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This article revises and reframes the nearly thirty-year-old idea of the historian of China, Arif Dirlik, who explained that China had entered a period of “postsocialism” at the beginning of the rule of Deng Xiaoping, and that same era of “postsocialism” is still continuing. It presents a new conceptual framework for two reasons of historical accuracy. First, postsocialism began not with Deng, but it started when the Chinese Communist Party under Mao Zedong translated and adapted Marxism to Chinese conditions and used it from the 1930s to the 1970s. The theory crossed over from the original Marxism and reappeared in hybrid Sinicized form. When Mao experimented with Chinese variants of socialism, the stage of postsocialism was—at once—reached because Mao’s policies became less and less like Marx, and fell into a postsocialist mould. Secondly, this article further posits that the same concept of postsocialism cannot be used to describe the continuing refinements to socialism (really postsocialism) under successive leaders from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping. The adoption by Deng of the policy of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” and the ongoing refinements to it, would be better understood under the more nuanced rubric of post-postsocialism, which is a more precise signifier. Moving on from the praxis, the article explores the theoretical efforts by Chinese scholars to test the validity of the relatively recent schools—Post Marxism and Return to Marx—against the canvas of conditions in present-day China.

THE EARLY COMMUNIST LEADERS OF CHINA ADAPTED Marxism to suit the un-European conditions prevailing in China. A process of cultural translation enabled Marxism to be Sinicized under the chairman of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Mao Zedong. As a product of translation, Sinicization can be understood by signposting the postcolonial concept of hybridity: a process of joining together of Eastern and Western cultures that assumes many forms—linguistic, cultural, political, and racial.[1] The CPC under Mao was conscious of the need to liberate China from the remnants of bourgeois ideology and class divisions in society, leftovers from China’s past. In this manner, hybridity acted as a tool to challenge the remaining structures of class oppression within China. Mao effectively created a new space, a hybrid one, for his type of translated Marxism to exist.

The current CPC ideology, “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” made a late entry into the Party’s parlance in the late 1980s, under the reforms of the leader Deng Xiaoping. Deng first used the phrase in his opening remarks at the 12th National Congress in September 1982 that were published in the People’s Daily.[2] It was the defining maxim of his astonishingly bold reforms, and an effort by Deng to distinguish it from Mao’s style of socialism. Before the congress began, the rural commune system had been shut down, and the mantra of the market economy adopted. It was a stratagem or, as the Chinese described it, a “basket”: on the outside the reforms were acceptable to the conservatives, but inside the basket was a vision of radical change. The Party declared that the congress sought to define a correct road, a strategy, and principles and policies for conducting socialist modernisation—after “eliminating the negative effects of the chaos of the cultural revolution.”

The nucleus of Deng’s formula was not “socialism” but “Chinese characteristics.” By emphasising the latter, Deng was able to shape the concept to fit prevailing conditions, and to prepare the Party to embrace unprecedented economic liberalisation. The term had not appeared in the political report of the general secretary, Hu Yaobang, to the 12th Congress. It entered the political discourse only after Deng, Hu, and Zhao Ziyang presented their vision for such unparalleled reforms at the congress.

The phrase reappeared in the report of the acting CPC general secretary, Zhao Ziyang, at the 13th Congress, from October 25-November 1, 1987. His report entitled, “Advance Along the Road of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” was the earliest detailed reference to the phrase.[3] At the congress Zhao not only pointed out the special colours (tese) or characteristics of socialism in China, he also used the metaphor of a road to progress.[4]

Harbingered by tropes of “baskets” and tese, the Party prepared the cadre to accept the coming reforms. The Party internalised the adapted form of Marxism and then projected it both inwards in its domestic policies, and outwards in its foreign relations in both the communist and non-communist countries.


The effort to Sinicize Marx predates the era of Mao. It was developed by Mao and further adapted by Deng to the new social and economic conditions, and has found a prominent place in the Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,  simply known as Xi Jinping Thought. Mao had called for the “Sinification of Marxism” as early as 1938, but several years earlier the newly-formed CPC had already begun to informally Sinicize many of the theoretical concepts of Marxism through translation. Some of the earliest and most important discussions on the need to translate Marxism into the language of the masses were provided not by Mao, or even Maoists, but by Qu Qiubai, an earlier secretary of the Party and a literary theorist.[5]

Although Karl Marx’s “proletariat,” the principal actor in his theory, represented the factory worker living in Europe in appalling conditions generated by early nineteenth-century industrialisation, its translation into Chinese was wu-ch’an chieh-chi and wu tzu-ch'an chieh-chi, denoting “propertyless class” who could be living either in the city or the countryside.[6] The proletariat of Europe was, thus, reconfigured as the poor peasants or landless labourers of China. It marked a significant departure from Marx in the application of the doctrine when it was spread among ordinary Chinese people.

The CPC’s cultural translation of Marx’s idea of “feudalism” stripped it of its industrial revolution milieu, and located it within the confines of an ancient Chinese empire. The Party’s domestication of “feudal” (feng-chien) differentiated it from Marx’s conception of European history. Feng-chien denoted the fragmentation of national sovereignty during the period of the Warring States (403-221 BCE) just before the unification of China by the Qin emperor in 221 BCE. In classical Chinese thought, the term referred only to the structure of central or decentralised government before 221 BCE, and to the exploitation of peasants by landowners that had existed for two thousand years. Given the ancient connotations of the CPC’s conception of feudalism, the term differed sharply from the Marxian use of the term, and could not, therefore, be applied to China. Neither could the past two-thousand-year history of China be described by the simplifying sweep of the term, feudal. These kinds of parameters were created soon after the birth of the CPC in July 1921.

Another source of foreign borrowing comprised the Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin and the Second World Congress of the Communist International in July 1920 that had laid down the ideological basis and practical conditions for assisting communist parties in China and in other colonised states. Soviet guidelines provided a platform for the existence of the CPC.

In 1921, China was beginning its journey out of the old world into the modern. Although a socialist party had existed for fifty years in Europe and for twenty-five years in Japan, these were small parties and were not particularly influential compared to the massive size and the peasant power of the CPC.

The dilemma of the policy of the Sinicization of Marxism was the foreignness of Marxism itself. Mao and his party colleagues addressed the question of how much of European theory to adopt, and they concluded that foreign ideas must be wholly adapted to Chinese conditions. Mao’s thought was essentially Chinese, and he automatically incorporated Marxism into the Chinese tradition. Mao had first proclaimed the slogan of the “Sinification of Marxism” in his report of October 1938 to the Sixth Plenum of the Central Committee of the CPC.[7]

A communist is a Marxist international, but Marxism must take on a national form before it can be applied. There is no such thing as abstract Marxism, but only concrete Marxism. What we call concrete Marxism is Marxism that has taken on a national form, that is Marxism applied to the concrete struggle in the concrete conditions prevailing in China, and not Marxism abstractedly used. If a Chinese communist, who is a part of the great Chinese people, bound to his people by his very flesh and blood, talks of Marxism apart from Chinese peculiarities, this Marxism is merely an empty abstraction. Consequently, the Sinification of Marxism—that is to say, making certain that in all of its manifestations it is imbued with Chinese peculiarities, using it according to these peculiarities—becomes a problem that must be understood and solved by the whole Party without delay.

Mao’s prescient use of the phrase “Chinese peculiarities” three times in just this one extract would eventually become a commonly used phrase in Chinese society and particularly among scholars. His employment of “Chinese peculiarities” was also the conceptual origin of the maxim Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, which is its synonym.

Sinification served at least two immediate purposes: making the language of Marx accessible to the Party and the common people, and ensuring that the Party cadres were well-versed not just in Marxism but more importantly in Chinese history. Under Mao, the CPC internalised the precepts of the Sinicized Marxism in both in its domestic and foreign policies. Schram explains that for Mao, Sinification meant that its practitioners needed to have a profound knowledge of Chinese history, and the ability to relate the present to the past. Mao fervently believed that Marxism was useless and even non-existent without its practical applications, underscoring his view that each country must approach its revolution in its own way.

On the one hand, Mao urged the Party to transform abstract Marxism into something much more concrete that could be used in Chinese conditions and, on the other hand, he viewed Marxism as a concept of such fluidity and suppleness that he could sculpt it easily to China’s needs. So, we have a co-existence of opposites within the same theme—concreteness and fluidity—that fruitfully enabled the Chinese communists to apply Marxism in a very practical manner in the cities and the countryside, and concomitantly gave them the ideological flexibility to fine-tune their policies over the long term.

For Mao, the concept was malleable, even ambiguous, and open to constant renovation in step with the specific conditions of China, or Chinese peculiarities. It is this fluidity that runs through the entire slow evolution of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, whose strength lies within its adaptability to change of every kind—economic, social, educational, cultural, and in military affairs—and a flexibility enabling the concept to shape and reshape itself repeatedly in response to both internal and external needs.

And yet, as Schram reminds us, Mao was not just Sinicizing Marxism, but he was also Sinicizing the Marxists of China. In this way, Mao was rejecting the abstractedness and abstruseness of Soviet ideologues who claimed to lay down prescriptions from Moscow for how the outside communist world ought to conduct its revolution. Mao, at these times, was urging the Party cadres to attempt to become theoreticians—but not blind theoreticians—in his talk “What is a Theoretician”:[8]

If we have only read this theory [Marxism-Leninism] but have not used it as a basis for research in China’s historical and revolutionary actuality, have not created a theory in accordance with China’s real necessities, a theory that is our own and of a specific nature, then it would be irresponsible to call ourselves Marxist theoreticians…. If we only know how to recite Marxist economics or philosophy, reciting from the first to the tenth chapters until they are thoroughly familiar, but are completely unable to apply them, can we then be considered Marxist theoreticians.

Amid laughter from an enthusiastic audience, Mao raised the question: “What type of theoreticians do we need?” And he provided the answer, that China needed theoreticians

…who are able to explain correctly the actual problems issuing from history and revolution, who are able to give it a scientific interpretation and theoretical explanation of the various problems of Chinese economics, politics, military affairs, and culture. This is the type of theoretician that we need.

In the same speech Mao prioritised the Chinese intelligentsia, declaring “we should strive to attract a broad spectrum of the intelligentsia,” and that “an attitude of welcome [should] be adopted towards them.” Mao grappled with making Marxism relevant to China: “how can Marxist-Leninist theory and the reality of the Chinese Revolution be united?” He offered an analogy of a target and an arrow. “The relation between Marxism-Leninism and the Chinese Revolution is the same as between the arrow and the target.” He bemoaned: “However, some comrades shoot arrows recklessly without a target…The arrow of Marxism-Leninism must be used to hit the target of the Chinese Revolution.”


The postsocialist moment arrived at the 7th National Congress of the CPC:  Mao Zedong Thought was established as the guiding ideology of the Party at the congress.[9] The shift had been completed from functionally adapting Marxism to the language, mentality, and conditions of China (as Mao had originally defined Sinification), to the replacement of all other forms of Marxism by the Thoughts of Mao himself.[10] Since occurrences such as “shifts” were an integral component of the CPC’s practical policies in line with changes both at home and abroad, the “shifts” need to be understood in a theoretical way.

The inherent malleability of the Chinese variant of Marxism has led scholars into productive avenues of inquiry. The historian of China, Arif Dirlik, has explained that postsocialism, a state that came after socialism, could become a defining feature of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics which would avoid the utopianism associated with the word “socialism.”[11]

But how should we categorise the history that preceded the Deng reforms, the period starting from the 1930s? Dirlik implicitly suggests that Chinese history prior to the 1980s was a period of “socialism” (without the “post”) when China experimented with collectivisation and communes. I offer an alternate view.

I suggest revising and reframing the nearly thirty-year-old idea of Dirlik, which he reaffirmed in 1989.  Dirlik explained that China had entered a period of “postsocialism” at the beginning of the rule of Deng, and that same era of “postsocialism” is still continuing.

 I present a new formulation for two reasons of historical accuracy. First, postsocialism began not under Deng, but it started when the CPC led by Mao translated and adapted Marxism to Chinese conditions and used it from the 1930s to the 1970s. The theory crossed over from the original Marxist text and reappeared in hybrid Sinicized form. When Mao experimented with Chinese variants of socialism, the stage of postsocialism was—at once—reached because Mao’s policies became less and less like Marx, and fell into a postsocialist mould. To call that period “socialist” would be inaccurate. There are, moreover, the degrees of postsocialism that are determined by the extent or magnitude of society’s adherence to an ideology, such as partial-postsocialism or total-postsocialism.

Secondly, I further posit that the same concept of postsocialism should not be reused to describe the continuing refinements to socialism under successive leaders from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping. The adoption by Deng of the policy of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” and the ongoing refinements to it, would be better understood under the more nuanced rubric of post-postsocialism, which serves as a more precise signifier that is much more accommodative of even the smallest shifts in ideological direction.

 We should, moreover, distinguish the “postsocialism” of Mao (who had, at the very moment of altering Marxism, taken China into its first postsocialist moment) from the “postsocialism” of Deng who had totally changed it with his call to liberalisation. It is necessary to properly date the various times at which Marxism was revised, that is, the many times when it became “post.” In this way, the twentieth and twenty-first century history of the CPC was a series of distinct, yet interactive, periods, starting with the Mao postsocialist era. It was followed by several others, each staying true to the original ideology of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics—bookended by the Deng post-postsocialist era and the Xi post-postsocialist era.

In his thoughtful analysis, Dirlik situates the start of the postsocialist period to the sweeping economic reforms that Deng unleashed. Dirlik explains that he devised “postsocialism in response to simplistic (and ideological) readings of reform and opening in the 1980s.” At the time, some critics predicted the imminent restoration of capitalism, while supporters of socialism voiced an unquestioning affirmation of socialism, hailing Deng as a revolutionary leader whose reforms did not represent a significant retreat from socialism.

Dirlik’s postsocialism is informed by “a historical situation where, first, socialism had lost its coherence as a metatheory of politics because of the attenuation of the socialist vision articulated at time of its historical unfolding.”[12] The loss of coherence may be “partly due to a perceived need by socialist countries to articulate actually existing socialism to the demands of a capitalist world order,” but also because the original socialism had been vernacularised or Sinicized into various different national contexts. Dirlik argues that, secondly, “the articulation of socialism to capitalism is conditioned by the structure of ‘actually existing socialism’ in any particular context which is the historical premise of all such articulation.”

So, here we have a conversation, or an encounter, going on between socialism and capitalism, a dialogue whose nature and parameters are determined by the type of socialism that happens to exist at a particular historical moment. The interrogative gaze, as it were, is firmly fixed on socialism, and never on capitalism whose existence is considered a part of settled history. In other words, socialism is taken to be ambiguous and in perpetual motion, and capitalism as shiftless.

I argue that since there can never be a fixed or permanent state of socialism because it must shift and change due to internal and external responses, the socialism-capitalism encounter must also be subject to change. Either one may become more like the other, or less so.  

 Dirlik explains, thirdly, that “this premise stands guard over the process of articulation to ensure that it does not result in the restoration of capitalism.” Restorations are out of the question for communist parties in China and Vietnam that have determinedly stood guard against going backwards in time. Dirlik argues: “Postsocialism is of necessity also postcapitalist, not in the classical Marxist sense of socialism as a phase in historical development that is anterior to capitalism,” but in the sense of socialism responding to the experience of capitalism and its attempt to overcome the deficiencies of capitalist development.

It sounds plausible. The CPC and the Communist Party of Vietnam have always argued that socialism would help them transition from socialism to wealth and happiness, by bypassing the stage of capitalism. Concomitant efforts are underway in Beijing and Hanoi to learn from the long history of the defects of capitalism, and to forget nothing of the past. Both countries have learned well the lessons of the Great Depression, American interwar protectionism, serial stock market crashes, and the cruel income inequalities and appalling poverty of capitalist systems. Dirlik makes a powerful case that socialism’s own deficiencies and the efforts of socialist states to correct them “by resorting to capitalist methods of development” are conditioned by an awareness of capitalism’s deficiencies as demonstrated in history.

It is, however, helpful to reconfigure his contention that “hence postsocialism seeks to avoid a return to capitalism, no matter how much it may draw upon the latter to improve the performance of ‘actually existing socialism.’” It is not postsocialism—that supposedly “began” with Deng—that aims to avoid a return to capitalism, rather the “original” socialism had sought to bypass capitalism on the way to attaining maximum happiness and wealth for the people. So, there is nothing particularly postsocialist about the desire of socialist states to avoid capitalism; the admonition was always present in the ideological thought of early socialist countries.

For Dirlik, the ‘post’ in postsocialist carries two meanings: First, Chinese society today, he believes, “is postsocialist because its claims to a socialist future no longer derive their force from socialism as an immanent idea.” This argument must remain debatable because the CPC and the Communist Party of Vietnam still believe their nation-building stems from socialist ideology, wherein the state intervenes in large areas of politics and economy. Secondly, Dirlik explains that “it is also postsocialist because socialism, as its structural context, remains as a possible option to which it can return” if circumstances so demand, and that the return-option distinguishes a postsocialist state from a capitalist or even a postcapitalist society where such options as collectivisation and a socialist culture are foreclosed.[13] This argument should be reconstructed because the encounter between socialism and capitalism, and the global linkages of socialist countries to the world economy, makes it both ideologically and practically impossible for any such “return.”

Dirlik persuasively argues that “to stress the capitalist elements of modern China and assume that China must develop into a capitalist society would be erroneous” because “it remains to be seen what the incorporation of socialist systems into the capitalist world order will imply for capitalism itself.”[14] The success of China and Vietnam in reducing poverty may persuade capitalist societies to change, to become more caring about their less fortunate citizens, and to adopt programmes to lift people out of poverty. I argue that the search for an alternative economic system may lead some countries to emulate, partially, the Chinese and Vietnamese models because many decolonised states that followed a capitalist model degenerated into dependencies of the colonial powers, or into various shades of neo-colonialism.

Dirlik strikes a note of optimism for the future of socialism that would be music to the ears of Chinese and Vietnamese socialists. “Rather than signalling the end of socialism, ‘postsocialism’ offered the possibility in the midst of a crisis in socialism of rethinking socialism in new, more creative ways.” China and Vietnam have exhibited an extraordinary ability to do precisely that: to reconfigure abstract socialism. But he is less convincing in his hypothesis that “freed of the commitment to . . . an inexorable future, socialism may be conceived in a new way: as a [re]source for imagining future possibilities” that derive their inspiration “not from a congealed utopia, which postpones to the future problems that await resolution today,” but “from the impulses to liberation that represent present responses to problems of oppression and inequality.” The record of both China and Vietnam in lifting millions out of poverty, and their creation of robust economies, challenges the hypothesis that they may be “congealed utopias,” and discounts the view that they have “postponed” their problems.

Other scholars have theorised Chinese socialism in different ways. Li Zehou characterises the integration of socialism and “Chinese characteristics” as a dual paradigm under which China aims to achieve “enlightenment” (qimeng) and “national salvation” (jiuwang) simultaneously.[15] For example, in the early twentieth century, Chinese intellectuals pursued a single-minded commitment to national salvation because they desired to make China stronger to survive foreign aggression.

Mao’s reinterpretation of Marxism as a practical manual for Chinese Marxists paved the way for Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. The new formula, argues Yeonsik Choi, featured both Marxism and Chinese traditions. But these two equations could have pulled in different directions, and could have upset the entire formula.[16] If Marxism were to be given greater weight, the role of Chinese traditions would shrink. Or, if Chinese traditions were to be emphasised, the Marxist approach would have lost some of its power. It was therefore predicted—erroneously—that Socialism with Chinese Characteristics may exhibit inconsistencies. Such predictions were proven wrong because of the inbuilt flexibility that animated the concept.

An enduring contribution of Mao was to usher in a diplomatic revolution, so to speak, in China’s relationship with the United States. Mao had sought a rapprochement with Washington, which he achieved.[17] In October 1971, China secured membership of the permanent five of the United Nations Security Council. The normalisation of relations with the United States occurred in 1972 when Mao and the prime minister, Zhou Enlai, took the decision to restore economic relations with the outside world. China’s foreign trade had already begun to grow before Mao’s death, and foreign investments in China expanded rapidly from 1985 onwards. The United States and China now began consulting, as equals, on regional and global issues. From 1984, China began to participate in international institutions and to subscribe to international agreements, and it eventually joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.



The Chinese response to the theory of “post-Marxism,” developed by Western thinkers, appeared both in theoretical and practical form. Around the time that Deng Xiaoping was pushing China into its post-postsocialist history, Western theorists were formulating the concept of post-Marxism, which is essentially a diversified reworking of Marxism that began in the late 1970s. It was a reaction to classical Marxist materialism, economism, historical determinism, anti-humanism, and class reductionism, and it was influenced by poststructuralism and postmodernism. Post-Marxism rejected the meta-narratives of classical Marxism itself. These new ideas were developed by French theorists Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, and Michel Foucault, the Argentine political theorist Ernesto Laclau, the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe, and the Jamaican-born cultural theorist Stuart Hall.

From the 1980s, post-Marxism turned its back on classical Marxism and embraced feminism and postcolonialism, venturing into these new and exciting realms. The innovative theory no longer treated class, society, and history as cohesive, universal, and discursive. Under post-Marxism there was no uniform class consciousness. Post-Marxism also refers to an abandonment of Marxism by many former Marxists after the collapse of Soviet communism in Eastern Europe in 1989-91, when the Marxism which had informed cultural studies in the 1960s and 1970s was widely disavowed. Unlike traditional Marxism, which emphasises the priority of class struggle and the common humanity of oppressed groups, post-Marxism explores the sexual, racial, class, and ethnic divisions of modern society.[18] Exploitation, therefore, does not operate exclusively within the economic relationship between labourers and capitalists, but it appears more often in the relationship between the genders, and between both races and ethnicities.

Chinese academics have responded spiritedly to post-Marxism. The Chinese Marxist philosopher, Wei Xiaoping, explains in his seminal article on the “collision” of the French theorist Jacques Derrida’s Deconstruction theory with China’s Marxism, arguing that Derrida interests Chinese Marxist scholars through his way of separating the spirit of Marx from the “specter” of Marx.[19] All those elements interpreted by Derrida as “specters” have in fact been practiced in China since 1949.

Wei explains that since China’s began its economic reforms in 1978, Derrida’s “specters” such as public ownership, and allocation according to contribution, have been replaced by multiple ownership or stock ownership, and by allocation according to contribution combined with allocation according to profits accruing from capital investment.

A “collision” is occurring in China between the theory and the practice of Marxism. The predictable result, Wei explains, is that the Marxist ideal of income equality both in theory and in practice has now led to great income difference. The phenomena of “specters and ghosts” stand opposed to Marx’s ideal of equality as well as the critical spirit of Marx.

When Derrida identified those elements as “specters” he presumably meant they could never be actualised. So when they actually disappeared in China, people believed that they were only “specters” and could not be objectified or actualised, while what actually could be practiced is the critical spirit of Marx. Chinese scholars are attracted by Derrida’s deconstructive method, and by the paradox of the “specters” and the spirit of Marx to the actual situation of China. Wei concludes that “no matter how confusing or mysterious the concepts that Derrida has used are, they, to some extent, help us to further ‘rethink Marxism’ in our era.”[20]

Derrida has drawn the interest of Chinese scholars since 1978, the year Deng’s economic reforms began, and liberalisation spread from economics to culture, and also, to a degree, into the ideological arena. During this period, all the major schools of Marxism abroad were introduced into China. Apart from orthodox Soviet Marxism, China imported what its scholars call Western Marxism, both schools being different. The Chinese understanding of Western Marxism is based on the theories of the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, the German Marxist theoretician Karl Korsch and the Hungarian theorist George Lukacs, among others. There are many disagreements about how Western Marxism should be interpreted.

The Chinese scholars, moreover, focus on the German philosopher and founder of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, Max Horkheimer, and other school members such as the German-American psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, and his compatriots, the critical theorists Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno. For the Chinese, Marxism is normally represented by the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, existentialist Marxism by the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, and Analytical Marxism by the English-speaking social scientists G.A.Cohen, Jon Elster and John Roemer.

The scholar Wei argues that Derrida, as a deconstructionist philosopher, was not normally regarded as a Marxist, but after his book, Specters of Marx, was published in 1993 his ideas are now regarded as belonging to the so-called “post-Marxism.”[21] The German critical theorist, Jürgen Habermas, was regarded as belonging to the third generation of the Frankfort school, but now he is widely seen as also belonging to “post-Marxism.”

Wei explains that no sooner were the theories of Western Marxist scholars introduced into China than Chinese scholars, especially the younger ones, embraced them. Some students began to take Western Marxism as their main subject which, in turn, enlarged its influence in China. They were drawn to researching Western Marxism because, first, the combination of economic globalisation and China’s transition from a centrally planned economy to a market economy with Chinese characteristics meant that China's Marxists needed to face the same problems as Western Marxist scholars. Wei argues that while Western Marxist scholars had faced the problems of capitalism and market economy over a long period of time, Chinese Marxist scholars have been exposed to those problems only since economic transformation in 1978, and especially since 1992, when the actual situation in China became strikingly similar to the Western world.

Secondly, while the research work of Marxist scholars abroad is not guided by official political criteria or by governments, Chinese Marxists are affected by official political considerations, including official ideology, but they are less affected by different schools of Marxism or academic disciplines. Over the past three decades, alongside the so-called official Marxism in China, academic Marxist studies of two types have made an appearance: one is concerned with researching Western Marxism and New Marxism, and the other is focused on researching the thoughts of Marx based on his own texts.

Derrida’s Deconstructionism, however, has riveted the attention of those Chinese scholars who study Western Marxism, and those who belong to the Chinese schools of academic Marxism. Nonetheless, Chinese scholars who have researched Derrida’s post-Marxism find it a very confusing concept in their extensive surveys comparing it with Marx after Marxism, and the idea of the Return to Marx. Chinese scholars are conversant with the storyline: that Derrida’s Deconstructionism is also regarded as “post-modernism” because he only turns to Marxism after formulating his view of deconstructionism, and that his treatment of Marxism is labelled “post-Marxism.”

As the Chinese see it, there are at least two common points that Derrida shares with post-Marxism: first, both seek freedom from the “fundamental concepts of labour, mode of production, social class, and consequently the whole history of its apparatuses (projected or real).”[22] Secondly, they face the same period of post-industrialisation, which is the economic basement of post-modernism. In this environment, the social structure is different from that of Marx’s time.

Some Chinese scholars accept Derrida’s post-Marxism as they share the idea of giving up orthodox Marxism, which Wei calls “dogmatist Marxism,” while still insisting on the critical spirit of Marx. This view is also shared by scholars who subscribe to “After Marxism,” but it is different from post-Marxism because “After Marxism” does not challenge the basic concepts of Marx.

As the Chinese scholars understand it, the concept of post-Marxism means going back to Marx from the traditional or orthodox interpretation of Marxism which is based on the textbooks produced in Soviet Union and distributed to other fraternal socialist countries. Rockmore’s Marx after Marxism has helped Chinese scholars grasp the nuanced changes in Marxism.[23]

Chinese scholars see a convergence of views between Derrida and the “Return to Marx” or “Marx after Marxism.” On the one hand, Derrida tries to distinguish between Marx and Marxism by separating the spirit of Marx from the Soviet interpretation of Marxism, with his comment:

We would be tempted to distinguish this spirit of the Marxist critique [as critique of liberal capitalism and its ills], which seems to be more indispensable than ever today, at once from Marxism as ontology, philosophical or metaphysical system, as ‘dialectical materialism,’ from Marxism as historical materialism or method, and from Marxism incorporated in the apparatuses of party, State, or workers’ International.[24]

But “Return to Marx” or “Marx after Marxism” do not share the same meaning with “Post-Marxism” in the sense of the latter’s challenge to Marxist theory. The former only emphasises returning to Marx from Russian orthodox Marxism, which interpreted Marx mostly through Engels’ writings. On the other hand, all of them call back the spirit of Marx.

Derrida confuses ghosts with specters when he questions Marx’s usage of the term ‘specter’ in 1848 in opposition to Derrida’s own deployment of the same word in the 1990s.[25] And so, Derrida says: “Where I was tempted to name thereby … the return of the dead which the worldwide work of mourning cannot get rid of…Marx, for his part, announces and calls for a presence to come.”[26]

As the Chinese scholar Wei sees it, the concept of the “Return to Marx” has another meaning that goes further than “After Marxism”: it not only emphasises reading Marx through the texts of Marx himself in Chinese translation, but also to read Marx in the original text in his own language which became possible with the publication of the new Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA2), the complete and largest collection of the works of Marx and Engels.[27] The older edition of MEGA in China was translated mainly from a Russian edition. After the release of MEGA2, a very small group of Chinese scholars began reading Marx through his own language. Wei explains that the original German text has brought out a Marx that is different from the traditional translated one. Within MEGA2, there are some words and concepts that cannot be expressed exactly in another language and some of Marx’s concepts could be understood better in his own language.

Wei explains that these developments do not indicate that a linguistic transition in Marxist studies has happened in China, but it shows that Chinese Marxist scholars have begun reading Marx in the original language, using linguistic technique. Chinese scholars, thus, have arrived at a point close to what Derrida tried to do with his linguistic deconstruction.         

Chinese scholars, and indeed many others, have found it difficult to comprehend the difference between Derrida’s use, in his Specters of Marx, of the concepts of “ghost” and “specter” to explicate Marxism and Marx. Derrida got these concepts mainly from two documents: in the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels employ “ghost” to refer to a spirit that is welcomed by some and feared by others. “Specter” has its origin in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet.

The Chinese understanding is that for Derrida “ghost” or “specter” do not have a single meaning, rather they possess multiple meanings. As Derrida said, “the figure of the ‘ghost’ is not just one figure among others. It is perhaps the hidden figure of all figures.”[28]

Wei contends that although the “ghost” or “specter” which Derrida invokes is confusing, they could be metaphors for good or bad, or they could be seen as two characters, one with a positive connotation, and the other negative in meaning. Derrida uses these words to refer both to Nazis and fascists, and Leninists and Stalinists, to convey either a negative meaning or a positive one.[29] For the Nazis and fascists the connotation is negative. But for Leninists and Stalinists, what Derrida has in mind is perhaps a positive “ghost” that tries to objectify itself into actual “being,” but as only a “ghost” that cannot fulfill its project in actuality because Derrida explained, “to haunt does not mean to be present.”[30]

Applying Derrida’s and Marx’s apparitions to China’s efforts to adhere to Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, Wei believes that when the traditional model of socialism was replaced by a socialist market economy, the negative “specters” such as private ownership and social differences took the place of the positive “specters” such as public ownership and social equality. The critical spirit of Marx is not only concerned with negative “specters” which are now haunting us, but also with the positive “specters,” and why they cannot stay longer, and why Derrida treats them as only “specters.”

It is in this sense both Derrida and Chinese Marxist scholars think that there should be an open, self-critical, transformative, re-evaluative and self re-interpretive spirit towards Marx, and that Chinese Marxists could develop Marxist theory with greater theoretical engagement. Wei argues that those characteristics of socialism such as public ownership, income equality and social community, may now be also accepted by some Chinese as “specters” because they come and go, just like “specters” as it is not easy for them to stay longer. Wei explains that Derrida regarded them as “specters” because they could never be actualised. As soon as they are actualised, they become a different thing, so they are always hanging on somewhere. Derrida’s understanding of communism is: “communism has always been and will remain spectral; it is always still to come.”[31]

And when Marx criticised those “specters” of capitalism such as private ownership, income differences, and social conflict, he believed that they behaved like “specters” in the sense that they did not really disappear under certain circumstances and came back again under other circumstances. They just hang around like “specters.” 

“Post-Marxism,” especially Derrida’s “post-Marxism,” could still be spread wider among China’s Marxist scholars while the country is on the way to the next phase of modernisation not just in reducing income inequality but in several social spheres as well. For example, what post-Marxists critique is not the economic relationships engendered by capitalism, rather they argue that the main social differences are not only derived from economic sectors, and that income differences are not only the result of capital investment, but are the outcome of individual competence. This has challenged some basic principles of Marx. It is in this sense that some Chinese Marxist scholars have accepted Derrida’s deconstructionism, as well as other “Post-Marxist” critiques.

If the negative “specters” in China are different from those “specters” that Marx had criticised, how should Chinese scholars understand Marx? Wei explains that these theoretical approaches “really confuse” many Marxists in China as they do Western scholars. But Chinese Marxists may be even more concerned about these questions, not only because Marxism is the dominant ideology of China’s economic reform, but also because the negative “specters,” even in their new form, are still regarded as negative elements which need to be criticised.

The dilemma of Chinese scholars is that Derrida himself is not very clear how the world should be critiqued during times of financial crises that are typically caused by the “specters” of advanced capitalism. What makes analysis murky is that such crises do not arise from industrial over production, but from excessive banking debt in the financial system. Wei explains that a similar situation exists in present-day China where private ownership comprises almost ninety percent of the economy, and income differences are increasing. So, how should Chinese scholars read Marx. “If we accept the ‘anti-foundational’ way of reading Marx, what should the critical spirit of Marx point at?” Wei wonders.    

Wei argues that Derrida’s emphasis on the critical spirit of Marx not only points to the outside world but also to the theory itself, and it has to some extent opened the mind of Chinese scholars to further “rethink Marxism” at the present historical moment.


The post-postsocialist moment arrived suddenly. After the death of Mao, Deng executed unprecedented economic reforms during his tenure from 1978 to 1989, overseeing the refinement of the policy of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics which became the CPC’s official ideology. As it evolved, the CPC explained that the ideology encompassed not just Marxism-Leninism adapted to Chinese conditions, but an entire creed spanning Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, Three Represents, Scientific Outlook on Development, and most recently Xi Jinping Thought, all of which aimed to make the country strong and prosperous. The rapid economic growth unleashed by the Deng reforms created the justification for staying the ideological course that was reaffirmed at successive congresses.[32]

The 19th Congress in October 2017 witnessed the emergence of Xi Jinping Thought. In his report to the congress, Xi explained that Socialism with Chinese Characteristics was entering a new era, and that the present moment was “a new historic juncture in China’s development.”[33]

It is here that Xi and the Chinese Marxist scholars share common concerns over growing income inequality. Xi has cautioned the Party about the emergence of a “contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life,” and he urged the Party to address such imbalances and inadequacies.

In a case of practice coming before theory, post-Marxist theory—with its focus on gender and race—seems to have caught up with the CPC, which had emphasised the elevation of the status of women, and harmony between the various ethnicities, ever since the creation of the Chinese state in 1949.

But is there still a role for Marx on his 200th anniversary? When Xi paid glowing tributes to the theorist in May 2018, the answer was in the affirmative. Xi celebrated Marx at a grand gathering in Beijing to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth, describing him as the “teacher of revolution for the proletariat and working people all over the world, the main founder of Marxism, creator of Marxist parties, a pathfinder for international communism and the greatest thinker of modern times.”[34] In the post-postsocialist period, China’s leaders and its Marxist scholars have continued re-imagining Marx.

Harish C. Mehta holds a PhD (McMaster University, Canada) in the history of American foreign relations and Southeast Asia, and the twentieth-century history of China. Author of three books on Cambodian politics and media, his articles on Vietnamese diplomacy have appeared in the American journals Diplomatic History, Peace and Change, The Historian, and History Compass, and his review articles have appeared in H-Diplo. He has taught history at McMaster, the University of Toronto, and Trent University. He has twice won the Samuel Flagg Bemis research award from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, the Asian Print Media Write Award  by the Asian Media Information and Communication Center, Singapore, and a Freedom Forum Fellowship, Washington, DC, among other awards. He is the Editor-in-Chief of The Calcutta Journal of Global Affairs. Harish is a former Senior Indochina Correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore, and he was based in Singapore and Thailand for seventeen years, covering both Southeast Asia and Asean.


[1] Homi K. Bhabha, “Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority under a Tree outside Delhi, May 1817,” Critical Inquiry 12. 1 (1985): 144-165.

[2] Alessandra C. Lavagnino, “From ‘Chinese Characteristics’ (Zhongguo Tese中国特色) to ‘Chinese Dream’ (Zhongguo Meng中国梦): The Chinese Political Discourse Today,” in Understanding China Today: An Exploration of Politics, Economics, Society, and International Relations, eds., Silvio Beretta, et al. (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2012), 280-281.

[3] Zhao Ziyang, “Advance along the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” October 25, 1987, Beijing Review 30.45 (November 9-15, 1987): 23-49; Chao, Tzu-yang, Advance along the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics: report delivered at the 13th National Congress of the Communist Party of China on October 25, 1987 by Zhao Ziyang (Beijing: Beijing Review, 1987); Kwok-sin Li, comp., and Mary Lok, trans., A Glossary of Political Terms of the People’s Republic of China (Hongkong: Chinese University Press, 1995), 399; and The 12th Party Congress, China Daily. https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2007-07/10/content_6142010.htm

[4] Lavagnino, “From ‘Chinese Characteristics’ (Zhongguo Tese中国特色) to ‘Chinese Dream’ (Zhongguo Meng中国梦).”

[5] Arif Dirlik, “Postsocialism: Reflections on ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,’” Critical Asian Studies 21.1 (January 1989): 33.44. Also see, see Paul Pickowicz, Marxist Literary Thought in China: The Influence of Ch’u Ch’iupai (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1981).

[6] John King Fairbank, The Great Chinese Revolution, 1800-1985 (New York: Harper and Row1987), 250.

[7] Extracted from On the New Stage (Lun hsin chieh-tuan, Chieh-fang She, 1939), Chapter 7, A Report to the Sixth Plenum of the Sixth Central Committee in October 1938.

[8] Mao’s speech, “Reform in Learning, the Party, and Literature,” delivered at the opening of the Party school in Yenan on February 1, 1942, Chieh-fang Jih-Pao, April 27, 1942.

[9] Mao Zedong, The China Daily, http://cpcchina.chinadaily.com.cn/2010-09/14/content_14470695.htm.

[10] Stuart R. Schram, The Political Thought of Mao Tse Tung (New York: Praeger, 1977), 72.

[11] Arif Dirlik, “Post-Socialism Revisited: Reflections on ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,’ Its Past, Present, and Future,” Critical Asian Studies (January 1989): 263-291; and, Arif Dirlik, “Postsocialism? Reflections on ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’,” in Arif Dirlik and Maurice Meisner, eds., Marxism and the Chinese Experience: Issues in Contemporary Chinese Socialism (Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1989), 362-84.

[12] Dirlik, “Post-Socialism Revisited,” 264.

[13] Ibid, 265.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Li Zehou, Zhongguo xiandai sixiangshi lun [Essays on Contemporary Chinese Intellectual History] (Hefei: Anhui wenyi chubanshe, 1999), 823-866.

[16] Yeonsik Choi, “The Evolution of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics: Its Elliptical Structure of Socialist Principles and China’s Realities,” Pacific Focus XXVI. 3 (December 2011): 385–404.

[17] Jack Gray, Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1800s to 2000 (Oxford University Press, 2000), 265, 380.

[18] Philip Goldstein, Post-Marxist Theory: An Introduction (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2004).

[19] Wei Xiaoping, “The Collision of Marxism and Derrida’s Deconstruction in China,” Diogenes 57. 4 (2012): 56-62. Also see, Wei Xiaoping, “The Collision of Derrida’s Deconstructionism with China’s Marxism,” paper presented at the Congrès Marx international VI, septembre 2010.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx (New York: Routledge, 1994).

[22] Derrida, Specters of Marx, 88-89.

[23] Tom Rockmore, Marx After Marxism: The Philosophy of Karl Marx (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002).

[24] Derrida, Specters of Marx, 55.

[25] Terrell Carver, The Postmodern Marx (Manchester University Press, 1998), 13-14.

[26] Derrida, Specters of Marx, 99.

[27] Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe, MEGA2 (Amsterdam: Internationale Marx-Engels-Stiftung).

[28] Derrida, Specters of Marx, 119-20; and also see, Ib Johansen, Walking Shadows: Reflections on the American Fantastic and the American Grotesque from Washington Irving to the Postmodern Era (Leiden and Boston: Brill Rodopi, 2015), 226-227.

[29] Derrida, Specters of Marx, 104-5.

[30] Ibid, 161.

[31] Ibid, 99.

[32] For more details on the Party Congresses’ affirmation of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, see, The 13th National Congress, People’s Daily online. http://english.cpc.people.com.cn/; the 14th National Congress, People’s Daily online. http://english.cpc.people.com.cn/; the 15th National Congress, People’s Daily online. http://english.cpc.people.com.cn/; the 16th National Congress, People’s Daily online. http://english.cpc.people.com.cn/; the 17th National Congress, People’s Daily online. http://english.cpc.people.com.cn/; and the 18th National Congress, China.org.cn. http://www.china.org.cn/china/18th_cpc_congress/node_7167318.htm

Also see, Chansheng Rong, “Analyzing the Theoretical System of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” Asian Social Science 5.10 (October 2009), 134-136; Pamphlet of Xi Jinping’s Speech Published, November 20, 2012, Xinhua, People’s Daily online. http://en.people.cn/90785/8025853.html; and Xi Jinping’s remarks to the Press, November 15, 2012, China.org.cn http://www.china.org.cn/china/18th_cpc_congress/2012-11/16/content_27130032.htm.

[33] Xi Jinping speech, “Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” delivered at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, October 18, 2017, ChinaDaily.com http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/19thcpcnationalcongress/201711/04/content_34115212.htm.

[34] “Marx’s theory still shines with truth: Xi,” Xinhua, May 4, 2018.