Lair Of A Squirrel Red


Marxism, Mao and Politics by Rob
January 18, 2008, 4:59 pm
Filed under: China, Maoism, Marxism, Rob, Theory

Over at Splintered Sunrise an interesting conversation was developing on Badiou, one to which I tried to make a contribution. Anyway some of the points that were made got me thinking a bit, so here I just want to say a few things. Central to this discussion was the question of why the Cultural Revolution might form an important event for some people on the left; my explanation as to why it might follows below, and segues into some more general considerations on Marxism.

My general contention here is that the Cultural Revolution and Maoism more generally, appealed to the late 1960s and 1970s left for a series of interconnected reasons. My key argument is the inadequacy of a Marxist theory of politics, and of the ‘superstructure’ more broadly conceived. In the period after the World War One and the 50s and 60s the state of Marxism – and certainly of ‘official’ Marxism – was pretty moribund. Despite a supposed adherence to Lenin, what we tended to see was a certain mechanical Marxism. In this schematic conception of history, what drove social change was contradictions between the forces of production and the relations of production. This conflict is ‘resolved’ by class struggle, which eventually replaces one mode of production with another.

So in this conception politics and political action is conceived of as being determined or as actualising economics. This type of Marxism doesn’t really have a theory of politics strictly conceived. But this approach brings numerous problems with it. The first problem for this conception is how to explain the relationship between economic and political action. How is it that class struggle can move (as Gramsci put it) from an economic-corporate phase, to a hegemonic phase? And this itself brings the problem from the other direction why is that the contradiction has not yet been actualised. This is of course the classic starting point for a lot of contemporary Marxist theorising – why in the advanced capitalist countries has the working class not taken power?

The answer to this question can’t be found purely in economistic considerations (e.g. the dull compulsion of economic relations) because to look at it this way basically forestalls social change forever (or until the next crisis). In response to this you get the (thankfully long dead) Trot line about a ‘crisis in leadership’. But even the crisis in leadership line is making a grasping attempt to go beyond certain economist lines and move to a more political explanation of the crisis. Basically, then, it seemed that the situations on the ground demanded an examination of the role of ‘superstructure’. But not just as a ‘reflection’ of the base, but in its capacity as decisive. Because the entire issue necessarily must move outside of the economy and onto political and cultural grounds.

And it is here that the Mao becomes central. Mao’s heterodox Marxism represented a fairly innovative intervention into this impasse. This can particularly be seen in Mao’s On Contradiction. Basically, Mao argues that any social totality is a complex of interacting contradictions, all of which contribute towards development and change. However, in every social totality there is a principal contradiction, which serves to give a specific character to all of the other contradictions:

There are many contradictions in the process of development of a complex thing, and one of them is necessarily the principal contradiction whose existence and development determine or influence the existence and development of the other contradictions. For instance, in capitalist society the two forces in contradiction, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, form the principal contradiction. The other contradictions, such as those between the remnant feudal class and the bourgeoisie, between the peasant petty bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie, between the proletariat and the peasant petty bourgeoisie, between the non-monopoly capitalists and the monopoly capitalists, between bourgeois democracy and bourgeois fascism, among the capitalist countries and between imperialism and the colonies, are all determined or influenced by this principal contradiction.

Such a position is a very interesting one, and we can find echoes of the argument in Althusser’s notion of a totality structured in dominance (and of course we would since Mao is an acknowledged influence on Althusser) and even in Lukács earlier discussion of the role of totality in Marxist thought. The point here is that one can immediately recognise Mao had constructed a theoretical edifice which might be able to bridge the impasse described above. Here we can see a way to articulate the primacy of the contradiction between the forces and relation of production; without having to rely on that for change. The point here is that as a principal contradiction it could shape political ‘contradictions’, even these contradictions became vital.

However, Mao goes further than this. He also argues that every contradiction has a principal and subordinate aspect. It is the principal aspect which will (eventually) supersede that subordinate aspect and so bring change. But further to this Mao argued that in a given struggle around a contradiction, things would develop to the point where what was the principal aspect could become the subordinate aspect and vice versa:

We often speak of “the new superseding the old”. The supersession of the old by the new is a general, eternal and inviolable law of the universe. The transformation of one thing into another, through leaps of different forms in accordance with its essence and external conditions — this is the process of the new superseding the old. In each thing there is contradiction between its new and its old aspects, and this gives rise to a series of struggles with many twists and turns. As a result of these struggles, the new aspect changes from being minor to being major and rises to predominance, while the old aspect changes from being major to being minor and gradually dies out. And the moment the new aspect gains dominance over the old, the old thing changes qualitatively into a new thing. It can thus be seen that the nature of a thing is mainly determined by the principal aspect of the contradiction, the aspect which has gained predominance. When the principal aspect which has gained predominance changes, the nature of a thing changes accordingly.

So the vision Mao here articulates is one which – in contrast to ‘official Marxism’ is a dynamic one; emphasising struggle. But the coup de grace, and what I would argue made Maoism so attractive to (particularly) the French left is the following passage:

Some people think that this is not true of certain contradictions. For instance, in the contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production, the productive forces are the principal aspect … in the contradiction between the economic base and the superstructure, the economic base is the principal aspect; and there is no change in their respective positions. This is the mechanical materialist conception, not the dialectical materialist conception. True, the productive forces, practice and the economic base generally play the principal and decisive role; whoever denies this is not a materialist. But it must also be admitted that in certain conditions, such aspects as the relations of production, theory and the superstructure in turn manifest themselves in the principal and decisive role. When it is impossible for the productive forces to develop without a change in the relations of production, then the change in the relations of production plays the principal and decisive role. The creation and advocacy of revolutionary theory plays the principal and decisive role in those times of which Lenin said, “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.” When a task, no matter which, has to be performed, but there is as yet no guiding line, method, plan or policy, the principal and decisive thing is to decide on a guiding line, method, plan or policy. When the superstructure (politics, culture, etc.) obstructs the development of the economic base, political and cultural changes become principal and decisive. Are we going against materialism when we say this? No. The reason is that while we recognize that in the general development of history the material determines the mental and social being determines social consciousness, we also — and indeed must — recognize the reaction of mental on material things, of social consciousness on social being and of the superstructure on the economic base. This does not go against materialism; on the contrary, it avoids mechanical materialism and firmly upholds dialectical materialism.

Obviously, this is long, but I think it basically helps to illustrate the attraction Maoism held for certain people. The whole point is Mao has seriously broken with ‘official’ Marxism, and has attempted to theorise the political. Although Mao presents this as somewhat limited, the implications of this passage (particularly from where we sit) are fairly wide-ranging. Key to my argument is the notion that:

When the superstructure (politics, culture, etc.) obstructs the development of the economic base, political and cultural changes become principal and decisive.

But the whole point – at least so far as Marxists were concerned with in the West – is that it is always the ‘superstructure’ which obstructs the development of the base. Because if we are talking about the standard economic conditions which make things ripe for revolution (in the schematic sense) – well they’ve been here for God only knows how long. So what is the allure of Mao for him politics and culture become central. It thus seems that – quite accidentally – Mao addressed the central concerns of the left in Western Europe, since he attempts to theorise the primacy of the political/cultural whilst remaining a materialist. No matter what people think of Mao (and obviously opinions are not high), this particular theoretical position seems interesting.

Now, with this in mind, we can make a few other considerations. Firstly, it might be argued that this position – which stresses the importance of conscious, political action is a ‘Leninist’ one. Well, yes, I’d agree with that entirely, and it’s certainly something that Lenin articulated rather well. But the point is that Leninism – especially in the time period in question – was associated with the ‘Marxism’ of the USSR, which – to all intents and purposes – had reverted back to the Marxism of the second international. Secondly, insofar as Leninism was taken up by the Trotskyist movement it was (1) not always that great and (2) not likely to be taken up by people inside of the official communist movement. That is why Maoism managed to sink its roots into France, I feel. The milieu from which these people came from was one in which official communism (in the form of the PCF) was all powerful – both politically and philosophically – for a time, Maoism seemed to represent an critique of official communism from within the official communist movement.

Another point to bear in mind is that very similar philosophical positions are put forward (in whatever way) by the early Lukács and Gramsci. It’s no coincidence that interest in these two only began to grow around this period – they address precisely the same issues which I’ve outlined above. But Lukács had the great misfortune of being alive at the time; reconciled with the official communist movement and he had of course basically renounced much of History and Class Consciousness. Gramsci, had not yet been translated (I don’t think), and again, he had the misfortune to be placed at the service of the PCI, which even before its explicit Eurocommunism had started moving in such a direction.

So, my point about Mao is that he seemed to address some of the central problems of the time, in an innovative way. This was only reinforced by the fact that the events of the time seemed to suggest political action needed to be theorised. Because not only did the inaction of the working class need to be theorised – but also the action that had sprung up in the late 60s. So in particular, it proved quite difficult for ‘official’ Marxism to theorise les evenements of May ’68, and its response to what was a pretty huge moment was risible to say the least. This is also where the importance of the Cultural Revolution comes in. The Cultural Revolution appeared to be an actualisation of the theoretical positions outlined above. Here politics and culture were assuming the decisive role in transforming China. The emphasis on mass mobilisation obviously chimed with what was happening in ‘the West’ in a way that the experience of the Soviet Union could not.

It also strikes me that there are some other interesting threads that could be picked up (although I will decline to do so for now). Firstly, this concentration on the political (whilst maintaining that these struggles were ‘coloured’ by the principal contradiction) helped provide a way to explain struggle amongst groups not traditionally mobilised by the left (e.g. people who weren’t the manual working class). Secondly, Mao of necessity assumed a crucial role in the attempt to articulate a Marxist understanding of anti-colonialism and development. The inter-twining of the language of Marxism and decolonisation led to some very odd attempts to theorise these issues. Furthermore, most Marxists seemed (and pretty much still do) to accidentally condone mass death in the Third World – which is never a good way to make friends and influence people.

I rather look forward to seeing Splintered post on diamat.

Cross posted to my other abode (which I am determined will regain its readership!)

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6 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Σύντοφε δες εδώ: http://athens.indymedia.org/front.php3?lang=el&article_id=816012

Ένα ισχυρό ράπισμα στη νατοϊκή αριστερά. Κάνε το ξεχωριστό ποστ και μετά σβήσε με.

Έχω εξαφανιστεί από το γκομενεσέν γιατί έχει πέσει πολύ δουλειά. Θα τα λέμε με μέιλ από δω και στο εξής.

Comment by Σουηδός

The print was too small, for having to read through so much Mao.

Mao had somebody around, who took his ideas, and wrote them to sound Marxist. Actually Mao never read a book by Marx in his life.

I think the appeal was romantic, rather than anything to do with real politics, except for a few. According to the book Mao by Halliday, communist parties were paid to become Maoist.

Comment by Renegade Eye

Well, the first obvious point I’d make is that if we’re thinking of the same Halliday book (The Unknown Story) very few well-informed people actually take it seriously, and certainly it’s not a book anyone on the left should uncritically endorse. Secondly, you’ve made claims that I’ve never heard before, and so I’d like to see some evidence for them. Thirdly, it depends on what you mean by romantic. If you mean it how it is classically used (evocative of the past, then I disagree). If you mean it more in terms of ‘well they seemed like they were doing something’, well certainly that’s part of it. But the whole point is that the ‘doing something’ (1) is itself political and (2) can be seen as embodying the theoretical stuff already set out.

Sorry about the text size.

Comment by Rob

“Mao had somebody around, who took his ideas, and wrote them to sound Marxist. Actually Mao never read a book by Marx in his life.”

Yes! It is a well known fact that Francis Bacon wrote ON CONTRADICTION, shortly after he finished HAMLET and MACBETH.

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Comment by Johne305




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