Reading Deng Xiaoping: On the Origins of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics

Deng Xiaoping’s ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics [zhongguo tese shehuizhuyi]’ is often mentioned in relation to his speech at the twelfth congress of the CPC in 1982. This was indeed a major statement and was elaborated on many occasions afterwards.

However, the idea was neither a new development, nor a departure from Mao Zedong. As part of my Chinese language study, I have been reading the key statements by Deng and came across a speech from 1956, called ‘Integrate Marxism-Leninism with the Concrete Conditions of China’ (Selected Works, volume 1, pp. 256-58). Let me quote the key section:

The universal truth of Marxism-Leninism must be integrated with the concrete practice of a country – a formulation which is itself a universal truth. It embraces two aspects – universal truth and the integration of that truth with a country’s concrete conditions. We have consistently held that neither aspect can be ignored. It is the view of our Chinese Communist Party that the universal truth includes abolishing feudalism and capitalism and realizing socialism, to be followed by communism. Can we do without taking the socialist road? No, we cannot. If we deviate from this universal truth and give up our efforts to establish socialism, the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party would have no need to exist. How then can China abolish feudalism and capitalism and realize socialism and communism at an earlier date? We have to study the characteristics of our own country. Otherwise, if we mechanically copy the experience of other countries, this universal truth will not be realized in China. You, my friends, must have learned about China’s socialist transformation of capitalist industry and commerce in the various places you visited. This is a case of integrating the universal truth with the concrete conditions of China. The universal truth calls for abolishing capitalism and exploitation, and realizing socialism. If we depart from it, socialist transformation of capitalist industry and commerce would be out of the question, and we shall find ourselves on the capitalist, not the socialist, road. This is one aspect of the matter. The other aspect is that the road we are taking today, namely, transforming capitalist industry and commerce, is the one which Lenin had in mind but was unable to take. We have chosen the peaceful transformation of capitalist industry and commerce. Experience has shown that in so doing our production has not been impaired but, rather, expanded and we have not only eliminated capitalism but educated the bourgeoisie as well. It has proved to be a good method. If the universal truth had not been integrated with the concrete conditions of China or had been poorly integrated, we would have suffered great losses. The same is true in the socialist transformation of agriculture and in all other fields of our endeavour as well.

Was this perhaps a new idea in 1956? Not at all, for Deng is careful to point out its origins:

Who decides which of the classic international principles of communism are applicable to China? The Seventh National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, held 11 years ago, laid down the following principle: we shall integrate the universal truth of Marxism and Leninism with the concrete practice of the Chinese revolution as a guide for our country’s revolution and development. This principle, formulated by our Party and Comrade Mao Zedong on the basis of the experience of failure and success in revolution, was affirmed at the Seventh and Eighth Party Congresses.

If one reads Mao Zedong’s lengthy report to the seventh national congress of 1945, one finds the following:

From its very beginning our Party has based itself on the theory of Marxism-Leninism, for Marxism-Leninism is the crystallization of the most correct and most revolutionary scientific thought of the world proletariat. When the universal truth of Marxism-Leninism began to be integrated with the concrete practice of the Chinese revolution, the Chinese revolution took on an entirely new complexion … the Communist Party of China has brought a new style of work to the Chinese people, a style of work which essentially entails integrating theory with practice, forging close links with the masses and practising self-criticism. The universal truth of Marxism-Leninism, which reflects the practice of proletarian struggle throughout the world, becomes an invincible weapon for the Chinese people when it is integrated with the concrete practice of the revolutionary struggle of the Chinese proletariat and people. This the Communist Party of China has achieved (Selected Works, volume 3, p. 314).

Actually, we can go back even further to 1938, where Mao observes:

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 … 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 (‘On the New Stage’, 1938, p. 539).

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