Mao Zedong

This always gives me a thrill, breaking into new areas for publishing ideas. Earlier, the People’s Daily in China published an article on the decline of bourgeois democracy in the United States. A few days ago, Chinese Social Sciences Today published an article called ‘Contradiction: The Key to Understanding the Sinification of Marxism’. It has now appeared on a number of websites in China (here, here, here and here). This is a short version of my paper to be delivered at the Chinese Marxism conference here at Renmin University, 22-23 April. In case you don’t read Chinese, here is a translation (with some able editing by a comrade, Zang Fengyu):

In 1938, Mao Zedong proposed the “sinification of Marxism,” by which he meant “making certain that in all its manifestations it is imbued with Chinese characteristics, using it according to Chinese peculiarities.” In 1982, Deng Xiaoping pointed out: “we must integrate the universal truth of Marxism with the concrete realities of China, blaze a path of our own and build a socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Most foreign scholars do not fully understand these claims. I think the Marxist theory of contradiction is the key to understanding the problem.

The internal contradictions of socialism in China have multiple levels of expression. Mao Zedong pointed out in his article that conflicts are manifold, but there is a dominant contradiction in comparison with other contradictions. This key to contradictions is that people should be the main concern. In order better to understand the conflicts, especially in terms of economic, scientific, intellectual and political contradictions, one should continue to develop the theory, and constantly return to seek real improvement in the theory. It is very important to determine at any time the principal contradiction and decide the best way to solve this contradiction in terms the development of this theory.

Mao Zedong’s critical analysis indicates that at all stages of socialism and even communism stage there is ongoing conflict. This suggests that the contradiction between productive forces and production relations in Socialist conditions continues to exist. In fact, in Mao Zedong’s view, “socialist society grows more united and consolidated through the ceaseless process of correctly handling and resolving contradictions.” These contradictions are not antagonistic, but should be resolved through intervention and adjustment.

So, how are contradictions this manifested in a socialist society with Chinese characteristics? First, contradictions still exist between the forces and relations of production. As the forces move ahead, the relations of production may drag behind and therefore need constant readjustment. As the old contradictions are resolved, new ones will arise that require yet further reform and adjustment. Sometimes changes in relations of production can influence the forces or production in moving forward. Further, in China today there is a continued presence of some traditional assumptions about social relations. Many of these have been adjusted in light of the development of productive forces, others have found new expression in light of the rapid changes in production, while others become a drag on further development. The result is that China has a unique conjunction of traditional and very modern social assumptions. As a result, traditional and modern assumptions in China is a unique combination.

Perhaps today, the principal contradiction in Chinese society is a complex dialectical relationship. At a theoretical level one should expect that the contradictions of former modes of production are not resolved in a new mode of production. Instead, the old contradictions reappear in new ways, making the new situation even more complex. Traditionally, Marxism has spoken of the “narrative” of modes of production: tribal society and hunter-gatherer existence are replaced by slavery, or perhaps by the “Asiatic mode of production,” which are in turn replaced by feudalism, which is replaced by capitalism, which is then overcome by socialism and communism. Each mode of production is both enabled by internal contradictions (which are thereby constitutive contradictions), but those same contradictions lead to its undoing. Thus, a subsequent mode of production overcomes those contradictions only to produce new ones that are simultaneously constitutive and disabling.

A new theoretical approach argues that each new mode of production absorbs all those that have come before (this is really a different and perhaps more sophisticated form of dialectical understanding). Thus, we find that the earlier contradictions are now included within the new mode of production, creating multiple contradictions that remain unresolved. At the same time, the functions of those earlier modes of production are altered, so that they work within the new mode of production. Socialism has the potential to absorb all of the previous modes of production at yet a higher level of complexity. Indeed, within socialist theory we find the argument that communism unleashes the forces of production hindered by capitalism. However, if you want to liberate productive forces, it is necessary to use the mechanisms of capitalism – technological innovation, modes of management and organisation for production, industrialised techniques, forms of agriculture, so that they can be further improved.

The author believes that China’s rise on the world stage is the result of many factors: its omnipresent influence around the world; ongoing negotiations; foreign contributions in response to challenges in the China; and especially the cultural persistence of Marxism in China. To this end, and to persist in seeking truth from facts, the truth “is” materialism and the “facts” come from the Socialist economic, political and scientific experiments and construction of practice.

The interpretation of socialism with Chinese characteristics show us the direction of, and also provides a starting point for, further research. For example, maintaining diversity in the Marxist tradition is important. While Marxism may have core principles, they are applied and developed in various ways among different communities. This can also be seen as the dialectic of the universal and particular: universal in order to prevent the degradation of Marxism as a hodgepodge of some irrelevant views; and particular in order to resist outside control and dogmatic understandings of Marxism.

Socialism with Chinese characteristics emphasizes China’s unique historical situation, works according to China’s national conditions, and is creative and flexible in the use of Marxism. This history includes the entire period of revolution, construction and reform. Marxism is needed to emancipate the mind and keep pace with socialism with Chinese characteristics. In this way, Marxism can become a fresh and lively tradition, inclusive of new ideas and concepts. Socialism with Chinese characteristics is inclusive: it involves not only economics and politics, but also all aspects of people’s lives, including culture and Socialist democracy. Socialism with Chinese characteristics emphasizes peaceful socialist modernization, which is different from capitalism, which relies on the modern history of colonialism and exploitation of the oppressed.

Chinese traditional culture and the relationship with Marxism is one of the factors that influences the development of socialism with Chinese characteristics. To talk about Chinese culture now means that one does so in terms of socialist characteristics. But first we need to rethink traditions. Perhaps we can say that, in a certain sense, ancient traditions and realities seem to be unchanging, but in historical terms tradition involves constant changes and remodelling. Without experience and constant reinterpretation in each era, without adjustments in each generation, tradition is no longer “traditional.” Of course, the premise of every reinterpretation is to restore traditional thoughts, and these are usually understood to be the same thoughts. However, in the process of continuously reinterpreting the tradition, in reading texts again in different circumstances, people gain new insights. The relationship between Marxism and the traditions of the past should follow the dialectic of the old and the new. I think that using this Marxist dialectical approach in relation to traditions has driven Chinese cultural development.


The first is called ‘Stalin, Affirmative Action and the Pentecost of Language‘, and the second, ‘Why a Marxist Entrepreneur is not a Contradiction in China‘.

The great bunch at Materializmi Dialektik have published the latest issue of Crisis and Critique. An added pleasure is that my article on Confucius and Chairman Mao appears here as well, close on the heels of Slavoj Žižek.

Stalin may have made the odd mistaken prediction, but in regard to China he was on the money:

Great popular revolutions never achieve final victory in the first round of their battles. They grow and gain strength in the course of flows and ebbs. That has been so everywhere, including Russia. So it will be in China (Works, volume 10, p. 290).

A somewhat idealistic story for the new year, over at Voyages on the Left.

Mao in the mountains 01

The rush of Christmas is over, with three generations filling our household. So now I can relax … and study a little more Stalin.

Mao Zedong is usually credited with developing a peasant basis for socialist revolutions, thereby breaking with the proletarian emphasis of the Russian Revolution. It may come as a surprise to find that Stalin emphasises again and again the agrarian nature of the Chinese Revolution. In 1927, Stalin wrote:

What, then, is to be done at this moment? The agrarian revolution in China must be broadened and deepened. Mass workers’ and peasants’ organisations of every kind must be created and strengthened—from trade-union councils and strike committees to peasant associations and peasant revolutionary committees—with a view to converting them, as the revolutionary movement grows and achieves success, into organisational and political bases for the future Soviets of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ deputies (Works, volume 9, p. 242).

To be sure, Stalin did see the agrarian revolution as a phase that would be followed by the leadership of the proletariat in the establishment of soviets. Mao ensured that the agrarian basis would remain the core of the Chinese Revolution.

But did Stalin attempt to dictate the progress of the Chinese Revolution, insisting on ideological and practical conformity? Not so, it seems. He argues strongly against an ‘artificially transplanted “Moscow Sovietisation”’ (p. 233). And he castigates those who ‘sincerely believe that the revolution in China can be directed, so to speak, by telegraph, on the basis of the universally recognised general principles of the Comintern, disregarding the national peculiarities of China’s economy, political system, culture, manners and customs, and traditions (p. 338).

Mao with peasants 02

Mao with peasants 03

The idea of ‘socialism with national characteristics’ is usually attributed to Deng Xiaoping’s famous statement concerning Chinese characteristics. And it is often dismissed as an excuse to do anything, whether Marxist or not. But the idea actually stems from Lenin and Stalin. In 1917, Lenin wrote:

Our business is to help get everything possible done to make sure the “last” chance for a peaceful development of the revolution, to help by the presentation of our programme, by making clear its national character, its absolute accord with the interests and demands of a vast majority of the population (Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 26, p. 60).

The main theoretician of the ‘national question’, Stalin, went a step further in 1927:

In its content the culture of the peoples of the U.S.S.R. which the Soviet Government is developing must be a culture common to all the working people, a socialist culture; in its form, however, it is and will be different for all the peoples of the U.S.S.R.; it is and will be a national culture, different for the various peoples of the U.S.S.R. in conformity with the differences in language and specific national features (Stalin, Works, vol. 10, pp. 72-73).

In 1939, Mao Zedong wrote:

A Communist is a Marxist internationalist, but Marxism must take on a national form before it can be put into practice. There is no such thing as abstract Marxism, but only concrete Marxism. What we call concrete Marxism is Marxism that has taken on a national form, that is, Marxism applied to the concrete struggle in the concrete conditions prevailing in China, and not Marxism abstractly used. If a Chinese Communist, who is a part of the great Chinese people, bound to his people by his very flesh and blood, talks of Marxism apart from Chinese peculiarities, this Marxism is merely an empty abstraction. Consequently, the sinification of Marxism – that is to say, making certain that in all its manifestations it is imbued with Chinese characteristics, using it according to Chinese peculiarities – becomes a problem that must be understood and solved by the whole Party without delay (Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 6, p. 539).

So by the time Deng Xiaoping made his famous statement in 1982, he was following in this tradition:

In carrying out our modernization programme we must proceed from Chinese realities. Both in revolution and in construction we should also learn from foreign countries and draw on their experience, but mechanical application of foreign experience and copying of foreign models will get us nowhere. We have had many lessons in this respect. We must integrate the universal truth of Marxism with the concrete realities of China, blaze a path of our own and build a socialism with Chinese characteristics – that is the basic conclusion we have reached after reviewing our long history (Selected Works, vol. 3, p. 2)

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