Liberating Thought, Part 4: Liberating the Forces of Production (jiefang shengchanli)

This is the fourth and final part of a draft concerning the philosophical basis of Deng Xiaoping Theory. In the previous three parts, I dealt with liberating thought as the correct theoretical line, democratic centralism and seeking truth from facts (I have now revised those posts). This fourth section deals with another significant feature of Deng Xiaoping’s approach: liberating the forces of production. This entails yet another contradiction that must be understood in light of Mao Zedong’s contradiction analysis.

In elaborating on the final contradiction – between planned and market economies – let me begin with the following quotation:

Not liberating thought is out of the question, even to the extent of including the question of what socialism is also requires the liberation of thought. If the economy remains stagnant for a long period of time, it cannot be called socialism. If the people’s living standards remain at a very low level for a long period of time, it cannot be called socialism (Deng 1980c, 312).1

I have begun with this quotation, since it raises more sharply the connection between liberating thought and liberating the forces of production, and thus the whole process of the Reform and Opening-Up (Cai and Pan 2008, 191). One of Deng’s signal contributions was to emphasise a feature of Marxism – liberating the forces of production – that was too often lost in the initial moves after a successful proletarian revolution. Given the prior realities of bourgeois and landlord ownership of the means of production, the primary task for a Communist Party in power had been to expropriate such owners and claim the means of production for workers (both rural and urban). This measure was necessary also to deal with the inevitable counter-revolution, and it initially enabled in all countries that began the process of constructing socialism an economic surge. However, the focus became too fixed in the realm of the relations of production, on ownership of productive forces. This imbalance inevitably led to new contradictions between the forces and relations of production, with stagnating economic initiative and improvement (Deng 1982, 16; 1985, 148).

So Deng’s emphasis was resolutely on the other – often neglected – side, on the forces of production. Socialism is all about the liberation of the forces of production: ‘The development of the productive forces … is the most fundamental [zui genben] revolution from the viewpoint of historical development’ (Deng 1980c, 311; 1980d, 310). There is no point to ‘poor socialism’; socialism means nothing if it does not liberate the forces of production, stimulate the economy and the improve the living standards of all people. Later, on his famous ‘Southern Tour’ of 1992, Deng defined socialism in terms of what are now called the ‘three benefits’: ‘whether it is conducive to the development of the productive forces of a socialist society, to the enhancement of the comprehensive national strength of a socialist country, and to the improvement of people’s living standards’ (Deng 1992, 372).2

Obviously, this emphasis requires a distinct liberation of thought, a freeing of the mind from past dogmatisms so as to bring about a redefinition of socialism. Or, rather, it requires a recovery of a feature that is too frequently forgotten in the Marxist tradition. It remains to see to how this re-emphasis entails a contradiction. It does so at two levels. The first is between the forces and relations of production. In response to efforts in the early stages of socialist construction in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to suggest that the contradiction had been overcome and that socialism was all about the relations of production and ownership, which could determine economic development, Stalin (1952) argued that the contradictions between forces and relations of production continue under socialism. Should one dimension outpace the other, economic policy required an adjustment in favour of laggard. In China too, the problem had been an over-emphasis on the relations of production, which may initially through a fully planned economy enabled an economic boost, but it had by the 1970s begun to stifle economic improvement. Hence the resolute emphasis on liberating the forces of production and on the ‘three benefits’.

This liberation was achieved through what in China is called a ‘socialist market economy’, which will be discussed in detail in a subsequent chapter. The point I seek to make here is that planned and market economies – as components or institutional forms (tizhi) of an overall socialist system (zhidu) – do not cancel each other out in a Chinese context. It is not a case of either-or, as is the tendency in the Western tradition, but both-and: ‘things that contradict each other also complement one another’. Thus, at the time of writing this material we find the emergence of arguments that the Chinese approach is enabling a dialectical sublation (yangqi, the Chinese translation of Aufhebung) or transcendence (chaoyue) of old-fashioned socialist planning and the capitalist market economy (Zhang 2009, 139; Zhou and Wang 2019, 41). In other words, planning has by no means disappeared with the socialist market economy, but has achieved a whole new level of complexity and flexibility (Heilman and Melton 2013).

With this observation in mind, we may understand the emphasis on planning in the final section of Deng’s speech on liberating thought (which has been the focus of this study). Deng introduces this material with the observation: ‘In order to look forward, we must study the new situation and tackle the new problems in good time; otherwise, there can be no smooth progress’. He goes on: ‘In three fields especially, the new situation and new problems demand attention: methods of management, structure of management and economic policy’ (Deng 1978b, 149; 1978a, 159). In what follows this quotation, we find an emphasis on overcoming bureaucratism in management methods, on strengthening the work responsibility system by not relying (and here he quotes Lenin) on collegiate excuses but on rewards and penalties, and on a deliberate policy of uneven development, in which some regions would experience the benefits of liberating productive forces so as to provide role models for others. The third item has its obvious dangers, with resultant discrepancies between richer and poorer regions and the rising polarities that were a distinct problem in the 1990s and 200s. The policies by Xi Jinping and the resolute poverty alleviation campaign in which ‘no-one will be left behind’ may be seen as a necessary correction.

Of most interest in this final discussion is the fact that Deng – the champion of the socialist market economy – focuses resolutely on management and thereby on planning. How is this possible? Do not planned and market economies negate one another? In the Western Marxist tradition this may be the assumption, although in assuming such Western Marxists share the view of the godfather of neo-liberalism, Count Ludwig von Mises (1932, 142): ‘the alternative is still either Socialism or a market economy’. But not in Chinese Marxism, and certainly not in the theory and practice of Deng Xiaoping, or indeed in the further developments that followed in his wake.

To recap: not only are planned and market economies institutional forms (tizhi) or components with an overall socialist system (zhidu), but even more both are planning devices, which may engage dialectically with one another so that they are thoroughly transformed.


Cai Xiaodong, and Pan Shaolong. 2008. “Jiefang sixiang de ‘xianyan shu’ – zhongdu Deng Xiaoping ‘jiefang sixiang, shishiqiushi, tuanjie yizhi xiangqian kan’ jianghua de ganwu”. Anhui sheng zhexue xuehui huiyi lunwen ji 2008 (12): 188–93.

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.

———. 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.

———. 1980c. “Shehuizhuyi shouxian yao fazhan shengchanli (1980.04-05)”. I Deng Xiaoping wenxuan, Vol. 2:311–14. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1995.

———. 1980d. “To Build Socialism We Must First Develop the Productive Forces (April-May 1980)”. In Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, 310–13. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1995.

———. 1982. “Qianshinian wei houshinian zuohao zhunbei (1982.10.14)”. In Deng Xiaoping wenxuan, Vol. 3:16–18. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2008.

———. 1985. “Shehuizhuyi he shichang jingji bu cunzai genben maodun (1985.10.23)”. Im Deng Xiaoping wenxuan, Vol. 3:148–51. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2008.

———. 1992. “Zai Wuchang, Shenzhen, Zhuhai he Shanghai deng de de tanhua yaodian (1992.01.18 – 02.21)”. I Deng Xiaoping wenxuan, Vol. 3:370–83. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2008.

Heilman, Sebastian, and Oliver Melton. 2013. “The Reinvention of Development Planning in China, 1993–2012”. Modern China 39 (6): 580–628.

Mises, Ludwig von. 1932. Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis. Edited by J. Kahane. London: Jonathan Cape, 1936.

Stalin, I.V. 1952. “Ėkonomicheskie problemy sotsializma v SSSR”. In Sochineniia, Vol. 16:154–223. Moscow: Izdatelʹstvo “Pisatelʹ”, 1997.

Zhang Xuekui. 2009. “Shichang jingji yu shehuizhuyi xiang jiehe de sange mingti jiqi zhexue jichu – 30 ninan gaige kaifang de jingji zhexue sikao”. Shehui kexue yanjiu 2009 (3): 134–40.

Zhou Zhishan, and Wang Xing. 2019. “Chanyang xin shidai zhongguo tese shehuizhuyi zhengzhijingjixue de zhexue jichu”. Zhejiang shifan daxue xuebao (shehui kexue ban) 44 (2): 36–43.


1 My translation. See also: ‘Liberating thought should be accompanied by really solving problems … We don’t yet have many comrades who carefully study fresh situations and solve fresh problems and who really use their minds to think out ways of accelerating our advance, the development of the productive forces and the rise in national income or of improving the work of the leading bodies’ (Deng 1980b, 279–80; 1980a, 278). Note also that once thought is liberated, ‘only then can we … fruitfully reform those aspects of the relations of production and of the superstructure that do not correspond with the rapid development of our productive forces, and chart the specific course and formulate the specific policies, methods and measures needed to achieve the four modernizations under our actual conditions’ (Deng 1978b, 140–41; 1978a, 151).

2 My translation.

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