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Mao as a Dialectician
By Martin Glaberman
MAO TSE-TUNG'S reputation as a philosopher, as a materialist dialectician, stems primarily from his essays, "On Practice," "On Contradiction," and, in part, from "On the Correct Handling of Contradiction Among the People." This is an output, depending on the edition, of little over 100 pages and it would not ordinarily entitle its author to serious consideration as a philosopher. The case of Mao, however, is not an ordinary one. His importance as a political figure and his impact on history are unquestioned. The question of the nature of his philosophy, therefore, assumes a significance that cannot be dismissed on the basis of purely scholarly criteria.
To evaluate Mao as a dialectician poses certain problems. The first is the matter of the quality of his work. It would be fairly simple to make out a case for the view that Mao as a philosopher is crude and trivial. It is difficult to take seriously the suggestion of Prof. George Thomson that "Mao's treatment of contradiction is subtler and more profound" than Stalin's. One would suspect that the comment was made with tongue in cheek, a kind of damning with faint praise, if the content of the article did not indicate that Thomson was quite serious. More accurate is the judgment of Arthur A. Cohen, in connection with a particular point of Mao's, that "This is crude dialectics. It is below the level of Marx, Engels and Lenin. It resembles Stalin's clumsy thinking and style." The difficulty with this line of reasoning, however, is that it tempts one to dismiss Mao's philosophy as, on the whole, a crude, popularized paraphrase of Marx and Lenin. Mao's philosophizing becomes the self-indulgence of an all-powerful leader, plucking laurels for himself in fields in which he does not belong. "Mao's description of qualitative change," says Cohen, "seems to be the extent of his originality as a Marxist dialectical materialist." The crudeness, however, conceals a complete departure from, and rejection of, dialectical materialism. These need to be examined in their own right. The specific philosophical views of Mao Tse-tung are of much greater significance than his technical qualifications as philosopher.
One further point needs to be noted. This discussion is limited to Mao as a dialectician and it is not intended that judgments about Mao's philosophical views or abilities be automatically transferred to other fields of theory or practice. Mao's practical abilities as a revolutionary leader are widely recognized. Apart from practical ability and success, I believe that Mao Tse-tung has made significant and original contributions to political theory. His theories of guerilla warfare and his development of a theory of national revolution based on the peasantry and on a peasant army are two examples of this. But these have to be discussed in their own right and in another context, although an analysis of Mao as a dialectician may contribute to that discussion ultimately. One of the purposes of this paper is to show that the relation between Mao's philosophical views and his political views cannot automatically be brought together under the heading of dialectical.
The second question is what standard of dialectical materialism
is there to use as a basis for judging Mao's writings? The most
literal answer is that there is none. I believe, however, that a
reasonable standard can be deduced that can be fruitfully used.
Lenin once noted that "It is impossible completely to understand
Marx's Capital, and especially its first chapter, without
having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel's Logic.
Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists understood
Marx!" I have taken this as a guide. Marx used dialectical
materialism but was unable to find the time to write an exposition
of his philosophy, or, rather, his method. Engels' philosophical
writing is of a very mixed quality. There is a discernible leap
in the quality of Lenin's philosophical and other writing after
his studies of Hegel. His Philosophical Notebooks, fragmentary
as they are, are more valuable than his book, Materialism and
Empirio-Criticism, which is more materialist than dialectical.
His political writings in the period following his Hegelian studies,
particularly Imperialism and State and Revolution,
clearly reflect the philosophical advances he had made. I have attempted,
therefore to use as a guide a kind of synthesis of Hegel and Marx
and Lenin which seems to me to correspond with a reasonable view
of dialectical materialism. This will have to stand or fall on the
measure of fruitfulness it provides in the analysis of Mao.
In the essay, "On Practice," it becomes evident that Mao's philosophy is not simply a popularization of Leninist views but something else. More than the other writings, it is full of the crude and the trivial, the commonplace platitudes presented as profound wisdom. The point to the article is that theory is derived from practice and "that man's social practice alone is the criterion of the truth of his knowledge of the external world." This is a simple enough point but it is some distance from being dialectical materialism. The same view can be contained in other and conflicting philosophies. The crucial question would be exactly how practice becomes theory and is then tested in practice. The entire emphasis of the article, despite the quotations from Lenin, is pragmatic and empirical.
"The Marxist philosophy of dialectical materialism has two outstanding characteristics," says Mao. "One is its class nature: it openly avows that dialectical materialism is in the service of the proletariat. The other is practicality: it emphasizes that theory is based on practice and in turn serves practice.... The standpoint of practice is the primary and basic standpoint in the dialectical-materialist theory of knowledge."" This is valid enough in general, although very one-sided. But the validity is reduced by its concretization by example and by the claims made for it.
One example given is that visitors come to the Communist territories in Yenan and observe visible phenomena. "When the members of the observation group have collected data and, what is more, have 'thought them over,' they are able to arrive at the judgment that 'the Communist Party's policy of the National United Front Against Japan is thorough, sincere and genuine." This is the second stage of cognition and already we have to note that neither Marx nor Lenin would have tolerated anything as subjective as the nonsense about "sincere and genuine." "Having made this judgment, they can, if they too are genuine" (another purely subjective judgment) "about uniting to save the nation, go a step further and draw the following conclusion, 'The National United Front Against Japan can suc-ceed."' This is not merely a simple example. It is a purely em-pirical progression with nothing inherently dialectical contained in it. The judgment is subjective without any indication of an internal and necessary progression from one stage to the next.
Further examples are on the same level. Practice is interpreted as meaning that "If you want to know a certain thing or a certain class of things directly, you must personally participate in the practical struggle to change reality ... ; only through personal partici-pation ... can you uncover the essence of that thing or class of things and comprehend them." Later on he says, "If you want to know the theory and methods of revolution, you must take part in revolution." Poor Karl Marx who never got the chance to do quite that! Matters are not helped by the addition of the comment that "most of our knowledge comes from indirect experience." While this statement makes it possible to claim that Mao is formally correct, that one side is balanced against the other, in the context of this article it does not at all prevent the impression that a conception of social truth is reduced to an injunction to join the Communist Party and the "correction" of the last quotation is simply a statement that if you are in the Party you can allow the Party to make the experience for you.
Another example intensifies this impression: the example of a com-rade who hesitates to accept an assignment. "If he spends some time at the job and gains experience and if he is a person who is willing to look into matters with an open mind and not one who approaches problems subjectively, one-sidedly, and superficially, then he can draw conclusions for himself as to how to go about the job and do it with much more courage." The moral of this little tale, on the level of bright sayings from Poor Richard's Almanac, is that comrades shouldn't hesitate, that with experience gained on the job they will become qualified and expert. This is as far from dialectics as you can get. Compare it with the following from Hegel:
Lenin quoted this passage in his Notebooks and added
the comments, "remarkably correct and profound" and "against
subjectivism and one sidedness." It is as if it was written
in reply to Mao's "On Practice." A further barb thrown
at Mao's essay is the comment of Lenin's which follows: "Example:
ridiculous pomposity over trivialities, etc." Hegel categorizes
Mao's type of philosophy as Synthetic Cognition, a subordinate level
of thought that has not reached the heights available to the dialectic.
There appears in "On Practice" an unusual reference to the class struggle. "Man's social practice is not confined to activity in production, but takes many other forms - class struggle, political life, scientific and artistic pursuits...." Later in the same paragraph, class struggle is again listed as another type of social practice distinct from material life, that is, life in production. This is quite a departure from Marx and Lenin for whom class struggle, although pervading all aspects of society, was above all found in the process of production. It is difficult to understand this particular formulation except in relation to the needs of Chinese Communist society. Mao has put forward the theory that the class struggle will be a feature of Communist society for a long time to come. This, however, cannot be permitted to become a carte blanche to workers to struggle for their rights in the factories. As a result it becomes necessary to amend Marx and Lenin to take the class struggle out of the process of production and put it in the sphere of politics, that is, in the sphere where the Party exercises full control and where independent and spontaneous activity by workers is excluded.
There also appears in "On Practice" the first sign of a view which achieves a fuller representation in "On Contradiction." "As man's practice which changes objective reality in accordance with given ideas, theories, plans or programmes, advances further and further, his knowledge of objective reality likewise becomes deeper and deeper. " Notice the phrase: "in accordance with given ideas, theories, plans or programmes," and compare it with the famous quotation from Marx: "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness." As I shall try to show below, this is not an accidental formulation, the result of crudeness or lack of sophistication. It is a link in an idealistic and intellectual view of history that is an integral part of the philosophy of Mao-Tse-tung.
Contradiction brings us to the heart of the dialectic and it is necessary to begin with some indication of what the dialectic is about. Hegel says in the Preface to his Phenomenology, "the real subject-matter is not exhausted in its purpose, but in working the matter out; nor is the mere result attained the concrete whole itself, but the result along with the process of arriving at it." He says the same thing in many places and in many ways, that dialectics is a totality and a process, not simply some rules or conclusions.
That Lenin was familiar with this integral character of dialectics is indicated by his notation of sixteen points as the "Elements of dialectics":
I quote this in full not because it succeeds in embodying the totality of dialectics but because it indicates Lenin's awareness of dialectics as a process of constant change, of relationships being constantly transformed, of ever newer and deeper insights and discoveries. Lenin surely understood the sense in which Hegel called his philosophy Speculative Logic. It is necessary to contrast this to Mao's "On Contradiction" as a whole to appreciate the rigidity, the fixed categories and concepts, the conception of truth as a finished product, with which Mao's essay abounds. It will become clear that this contrast is not the result of "popularization" or simplification, but something very different.
To Mao all cause and effect is simple and clear-cut. "Contradictoriness within a thing is the fundamental cause of its development, while its interrelations and interactions with other things are secondary causes. Thus materialist dialectics effectively combats the theory of external causes, or of an external motive force, advanced by metaphysical mechanical materialism and vulgar evolutionism." All his examples reinforce the rigidity of this initial conception and, in addition, primary causality becomes the basic element of development. This is not merely an inadequate presentation of the dialectic; it is a false one. Lenin notes:
In the first section of "On Contradiction," in "The Two World Outlooks," there already appears the philosophical idealism which was only indicated in "On Practice." Mao says that the "dialectical world outlook teaches us primarily how to observe and analyse the movement of opposites in different things and, on the basis of such analysis, to indicate the methods for resolving contradictions." The theme of resolving contradictions continually reappears. "Qualitatively different contradictions can only be resolved by qualitatively different methods." "The principle of using different methods to resolve different contradictions. . . ." ". . . find a way to resolve its contradictions." And so on. It reaches its fulfillment, of course, in the title of the essay, "On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People." Mao in this way contradicts his otherwise correct opposition to external causes and insistence on contradiction being the source of internal movement. The concept of "solving" or "handling" contradictions, as used by Mao, is a purely external and manipulative one. It is not used in a historical or objective sense of a solution being drawn out of the dialectical process. 'This conception of "solving" is rejected completely by Hegel, and he is joined in this by Lenin.
The emphasis is Lenin's, who also added the notes: "the kernel of dialectics" and "the criterion of truth (the unity of the concept and reality)."
What is involved here is fundamental and relates to the kinds
of historical examples used by Mao to illustrate his philosophical
points. "This is the key to the Hegelian dialectic and therefore
to Marxist thinking.... Thought is not an instrument you apply to
a content. The content moves, develops, changes and creates new
categories of thought, and gives them direction." Hegel
says "it is the nature of the content and that alone which
lives and stirs in philosophic cognition, while it is the very reflection
of the content, which itself originates and determines the nature
of philosophy." Lenin puts it, "Logic is the science
not of external forms of thought, but of the laws of development
'of all material, natural and spiritual things,' etc., of the development
of the entire concrete content of the world and of its cognition
. . ."
The second point involved takes us to the question of Mao's examples. Dialectics is unlike formal logic in that it is integally related to contents. Formal logic can be correct whether the facts used are right or wrong. Dialectic thinking cannot because it involves, above all the self-movement of objective categories. The categories of thought, therefore, cannot be assumed or given as fixed; they have to be derived from reality, they have to be shown in their objective self-movement, and they have to be shown developing inevitably toward the transcendence of their contradictions, that is, toward their destruction. This last is important and is why Marx called the Hegelian dialectic a critical philosophy. There is thus involved a complex range of problems in dealing with Mao's philosophical writings which take us far beyond the limits of philosophy and have to be excluded from this essay. Above all, the objective truth of the facts used by Mao in developing his argument become integral to the argument itself and if the facts are demonstrated to be false or distorted, the dialectical logic is also false or distorted. However, certain elements or aspects of the facts presented are more directly relevant and have to be dealt with.
As an example of the primacy of "internal causes," Mao cites the defeat of the revolution of 1926 and attributes it to
Thus it can be seen that what is decisive to the success of a revolution is not the objective strength or weakness of the respective classes (size, relation to the means of production and communication, relative weight in the society, etc.) which can be reflected (accurately or inaccurately) in the ideologies of parties, but the purely ideal representation, the mental construct, of a political line and political solidarity. Not only has Mao given causes (even if true) which are external to the working class, not internal, and are therefore not dialectical; he has given causes which are ideal and not material. There are points in a revolutionary crisis, of course, at which a political line can be decisive. The political line, however, cannot come out of thin air. It can be analysed as correct only in relation to the actual circumstances of the proletariat and other classes, not in relation to the superior or inferior wisdom of political leaders. It is only necessary to contrast Mao's method with Lenin's. When he was confronted with the collapse of the anti-war program of the Second International in 1914 he was not satisfied to charge the socialist leaders with betrayal. He produced his study of Imperialism in order to find the class contradiction within the working class and concluded that a new stage of capitalism had produced a privileged section of the working class which benefited from colonial exploitaton. He attributed what he believed to be the degeneration of the socialist parties to that. Subjective causes, such as betrayal or an incorrect political line were, at most, consequences of an objective historical development.
Another example further extends the idealistic departure from dialectical materialism. In discussing the particularities of contradictions, Mao gives as example of examining "the two aspects of each contradiction" a history of the Kuomintang and the Communist Party." Before 1927 the Kuomintang had certain policies and was revolutionary and vigorous. "After 1927, however, the Kuomintang changed into its opposite and became a reactionary bloc of the landlords and big bourgeoisie." After 1936 its policies changed again and it cooperated with the Communist Party. An "alliance of various classes for the democratic revolution" at one point "becomes a reactionary bloc of the landlords and big bourgeoisie" at another. I leave aside the question of whether the description is accurate. What is essential in this connection is that nowhere is there any attempt to show or claim that the class composition of the Kuomintang changed in any way. Instead of policy being determined by material base, that is, by class character, the class character of the organization is determined by its policy. Once again, consciousness determines existence, instead of the other way around. It takes more than the ritual use of the language of dialectics, "changed into its opposite," to produce dialectical thought.
Why Mao so flagrantly violates a basic tenet of dialectical materialism becomes a little more evident in the second half of this example, the development of the Chinese Communist Party. From 1924 to 1927 the CP "courageously" led the revolution but was immature, etc. After 1927 the CP "courageously" led . . . but committed adventurist errors. Since 1935 (that is to say, since Mao assumed the leadership) the Party has corrected its errors, etc., etc. Once again a completely idealistic interpretation. Absent, for example, is any consideration of the class base of the Party, the fact that before 1927 the Communist Party had great strength in the working class which it lost completely after the debacle of 1927. Again, I leave aside the question of whether Mao's description of the development of the Communist Party is historically accurate. It is very evidently incomplete and the particular incompleteness is crucial to dialectical materialism. It may have some significance that only by departing from dialectical materialism in this way can Mao call the Communist Party a proletarian party in any sense whatever. It is not class composition which helps to determine policy. It is policy which determines class "composition."
In order to free himself to make whatever alliances he deems necessary with organizations or states which would ordinarily be considered reactionary (as the Kuomintang), Mao places great emphasis on the particularity of contradiction. This simply means that the universal principle that all things contain contradiction does not relieve you of the responsibility of determining the specific nature of each concrete contradiction in each particular situation. After, having gone on at great length to demonstrate this generality, he goes on to the heart of the question. Not only does each thing or phenomenon have a principle contradiction; it also has a principal aspect of the contradiction. What this means to Mao is a thoroughly rigid, formalistic, undialectical construction within which purely ideal and subjective judgments can be made. When the Kuomintang cooperates with the Communist Party, the principal aspect of its contradiction is its progressive revolutionary side. When the Kuomintang turns on the Communist Party, its reactionary nature becomes the principal aspect. It must be repeated: this is completely divorced from any material base, in fact or in thought, and is completely empty of the element of necessity, that is, of inherent inner development, so critical to dialectical materialism.
The rigid formalism is extended to other questions. There is identity and struggle in contradiction. Example:
It is difficult to conceive of a greater misuse of the concept of unity of opposites or interpenetration of opposites. Compare this rigid use of categories with Lenin's sixteen elements of dialectics cited above. A simple changing of places is the least of what is involved. Even at the very end, at the conclusion of the process in the overthrow of one class by another, the destruction of both classes is assumed, not a formal change of place. Relevant to this discussion is the way Marx used this same concept in Capital, particularly in Chapter I, but then, following that, throughout. The category Capital contains and is its opposite, Labor. Capital is divided into constant and variable capital. Constant capital is means of production variable capital is labor. Labor thus does not simply stand off somewhere in opposition to capital, waiting for its chance to overthrow it. It is part of capital Itself and the relation between the two and within the totality is in constant flux and change as technical advances in constant capital change (and are changed by) the nature of work, the size of the working class, the nature of supervision, the organizations of workers, and so forth. To reduce this rich and complex process, which is here only hinted at, to a simple change of place is like determining which are the good guys and which are the bad guys according to who wears the white hats. And Mao, of course, is in charge of distributing the hats.
The rejection of dialectics is not accidental. The blurring of concepts as motive forces in history, the rigid formalism, all have a point. That point is a theory of the Party and the role of the Party in Chinese society. ". . . Contradiction within the Communist Party is resolved by the method of criticism and self-criticism . . ." This bears a striking resemblance to the philosophical views imposed by Zhdanov on Russian philosophers.
This was presented in a report to a conference on philosophy in June 1947 to impose a new line in the name of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. To combat idealism there is introduced a new law, criticism and self-criticism, a purely idealistic construction. Mao duplicates this view in all essentials. The result is an inverted criticism of Hegel. From believing that history was the history of the philosopher, of consciousness and self-consciousness, Hegel eventually finds himself supporting the state bureaucracy. Beginning with a state bureaucracy, the Stalinists (Chinese and Russian) find themselves putting forward the theory that history is now the history of consciousness and self-consciousness. This is an idealistic view required in order to keep the material instruments of power out of the hands of simple workers and peasants.
It is buttressed by Mao with a falsification of Lenin's
views on antagonism and contradiction. Mao quotes Lenin as saying,
"Antagonism and contradiction are not all one and the same.
Under socialism, the first will disappear, the second will remain."
Mao interprets this to mean pure will: "if comrades who have
committed mistakes can correct them, it will not develop into antagonism."
But Lenin meant something very different. It was his view that socialist
society would see the disappearance of classes and therefore the
end of class struggle. It is clear that he equated antagonism with
class struggle, that is, an opposition that was rooted in objective
reality and set man against man. With the end of classes he thought
that contradiction would be essentially in physical or scientific
forms as men continued to transform the world. It had no relation
whatever to the narrow concerns of Mao. It was also consistent with
his philosophical views. For Mao, who postulates centuries of class
struggle in Communist society, it becomes only another way of removing
philosophy from any material objectivity.
This is overwhelmingly a political and not a philosophic work. If the title were changed to "On the Correct Handling of Disagreements Among the People," there would be a clear picture of what it is about and no misconception that anything like dialectical contradiction was involved. However, the title is deliberate in order to give the appearance of philosophical objectivity and add the weight of Marxist dialectical materialism to support Mao's arguments. The last shred of dialectical materialism is, in fact, abandoned. "The contradiction between exploiter and exploited, which exists between the national bourgeoisie and the working class, is an antagonistic one," says Mao. "But, in the concrete conditions existing in China, sach an antagonistic contradiction, if properly handled, can be transformed into a non-antagonistic one and resolved in a peaceful way."
It is all here in a nutshell: The role of the Communist
Party as the maker of history instead of the masses of the people.
The categories (working class, bourgeoisie) made so rigid and meaningless
that they are juggled any way which pleases Mao. Classes without
class struggle (or, if necessary, class struggle without classes).
Dialectical materialism, or rather the shell of dialectical materialism,
becomes simply the quotations researched by clerks and learned by
rote to justify the next twist in the political line. The essence
of my argument is contained here. It is impossible to say that Mao
Tse-tung in any way continues dialectical materialism. The departures
from the philosophical method of Marx and of Lenin are much too
great to be accepted as incompetent popularization on the one hand,
or striking originality on the other. It is, of course, true that
Mao, like most people, has a philosophy. A positive presentation
of what that philosophy is is beyond the scope of this paper. But
what is most apparent is that his philosophy is servant to his politics.
It is not the source of whatever contribution he has made to history.
That Mao has made original contributions to the modern world cannot
be denied. What must be denied is that they have anything to do
1. George Thomson, "Marxism in China Today,"
The Broadsheet (London) Vol. 2, No. 5, p. 4.
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