Monday, May 4, 2009

The Philosophy of Mao Zedong

by Alan S. Cajes

Whom Do I Serve?

In the philosophy of Mao Zedong, one is always confronted with the decision: to serve the people or one's own interests. This line of thinking brings one to the realm of moral philosophy. Indeed, the ethics of Maoism involves the question: Whom do I serve? And Mao's ethics is one of love and struggle.

Love because it is love for the people which is integral to Mao's vision. In China, love is closely connected with the term unity for when combined with the decision to serve the people, love takes a dynamic position. Struggle because society is marked by continual class struggle, which is reflected in each individual's thought. It is struggle that moves toward the final goal of love and unity -- the classless society.

It is from the perspective of the ethics of struggle that issues like justice, reconciliation, equal rights, social harmony, and personal happiness are seen in terms of the exploitative or the non-exploitative use of power. Power has political, economic, and social dimensions. The issue of reconciliation, for example, also raises the question of power since if one class has superior wealth and influence than another to seek reconciliation is far from possible. The hope of building genuine unity among classes hinges on the fairly equal possession of power and dignity among members of the different classes.

Struggle brings out one's concern for the promotion of the well-being of people. It is seen as a necessary tool to advance the vision of a new society -- one that liberates the people from the bondage of terminal misery and dire want due to exploitation.

Mao's concern for the welfare of the people is central in his ethics of love and struggle. Of all things in the world, he said, people are the most precious. No wonder in one of his earliest writings, he stated: "Who are our enemies? Who are our friends? This is a question of the first importance for the revolution."
Mao thought in terms of enemies as an expression of his concern for his people who are victims of oppression. Hence, it may be said that his philosophy of struggle grew out of the conditions of suffering and revolution in China and out of his understanding of Marxism. Mao himself said that the people alone are the motive force in the making of world history.

Action-Oriented Philosophy

Mao's long experience in developing strategies, military tactics, and social restructuring has hatched a philosophy geared towards political concerns. This is the reason why he said that studying Marxism is not just to know a set of dogmas. It is to master the art of revolution. Said he: “If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must eat the pier; if you want to know the meaning of revolution, you must take part in revolution.

Contradiction Theory

The theory of contradiction, which has roots in Marxism and Chinese tradition, is central to the philosophy of Mao. For him struggle characterizes all natural and social phenomena. And contradiction simply means the struggle of opposing forces within an entity.

Mao believes that gradual or quantitative change permeates even in things that appear in the state of harmony of equilibrium. When unity of harmony is destroyed, the thing can be said to be in a state of rapid qualitative change. For unity, harmony and equilibrium are not absolute but relative and temporary. Only struggle of opposites in a given thing is absolute. As Mao declared:

"Such unity, solidarity, combination, harmony, balance, stalemate, deadlock, rest, constancy, equilibrium, solidarity, attraction etc., as we see in daily life, are all appearances of things in the state of quantitative change. On the other hand, the dissolution of unity, that is the destruction of this solidarity, combination, harmony, balance, stalemate, deadlock, rest, constancy, equilibrium, solidarity and attraction, and the change of each into its opposite are all the appearances of things in the state of qualitative change, the transformation of the process into another.”

"Things are constantly transforming themselves from the first into the second state of motion; the struggle of opposite goes on in both states but the contradiction is resolved in the second state. That is why we say that the unity of opposites is conditional, temporary and relative, while the struggle of mutually expressive opposites is absolute... The struggle between opposites permeates a process from beginning to end and makes one process transforms itself into another, that is ubiquitous, and that struggle is, therefore, conditional and absolute."

A chair, for example, may look unchanging, although the fact is that it is aging or decaying. Quantitative change is said to be taking place. If that chair is burned, a rapid, qualitative change would take place. Now, in both condition, change exists and this is what Mao sees as the struggle of opposites within the thing.
This concept of struggle and contradiction applies to the whole universe, to every being, and most specifically in human life. In the philosophy of Mao, all societies are characterized by struggle and contradiction and each person's thought is in a state of permanent struggle. Mao explained:

"The Law of contradiction in things, that is, the law of the unity of opposites, is the fundamental law of nature and of society and therefore also the fundamental law of thought. It stands opposed to the metaphysical world outlook. It represents a great revolution in the history of human knowledge. According to dialectical materialism, contradiction is present is present in all processes of objectively existing things and of subjective thought and permeates all those processes from beginning to end; this os the universality and absoluteness of contradiction. Each contradiction and each of its aspects have their respective characteristics; this is the particularity and relativity of contradiction. In given conditions, opposites possess identity, and consequently can co-exist in a single entity and can transform themselves into each other; this again is the particularity and relativity of contradiction. But the struggle of opposites is ceaseless, it goes on both when the opposites are co-existing and when they are transforming themselves into each other, and becomes especially conspicuous when they are transforming themselves into one another; this again is the universality and absoluteness of contradiction."

Mao, however, makes a distinction between two different types of social contradiction. One is the struggle between people and enemy. Mao calls this as antagonistic contradictions. This kind of contradiction can be resolved normally only through harsh, violent and revolutionary action; although, antagonism may simmer in a society for a long time before revolution breaks out. This is compared to a bomb, which is a single entity until a new element is added, ignition. Then an explosion, a qualitative change, takes place.

The other type of contradiction is the non-antagonistic contradictions among the people. Specifically, these are the possible conflicts of interest between and among workers and peasants or intellectuals and workers.
Mao likewise recognized the tension existing between individual and social needs, between leaders and led, between the government and the governed. These contradictions do not require violent revolutionary action in order to be resolved. They can be settled peacefully through democratic methods of discussion, criticism, persuasion and education.

It should be noted, however, that under certain circumstances, non-antagonistic contradictions may become antagonistic. Mao said:

"Contradiction and struggle are universal and absolute, but the methods of resolving contradictions, that is the forms of struggle,, differ according to differences in the nature of contradictions. Some contradictions are characterized by open antagonism, others are not. In accordance with the concrete development of things, some contradictions which were originally non-antagonistic develop into antagonistic ones, while other which were originally antagonistic develop into non-antagonistic ones."

Thus, if conflicts between and among people are not handled properly and resolved in due course, a situation can develop, in which violence would become necessary. Mao's theory of contradiction, then, gives a clear and definite place to violent struggle and also puts limit on it.

Theory of Justice

In the physical world, the development and resolution of contradictions is an impersonal and neutral process. In the human realm, however, the process moves in historical dimensions. In this context, human struggle can be said to be a question of ethics, of the moral choices people make. Hence, the issue of justice arises: the issue of right and wrong, and the stand which persons take in relation to it.

In the philosophy of Mao, the theory of justice is not systematic but implied. Mao’s writing exhibits a passion for justice.

Justice is always seen to be on the side of the masses. Thus, Mao's problem was how to bring about a society in which the suffering and oppressed people, the people in the grassroots can attain full access to power, dignity and the resources of society.

The term masses is more inclusive than the Marxist term proletariat. It means all those who are oppressed by an exploitative system. Mao, at one point, defined that masses as all those "who are oppressed, injured or fettered by imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism namely workers, peasants, soldiers, intellectuals, businessmen and other patriots". He further said that the "masses are the real heroes, while we ourselves are often childish and ignorant; without this understanding, it is impossible to acquire even the most rudimentary knowledge." The mass line is based on the belief that the common people have the wisdom and the ability. Thus, intellectuals, artists, and the government officials must develop a spirit of identifying with the masses. They have to overcome the traditional idea that one studies and labors just to gain a position of personal privilege. Rather, they should serve, rely on, and identify with the masses.

A concern for justice is the meaning of the continuing process of contradiction in the human realm.

Vision of Human Destiny

For Mao, the goal of struggle is his vision of human destiny. This can be seen in his writings, particularly in his poetry. When he was a young and lonely revolutionary in the 1920s, he wrote the following lines:

"Alone in the autumn cold
I scan the river
that flows northward...
Bewildered by the immensity
I ask the vast grey earth
Who decides men's destinies?"

Considering the turbulence that reigned in China, he saw two prospects for the nation: a destiny of light or a destiny of darkness. He said:

"...either a China which is independent, free, democratic, united, prosperous and strong, that is, a China full of light, a new China whose people have won liberation, or a China which is semi-colonial, semi-feudal, divided, poor and weak, that's old China...We must strive with all our might for a bright future, a destiny of light, and against a dark future, a destiny of darkness."

Human action and struggle are important in Mao's vision of human destiny. They are required if there is to be any movement toward the realization of this vision. Here Mao can be considered a humanist for giving primary place to the human factor. Mao said:

"Whatever is to be done is to be done by human beings; ideas and action represent the dynamic role peculiar to human beings. Human consciousness and dynamic participation is a characteristic which distinguishes the human from all other beings."

Mao believes that it is possible to attain or achieve a society which is devoid of strife by human effort. However, he believes that the process of resolving ever new contradictions is universal and eternal. For without contradiction and struggle, life, itself would cease.

When the cultural revolution in China emerged successful, Mao saw the state of China as a time of socialism, in which the distinctions based on privilege are gradually eliminated. It will be followed by the classless society of communism. Nevertheless, contradiction and revolution will continue forever and universally. For even in the communist classless society there will be stages of development, and the leap from one stage to the next will be a revolution achieved through struggle. There will never be a time when conflict is eliminated since revolution is permanent. This also explains the apparent inconsistency of Mao's philosophy, one which could be considered as a paradox. It also represents two sides of his thought which are in paradoxical relationship to each other: one, there is movement towards the goal of a society of peace and justice; two, there is the understanding that contradiction and struggle are eternal.

The concept of permanent revolution keeps the vision of classless society from being used to support the theory of reconciliation. Indeed, the starting point for Mao's ethics is contradiction and struggle. And to understand his ethics and the meaning of struggle, one should consider Mao's concern for justice and his vision of human destiny. The concepts of justice and destiny are distorted if they are used to support a theory of reconciliation without struggle.

Note: Quotations are taken from Whitehead, Raymond L., Love and Struggle in Mao's Thought, New York: Orbis Books, 1977

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