Saturday, July 9, 2022

The rule of nihilists

 A friend sent me recently an abbreviated version of Xi Jinping’s January 2013 speech to the members of the Central Committee of CPC (the English translation is here). The speech is often mentioned, generally in the context of greater ideological control and “authoritarian tendencies” of Xi Jinping, but I have not read it until I got it from him.

It is rather fortuitous that I read it now, almost ten years after it was pronounced, because it sheds light on the very current problem of the Russian war on Ukraine. This statement might come as a surprise to many (“What does Xi’s speech of 2013 have to do with Mariupol 2022”) but I will explain it in the rest of the text.

Xi’s argumentation is very tight and logical. One may agree or disagree with the objectives posited by Xi and even some interpretations, but there is no doubt that the main points regarding the role of the CPC in making China first independent, and then strong are true, as well as his point that "ideological nihilism" leads to the end of the system, and, implicitly, to the disastrous outcomes that we see today in Russia.

Two points are worth highlighting. Xi’s interpretation of the end of the Soviet Union, and his accent on ideology.

Xi sees the break-up of the Soviet Union and the end of the CPSU as the result of “ideological nihilism”: the ruling strata have ceased to believe in the advantages and the value of the system, but lacked any other ideological coordinates within which to situate their thinking. (Incidentally, I have noticed that when I recently read Andrei Kozyrev’s, Yeltsin’s minister of foreign affairs, book of memoirs, reviewed here; the book is striking by its total absence of any ideology.)

Here is Xi: “Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Communist Party of the Soviet Union fall to pieces? An important reason is that in the ideological domain, competition is fierce! To completely repudiate the historical experience of the Soviet Union, to repudiate the history of the CPSU, to repudiate Lenin, to repudiate Stalin was to wreck chaos in Soviet ideology and engage in historical nihilism. It caused Party organizations at all levels to have barely any function whatsoever. It robbed the Party of its leadership of the military. In the end the CPSU — as great a Party as it was — scattered like a flock of frightened beasts! The Soviet Union — as great a socialist state as it was — shattered into pieces.”

The lack of belief in the system stemmed from the failure of the Soviet Union in the economic arena, and inability to propose a system of participation in the decision-making that appealed to, or was acceptable to, most of its population. The roots of the debacle were both economic and ideological.  Once the party loses the control of the ideology, Xi argues, once it fails to provide a satisfactory explanation for its own rule, objectives and purposes, it dissolves into a party of loosely connected individuals linked only by personal goals of enrichment and power.

The party is then taken over by “ideological nihilism”. While in some cases, this ideological void caused by the disappearance of communist ideology was filled by nationalism, it was almost nowhere filled by liberalism (as I argued many years ago in this piece, namely that the revolutions of 1989 were not revolutions of democracy but of national independence and self-determination). This however was not –as we can see from Xi’s speech—the worst outcome. The worst outcome, and perhaps what Xi fears for China, is that the country be taken over by people with no ideology whatsoever but with an entirely cynical and self-serving desire to rule. This is what happened in Russia where the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was succeeded, and the country hijacked, by the ideological nihilists of the intelligence services.

The ideological nihilists of the KGB were often seen, in the West, as much more preferable rulers than communists. Thus for John Lewis Gaddis,  perhaps the most well-known US historian of the Cold War, the only praiseworthy Soviet leader before Gorbachev (in The Cold War: A New History) was Beria precisely because Beria was completely non-ideological and willing to serve any system so long as he remained in charge. In the latter days of the Soviet Union, KGB people were seen as the only ones who could impose some order and get the economy growing. Hence the election of Andropov to lead the CPSU—a total reversal of the traditional subservience of the intelligence apparatus to the Party. (It is not for nothing that Stalin never allowed Cheka in its various appellation to decide on policies, but only to execute them, at times literally by shooting people.) The dependence on the intelligence service was repeated in the last years of Yeltsin’s rule when four out of his last five prime ministers (a position from which the person would quasi-automatically succeed Yeltsin) were linked with KGB (Primakov, Stepashin, Kirienko and finally Putin). This intellectual void enabled the rule of ideological nihilists—people who by the very nature of their jobs were pragmatists to the bone, without any concern with, or interest in, ideology.

The focus on the external features of one’s rule, and disregard of ideology that motives those in power, leads many liberal commentators to speak of “autocracies” of Xi and Putin as if they belonged to the same specie. But, as Xi’s speech shows, they do not. What differentiates them is that in one case there is an attempt (I cannot judge how successful) to preserve the hegemonic rule of the communist ideology, and therefore to control the organs of brute power (the Army and the police), and in the other case, there was a complete replacement of the ideological and the political by pragmatism of power.

Unlike the original and very ebullient commentators of the end of communism who liked to think that its end will bring forth the flowering of democracy, Xi rightly puts the emphasis on something much more grim and perhaps realistic: “ideological nihilism” that opens the way to adventuresome policies devoid of any ideological or even logical justifications. They might have been, as in the case of Putin’s Russia’s attack on Ukraine, adopted either because of misjudgment or because of a desire to provide same superficial nationalist veneer to an otherwise ideologically empty regime. Whatever the case, they were unmoored from any ideology. Xi is right to argue that once belief in a better society of the future and focus on economic success that is supposed to bring that future society along are abandoned, the power is surrendered to “opportunistic cliques” who may plunge their countries into wars and destruction either because they believe in nothing or because they are in search of some justification for their nihilistic rule.

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