‘Understanding the world in terms of Mao’s contradiction method is part of our culture’, she said. ‘We have learnt this since “middle” school.’

For me, this was enough of a stunning discovery.

Then I asked, ‘But have you read Mao’s “On Contradiction”’?

They admitted they had not read it.

‘Let’s read it then’, I said.

So we set about studying Mao’s text from 1937. It was originally presented as part of the lectures on ‘Dialectical Materialism’, delivered in Yan’an in 1937. Later, he drew the material on contradiction from the lectures and thoroughly revised it for publication. Clearly, Mao felt that the essay was vitally important, not merely for the breakthrough it entailed in revolutionary theory – leading all the way to 1949 – but also for framing a way to interpret and indeed change the world.

Our study became a seminar, running over six three-hour sessions. All of the participants were Chinese people who had grown up in China – except for me.

I learnt more from them than they learnt from me, especially in terms of contemporary Chinese culture. Of course, traditional Chinese culture is a complex mix of Confucian influences, Daoist principles, folk wisdom, and indeed some Buddhist factors suitably sinified – to mention but a few items. But tradition changes and adapts. Culture never remains the same.

Contradiction method (the Chinese term) is a telling example. Stemming from the Hegelian-Marxist tradition, reinterpreted in light of socialism in power in the Soviet Union, it was concretely reshaped by Mao in terms of the Chinese situation. Since then, it has been taught consistently in schools for 80 years.

To find out the effect of this process, let me return to the responses from the seminar participants.

One said, ‘This is common sense for us’. Another said, ‘I live my life according to this approach. It is part of who I am’. And another: ‘I just use this principle like a law of truth for my life, never thinking more deeply about how it comes about and where it stands’.

Contradiction is not merely a political ideology (although one person felt it was), but woven into the fabric of personal and collective lives. Most people do not see it as a theory one might study, but rather as common sense, as a framework for understanding daily life itself. This is the result of more than education: as one put it, ‘I feel like I was born with it’. It is as though parents pass it onto children even before they begin school.

A little later, another said, ‘I find it difficult to think about this further. It is too familiar for me, so I can hardly think critically about it’.

Thinking about what is really second nature is a difficult task. No matter how much one may engage in ‘criticism and self-criticism [piping ziwo piping]’ – another socialist feature of daily life – it requires significant effort to analyse such matters. Perhaps this effort will undermine the structure of one’s life, rearrange the narrative according to which one has been living. At the same time, the way contradiction method has become part of daily life is through unexamined key terms and ideas. The effort to think philosophically about it – as participants admitted – can sharpen one’s understanding.

Another said, ‘Of course there is contradiction under socialism. This is obvious. We know this’.

Not only did they find it strange that the European philosophical tradition tended to see contradictions as either-or, as cancelling one or the other out, they also could not see a problem with contradictions under socialism. This is a given; they experience it every day. But they were also keen to emphasise the sheer complexity of contradictions. Principle contradictions become secondary, new contradictions arise, secondary contradictions become primary, and the principal and non-principal aspects are constantly shifting. This is a reality of political and economic planning, but also of their cultural experience. Nothing new here.

The seminars continued. One or two may have demurred, but the majority made it very clear to me that contradiction method is a ‘basic knowledge of our worldview’ – all the way from mundane realities to political life.

What was I to make of all of this?

Could Marxism become common sense, integral to the way people live their lives? Obviously, it could. Obviously, it has.

But could Marxism also become part of Chinese culture in all its complexity? Before the seminar, I had heard rumours to this effect, but I was still unsure. This seminar taught me otherwise: Marxism already has become part of this culture.

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