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.

Liberating Thought, Part 3: Seeking Truth From Facts

This is the third part of a draft concerning the philosophical basis of Deng Xiaoping Theory. In the previous two parts I dealt with liberating thought as the correct theoretical line and with democratic centralism. The topic here is a crucial feature of Deng theory, seeking truth from facts, which also has an element that must be understood in light of contradiction analysis.

(Deng Xiaoping on his famous ‘Southern Tour’ of 1992)

Comrade Mao Zedong wrote the four-word motto ‘Seek truth from facts’ for the Central Party School in Yan’an, and these words are the quintessence of his philosophical thinking (Deng 1977a, 67; 1977c, 80; see also 1977e, 45; 1977b, 58).

The third contradiction brings us to truth from facts. It is a typical four-character phrase that deploys three homonymic characters. Shís (实事)1 refers to what is an actual happening, a fact, but the word also includes the senses of action and what is practical. Qiúshì (求是) joins the character for ‘seek [qiú]’ with another shì (), now with the meaning of what is and thus what is true. Thus, one must seek truth from actual conditions, what is actually taking place, from – as a breakthrough article in Guangming Daily (Hu 1978) put it – social practice.2

Although the centrality of the slogan is usually attributed to Deng Xiaoping, it actually goes back to Mao Zedong, who first wrote it on a wall in Yan’an during the immensely creative period in the second half of the 1930s. In his published texts, Mao refers to this principle not infrequently, although the focus tended to be on ‘a “seeking-truth-from-facts” work style’ (Deng 1962b, 299; 1962a, 296). Again and again, we find an emphasis on the style of commendable party work by cadres: hard work and plain living, upright and honest in word and deed, able to co-operate with others and resist undesirable practices, acting boldly and resolutely in an experienced and professional manner, and seeking truth from facts through keeping in close contact with the masses. This is, as Deng points out, the ‘Party spirit’ (Deng 1977f, 75; 1977d, 88),3 so much so that it continues today to embody what it means to be a comrade, a member of the Communist Party.4

However, in the late 1970s there was a distinct shift, when truth from facts was raised from being a feature of a cadre’s work-style to a central principle of not only the Reform and Opening-Up, but also the Chinese spirit (jingshen). The moment that marks the shift was a speech at an all-army conference on political work, on 2 June, 1978 (six months before the important speech on liberating thought). Here, Deng (1978h, 113–18; 1978e, 124–29) elaborates precisely on what is meant by truth from facts, and he does so by digging deep into Mao Zedong’s earlier material.5 In a slightly later speech, Deng goes further and provides specific historical examples of how Mao applied truth from facts, whether changing tactics to encircle the cities from the countryside (following Lenin’s principle of the weakest link), or shifting from a struggle against imperialism, colonialism and racism, to focusing in peaceful coexistence and working with other countries to ensure peace, or the shift in focus from class struggle as the key to liberating the forces of production (Deng 1978b; 1978c). A major reason for engaging so extensively with Mao’s writings and his actual practice was a struggle over the legacy of Mao Zedong Thought. Would it be letter or spirit? Would it be the ‘two whatevers [liangge fanshi]’, as in ‘‘we will resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave’.6 For Deng and others this was a betrayal of Mao Zedong’s thought, for he was always resolutely opposed to ‘book worship’, including his own work. Instead, argued Deng, the key is seeking truth from facts, for Marxism is not a dogma, as Engels already observed, but a guide to action.

There are a number of layers to Deng’s argument, the first of which is the scientific: socialism is also a scientific endeavour. It is nothing less than scientific socialism, as Engels first formulated it (Engels 1880b; 1880a; 1891). Thorough investigation of the data, formulation of a theoretical framework in response, and then further investigation. Nothing remarkable here, one might think: does not all modern science operate in the same way? The answer is yes and no, for everything turns – and this is the second layer – on the theoretical framework one uses to interpret the scientific data, and indeed on how the framework is transformed in the process. For Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Deng, the framework is of course Marxism. By now it should be obvious that the charge of unreconstructed empiricism, occasionally directed at Mao Zedong at least, is unfounded (Bulkeley 1977; Womack 1982, 32, 77; see the reply by Knight 1990, 24–30). As for the third layer: the method entails a constant dialectical interaction between facts and truth, between data and theory, between practice and philosophy. The ‘integration [xiang jiehe] of theory with practice’ entails that the theories developed in order to solve problems should be ‘tested by being applied in social practice’, even to the extent that instructions from higher units – up to the Central Committee – should be integrated with ‘actual conditions’ (Deng 1978h, 116–18; 1978e, 127–28). In sum, this is a process of ‘proceeding from reality and of integrating theory with practice in order to sum up past experience, analyse the new historical conditions, raise new problems, set new tasks and lay down new guidelines’ (Deng 1978h, 118; 1978e, 128–29).

A further level entails inveighing – as did Mao – against the constant danger of ‘book worship [benbenzhuyi]’ (Mao 1930a; 1930b), which in another parlance may be called ‘Marxology’. The image of those who are fond of trotting out selected texts from Marx, Engels, or even Mao himself instead of actually engaging in some serious investigation of the situation in question may seem like a caricature, but let us pause for a moment and ask: how often does a ‘Western’ Marxist like to cite Marx’s euphoric description of the Paris commune and use it to judge the supposed ‘failure’ of Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese or North Korean socialism? Not only is this habit selective and ignorant of Engels’s important contribution (in which the commune is equated with the hard edge of the proletarian dictatorship), and not only is it made by those with no concrete experience in the hard work of constructing socialism, but it so often falls into the utopian and well-nigh messianic tenor of ‘Western’ Marxism (Losurdo 2017). For those who would peremptorily dismiss China’s effort at constructing socialism, Deng’s invocation to seek truth from facts has a distinct pertinence. Or, as Mao put it in 1930: ‘no investigation, no right to speak’ (Mao 1930a, 109).

The final level of Deng’s extended treatment is embodied best in Mao’s observation: ‘Our party has a tradition of seeking truth from facts, which is to combine the universal truth of Marxism-Leninism with China’s reality’ (Mao 1961, 237; see also 1940, 662–63; 1955, 498; 1960). In other words, truth from facts is a basic tenet of socialism with Chinese characteristics. I will have more to say on this question in the conclusion, save to point out here that this central point – around which much speculation has arisen – is simple and easy to understand: Marxism embodies a universal method and truth, but it is meaningless unless one takes the specific conditions, the particular, history, culture and social conditions into account (Deng 1978h, 113; 1978e, 125). These ‘characteristics’ apply to any concrete practice of Marxism. But now we find Deng’s arresting conclusion: this is not merely an ‘application’ of Marxism; instead truth from facts is ‘the basis [jichu] of the proletarian world outlook [wuchan jieji shijieguan] as well as the theoretical basis [sixiang jichu] of Marxism’ (Deng 1978d, 143; 1978a, 153).7 It the point of departure (chufadian), the most fundamental point (genbendian) of Mao Zedong Thought and thus of Marxism.

In earlier posts, I suggested that Deng’s arguments should be seen in light of contradiction theory (as espoused by Mao Zedong). But how does truth from facts relates to the matter of contradictions. Let me put it this way, connecting it with liberating thoughts: if seeking truth from facts means to integrate theory with reality, then liberating thought entails ensuring that thought conforms with reality. Some may ask: how can integrating theory with reality mean the liberation of thought? It sounds like another way of restraining thought: instead of being tied to dogmatism and book worship, it is now bound to reality, to facts. Not only is such an objection framed by an idealist and individualist approach, but it also misses the crucial point: thought needs to be liberated from dogmatism and for creative engagements with factual reality.

By now it should be obvious that the separation of liberating thought and truth from facts into two parts is actually somewhat artificial, for Deng is always keen stress their intimate interconnection. He may have said that liberating thought is ‘primary [shouxian]’, but he also connects it closely with seeking truth from facts. For example, Deng says: ‘Only if we liberate thought, seek truth from facts, proceed from reality [shiji] in everything and integrate [lianxi] theory with reality [shiji]…’. Three of the four phrases concern what is actually happening, reality and practice (shiji can mean both). This intimate connection is expressed even more clearly in another text:

Liberating thought means making our thinking conform [xiangfuhe] to reality – making the subjective [zhuguan] conform to the objective [keguan] – and that means seeking truth from facts. Henceforth, if in all our work we want to seek truth from facts, we must continue to liberate thought (Deng 1980a, 364; 1980b, 359).

The real problem, then, is to be locked into old ways, old dogmatisms developed under different circumstances. One might study carefully – always a useful undertaking – the texts of Marx and Engels, or indeed Lenin, Stalin and Mao, but the risk is that one takes them as iron-clad prescriptions for all situations. Deng’s point here is that such an approach is actually a betrayal of Marxism, for the key is the method itself rather than the specific results arising from the method in specific situations. Marx and Engels sought to analyse the situation in Europe of the second half of the nineteenth century, while Lenin and Stalin did so in Russia (and then the Soviet Union) in the first half of the twentieth century. Mao’s extensive writings responded to and analysed the situation in China in the early to mid-twentieth century. On the way, all of them developed not only solutions to specific problems, but also a robust method that may be described as a historical and dialectical materialist approach of seeking truth from facts.


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———. 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.

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———. 1941c. “Postscript to Rural Surveys (19 April, 1941)”. In Mao’s Road to Power: Revolutionary Writings 1912-1949, Vol. 7:719–21. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 2005.

———. 1941d. “Preface to Rural Surveys (17 March, 1941)”. In Mao’s Road to Power: Revolutionary Writings 1912-1949, Vol. 7:708–10. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 2005.

———. 1941e. “Reform Our Study (19 May, 1941)”. In Mao’s Road to Power: Revolutionary Writings 1912-1949, Vol. 7:747–54. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 2005.

———. 1942a. “Jingji wenti yu caizheng wenti (1942.12)”. In Mao Zedong wennji, Vol. 2:458–68. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1993.

———. 1942b. “Rectify Our Study Style, Party Style, and Writing Style (Speech Delivered at the Opening Ceremony of the Party School, 1 February, 1942)”. In Mao’s Road to Power: Revolutionary Writings 1912-1949, Vol. 8:17–33. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 2015.

———. 1942c. “Zhengdun dang de zuofeng (1942.02.01)”. In Mao Zedong xuanji, Vol. 3:811–29. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2009.

———. 1950. “Rushi cha bao sunan zhengliang, chungeng he jiuzai qingkuang (1950.05.12)”. In Mao Zedong wenji, Vol. 6:57–58. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1999.

———. 1953a. “Fandui dangnei de zichanjingji sixiang (1953.08.12)”. I Mao Zedong xuanji, Vol. 5:90–97. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1977.

———. 1953b. “Oppose the Bourgeois Ideology in the Party (12 August, 1953)”. In The Writings of Mao Zedong 1949-1976, Vol. 1:363–75. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1986.

———. 1955. “Zai zibenzhuyi gongshangye shehuizhuyi gaizao wenti zuotanhui shang de jianghua (1955.10.29)”. In Mao Zedong wenji, Vol. 6:493–503. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2009.

———. 1956a. “Reinforce the Unity of the Party and Carry Forward Party Traditions (30 August, 1956)”. In The Writings of Mao Zedong 1949-1976, Vol. 2:109–19. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1992.

———. 1956b. “Zengqiang dang de tuanjie, jicheng dang de chuantong (1956.08.30)”. In Maozedong wenji, Vol. 7:86–99. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2009.

———. 1958a. “Gongzuo fangfa liushi tiao (cao’an) (1958.01)”. In Maozedong wenji, Vol. 8:344–65. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2009.

———. 1958b. “Sixty Points on Working Methods: A Draft Resolution from the Office of the Centre of the CPC (2 February, 1958)”. In Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung, Vol. 8:20–34. Secunderabad: Kranti, 2004.

———. 1960. “Zhudongquan laizi shishiqiushi (1960.06.16)”. In Maozedong wenji, Vol. 8:197–99. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2009.

———. 1961. “Daxing diaocha yanjiu zhifeng (1961.01.13)”. In Maozedong wenji, Vol. 8:233–38. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2009.

Womack, Brantly. 1982. The Foundations of Mao Zedong’s Political Thought. Honolulu: University of Hawaii.


1 I have added tone markers to indicate how the characters sound.

2 The article was originally published anonymously (‘a special commentator’) and went through many revisions in order to ensure maximum impact. Later revealed to have been written by Hu Fuming, it was framed as a direct challenge to the ‘two whatevers’. Deng refers to the article on a number of occasions as having ‘settled the question’ (Deng 1978d, 152; 1978a, 152–53; 1979a, 190–91; 1979b, 197–98; 1980c, 244; 1980d, 245–46).

3 As Mao puts it already in 1950, it is ‘in accordance with the spirit [jinghshen] of seeking truth from facts’ (Mao 1950, 57; see also 1942a, 458).

4 This emphasis appears throughout Deng Xiaoping’s texts (Deng 1950a, 170; 1950b, 173; 1956a, 247; 1956b, 248; 1961c, 287–88; 1961a, 284–85; 1961d, 293–95; 1961b, 291–92; 1962b, 298, 302, 304, 315; 1962a, 295, 298, 300, 310; 1978g, 106; 1978f, 117; 1978h, 124; 1978e, 134–35).

5 The texts cited and discussed are, from 1929 to 1958: ‘Draft Resolution of the Ninth Congress of the Communist Party in the Fourth Red Army’; ‘Oppose Bookism’; ‘Problems of Strategy in China’s Revolutionary War’; ‘On Practice’; ‘On Contradiction’; ‘Preface and Postscript to Rural Surveys’; ‘Reform Our Study’; ‘Rectify Our Rectify Our Study Style, Party Style, and Writing Style’ (this became ‘Rectify the Party’s Style of Work’); ‘Oppose Party Formalism’ (which became ‘Oppose Stereotyped Party Writing’); ‘Combat Bourgeois Ideas in the Party’; ‘ Strengthen Party Unity and Carry Forward Party Traditions’; ‘Sixty Articles on Working Methods (Draft)’ (Mao 1929b; 1929a; 1930a; 1930b; 1936b; 1936a; 1937d; 1937c; 1937a; 1937b; 1941b; 1941d; 1941c; 1941a; 1941e; 1942c; 1942b; 1953a; 1953b; 1956b; 1956a; 1958a; 1958b).

6 The ‘two whatevers’ were proposed in an editorial that was entitled ‘Study the Documents Well and Grasp the Key Link’. It appeared simultaneously on 7 February, 1977, in three newspapers: Renmin Ribao, Hongqi and Jiefangjun Bao. It may be found at

7 Already in 1956 Deng observed: ‘To proceed from reality and seek truth from facts is our fundamental stand as materialists’ (Deng 1956a, 243; 1956b, 244).

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’.

Liberating Thought: The Basis of Deng Xiaoping Theory

The first chapter of my book, Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, begins with an explication of Deng Xiaoping Theory. It is rare indeed to find a foreigner actually engage in detail with Deng’s texts, let alone the swathe of Chinese scholarship surrounding his work. But this is my task.

In the next few posts, I provide excerpts from early drafts of the chapter. I will present the drafts – in sequence – of four constructive topics, which should be understood in light of contradiction analysis (derived from Mao). Why undertake this task? If you want to understand China today, you need to understand Deng Xiaoping and his theory.

My initial focus is a key text from 1978: ‘Liberate Thought,1 Seek Truth from Facts and Unite as One in Looking to the Future’. In a China only beginning to come to terms with Cultural Revolution, the speech was like a clap of ‘spring thunder [chunlei]’ (Cai and Pan 2008, 188), waking people from their ideological torpor and promising the nourishing rains of spring. I am particularly interested in what may be called ‘liberation for socialism’.

The main points of this liberation may be summarised as follows: 1) liberating thought is the correct ideological line; 2) it requires a healthy exercise of socialist democracy, both political and economic; 3) it is the basis of the proletarian world outlook, now embodied in seeking truth from facts; 4) in providing the impetus to innovation, to generating new ideas and new ways, it entails a dialectical transformation of liberating the forces of production and economic planning.

Each of these points entails a contradiction, which should be approached from the perspective of contradiction analysis, as it was initially elaborated by Mao Zedong. At the intersections between the long tradition of Chinese thought and Marxist philosophy, Mao developed – initially in his 1937 Yan’an lectures (1937a; 1937b) – a multifaceted analysis that he later revised and published (1937c), along with a crucial follow-up piece on correctly handling contradictions among the people (1957). For our purposes, the following features of Mao’s analysis are pertinent: each contradiction contains an opposition that is also complementary; while contradictions under a capitalist system are antagonistic and lead eventually to revolution, under socialism contradictions should be non-antagonistic; any situation has multiple contradictions and their relations to one another constantly change in light of changing circumstances, so one always needs to assess the situation carefully and scientifically so as to be able to manage these contradictions. Let us see how Deng deals with the contradictions embodied in each of the points summarised above.

In this light, let us begin with the first contradiction: liberating thought is all about the correct ‘line of thought [sixiang luxian]’, or – as the official English translation puts it – the correct ideological line. To quote Deng: the ‘debate about the criterion for testing truth is really a debate about the theoretical line [sixiang luxian], about politics, about the future and the destiny of our Party and nation’ (Deng 1978b, 143; 1978a, 153). Obviously, we are far from any Western liberal free-for-all, a thought-for-thought’s sake that is supposedly free from any ideological interference, except liberalism itself. Instead, for Deng liberating thought is at one and the same time the correct theoretical line, particularly if we keep in mind that the line in question is the living tradition of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. Even more, it is only on this basis that it becomes possible to develop the tradition further.

We may understand this approach in terms of three related aspects: a) the very definition of the tradition is to liberate thought, for it is a living tradition rather than one ossified and dogmatically fixed on texts of the past; b) one can liberate thinking only on the basis of Marxist-Leninism; c) only through liberating thought can this theoretical line develop even further. New problems demand new solutions, which Marx and Engels, and indeed Lenin and Stalin, did not experience and could not foresee. It is not for nothing that liberating thought is the ‘beginning point’ or ‘primary task’ [shouxian]: ‘When it comes to liberating thought, using our heads, seeking truth from facts and uniting as one in looking to the future, the primary task is to liberate thought’ (Deng 1978b, 140; 1978a, 151).

A specific and sharp example may help in understanding this contradiction: Deng’s invocation of the Yan’an Rectification Movement of 1942-1945. As Deng writes, ‘Comrade Mao Zedong said this time and again [fanfu] during the rectification movements [zhengfeng yundong]’ (Deng 1978b, 143; 1978a, 153). Said what? Mao too urged repeatedly the danger of ossified thinking and book-worship (Mao 1942d; 1942c; 1942a; 1942b), observing at one point: ‘a prerequisite for maintaining close links with the masses and making fewer mistakes is to examine one’s baggage, to get rid of it, and to liberate one’s spirit [ziji de jingshen huode de jiefang]’ (Mao 1944b, 947; 1944a, 692). The anticipation of liberating thought should be obvious, although Mao uses jingshen, spirit or vital energy, rather than thought (sixiang).

This move by Deng is highly significant, for it is not the only occasion he sought to connect with the Mao from before the deviation of the 1960s and 1970s (even if the Gang of Four are so often the culprits). In other words, Deng argues strongly that he is continuing the correct line that runs not only from Mao before his deviation, but also from Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. And it is precisely this line, this tradition, which requires periodic rectification and even purging, to provide the foundation for and foster liberated thinking. In turn, liberating thought becomes the primary means for enabling the line to continue on its creative path.

In the next post, I will deal with economic democracy (second point mentioned earlier).


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”. 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.

Mao Zedong. 1937a. “Bianzheng weiwu lun”. In Mao Zedong ji, Bujuan, redigeret af Takeuchi Minoru, 5:187–280. Tokyo: Sōsōsha, 1983-1986.

———. 1937b. “Bianzhengfa weiwu lun (jiangshou tigang)”. In Mao Zedong ji, redigeret af Takeuchi Minoru, 6:265–305. Tokyo: Hokubasha, 1970-1972.

———. 1937c. “Maodun lun (1937.08)”. In Maozedong xuanji, Vol. 1:299–340. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1952.

———. 1942a. “Guanyu zhengdun sanfeng (1942.04.20)”. In Mao Zedong quanji, Vol. 2:411–23. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1993.

———. 1942b. “On the Rectification of the Three Styles (1942.04.20)”. In Mao’s Road to Power: Revolutionary Writings 1912-1949, Vol. 8:81–91. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 2015.

———. 1942c. “Rectify Our Study Style, Party Style, and Writing Style (Speech Delivered at the Opening Ceremony of the Party School, 1 February, 1942)”. In Mao’s Road to Power: Revolutionary Writings 1912-1949, Vol. 8:17–33. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 2015.

———. 1942d. “Zhengdun dang de zuofeng (1942.02.01)”. In Mao Zedong xuanji, Vol. 3:811–29. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2009.

———. 1944a. “Our Study and the Current Situation (12 April, 1944)”. In Mao’s Road to Power: Revolutionary Writings 1912-1949, Vol. 8:679–95. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 2015.

———. 1944b. “Xuexi he shiju (1944.04.12)”. I Mao Zedong xuanji, Vol. 3:937–51. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2009.

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

1 Translation modified. With jiefang sixiang I prefer to stay a little closer to the Chinese: liberate thought.

Book outline: Socialism with Chinese Characteristics

This book arises from a contradiction in our time: Chinese scholars and indeed most people in China are well aware of the key arguments and developments that form the basis of socialism with Chinese characteristics (zhongguo tese shehuizhuyi); non-Chinese scholars are largely ignorant, even though I find that more and more want to know at least something. In China, many of the topics presented in this book were settled quite a few years ago, so much so that one finds relatively little debate today. Other topics have a renewed vigour – such as contradiction analysis and rule of law – but these rely on earlier debates. By contrast, one struggles to find even remotely adequate treatment of these topics in foreign materials – if they are studied at all. I will examine some of the reasons in the introduction to the book, but three may be identified here: first, some have a tendency to say they prefer to look at the practice and ignore the theory, but this is a profound abdication of not only proper research, but Marxism itself (where theory along with practice is crucial); second, the material that does appear stops with the death of Mao Zedong (some, especially by Knick Knight, is excellent); third, the vast bulk of available scholarship is in Chinese. Obviously, one needs to be able to research this Chinese-language material.

Even so, the primary purpose of this book not to engage in polemics (lunzhan – fighting theories), but to make available for a non-Chinese audience the sophisticated debates and conclusions in China concerning socialism with Chinese characteristics. Without knowing this material, one can come to superficial perceptions and profound misunderstandings; knowing it, one begins the first steps in understanding and thereby trust. The following begins with a careful philosophical analysis of Deng Xiaoping, and the implications of his core ideas and practices. This study is the basis of what the rest of the book: contradiction analysis; the Marxist philosophy of the Reform and Opening Up; the basis and nature of the socialist market economy; socialist modernisation; rule of law; sovereignty and human rights; minority nationalities and the anti-colonial project; and Xi Jinping’s thorough Marxism in a Chinese situation. I should say that I have about a year of further in-depth research before me, so some of the material below will be revised as the project develops.


The introduction begins by tracing the idea that while Marxism has core principles, or sets of problems, the way it develops in different locations has distinct characteristics. While there are global commonalities, each region has its distinct history, culture and philosophical tradition. As a result, in each situation the problems are somewhat unique and require new answers – hence the specific ‘characteristics’ of Marxism in such a location. We may trace this idea back to the late writings of Marx and Engels, as they faced developments of socialism in other parts of the world. But it begins to appear more clearly with Lenin and Stalin, and of course with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Obviously, the idea is not original to Deng, although he gave it a particular resonance in China.

The introduction also attempts to explain why there is precious little treatment in non-Chinese material of the Marxist basis of the Reform and Opening Up, with which ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ has been most closely associated. In order to understand this situation, I elaborate on the distinction between ‘before’ and ‘after’ October. In other words, a crucial divide in analysis appears between those who take the perspective of ‘before October’, before the communist revolution, and those who analyse Marxism ‘after October’, after the revolution and in the difficult period of the construction of socialism. As Lenin and Mao said repeatedly, gaining power in a communist revolution is relatively easy; by contrast, constructing socialism is infinitely more complicated. Obviously, this study is concerned with ‘after October’, with the project of constructing socialism.

Finally, the introduction presents the main features of Chinese scholarship on socialism with Chinese characteristics. This material is immense, so I introduce the main resources, journals and themes – with a distinct focus on the philosophical foundations as they are manifested in practice.

Chapter 1. Reading Deng Xiaoping

‘Less talk, more deeds’ – Deng Xiaoping is mostly remembered as a leader of concrete acts rather than extensive theoretical reflection. In non-Chinese works, one may find biographies, studies of foreign policy, and scattered quotations taken out of context (albeit usually within a western European liberal framework). Few indeed are the studies of ‘Deng Xiaoping theory [lilun]’. Apart from Domenico Losurdo, no-one outside China has credited Deng with a sophisticated and insightful theoretical basis.

Through a careful study of Deng’s speeches and writings, along with relevant Chinese scholarship, I analyse the philosophical basis in two related ideas: liberating thought, and seeking truth from facts. While the terms seem simple enough on the surface, at a deeper level they identify the need to escape from the trap of Marxist dogmatism (as Mao also urged) and the need for careful analysis of the particular conditions of China in order to develop new answers in light of the Marxist tradition. From these two core ideas flow many of Deng’s positions: liberating the forces of production (see further the chapter on the socialist market economy), seeking a moderately well-off (xiaokang) society, to each according to work, and of course socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Chapter 2. Contradiction Analysis

Deng Xiaoping presented less of a break with Mao or indeed the Marxist tradition and more of a creative continuity within that living tradition. A significant element of this continuity was ‘contradiction analysis [maodun fenxi]’. This topic requires an initial step back to Mao Zedong (‘On Contradiction’) and how he developed a whole new phase in the Marxist tradition of dialectical analysis, via Lenin and Chinese conditions. Crucial for the construction of socialism is the idea of non-antagonistic contradictions: contradictions will appear under socialism, but the focus should be in ensuring they are non-antagonistic. Subsequently, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, we find contradiction analysis at the basis of philosophical thought and government policy. For example, it appears in: class analysis in the primary stage of socialism; socialist market economy; poverty alleviation; education: medicine; workplace realities; core socialist value; and – of course – the crucial need to identify a primary contradiction as the basis of all policy (as Xi Jinping did at the nineteenth congress of the CPC in 2018).

Chapter 3. The Marxist Basis of the Reform and Opening Up

It is perhaps less realised than it should be that the Reform and Opening Up is not a compromise, but a distinctly Marxist project. As Deng Xiaoping pointed out repeatedly, the Reform and Opening Up provides a distinct path to socialism (and not, as some misguided foreigners suggested, to capitalism). To understand this emphasis, we need initially to go back to Lenin and his insight into the relationship between revolution and reform. Instead of seeing these two terms as an either-or, Lenin argued that reform is absolutely necessary, but it should always be undertaken in light of the communist revolution. During the era of constructing socialism, this means that reform must be undertaken by a communist party in power. In a Chinese context, I would like to focus on the following issue (until more have been identified in research): the tension between equality-justice and improving the quality of life for all. In many respects, the Reform and Opening Up may be seen as an effort to keep the two sides of the contradiction in a productive and non-antagonistic relationship. Finally, this chapter offers a brief survey of the leading Marxist philosophers during the forty years of the Reform and Opening Up.

Chapter 4. Socialist Market Economy

With the socialist market economy, we come to a question that was settled in China 25 years ago, but of which foreigners remain noticeably ignorant. After immense debates in the 1980s and early 1990s, the following was seen as the solution. First and following Stalin, the core contradiction of socialism is between the forces and relations of production. How is this manifested? It can be – and often is – seen in terms of the ownership of the means of production. Thus, workers and peasants need to seize ownership of the means of production from the former bourgeois and landlord owners. But what happens after such a seizure and the destruction of the former ruling class? The contradiction shifts to one between the underlying socio-economic system (zhidu) and its specific components (tizhi). In the first category, we find – for example – a capitalist system and a socialist system; in the second, there are political, social and economic components. Here the productive forces also appear, of which one manifestation is a market economy. To summarise a more detailed analysis: a market economy may form part of a larger socio-economic system, including socialism; a market economy is not  always the same and is not inherently capitalist, but is shaped and determined by the system in question (as found already in Marx and in historical analysis); the overall system not only determines the nature of a market economy, but also its purpose, whether profit (capitalist system) or social benefit and meeting the needs of all people (gongtongti fuwu) as in a socialist system. Finally, this approach to a socialist market economy entails a recalibration of the question of ownership. Initially, the ownership of the means of production was related to secondary status, with a mix between public and private ownership, albeit with the state owned enterprises (SOEs) as the drivers of the economy. However, since the 2010s, one may identify a new development: the very distinction between public and private has begun to ‘die away’ (to parse Engels). How this works is the focus of the final part of the chapter.

Chapter 5. Socialist Modernisation: Seeking a Xiaokang Society

Since Zedong and Zhou Enlai, ‘socialist modernisation [shehuizhuyi xiandaihua]’ has been a major feature of government policy and action.[1] But what does it mean? Let us begin with Deng Xiaoping’s famous observation in 1979: ‘By achieving the four modernizations, we mean achieving a “moderately well-off family [xiaokang zhi jia]” … a moderately well-off country [xiaokang de guojia]’. For Deng, this is modernisation with Chinese characteristics.

To understand this statement, we need to go back and forward in the Chinese tradition. Deng was the first to pick and reinterpret the old Confucian category – from the Books of Rights and Book of Songs – of xiaokang in light of Marxism, with the sense of being moderately well-off, healthy and peaceful. It is a more achievable aim than datong, the ‘Great Harmony’, at least in the foreseeable future, although both terms (through He Xiu and Kang Youwei) are intimately connected. If we move forward in the more recent tradition, Deng’s insightful move led to a ‘moderately prosperous society in all respects’ becoming central to the Chinese socialist project under Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and especially Xi Jinping. Indeed, the end of 2020 – following hints from Deng – was set as the ambitious but achievable goal for a xiaokang society. But what are the benchmarks? Xi Jinping has identified three: managing profound risks, poverty alleviation and environmental health. The last section of the chapter considers each of these items, with a focus on the impact of lifting 750 million rural and urban workers out of poverty since 1978 and the noticeable advances in achieving an ‘ecological civilisation’.

Chapter 6. Socialist Rule of Law

‘Governing the country according law [yifazhiguo]’ – this four-character phrase encapsulates a range of permutations, from the new Social Credit system, through core socialist values, to religious policy. However, it also has a distinct history that enables us to understand what it means in China, specifically as a socialist rule of law. Although traces of usage appear in much older texts, the key development is precisely during the Reform and Opening Up.

Initially (1978-1996), most of the debate centred around the opposition between ‘rule of human beings [renzhi]’ and ‘rule of law [fazhi]’, after which the latter became the agreed-upon position. Subsequently (1997-2011), the relationship between ‘rule of law’ and ‘legal system [fazhi]’ (sometimes misleadingly translated as ‘rule by law’) was debated, with the two clearly demarcated. Thus, while ‘legal system’ is the basis and concrete manifestation of ‘rule of law’, ‘rule of law’ is itself the ultimate framework and goal of the legal system. During this time, ‘governing the country according to law’ entered the 1999 revision of the Constitution. Finally (2012 to the present) we find increasing clarity of more and more aspects of rule of law, along with its consistent and impartial application. Tellingly, in 2018, the Constitution was revised further, replacing ‘improve the socialist legal system’ with ‘improve the socialist rule of law’.

Theory is crucial, but so is practice. The final part of the chapter examines some concrete manifestations of the rule of law in China: the Social Credit System as an effective and creative way to ensure rule of law at all levels; core socialist values as the positive side of the anti-corruption campaign; and ensuring that the long-standing laws on freedom of religion are strictly observed, especially in light of the revised Regulation on Religious Affairs (2018) and its emphases on self-government, self-support and self-propagation. In all of this, it should re remembered that we are speaking of a socialist rule of law, which is a crucial bulwark of China’s socialist system and is distinct from a capitalist rule of law.

Chapter 7. Sovereignty and Human Rights

This chapter offers a comparison between two traditions concerning human rights, through the prism of state sovereignty: the Western European liberal tradition and the Chinese Marxist tradition. It does so as follows. The first part introduces the distinction between false and rooted universals. A false universal forgets the conditions of its emergence and asserts that its assumptions apply to all irrespective of context, while a rooted universal is always conscious of and factors into analysis contextual origins, with their possibilities and limitations. With this distinction in mind, the next part deals with state sovereignty. In a Western European context, the standard narrative of this development has two main phases: the initial Westphalian definition (1648) and its significant restriction after the Second World War. The main problem with this narrative it that it largely neglects what drove the shift: the success of anti-colonial struggles in the first half of the twentieth century (the last phase through the United Nations under the inspiration of the Soviet Union). In light of this global perspective, it becomes clear that in formerly colonised and semi-colonised countries the very definition of sovereignty is transformed into an anti-colonial and non-theological definition. It is not simply an extension of the Westphalian definition, an assumption that entails a false universal. The next two parts of the argument deal directly with human rights. Initially, it focuses on the Western European tradition, which is predicated on the identification of human rights as private property and their restriction to civil and political rights. Here is the risk of another false universal: the assertion that this specific tradition applies to all, irrespective of context and of anti-colonial sovereignty. The final topic is the Chinese Marxist tradition of human rights, which arises from the intersections of Confucianism and Marxism. In this tradition, anti-colonial sovereignty is a prerequisite but does not determine human rights, and the core human right is the right to socio-economic wellbeing, through which civil, political, cultural and environmental rights arise.

Chapter 8. Minority Nationalities and the Anti-Colonial Project

The main topic of this chapter – minority nationalities policy –arises from the Chinese Marxist approaches to human rights. In brief, the comprehensive minority nationalities (which are sometimes called ‘ethnic groups’) emphasises the core human right to socio-economic wellbeing. Before we get to that point, we need to engage in historical analysis. The Soviet Union was the first socialist country to develop a comprehensive minorities policy, so much so that it was crucial in the very formation of the Soviet Union and was embodied in government structures. Much was learned, from both successes and failures. The Soviet Union was also the first country to see the intrinsic connection between an internal minorities policy and the international anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggle. It supported most of them, from logistics and weapons to initiating declarations in the United Nations (especially the 1960 ‘Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples’, which forced France, the UK, Denmark and the Netherlands, among others, to give up their colonies for the sake of independence).

But what did the minority policy entail? Here I turn to China, which – like other socialist countries – adopted the Soviet policy, adapting it and strengthening it in light of their own conditions. This ‘preferential policy [youhui zhengce]’ fosters minority languages, cultures, education, governance, and – above all – economic development as the basis for all the others. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the 1990s the policy was strengthened in a dialectical manner; minority rights and incentives were enhanced significantly, precisely as way of ensuring the inviolability of China’s borders. To give a sense of how this policy works, I deal with two pertinent case studies: Tibet and Xinjiang. In both cases, we find short-term and long-term programs. Short-term: enhanced fostering of security (anquan), stability (wending) and harmony (hexie), in order to counter the effects of separation, extremism and terrorism. Long-term: renewed and revised projects to improve the socio-economic wellbeing of all who live in Tibet and Xinjiang. At this point, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) plays a significant internal role, with marked results in the six years or so of its implementation.

The BRI brings us finally to the question of international relations. Here we find a distinct development: while material from the 1950s and 1960s still used the terminology of anti-colonial struggle, it substantially disappears from use thereafter. Why? Already in the late 1950s, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai had proposed the ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence’, which was taken up with enthusiasm by Deng Xiaoping as China sought not confrontation but peaceful development (although he was also quite clear that China would always have closer connections with formerly colonised countries due to a shared common history). The more recent manifestation of this emphasis appears with Xi Jinping’s promotion of a ‘community of shared future for humankind [renlei mingyun gongtongti]’, concretely manifested in the BRI, and the policy – as an alternative to the Western European liberal emphasis on ‘zero-sum’ – of ‘both win, many win, all win’. Or simply, ‘win-win’.

Chapter 9. Xi Jinping on Marxism

Xi Jinping has confounded those international observers who ignored much of what I have discussed in the previous chapters and concluded that China had abandoned Marxism. But Xi Jinping’s resolute emphasis on Marxism makes perfect sense if we keep these developments of socialism with Chinese characteristics in mind. At the same time, it is true that Xi Jinping has also re-emphasised Marxism at its many levels, so much so that the CPC has been noticeably strengthened. Older members are once again proud of the party and what it has achieved, while young people are once again keen to join and study Marxism.

How did this happen? While Xi Jinping’s many writings and speeches (in the good tradition of communist leaders, he is also a thinker and writer) cover a wide range of topics, my focus is on his direct engagement with Marxism. The core piece for analysis is his major speech on the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth, delivered on 5 May, 2018. While the speech deals with Marx’s biography (as an engaged intellectual), the basic premises of Marxism, its history as a living tradition and its emergence to sustained leadership in China, the main part of the speech elaborates on nine topics of relevance to China’s situation. Calling on all the ‘study Marx’ once again, he begins each sub-section with quotations from Marx and Engels and then elaborates on what they mean for the time after the communist revolution, during the complex and often difficult process of constructing socialism. The topics are: development of human society; sticking to the people’s standpoint; productive forces and relations of production; people’s democracy; cultural construction; social construction; human-nature relationship; world history; and Marxist party building. These topics open out to a series of other dimensions of Xi Jinping’s writings, with which I deal when analysing each section.


Given that most of the material in this book concerns material already known in China, it may be of interest to Chinese readers who wish to see what a foreigner engaged with and working in China thinks about socialism with Chinese characteristics. But I anticipate that it will mostly be of use to non-Chinese readers whose minds may already be open, or perhaps should be opened, to what such a socialism actually means in theory and practice.


[1] The original four modernisations are: shaking off China’s poverty and backwardness [pinqiong luohou]; gradually improving the people’s living standards; restoring a position for China in international affairs commensurate with its current status; and enabling China to contribute more to humankind.

Marxist orientalism

One of the narratives I hear from time to time concerning the CPC is what may be called Marxist orientalism. What I mean is that a number of international (or ‘western’) Marxists have assumed a position common among liberals as well. It goes like this:

In the late 1970s, Deng Xiaoping started – it is believed – the process of China becoming a capitalist market economy. However, Deng continued to speak of the socialist road in, for instance, the first of the four ‘cardinal principles’. So how do you deal with the statements and the perceived acts? The approach that soon became apparent was that you could not trust the words and statements. Deng and those who followed him were speaking in coded language, sending signals for those who could read the code. The best example is Deng’s phrase, ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’.

I come across this move again and again. Apart from the fact that it means you can conveniently ignore most of the detailed statements, writings and research of the last forty years on Chinese Marxism, it is also a form of orientalism. By that I mean a caricature of what an ‘eastern’, if not Chinese person is supposed to do. They never speak truthfully, or they speak in a way that means something different from what they appear to be saying. As someone said to me recently, ‘never trust a Chinaman’ – derogatory, to say the least. For Marxists to take this approach to Chinese Marxism is comparable to the phrase used almost a century ago: ‘the guile of the heathen Chinese’.

As a footnote and for those into cricket, the previous comment actually comes from English commentary on a test match between the West Indies and England in 1933. One of the West Indian bowlers, Ellis Achong, had Chinese background – a point the commentators were quick to notice. Indeed, one of the English batsmen, Walter Robbins, was bowled by Achong, after which Robbins observed, ‘Fancy being done by a bloody Chinaman’. As a further twist, the type of bowling deployed by Achong became known as the ‘Chinaman’. It refers to left-arm unorthodox spin, the suggestion being that it is as rare as a ‘Chinaman’ playing cricket, but that it is also deceptive and unnatural.

Perhaps it is time for ‘Western’ Marxists to put aside this form of orientalism.

Different ways to interpret the Marxist tradition

In recent discussion in China, I have become more aware of different ways the Marxist tradition can be interpreted. You can take any core feature, such as the dictatorship of the proletariat, the withering away of the state, the distinction between socialism and communism, the nature of the socialist state, and many more.

For example, Marx uses the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ 11 times, where he means a coercive force of the state that crushes class opponents. This is in tension with his treatments of the Paris commune, where he praises the diminishment of state power and its continuance only as apparatus. Engels, by contrast, does not use dictatorship of the proletariat, but coins the phrase (only in 1894), the dying or ‘withering away of the state’. Lenin develops the argument further, distinguishing between two phases, the dictatorship of the proletariat and then the state’s withering. He pushes this into a distant future, but Stalin argues that it would take place only after global communism had been achieved and communism had become second nature – which may take 1000 years or more. And in Chinese Marxism, dictatorship of the proletariat becomes ‘democratic dictatorship’ in Mao’s hands and then ‘people’s democratic dictatorship’ with Deng Xiaoping, now as an inclusive category operating in terms of non-antagonistic contradictions.

What about socialism and communism? This distinction is not in Marx and Engels. Only in the late notes, ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’, does Marx distinguish an initial stage of communism and a further stage. He leaves open the possibility of more. Lenin then distinguishes these as socialism and communism, with socialism still bearing many features, such as state, classes, law and so on. Only with communism will the earlier prescriptions of Marxism begin to appear. Stalin takes this further, pushing communism into a very distant future, while socialism has a strong multi-national state, tensions between forces and relations of production continue, people are rewarded according to work, equalisation (a petty-bourgeois idea) has no place, and the state’s domestic responsibilities, affirmative action and fostering of anti-colonial struggles play huge roles. In a Chinese situation, they take an even longer view, with the preliminary stage of socialism lasting 100 years, after which a next stage emerges, the moderately prosperous, peaceful and stable society. During this process, a whole spate of new approaches emerge.

How do we interpret these developments? Here are some possibilities:

  1. A narrative of betrayal. Engels betrays Marx; Lenin betrays Marx and Engels; Stalin betrays all of the former; Mao betrays them; Deng betrays Mao … Pick your place, but betrayal of Marxism happens at some point. I find this approach quite common among ‘western’ Marxists.
  2. Continuity, sometimes radical. A smaller number take this line, arguing that all of the ideas found in Stalin, Mao or Deng have precursors in the Marxist tradition.
  3. Clarification. Each stage of the tradition and each of its different branches constitutes a clarification of some idea or practice that was not so clear before. This is a more common Chinese approach.
  4. Changing historical circumstances, which may be connected with the first or third approach. Obviously, specific circumstances, cultural histories, political realities and so on produce new problems, which require new solutions. This is what the Chinese call ‘seeking truth from facts’ (drawn from Mao).
  5. The differences between socialism seeking power and socialism in power. As Lenin and Mao pointed out repeatedly, winning a revolution is relatively easy; infinitely more complex is the effort to construct socialism. This is obviously connected with the fourth point, but plays a crucial role.