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.