It was thus hoped that ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ could be pursued through competing socio-economic models as opposed to armed confrontation. However, as Friedman shows, such a path alienated national liberation movements. This provided an audience for the PRC strategy of externally opposing the US and international organisations (especially the UN) ‘and internally in terms of expelling all Western influence at any cost’ (p. 86). Against this backdrop, much emphasis is given to the PRC’s propagandistic usage of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Here ‘[t]he image of the small, heroic island of Cuba facing the full might of the American imperial colossus, willing to risk annihilation in the cause of socialism, only to be betrayed by the cowards in the Kremlin, had captured the world’s attention and seemed to distil into its purest form everything the Chinese had been saying about the Soviet policy of peaceful coexistence and its consequences for world revolution.’ (p. 96.) Thus the Soviet Union was forced to choose between furthering Peaceful Coexistence via development or world revolution via militant decolonisation.

          Following this, Chapter Three explains how by 1963 underlying tensions manifested in a highly visible Sino-Soviet split whereby ‘… Moscow and Beijing were left with no alternatives to a naked competition for influence’ (p. 102). Here, Friedman explains how the Soviets sought to limit Chinese-inspired diversion from their anti-capitalist agenda by replacing local nationalistic assertions with ‘revolutionary democracy’, whereby nationalist consolidation would go hand-in-hand with building transnational class solidarity. In addressing charges of ‘white interference’ in the non-European world, the Soviets sought to portray themselves as non- or quasi-Western and emphasised their Central Asian projects to show their model’s applicability to non-European societies. However, despite these efforts, Soviet success was limited by an influential Chinese diplomatic campaign that took advantage of Third World resentment at Soviet paternalism and concerns of future Soviet betrayal through an ultimate rapprochement with the colonial powers. These diplomatic endeavours were furthered by the articulation of a Chinese alternative to the Soviet development model that placed primacy on economic autonomy as opposed to building socialism, expanding production as opposed to equitable distribution of ownership over the means of production, and light industry and agriculture as opposed to heavy industry. Through these tactics, the PRC was able to compensate for a massive gap in military and economic aid compared to the Soviet Union. However, circumstances dramatically changed with the ousting of Khrushchev by Leonid Brezhnev, who was more concerned with establishing Soviet leadership over the world revolution than preserving the project of Peaceful Coexistence. This led to substantial Soviet engagement in numerous anti-imperialist activities in the mid-1960s, especially in the UAR (United Arab Republic), Algeria and Indonesia.

          While the Soviet Union had committed itself to militant anti-colonial struggle largely in response to pressure from the PRC, Chapter Four details this dynamic in light of the PRC’s Cultural Revolution. While this event led to a mass diplomatic recall and prolonged Chinese absence from world affairs, this did not allow the Soviets to institute an unadulterated return to their previous strategy. For, ‘[t]he newly militant Soviet anti-imperialist policy had created certain expectations among friends and foes alike and backtracking would be difficult, if not impossible.’ (p. 155.) As an expression of this new militancy, earlier policies of economic development were subordinated to political/ideological initiatives, largely centred around national Communist parties. Towards this end, Soviet scholars portrayed the Cultural Revolution as the logical result of an ‘ideological heresy’ within Marxism that posed ‘… a particular danger for countries that had only just recently liberated themselves on the back of nationalist movements’ (p. 162). However, asserting this disciplinary role also meant increased Soviet entanglement in complex situations, including the Arab–Israeli Conflict and the Vietnam War, where Chinese influence continued to resonate. Yet, while the Soviet embrace of anti-imperialism strengthened its claim to world-revolutionary leadership, it nonetheless detracted from the Soviets’ Western-oriented strategy and greatly entrenched their commitments in a Third World where their influence was limited.

          In Chapter Five, Shadow Cold War’s core account concludes with the early 1970s, when formal decolonisation had been largely accomplished. As a result of this change, the greater Third World project shifted from armed struggle to transforming the global mechanisms of resource production/distribution. Within this timeframe the Soviet Union’s Third World strategy was deeply influenced by the 1971 election of Salvador Allende in Chile, which led to the articulation of an ‘electoral path to socialism’. However, such endeavours that fixated on inequalities within nations had to contend with the rise of dependency-theory, which offered an account of inequalities between nations that, absent systemic re-ordering, could persist indefinitely after formal colonisation had ended.

For the Soviets dependency theory presented two major problems. First, it diminished the role of domestic political and economic transformations in favour of an analysis based on global mechanisms. Second, it divided the world not between East and West, socialism and capitalism, but between the ‘poor South’ and the ‘rich North,’ which once again separated the socialist and developing worlds and grouped the Soviets with the capitalist powers. (p. 193.)

Moreover, the PRC’s 1971 re-emergence onto the international stage and assumption of roles within international organisations (which included a seat on the UN Security Council) led many to believe it would assert itself as the leader of the new distribution-focused Third World agenda that was rallying around the New International Economic Order proposals. Furthermore, ambivalence concerning new Third World projects coupled with militant commitments led the Soviets to double-down on supporting the few remaining armed contestations linked to the original cause of world revolution, particularly in southern Africa and Palestine. While Chinese links with Israel and Apartheid South Africa fatally damaged claims to the mantle of revolutionary leadership, the PRC’s newfound coexistence with the West and international standing caused it to pursue its interests in a decidedly de-radicalised capacity. The Soviets, on the other hand, continued with militant anti-imperialism, yet dwindling resources and multiple tensions led it to draw clear distinctions in giving its support to Third World states firmly within the socialist camp – ‘Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Angola, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, South Yemen, etc.’ (p. 214) – as opposed to those who were not. In this way, the Soviet endeavour of working towards a united revolutionary Second–Third World front broke down and the Third World was left divided.

          In concluding, Friedman explains how the Soviet continuation with militant struggle in the Third World fuelled its internal contradictions and hastened its decline. Thus, by the early 1990s when Soviet collapse drew near, ‘leadership of the anti-imperialist struggle, which Moscow fought so hard for, became not only unnecessary, but also a liability and a rueful memory.’ (p. 221.) As for the PRC, despite turning away from world revolution, it maintained an independent, anti-imperial stance and thus (in stark contrast to locations such as post-1989 Eastern Europe) was able to incorporate capitalist practices on its own terms. As a final note, Friedman views the lesson of Shadow Cold War as a confluence between the demand for dignified existence amongst those emerging from colonialism and the fact that both the Soviet Union and PRC could strategically promote methods of addressing these demands. Given that such demands still exist the world over, we can expect continued attempts to implement solutions.

‘Anti-Capitalism’ versus ‘Anti-Imperialism’ through an International Legal Lens

In assessing Shadow Cold War, a key point warranting careful attention is the book’s structuring dichotomy of ‘anti-capitalism’ versus ‘anti-imperialism’. As a preliminary matter, it must be noted that Friedman provides no indication he is writing as a Marxist and his method appears that of a conventional, context-focused political/diplomatic historian. Thus, he does not engage with the broad tradition of Marxian theories focused on the inter-relationships between capitalism and imperialism. Rather, for Friedman, questions of ‘anti-capitalism’ versus ‘anti-imperialism’ are depicted in a capacity that is relative and contextually-limited to the immediate actions/perceptions of stakeholders participating in the Sino-Soviet split. While Marxist debates on the relationship between capitalism and imperialism are mentioned for their contextual value, their broader implications are generally left unexplored. However, in his documentation of recurring arguments emanating from official channels in the Soviet Union, the PRC and various Third World states, Friedman does make a convincing case that many of the actors involved understood the Sino-Soviet split in such dichotomous terms.

          Yet, when it comes to critically theorising why this precise variation of ‘anti-capitalism’ versus ‘anti-imperialism’ came to define Sino-Soviet relations during this book’s prescribed timeframe, a key task is to account for contingency in light of the constraints of existing structures. After all, the Soviets and the Chinese where neither bound by their ideologies as matters of essential truth, nor were they radically free agents somehow existing outside the institutions of the global order they sought to transform. Thus, when accounting for why the Sino-Soviet spilt manifested itself along the precise lines in which it did, a theory of the larger global order’s inherited structures and their variable catalysing functions is in order. Such an account would certainly provide a resource for those seeking to apply the lessons of this era while avoiding the divisive pitfalls which helped to derail so many revolutionary aspirations. It is in this capacity that Marxist theories of (anti-)capitalist-(anti-)imperialist co-constitution largely absent from Shadow Cold War can be mobilised to interpret the events this book so rigorously depicts. Yet, given the numerous issues that can be analysed within the scope of this theoretical tradition, which precise structural constraints should provide an analytical entry-point?

          In light of this question, while in no way the only avenue, international legal theory provides a comprehensive lens for contextualising the distinct ideological formations presented in Shadow Cold War. While international law is certainly not Friedman’s explicit focus, engagement with it opens the door to a deep systematic analysis of his ‘Two Revolutions’ framework. For in considering the challenges presented to both the Soviet Union and the PRC, in the words of Barry Buzan and George Lawson: ‘… there is a great paradox at the heart of the relationship between revolutionary states and international society – revolutionary states must establish relations with other states and coexist with the system’s rules, laws and institutions even while professing to reject these practices.’[1] This core premise is taken to an entirely new level of complexity when the transformative force of decolonisation becomes the object of focus. Here ‘revolution’ in the colonial world was experienced as both a multitude of localised assertions and a zeitgeist of universal upheaval that tasked its participants with the challenge of balancing the affirmation of unique identities with the embrace of all-pervasive transformation.[2]

          Thus, in their respective leadership bids to gain influence in the decolonising/postcolonial states as a means of entrenching their preferred vision of ‘world revolution’, the Soviet Union and PRC could be viewed as the leading participants in a global ‘Inter-Revolutionary Rivalry’. Yet, when considering the operation of international law in light of this dynamic, a fundamental consideration is the emancipatory hope that many anti-colonial actors ascribed to it in support of various causes.[3] While Third World opinions on this subject were in no way uniform, a highly influential idea was optimism that the inclusion of colonised peoples could force international law to transcend its imperial/Eurocentric bias and become truly universal.[4] Thus, while extensive Marxist critiques of international law’s bourgeois nature were asserted by both Soviet and Chinese communist jurists,[5] the hopes of a reformed international legal order amongst Third World actors, to whom both factions contentiously appealed, incentivised them to reinterpret/modify such positions.[6]

          However, when appraising the logic of the international legal order in this context, a core feature to account for is its perpetual balancing of sovereign autonomy on the one hand and the facilitation of institutionalised international interaction on the other. This tension gives rise to structural indeterminacy where, in the absence of a centralised enforcement mechanism capable of resolution, international legal discourse perpetually oscillates between arguments for preserving the existing order and arguments for building a future ‘global community’.[7] That said, by virtue of this indeterminacy, any attempts to use international legal argument to promote a radical agenda can be contested in a manner that is equally valid within the confines of international law’s internal logic.[8] This ability of the existing order to constrain challenges through international legal counter-claims was a persistent presence in the decolonisation context.[9] Against this backdrop, the ever-shifting multitude of revolutionary activity strengthened arguments that the system’s established rules needed to be fundamentally affirmed in order to provide stabilising coherence in the face of advancing chaos.[10]

          Beyond this base-level indeterminacy, there is also the deeper issue of legal argument’s abstraction of actually-existing social relations through its production of fictitious ‘legal persons’ ideologically severed from their generative material conditions.[11] Thus while materially-rooted interests produce the impetus for specifically characterising issues as ‘legal’, the determination of the precise material interests at stake in such contestations is actively obscured by this process of juridical abstraction.[12] This is especially true of international law, where ‘legal persons’ are sovereign states whose lack of any overarching authority structure renders enforcement of obligations matters of ‘self-help’ that can only justified by affirming their sovereign status.[13] While contradictions growing out of this concealment of materiality through international legalist abstraction have long been identified in the context of ‘Inter-Imperial Rivalry’,[14] to what extent was a similar logic at play in the dynamics of ‘Inter-Revolutionary Rivalry’? Thus, the diverging trajectories of ‘anti-capitalist’ versus ‘anti-imperialist’ strategies can be vastly illuminated by analysing how the Sino-Soviet split’s key protagonists ended up unconsciously subjecting themselves to profound contradictions through their engagements with the structures of international legalism. This entails mapping the precise contradictions exposed by theorising Shadow Cold War’s foundational categories, the Soviet strategy of ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ and the Chinese strategy of ‘Anti-Imperialism’, as distinctly international-legal phenomena.

The Law of Soviet ‘Peaceful Coexistence’: Between Abstracted Sovereignty and ‘Global Community’

In applying this analytical frame, an appropriate place to begin is with Friedman’s portrayal of the Soviet strategy of ‘Peaceful Coexistence’. According to his summation:

The Soviet Union’s basic focus was on lowering international tension and reducing the perceived threat of communism both in the West and in the newly emerging states…. This stance would not only raise the USSR’s international prestige, but it would also allow it to find more open doors and willing audiences for its economic advice and aid. The Soviets could then use such opportunities to promote their own political-economic approach: focus on state-controlled industrialization, long-term economic planning, construction of large enterprises of heavy industry, and nationalization of banks, transportation, and trade. According to Soviet thinking, this would inevitably lead to the growth of working class political power and organizations and ultimately produce governments more friendly to the Soviet Union, not to mention the ascendancy that such development would give the ideology of socialism around the world. (p. 39.)

While this depiction of peaceful coexistence reveals the Soviet objective of strengthening their system of political economy through a transformation of internal class structures, what must be accounted is the way in which this strategy was framed through international law,[15] particularly its forcing of Western powers to account for their conduct in relation to their proclaimed ideals.[16] This is certainly consistent with Shadow Cold War’s argument that the original Soviet strategy was directed to the West in the form of both mobilising its working classes and constraining its governments. That said, it is unsurprising that following Khrushchev’s announcement of ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ at the 1956 Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party ‘more works on international law appeared after … than in the preceding forty years of Soviet legal history’.[17]

          When observing international law as a channel for ‘Peaceful Coexistence’, it becomes clear that the international legal order’s core task of balancing institutionally-facilitated international cooperation with the affirmation of state sovereignty was at the heart of Soviet strategy. One the one hand, by actively engaging with postwar international institutions, the Soviets were provided with a platform for appealing to receptive audiences in the West.[18] In this capacity, Friedman’s observation that the Soviets sought to shift revolutionary struggle from military confrontation to competing socioeconomic models must be considered in light of the newly-formed United Nations system’s unprecedented general ban on war as a matter of national policy. One the other hand, sovereignty was of paramount value given its purpose of safeguarding a state’s absolute discretion in adopting the political/economic system of its choice. Through this understanding, any state that frustrated another’s attempt to implement the type of reforms promoted by the Soviet development model could be condemned for interference in domestic affairs and violating the postwar international order’s axiomatic pronouncement of respect for sovereign autonomy. However, this specific approach to ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ presumed that actually-existing international law was ideologically neutral enough to support an effective project of radically transforming the global class/economic system. This was not the position of earlier Soviet jurists, whose interpretation of international law as a tool of capitalist expansion cast serious doubt on its compatibility with revolutionary change.[19]

          Yet, explaining this divergence calls for analysis of a formative Soviet development that complicates Shadow Cold War’s portrayal of Soviet ‘anti-capitalism’. For it was through these events that an intensely ‘anti-capitalist’ strategy ultimately lost to one with deep nationalistic consequences. This was the infamous schism between Leon Trotsky’s ‘Permanent Revolution’ and Joseph Stalin’s ‘Socialism in One Country’.[20] Under Trotsky’s theoretical framing, the Soviets inherited a ‘backwards’ situation where external pressures merged with local practices to produce the unsustainable class-based contradictions that led to revolution.[21] Yet, this context raised the key issue of whether the Soviet Union, as a solitary actor, could continue the process of world-revolutionary transformation given its inheriting a class dynamic whereby, according to Alexander Anievas, ‘… islands of the most advanced capitalist relations and productive techniques enmeshed within a sea of feudal relations’.[22] For Trotsky, these contradictions rendered the Soviets unable to achieve their revolutionary objectives alone and, thus, he advocated for a German revolution to capture the most advanced means of production.[23] This point forms a major consideration in Shadow Cold War’s framing of Soviet anti-capitalism where it is noted at the onset that ‘the leaders of the Bolshevik Party believed that the survival and success of the world’s first socialist revolution depended upon its being immediately followed by socialist revolutions in more developed capitalist countries, above all Germany.’ (p. 8.)

          Yet, what must be considered in light of this foundational premise is how the triumph of Stalin’s ‘Socialism in One Country’ model trapped Soviet anti-capitalist strategy within the ideological confines of the nation-state (i.e. an entity presumed capable of standing on its own within the international order). In an intimately related capacity, international law, as an embodiment of the existing order’s systemic constraint on revolutionary anti-capitalist transformation, must be understood as actively enabling the victory of Stalin’s vision over Trotsky’s. After all, ‘Socialism in One Country’ as a statement of absolute sovereign discretion over internal affairs is deeply consistent with international law’s foundational premises of sovereign equality, nonintervention, and toleration of ideological pluralism. By contrast, Trotskyism’s active call for exporting revolution across borders as a matter of fundamental urgency is substantially more difficult to reconcile with these principles.

          Moreover, the early Soviet Union was plagued by denials of its international legal standing. For many prominent Western international lawyers this stance was problematic given that the international legal standing of governments, even revolutionary ones, traditionally focused on determining the presence of objective territorial authority via ‘facts on the ground’ in a manner divorced from the normative/ideological considerations of those tasked with making recognition judgements.[24] Thus, the eventual universal recognition of Stalin’s ‘facts on the ground’ could be viewed as evidence of international law’s ideological neutrality in that it ultimately accommodated membership of a system deemed repugnant to the global ruling classes. However, a necessarily corollary to this development is the reality that, while accommodating of ‘Socialism in One Country’, international law’s foundational presumption of sovereign statehood rendered Trotsky’s more radically anti-capitalist objectives beyond the pale of possibility, thus exposing clear limits to this ‘ideological neutrality’ presumption.

          Thus, Shadow Cold War’s portrayal of ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ as emblematic of the Soviets’ ‘anti-capitalist’ strategy must account for the reality that ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ emerged through the failures of more radical attempts to transcend the ideological constraints of the nation-state in their quest to transform global relations of production. As for how international law concealed the contradictory foundations of ‘Peaceful Coexistence’, one need only consider the foundational international legal tension between upholding sovereign autonomy and building ‘global community’. In the realm of sovereign autonomy, this question was settled through the acceptance of ‘Socialism in One Country’ within international law’s acceptable ambit of ideological pluralism. However, on the question of building ‘global community’ along distinctly Soviet lines, this could be viewed as a channel for the ambitions of trans-border solidarity expressed through Trotsky’s vision of ‘Permanent Revolution’. Yet, given that building ‘global community’ through international law is premised on the affirmation of a system of sovereign states, the very ability of ‘Permanent Revolution’ to expose state-centric constraints on radical transformation becomes fundamentally neutralised. Thus, attempts to further creative, materially-grounded solutions through international institutions would be constrained by the contradictory reality that such solutions ultimately depended on accepting legal forms whose existence was only possible by abstracting ‘juridical persons’ from material conditions.

The Law of Chinese ‘Anti-Imperialism’: Between Solidarity and Autarky

In turning to the Chinese rejection of ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ as ‘revisionist’ betrayal of anti-imperial struggle through this international legal lens, as a preliminary matter what must be considered is the PRC’s exclusion from the UN. This by extension meant exclusion from the Security Council where China’s permanent seat/veto-power remained held by Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China, despite this overthrown regime’s effective presence being limited to the island of Taiwan. Furthermore, this situation was maintained through arbitrary administrative procedures difficult to reconcile with international law’s ‘non-ideological’ focus on objective territorial authority.[25] For the Chinese, this failure emanating from novel international legal mechanisms was reflective of their national experience of historical subordination to the West facilitated through juridical innovations.[26] Moreover, the Soviets were hamstrung in offering solidarity, for their entire strategy of ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ depended upon the success of the elaborate architecture of the UN system conforming with their interpretation of its stated ideals.[27] Thus the Chinese strategy of ‘Anti-Imperialism’ presented itself as the necessary alternative to ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ by exposing its contradictions through charges of ‘revisionism’.

          Furthermore, for the PRC, Third World projects, including the Non-Aligned Movement, seeking to use Western-created international organisations for peaceful emancipatory purposes were dangerously delusional. Here, Friedman notes Chinese contentions with Nehru’s India and Nasser’s UAR, where ‘[b]oth countries were pushing African decolonization through nonviolent means through the United Nations, a stance China found doubly troubling, not only because it would reduce the possibility for a broad militant international front against imperialism, but because it asserted the validity of a world organization from which the PRC was excluded.’ (p. 41.) This being the case, unburdened by adherence to international institutionalism as an object of idealisation premised on abstracted legal forms, the Chinese could theorise state sovereignty as the condition of political independence in a substantive capacity. Thus, ‘Anti-Imperialism’ directly confronted the historical reality of sovereignty being premised on a ‘public’/‘private’ distinction where bounded-territorial authority was decoupled from transcendent economic interests and, as such, independence was never a guarantee of material self-sufficiency.[28]

          Such a move was consistent with China’s history whereby the very reality of formal (semi-)sovereign status, demonstrated by lack of formal conquest, led it to identify with ‘myths’ of international inclusion that actively enabled Western domination.[29] Moreover, this position directly addressed widespread fears of ‘neocolonialism’ amongst newly independent states whose challenging path to national consolidation left them open to external predation.[30] In succinctly encapsulating the PRC’s position on the inadequacy of formal sovereignty, Shadow Cold War quotes a 1960 statement by the Chinese Foreign Ministry on the Congo crisis stating that:

The Congolese and Cameroonian peoples conducting armed struggle after achieving independence are struggling between real and fake independence…. African people cannot be limited to the independence that imperialism is ready to agree to …. they need to struggle to achieve the independence imperialism opposes …. they also cannot only be limited to political independence, they will endeavor to attain economic independence. (p. 56.)

The great contradiction of this situation begins with the premise that the ultimate goal of ‘Anti-Imperialism’ is to build enduring, trans-border solidarity amongst the non-European world rendering it capable of directly challenging Western dominance. However, by adhering to the sovereign nation-state form as a necessary, albeit insufficient, means of achieving this end, individual actors were fully empowered to retreat into an isolated state of autarky as a matter of sovereign prerogative regardless of how severely this may have damaged transnational solidarity efforts. This situation was especially precarious given the tension between affirming unique identities (typically grounded in the nation-state form) versus working towards global transformation that was prevalent in the postcolonial world.[31] Thus, revolutionary actors experienced a variant of the frustration long highlighted by liberal theorists whereby a system of law premised on relations between sovereign states constructs a barrier to building a transformative system of law premised on closer interactions between peoples.[32] Yet, in accounting for the material conditions that made autarkic withdrawals derail the promises of solidarity, what must be considered are the internal class dynamics that informed the reception of Sino-Soviet appeals by Third World actors in this context of decolonisation.

          As a fundamental matter of context, the reality was that postcolonial states inherited economies established to produce value for a distant metropole as opposed to building self-sustaining societies. As Shadow Cold War has shown, this resulted in the inheritance of agrarian, light industrial and extractive economies with primarily peasant-based, as opposed to industrial-proletariat based, labour forces. This exposed the limits of the heavy-industry promotion envisioned by Soviet ‘Peaceful Coexistence’. These realities forced the Soviets to modify their development models given that suppressing the peasantry in the name of bolstering the industrial proletariat, along the lines of Stalin’s ‘Socialism in One Country’,[33] was an unpopular option in the postcolonial world. However, a key factor highly relevant to this modification of Soviet strategy was the particular nature of elite-class formation/conflict common across a highly diverse array of postcolonial settings. Here the persistence of old elites empowered by colonial systems and the emergence of new elites empowered by independence created a volatile class situation where, across a diverse array of contexts, ‘determining … [class] composition has been the major political struggle of the revolutionary and immediate post-revolutionary periods.’[34] Thus, while Soviet ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ sought accommodation, this unique class dynamic would prove highly consequential in light of the challenge of ‘Anti-Imperialism’ and its central contradiction of solidarity versus autarky produced by the attempt to radicalise state sovereignty.

          What the PRC faced was a dilemma regarding postcolonial actors, including many in the Non-Aligned Movement, where internal class struggles between old and new postcolonial elites resulted in internationalist ambitions that were decidedly more reformist and accommodating to Western influences/institutions than what ‘Anti-Imperialism’ mandated. How could Beijing pressure these actors into adopting a more radical approach without being seen as infringing upon the ‘true’ sovereign independence that formed the touchstone of its appeal to the Third World? While condemning revisionist, de-radicalised Soviet ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ as a new manifestation of white Western interference in the non-European world was certainly one strategy, a more fundamental move involved the PRC’s high-stakes attempt to lead the world revolution by example through invoking its sovereign prerogative to fundamentally re-order its own internal society along autarkic lines. Thus, under Mao’s leadership, the PRC embarked upon the Cultural Revolution, where, in the name of purifying itself of foreign influence, diplomatic staff were recalled. The result was a general withdrawal from international affairs that reduced the Chinese attempt to lead the world revolution to little more than a propaganda-dissemination campaign.

          While a few postcolonial leaders expressed some support, Friedman makes clear that ‘[o]verall, however, the Cultural Revolution was an unmitigated disaster for Chinese foreign policy. Most Afro-Asian observers were horrified by events in China as well as offended by crude Chinese attempts to spread the Cultural Revolution abroad, and little in terms of an economic, political, or ideological model seemed attractive to Afro-Asian elites trying to build their own countries.’ (p. 155.) This general response is unsurprising given the complex, ongoing issues of inter-ruling-class rivalry in postcolonial states. Thus, through the Cultural Revolution’s pursuit of internal transformation in a manner that led to external alienation, the PRC highlighted ‘Anti-Imperialism’s’ solidarity-versus-autarky contradiction that grew out of the foundational international legal principle of sovereignty whereby states are free to form and dissolve associations for any reason regardless of the impact this may have on collective endeavours.

International Legal Theory beyond Contradiction?

When confronted with international legal contradictions that were called-out in the presumptions of Soviet ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ only to manifest differently through Chinese ‘Anti-Imperialism’, questions are raised as to what theoretical tools are needed to confront such recurring contradictions. In addressing this question, a place to begin might be the work of Chinese Marxist legal theorists who sought to develop a class-based theory of international law more sophisticated than anything their Soviet contemporaries were doing at the time. Although subject to variation, for these theorists, ‘international law’ was not a single universal system, but existed in multiple forms corresponding to class categories where an entity’s legal obligations depended upon its position within the global class structure.[35] Some of these approaches even scrutinised the very act of formulating legal theory as a direct indication of material, class interests. Here, the reality of multiple material interests explained the contradictory existence of multiple, ostensibly valid justifications for the supposedly ‘universal’ system of international law.[36]

          Such approaches to law had the potential to directly confront the abstraction-generating quality of legal forms that constrained the Soviets through their embrace of ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ and persisted despite their heightened commitment to militant liberation struggles. Regarding Shadow Cold War’s observation that the Soviets responded to Chinese ‘Anti-Imperialism’ by beginning to ‘… increasingly … emphasize that peaceful coexistence did not exclude armed struggle in the developing world’ (p. 109), it must be noted that in doing so they remained bound by ‘Peaceful Coexistence’s’ international legal orthodoxy despite this strategic modification. Towards this end, Soviet efforts fixated heavily on developing expansive, periphery-friendly definitions of ‘aggression’ as a fundamental international legal breach, as well as the notion of ‘wars of national liberation’ whereby anti-colonial struggles would be elevated from internal affairs of colonial powers to international conflicts, thus bestowing an enhanced degree of legal protection and legitimacy upon national-liberation fighters.[37]

          Yet, the great pitfall here was that Western powers could condemn these assertions as attempts to politicise international law’s ‘ideologically neutral’ principles. Here, claims abounded that such definitions of ‘aggression’ were cynical attempts to exclude non-Western coercive practices,[38] and ‘wars of national liberation’ threatened to undo progressive legal developments within the law regulating armed conflict.[39] Such focus on symbolically powerful, yet ultimately constraining, international legal issues provides context regarding the Soviets’ bind in producing creative juridical innovations when the greater Third World struggle shifted from armed struggle to productive/distributional mechanisms in the 1970s. Thus, in considering the radical nature of international legal theories that developed in the PRC, the question arises as to what alternative institutions could have been developed based on these theories had the project of ‘Anti-Imperialism’ not succumbed to deep division triggered in great part by the solidarity/autarky contradiction.

          While the PRC’s post-Cultural Revolution re-entry onto the international stage led to a de-radicalising of its approach to international law (amongst other things),[40] we must remember Shadow Cold War’s point that Chinese anti-imperial leadership would have been a seemingly obvious choice for a refocused Third World ‘… attempt to overturn the existing international economic order’ via the New International Economic Order (‘NIEO’) (p. 206). While this type of revolutionary leadership did not occur due to rapid Chinese rapprochement with the West, these circumstances highlight the vast degree of contingency concerning the connections between law, class, and world revolution. After all, the failures of the NIEO have been assessed as a problem of emancipatory visions being constrained by the unforeseen structures of actually-existing international legality.[41] To some extent, these systemic barriers were recognised by the Soviets who denounced these endeavours as ‘… not yet truly “anti-imperialist” … because they did not attack the very basis of the capitalist system itself’ (p. 208). However, given that the Soviets had committed themselves to constraining structures of international legalism, they were profoundly limited in their ability to offer alternatives.

          Yet, what if the PRC’s anticipated leadership did occur and the newfound distribution-focused Third World projects were guided by the radically class-conscious approach to international law formulated by the Chinese jurists? Could such a move have exposed the constraining contradictions of international law that fundamentally divided shared revolutionary ambitions? What new contradictions might have arisen and how might they have been confronted? The centring of such questions has much to offer contemporary theorists seeking to articulate radical, class-conflict based approaches to international law.[42] Furthermore, if these pursuits are to be historicised within the broader scheme of struggle amongst diverse revolutionary actors on a global scale, Shadow Cold War offers a vast treasure trove from which materialist accounts can be constructed. That said, questions surrounding class and international legal contradictions form only one path of exploration amongst many that stand to be expanded by this book’s profound contribution regarding the critically important, yet long-neglected, dynamic of ‘Inter-Revolutionary Rivalry’.


This piece benefitted immensely from conversations with numerous friends and colleagues, with special thanks due to Luis Eslava, Ahmed Raza Memon, Rose Sydney Parfitt, Mia Tamarin and the participants in the 2016 ‘Legacies of the Tricontinental’ conference. All errors, oversights, omissions and mischaracterisations are mine and mine alone.   


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[1] Buzan and Lawson 2015, p. 146.

[2] Geertz 1973, p. 240.

[3] See Eslava, Fakhri and Nesiah (eds.) 2017.

[4] See, for example, Anand 1971.

[5] See Hazard 1938; Chiu 1966.

[6] One example being the Soviet embrace of ‘national self-determination’. See Bowring 2008.

[7] Koskenniemi 2005.

[8] See Knox 2010, pp. 197–9.

[9] See Pahuja 2011.

[10] In this capacity, the fundamental international legal norms of sovereign equality and non-intervention became entrenched as a means of managing the conflicting agendas of Cold War forces. See Roth 2012, pp. 32–3.

[11] See Knox 2016, p. 89.

[12] See Pashukanis 1987.

[13] Miéville 2005, pp. 135–7.

[14] Pashukanis 2005, p. 325.

[15] See Raimundo 1967.

[16] McWhinney 1962.

[17] Vamvoukos 1979, p. 136.

[18] See Quigley 2007.

[19] See Pashukanis 2005.

[20] For an overview, see Anderson 1983.

[21] Trotsky 2017, pp. 3–12.

[22] Anievas 2014, p. 96.

[23] Rosenberg 1996, p. 10.

[24] See Dickinson 1931, pp. 184–5, 193.

[25] Roth 1999, pp. 261–3.

[26] See Craven 2005.

[27] On Soviet hopes for the UN system, see Korovin 1946.

[28] Rosenberg 1994, pp. 129–31.

[29] See Li 2011.

[30] See Nkrumah 1976.

[31] Geertz 1973, p. 240.

[32] Neff 1990, p. 1.

[33] Newton 2015, pp. 165–6.

[34] Geertz 1973, p. 236.

[35] See Chiu 1966, pp. 245–62.

[36] See Chiu 1966, p. 262.

[37] Ginsburgs 1964.

[38] Stone 1977.

[39] See Baxter 1975.

[40] See Kim 1987.

[41] See Ozsu 2017.

[42] See Chimni 2004, Rasulov 2010.