Historical Nihilism and the Fall of the USSR

Historical Nihilism and the Fall of the USSR is an excellent recent documentary and a perfect supplement to Keeran and Kenny (2010). (You can view it here in Chinese on Youku.)

Where Keeran and Kenny frame the telling of the Soviet Union’s demise squarely around the proliferation of a “second economy” within the larger socialized economy, this documentary offers a rival, but in many ways complementary, interpretation. Not for reasons having to do with the clandestine economic activity of the petty bourgeoisie did the Soviet Union collapse but rather, for reasons having to do with writing history—that is, not having the courage to tell one’s story, which boils down to not having a say in one’s own story.

Many individuals (especially those working 60 hours a week under the conditions of late capitalism) have little time to cultivate a voice and a telling of their own history. Such people live in a perpetual state of nihilism; but this phenomenon can also strike a polity or country at large. Hence the thesis of this film; we are made to see, astonishingly, an entire empire (the Soviet empire) collapse of its own remarkable inability, or unwillingness, to write (or extol) its own history!

Malcolm X often quips that the first law of nature is self-preservation. Any nation or civilization should want to preserve its own history, but we see here an empire (a world superpower at that) willfully throwing theirs away! Perhaps one cannot ever know with scientific certainty if such a cause A indubitably led to effect B. Yet this is what this documentary tries to prove—that A (being shamed of one’s past) caused B (Soviet collapse).

One thought becomes clear while watching this film: the first unipolar world was created at the behest of soft-power cultural actors who were, indeed, shameless. The gradient does not flow in the other direction by the way. That is, those who now insist that a multipolar world will occur by matter of necessity (and any day now!) have not eyes to see that destruction (in this case of the US empire) requires concerted acts of will and aggression. These acts need not necessarily be military ones. In the case of the Soviet Union for instance, the achievement of superpower takedown occurred due to the diligence of American officials working at the State Department and elsewhere. Beginning in the 1940s, these bureaucrats initiated an aggressive cultural war until the Soviet collapse ultimately prevailed.

Yet the global south today (including Russia and China) has not gumption enough to initiate any sort of aggression, cultural or otherwise. The world seems content to wait for the US (and thus the unipolar world) to simply teeter over die of natural causes. This is a pipe dream. This documentary shows how the Soviet demise required explicit acts of pushing by soft-power foreign officials who managed to make its rival superpower question its hold on, and interpretation of, reality.

America, that is, pressed an advantage given to it by Khrushchev. The USA used information and media infiltration to embarrass the Soviet Union of its own history. A propaganda campaign surrounding “de-Stalinization” effectively knocked at the foundations of Soviet confidence. Note this salient bit at 49:40:

CIA Director Allen Dulles keenly observed that, “This ‘De-Stalinization’ process is the most serious error Khrushchev and other leaders have committed against the Communist cause. It will cause turmoil in Eastern Europe and the USSR. It will especially threaten those Eastern European leaders cultivated by Stalin. The US should take advantage of this excellent opportunity through means both open and clandestine.”

For those nowadays banking on America’s coming demise, I’ll suggest here that America today faces no such comparable enemy, open or clandestine—no state actor with confidence enough to assert its own version of reality as the truth itself.

We ultimately see how a sense of revisionism (read “lack of confidence”) began in the Soviet Union with Khrushchev and spread to Gorbachev, who was willing to initiate the dissolution of the very historical horizons created by his own party. Wanting himself to be a “modern” man, Gorbachev could not have taken down his own country without a resolute faith in something better.

The Americans (to their credit I suppose) shamelessly assumed that they indeed possessed that something—that “liberal democracy” (i.e. “capitalism”) truly had something to offer. From where the Americans drew such imbecilic faith is not addressed. One nonetheless admires how the USA was able, and continue to be able, to assure itself and others that liberal democracy is the only game in town; one marvels further at how easily Gorbachev was duped by such breathless confidence.

In a word, what the documentary means by “nihilism” is a world of depoliticized politics—a rewriting of history designed to shame everyone who ever dared to imagine, and actually bring into being, an alternative to capitalism.

I could not help but see in the documentary’s discussion about Khrushchev allusions to Deng. By virtue of watching this documentary in Chinese, one is forced to concede that Deng revised history in China the same way Khrushchev did in the Soviet Union. Deng denounced Mao the same way Khrushchev denounced Stalin.

Yet Deng understood in the time before Gorbachev that the complete unravelling of Mao’s legacy threatened the party and thus his own neck; better to undercut the forces of nihilism (a complete historical rewrite) by restricting Mao’s mistakes to ten years of calamity only. And while the CPC has admirably kept out of China a good chunk of a venomous Western “free press” that Gorbachev foolishly allowed to creep into the Soviet Union, one cannot so easily deny that today, China faces its own battle against historical nihilism.

The documentary does not address the threat of nihilism in China per se, but certainly the documentary is meant to be a warning to the Chinese, including to the CPC itself. The Party may indeed be on the offensive in terms of controlling media and communication, but China today is also committed to its own brand of depoliticized politics—i.e., the propagandistic espousal of socialism with little desire for its population to actually verse itself in the tenets of class warfare. A prevailing global geist has put class war beyond the pale, and China too (like Gorbachev in the documentary) wants to be “modern.”

If there is a lesson to be learned after watching, it cannot be that since China is now strong, reform and opening up has been an unqualified success. The Soviet Union was still a world superpower under Khrushchev after all. The goal is to understand the eroding effects of historical nihilism in the present before it is too late.

I don’t believe the CPC in China now faces any real danger of collapse; but like the Soviet Union, the Party may be only one Gorbachev away. In this way, President Xi’s removal of term limits to his own rule is entirely justified. Deng’s “revisionism lite” has certainly embedded into China’s social fabric the global conditions of late capitalism thus allowing feelings of nihilism to proliferate. If China is unhappy, it has nothing to do with the CPC’s supposed “authoritarian rule” but rather the opposite; too much alienation bred elsewhere has been allowed to seep in.

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