This is the first of a series of reading notes. I intend to begin by working my way through Mao’s book, Five Essays on Philosophy. Some of this will expand upon material I’ve touched on in my article, Some Points on Stalin (and Mao). This post will include my reading notes for On Practice. The rest will be forthcoming as time goes on. I’m doing this for two reasons: (1.) To help popularize and aid in the study of Marxism-Leninism in general and in the thought of Mao Zedong in particular, and (2.) to help sharpen my own thinking and raise my own theoretical level and understanding. I should add, finally, that in this and all of the other reading notes, this reflects a work in progress in my own study, and therefore, comments and Marxist criticism is encouraged.
- On Practice
- On Contradiction
- On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People
- Speech at the Chinese Communist Party’s National Conference on Propaganda Work
- Where do Correct Ideas Come From?
Reading Notes on Mao Zedong’s “On Practice“
On Practice is Mao Zedong’s main text on Marxist epistemology, that is, on the Marxist theory of knowledge. In it he examines from a Marxist point of view the problem of how people learn, how their consciousness develops, and how correct theory is developed through practice. It was written along with On Contradiction to challenge dogmatism and subjectivism in the Chinese Communist Party and to help encourage a scientific outlook. We should look at it and study it as revolutionaries struggling to advance mass movements and popular struggles toward revolution, and with the understanding that to do this we must raise the level of consciousness and understand of the masses as we fight along side them.
Dependency of theory / knowledge on practice
Knowledge depends on social practice, that is, mainly on production and class struggle, but also on political life, scientific and artistic pursuits. “In class society everyone lives as a member of a particular class, and every kind of thinking, without exception, is stamped with the brand of a class.”
Here Mao is talking about ideology, the kind of thinking that is enforced and produced by the mode of production (be it capitalist, feudal, etc.) and which in turn helps to prop up that mode of production and help it function. A big part of our thinking is ideological, it is socialized or conditioned by the mode of production under which we live, and it makes it difficult for us to come up with clear understanding of what is really going on. Mao makes the point that through social practice and through the application of the Mass Line we can cut through this and come collectively toward higher levels of understanding and consciousness.
“Marxists hold that man’s social practice alone is the criterion of the truth of his knowledge of the external world. What actually happens is that man’s knowledge is verified only when he achieves the anticipated results in the process of social practice (material production, class struggle, or scientific experiment). If a man wants to succeed in his work, that is, to achieve the anticipated results, he must bring his ideas into correspondence with the laws of the objective external world; if they do not correspond, he will fail in his practice. After he fails, he draws his lessons, corrects his ideas to make the correspond to the laws of the external world, and can thus turn failure into success.”
Think about this in relation to the Marxist-Leninist practices of summing up experiences and criticism and self-criticism. How do we get rid of incorrect ideas and form correct ideas or theories?
Process of the development of knowledge – Two stages of cognition
- Perceptual stage of cognition – the stage of sense perception and impressions. “particular things…act on the sense organs…, evoke sense perceptions and give rise… to many impressions together with a rough sketch of the external relations among these impressions.” This means contact with the external world, participation, activity, struggle.
- Rational stage of cognition – “As social practice continues, things that give rise to man’s sense perceptions and impressions in the course of his practice are repeated many times; then a sudden change (leap) takes place in the brain in the process of cognition, and concepts are formed.” Concepts “grasp the essence, the totality and the internal relations of things. Between concepts and sense perception, there is not only a quantitative but a qualitative difference. Proceeding further, by means of judgment and inference one is able to draw logical conclusions.” This means to synthesize data of perception by arranging and reconstructing them.
The errors of “Rationalism” and “Empiricism”
Mao explains that there are two historic tendencies in philosophy prior to Marxism that got this question at least partially wrong.
- “Rationalists” downplay the importance of experience, of perception. They believe the reason alone can solve all problems, and that practical experience is unnecessary. They are idealists who wish to skip over the perceptual stage of cognition, leaving them with “knowledge” that is “subjective, self-engendered, and unreliable.” Many people we encounter in our mass work often think like this.
- “Empiricists” stop at the perceptual stage of cognition, endlessly collect data and information without moving to the conceptual stage of cognition. “They are merely one-sided and superficial, reflecting things incompletely and not reflecting their essence.” Bourgeois political science and sociology is often guilty of this.
“Rational knowledge depends upon perceptual knowledge and perceptual knowledge remains to be developed into rational knowledge – this is the dialectical-materialist theory of knowledge. In philosophy, neither ‘rationalism’ nor ‘empiricism’ understands the historical or the dialectical nature of knowledge.”
On the theory and practice of changing the world
We study theory in order to apply it, and Marxist-Leninists understand that knowledge is not for its own sake. Furthermore, once the rational stage of cognition is reached and we make some analysis of some problem or situation, it is essential to test our analysis in practice and begin the process again.
“If the dialectical-materialist theory of knowledge were to stop at rational knowledge, only half of the problem would be dealt with. And as far as Marxist philosophy is concerned, only the less important half. Marxist philosophy holds that the most important problem does not lie in understanding the laws of the objective world and thus being able to explain it, but in applying the knowledge of those laws actively to change the world. From the Marxist viewpoint, theory is important, and its importance is fully explained in Lenin’s statement, ‘Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.’ But Marxism emphasizes the importance of theory precisely because it is a guide to action… Knowledge begins with practice, and theoretical knowledge which is acquired through practice must then return to practice. The active function of knowledge manifests itself not only in the active leap from perceptual knowledge to rational knowledge, but – and this is more important – it must manifest itself in the leap from rational knowledge to revolutionary practice.”
“Discover the truth through practice, and again through practice verify and develop the truth. Start from perceptual knowledge and actively develop it into rational knowledge and actively guide revolutionary practice to change both the subjective and objective world. Practice, knowledge, again practice, and again knowledge. This form repeats itself in endless cycles, and with each cycle the content of practice and knowledge rises to a higher level. Such is the whole of the dialectical-materialist theory of the unity of knowing and doing.”
On Practice and the Mass Line
The Marxist-Leninist theory and practice of the Mass Line which Mao Zedong developed and explained, is based on the Marxist theory of knowledge, or Marxist epistemology. Point four of Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership, which is Mao’s main text on the Mass Line, he writes:
“In all the practical work of our Party, all correct leadership is necessarily ‘from the masses, to the masses’. This means: take the ideas of the masses (scattered and unsystematic ideas) and concentrate them (through study turn them into concentrated and systematic ideas), then go to the masses and propagate and explain these ideas until the masses embrace them as their own, hold fast to them and translate them into action. Then once again concentrate ideas from the masses and once again go to the masses so that the ideas are persevered in a carried through. And so on, over and over again in and endless spiral, with the ideas becoming more correct, more vital and rich each time. Such is the Marxist theory of knowledge.”