The idea of ‘socialism with national characteristics’ is usually attributed to Deng Xiaoping’s famous statement concerning Chinese characteristics. And it is often dismissed as an excuse to do anything, whether Marxist or not. But the idea actually stems from Lenin and Stalin. In 1917, Lenin wrote:

Our business is to help get everything possible done to make sure the “last” chance for a peaceful development of the revolution, to help by the presentation of our programme, by making clear its national character, its absolute accord with the interests and demands of a vast majority of the population (Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 26, p. 60).

The main theoretician of the ‘national question’, Stalin, went a step further in 1927:

In its content the culture of the peoples of the U.S.S.R. which the Soviet Government is developing must be a culture common to all the working people, a socialist culture; in its form, however, it is and will be different for all the peoples of the U.S.S.R.; it is and will be a national culture, different for the various peoples of the U.S.S.R. in conformity with the differences in language and specific national features (Stalin, Works, vol. 10, pp. 72-73).

In 1939, Mao Zedong wrote:

A Communist is a Marxist internationalist, but Marxism must take on a national form before it can be put into practice. There is no such thing as abstract Marxism, but only concrete Marxism. What we call concrete Marxism is Marxism that has taken on a national form, that is, Marxism applied to the concrete struggle in the concrete conditions prevailing in China, and not Marxism abstractly used. If a Chinese Communist, who is a part of the great Chinese people, bound to his people by his very flesh and blood, talks of Marxism apart from Chinese peculiarities, this Marxism is merely an empty abstraction. Consequently, the sinification of Marxism – that is to say, making certain that in all its manifestations it is imbued with Chinese characteristics, using it according to Chinese peculiarities – becomes a problem that must be understood and solved by the whole Party without delay (Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 6, p. 539).

So by the time Deng Xiaoping made his famous statement in 1982, he was following in this tradition:

In carrying out our modernization programme we must proceed from Chinese realities. Both in revolution and in construction we should also learn from foreign countries and draw on their experience, but mechanical application of foreign experience and copying of foreign models will get us nowhere. We have had many lessons in this respect. We must integrate the universal truth of Marxism with the concrete realities of China, blaze a path of our own and build a socialism with Chinese characteristics – that is the basic conclusion we have reached after reviewing our long history (Selected Works, vol. 3, p. 2)