Adapting Marxism to the Chinese Context: the CPC’s perspective

Source: English Edition of Qiushi Journal, 20210908, By Wang Weiguang 

The Communist Party of China (CPC) has undergone an incredible journey over the past century. Adapting Marxism to the Chinese context has been a glorious chapter in CPC’s 100-year history, and an important tool that has enabled the CPC to capture victory after victory and bring about one achievement after another. In his speech at the ceremony marking the centenary of the CPC on July 1. 2021, General Secretary Xi Jinping said, “The Communist Party of China upholds the basic tenets of Marxism and the principle of seeking truth from facts. Based on China’s realities, we have developed keen insights into the trends of the day, seized the initiative in history, and made painstaking explorations. We have thus been able to keep adapting Marxism to the Chinese context and the needs of our times, and to guide the Chinese people in advancing our great social revolution.” By reviewing the historical experience we have acquired through the CPC leading the Chinese people in integrating the basic tenets of Marxism with China’s realities, we can now build a deep and accurate understanding of the laws and characteristics of Marxism that the CPC has upheld, enriched, and developed in different historical periods. Doing so is important for our efforts to uphold and develop Marxism from this new historical starting point, make constant progress in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context, and apply Marxism adapted to Chinese conditions as a guide in practice.

A political choice: upholding Marxism as CPC’s fundamental guidance 

Marxism is the fundamental guiding thought upon which our Party and country are founded; it is the very soul of our Party, and the guide under which it strives. The fact that Marxism is regarded as the Party’s guiding thought is determined not only by the nature of the Party, but also by China’s national conditions and the major global trends and contemporary developments our country has experienced. General Secretary Xi has said, “the CPC has accomplished so many tasks which were thought to be impossible by other political forces. The reason for this has been precisely attributed to our adoption of Marxism as our guide of action, while the theories of Marxism have then been further developed.”

Marxism is a scientific theory that has revealed the laws underlying the development of human society through a creative approach. It is also the first system of thought to be founded for the purpose of helping people achieve self-emancipation. With a commitment to achieving people’s liberation and safeguarding people’s interests, Marxism holds fast to the practical approach of proactively changing the world and guiding people’s actions to shape the world. Marx pointed out, “The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism of the weapon, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses.” Marxism is an advanced ideological system that was created by Marx and Engels on the basis of carrying forward outstanding cultural heritage and summing up experience of the workers’ movement for the purpose of liberating the proletariat and all humanity. Only by mastering this advanced thought can the working class transform from an unorganized proletariat to one armed with advanced theory, and in turn exert powerful material force to smash the old society and build a new one. Since it emerged over 170 years ago, Marxism has become embedded with the people, and has played and continues to play a significant role in shaping the world. In humanity’s intellectual history, there has never been another body of thought which has exerted such a profound and wide-reaching influence on advancing human civilization.

After a long period of arduous exploration, progressives among China’s working class found that choosing Marxism and setting out on the right path under its guidance was the correct choice and the only choice. In modern times, a number of Chinese progressives emerged who put forward varied proposals and devoted relentless effort to bring salvation and prosperity to a China that was then trapped in deep troubles. There were many attempts to save the nation and the people, such as the peasant revolt under the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, the Westernization Movement, the Reform Movement of 1898, the Yihetuan Movement, and the Revolution of 1911, but even though they drove progress in China under particular historical conditions, they ultimately failed one after the other. The root cause of these failures was that they lacked correct theoretical guidance. In the semi-colonial, semi-feudal old China, peasant revolt was of no help for saving China. Likewise, it was also impossible to save China and rejuvenate the Chinese nation by making bourgeois reform or launching old-fashioned democratic revolution to build a bourgeois democratic republic. Neither the foreign imperialist powers nor China’s feudal ruling class would allow this scenario to come to pass. These facts were determined by China’s semi-colonial, semi-feudal state as well as the prevailing global trends with the world already in the era of imperialism and proletarian revolution.

The widespread dissemination of Marxism within China catalyzed the emergence of the CPC. Marxism equipped the Party with a scientific worldview and methodology as well as powerful theoretical tools with which to understand and shape the world. The CPC was the product of integrating Marxism with the Chinese workers’ movement. After the trials of the May 4th Movement of 1919, outstanding figures of the Chinese working class found Marxism, made it their guiding thought, and created the CPC. Then, equipped with Marxism, the Party led the people in blazing a promising path toward national rejuvenation. Marxism has enabled the CPC to transcend the limitations of all other political forces that came before it, which invariably pursued their own special interests. Drawing from the scientific spirit of materialist dialectics, and from its selfless and fearless character, the CPC led and advanced China’s revolution, reconstruction, and reform. Following the emergence of the CPC, Chinese Communists fused the tenets of Marxism with the practical realities of China’s revolution and development, and united the people and led them through a protracted struggle, completing the new democratic revolution and socialist revolution, founding the People’s Republic of China and establishing China’s basic socialist system, and carrying out explorations in developing socialism. They thus transformed China from the “sick man of East Asia” to a nation that had stood up in a tremendous leap. After the launch of reform and opening up in the late 1970s, Chinese Communists fused the tenets of Marxism with the practical realities of reform and opening up, and led the people in developing the great new endeavor of socialism with Chinese characteristics, enabling China to catch up with times in great strides. They thus brought about another tremendous leap, making the Chinese nation one that had not only stood up but was now also growing prosperous. In the new era, Chinese Communists have fused the tenets of Marxism with China’s current practical realities, and led the people in carrying out a great struggle, developing a great project, advancing a great cause, and realizing a great dream. This has enabled the cause of the Party and the country to secure groundbreaking achievements across the board and to transform in historic and fundamental ways. The Chinese nation is now on the cusp of yet another tremendous leap from growing prosperous to becoming strong, and is embracing bright prospects for national rejuvenation. It has been proven through practice that the fate of Marxism has long been closely intertwined with that of the CPC, the Chinese people, and the Chinese nation. The science and truth of Marxism have been fully tested in China. In his speech at the ceremony marking the centenary of the CPC, Xi Jinping said, “At the fundamental level, the capability of our Party and the strengths of socialism with Chinese characteristics are attributable to the fact that Marxism works.”

Marxism has not only changed the world, it has also profoundly transformed China, enabling this great and ancient country in the East to bring about a miracle of development unprecedented in human history. Throughout CPC’s century-long history of struggle, it has been proven time and again through history and through practice that making Marxism the Party’s fundamental guiding thought and making socialism the path to achieve the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation was the correct political choice and the only choice.

A foundational experience: integrating the basic tenets of Marxism with China’s realities

The vitality of theory lies in innovation. Since Marxism came to China, it has not only triggered fundamental transformation of the Chinese civilization, but also gone through a gradual process of adapting to the Chinese context. Xi Jinping has said, “The history of the CPC has been a process of constantly advancing the adaptation of Marxism to the Chinese context, and of constantly promoting theoretical innovation and creation.” Adapting Marxism to the Chinese context means integrating the basic tenets of Marxism with China’s realities, absorbing the essence of advanced ideas from both past and present and from both China and around the world, and using a system of theoretical discourse with Chinese characteristics, style, and manner to construct Marxism integrated with China’s specific realities.

However, the process of adapting Marxism to the Chinese context has not been smooth sailing. The integration of the basic tenets of Marxism with China’s realities was achieved by Chinese Communists through criticism of subjectivist thinking such as dogmatism and empiricism. In the semi-colonial, semi-feudal China, farmers made up the vast majority while there were relatively few industrial workers. With no ready-made theory or experience for them to imitate and copy, Chinese Communists were confronted with an extremely complex challenge in making good use of Marxism to guide such a backward big country in the East in launching armed revolution, seizing state power, and following the path of socialism. During the period of the Great Revolution (1924-1927), the Right opportunist line represented by Chen Duxiu acted in a manner that was divorced from China’s realities, dealing the CPC a sudden and heavy blow from a powerful enemy. As a result, the number of Party members, which had increased to 58,000, declined sharply to some 10,000. During the period of the Agrarian Revolutionary War (1927-1937), “Left” dogmatists represented by Wang Ming applied Marxism in a dogmatic manner while worshipping the Soviet experience and the resolutions of the Comintern, causing serious harm to the revolutionary forces. Mao Zedong, on the other hand, consistently attached importance to the Party’s guiding principles, sought inspiration from reality rather than from books, conducted in-depth investigation and research, meticulously analyzed conditions at home and abroad, and maintained a rational understanding of the status of China’s revolution. By creatively integrating the basic tenets of Marxism with China’s realities, he arrived at sound conclusions on major issues of principle concerning the future of Chinese revolution as well as the strategies and tactics therein, pioneering a correct revolutionary path which involved launching an armed struggle of workers and peasants and using rural areas to encircle the cities in order to ultimately seize state power. After the founding of the PRC in 1949, our Party captured great achievements in the process of exploring how to develop socialism, but also encountered serious setbacks. The fundamental reason for this was that certain judgments and decisions of the CPC at the time were divorced from China’s realities. The Third Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee in 1978 reestablished the guiding principle of seeking truth from facts, and made it clear that our country would base all its endeavors on actual conditions and follow its own path. The great achievements made in reform and opening up symbolized that the dawn of national rejuvenation was just over the horizon. From the experience and lessons drawn from past successes and failures, Chinese Communists are deeply aware of the extreme importance of integrating the basic tenets of Marxism with China’s realities.

The CPC has always attached great importance to integrating the basic tenets of Marxism with China’s realities. As far back as the days of the Agrarian Revolutionary War, Mao Zedong had already discussed the adaptation of Marxism to the Chinese context from the perspective of political guiding principles. In his pamphlet Oppose Book Worship written in 1930, he explicitly stated, “Of course we should study Marxist books, but this study must be integrated with our country’s actual conditions.” In his essays “On Practice” and “On Contradiction” written in 1937, he demonstrated the philosophical principles of universality and particularity in contradictions, and explained that adapting Marxism to the Chinese context was essentially a question of the dialectical relationship between the universality and particularity (also generality and individuality) of philosophy. Universality resides in particularity, and there will never be universality without particularity. Universality is also derived from particularity, without which universality would be meaningless and become an abstract dogma. Adapting Marxism to the Chinese context is to apply the “universality” of Marxism, namely the basic tenets, worldview, and methodology of Marxism, rather than its specific conclusions, to illustrate and address the “particularity” of China, with the aim of creating Marxism integrated with China’s realities. Mao summarized this essential philosophical truth of Marxism with the vivid phrase “seeking truth from facts,” and thus clarified the philosophical basis for the adaptation of Marxism to the Chinese context. He then discussed the necessity of this process of adaptation in depth for the first time in October 1938 at the Enlarged Sixth Plenary Session of the Sixth CPC Central Committee, where he said “… we can put Marxism into practice only when it is integrated with the specific characteristics of our country and acquires a definite national form. The great strength of Marxism-Leninism lies precisely in its integration with the concrete revolutionary practice of all countries. For the Chinese Communist Party, it is a matter of learning to apply the theory of Marxism-Leninism to the specific circumstances of China. … any talk about Marxism in isolation from China’s characteristics is merely Marxism in the abstract, Marxism in a vacuum. Hence to apply Marxism concretely in China so that its every manifestation has an indubitably Chinese character, i.e., to apply Marxism in the light of China’s specific characteristics, becomes a problem which it is urgent for the whole Party to understand and solve. Foreign stereotypes must be abandoned, there must be less singing of empty, abstract tunes, and dogmatism must be laid to rest, they must be replaced by the fresh, lively Chinese style and spirit which the common people of China love.” In this statement, Mao laid out the substance, methods, and forms of adapting Marxism to the Chinese context. Since the launch of reform and opening up, the CPC has developed the path, theories, system, and culture of socialism with Chinese characteristics, which all represent great achievements of the effort to integrate the basic tenets of Marxism with China’s realities. As Deng Xiaoping emphasized: “Only Marxism that is integrated with China’s realities is the genuine Marxism we need.” He also said: “We must integrate the universal truth of Marxism with the concrete realities of China, blaze a path of our own and build a socialism with Chinese characteristics—that is the basic conclusion we have reached after reviewing our long history.”

General Secretary Xi views the adaptation of Marxism to the Chinese context as highly important, and has constantly reiterated the importance of theoretical innovation. He has said, “The development of Marxism and the process of its adaption to the Chinese context have both shown us that society is constantly evolving, and therefore we must constantly advance in our thinking and understanding and pursue innovation in line with practice. Just as there is no end to the evolution of practice as the world and the times keep changing, there can be no end to our efforts to seek truth, pursue theoretical and practical innovation, and break new ground in our endeavors.” Xi thus urged the whole Party to earnestly study Marxism and grasp the latest achievements in its adaption to the Chinese context in order to use these scientific theories to equip our minds, guide us in practice, and drive our work.

The historical contributions of the CPC have been inextricably linked with the process of adapting Marxism to the Chinese context. Throughout this process, Chinese Communists have upheld the unity between freeing minds and seeking truth from facts and between maintaining strong roots and pursuing innovation. By addressing the major questions of different time periods, they formed Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Theory of Three Represents, and the Scientific Outlook on Development. Since the 18th National Congress of the CPC in 2012, Chinese Communists with Xi Jinping as their chief representative have adapted to the evolution of the times and integrated theory with practice to systematically answer the great contemporary questions of what kind of Chinese socialism should be upheld and developed in the new era and how we should go about doing this, thereby giving shape to Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. Applying the worldview and methodology of dialectical and historical materialism in observing the world, steering the times, and guiding practice, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era has deepened our understanding of the laws underlying governance by a communist party, the development of socialism, and the evolution of human society through an all-new perspective. As a product of the creative adaption of Marxism to the Chinese context, it has enriched, advanced, and created new prospects for Marxism.

A fundamental guarantee: using Marxism adapted to China’s conditions to guide our practice

The fundamental reason why the CPC has been able to achieve great success and open up new horizons for the development of Marxism in the 100 years since its founding is that it has always followed the guidance of scientific theories and earnestly responded to the core questions of how to view Marxism and how to uphold and develop it during distinct time periods and under distinct national conditions. Over a glorious century of adapting Marxism to the Chinese context, the Party has learned the following valuable lessons:

We must always guide and equip our Party with Marxist theories. As Engels put it, the basic thing that distinguished a Marxist political party from other parties was the fact that “its theoretical foundation was a new scientific conception.” Since the very day of its founding, the CPC has kept Marxism emblazoned on its banner. Empowering itself with Marxist theories is one of the Party’s political strengths and fine traditions, as well as the primary task in the great project of Party development. In its early days, the CPC was keenly aware that to build a strong Marxist political party and uphold the guiding role of Marxism in the old China, where the peasantry and petty bourgeoisie accounted for the majority and the industrial working class was relatively small in size, it was imperative to consistently equip the vanguard of the working class and its supporters among the public with comprehensive, in-depth, and systematic theories. As Xi Jinping has pointed out, “The history of the CPC shows that its repeated triumphs over difficulties have a reason—it has always provided strong ideological and theoretical training for Party members and officials, so as to forge a shared faith, a strong will, and great strength throughout the Party.”

Leading officials are the key target of theoretical training efforts. During the war against Japanese aggression, Mao Zedong once said, “So far as shouldering the main responsibility of leadership is concerned, our Party’s fighting capacity will be much greater … if there are one or two hundred of our Party members with a grasp of Marxism-Leninism which is systematic and not fragmentary, genuine and not hollow.” The foremost task in equipping the Party with theory is to apply the latest achievements in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context. Therefore, it is at present essential to equip the whole Party and educate people with Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era while ensuring connection between study, contemplation, and application and unity in comprehension, conviction, and action. Political resolve depends on a clear understanding of theory. Our firm ideals and beliefs must be grounded in a deep understanding of Marxism and a thorough grasp of the underlying laws of history. Only by engaging in in-depth study of Marxist philosophy, grasping the Marxist worldview and methodology, and enhancing its ability to explain and solve practical issues using Marxist standpoints, views, and methods will the CPC be able to achieve constant innovation in the development of Marxism adapted to China’s conditions and use it to guide China in practice.

Concrete efforts need to be made to establish a good style of study. Our style of study boils down to our attitude towards Marxism, i.e., whether we should proceed from reality or the dogma. As such, the key task in upholding a good style of study lies in linking theory with practice, meaning that we should have definite goals in mind and study for the purpose of achieving these goals. Mao Zedong vividly explained this in a speech entitled “Rectify the Party’s Style of Work” delivered on February 1, 1942, in which he said, “How is Marxist-Leninist theory to be linked with the practice of the Chinese revolution? To use a common expression, it is by ‘shooting the arrow at the target.’ As the arrow is to the target, so is Marxism-Leninism to the Chinese revolution.” The outcome of one’s study on Marxism is reflected in their ability to apply the Marxist standpoints, views, and methods in interpreting and solving practical issues. As Mao said, “If you can apply the Marxist-Leninist viewpoint in elucidating one or two practical problems, you should be commended and credited with some achievement. The more problems you elucidate and the more comprehensively and profoundly you do so, the greater will be your achievement.”

Chinese Communists have chosen Marxism as their theoretical guide in order to direct their work and reshape the world. All the progress and every victory that the CPC has achieved over the past century is owed to the whole Party’s commitment to linking theory with practice and to integrating Marxism with China’s realities. Since its 18th National Congress, the CPC Central Committee with Xi Jinping at its core has made conscious effort to carry forward the fine tradition of linking theory with practice, illustrating the Party’s Marxist style of study that connects to the past while evolving with the times. On several occasions, General Secretary Xi has stressed, “Empty talk harms the country, while hard work makes it flourish,” and, “Reading and application are both ways of learning, and the latter is more important.” He has also requested that “all Party members must carry forward a style of learning which links theory with practice, and remain closely in touch with the historic changes taking place in the undertakings of the Party and the country, the new realities emerging from Chinese socialism’s entrance into a new era, the major transformation of the principal challenge in our society, and the struggle to fulfill the Two Centenary Goals, as well as all of our obligations therein. In this way, we will consciously use theory to guide practice, and make all aspects of our work conform better to the demands of objective and rational laws. We will constantly enhance our capacity to uphold and develop Chinese socialism in the new era.” In line with these requirements, we shall resolutely guard against subjectivism, dogmatism, and formalism, and commit to proceeding from reality in all endeavors. More specifically, it is important that we apply the Party’s innovative theories in all aspects of economic and social development work, translating them into approaches for making plans, measures for promoting development, and skills for improving working methods.

We must stick to the political principle of seeking truth from facts with lasting commitment. In adapting Marxism to the Chinese context, sticking to the principle of seeking truth from facts is absolutely essential. Seeking truth from facts is the soul of Marxism, and the essence of Marxism adapted to China’s conditions. It is a fundamental necessity for Chinese Communists in comprehending and shaping the world, and the basic approach that underpins how the CPC thinks, works, and leads. Therefore, this principle has always been and will continue to be adhered to. Meanwhile, we must remain in touch with evolution in practice, ensure that we never become divorced from practice, and constantly advance theoretical innovation. Just as there is no end to development in practice, there can be no end to theoretical innovation. As such, Marxism is by no means rigid dogma, but a theory that is enriched and developed on a constant basis with the changing times. In his speech for the CPC’s centenary, General Secretary Xi said, “As we put conscious effort into learning from history to create a bright future … we must continue to adapt Marxism to the Chinese context.” He continued, “On the journey ahead, we must continue to uphold Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Theory of Three Represents, and the Scientific Outlook on Development, and fully implement the Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. We must continue to adapt the basic tenets of Marxism to China’s specific realities and its fine traditional culture. We will use Marxism to observe, understand, and steer the trends of our times, and continue to develop the Marxism of contemporary China and in the 21st century.”

Over the past century, the great endeavor of adapting Marxism to the Chinese context has guided the cause of the Party and people with scientific theories that not only connect to the past but also evolve with the times. This has provided a solid theoretical foundation for enhancing unity among the whole Party and the entire nation. At this historic juncture where the timeframes the Two Centenary Goals converge, we must remain true to our original aspiration and founding mission, upholding the guiding role of Marxism and consistently advancing the adaptation of Marxism to the Chinese context. With the power of truth derived from the Party’s century of struggle and the light of Marxist truth illuminating our way forward, we will continue to capture new accomplishments on our new journey toward becoming a modern socialist country.

Wang Weiguang is former President of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a professor at the University of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and a tenured professor at Nankai University.

Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 13, 2021