Deputy Director Central Translation Office and Researcher
LESSONS FROM THE COLLAPSE OF SOVIET COMMUNISM SEEN IN THE LIGHT OF HISTORICAL NIHILISM
December 19 2017
A 2017 document by Ji Zhengju, who works in China’s Central Translation Office (English translation here) attributes the collapse of the Soviet Union to “historical nihilism,” specifically the repudiation of the Soviet heritage by the ruling elite, leading to general social demoralization and a collapse of the legitimacy of the system. The Soviet collapse has an understandable fascination for the Chinese rulers. Only China, along with North Korea and Vietnam, survived the general crumbling of the socialist systems between 1989 and 1992, but given the structural similarities between the Chinese and the Soviet Russian systems, the Chinese rulers have to fear that what happened to the Russians could happen to them. A survey of the various Chinese explanations for the Soviet collapse, taking into account the Chinese context of the time at which they were offered, would be an interesting exercise for a student of comparative politics.
In the opinion of the rulers, and probably in fact as well, China could have led the way in the general communist collapse in 1989. Some, especially among the Chinese ruling elite, are convinced that only the brutal suppression of the mass democracy movement of that year saved the system: the Chinese had the guts to do what Gorbachev and the other foreign comrades would not do. Some in the ruling group at that time blamed the liberal economic reforms and concurrent cultural liberalizations for provoking the mass demonstrations—encouraging, as it were, a kind of historical nihilism. But attempts to draw back on the reforms led to an economic slowdown, at a time when the only legitimacy remaining to the regime was that people’s living standards were improving. Deng Xiaoping argued instead that the reason for the general socialist failure had nothing to do with lack of democracy and everything to do with lack of economic performance. He forced a much more radical economic liberalization on the Chinese system, while retaining the autocratic political system.
A new social contract evolved in the early 1990s: The people were free to get rich, to spend their money pretty much as they wished, on the condition that they kept their opinions about political matters to themselves and did nothing to challenge the ruling position of the Party elite. This was an improvement over the old Maoist totalitarianism, which required not only that people obey the system but also express unrestrained enthusiasm for it. The Chinese economic system succeeded spectacularly, but the polity as a whole was not a healthy one.
While Deng’s reforms in principle encouraged both getting rich and a free market, the economy remained sufficiently politicized such that those with power were able to manipulate the market: the powerful became wealthy, and the wealthy could buy power. While in the 1980s (this is a subjective impression) younger educated Chinese generally held the Party in disdain, by the mid-1990s the Party had regained “popularity,” not out of enthusiasm for the realization of the communist utopia but because Party membership was the path to wealth and power. This, no doubt, had been generally the case since at least 1949, but previously the reality had become covered with a veneer of idealism. Now the veneer was gone. Political corruption, which had come into the open with the onset of the post-Mao reforms, grew out of control. Disparities between the rich and the poor approached and then exceeded American, even Latin American levels. The society was demoralized: both deficient in morale and lacking any sense of personal or social morality. It might be easy to blame the rise of the market economy for these pathologies, although the vulnerability of society to the more pathological aspects of the World Capitalist Economy is also one of the aftershocks of the Maoist radicalism of the Cultural Revolution, with its corrosive attacks on both the Confucian and “bourgeois” liberal structures of morality and the nurture of a general atmosphere of personal distrust.
Earlier analyses (for example) of the collapse of the Soviet Union focused on similar trends during the later days of the Soviet Union, although the Russian system certainly did not approach anything like the economic success of China. The problem there, allegedly, was that the Party, the ruling elite, had developed into a privileged class, isolated from and lording it over the ordinary people. Xi Jinping’s harsh approach to governance continues to reflect this theme, inasmuch as the campaigns against corruption, undertaken with more seriousness than the earlier such campaigns, are directed against Party bigshots who have grown rich by translating their political power into personal wealth (although the bigshots brought down tend to be those who might at some point challenge Xi’s personal supremacy). Earlier critiques had also deplored the neglect of ideology and lack of commitment to the socialist system (whatever that would be given the current economic structure). The focus here on historical nihilism, however, does not so much look at the overall structure of power and privilege as deplore the lack of respect held toward the Party (whereas earlier analyses implicitly or explicitly conceded that the Party had brought this disrespect upon itself). The argument at hand is that while there may be defects in the system, the real danger lies in dwelling on those defects. And while the argument deplores the lack of “faith” in Marxism, the real message is that people must obey and trust the Party
So: Why did the Soviet Union fall? Well, Stalin no doubt made some errors, and there were problems with the system Stalin built. But Khrushchev, lacking any sense of political proportion, wildly exaggerated the defects in the system; and youngsters coming of age during the post- Stalin years—Gorbachev and his ilk—took the message further, finding only evil and oppression in everything associated with the Soviet Union and the Communist Party. When they themselves grew into power they destroyed any reason to preserve the system, and they themselves lacked the will to defend it. And so the Soviet Union fell.
This may not be a fully accurate depiction of the acts either of Khrushchev or Gorbachev; but the lesson is meant for China. The intent is probably not a reversion to Cultural Revolution Maoism, but to the pre-Cultural Revolution condition, without the economic irrationalities of that period. Then, supposedly, the comrades were all honest and dedicated and the people profoundly respectful of and obedient to their leaders, all united in the process of making China great again. Whatever the Party’s past mistakes, the Party is still to be held as China’s only salvation; people should respect and obey the Party and, implicitly, the Party’s Leader.