A Note on “Historical Nihilism”

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“We should continuously upgrade our understanding of Marxism and maintain steadfast pursuit of the great ideal and goal…. We should earnestly study, understand and believe these theories, and put them to good use. We should not be conceived or impetuous when we have won success and not waver or give up in times of adversity. We should stand fast and hold onto the great ideas that promote the progress of human society and the realization of human ideals.”

—Xi Jinping (July 2016) 

In the summer of 2013 Xi Jinping delivered a speech on the National Conference of Development Work. Included in the official version of his speech is the following paragraph:

How strong and invincible people can be if they have lofty aspirations! During China’s revolution, development, and reform, innumerable Party members laid down their lives for the cause of the Party and the people. What supported them was the moral strength gained from the utmost importance they attached to their revolutionary ideals.[1]

This focus on aspirations and ideals pervades Xi’s speeches; it is something of an obsession with him. He is deeply concerned that 21st century Chinese simply do not have have fortitude and sense of self sacrifice needed to make China great. This worries him greatly.

What interests me in this paragraph, however, is the second sentence:  During China’s revolution, development, and reform, innumerable Party members laid down their lives for the cause of the Party and the people. Xi is saying something very interesting here. The history of the Communist Party of China is a history of glorious martyrdom—both during the revolution that brought the Party to power and after it.

Xi commonly divides the history of his Party into three sections. He does it in this speech I have just quoted. He would do so again a few years later, in a speech commemorating the Long March:

The victory of the Long March proved that Party leadership is a fundamental guarantee ensuring that the cause of the Party and the people will succeed. Mao Zedong once said, “Who brought the Long March to victory? The Communist Party. Without the Communist Party, a long march of this kind would have been inconceivable. The Communist Party of China, its leadership, and its cadres and its members fear no difficulties or hardships.” Party leadership has guaranteed the success of China’s revolution, socialist construction, and reform.” [2]

Revolution. Socialist construction (or socialist development). Reform. This is the standard periodization of the Communist Party of China. We live in the reform era. “Reform and Opening Up” is the official name, and it has been going on since Deng Xiaoping decided to liberalize China’s SOEs and transform China into a “socialist market economy.”  Revolution refers to the period from the Party’s founding through the Party’s seizure of power in Nanjing and the retreat of the KMT across the Taiwan Strait. The Mao years make up the middle period. In this time the formula of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” had not yet been found. China just had socialism—or at least, attempts to “construct” and “develop” it.

The Party mythology is full of heroes who died valiantly for the cause of the Chinese people in the Party’s early days. Chinese television is full of dramatizations of Communists fighting against the Japanese; less televised, but still celebrated, are those who died fighting the nationalists. These are the glorious dead of “revolution.”

Who are the dead of development and reform?

I do not know the exact number of Communist Party members who died after the revolution ended. I do know the number must be massive. Remember that the Cultural Revolution began as an attack upon the Party. It ended as a civil war among China’s youth, both sides claiming the mantle of Marxist revolutionaries. A great deal of ‘red’ blood was spilt in the reign of Mao Zedong.

Xi Jinping is well aware of this. Xi was himself a target of the revolution. His sister died in it; he, his parents, and his other siblings were exiled, imprisoned, or tortured because of it. Through war and will, Xi’s father had climbed the Communist hierarchy.  He knew the grand and bloody heights of Zhongnanhai. He brought his family to perch there with him. Though young, Xi would have personally known many of the country’s most prominent Communist leaders when the tumult began. He would have attended school with their children. He would have watched as these ‘heroes’ were killed off by zealous Red Guards. He would have seen them thrown from their heights one by one until he was thrown down himself.

How does Chairman Xi make sense of these things? I often ponder this question. Xi Jinping is a man who watched the Communist Party cannibalize itself. He watched this up close. He suffered tremendous grief and pain because of it. And yet from the age of 17 forward he devoted his life to it. He has done more than defend Party: he has personally moved to punish historians and researchers who chronicle its past—a past he lived through. Those historians who research the atrocities of the Mao years are accused of “engaging in historical nihilism.”

Much has been written on historical nihilism. But what does it mean? I do not think the pairing of those two words together was accidental.[4] The Party is accusing these historians of stripping history of its meaning. But what meaning? What meaning is being lost?

Xi Jinping has beliefs about meaning. He often articulates them. In his mind the Communist Party and its cause are suffused with it. He dreams of progress. “The system of Chinese socialism represents a fundamental institutional guarantee for progress,” he says. This ‘progress’ is not for China only. The “Communist Party of China and the Chinese people,” he declares, “are more than confident that we can offer a Chinese solution to human society, ” a solution for those peoples who want “to explore a better social system.” The Party’s path is an advance in “human civilization.”[3] These are the great ideals that China’s martyrs and heroes died for.

We might ask: does that include the heroes and martyrs who died after the revolution ended?

 Xi Jinping will never say this explicitly. He cannot. But this is more or less how he talks about the Mao years: a time of both pain and glory, of socialist “construction” and “development,” the necessary stepping stone of toil, tests, and tears that made the current regime possible. The wonder that is modern China, he implies, was built from the blood of those countless dead. Their deaths were terrible. Vicious. But they were not meaningless. They were the building blocks of progress.

The problem with the historical nihilists now can be seen in a different frame. Yes, by telling the truth about the Party’s past the historians might make the Party’s hold on the people of China’s present less sure. I doubt it not. But I suspect there is something more personal involved here, something more deeply felt. The Party leadership remembers the bloodshed. They do not want the suffering of their fathers and their mothers to be stripped of its meaning. To have been for nothing. Far better if they suffered for something. Far better if it had been for the cause of national greatness and human progress. Then all of it might have been worth it.

Thus the ‘nihilism’ of the historians. I suspect that what most troubles Xi Jinping most of all is not that the historians write tales of faction, massacre, terror, famine, starvation, torture and destruction—but that in so writing, they suggest a reality China’s leaders do not wish to face: it was all for nothing. 

If you found this post on China’s political ideology useful, you might also find the posts “Xi Jinping Explains His Political Philosophy,” China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order,” and “Reflections on China’s Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II” of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Quoted in Xi Jinping, The Governance of China, vol I (Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 2014), p 463.

[2] Xi Jinping, Governance, vol II, p. 37

[3] Ibid, 53, 37.

[4] I should note here that the phrase itself is not a Xi era invention. It has had a renaissance under his rule, however. This is partly because of how much Xi himself likes the term.

Leave a Comment


Sounds like Xi is just a typical boomer, who needs a inspiring narrative to give it meaning in life 🙂
Also, you laid out additional hypothesis in the text: he sees the Cultural Revolution as a time when the core lost control of the Party and the country, as opposed to really being launched by Mao and then mutating into something unexpected. Therefore, tighter grip = better, more stable results.

I'm a tyro on Marxist thought and Chinese ideology, but still the basic question comes to mind-

Is it not possible to construct a narrative within their framework in which villains hijacked progress, did harm, and were seen off by enlightened leadership? I actually thought that was the narrative for a long time.

That would be the usual narrative in most other political systems, whether or not liberal, parliamentary, or democratic, that have seen upheavals and civil wars.

Is it not possible for the CCP to maintain that line, on the grounds the existence of error during the cultural revolution would gut the fragile illusion of party supremacy? If so, how did they manage it in the 70s?

The path you suggest is essentially what Kruschev did to Stalin – here is Xi Jinping’s opinion of that:

“Why was the Soviet Union dissolved? Why did the CPSU collapse? One important reason was the struggle in the ideological field. Historical nihilism rejected Soviet Union history, CPSU history, Lenin, and Stalin; it messed up the thinking. As a result, party branches perished; the party could not even control the military. Therefore, a big party like the CPSU was dissipated; a big socialist power like the Soviet Union collapsed. This is a vital historical lesson.”

The other point is to emphasize the manner in which the Communist Party is part of, embedded within, the people, and the excesses of the past era are excesses of the people as a whole, and not just some clique of alien villainous hijackers who brainwashed everyone.

And it’s hard to give them villain status when someone like Mao is so fundamental in establishing important features of China today. To put that in the simplest terms: Mao’s face is still on the money.

I grew up under Communism and the idea was very good; just that, most people were selfish, and the idea could not work.

Came to America and I was enjoying the fake capitalism, that is companies only hired a certain people from a certain countries. I did well for awhile.

When globalization happened, that is true capitalism really showed its logic, many of my friends and co-workers got laid off. My friends got bitter and blamed others for stealing their jobs. I tried to help them to accept true capitalism, "Capitalism is to maximize the return of investment to the share holders. It's not about taking care of the workers. There are so many workers, you burn out, there are other replacement. You are just a resource."

And I added, "Nobody stole your job. The bosses have the control of offering jobs to who ever they view as most productive, and accepting the lowest pay to maximize the profit." "Enjoy capitalism while you last."

I saved whiled my friends did not and all of them lost their houses….

With that said, maybe at the end, it's better to make everyone poor instead of having a bunch making a lot and a lot got laid off and got bitter, blaming someone else who had no control over the job offering. And this is what Xi Jinping and the Communism are all about.