Notes on Mao Zedong’s “On Contradiction”
Mao Zedong wrote his major essay on dialectical materialism, On Contradiction, to challenge dogmatist and subjectivist thinking inside the Chinese Communist Party. It is a companion piece to On Practice, his essay on Marxist epistemology or theory of knowledge. Its purpose is to explain the analytic tools provided by Marxism-Leninism that should be used to look at problems scientifically, looking at their inner workings and the internal contradictions that drive them so as to come to the best and most progressive resolution possible under the given circumstances and conditions. These notes will attempt to draw out the main points from this work in a concise way and draw connection to our practice as revolutionary Marxist-Leninists in the United States. All underlining in quotes from the texts is my emphasis.
Two World Outlooks: Metaphysics and Dialectics
“The metaphysical or vulgar evolutionist world outlook sees things as isolated, static and one sided. It regards all things in the universe, their forms and their species, as eternally isolated from one another and immutable. Such change as there is can only be an increase or decrease in quantity or a change of place. Moreover, the cause of such an increase or decrease or change of place is not inside things but outside them, that is, the motive force is external.” Mao goes on to say that in the opinion of people with such an outlook, “capitalist exploitation, capitalist competition, the individualist ideology of capitalist society, and so on, can all be found in ancient slave society, or even in primitive society, and will exist for ever unchanged.” This is common when we hear people say things like “Communism is a nice idea, but human nature doesn’t work that way.” “Human nature” is just such a metaphysical concept.
“As opposed to the metaphysical world outlook, the world outlook of materialist dialectics holds that in order to understand the development of a thing we should study it internally and in its relations with other things; in other words, the development of things should be seen as their internal and necessary self-movement, while each thing in its movement in interrelated with and interacts on the things around it. The fundamental cause of the development of a thing is not external but internal; it lies in the contradictoriness with the thing. This internal contradiction exists in every single thing, hence its motion and development.”
J.V. Stalin on Dialectical Materialism
Stalin, in his essay On Dialectical and Historical Materialism, enumerated four principal features of the Marxist dialectical method. It would be useful to look at them and keep them in mind.
- “Contrary to metaphysics, dialectics does not regard nature as an accidental agglomeration of things, of phenomena, unconnected with, isolated from, and independent of, each other, but as a connected and integral whole, in which things, phenomena are organically connected with, dependent on, and determined by, each other.”
- “Contrary to metaphysics, dialectics holds that nature is not a state of rest and immobility, stagnation and immutability, but a state of continuous movement and change, of continuous renewal and development, where something is always arising and developing, and something always disintegrating and dying away.”
- “Contrary to metaphysics, dialectics does not regard the process of development as a simple process of growth, where quantitative changes do not lead to qualitative changes, but as a development which passes from insignificant and imperceptible quantitative changes to open’ fundamental changes’ to qualitative changes; a development in which the qualitative changes occur not gradually, but rapidly and abruptly, taking the form of a leap from one state to another; they occur not accidentally but as the natural result of an accumulation of imperceptible and gradual quantitative changes….The dialectical method therefore holds that the process of development should be understood not as movement in a circle, not as a simple repetition of what has already occurred, but as an onward and upward movement, as a transition from an old qualitative state to a new qualitative state, as a development from the simple to the complex, from the lower to the higher.”
- “Contrary to metaphysics, dialectics holds that internal contradictions are inherent in all things and phenomena of nature, for they all have their negative and positive sides, a past and a future, something dying away and something developing; and that the struggle between these opposites, the struggle between the old and the new, between that which is dying away and that which is being born, between that which is disappearing and that which is developing, constitutes the internal content of the process of development, the internal content of the transformation of quantitative changes into qualitative changes.”
As Mao makes clear, contradiction is the most important, central element of Marxist dialectical materialism. In fact, these other categories are really aspects of contradiction, aspects of the core dialectical principle of the unity of opposites. Understanding the contradictions at work in any situation or process is the key to be able to act on the situation and make progress.
Four Fundamental Contradictions of Imperialism
“On the question of using dialectics in the study of objective phenomena, Marx and Engels, and likewise Lenin and Stalin, always enjoin people to not to be in any way subjective or arbitrary but, from the concrete conditions in the actual objective movement of these phenomena, to discover their concrete contradictions, the concrete position of each aspect of every contradiction and the concrete interrelations of the contradictions.”
“Since 2004, the international situation has continued to develop in a way that is extremely favorable for the world’s peoples to make gains. In fact, the imperialist centers have been dealt heavy setbacks. On a general level we can say that the four basic contradictions are sharpening-between imperialism and the peoples of the oppressed nations, between the imperialist powers, between the working class and the capitalists, and between socialism and capitalism-and that this intensification of the basic contradictions exists in the context of the long-term decline of U.S. imperialism.”
What this is talking about is the basic, or fundamental, contradictions of imperialism. They are also discussed in Foundations of Leninism by Stalin, which Mao says “provides us with a model for understanding the particularity and the universality of contradiction and their interconnection.”
According to Mao,
“The fundamental contradiction in the process of development of a thing and the essence of the process determined by this fundamental contradiction will not disappear until the process is completed; but in a lengthy process the conditions usually differ at each stage. The reason is that, although the nature of the fundamental contradiction in the process of development of a thing and the essence of the process remain unchanged, the fundamental contradiction becomes more and more intensified as it passes from one stage to another in the lengthy process. In addition, among the numerous major and minor contradictions which are determined or influenced by the fundamental contradiction, some become intensified, some are temporarily or partially resolved or mitigated, and some new ones emerge; hence the process is marked by stages. If people do not pay attention to the stages in the process of development of a thing, they cannot deal with its contradictions properly.”
So the fundamental contradiction is the contradiction that is basic to what something is, and will not go away until the development of that thing is complete. Mao writes about this in the singular, but he is clear elsewhere that in any “complex process” there are always more than one contadiction, and that one must be pricipal, the rest, secondary. This is different from the dualistic and basically linear dialectical system developed by the idealist philosopher, Hegel. What we have with Mao is a complex structure or matrix of interlocking contradictions.
Principal & Secondary Contradictions
It is helpful to continue in the analysis of imperialism that is put forward by the FRSO 2007 Main Political Report, which also says,
“The principal contradiction in the world today is between the peoples of the third world and imperialism. The U.S. is the preeminent imperialist power in the world today and as such it is the main danger to the world’s peoples.”
What does this mean? Mao says,
“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.”
And he goes on to say, “whatever happens, there is no doubt at all that at every stage in the development of a process, there is only one principal contradiction which plays the leading role.”
“Therefore, in studying any complex process in which there are two or more contradictions, we must devote every effort to finding its principal contradiction. Once this principal contradiction is grasped, all problems can be readily solved.”
So the sentence from the 2007 FRSO MPR that I quoted above means that the contradiction between the third world and imperialism is the contradiction that is determining all of the other contradictions and influencing them the most. This doesn’t mean that all we should do is solidarity work or anti-war and anti-intervention work. But it does mean that if we are formulating line and policy in areas like labor work then we should take this into account and study it carefully, taking into account how, for example, imperialist globalization, factors into our tasks in the labor movement. It should influence and affect our general line, our strategy and tactics, as well as our propaganda, as we try to move things forward.
Principal & Secondary Aspects of a Contradiction
“In studying the particularities of the contradictions at each stage in the process of development of a thing, we must not only observe them in their interconnections or their totality, we must also examine the two aspects of each contradiction.”
Mao basically lays out how this works as follows:
“In any contradiction the development of the contradictory aspects is uneven. Sometimes they seem to be in equilibrium, which is however only temporary and relative, while unevenness is basic. Of the two contradictory aspects, one must be principal and the other secondary. The principal aspect is the one playing the leading role in the contradiction. The nature of a thing is determined mainly by the principal aspect of a contradiction, the aspect which has gained the dominant position.
“But this situation is not static; the principal and the non-principal aspects of a contradiction transform themselves into each other and the nature of the thing changes accordingly. In a given process or at a given stage in the development of a contradiction, A is the principal aspect and B is the non-principal aspect; at another stage or in another process the roles are reversed–a change determined by the extent of the increase or decrease in the force of each aspect in its struggle against the other in the course of the development of a thing.”
“At certain times in the revolutionary struggle, the difficulties outweigh the favourable conditions and so constitute the principal aspect of the contradiction and the favourable conditions constitute the secondary aspect. But through their efforts the revolutionaries can overcome the difficulties step by step and open up a favourable new situation; thus a difficult situation yields place to a favourable one.”
Mao gives several examples how the principal or secondary aspect of a contradiction can change into its opposite under certain conditions:
“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 theory and practice, practice is 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 maker 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.”
So we see that understanding which aspect of the contradiction is principal is essential, because only if we understand this do we understand how to focus our work.
The Role of Antagonism
Mao makes a point that different contradictions should be resolved in different ways, depending on contradictions. Mao makes some points in the section on antagonism that worth some attention.
“Consider the contradiction between the exploiting and the exploited classes. Such contradictory classes coexist for a long time in the same society, be it a slave society, feudal society or capitalist society, and they struggle with each other; but it is not until the contradiction between the two classes develops to a certain stage the it assumes the form of open antagonism and develops into revolution.”
This is a very important point. It gets back to what Lenin said about conditions for revolution. You can’t have a revolution unless the ruling class can no longer rule in the old way, the oppressed and exploited classes can no longer live in the old way, and the organized forces for revolution exist. The major problem today is the lack of those organized subjective forces and the need to build a new Marxist-Leninist communist party that has the potential to lead a revolutionary struggle should the objective conditions exist.
Class struggle is taking place today. Sometimes it is very sharp while at other times it is not. It is present in the work we as Marxists do in the trade unions, in the anti-war movement, in the student movements, in the movements of oppressed nationalities and so on. But the form that the struggle takes is different depending on conditions.
There will be a much deeper discussion of this in my notes on the next article in the Five Essays, Mao’s On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People.
Revisiting On Practice
So how do we apply the categories when we are analyzing a process? In my notes to On Practice I outlined what Mao said about the dependency of theory on practice and the process of cognition.
In On Practice Mao said,
“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 On Contradiction have to be taken together. What Mao says in On Practice has to be applied to On Contradiction. We have be able to apply these categories, “fundamental contradiction”, “principal contradiction”, “principal aspect of a contradiction” and so on, in order to get to the root of any problem and resolve it in the most favorable and progressive way that conditions permit. But we can’t do this in a dogmatic or subjectivist way. There is no ready made template that we can plug our problems into. We have to apply these categories according to the scientific, dialectical materialist method that Mao puts forward in On Practice, as summed up in the quote above. If we do this then there are no problems we cannot solve.