The following article was written by Friends of Socialist China co-editors Keith Bennett and Carlos Martinez on request from our friends at Laika Press. Their new edition of Volume 2 of the Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping can be found on their website.
History will record Deng Xiaoping as one of the great communist leaders of the 20th century; someone who made an indispensable contribution to the development of Chinese socialism and to the global socialist project. Yet this contribution is widely misunderstood among the left in the imperialist countries, much of which shows more ignorance and prejudice than knowledge and understanding when it comes to assessing actually (and formerly) existing socialism.
Deng Xiaoping might be said to suffer particularly in that regard. Left and right are seemingly united in assessing him as the man who led China back to capitalism – their difference confined to whether they see this as a good or a bad thing. Yet the veracity of this myth (not to say gross calumny against a man who devoted his entire life from his teenage years until his death at age 92 to the liberation and uplifting of the Chinese people and the international cause of communism) becomes harder to sustain with each passing day in the face of the steady progress made by socialist China.
In contrast to his appraisal by much of the western left, Deng Xiaoping is loved by hundreds of millions of ordinary people in China – as a man who was devoted to their welfare, did more than anyone else to lift them out of poverty and gave them life chances of which they could not previously have dreamt. Not for nothing is it said that China stood up under Mao Zedong, became rich under Deng Xiaoping and is becoming strong under Xi Jinping.
Viewed internationally, Deng’s wisdom in finding a way to both preserve and advance socialism in China overlapped with the demise of the Soviet Union and the collapse of socialism in Central and Eastern Europe. Deng Xiaoping therefore rendered not only immortal service to the Chinese people but also to the international working class, oppressed nations and peoples, and humanity in general. In a critical period, it is not an exaggeration to say that Deng Xiaoping, along with his veteran comrades like Chen Yun – as well as the leaders of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Cuba, Vietnam and Laos – literally saved world socialism. As he said in a talk with Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere in 1989, “so long as socialism does not collapse in China, it will always hold its ground in the world.”
This volume covers the period from 1975-1982. However, there is a gap between October 1975 and May 1977. This is itself significant in that it coincided with the second time that Deng was removed from office in the history of the PRC. Inevitably this finds reflection in the tone of the articles. Prior to his dismissal Deng Xiaoping was working closely with an ever more ailing Premier Zhou Enlai to bring order and stability to the economy and society after nearly a decade of turmoil and upheaval. Chairman Mao was also gravely ill and the ambitious Gang of Four were scheming to seize complete power. It was the Gang of Four’s suppression of popular mourning for the much-loved Premier Zhou when he passed away in February 1976 that allowed them to, in turn, engineer Deng’s second dismissal. However, and as officially reported at the time, it was on Mao Zedong’s proposal that Deng, whilst dismissed from his posts, was not expelled from the party. Despite all the complexities of the time, this should be affirmed as one of Chairman Mao’s last great services to the people of China and the world.
A simplistic reading of modern Chinese history views Deng Xiaoping Theory, Reform and Opening Up and Socialism with Chinese Characteristics as constituting a fundamental break with the politics of the Mao leadership. While it is certainly true that Deng led the introduction of significant changes to which Mao would likely have been opposed, at least in his later years, we contend that these innovations were strongly grounded in the Chinese Marxism to which Mao Zedong had made the single most important contribution. Indeed the slogan so often identified with Deng’s practical approach – seek truth from facts – had been used by Mao as far back as the Sixth National Congress of the CPC in 1938, as Deng himself notes in his 1978 speech Hold High the Banner of Mao Zedong Thought and Adhere to the Principle of Seeking Truth From Facts: “Comrade Mao Zedong wrote a four-word motto for the Central Party School in Yan’an: ‘Seek truth from facts.’ These four words are the quintessence of Mao Zedong Thought.”
The late Egyptian Marxist Samir Amin wrote that the economic take-off of the post-1978 period “would not have been possible without the economic, political and social foundations that had been built up in the preceding period”. One crucially important factor was a relatively stable international environment, in particular China’s improved relations with the leading capitalist countries.
From 1950 the US imposed a tight embargo on China and mobilised its allies to prevent China from taking its rightful place at the United Nations. Then China’s access to the technologically advanced countries was further circumscribed from the late 1950s with the Sino-Soviet split. It was the re-establishment of relations between the US and China from 1972, and China’s accession to the UN in 1971, that transformed China’s international environment and laid the ground for developing trade links with, and absorbing technological expertise from, the capitalist world. Although Opening Up became official policy in 1978, the process can be considered as having begun several years earlier, guided by Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai.
Premier Zhou had long been vocal about the need for China to catch up with the West in science and technology, in order to raise productivity and improve the material wellbeing of the population. In his last major speech, at the Fourth National People’s Congress in 1975, he spoke of the need to take advantage of the relatively stable international context to “accomplish the comprehensive modernisation of agriculture, industry, national defence and science and technology before the end of the century, so that our national economy will be advancing in the front ranks of the world.”
In Deng’s speech at the Opening Ceremony of the National Conference on Science in 1978 (contained in this volume), he observed: “Modern science and technology are now undergoing a great revolution… Profound changes have taken place and new leaps have been made in almost all areas. A whole range of new sciences and technologies is continuously emerging. Modern science opens the way for the improvement of production techniques and determines the direction of their development.” However, as things stood at the time, there was still an “enormous gap between the level of our science and technology and that of the most advanced countries.” To bridge the gap and push forward China’s program of comprehensive modernization, it was imperative to learn from others.
One must learn from those who are more advanced before he can catch up with and surpass them… Independence does not mean shutting the door on the world, nor does self-reliance mean blind opposition to everything foreign. Science and technology are part of the wealth created in common by all mankind. Every people or country should learn from the advanced science and technology of others… Even after we catch up with the most advanced countries, we shall still have to learn from them in areas where they are particularly strong.
Only by opening up, learning new techniques, improving productivity and realising the Four Modernizations would it finally be possible “to rid our country of poverty and backwardness” and create the conditions for building common prosperity.
Four Cardinal Principles
Deng insisted on the essential political continuity between the era of initial socialist construction and the era of reform, encapsulating this unity in the Four Cardinal Principles:
- We must keep to the socialist road.
- We must uphold the dictatorship of the proletariat.
- We must uphold the leadership of the Communist Party.
- We must uphold Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought.
In his speech Uphold the four cardinal principles, he put forward the formula that “socialism and socialism alone can save China,” warning that if China drops its commitment to socialism, it will “inevitably retrogress to semi-feudalism and semi-colonialism.”
Upholding the dictatorship of the proletariat and the leadership of the Communist Party – that is, upholding the principles of socialist democracy rather than capitalist democracy – provides the fundamental guarantee for continuing along the path of socialism. The Chinese leadership well understood the risks involved in encouraging private capital, foreign investment, and “letting some get wealthy first.” Only by sticking to socialist democracy, to the rule of the working classes, is it possible to restrict the power of capital, to protect the overall interests of the masses, and to prevent a regression to capitalism.
Reiterating the continued relevance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, Deng highlights the fundamental correctness of the Chinese Revolution, its socialist path and its anti-imperialist strategy. His remarks were made in a context where there was wide discussion of mistakes the party had made during the last years of Mao’s life, particularly during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). By upholding Mao Zedong Thought, Deng was warning against what Xi Jinping has referred to as “historical nihilism” – painting a distorted and unnecessarily negative picture of the first decades of the People’s Republic. Deng asserts: “Despite our errors, in the past three decades we have made progress on a scale which old China could not achieve in hundreds or even thousands of years.” In another speech in this volume, Emancipate the Mind, Seek Truth from Facts and Unite as One in Looking to the Future, he appraises Mao’s record in the following terms:
The great contributions of Comrade Mao in the course of long revolutionary struggles will never fade… It is no exaggeration to say that were it not for Chairman Mao there would be no New China.
In a fascinating 1980 interview with the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, Deng again insists that Mao’s “contributions are primary and his mistakes secondary”, and that “we will forever keep Chairman Mao’s portrait on Tiananmen Gate as a symbol of our country”. Poignantly, he adds: “We will not do to Chairman Mao what Khrushchev did to Stalin.”
Relations between fraternal parties
Deng Xiaoping also spearheaded reforms and changes to the party’s international work, adopting a broader and more flexible approach. In his talk with senior party officials on May 31 1980, published here as An Important Principle for Handling Relations Between Fraternal Parties, Deng began by stating:
When a Communist Party comments on the actions of a foreign fraternal Party, it may often judge them according to some rigid formula or established pattern. Facts have shown that this approach gets one nowhere. Conditions vary greatly from country to country, the level of political awareness varies from people to people, and the class relations and the alignment of class forces in one country are vastly different from those in another. How can a fixed formula be applied mechanically despite all these differences?
Specifically, China had, at that time, started to resume relations with major communist parties that were considered ‘Eurocommunist’ and he argued:
Similarly, the correctness of Eurocommunism should not be judged by outsiders: it is not for others to write articles affirming or denying it. It should be judged by the European Parties and peoples themselves, and in the final analysis their own practice will provide the answer. We can’t criticize people when they conduct experiments in line with their own conditions. Even if they are wrong, it is up to them to sum up their own experience and try a different path.
This article certainly struck a chord with one of us, as he made his first visit to China just under a year later and was told by the Party International Department: “As for the internal policies of these parties [the communist parties of Spain and Italy] we do not want to say very much…, but we deeply feel that the question of how to make a revolution in the countries of Western Europe remains an unanswered one.”
Comrades! While building our own country, our working class must always keep in mind the proletariat and the oppressed people and nations of the world. We must go on strengthening our unity with the workers and revolutionary people the world over and support their struggles against imperialism, colonialism and hegemonism as well as their struggles to win or safeguard national independence and to make social progress. We must make our contribution to the emancipation of the working class throughout the world and to the progress of all mankind.
Depending on how you measure, China is now the world’s largest or second-largest economy. It is the only country to have jumped from ‘low’ to ‘high’ in the Human Development Index since the measure was launched in 1990. China has successfully eliminated extreme poverty, is the global leader in renewable energy, has become a science and technology powerhouse, and is a key driving force in support of development throughout the Global South. Such remarkable successes are testament to Deng Xiaoping’s vision.
As with other maligned revolutionaries, the greatest antidote to the slanders is to read and learn what they actually stood for, said and wrote. In publishing the works of Deng Xiaoping, and other great revolutionary leaders, and making them widely available and affordable, Laika Press is to be warmly congratulated and supported.
Keith Bennett and Carlos Martinez
London, July 2022