Make China Marxist Again

Make China Marxist Again

Under Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party has reembraced Marx. But Xi’s state Marxism is a top-down attempt to unify the population behind a nationalist ideology, not to inspire class struggle.

Scene from the talk show Marx Got It Right, which broadcasts Friday nights on China Central Television (CCTV)

Marxism-Leninism has no beauty, nor is there anything mysterious about it. It is only extremely useful. —Mao Zedong, Yan’an, 1942

On the bicentennial of Marx’s birth last May, President Xi Jinping called on members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to return to the study of the socialist sage. “We commemorate Marx in order to pay tribute to the greatest thinker in the history of mankind,” Xi said, “and also to declare our firm belief in the scientific truth of Marxism.” Party members are required to study selections of Marx’s works, particularly The Communist Manifesto. The public gets its dose as well, among other things via a television talk show, Marx Got It Right (Makesi shi duide). The renewed embrace of Marxism has also been a key element in the rollout of “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” which was added to China’s constitution following last year’s 19th Communist Party Congress.

But the Marxism that Xi and his propagandists are pushing is not what one would expect from a serious reading of the Manifesto. Nor is it the lumbering apparatus of the Stalinist state. The lessons of Marx, Xi declares, are that Marxism changes with the times, that it must be integrated with local culture in order to be effective, and that it needs a strong party and a great leader in order to succeed. This state Marxism is an attempt to unify the population behind a national ideology, not to inspire class struggle but to revive the “best” traditions of Chinese governance.

China’s modern states have always been ideological. All its post-imperial leaders—from Sun Yat-sen to Chiang Kai-shek to Mao Zedong—embraced the Leninist state and espoused a comprehensive ideology that claimed to liberate China and, ultimately, all of humanity. The Republic under the Nationalist Party of Sun and later Chiang tried but failed; it was the CCP under Mao that first succeeded in establishing an ideological state that could replace the form—ideological governance—if not the content of state Confucianism under China’s dynasties.

Mao put China in the middle of a world revolution to liberate the laboring masses and put the party at the core of every activity in China. Mao’s ideological state welded Chinese society together as the People’s Republic of China, but at a terrible cost in blood and treasure. After the death of Mao in the mid-1970s, Deng Xiaoping appeared to break with this internationalist tradition by creating “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” a new policy that put economic growth ahead of revolution. This was a reaction to Mao’s Cultural Revolution, when ideology was taken to absurd extremes and plunged China into ten years of political chaos. But Deng did not mean to abandon ideology, only to set it aside while developing the nation as fast as possible. Deng’s choice to prioritize economic development over ideological conformity worked so well that socialist ideology could not keep up with the market society that emerged.

Economic success produced its own contradictions. China has become a pluralistic society that Mao Zedong could not have imagined, although not one that embraces a diversity of political or cultural views. First, television and then the internet brought the world to China, despite pervasive censorship. Globalization brought foreign tourists, students, and business people to China in huge numbers, and sent Chinese abroad to study, travel, and trade. Relaxations to the hukou (internal passport) system allowed hundreds of millions of peasants to migrate to the cities for work. By 2000, China had its share of globe-trotting capitalists, alienated intellectuals, internet-addicted teenagers, scrappy entrepreneurs, and forgotten masses. By 2012, when Xi Jinping came to power, the party was afraid that this was getting out of control; a truly ideological regime cannot embrace pluralism without admitting the possibility of competition and eventual replacement.

Ideology to the rescue

Xi Jinping and the CCP have responded to the increasing social and intellectual pluralism that China’s economic development and engagement with the world have produced with a renewed commitment to Marxism. This state Marxism is the necessary software that enables China’s Leninist state to survive and to deliver on its promises today. Making China Marxist again, they believe, will ensure that the CCP continues to determine the content and direction of China’s “rejuvenation” to the status of a world power abroad and a prosperous, civilized society at home. This is Xi Jinping’s “China Dream,” the nationalistic slogan he coined that can now be found on billboards throughout the country.

For Xi, Marxism is modern China’s state ideology, part of the national story of redemption from humiliation by foreign powers. Guided by Marxist ideology, the Communists defeated the Japanese and the Nationalists to found the People’s Republic in 1949. Then the party navigated the treacherous eddies of economic development, international competition, and political infighting to bring China to the brink of superpower status today. In so doing, its leaders and cadres developed a set of political practices that go beyond—even replace—the doctrine of class struggle. These are political techniques that were employed (albeit with mixed results) in Mao’s time, including “criticism and self-criticism,” “rectification,” and the “mass line”—the first two intended to train and discipline cadres; the last to consult the masses. Such practices can keep tyranny in check, encourage feedback from society to correct policy, and provide the state with the resources to get things done.

These may sound like empty slogans but, when practiced with sincerity and skill, they constitute the software powering the CCP’s machine of authoritarian rule. The problem, of course, is that these internal checks-and-balances in state Marxism have not been practiced with either sincerity or skill in the decades before Xi came to power, and their atrophy or absence abets a widespread official corruption that weakens party legitimacy and threatens social cohesion. Xi’s legitimacy up to now rests on his claim to revive these traditions of Leninist self-regulation. This Marxism, Xi declares, is the source of the CCP’s admirable capacity for self-renewal over nearly a century, or as he puts it, for “self revolution” (ziwo geming).

For state Marxism to legitimate the authoritarian rule of the party, the CCP must co-opt or at least silence China’s intellectuals. In most Western media accounts, these are heroic dissidents like the writer Liu Xiaobo and artist Ai Weiwei, who inevitably wind up either in prison or in exile for espousing their views. In fact, for every dissident there are hundreds of independent-minded “establishment intellectuals”—professors, journalists, writers—who, through scholarship, media, or on increasingly controlled internet platforms, try to influence the state and public opinion without challenging the CCP leadership.

China’s establishment intellectuals are certainly not dissidents, though they embrace the public role of social critics. They argue among themselves about how far China’s reforms should go and what kind of politics would best serve the country. They debate the meaning of Xi Jinping’s “China Dream.” Chinese liberals—from the public intellectual Qin Hui to the economist He Qinglian to historian Xu Jilin—are not a model of consistency: at different times, they have argued for constitutional democracy, for freer markets, and for policies to ameliorate the fate of China’s poor. For their part, such New Leftists as Wang Hui, perhaps the best known of Chinese intellectuals in the West, and Wang Shaoguang, professor emeritus at Chinese University of Hong Kong, fulminate against neoliberalism and seek to revive socialism by rereading Marx and Mao and adding elements of post-modern political theory. New Confucians such as Jiang Qing, advocate of “Confucian constitutionalism,” and Beijing professor Chen Ming argue that China has lost its soul in its engagement with Enlightenment values over the course of the twentieth century, and that her return to “great-power” status proves the virtue of “Chinese characteristics” rather than international socialism.

Such intellectual pluralism hardly threatens Xi Jinping or the CCP directly, but it makes it harder to sell Xi’s version of the China Dream. This is so particularly since some of these intellectuals have begun to tell China’s story in ways that omit key elements—like the founding of the CCP. This is the second half of Xi Jinping’s revival of Marxism after rectifying the party—getting the general public and Chinese intellectuals who influence public opinion on board. Most of Xi Jinping’s collected works consist of what historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom calls a “compilation of stump speeches.” The party does not rely solely on Xi’s ex cathedra statements. It also engages establishment thinkers to offer a reasoned intellectual defense of Xi’s thought and an elaboration of Marxism’s usefulness to China and the rest of the world in the twenty-first century.

One such apologist for Xi is Jiang Shigong, a law professor at Beijing University. In a recent article that drew a lot of attention in China, Jiang sought to systemize “Xi Jinping Thought.” His argument is basically historical, providing a new periodization of modern and contemporary Chinese history that restores the party to its central role: China “stood up” under Mao Zedong, “got rich” under Deng Xiaoping, and is “becoming powerful” under Xi Jinping. This seemingly simple formula in fact accomplishes a number of key objectives. First, it refutes the commonly held view that the history of the first sixty years of the People’s Republic should be seen as divided between thirty years of failure—Maoism—and thirty years of success—reform and opening—by arguing that Mao restored the sovereignty necessary to China’s material progress in a globalized world under Deng. Similarly, Deng’s reforms are not to be criticized for promoting capitalism; he simply allowed the material base for China’s rejuvenation to develop. Jiang’s argument thus makes China’s modern and contemporary history whole and continuous. Second, Jiang identifies “great men” with great accomplishments, thus striking a symbolic blow against pluralism and carving out a space for Xi Jinping, his thought, and his possible life-long tenure. And third, Jiang makes a robust case for the centrality of Marxism after years of tired efforts to salvage it.

Jiang’s argument requires a certain legerdemain, which leaves Marxism transformed. Jiang argues—as did Mao Zedong—that Marxism’s truths are not timeless but evolve with society. Class struggle was appropriate under Mao, given China’s social conditions—but not now. The ideological relaxation announced by “socialism with Chinese characteristics” under Deng Xiaoping worked, because by then China required, above all, the development of its material base. At present, however, China has become a “well-off” society (Chinese for “bourgeois,” which still has a pejorative connotation) that provides for the needs of its people, and Marxism requires modification to catch up with developments in China’s economy. Agreeing with New Confucians and other cultural conservatives, Jiang argues that Marxism must merge with traditional Confucianism and seek inspiration from its spirit of striving, of excellence, of self-perfection. All of this is combined with a defense of China’s cultural and civilizational uniqueness, the notion that, through the continual exercise of theory and practice, China has finally made socialism both uniquely Chinese and uniquely contemporary. The cunning of Jiang’s exposition of “Xi Jinping Thought” is that it addresses international liberal criticism without giving way to liberal political solutions.

The “China Dream” for a new era?

“Xi Jinping Thought” tells a powerful story: China has succeeded where Stalinism in the twentieth century and neoliberalism today have failed, and thus must lead the world forward. To a non-Chinese Marxist, such arguments must seem mystifying (or infuriating), because they are fashioned in a historical and historiographical context—that of remaking the foundational myths of modern China—that is largely unknown outside of the country.

The branding is clunky as well. “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” hardly rolls off the tongue even in Chinese, to say nothing of how it sounds in translation, although large propaganda campaigns are fashioned around it. Xi’s “Thought” is also full of the tension between wanting to claim Chinese uniqueness as well as China’s universal relevance, both because China is “unique” and because it has “renewed socialism.” It is hard to see Xi’s various pronouncements or official propagandists fanning the flames of revolution or opening new avenues for theoretical discussions in world conferences on Marxist thought. Class struggle has been replaced by the managed efficiency of the “China model.”

Ideology in China is largely a top-down affair. Ordinary people in China are not consulted and are unlikely to care about the doctrinal niceties of Marxism or “Xi Jinping Thought,” although some might be moved by Xi’s calls for self-sacrifice and public service. Initial comments on Chinese social media about the TV show, Marx Got It Right (before they were censored) were sarcastic and dismissive of the hokey approach, but not of the content. A doctrine that lays claim to fairness and public service reassures the average citizen that there is order under heaven.

While it is unlikely to take the world by storm, in China, this version of Marxism seems to be playing well. In addition to its nationalist appeal, two factors strengthen Xi Jinping’s hand. The first is the wealth and power of China’s Leninist state. It can and does censor the public sphere, although its control is less complete and less self-confident than in Mao’s day. And, it supports its story with generous academic grants, professorships, and entire institutes to elaborate and propagate “correct” thought. Second, Xi’s criticisms of electoral democracy seem much more reasonable in the face of the disarray of liberal democracy, from Brexit to Trump to the restive populist governments in the EU. Wang Jisi, a senior foreign policy expert in Beijing, can credibly claim in Foreign Affairs that China is a paragon of “the world of order” in troubled times.

Xi’s state Marxism is an ideology that succeeds in fashioning a single narrative explaining China’s past, present, and future and—for the moment—leaves China’s chattering classes speechless and the general public quiescent. The revival of governing by ideology, which requires this single narrative, is Xi’s goal as well—a time-tested form of Chinese statecraft. His goal of making China Marxist again is to shore up state authority, rejuvenate the Chinese people, and polish the global image both of the country as well as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” It is not to help the people rise up—workers of the world seeking to lose their chains will have to look elsewhere.


Timothy Cheek is author of The Intellectual in Modern Chinese History (Cambridge University Press, 2015). He teaches at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver and is director of its Institute of Asian Research.

David Ownby is editor and translator of Rethinking China’s Rise: A Liberal Critique (Cambridge University Press, 2018) by Jilin Xu. He teaches at the Université de Montréal.

Together with Joshua Fogel, they lead a project on Reading and Writing the Chinese Dream, a website devoted to the study of intellectual life in contemporary China.


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