In 1937, when On Contradiction was first delivered as a speech, the Chinese Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong, in response to an attack by Japan, had temporarily allied with the Guomindang, the revolutionary party led by Sun Yat-sen, which had overthrown the leaders of the Ching Dynasty in 1911. The speech was an attempt to explain both the current struggle and the upcoming development of the Communists in historical terms. Mao drew on the writings of Vladimir Ilich Lenin and Joseph Stalin, leaders of the Soviet Union, then the only nation in the world led by a Communist government. There are also considerable references to the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, nineteenth century German philosophers who initiated the ideas of communism, and through them, to the earlier works of German philosophers Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
Kant wrote of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Every philosophical situation can be seen as a conflict between two opposing points of view and the resolution between them, which leads to synthesis, a new system of thought. Marx used this system to discuss the proletariat, or working class, and the capitalist ruling class, and posited as their synthesis a new ruling class composed of the workers themselves. Mao draws on both these sources in two ways. The thesis-antithesis system is generalized as a series of societal contradictions and then particularized into the revolutionary struggle between communism and capitalism, in China and elsewhere.