Liberating Thought, Part 2: On Democratic Centralism

This is the second part of a draft concerning the philosophical basis of Deng Xiaoping Theory. In the previous part I dealt with liberating thought as the correct theoretical line. I also pointed out that we need to deploy contradiction analysis (deriving from Mao Zedong) in order to make sense of Deng’s arguments – especially as they are found in the key text from 1978, ‘Liberate Thought, Seek Truth from Facts and Unite as One in Looking to the Future’.

The second contradiction concerns socialist democracy, which is embodied in the term ‘democratic centralism’, and even more sharply – in Mao’s reinterpretation of the dictatorship of the proletariat – in ‘democratic dictatorship’ (Mao 1949a; 1949b; 1950b, 28; 1950a, 114–15). The core of the theory is not difficult to grasp,1 especially in light of its longer history from the Soviet Union onwards (Li 2010; Li and Wang 2018), although Mao gives it a distinct formulation in terms of contradiction analysis:

Democracy and freedom are both relative, not absolute; both come into existence and develop in the course of history. Within the ranks of the people, democracy is relative to centralization and freedom is relative to discipline. All these are contradictory facets of a unity; they are contradictory and at the same time united. We should not place one-sided emphasis on one aspect while negating the other. Within the ranks of the people, freedom is indispensable, and so is discipline; democracy is indispensable, and so is centralization. Such a unity of democracy and centralization, or freedom and discipline, constitutes our system of democratic centralism (Mao 1957a, 209; 1957b, 314).

Our interest is in what Deng makes of democratic centralism in the context of the late 1970s. He makes a number points, each of which seems somewhat lapidary on the surface, but has significant implications: a) an over-emphasis on centralism requires a correction in the direction of greater democracy; b) in relation to economic democracy, greater decision making powers, and thus innovation, should be devolved to enterprises, provinces and counties; c) greater scope should be given for elections, management and supervision by workers, which would lead to greater responsibility; d) a comprehensive legal system should be developed that enshrines democratic realities and responsibilities.

To begin with, the correction towards greater democratic involvement may, on a cursory reading, suggest a ‘golden mean’ approach, in which one searches for a reasonable balance between two poles of democratic centralism. Not quite, For Deng actually points out that centralism is not strengthened but weakened without a healthy dose of democracy. Therefore, ‘we must exercise democracy to the full so as to enable proper centralism’ (Deng 1978b, 143). Obviously, we are in the territory of contradiction analysis, where the one strengthens the other by its full exercise. A little later, Deng would – invoking Mao Zedong – elaborate on the contradictory unity of democratic centralism: ‘We practise democratic centralism, which is the integration of centralism based on democracy with democracy under the guidance of centralism’. While this integral element of the socialist system focuses on the collective and the greater socialist good, it entails a unity of contradictions, a ‘unity of personal interests and collective interests, of the interests of the part and those of the whole, and of immediate and long-term interests’ (Deng 1979b, 175–76; 1979d, 183).

Further, the emphasis on economic democracy, on creative decision making at levels (see also Deng 1979a, 195, 197; 1979c, 202–3; 1980b, 280; 1980a, 278–79), should be seen in light of the interactions between the two components, or institutional forms, of market and planned economies in a socialist system. This point is dealt with more fully in my study of the socialist market economy (which Deng assiduously promoted), but here the key is that while a planned economy may give greater scope for centralised planning, a market economy has a greater tendency to foster decentralised initiative.

As for elections and responsibility, here we broach the fascinating development of de-politicised elections. By ‘de-politicised’ or ‘non-political’ elections – a concept that derives from Marx and Engels (Boer In press) – is meant the fact that elections are not the manifestation of class conflict in antagonistic political parties, but that elections are based on qualifications, expertise and merit for positions.

Finally, there is the matter of a legal framework, concerning which the deeper issue is captured in Deng’s observation that formerly ‘what leaders say is taken as the law and anyone who disagrees is called a law-breaker’. Thus, such a ‘law changes whenever a leader’s views change’ (Deng 1978b, 146; 1978a, 156). Here Deng is anticipating the whole development of a socialist rule of law (fazhi – 法治), which I have discussed elsewhere. The key opposite term is ‘rule of a human being’ (renzhi), which would come to be equated with ‘rule by law’ (fazhi – 法制). Clearly, Deng finds the latter unacceptable, at least in the late 1970s with some 30 years of the construction of socialism behind them. This rule by human beings, or rule by law, had once again come to the fore during the Cultural Revolution and caused untold havoc. Hence the urging for developing a comprehensive legal system.

The next post will focus on seeking truth from facts, which is the proletarian world outlook as well as the theoretical basis of Marxism. Put sharply: if seeking truth from facts means to integrate theory with reality, then liberating thought entails ensuring that thought conforms with reality.


Boer, Roland. In press. Friedrich Engels and the Foundations of Socialist Governance. Beijing: Renmin University Press.

Deng Xiaoping. 1978a. “Emancipate the Mind, Seek Truth from Facts and Unite as One in Looking to the Future (13 December, 1978)”. In Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Vol. 2:150–63. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1995.

———. 1978b. “Jiefang sixiang, shishi qiushi, tuanjieyizhi xiangqian kan (1978.12.13)”. In Deng Xiaoping wenxuan, Vol. 2:140–53. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2008.

———. 1979a. “Guanyu jingji gongzuo de jidian yijian (1979.10.04)”. In Deng Xiaoping wenxuan, Vol. 2:194–202. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2008.

———. 1979b. “Jianchi sixiang jiben yuanze (1979.03.30)”. In Deng Xiaoping wenxuan, Vol. 2:158–84. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2008.

———. 1979c. “Some Comments on Economic Work (4 October, 1979)”. In Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Vol. 2:201–8. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1995.

———. 1979d. “Uphold the Four Cardinal Principles (30 March, 1979)”. In Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Vol. 2:168–91. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1995.

———. 1980a. “Adhere to the Party Line and Improve Methods of Work (29 February, 1980)”. In Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Vol. 2:273–82. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1995.

———. 1980b. “Jianchi dang de luxian, gaijin gongzuo fangfa (1980.02.29)”. In Deng Xiaoping wenxuan, Vol. 2:274–83. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2008.

Fewsmith, Joseph. 2012. “China Politics Twenty Years Later”. I Socialism Vanquished, Socialism Challenged: Eastern Europe and China, 1989-2009, edited by Nina Bandelj and Dorothy Solinger, 44–59. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Li Weidong. 2010. “Lun Liening minzhujizhongzhi sixiang zai Sulian de lishi yanbian jiqi xianshi”. Shehuizhuyi yanjiu 2010 (2): 31–34.

Li, Zhijun, and Wang Yizhe. 2018. “Zhongguo gongchandang minzhujizhongzhi sixiang de lishi yanjin”. Makesizhuyi yanjiu 2018 (6): 117-23 + 160.

Mao Zedong. 1949a. “Lun renmin minzhu zhuanzheng (1949.06.30)”. In Mao Zedong xuanji, 4:1468–82. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe.

———. 1949b. “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship: In Commemoration of the Twenty-Eighth Anniversary of the Communist Party of China (30 June, 1949)”. In Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung, Vol. 4:411–24. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1961.

———. 1950a. “Closing Speech at the Second Session of the National Committee of the CPPCC (23 June, 1950)”. In The Writings of Mao Zedong 1949-1976, edited by John K. Leung and Michael Y. M. Kau, Vol. 1:111–15. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1986.

———. 1950b. “Zuo yige wanquan de geming pai (1950.06.23)”. In Mao Zedong xuanji, Vol. 5:25–29. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1977.

———. 1957a. “Guanyu zhengque chuli renmin neibu maodun de wenti”. In Maozedong wenji, Vol. 7:204–44. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1999.

———. 1957b. “On Correctly Handling Contradictions Among the People”. In The Writings of Mao Zedong 1949-1976, edited by John Leung and Michael Kau, 2:308–51. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1992.

Weller, Robert. 2012. “Responsive Authoritarianism and Blind-Eye Governance in China”. I Socialism Vanquished, Socialism Challenged: Eastern Europe and China, 1989-2009, edited by Nina Bandelj and Dorothy Solinger, 83–99. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


1. It is therefore quite puzzling why foreign observers often fail to understand democratic centralism and the nature of socialist democracy. They tend to deploy the authoritarian-democratic distinction, which is drawn from the Western liberal arsenal, but at a specific level they fail to understand how socialist democratic practices actually work. A good example is the development of local village elections, which they postulate arose in the 1990s in response to political pressure, but which has ‘failed’ to bring about the perceived need for bourgeois democracy (Fewsmith 2012, 52–55; Weller 2012). These superficial analyses (often based on newspaper articles) fail on a number of counts: organic democracy is the oldest form of democracy known to human societies and has been transformed – as Engels already foreshadowed – in light of socialist governance; it works within a larger structure of direct and indirect elections; and it is a clear embodiment of democratic centralism, and not a hierarchical ‘party controls the cadres [党管干部]’ or ‘responsive authoritarianism’.

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