The degree of confusion encountered in Mao Tse-tung’s small work, On Contradiction, is appalling. Obviously, this book was published not because Mao understood the dialectic but because he led a revolution and held state power.
This, too, is a contradiction. How can a revolution be won without a correct revolutionary program? Marxists consider theory and program to be of primary importance — our most indispensable weapon. And the different paces of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions bear this out.
The Russian Bolshevik Party attained power after a 9-month struggle, from February to October 1917. But the Chinese Revolution, which began in 1924, was led by a party dominated by Stalin, and 25 years of ferocious struggle ensued before the bourgeois Chiang Kai-shek was vanquished and China started on the road to socialism.
A terrible price in time, lives and energy was paid for Mao’s theoretical errors.
The Poverty of Mao’s Philosophy
Mao’s dialectic is just as erroneous as his politics. He makes a great to-do in On Contradiction about “external” and “internal” contradictions:
The basic cause of development in a thing is not external, but internal, and lies in internal contradictions. Everything has its internal contradictions, hence motion and development. Contradictions within a thing are the basic cause of its development, while its relationship with other things, their interconnection and interaction, is a secondary cause.
[Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1960, p. 5]
This apparently innocent statement is extremely deceptive. What is the relation between the “internal” and “external”? Is one “primary” and the other “secondary”? Life provides excellent examples to refute this erroneous contention:
1. A seed has a kernel that is contained — and counterposed — by a shell Under the impact of sun and rain, a transformation takes place — a plant develops. Sun and rain, of course, will not transform a pebble into a plant — internal qualities and external influences are equally essential to plant life.
2. Mao considers quality primary as compared to its contradiction, quantity. But quantitative change can effect qualitative change. One more unit of heat at a certain point transforms water from a liquid to a gas. The “secondary” therefore becomes “primary.”
3. Marx analyzes commodity production prior to describing circulation, which is derivative, “secondary.” But he also shows how circulation proved to be primary, how it became the historical cause of the transformation of production. Before capitalism, commodity exchange developed to such a point that the production of commodities ceased to be merely incidental to the characteristic production-for-use, and the entire productive process was transformed into capitalism — production solely for exchange.
The truth is that “primary” and “secondary” phenomenal are mutually dependent, interchangeable and unified, as well as contradictory.
Method and Madness
The contradiction between the capitalist class and the working class is irreconcilable, since it is based on the rate of exploitation (the rate of surplus value). Any change in this rate must come at the expense of either capitalist or worker, and each class has the means of compensating for a loss. The boss can increase the scale of operations, which increases his absolute profit despite a relative decline. And the unionized worker can slow down on the job, lowering the rate of exploitation by reducing the intensity of labor.
Marx’s Capital shows how this economic contradiction and inevitable struggle between the classes is the same contradiction as that between use value and exchange value encountered within the commodity. This basic contradiction, inherent within — internal to — the commodity, becomes manifest — external — in the contradiction between the world of commodities and the specific commodity, money. And that contradiction eventually develops into the class contradiction between capital and labor.
An internal contradiction is thus transformed into an external one, yet it is still an internal contradiction when viewed from the vantage point of society-as-a-whole. But Mao’s trick of converting such interdependent and fluid phenomena into rigid and isolated categories violates the foundations of dialectics.
The Dialectics of Chairman Mao
When the working class takes power in economically underdeveloped countries, it must carry out the unfinished tasks of the bourgeois revolution as well as the new tasks of the proletarian revolution. Under those difficult conditions of scarcity and economic backwardness, a bureaucracy can easily arise — an opportunist stratum of officials and administrators with ready access to prized material goods,
Like the labor bureaucracy in capitalist countries, the bureaucracy in a backward workers state has material interests of its own which are highly contradictory in nature, and this contradiction is reflected in its politics.
It is anti-capitalist and pro-socialist insofar as it rests on the working class and manages a planned economy that excludes profiteers. But at the same time, its privileges make it politically conservative; bureaucrats desire, above all, accommodation with the capitalist world so they can maintain the status quo and consolidate their privileges.
And their conservatism is expressed on all levels of national and international policy.
The contradictions of the bureaucratic caste in a workers state must be understood in order to grasp the meaning of the wide swings in policy that emanated first from Stalin’s regime, and later, in modified form, from Mao.
For Mao wanted only to end the imperialist threat against China; he had no intention of transforming U.S. capitalism. So he urged struggle against imperialism — the “primary” contradiction — but not against “secondary” capitalism. And to justify this opportunism, he perverted dialectics, twisting and turning it to serve his own contradictory political ends.