Claudia Pozzana | Politics and philosophy in Mao

By Claudia Pozzana

Of the five lecture topics on Mao Alessandro Russo and I shall present two are philosophical, two political and one both philosophical and political. Politics and philosophy are always linked in Mao. There’s always a trespassing towards philosophy. While trespassing carries a specific weight, some writings are more philosophical and others more political. In either case, all the of our topics belong to two periods in Mao’s intellectual trajectory, two eras that also differ as to the interrelatedness of politics and philosophy.

To the first period belong the 1937 “On Contradiction” (and its parallel “On Practice”). It systematically sets forth the relationship between politics and philosophy and even develops original philosophical concepts. Althusser was the first to recognize the originality of the essay’s thought. He underscored the philosophical novelty of concepts like the interrelation of primary contradiction and secondary contradictions and between the primary and secondary aspects of contradiction. What particularly aroused the French philosopher’s admiration was the idea that every process unfolds unevenly, erratically, a view that for him captured the essential element of the dialectics developed, but never completely theorized, by the great Marxist revolutionary leaders. Althusser acknowledged Mao’s prodigious theoretical enterprise vis-à-vis the Marxist dialectical tradition. If, as Deleuze said, the distinctive feature of a philosopher is the capacity to develop original concepts, Mao was such a philosopher for Althusser because of the conceptual novelties he had formulated.

It would, in effect, be logical to include a third essay in the sequence. The three are philosophical but also clearly held political value for Mao as they established a specific relationship between politics and philosophy. It is a relationship that, in fact, changes over time. It is clearly articulated in “On Contradiction,” becomes systematic in the 1957 “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People,” and is less fully developed in the last, a “Talk On Questions of Philosophy,” which dates to 1964. The philosophical development in all three is articulated around a specific political conjuncture or, better, a series of political inventions Mao intended to argue even on the plane of philosophy. For his part, Mao used to say that philosophy must “…get out of the classrooms and libraries so as to become a weapon in the hands of the masses.” The proper aim of philosophical concepts was to demonstrate more clearly, upon a higher plateau of abstraction, the value of the organizing inventions Mao himself was advocating.

The 1937 document is clearly linked to the People’s War. It mirror’s that situation since it encompasses invention as both military strategy (fully acknowledged even today since it is still studied in U.S. military academies) and as politics in that the War then dragging on was an original fulcrum for organizing the active participation of the peasants in a mass revolutionary movement. The text is both systematic philosophical thought and a direct link to revolutionary politics.

In the 1964 “Talk on Questions of Philosophy,” it is not only the political pertinence of philosophical concepts that becomes more problematic. The philosophical argumentation itself remains incomplete and aporetic, as Althusser duly pointed out. Support for this problematical view is that Mao himself never manages to write a philosophical work in the 1960s despite continually pondering philosophical topics.

The 1957 document is, from that vantage point, a complicated watershed in regard to both politics per se and the relationship between politics and philosophy. The situation had markedly changed. The People’s War had been over for nearly a decade, but by the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956 it was no longer possible to think of socialism as the realization of a definitive triumph. For Mao, indeed, Kruschev’s secret report dictated a fundamental reappraisal of the very nature of socialism, of the dictatorship of the proletariat and of the role of the party in the new form of state.

“On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People” returns to and develops a concept already in embryonic form in the final pages of “On Contradiction” ─ the difference between antagonism and non-antagonism. Mao noted that for Lenin ‘antagonism’ and ‘contradiction’ are not the same thing. In socialism the former disappears and the latter remains. Antagonism, Mao concluded, is merely one form of the division of opposites and, hence, the term cannot obtain without making allowance for contradictions.

This argument, a kind of corollary end-point to “On Contradiction,” becomes a more systematically developed thesis, as well as supporting a decidedly political argumentation, in the 1957 essay. There are fundamental tasks for revolutionary communist politics, Mao argued, that go beyond class antagonism. They involve the solution to the infinitude of ‘contradictions among the people,’ which are first and foremost boundlessly multiple and unresolvable by applying the criterion of antagonism. In Mao’s view, it was essential not to turn these ‘contradictions among the people’ into contradictions “…between the enemy and us.” The ideal would be to handle antagonistic contradictions as non-antagonistic.

Put another way, there are essential political tasks for which class antagonism is not the basic criterion. As advocated in the 1937 essay, systematic philosophical argumentation is directly pertinent to political strategy, or, better, to an innovation of the political theory of revolutionary communism itself. It is the essay where politics and philosophy are most structurally balanced. Just as there are contradictions both antagonistic and non- in philosophy, so too are there contradictions of class and among the people in politics.

Yet this essay also marked a divide by opening the door to an arduous, trackless path. To begin with, it remained to be determined what precisely constitutes the relationship between antagonism and non-antagonism in politics, between contradictions among the people and contradictions with the enemy. Mao indicated a path that he would attempt to negotiate, however tentatively. By the early Nineteen-sixties it would acquire a distinctly more ‘classist’ sign-posting, as in Mao’s imperative “never forget class struggle”. It was a notably symptomatic second-thinking for Mao. ‘Class struggle’ had regained its stature at the very core of revolutionary culture. How, then, was one to think politically of non-antagonistic contradictions?

On the other hand, the conceptual framework within which communist politics was to be thought through had been shaken to its foundations by the first crisis of the Soviet State that occurred at the CPSU’s 20th Congress. Not only was the form of the state called into question; so too were the entire conceptual structure of its political insights and the political ideas informing them. It was the very essence of what we might call the revolutionary episteme that came to be undermined. It is in this context that the problematic, hesitant character of both philosophical argumentation and the relationship of philosophy and politics is to be understood in the 1964 Talk vis-à-vis the systematic thought characteristic of the 1937 and the 1957 essays.

Put briefly, Mao’s philosophical impasse is the symptom of a political impasse. When he tried to formulate a philosophical view that had maximum political pertinence in 1964, Mao’s main argument was ‘one is to be divided in two.’ Significantly, he did not develop this thesis in an essay. It remained a kind of aphorism, something quasi-proverbial, a sage’s witticism, say, whose philosophical import remained in limbo. Albeit with utmost respect for the revolutionary leader, Althusser objected to it. He noted that if you put One at the head of such a path, you do not really get a ‘division in two.’ Indeed, however many divisions you operate, you always return to the One you started with, in all its glory.

Mao could not, of course, know about the French philosopher’s objection. The fact was that no matter how strenuously he might have defended the thesis, he nevertheless failed to articulate the argument. Mao also criticized Yang Xianzhen, philosopher in his own right and China’s leading academic scholar of Hegel, who argued that “one is to be divided in two” is comparable to “the two reunite in the one.” While this may seem merely formalistic, the polemical stance is symptomatic of the impasse and, on second glance, Yang is not really far off the mark.

The impasse that emerged in the exchange at one remove with Althusser and the polemic closer to home with Yang was not without consequences. In effect, for Mao as for Althusser, the unresolved problem was the place of One. Yet perhaps there may be a root in this aporia and, though not immediately evident, can be found in the philosophical thought of Alain Badiou. Althusser and Mao are, in fact, two of his great maîtres à penser. If you place One at the beginning of every process, it is to One that you cannot but return. The path to follow is then a multiple without One. Two is thus not the division of One but the sign of multiplicity’s multiplicity that is proper to every ontological situation. The vast philosophical system Badiou calls the “Platonism of the multiple” probably received a decisive thrust from the need to find a way out of the aporia which appeared in the great political experiment in dialectics that took place in the Sixties.