Critique of Mao’s “On Contradiction”

Background: Mao Zedong (1893-1976), Chinese Stalinist and later strongman of the People’s Republic of China, responsible for the People’s Republic of China’s most disastrous policies. Mao ostensibly wrote On Contradiction in 1937, though it was published much later. Mao was an early member of the Communist Party of China (founded 1921). After the defeat of the 1925-27 Revolution he rejected the working class as the primary revolutionary class in China. He instead focused on building a peasant army, which brought him and his generals to power in 1949 after the Chinese Civil War that followed the defeat of the Japanese in World War II.

The purpose Mao’s On Contradiction serves is to justify the zigzags of the Chinese Communist Party’s policy through a pseudo-philosophical lens. Mao distorts Dialectics into a simplistic, dichotomous idealism, in which the Party decides which contradictions are “antagonistic,” and when they become so.

Mao begins by drawing an arbitrary line between the “internal” and “external” “causes” of development in a “thing.” Mao claims that the “internal contradiction in every single thing… is the fundamental cause of its development,” and “interrelations and interactions with other things are secondary causes.”

In reality, there is no self-developing thing-in-itself, even as a “primary” aspect of phenomena; this is the purest idealism. Phenomena are explained as the sum of a multitude of relationships, the concrete expression of the whole of living reality, and do not exist otherwise. 

“Materialist dialectics effectively combats the theory of external causes, or of an external motive force” Mao intones.  

“Simple growth in plants and animals, their quantitative development, is likewise chiefly the result of their internal contradictions… Similarly, social development is due chiefly not to external but to internal causes.”

Despite Mao’s assertion of “internal causes,” the development of any given human society is determined by the conditions of the material struggle of humankind against nature and the forces of production that humanity possesses. From the mode and distribution of the means of production arises the basis for a given society’s social institutions and political movements. The combined and uneven development of society is subject to all the intricacies of human historical, global and natural development. These must be discovered, generalized and understood in a concrete way. Notwithstanding Mao’s ruminations on the supposed separateness and unimportance of all “factors external to society” like “geography and climate,” the circumstances of society’s development too are heavily enmeshed with the transitions from one mode of production to another. The expansion, differentiation, interactivity, and consolidation of human civilization is the materialist foundation for the dialectical unfolding of social development.

“It is through internal causes that external causes become operative,” Mao claims. 

Placing artificial primacy on any so-called internal causes of any phenomena leads immediately to errors. Take the Chinese and Russian Revolutions. Focusing on so-called internal causes as opposed to so-called external causes is not only undialectical, but plainly misleading. The contradictions of global capitalism and the whole history of human development account for the character of these revolutions. The general crisis of capitalism was recognized by all the Bolsheviks as the driving force of the Russian Revolution, as it was of the century long crisis of China. Any point of supposed internality or externality is totally arbitrary. Here, along with the “particularity of contradiction” is introduced by way of sleight of hand both “Socialism in One Country” and the bogus idea to come of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” 

Again stressing arbitrary distinctions, Mao says “It is precisely in the particularity of contradiction that the universality of contradiction resides.”

To Mao, there are two “particular” contradictions and “particular essences” of “things” which have two “aspects.” A “fundamental” or “principal” contradiction and “non-principal” or “secondary” ones. All of which become either “resolved,” “become non-antagonistic” or “turn into their opposites.” 

Without ‘above,’ there would be no ‘below’ without ‘below,’ there would be no ‘above.’ Without misfortune, there would be no good fortune; without good fortune, there would be no misfortune.”

This abstract duality is not dialectics, but the most primitive abstract formalism. 

And accompanying this abstract formal duality is the abstract transformation of one abstract thing, verbally, into another:

“War and peace, as everybody knows, transform themselves into each other. War is transformed into peace; for instance, the First World War was transformed into the post-war peace…”

This kind of verbalistic “analysis” results in a net zero for understanding. War and Peace are formal abstractions, the apparent ebb and tide of international struggle between factions of the ruling class is in fact a constant reflection of the class struggle. And further, the struggle for resources in the natural world in which human society, as a class society, exists. 

“There are two states of motion in all things, that of relative rest and that of conspicuous change…” says Mao.

This is false. Development is a constant, the struggle of human kind against nature and impediments to full realization of its species-being expresses itself in different ways and forms, but always pushing toward a higher and more profound expression of itself. The quantitative development of phenomena is finally identical with their qualitative development, the one flowing from the other, the form of which is a matter of the objective standpoint of one stage or another of development.  Mao says that “contradiction is resolved” through “mutually exclusive opposit[ion]” and that “unity of opposites is conditional, temporary and relative…” Instead, the material relationships of every contradictory phenomenon only overcome the form of that phenomenon upon reaching a broadened expression, so much so that there is out of all development a proliferation of further material relationships. Just as the transition from the basic struggle of primitive tribalism to ancient class society throughout the world recreated the contradiction of man and nature on an extended, higher and ever more sophisticated stage, on the basis of the development of the productive forces and surplus labor. Mao says that instead, contradictions are “resolved” and die down, as we shall see, in any case becoming ever less antagonistic, to the point where antagonism is nullified.

“Some contradictions are characterized by open antagonism, others are not. In accordance with the concrete development of things, some contradictions which were originally non-antagonistic develop into antagonistic ones, while others which were originally antagonistic develop into non-antagonistic ones…” 

Mao says, when contradictions aren’t overly antagonistic, “excessive struggle is obviously inappropriate.”

For Mao the class struggle is all well and good, but it isn’t always the “principal” contradiction, which is instead based on immediate pragmatic considerations. 

“When imperialism launches a war of aggression against such a country, all its various classes, except for some traitors, can temporarily unite in a national war against imperialism. At such a time, the contradiction between imperialism and the country concerned becomes the principal contradiction”

Things “turn into their opposite.” Mao explains:

After 1927, however, the Kuomintang changed into its opposite and became a reactionary bloc of the landlords and big bourgeoisie.

Based on the twists and turns of the policy of the Stalinist Comintern and the Chinese Communist Party, antagonisms turn from “principle” and “fundamental” to “minor” considerations. The national bourgeoisie “turns into its opposite.” The peasantry becomes non-antagonistic.  The criteria for these sudden turnarounds is left unexplained, the arbiter of their character is the CCP.

There is a difference between workers and peasants and this very difference is a contradiction, although, unlike the contradiction between labour and capital, it will not become intensified into antagonism or assume the form of class struggle; the workers and the peasants have established a firm alliance in the course of socialist construction and are gradually resolving this contradiction in the course of the advance from socialism to communism.”

Not only does Mao not see socialism as the abolition of classes, but he sees no contradiction between the peasantry and the workers in the history of the Soviet Union (not to speak of China), which in fact largely drove the degeneration of the Soviet Union and its most brutal crises during this period.

The “dialectics” of Mao are only the opportunism of Stalinism expressed in language aping that of Marx, Engels and Lenin. New categories of dialectics are invented, including “non-antagonistic contradictions,” “primacy of the internal over the external,” “the principle contradiction versus the secondary contradictions.” While inveighing against “one-sidedness,” Mao rejects “all-sidedness,” seeking simple formulas for every problem. “offence and defence, advance and retreat, victory and defeat are all mutually contradictory phenomena.” This is the deep insight of Mao, leaving it for him to capriciously assign the manner in which these profound contradictions are “resolved,” or “turned into their opposite.” Mao’s great “innovation,” the non-antagonistic contradiction, is realized as the illusory principle of antagonistic contradictions becoming non-antagonistic and finally “dying out.” 

In the new, capitalist era, the feudal forces changed from their former dominant position to a subordinate one, gradually dying out. Such was the case, for example, in Britain and France. With the development of the productive forces, the bourgeoisie changes from being a new class playing a progressive role to being an old class playing a reactionary role, until it is finally overthrown by the proletariat and becomes a class deprived of privately owned means of production and stripped of power, when it, too, gradually dies out… Look at China, for instance. Imperialism occupies the principal position in the contradiction in which China has been reduced to a semi-colony, it oppresses the Chinese people, and China has been changed from an independent country into a semi-colonial one. But this state of affairs will inevitably change; in the struggle between the two sides, the power of the Chinese people [including the national bourgeoisie, landlords and peasants!] which is growing under the leadership of the proletariat will inevitably change China from a semi-colony into an independent country, whereas imperialism will be overthrown and old China will inevitably change into New China. The change of old China into New China also involves a change in the relation between the old feudal forces and the new popular forces within the country. The old feudal landlord class will be overthrown, and from being the ruler it will change into being the ruled; and this class, too, will gradually die out [!]. From being the ruled the people [all classes!], led by the proletariat, will become the rulers. Thereupon, the nature of Chinese society will change and the old, semi-colonial and semi-feudal society will change into a new democratic [!] society.”

So we see antagonisms magically disappear and turn into their opposites, before dying out non-antagonistically, under the guidance of the CCP, and the building of the national project of China. All this is in total contrast to the Marxist position, of the revolutionary abolition of classes, the state and the nation, the constant struggle, not under the leadership, but under the dictatorship of the proletariat, to eliminate the elements and conditions of the old order. Capitalism does not die out as such, but is transformed, by its contradictory development of the productive forces and productive relationships, into a higher system of ownership, social ownership of the means of production out of the socialized production of capitalism. This is the negation of the negation. Instead, Mao would have us believe that socialism is the long march of somehow harmonious national construction corralling all classes and each separate country which realizes itself over an undisclosed period of time through the gradual softening of antagonisms.

In summary, Mao corrupts dialectics in the service of Stalinism’s pragmatic goals and ideological priorities. From his confused, ludicrous presentations of simple dualities, and examples from Chinese fairytales, the reader is only left with one conclusion, conscious or unconsciously. The means of determining from material reality the conditions of the transformations of contradictions is never explained by Mao,  instead we are left with the statement, repeated in its many variations, that this process merely occurs. The study of concrete developments is never taken up. Instead, Dialectics becomes a means of apologetics and justification for positions already taken, and bolsters the nonsense that it is up to the Communist Party to find the correct path of the Chinese working class (and all other classes). 

In China in 1927, the defeat of the proletariat by the big bourgeoisie came about through the opportunism then to be found within the Chinese proletariat itself (inside the Chinese Communist Party). When we liquidated this opportunism, the Chinese revolution resumed its advance. Later, the Chinese revolution again suffered severe setbacks at the hands of the enemy, because adventurism had risen within our Party. When we liquidated this adventurism, our cause advanced once again. Thus it can be seen that to lead the revolution to victory, a political party must depend on the correctness of its own political line and the solidity of its own organization.”

Today the Chinese Communist Party still clings to the banner of Maoism to justify its existence as the governing party at the head of the Chinese bourgeoisie. It is reliant on the creation of a national myth and the promotion of its role as arbitrator and preserver of the peace between different sections of the Chinese bourgeoisie. It promotes its ability to supposedly soften antagonisms in its very inequality-stricken country and lead “the people” as an amorphous mass in the advancement of the national cause of the Chinese bourgeoisie. What more is this, than the realization of Mao’s “dialectics?” 


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