Reflections on the 1978 Truth-Criterion Debate
Talk to New England China Seminar
Fairbank Center, Harvard University
December 9, 1998
This year is the twentieth anniversary of the discussion of the truth criterion. Initially, the CCP wanted to celebrate it on a large scale. But it found itself in an awkward position. All of the key figures belonged to Hu Yaobang’s network and they were politically sensitive after Hu’s dismissal. So in late May, the television interviews included Hu Sheng, Wu Lengxi, and others who in fact were opposed to the truth criterion at that time. Even Sun Changjiang was missing from the official commemoration. Instead of Hu Jiwei, there was an interview with Shao Huaze, the president of People’s Daily now, but not in the 1970s. However, People’s Daily played an important role during the event. The article was initially to be printed in the People’s Daily. But Hu Jiwei, the editor-in-chief of the People’s Daily, discussed this problem with Yang Xiguang, the editor-in- chief of Guangming Daily. They decided to let the Guangming Daily print it first, under the authorship of a “guest commentator.” And the next day the People’s Daily and the Liberation Army Daily would reprint it. It would be easier to print it first in the Guangming Daily. Since the People’s Daily was only reprinting it, this was also easier. The “guest commentator” authorship did not require that it be submitted beforehand to the Central Committee since it was not an editorial.
This was a rare case in which the party organ escaped the control of the party leadership. This was because Hua Guofeng was a weak leader, and Wang Dongxing, the Politburo member in charge of propaganda was not educated enough to know how to deal with this kind of situation. Wang merely released his anger and reprimanded People’s Daily for its lack of party spirit. But that was too late. Finally, this paved the way for the rehabilitation of Deng Xiaoping at the third plenary session of the eleventh central committee.
Thereafter, the People’s Daily published a series of articles vindicating a lot of veteran cadres and elite intellectuals. The paper was hailed by all social strata. Hu Qiaomu said: “People’s Daily is in its prime. It has never been run so excellently.”
But the honeymoon did not last for long. When these officials resumed power, they were satisfied, while the intellectuals and the press wanted to go still further. The watershed came at the Theory Conference in early 1979.
There were seven participants from the People’s Daily at the conference. This indicated the importance of the People’s Daily at that time. The “whatever” faction was represented by Red Flag. Hu Jiwei made a joint speech with others criticizing the whatever faction. As a result, the participants from Red Flag were under attack from all sides. Hu Yaobang tried to mitigate the attack, saying that it was better not to use the term “whatever” faction. But meanwhile, he made a decision to reorganize Red Flag and he wanted the People’s Daily to send me there to take charge of Red Flag. But Hua Guofeng tabled it. Anyhow, this seemed to be a complete triumph for the reformists.
Then how did the situation change so dramatically? First he Central Committee found that some intellectuals went too far, expressing some opinions that were in accordance with those being expressed at Democracy Wall, but even more broadly and systematically. The Democracy Wall activists were calling for a reappraisal of Mao Zedong.
At the conference I also made a long speech criticizing Mao and his Cultural Revolution. I also question the slogan about adherence to Mao Zedong Thought.
But the opinions expressed at Democracy Wall became more radical. Wei Jingsheng attacked Deng as a new dictator. This was surely beyond the limits of tolerance for the leadership.
At about the same time, some provincial party secretaries sent emergency telegrams to the Central Committee to report that many of their offices had been surrounded by sent-down youth who now wished to be returned to the cities. The Central Committee presumed that the opinions expressed at the Theory Conference and the posters at Democracy Wall had incited these youth in the countryside. These telegrams were immediately reprinted and distributed at the Theory Conference to alert us participants. But we paid no attention to this. The leaders, including Hu Yaobang, were no longer attending the conference, thus showing their disapproval.
On March 30, 1979 Deng Xiaoping made a speech at the Theory Conference putting forward the four cardinal principles. He criticized me by saying: “Some comrades say that we should uphold ‘correct Mao Zedong Thought,” but not ‘erroneous Mao Zedong Thought.’ This kind of statement is also wrong. What we consistently take as our guide to action are the basic tenets of Marxism, Leninism, and Mao Zedong Thought. Or, to put it another way, the scientific system formed by these tenets. When it comes to individual theses, Neither Marx and Lenin, nor Comrade Mao, could be immune from misjudgments of one sort or another. But these do not belong to the scientific system formed by the basic tenets of Marxism, Leninism, and Mao Zedong Thought.”
So, according to Deng, Mao Zedong Thought was correct by definition. Later this idea was officially expressed as “distinguishing between Mao Zedong Thought and Mao Zedong’s mistakes.” Once I joked, saying “this means Mao Zedong Thought has no mistakes. And Mao Zedong’s mistakes have no thought!” In 1983 Deng Liqun blamed me for criticizing Mao Zedong Thought and I replied: “I didn’t criticize Mao Zedong Thought; I only criticized Mao Zedong’s mistakes.”
Deng had put forward the idea that Mao Zedong Thought should not be understood by broken sentences or isolated words. Rather, a comprehensive and accurate interpretation was needed. However, Mao’s theory of continuous revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat was his individual theses; it was an indispensable and inseparable part of Mao Zedong Thought. Mao himself attached great importance to this doctrine. How could we say it was not Mao Zedong Thought?
The putting forward of the four cardinal principles represented a backlash. After confirming the criterion of truth, what the party should have done was to examine the four cardinal principles through practice. Were these principles a priori and need not to be tested? In addition, the four cardinal principles were not new. They had been always been proclaimed by the party, even during the period of the Cultural Revolution. But what had been the result?
Thus, the four cardinal principles contradicted the idea of practice as the sole criterion of truth. Deng Xiaoping wanted to accept both of these but he only provided a weapon to the conservatives to attack the reform and the open-door policy.