years ago, the Monthly Review, an independent socialist magazine
published in New York since 1949, ran an essay by economist Michael A. Lebowitz
of Simon Fraser University that asked: “What
is Socialism for the Twenty-First Century?” The essay began with a litany
on what socialism for the twenty-first century is not.
and foremost, wrote Lebowitz, twenty-first century socialism “is not capitalism,”
or what he describes as a society of “increasing exploitation,” where “the
owners of the means of production benefit by dividing workers and communities
in order to drive down wages and intensify work.” Second, twenty-first century
socialism is not “a statist society where decisions are top-down and where all
initiative is the property of state office-holders or cadres of
self-reproducing vanguards.” Rather, says Lebowitz, twenty-first century
socialism “rejects a state that stands over and above society.” Finally, Lebowitz
tells us, twenty-first century socialism “is not populism,” and “is not
But China can apparently leave the debate over twenty-first century socialism to Western scholars and Latin American leaders. Though we have made our way through just 20 percent of the 21st century, leading political theorists are now asserting the China has “Marxism for the 21st century” in the bag.
a piece Monday
on the front page of the Study Times, a newspaper published by the
Central Party School (CPS), He Yiting (何毅亭), the school’s deputy director,
declared that Xi Jinping’s banner term, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with
Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想研究中心) is equal to
“Marxism for the 21st century.” The claim was made directly in the
headline, as readers can see from the image below.
He, who is also the head of the Center for the Research of Xi Jinping Thought
on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era at the school, is one
of the key theoreticians close to Xi Jinping. Cheng Li, director of the John L.
Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, has called
He Yiting perhaps the “most important individual who has contributed
to the promotion of Xi’s ideological work.” Some may recall that it was He
Yiting in 2017, months before the 19th National Congress, who predicted
that China’s return to the global summit of “discourse power” was imminent –
that the “rejuvenation of Chinese discourse” would come hand-in-hand with Xi’s
“great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
What is the significance of Xi Jinping’s claim to “Marxism for the 21st century”? In and of itself, the claim is not greatly significant. However, this can certainly be seen as another brick in the foundation of the Xi Jinping personality cult. In recent weeks, as the crisis of the Covid-19 epidemic has faded in China, there has been an uptick in aggrandizing discourse about Xi, as CMP noted earlier this month. The finish line in the marathon of discourse generation that has unfolded since Xi was declared the “core” in 2016 would be the final abridging of his banner term as “Xi Jinping Thought,” drawing him even with Mao Zedong.
Noting that June 15 was also Xi’s birthday, there was speculation
by some that the Study Times commentary might have been a way of “shining
Xi Jinping’s shoes with Marx, giving him a ‘subtle’ ‘birthday gift.'” While
this is a temptingly humorous reading, grandiose gestures like this most recent one
from He Yiting might better be understood as a way of testing the waters. How
far can those around the “core” go in shoring up his charismatic power?
In fact, this is not the first time Xi Jinping has been credited with this claim to “Marxism for the 21st century.” More than two years ago, in January 2018, as Xi was enjoying a rapid ascent to the heights of charismatic power in the wake of the 19th National Congress of the CCP, party-state media noted that a recent “democratic life meeting” of the central leadership had “clearly raised” the fact that: “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era is the latest theoretical innovation of our Party, is Marxism for contemporary China, and is Marxism for the 21st century.” Another commentary that year from the official journal Seeking Truth said that Xi’s banner term is “the most concentrated, richest and most realistic embodiment of 21st century Marxism.”
Here is a quick look at what He Yiting’s most recent commentary in the Study Times actually says. The commentary starts by emphasizing a passage further down in the piece, arguing that the designation of Xi’s banner term as “Marxism for the 21st century” is a “scientific” determination made by the CCP, and that it is also historic:
Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era is
Marxism for the 21st century. This is a scientific designation of Xi
Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era
rendered by the Chinese Communist Party, and also the first time our Party has
used “century” as a measure of the results of the sinicization of Marxism.
reference to “crowning” in a subsequent passage again supports the idea that this
is fundamentally about signalling Xi’s charismatic power.
is not results of Marxist theory in just any country, or any people that can
serve as the form of Marxism for the century and be written in the history of human
thought, that can be crowned “the Marxism of the century” (世纪马克思主义).
piece then outlines three factors that are required to make such a claim to the
century for Xi’s signature theory. Such claims must have “global historical
significance,” they must be able to show that theories have been applied with
practical results, and so on. This is all, of course, rhetorical smoke. There
is no real substance to He’s claims beyond the claims themselves. The questions
only exist because He is prepared to make the bold assertion with finality –
that Xi’s theory is 21st century Marxism.
Yiting’s piece is riddled with assertions about the historic nature of Xi’s
theoretical contributions that amount to a staking of future claims on the
the 18th National Congress [in 2012], there have been historic
changes in the work of the Party and the state, obtaining historic results, and
socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era. The new result in
the sinicization of Marxism,Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with
Chinese Characteristics for the New Era, has already with its great theoretical
and practical significance engraved for itself a prominent position on the
world’s ideological and theoretical map, becoming the dominant form of 21st
This is all about power. Xi’s power. And yet, He Yiting also plays the magician’s game of confuting Xi’s personal power and prestige with China’s strength as a nation, as though one cannot be had without the other.
as we stand in the historical position of moving from a large nation to a
strong nation (大国走向强国), facing an
international discourse structure in which ‘the West is strong and we are weak’
(西强我弱), China must
consider anew what theoretical role we play on the map of world ideas, and
particularly on the map of global Marxism, and that theoretical mission we will
take on in the process of defending and developing Marxism. We must think
especially, as we inject strong Chinese momentum into the world, of whether we
have contributed Chinese principles that lead the human spirit.
He Yiting goes on to talk about the global importance of a “China solution” (中国方案) and “Chinese propositions” (中国主张) in “resolving common human problems” as “china moves closer to the center of the world stage.” But this is all essentially window dressing on a frame whose sole purpose is to elevate Xi’s power and position within the CCP.
Often, with such swollen claims, a broader historical context is the best anti-inflammatory. We can note that on June 12, 2003, almost exactly 17 years ago, a lengthy commentary appeared on page 9 of the People’s Daily called “A Profound Understanding of the Important Theory of the ‘Three Represents.’” It spoke in glowingly of the banner term of Jiang Zemin, the then former General Secretary of the CCP who at the time still retained his position as head of the Central Military Commission.
important thought of the “Three Represents” reflects the new
requirements of the present-day world and China’s development, and it is the
latest achievement in the sinicization of Marxism. The 16th National
Congress established the status of the important thought of the “Three
Represents” alongside Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping
Theory as the guiding ideologies that our Party must adhere to over the long
The commentary was written by the very same He Yiting, then serving in the Office of Policy Research. Even when it comes to core ideologies, all love affairs must end.