What even is "dengism"?

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by Annamarx
Published: 2022-12-1 (last update: 2023-10-01)
10-20 minutes

I'm serious. How is 'dengism' even defined to begin with? Maoists (and other Anti-revisionists) seem to love this word, as this is a catch-all phrase for any 'revisionists' who appears to support the People's Republic of China. We could define 'dengism' to be this way, however, it also can apply to 'revisionists' who support the 4 other claimed socialist nations as well. This leads to a question. What even is 'dengism'?

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I'm serious. How is 'dengism' even defined to begin with? Maoists (and other Anti-revisionists) seem to love this word, as this is a catch-all phrase for any 'revisionists' who appears to support the People's Republic of China. We could define 'dengism' to be this way, however, it also can apply to 'revisionists' who support the 4 other claimed socialist nations as well. This leads to a question. What even is 'dengism'?

The Definition

Looking at the word etymologically, it stems from two parts, 'deng' and 'ism'. The 'ism' part is commonplace in most ideologies, such as Marxism-Leninism, as it shows you support this ideology. 'Deng' comes from the person known as 'Deng Xiaoping'. He's a controversial figure amongst Anti-revisionists as he is pictured to be a 'revisionist' who set up capitalist restoration within China. I would like to analyse this closer later on, but let us continue with defining 'dengism'. So we got the full picture, 'dengism' is anyone who supports Deng Xiaoping and his ideology. What was his ideology to be exact?

Deng Xiaoping wrote his own theory known as Deng Xiaoping Theory. This is what most Anti-revisionists consider 'dengism'. What does Deng Xiaoping Theory consist of? It consists of mainly three aspects, that is: the thought of the Stages of Socialism within China (and exclusively within China), the Four Modernisations and the Four Cardinal Principles. As we begin to analyse Deng Xiaoping closer, we will see what Deng Xiaoping legitimately believes in.

What did the theories mostly consist of? Well the theory won't matter if he's truly a revisionist, right? Revisionist theory just upholds revisionist thought, which would affect legitimate Marxist-Leninists, and Marxist-Leninist movements as a result. However, it doesn't matter how revisionist the person is, if we can analyse the deviation of Marxism within Deng Xiaoping's writings, it would be rightful to call him a revisionist. So we shall begin with that first.

Deng Xiaoping Writings and Theory

A lot of Deng Xiaoping's writing come from the circumstances brought upon the conditions of China. Therefore we must consider the material conditions whilst introducing the theory. So we shall begin with the one that puts a foundation on the material conditions themselves.

Four Cardinal Principles

The Four Cardinal Principles are principles laid by Deng Xiaoping during the 'Reform and Opening Up' in China. The Four Cardinal Principles stated are:

  1. We must keep to the socialist road.
  2. We must uphold the dictatorship of the proletariat.
  3. We must uphold the leadership of the Communist Party.
  4. We must uphold Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought.[1]

Analysing this, this makes sense. This was made while Deng Xiaoping was chairman, and seeing that China needed to be modernised at the time according to Deng Xiaoping, there was a need to uphold things such as the Dictatorship of the proletariat. I don't think you can conclude anything revisionist with the Four Cardinal Principles, unless if Deng Xiaoping was wrong regarding the material conditions (which we will get back to later). This does not show evidence that he was a revisionist. If anything, he wanted to uphold Mao Zedong Thought.

Four Modernisations

What about the Four Modernisations? Anything revisionist related to it? Well it's a series of policies enacted by Deng Xiaoping in order to develop the productive forces. The Four Modernisations relate to developing these sectors: Agriculture, Industry, Defence, and Science and Technology. This is necessary for any socialist system, and even Marx stated that it is necessary in order to truly liberate people:

[I]t is only possible to achieve real liberation in the real world and by employing real means, that slavery cannot be abolished without the steam-engine and the mule and spinning-jenny, serfdom cannot be abolished without improved agriculture, and that, in general, people cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity. “Liberation” is an historical and not a mental act, and it is brought about by historical conditions, the development of industry, commerce, agriculture, the conditions of intercourse...[2]

Nothing there signifies any form of revisionism so far.

Stages of Socialism

Deng Xiaoping claims that China is in the primary stage of socialism. This means that China is in a stage where Deng Xiaoping claims China is not 'up to the socialist standard'. And as such, the development of the productive forces is needed to advance towards the next stage. Deng Xiaoping claims this stage will remain until the middle of the next century:

[W]e are building socialism, but that doesn’t mean that what we have achieved so far is up to the socialist standard. Not until the middle of the next century, when we have reached the level of the moderately developed countries, shall we be able to say that we have really built socialism and to declare convincingly that it is superior to capitalism. We are advancing towards that goal.[3]

It doesn't seem like Deng Xiaoping is being a revisionist here either. Looking into the theory, it seems as if Deng Xiaoping follows Marxism-Leninism and accordingly well.

Deng Xiaoping in relation to Mao and the CPC

Let us push the theory aside for a moment, and see if Deng Xiaoping was a revisionist even before Deng Xiaoping came into power. This is where the 'Anti-revisionists' have their critiques (shows how well they read theory, does it not?), as they criticise Deng Xiaoping for being a supposed 'traitor' to the CPC and Mao Zedong. Let us start before the Cultural Revolution, for a very good reason as most of Mao's critiques on Deng Xiaoping were during the Cultural Revolution.

Before the Beginning of the Cultural Revolution

Deng Xiaoping was part of the 'Chinese Civil War', and although his importance is negligible in this stage, it sets a precedent that he was a veteran revolutionary who contributed to the CPC. He also ruthlessly criticised legitimate revisionists such as Chen Duxiu, calling him a 'right opportunist' in multiple instances.[4] However, we can dismiss this as revisionists can attack other revisionists. Just because they're an enemy of our enemy doesn't automatically mean they're our friend. This does not mean that he is a revisionist, it means it is insufficient. We must also note that Deng Xiaoping did work with other CPC members such as Liu Shaoqi, another member who was called a 'revisionist'. However he worked with people like Zhou Enlai, meaning this is also insufficient. So I'll consider Mao's views on Deng Xiaoping before the Cultural Revolution. According to the writings, he did comment on Deng Xiaoping's work, writing statements in agreement with what he stated, and even providing improvement to his works.[5] So Deng Xiaoping certainly was not a revisionist at this stage.

After the Beginning of the Cultural Revolution

This is where things get difficult to analyse, especially because of the rise of a group known as the 'Gang of Four'. Although they didn't appear in the cultural revolution initially, their presence was solidified in the Cultural Revolution and affected many things in China. This will not be a report on the Gang of Four, as they are its own beast, but we will analyse them as they are part of the Cultural Revolution. It must also be stated that that the Maoists uphold the Gang of Four. Mao did actually criticise Deng Xiaoping in the Cultural Revolution, especially in the later years. However, Deng Xiaoping was being criticised because he criticised the Cultural Revolution. He was not the only one critical of the Cultural Revolution, as other members of the CPC criticised it as well (especially veterans who were part of the Chinese Civil War).[6] Despite the criticism, he was still in a position of power, that is because Zhou Enlai helped him remain in power, and Mao Zedong liked Zhou Enlai for his leadership. It was only in 1976, when Zhou Enlai died, that Deng Xiaoping was demoted and purged from the party. Mao Zedong also made a campaign against Deng Xiaoping labelled the 'Criticize Deng and Oppose the Rehabilitation of Right-Leaning Elements' in 1975 as Deng was still critical of the Cultural Revolution. So that's it, we can assert that Deng Xiaoping was critical of the Cultural Revolution, and since the Cultural Revolution was good, Deng was a revisionist, right? Not quite.

Firstly, the Cultural Revolution did have some good aspects. It eliminated bourgeois influence from society, and destroyed reactionary culture that was prevalent in China at the time. However, the Cultural Revolution made China dwindle in terms of the Productive Forces. But wait, didn't China have high GDP growth in the 1960s? Yes, it did. However, that completely masks the whole picture, and China's GDP growth was dwindling, and it actually went negative in 1976. Looking into terms of GDP growth figures, Deng Xiaoping's reforms stabilished GDP growth, and to this day it has higher GDP grow than the United States.[7] So Deng Xiaoping was right when he said that China was now decades behind even the Third World nations, meaning that he was right in regards to his writings and material conditions.

However, the Maoists will throw one more thing in, and use a quote from Mao Zedong that stated he abandoned class struggle:

This person does not grasp class struggle; he has never referred to this key link. Still his theme of ‘white cat, black cat,’ making no distinction between imperialism and Marxism.[8]

However, we can say that Mao Zedong is not correct on everything. Mao Zedong said it himself. We must understand that his quote of 'black cat, white cat', refers to a quote stated by Lu Bocheng initially which is then built on:

As to what kind of relations of production is the best mode, I’m afraid we shall have to leave the matter to the discretion of local authorities, allowing them to adopt whatever mode of production that can facilitate quickest recovery and growth of agricultural production. The masses should also be allowed to adopt whatever mode they see fit, legalizing illegal practices as necessary. These are all tentative ideas, not final decisions, so they will not necessarily come to pass in future. When talking about fighting battles, Comrade Liu Bocheng often quotes a Sichuan proverb — “It does not matter if it is a yellow cat or a black cat, as long as it catches mice.” The reason we defeated Chiang Kai-shek is that we did not always fight in the conventional way. Our sole aim is to win by taking advantage of given conditions. If we want to restore agricultural production, we must also take advantage of actual conditions.

It is about the material conditions. Therefore as long as the strategy works, we can adopt different methods towards the solution. This is why the Market Socialist economy worked so well for China. And hence why Deng Xiaoping chose the right path at the end.

After the End of the cultural revolution

I've seen Maoists which post quotes which aren't really quotes from Deng Xiaoping at all. I've seen two. So let's take a look before we can conclude on our analysis of 'revisionism' on Deng Xiaoping.

Poverty is not socialism. To be rich is glorious.

This one is a 'half-truth'. The first sentence is legitimate and it comes the work called 'To Uphold Socialism We Must Eliminate Poverty'. The 2nd sentence is not, however, and it contradicts what Deng Xiaoping stated, which was this:

During the “cultural revolution” the Gang of Four raised the absurd slogan, “Better to be poor under socialism and communism than to be rich under capitalism.” It may sound reasonable to reject the goal of becoming rich under capitalism. But how can we advocate being poor under socialism and communism? It was that kind of thinking that brought China to a standstill.[3]

That sentence alone contradicts anything that Deng Xiaoping apparently said beforehand. Therefore, it isn't a legitimate quote to begin with.

The other quote is this:

We no longer know what socialism is, or how to get there, and yet it remains the goal.

This comes from an book titled 'Capital Is Dead: Is This Something Worse?', which the quote itself is unsourced. Even if we are to accept this as a 'half-truth', it is very misleading, as here it is what Deng Xiaoping actually said regarding the definition of socialism:

What is socialism and what is Marxism? We were not quite clear about this in the past. Marxism attaches utmost importance to developing the productive forces. We have said that socialism is the primary stage of communism and that at the advanced stage the principle of from each according to his ability and to each according to his needs will be applied. This calls for highly developed productive forces and an overwhelming abundance of material wealth. Therefore, the fundamental task for the socialist stage is to develop the productive forces.

What he is clearly referring to is that Socialism and Communism were not clearly defined in the past. Especially in the 1800s, where Karl Marx lived. Karl Marx used Socialism and Communism interchangeably, and it is only when Lenin made a distinction between Socialism and Communism, called socialism a 'lower phase of communism'. So no, this quote is also fake.


So we come back to the original problem. What even is 'Dengism'? 'Dengism' is nothing more than a label used to attack legitimate Marxist-Leninists. It's the same tactics Trotskyists use to label Marxist-Leninists as 'Stalinists'. There is no need to distinguish between Marxist-Leninists and 'Dengists'. I read Deng Xiaoping Theory and support the People's Republic of China, but that still makes me a Marxist-Leninist. All Marxist-Leninists who support China are not 'Dengists'. Therefore, we can end this essay by stating that the original premise introduced by Maoists and 'Anti-revisionists' are wrong. Not only they are wrong, they are revisionist themselves.


  1. Deng Xiaoping (1979). Uphold the Four Cardinal Principles.
  2. Karl Marx (1846). The German Ideology: 'Part I: Feuerbach. Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook'.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Deng Xiaoping (1987). To Uphold Socialism We Must Eliminate Poverty.
  4. “In the later stage of the Great Revolution our Party was misled by Chen Duxiu’s Right opportunistic error, when we were afraid of engaging in a political struggle with the bourgeoisie, afraid of irritating it, and not daring to arouse the masses into action. Consequently, the Great Revolution ended in defeat as soon as Chiang Kai-shek betrayed it.”

    Deng Xiaoping (1965). Build a Mature and Combat-Effective Party.
  5. “(Excerpt from a comprehensive report to the CPC Central Committee and Comrade Mao Zedong. In the report, which was transmitted to various localities on May 16, Comrade Mao Zedong remarked, “Comrade Xiaoping’s report is very good” and he added some comments of his own to the report.)”

    Deng Xiaoping (1951). Agrarian Reform in Southwest China and Our Experience.
  6. “[M]any older generation proletarian revolutionists who were instrumental in the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) voiced their strong opposition to the "cultural revolution", calling it a "mistake". They criticized activities by the clique of Lin Biao and Jiang Qing such as purging veteran officials and creating chaos within the Party and the People's Liberation Army. However, the struggle was presented to Mao as a one-sided report by the clique of Kang Sheng. Mao criticized the veteran revolutionists who participated in the struggle.”

    "'Cultural revolution' (1966-76)" (2010-11-24). ChinaDaily.
  7. "GDP growth (annual %) - China". World Bank.
  8. Chin Chih-po (1976). Denial of the Difference Between Socialism and Capitalism Is Not Allowed — Repudiating the theme about “white cat, black cat”. Peking Review.