A controversial commentary in China's official press suggesting that Marxism was outmoded as an all-encompassing philosophy was aimed at persuading ideological conservatives here to drop opposition to Deng Xiaoping's bold market-style reforms and open-door foreign policy, according to Chinese and diplomatic sources.

The commentary, published in last Friday's official Communist Party newspaper, People's Daily, urged party members not to "ask that the works of Marx and Lenin solve our present-day problems."

It was immediately followed by a correction suggesting ideological rivalry within the government, and the suggestion was reinforced when today's People's Daily reprinted a commentary from China's military newspaper warning against any relaxation of party discipline.

The People's Daily commentary, based on recent, previously unpublished remarks by Deng protege and party General Secretary Hu Yaobang to a group of provincial propaganda officials, was a signal, one European diplomat said, that Deng has decided that there will be no more ideological campaigns to hinder crucial economic growth in the next three to five years.

At stake in the argument are the sweeping economic reforms that Deng has instituted since 1978.

The latest changes, formally adopted two months ago, are the boldest and most far-reaching yet and aim to dismantle in part the centralized planning system, give heavier reliance to market forces to determine output and rely on material incentives, such as bonuses, to boost efficiency.

The ratification of these urban reforms was a clear victory for the pragmatists within the various echelons of the party leadership.

But although there is general agreement on the need to reform, the Chinese and diplomatic sources said, there are disputes about the pace and extent of the reforms. The conservatives believe that they are going too far and that the role of the state should be stronger, a European diplomat said. They fear that if the trend goes unchecked, the authority and leadership role of the party will be undermined.

Last Friday's commentary appeared to indicate that the pragmatists had chosen to go public with the debate, the diplomat said.

Karl Marx "died 101 years ago," the commentary said. "His works were written more than 100 years ago. There have been tremendous changes since his ideas were formed. Some of his ideas are not necesarily suited to today's situation, because Marx never experienced these times, nor did Friedrich Engels or [Vladimir] Lenin. And they did not come across the problems we face today."

The rebuttal, published this week in the military newspaper, the People's Liberation Army Daily, and reprinted on the front page of today's People's Daily, urged party members to "guard against the corrupt ideas of capitalism" during the implementation of Deng's reforms. It called for vigilance against anyone who would "profit from weaknesses in the reforms to satisfy their personal interests."

The rebuttal quoted the views of Chen Yun, a party veteran who heads its committee on discipline and advocates the Soviet model of a planned, centralized economy. In the debate between the now-dominant pragmatists and the smaller group of conservatives jockeying for power in the ranks under Deng, Chen leads the group that seeks to slow and limit the reforms.

Earlier, on Dec. 7, the same day that the Marxism commentary appeared, a conservative article warned party members to be on guard against "new unhealthy tendencies" and said that some party officials were abusing the economic reforms for their private gain, engaging in illegal activities such as price-gouging, tax evasion, bribery and speculation. The article was based on a circular by the party committee on discipline, a European diplomat said.

Hu Yaobang leads the pragmatists. His audience was singled out in the People's Daily commentary, which noted that "in the past, theory and propaganda workers missed a lot of opportunities because they did not pay attention to economics. Now they must get serious and study economics assiduously for three or five years."

Chinese sources read this as signaling a consolidation of control by the pragmatists over the direction of ideology and propaganda.

It was the "theory and propaganda workers," they pointed out, who supported last year's campaign against "spiritual pollution" from abroad, which the conservatives used to attack the current open-door policies.

The commentary quoted the late party chairman Mao Tse-tung, the conservatives' spiritual leader, chastizing "some comrades" who "still regard individual words and sentences in Marxist works as a miraculous cure -- as if once they have it in their hands they can solve all problems without any effort."

Much of this echoed previous statements by Deng and his pragmatic supporters.

"The substance of this commentary has already been said before," the European diplomat said. "There is nothing really new, but the tone is more provocative."

Reports from abroad that the commentary had been misread as a repudiation of Marxism came as a surprise to diplomats here.

Initially, Chinese sources said, officials were amused by the response. But now, the sources said, the leadership is carefully monitoring the overseas reaction and will be more cautious in official pronouncements. They expressed concern that a further result would be a slowing of the pace of economic reforms.

Indeed, the following day's People's Daily, in a rare front-page correction, amended a key line in the commentary to read, "We cannot ask that the works of Marx and Lenin solve all our present-day problems," adding the word "all."

Chinese sources said, however, that they doubted the correction was a response to the foreign reaction, because there was not enough time for it to have appeared so quickly. It was more likely, they said, that the editors themselves noticed that the original wording had left room for misinterpretation.

The pragmatists pursued the debate this week.

On Monday, a front-page People's Daily commentary asked, "What should be the attitude toward certain negative phenomena that occur in the process of reform?" The article continued: "There are only three kinds of attitudes: one is to ignore them, another is to back out from these reforms, and the third is to persist in the reforms, strengthen ideological and political work, guide the workers and staff members to understand these reforms correctly, participate actively in the process and resist the influence of erroneous ideas. It is very clear that the first two attitudes are wrong, while the third one is the only correct attitude."

On Tuesday, another front-page commentary argued that the reforms cannot be required to be "perfect in every way," that the work of reforms was complicated and that "there inevitably will be new situations and new problems."

As the time nears for the next national party conference, scheduled for September, the internal debate and the jockeying for power are likely to continue, western diplomats said. At the conference, delegates are to adopt another five-year plan, implementing Deng's reforms, and to reshuffle party leadership positions.

Meanwhile, the pragmatists need to persuade the bureaucrats who will be called upon to implement the reforms.

"An individual bureaucrat may not have that much power," one western diplomat said, "but en masse they do, and given the history of Chinese politics, with one political movement after another, if you are the cautious bureaucrat, then your immediate reaction is to . . . lay low, because what should happen if the line changes and you are forced to wear a dunce cap and be paraded through the streets?

"This is an attempt to persuade people that . . . the reforms are going to last."