Marxism-Leninism in China: Foundation or Ideological Ballast?


In light of the fact that the very first ideology of the Communist Party of China was Marxism-Leninism, many less than thorough investors make the mistake of believing that today’s China is run in the spirit of the ideology in question.

Is that true? To put it differently, is socialism with Chinese characteristics perfectly in line with let’s say Marxist-Leninist values?

Not quite!

Before elaborating, let us start by making it clear that as the name suggests, Marxism-Leninism is a combination between the classical ideology of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (classical Marxism) and the ideology of Vladimir Lenin (Leninism). In a nutshell, it “sells” (intentional capitalist irony) the idea that in light of the many contradictions inherent to capitalism, the future of the world will inevitably involve socialism and ultimately communism. As such, Marxist-Leninists believe that the death of capitalism would bring about widespread socialism (with the state taking over means of production) and that in the end, society would be so prosperous that the state would no longer even be required, with communism representing that final stage. As one can tell, communism never actually existed based on this “definition” (especially the stateless society dimension) and as such, even the USSR would (still) be considered socialist by Marxist-Leninist standards.

Moving on, it is important to note that “things are different in China” was a concept one can consider valid right from the beginning of the People’s Republic of China and as such, Marxism-Leninism “evolved” into Mao Zedong Thought, with Mao and key CPC members putting together an ideological framework which revolved around Marxism Leninism with… you’ve guessed it, Chinese characteristics.

Fast-forward to the present with the “Chinese characteristics” dimension in mind and we cannot help but notice that socialism with Chinese characteristics seems strangely incongruent if we are to compare it to the spirit of Marxism-Leninism.

What happened?

To be more specific, was Marxism-Leninism abandoned as of the Deng Xiaoping days, with China deciding to embrace market economy elements and reforms with the goal of tapping into the global economy and eventually catching up with the West?

It depends on whom you ask:

  1. Ask any rational outside observer and he will quickly point out that socialism with Chinese characteristics embraces far too many capitalism-oriented aspects for it to be considered let’s say a true descendant of Marxism-Leninism
  2. Ask Chinese ideological purists (from the infamous Gang of Four to modern-day thinkers) and they will agree, stating that China has committed the mistake of diverging from its Marxist-Leninist values and aiming for economics growth at all costs… with, according to this group, the costs in question revolving around China essentially losing its ideological identity
  3. Ask Communist Party of China officials and they will say the exact opposite, that socialism with Chinese characteristics represents an evolution of Marxism-Leninism or if you will, an adaptation of this ideological framework to modern-day Chinese realities. Officially speaking, these values have not been abandoned, with leaders such as Jiang Zemin pointing out that Mao Zedong Thought and Marxism-Leninism must never be eliminated from the equation

Who is right?

From a strictly formal perspective, CPC officials are indeed correct. The more one reads official documents/statements and analyzes the verbiage dimension, the more one tends to conclude that indeed, CPC officials still very much believe in Marxism-Leninism values. There has never been a formal inflexion point, a moment as of which the status quo in terms of official narrative changed in a fundamental manner.

Moving on to the real-world dimension, is would be a significant stretch of the imagination to state that today’s China is built in a manner which reflects Marxist-Leninist values for a wide range of reasons, for example:

  1. The fact that in some instances, China can be considered more of a capitalist nation than some Western countries. When it comes to let’s say the official or unofficial barriers to entry dimension for Chinese citizens (much less so for Westerners who are interested in doing business in China, although things have been changing from that perspective as well), it is oftentimes easier to start a business in China than in let’s say excessively regulated European countries
  2. The fact that the revolutionary approach to geopolitics has been all but abandoned, with China diligently establishing itself as a soft power and pragmatically stepping in whenever it makes sense rather than trying to bring about ideological revolutions in other countries. The exact opposite of the Cultural Revolution framework, if you will
  3. The fact that the Chinese population became more and more willing to not just tolerate but downright look up to entrepreneurship, with figures such as Jack Ma becoming “economic rock stars” and asked to speak at important events rather than being considered exponents of corrupt imperialistic thinking or proverbial enemies of the revolution
  4. The fact that China has been, once again since the Deng Xiaoping days, willing to not just cohabitate with the West but actually learn from it, something let’s say Mao Zedong would have considered unacceptable, especially in the earlier days of his rule

… the list could go on and on.

All in all, the Marxist-Leninist dimension represents perhaps a textbook example when it comes to the contradictory nature of how things sometimes work in China, a remarkable divergence between what officials state and what the reality of 2020’s China looks like.

As an entrepreneur who is interested in establishing a presence in China and/or an investor who would like to gain exposure to Chinese assets, these nuances represent the difference between meaningfully “getting” China and being taken to surprise time and time again. Should you be in need of assistance so as to avoid the latter scenario, the team would be more than happy to put its 13-year experience at your disposal and is only a message away.

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