Mao Zedong


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‘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.

There is significant misunderstanding of the term ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics [zhongguo tese shehuizhuyi]’.

Many foreigners – Marxists included – think it is a code for capitalism. Others think it means the complex intersections between Marxism and Chinese culture, while others think it is an empty term that can be filled with whatever content you want.

The Chinese understanding is different but actually very clear.

The specific term comes from Deng Xiaoping in 1982:

In carrying out our modernization programme we must proceed from Chinese realities [zhongguo de shiji]. 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 [zhongguo tese de shehuizhuyi] – that is the basic conclusion we have reached after reviewing our long history.

Further, the specific meaning of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ entails the ‘reform and opening up [gaige kaifang]’, which has been underway since 1978. Again, this is not a ‘reform’ away from socialism, but something quite different. This is reform after a revolution, undertaken in light of the revolution (as Lenin already argued).

Above all, let me stress that Deng Xiaoping’s genius was that he understood that socialism is not about everyone being equal, which really means that everyone is equally poor. Instead, it entails unleashing the forces of production, as Marx and Engels already argued. In other words, socialism is about improving the social and economic lives of everyone.

So this is the specific Chinese characteristic of socialism.

But the question remains, as some seem to think, whether Deng Xiaoping marks a significant departure from Mao on this matter (another version of the betrayal or ‘Fall’ narrative’). As one would expect, there are different stresses and emphases in their approaches, depending in the specific circumstances involved in constructing socialism. But on this matter, we can identify the broader framework of Deng Xiaoping’s approach (and that of later Chinese leaders) already in Mao’s thought.

This initial idea already appears in Mao’s work from 1938:

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 [zhongguo tedian], and not Marxism abstractly used … consequently, the sinification of Marxism [makesizhuyi de zhongguohua] that is to say, making certain that in all its manifestations it is imbued with Chinese characteristics [zhongguo texing], using it according to Chinese peculiarities [zhongguo tedian] – becomes a problem that must be understood and solved by the whole party without delay.

To begin with, we find the idea of Chinese characteristics, which may also be translated as distinguishing features (zhongguo tedian) or distinguishing properties (zhongguo texing).

Equally important is the crucial phrase, sinification of Marxism (makesizhuyi de zhongguohua). This phrase is usually translated as ‘Chinese Marxism’, but as is the case with translations, some of the meaning is lost and other meanings attach to it. ‘Chinese Marxism’ tends miss the crucial meaning of the word hua: to transform. Mao’s text is talking about Marxism transformed in light of a Chinese situation, or in terms of Chinese characteristics. So it is better to translate as ‘sinification of Marxism’.

Obviously, the general idea derives from Mao, but what fascinates me is the way Deng Xiaoping interprets the term. It refers not so much to the influence of Chinese culture and history, but to unleashing the forces of production in light of the specific, historical conditions of China.

All of this means that transforming Marxism in light of Chinese conditions – that is, socialism with Chinese characteristics – actually comes out of the Marxist tradition. As Engels, Lenin and others were fond of saying, ‘Marxism is not a dogma, but a guide to action’.

One of the great myths concerning socialist collectivisation of agriculture is that it produced ‘man-made’ famines, since it is supposedly less ‘efficient’. This story is perpetrated by friend and foe alike.

Example 1: The famine of 1932-33 in the Soviet Union, which is supposed to have been ‘man-made’.

Let me set the context. During the ‘socialist offensive’ of the late 1920s and 1930s in the Soviet Union, a massive process of industrialisation and collectivisation took place.

The Soviet Union did not have access to and did not want to use capitalist modes of accumulating funds, namely, colonial expansion (dispossession of others) and international loans. So the industrialisation process had to rely on internal, or socialist accumulation. In order to generate such accumulation, the government set higher prices for the increasing abundance of manufactured goods, as a type of super-tax that would flow back into industry. Meanwhile, prices on agricultural goods were set lower, albeit with fluctuations depending on seasonal shortages and in light of the constant efforts at speculation. This tensions of this ‘scissors’ method of generating revenue for further industrialisation generated obvious problems, but these were exacerbated by a famine in 1927-28, requiring enforced requisitions of grain in response to some peasants withholding agricultural produce for speculation (Withholding of grain for the sake of raising prices was an old practice, appearing not only during the NEP of the mid-1920s, but also much earlier). Obviously, something had to be done, since the ‘scissors’ method could not continue – it was always conceived as a temporary measure.

Another persistent problem was that traditional Russian farming methods were inadequate in light of new developments and a rising population. I mean not the subsistence survival agriculture practised in many parts of the world for millennia, but the practice of landlords extracting food necessary for survival by farmers. In fact, rural famines were endemic to Russian life. In more recent memory, famine hit in 1890-91, the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 had taken place in the context of widespread famine, which added to socio-economic chaos. Famines also blighted 1918-20 and were exacerbated during 1920-21.

So the process of collectivisation was at one level an effort to deal with endemic famine.

Many of course will point to the famine of 1932-33, with some even suggesting it was a deliberate policy of ‘genocide’ focused on the Ukraine (the ‘Holodomur’). But the famine also affected Northern Caucasus, Volga Region and Kazakhstan, the South Urals, and West Siberia. Enough research has been done to show that the famine was the result of significant weather conditions (drought), low harvest, international blockade, and the profound turmoil and frequent violence of the 1930s.

Were there famines later? Yes. One could argue that the food shortage during the siege of Leningrad was a famine, but the reasons are obvious here. And after the devastation of war and the effort to defeat Hitler, a famine took place after a drought in 1947. Most importantly, despite the drought cycle, no further famines were experienced.

Obviously, collectivisation had a distinct result in dealing with the endemic problem of famines. Why? Collectivisation enabled mechanisation and increase in the amount of land under cultivation, so much so that in 1932 many farmers worked harder to ensure greater crop yield and overcome the famine by the next year.

Example 2: The Chinese famine of 1959-61, during the ‘Great Leap Forward’, is also described as ‘man-made’, a result of the ‘foolhardy’ effort at collectivisation.

Once again, famine was endemic to Chinese agriculture (see Losurdo’s War and Revolution, pp. 271-72). Restricting ourselves to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, famines occurred in 1810-11, 1846, 1849, 1876-79 (9-13 million died), 1896-97, 1907, 1911, 1920-21 (again in northern China), 1928-30 (3 million people died), 1936 (5 million), 1940-41 (2-3 million). In famine was a persistent problem.

If we add the semi-colonisation of China, invasions, insurrections, along with droughts, the deaths in China between 1850 and 1950 were by far the highest in the world.

Again, something obviously had to be done. Having seen the long-term success of the collectivisation in the Soviet Union in overcoming the persistent cycle of famine, collectivisation was also undertaken in China.

The problem now was not only the devastation of decades of civil war and Japanese occupation, but a deliberate policy of economic warfare and strangulation by the Truman regime. This included schematic bombing from Taiwan of any industrial facilities built on the eastern seaboard. The deliberate aim was to keep the new communist country below subsistence level so as to produce a catastrophic economic situation, if not disaster and collapse.

We need to add Mao’s impatience. Seeing the dire situation of the country in light of economic devastation and US policy, he sought to leap over stages of development in order to escape from the desperate trap. Again, the US regimes made the most of situation, seeking to exacerbate the situation and cause widespread devastation. By the early 1960s, the Kennedy regime, looking back on the famine of 1959-61, gloated that they succeeded in retarding Chinese economic development by decades.

Were there famines after this time in China? Again, no. The long history of endemic famine and the tragic lesson of 1959-61 meant that China has managed to put famine behind it.

In preparation for the MOOC on Chinese Marxism, I had  a Chines film crew over October and November of last year. We filmed in Beijing, but especially at the major sites of the Chinese Revolution: Shaoshan, Ruijin and Yan’an. I was even able to sit at the desk in Mao’s room in both Ruijin and Yan’an, where the seeds of modern China were sown.

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I am finally working through the many photographs from the ‘red tour’ filming from last November (for the MOOC), and came across these from Ruijin, where the first soviet was established in the early 1930s. This is also where the absolutely crucial Ruijin ethos was developed: make sure that people have adequate food, clothing and shelter, give them security and they will become revolutionaries.

These photos were taken in Ruijin, Jiangxi province. Clearly, the Marxist tradition follows through:

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