VETERAN watchers of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping are intrigued by the many ironies surrounding the personality cult now being built or re-built around the Great Helmsman and the New Helmsman. One of the apparent motives behind efforts by Mr Deng and his handlers to elevate the patriarch to mystical heights is to upstage the campaign to restore Maoism that is being waged by conservatives in the course of celebrating the centenary of the seniorHelmsman's birthday. That explains the directives issued by various units, including the Deng Xiaoping Office and the Propaganda Department, to devote more media coverage to the study of the just-published third volume of his Selected Works. It is understood that state-level leaders, including politburo members and senior ministers, have been asked to stay away from Mao-related commemorative activities in the run-up to the December 26 centenary. Deng Thought, which has on a de facto basis displaced Mao Thought as the most important of the party's Four Cardinal Principles, is also being used to unify the thinking of cadres in the wake of the Central Committee's third plenum. A series of national economic work meetings, beginning today, will be held in Beijing to flesh out the principles of the socialist market economy endorsed at the third plenum. And Deng Thought is the weapon that the leadership is using to whip into line the nay-sayers - principally powerful lobbyists for the regions and for state enterprises, the two sectors that stand to lose as a result of the reforms. In the eyes of many of Deng's supporters, Mao Thought represented what the People's Daily called, in another context, ''the outdated interpretations of Marxism''. Mr Deng's followers are convinced the conservatives are re-hoisting the Mao flag to reinstate such tried-and-untrue precepts as central planning and egalitarianism. The irony, however, is that Mr Deng's handlers have resorted to quintessentially Maoist methods to play up Deng Thought. In a throwback to the days of the Little Red Book, intensive courses on Deng Thought are being conducted in schools, factories, farmsand barracks. Liberal academics who had praised Deng's contribution to ''thought liberation'' have begun to question the wisdom of the New Helmsman's Mao-like interference in economic policy-making. During Mr Deng's tour of Beijing's new highways on October 31, the New Helmsman reportedly reiterated his preference for high-speed development. He also expressed concern about how the austerity and the anti-corruption campaigns might, if improperly and excessively pursued, dampen the reform enthusiasm of cadres and entrepreneurs. Economic analysts fear if the Deng line of a double-digit growth rate is endorsed by the on-going series of economic meetings, inflation could get out of hand next year. Recent machinations by the other camp - diehard leftists led by the former head of the Propaganda Department Deng Liqun, or Little Deng, as he is called by diplomats - are also tinged with irony. IN spite of the fact that their doctrine has fallen behind the times, the ideologues have had no difficulty securing funds for their research institutes and publications. The November issue of the monthly journal In Search of Truth, the mouthpiece of the leftists, contained extremely hostile attacks on market reforms. In his article on anti-corruption and the market economy, Fang Yixin made a not very subtle link between graft and the market economy. Mr Fang suggested it was during the pre-1979 period, when the party instituted a ''highly concentrated planned economy'', that corrupt phenomena were ''fewer and less serious''. In a piece on differentiating between the socialist and the capitalist systems, Zhang Qinde, a fast-rising ideologue, wrote that ''market economics should only be stressed within a definite time frame''; that is, when the economy was not yet developed. And in his newly published book, Contentions on Hot Topics amidst the Wind and Wave of Theory, Mr Zhang, a protege of Little Deng, hinted he was a member of the ''dare-to-die corps'' that Little Deng had set up to sabotage the reforms unleashed by patriarch Deng Xiaoping after his tour of southern China in early 1992. Mr Zhang opposed such well-known Deng edicts as ''market reform is the second revolution'' and ''productivity is the standard'' for measuring the correctness of a policy. Fang, Zhang and other commissars also blamed private entrepreneurs and allied ''wheelers and dealers'' for money worship and big spending. The irony - and hypocrisy - behind Little Deng's Mao campaign, however, is that the ideologue and the Helmsman never liked each other. In the 50s, Mao blamed General Wang Zhen, the commander in charge of Xinjiang, and Little Deng - then head of the regional propaganda department - for exacerbating the animosity between the Uighur minorities and the central government. Little Deng was also sidelined during the Cultural Revolution because of his close association with then president Liu Shaoqi, Mao's nemesis. The ultimate irony of Little Deng's quixotic crusade against the marketplace, however, is that the supposedly squeaky-clean ideologues had to rely on the power of money to oil their Maoist machine. Like Mr Deng, Little Deng is no more than an ''ordinary party member''. Yet the ''underground party general secretary'' often travels on special, chartered planes and trains. The ideologues lay on lavish feasts to attract people to their seminars on Maoism. And they pay handsome fees for the rapidly dwindling number of academics still willing to forget about the real world and churn out learned exegises on Mao's contribution to the Revolution.