Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Mao Zedong: On Practice & Contradiction
“People who are liberals look upon the principles of Marxism as abstract dogma. They approve of Marxism, but are not prepared to practice it or to practice it in full; they are not prepared to replace their liberalism by Marxism. These people have their Marxism, but they have their liberalism as well – they talk Marxism but practice liberalism; they apply Marxism to others but liberalism to themselves. They keep both kinds of goods in stock and find a use for each.” In “On Practice,” Mao argues that knowledge is dependent on practice, and that the practices of production are the primary source of human knowledge. “The dialectical-materialist theory of knowledge places practice in the primary position, holding that human knowledge can in no way be separated from practice and repudiating all the erroneous theories which deny the importance of practice or separate knowledge from practice.” In other words: “If you want knowledge, you must take part in the practice of changing reality.” More concretely, he adds in the later “Talk on Questions of Philosophy” that “It is a waste of time to discuss epistemology apart from practice. The comrades who study philosophy should go down to the countryside.” Despite its dynamic description, Mao’s dialectic of perceptual and rational knowledge, empiricism and rationalism, doesn’t really get past the problems of Lenin’s theory of knowledge in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. The difficulties are particular evident in the short piece, “Where Do Correct Ideas Come From?”, which simply and without analysis asserts that “matter can be transformed into consciousness and consciousness into matter.” In “On Contradiction,” Mao claims that “The law of contradiction in things, that is, the law of the unity of opposites, is the basic law of materialist dialectics.” Mao argues that there “is internal contradiction in every single thing,” and that this internal contradiction generates motion and development. Mao does not ignore the obvious cases of external contradiction, but claims “It is through internal causes that external causes become operative.” There is a universality of contradiction: “contradiction exists universally and in all processes, whether in the simple or in the complex forms of motion, whether in objective or ideological phenomena.” Mao, drawing from Lenin, prescribes “the concrete analysis of concrete conditions” because we must understand how each aspect of a contradiction struggles with its opposite and how a particular contradiction is interconnected with the contradictions of the complex social totality. In the development of every complex thing, there is one “principal contradiction whose existence and development determines or influences the existence and development of the other contradictions.” In a capitalist society this principal contradiction is of course that between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Mao emphasizes that there will always be one principal contradiction and that it is essential to grasp it, but adds that the principal contradiction in a process can change. Political strategy must therefore continuously analyze the concrete situation in order to grasp what is the principal contradiction at each moment. In his introduction to this collection of Mao’s writings, Zizek wisely argues that one should not attempt to identify any Fall in Marxism: one has to take all of Marxism “as ‘one’s own’, taking full responsibility for it, not to comfortably get rid of the ‘bad’ turn of things by way of attributing it to a foreign intruder (the ‘bad’ Engels who was too stupid to understand Marx’s dialectics, the ‘bad’ Lenin who didn’t get the core of Marx’s theory,’ the ‘bad’ Stalin who spoils the noble plans of the ‘good’ Lenin, etc.).” That Mao may have caused 38 million to starve to death in 1958-61 in order to buy arms cannot be expunged from the history of Marxism. Zizek argues Mao was right to deny any “dialectical synthesis” that reconciled opposites, but also claims that Mao was wrong to oppose that synthesis with “a general cosmology-ontology of the ‘eternal struggle of opposites.’” For Zizek, Mao’s failure to recognize the ”negation of negation” produces a “non-dialectical “ “bad infinity” in the form of endless struggle. Zizek argues Mao failed “to transpose revolutionary negativity into a truly new positive Order: all temporary stabilizations of the revolution amounted to so many restorations of the old Order, so that the only way to keep the revolution alive was the ‘spurious infinity’ of endlessly repeated negation which reached its apex in the Great Cultural Revolution.” Zizek even goes so far as to claim there is “a profound structural homology between Maoist permanent self-revolutionalizing, the permanent struggle against the ossification of state structures, and the inherent dynamics of capitalism.” Zizek’s criticism of Mao should be juxtaposed with Althusser’s analysis of Mao in For Marx. Isn’t it the case that Mao’s supposedly “non-dialectical” theory is precisely what made him attractive to Althusser, who was fighting his own battle within Marxism against the Hegelian dialectic? Althusser’s theory of overdetermination and contradiction and the entire tradition of (non vulgar) Marxist-Leninist materialism should be set against Zizek’s reductive reading of Mao.