Belief in historical progress was once abundant in the western world. In fact, some of the uglier crimes of western colonialism were justified in the name of progress. Colonizers and imperialists often claimed to be more advanced than those they repressed and brutalized, and justified their mistreatment of others in the name of somehow “civilizing” and “advancing” their victims. However, in recent years, this very western concept has been largely eroded.
Harvard Psychologist Steven Pinker tried to put forward a western, capitalist conception of historical progress in his article “The Enlightenment is Working” published by the Wall Street Journal on February 13th, 2018. Observing the condition of American discourse, he began his article saying: “For all their disagreements, the left and the right concur on one thing: The world is getting worse. Whether the decline is visible in inequality, racism and pollution, or in terrorism, crime and moral decay, both sides see profound failings in modernity and a deepening crisis in the West. They look back to various golden ages when America was great, blue-collar workers thrived in unionized jobs, and people found meaning in religion, family, community and nature.” Pinker’s article went on to give a defensive attempt to assert the concept of progress in an atmosphere where it is notably absent, and say that such progress is indeed coming from western countries.
Those who still have faith in the future most certainly breathed a sigh of relief when Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose ideological breakthroughs have been added to the Communist Party’s constitution, took the floor at the China International Import Expo in Shanghai for his widely viewed keynote address.
Belief in historical progress is a central tenant of Marxism and the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party. Marx drew much of his philosophical outlook from Hegel, and his concept of the dialectic. Hegel argued that history was advancing through contradictions, in which a thesis clashed with an antithesis, ultimately resulting in a synthesis. While Hegel understood historical progress primarily in the sense of a battle of ideas, Marx developed historical and dialectical materialism, arguing the struggle to advance productive forces and raise the conditions of human existence drove civilization forward.
President Xi Jinping’s remarks included this particularly glowing passage:
“People with vision in the world would agree that economic globalization, as an irreversible trend of history, has greatly boosted global growth. This is an overarching trend, something that is independent of people’s will. What we mankind can do is to understand, adapt to, and apply the law of history instead of trying to prevent it from happening. The wheel of history, indeed, will keep rolling forward no matter what.”
However, the speech reached its climax when he spoke about China’s role in the global economy and human history, proclaiming:
“China is the world’s second largest economy. We have a market of more than 1.3 billion consumers who live on the land of over 9.6 million square kilometers. To use a metaphor, the Chinese economy is not a pond, but an ocean. The ocean may have its calm days, but big winds and storms are only to be expected. Without them, the ocean wouldn’t be what it is. Big winds and storms may upset a pond, but never an ocean. Having experienced numerous winds and storms, the ocean will still be there! It is the same for China. After going through 5,000 years of trials and tribulations, China is still here! Looking ahead, China will always be here to stay!”
“I am convinced that as long as we have strategic confidence, deepen reform and opening-up across the board, intensify supply-side structural reforms and make greater efforts to solve outstanding problems, then the Chinese economy will surely make a quicker transition to high-quality development, the Chinese people will surely overcome all challenges coming our way, and China will surely embrace a brighter future of development.”
The audience of both international guests and important Chinese leaders responded to these statements with dramatic applause. Xi’s his words presented the long term aspirations of the Chinese nation, and presented sentiments that many across the planet are longing for.
In his widely studied essay “On The Role of the Individual in History” Yuri Plekhanov, the father of Russian Marxism and mentor of Vladimir Lenin, wrote: “A great man is great not because his personal qualities give individual features to great historical events, but because he possesses qualities which make him most capable of serving the great social needs of his time, needs which arose as a result of general and particular causes.
Xi Jinping’s boldness in upholding and continuing the Chinese Communist Party’s vision for the rejuvenation of a great country, and his ability to offer hope, not just to his own people, but to the entire world, certainly points to the status of a “great man” by Plekhanov’s definition.
There is no question that in age with so much pessimism, isolationism, fear and retreat from the global economy, Xi Jinping’s speech served as a breath of fresh air and ray of hope and inspiration to many, many people.
Originally published in New Eastern Outlook