Contradiction analysis: an explainer

A useful piece for those interested in the central function of Marxist contradiction analysis in a Chinese situation. Xi Jinping recently announced that the primary contradiction has now changed, ushering in a new era. And if you are still interested, it is worth reading (again) Mao’s two pieces, ‘On Contradiction‘ and ‘On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People‘. Crucial here is managing contradictions so that they remain non-antagonistic.


Different ways to interpret the Marxist tradition

In recent discussion in China, I have become more aware of different ways the Marxist tradition can be interpreted. You can take any core feature, such as the dictatorship of the proletariat, the withering away of the state, the distinction between socialism and communism, the nature of the socialist state, and many more.

For example, Marx uses the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ 11 times, where he means a coercive force of the state that crushes class opponents. This is in tension with his treatments of the Paris commune, where he praises the diminishment of state power and its continuance only as apparatus. Engels, by contrast, does not use dictatorship of the proletariat, but coins the phrase (only in 1894), the dying or ‘withering away of the state’. Lenin develops the argument further, distinguishing between two phases, the dictatorship of the proletariat and then the state’s withering. He pushes this into a distant future, but Stalin argues that it would take place only after global communism had been achieved and communism had become second nature – which may take 1000 years or more. And in Chinese Marxism, dictatorship of the proletariat becomes ‘democratic dictatorship’ in Mao’s hands and then ‘people’s democratic dictatorship’ with Deng Xiaoping, now as an inclusive category operating in terms of non-antagonistic contradictions.

What about socialism and communism? This distinction is not in Marx and Engels. Only in the late notes, ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’, does Marx distinguish an initial stage of communism and a further stage. He leaves open the possibility of more. Lenin then distinguishes these as socialism and communism, with socialism still bearing many features, such as state, classes, law and so on. Only with communism will the earlier prescriptions of Marxism begin to appear. Stalin takes this further, pushing communism into a very distant future, while socialism has a strong multi-national state, tensions between forces and relations of production continue, people are rewarded according to work, equalisation (a petty-bourgeois idea) has no place, and the state’s domestic responsibilities, affirmative action and fostering of anti-colonial struggles play huge roles. In a Chinese situation, they take an even longer view, with the preliminary stage of socialism lasting 100 years, after which a next stage emerges, the moderately prosperous, peaceful and stable society. During this process, a whole spate of new approaches emerge.

How do we interpret these developments? Here are some possibilities:

  1. A narrative of betrayal. Engels betrays Marx; Lenin betrays Marx and Engels; Stalin betrays all of the former; Mao betrays them; Deng betrays Mao … Pick your place, but betrayal of Marxism happens at some point. I find this approach quite common among ‘western’ Marxists.
  2. Continuity, sometimes radical. A smaller number take this line, arguing that all of the ideas found in Stalin, Mao or Deng have precursors in the Marxist tradition.
  3. Clarification. Each stage of the tradition and each of its different branches constitutes a clarification of some idea or practice that was not so clear before. This is a more common Chinese approach.
  4. Changing historical circumstances, which may be connected with the first or third approach. Obviously, specific circumstances, cultural histories, political realities and so on produce new problems, which require new solutions. This is what the Chinese call ‘seeking truth from facts’ (drawn from Mao).
  5. The differences between socialism seeking power and socialism in power. As Lenin and Mao pointed out repeatedly, winning a revolution is relatively easy; infinitely more complex is the effort to construct socialism. This is obviously connected with the fourth point, but plays a crucial role.

Common Sense? Marxism and Chinese Culture

‘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.

Socialism with Chinese Characteristics: An Explainer

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’.

Famine and Socialism

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.

National Day in China: Declaration of the People’s Republic

1 October it is, when Mao Zedong declared in his Xiangtan (Hunan) accent the people’s republic.

Every year, Tiananmen Square is filled with tens of thousands of young people, who sleep in the square overnight so they are ready at daybreak to commemorate the event at a very simple flag-raising ceremony. Mao is clearly alive in the people’s republic today.

Mao: how not to write and how to write

Mao certainly had his criticisms of useless writing and scholarship. After mentioning Lenin and Stalin as positive examples (in ‘On Practice’), he notes their opposite:

The saying, ‘without stepping outside his gate the scholar knows all the wide world’s affairs,’ was mere empty talk in past times when technology was undeveloped (Selected Readings, p. 70).

Adorno made a similar point concerning the philosopher who sits in his cottage with pencil and paper and is able to produce a system that explains the whole universe. But then (in ‘Reform our Study’) Mao notes the type of intellectual that annoys him:

When making speeches, they indulge in a long string of headings, A, B, C, D, 1, 2, 3, 4, and when writing articles, they turn out a lot of verbiage. They have no intention of seeking truth from facts, but only a desire to curry favour by claptrap. They are flashy without substance, brittle without solidity. They are always right, they are the Number One authority under Heaven, “imperial envoys” who rush everywhere (Selected Writings, p. 203).

But he also has some suggestions as to how one might write:

Articles should store up forces within. Emerging from Longmen, the Yellow River rushes all the way down to Tongguan. As it turns eastwards, it again rushes to Tongwa. Again it turns northeastwards and rushes to the sea. Once it comes out of hiding and changes its course, it goes for a thousand li without stopping. This is called a big turn. So it is with composition. (The Writings of Mao Zedong, vol. 1, p. 18)

To compose (zuo wen) well, we need to be skilfull, hence the use of the word ‘do’ (zuo); to write (xie), we need to wield the brush furiously, hence the use of the word ‘sketch’ (xie). (p. 19)

Ten Rules of Red Army warfare

In the long struggle towards 1949, the Red Army in China had learnt a few tricks, both from the communists in Russia during the ‘civil’ war and from their own experiences. With fewer fighters, inferior equipment and fewer resources against Chang Kai-Shek’s superior forces (supplied and trained by the Germans, Italians, Americans and English), they had developed a number of rules of engagement.

1. Do not fight any losing battles. Unless there are strong indications of success, refuse engagement.

2. Surprise is the main offensive tactic of the well-led partisan group. Static war must be avoided. The partisan brigade has no auxiliary force, no rear, no line of supplies and communications except that of the enemy.

3. A careful and detailed plan of attack, and especially of retreat, must be worked out before any engagement is offered or accepted. Superior manoeuvring ability is a great advantage of the partisans, and errors in its manipulation mean extinction.

4. The greatest attention must be paid to the mintuan (the landlord militia), the first, last, and most determined line of resistance of the landlords. The mintuan must be destroyed militarily, but must, if at all possible, be won over politically to the side of the masses.

5. In a regular engagement with enemy troops the partisans must exceed the enemy in numbers. But if the enemy’s regular troops are moving, resting, or poorly guarded, a swift, determined, surprise flank attack on an organically vital spot of the enemy’s line can be made by a much smaller group. Many a Red ‘short attack’ was carried with only a few hundred against an enemy of thousands. Surprise, speed, courage, unwavering decision, flawlessly planned manoeuvre, and selection of the most vulnerable and vital spot in the enemy’s ‘anatomy’ are absolutely essential.

6. In actual combat the partisan line must have the greatest elasticity. Once it becomes obvious that their calculation of enemy strength or preparedness or fighting power is in error, the partisans should be able to disengage with the same speed as they began the attack.

7. The tactics of distraction, decoy, diversion, ambush, feint and irritation must be mastered. In Chinese these tactics are called ‘the principle of pretending to attack the east while attacking the west’.

8. Avoid engagements with the main force of the enemy, concentrating on the weakest link, or the most vital part.

9. Every precaution must be taken to prevent the enemy from locating the partisans’ main forces. For this reason, partisans should avoid concentrating in one place when the enemy is advancing, and should change their position frequently – two or three times in one day or night just before attack.

10. Besides superior mobility, the partisans, being inseparable from the local masses, have the advantage of superior intelligence; the greatest use must be made of this. Ideally, every peasant should be on the partisans’ intelligence staff.

From Edgar Snow, Red Star Over China, pp. 275-76.

Eleven rules of the Red Army

Before the revolution, the Red Army in China had the following eleven rules, divided into two groups, one of three, the other of eight.

The three preliminary rules:

1. Prompt obedience to orders

2. No confiscations whatever from the poor peasantry

3. Prompt delivery directly to the government (Red soviets), for its disposal, of all goods confiscated from the landlords

The eight key rules, with a focus on dealings with peasants:

1. Replace all doors when you leave a house (!)

2. Return and roll up the straw matting on which you slept

3. Be courteous and polite to the people and help them when you can

4. Return all borrowed articles

5. Replace all damaged article

6. Be honest in all transactions with the peasants

7. Pay for all articles purchased

8. Be sanitary, and, especially, establish latrines a safe distance from people’s houses

Apparently, these eight form a song, sung on the march or while working.