The philosophy of Chairman Mao

Brian asked:

Kindly let me know what does Mao mean by saying, ‘It is only when there is class struggle that there can be philosophy.’ Can it be understood as an expression of unity of theory and practice that Marxists persist on it?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

I think what Mao means, is that firstly, there is material practice before we reflect or theorise about it. This is in keeping with the general thrust of Marx’s Historical Materialism as distinguished from Philosophy, which maintains ideas do not arise from nowhere nor are they primary as the only motives in human history but, can be deduced as arising from specific social contexts.

The dialectic proffered by Hegel in his Science of Logic, is a dialectic between emanations of the Concept: Abstract Understanding can only understand things immediately, prima facie. Negative or Dialectic Reason discovers oppositions or distinctions in such abstract immediacy. Speculative or Positive Reason overcomes such oppositions in a process Hegel calls Aufhebung — translated as supersession of, sublation of, superseding of the negative element but preserving it on a higher level of unity. The dialectic process begins again.

This process occurs in the movement of human consciousness overcoming the oppositions with itself in its other — famously termed the Subject-Object dialectic — until final unity of the two is reached; unity in the Absolute Idea which is the overcoming of all otherness of human consciousness. In Hegel’s Philosophy of History, human history is the dialectical process of Freedom, overcoming manifestations of itself expressed in the battle between Principles and Ideas embodied in world-historical individuals such as Socrates and Napoleon.

Following the famous ‘inversion’ of Hegel’s Idealist dialectic by Marx, Marx’s employment of the Dialectic is applied to social processes. Most generally, this is the contradiction between the Productive Forces and Social Relations which is simultaneous with class struggle. Thus in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx declares human history to be the history of class struggle.

Dialectical Materialism — a term coined by Russian Marxist Georg Plekhanov — maintains that contradiction is inherent not only to the social world but also, to the Natural world. Hence we have The Dialectics of Nature and the Anti-Düring both by Engels (and as Marx contributed a chapter to the latter, presumably it had Marx’s approval) where dialectic is allegedly found in mathematics, nature, history, chemistry — in short, it is omnipresent. Thus, dialectic, initially focusing on the social world extends beyond it to the non-social world of nature. Engels modified Hegels’Hegel’sts of the Dialectic to reveal the three Dialectical ‘Laws’:

1. The Interpenetration of Opposites.
2. Quantity into Quality and vice versa.
3. The Negation of the Negation.

This is a contentious issue in Marxist Philosophy with ‘Hegelian Marxists’ such as Karl Korsch, Antonio Gramsci and Georg Lukacs emphasising contradictions as occurring, like Hegel before, in the phenomenology of lived experience, in consciousness, ideologies and culture upon the basic contradiction between the productive Forces and Relations. They are less disposed to extending dialectic to Nature.

Mao Zedong in his 1937 essay On Contradiction, uses quotes from Lenin and Engels which advocate the omnipresence of the dialectic, as described above:

“The law of contradiction in things, that is, the law of the unity of opposites, is the basic law of materialist dialectics. Lenin said, “Dialectics in the proper sense is the study of contradiction in the very essence of objects.” Lenin often called this law the essence of dialectics; he also called it the kernel of dialectics.”

In other words, contradiction is everywhere. Every thing, each phenomena is a unity of opposites.

As usual, the distinction is made between Idealism and Materialism in Philosophy. The two world outlooks are discussed by Mao and unsurprisingly, Idealism or Metaphysics is rejected. It is rejected primarily because it cannot account for or accept the primacy of change or becoming. Materialist Dialectics can and does.

Previous Philosophy while at most, recognising the Becoming of Being, (such as Heraclitus) did not articulate this to the degree Hegel had with his use of Dialectic. Reaching fruition with Marx, philosophy in the guise of Dialectical Materialism, promulgates the position that ontology is change and not the settled metaphysical finalis of Plato’s Forms, Aristotle’s teleology, the afterworlds of the Abrahamic religions and so on.

It is with the class struggle that Marx first notes that social being is becoming. (The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, The Holy Family 1845,The German Ideology 1845/6) Only later, as we’ve seen with Engels’ Anti-DuAnti-Düring and Dialectics of Nature (1883) does this extend to an analyses of Nature, chemistry and so on making the dialectic a omnipresent process, a ‘scientific socialism’. So the impetus of class struggle leads to a dialectical account of it. Later, the dialectical approach is extended to Nature etc. and the dialectic becomes the ‘philosophy’ of the Proletariat, as ‘Scientific Socialism’

Scientific Socialism, as the science of the Proletariat, would be the final word in Philosophy. For with the triumph of the Proletarian Revolution and the establishment of Communism, the truth of scientific socialism, of dialectical materialism is vindicated. Previous philosophies of metaphysics and Idealism will consequently have been demonstrated to be false, to be ‘ideologies’ in the service of of previous ‘ruling class’. Hence Materialism, Dialectical and Historical Materialism or scientific socialism is the truth. Not only has the riddle of history been solved but also, so have the riddles of philosophy. Philosophy or Theory informs practice and practice is informed by Theory: indeed, the ‘unity of theory and practice’. This echoes what Hegel had earlier concluded with his Absolute Idealism: ‘All that is Actual is Rational and all that is Rational is Actual.’

It is in this sense, in Mao’s view, that Philosophy — as Dialectical Materialism — could only exist in virtue of the existence of class struggle, being deduced from it.


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