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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.


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Mao begins On Contradiction with a brief introduction summarizing two basic modes of thought. The metaphysical mode suggests that causes of events are external, including such factors as climate and geography. The method of dialectical materialism, to which the author subscribes, contends that basic causes are internal, central to the very nature of a situation or a physical entity. Dialectical materialism was founded by Hegel and was further codified and specifically related to class struggles by Marx.

At the basic level, all developments are determined by the contradictions inherent in a situation and the resolution of these contradictions. Mao states that such contradictions are universal and underlie all modes of thought. Thus, mathematics is based upon the contradiction between positive and negative quantities, electricity on positive and negative charges, and physics on action and reaction. Most pertinent to the present discussion, the struggle to achieve a communist state is based on the contradiction between labor, which produces goods and services, and the capitalist class, which owns and controls the means of production.

Change depends on particular contradictions. Every change in motion of matter is thus determined: Mechanical energy, heat, light, sound, and so on, determine the changes in the matter they affect. Essentially, this is a scientific statement, maintaining that changes in matter are determined by differences in various forms of energy.

In social development, the particular contradictions involve conflicts between groups of people. The contradiction between the rulers of a feudal society and the peasants who do the real work of that society leads to social conflict and democratic revolution. The later conflict between the capitalist rulers and the workers similarly leads to communist revolution.

It is essential at this stage to acknowledge that development of thought moves in two seemingly contradictory directions. Specific types of contradictions lead to general principles, and then, in turn, consideration of these principles allows the philosopher to make statements and predictions regarding future developments in other particular circumstances.

Changing Circumstances

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Mao warned of the danger of accepting a general principle as universal and creating a stereotype that is used in an attempt to solve all problems. Particular problems may require different solutions. In China, he said, the situation had changed since the 1911 revolution that overcame the old feudal system. In 1911, the struggle was between the masses of Chinese people and the small ruling class, and the result was a democratic revolution. Afterward, the new rulers, led by Sun Yat-sen and the Guomindang, themselves became reactionary and, by the time Mao delivered his speech, needed to be opposed by the Communists. It is absolutely necessary to understand the opposing point of view, or a one-sided, stereotyped solution will lead to inevitable failure, Mao cautioned.

In 1937, Mao said, the most basic contradiction, or conflict, was with the imperialist designs of Japan. During this struggle, the Communists were allied with the Guomindang, but this alliance was to be recognized as temporary. Eventually, when the struggle with Japan was resolved, the Communist Party had to oppose the Guomindang itself and would ultimately triumph over that party. However, the most basic contradiction in society, Mao said, is the conflict between the social character of production and the private ownership of the means of production.

At any particular stage in development, there is a basic contradiction that underlies all others, and this basic contradiction changes over time. Thus, capitalists were originally an underclass opposed to the feudal rulers, and the bourgeoisie was a revolutionary class. As capitalism gained ascendancy and displaced the feudal aristocracy, the situation was drastically changed, and the capitalists in turn became the rulers. Eventually, the workers, in turn, must displace the capitalists and become the rulers themselves.

At every stage, it is necessary to determine the most basic contradiction involved, in order to provide resolution of that contradiction. If only superficial contradictions are recognized, the problems will not be resolved in any permanent way, and the ultimate result will be more contradictions and more conflicts. Only when the central problem is identified can it be truly resolved.

Every aspect of a current reality contains the seeds of its contradiction. Death cannot exist without life, nor above without below, fortune without misfortune. War contains the seeds of peace, and peace leads inevitably to war. It is interesting in this connection that Mao was certain that the condition of relative world peace that existed in 1937 was likely to lead to a second world war, which indeed came to pass shortly thereafter.

There is, therefore, a basic unity of contradictions, and any aspect of a situation may change into its opposite. The ruled become the rulers, the oppressed become the oppressors. The Guomindang, originally a positive force for democracy, became a reactionary ruling class. According to Mao, the Communist revolution, if it were to succeed over the long term, would have to contain the seeds of its own disintegration. The rule of the Communist Party would itself lead to the destruction of all political parties, and true rule by the people in general.

The Seeds of Contradiction

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There are many forms of contradiction, some of which are far from obvious. It is only when contradiction becomes antagonism that true changes occur. Mao uses an example from physics here. Before a bomb explodes, it appears to be a single entity. It is only upon detonation that the conflicting substances within the bomb reveal their contradiction, and the conflict is resolved.

Similarly, societal conflicts may remain in apparent stasis for long periods of time, and only when contradiction becomes antagonism can these conflicts be resolved. For this reason, violent revolution is necessary for long-term social changes to occur. In the Soviet Union, the October Revolution of 1917 was necessary to effect the destruction of the czarist regime. Afterward, philosophical conflicts between those led by Lenin and Stalin and those led by Leon Trotsky and Nikolay Ivanovich Bukharin had to reach ignition point before the struggle could become clear and the contradictions resolved.

It is only when capitalism leads to imperialism that ignition is reached and true socialist revolution can occur, a fact that Mao noted as most germane to China’s conflict with Japan and with capitalist society in general. The war against Japan, while temporarily resulting in peace among Chinese political factions, would inevitably make class conflicts obvious. Then and only then would the Communist revolution succeed, Mao said.

The Japanese imperialist invasion was, indeed, a major step toward the outbreak of World War II. In ways that Mao did not predict directly, unusual alliances were formed during that war, including an alliance between the capitalist societies of Western Europe and the United States and the Communist government of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, very much as Mao foresaw, the defeat of the imperialist powers of fascism did lead almost instantly to a resurgence in the conflicts between capitalism and communism as well as to the Cold War that immediately followed World War II.

In China, the Communists were triumphant, and the People’s Republic of China, with Mao as its leader, was proclaimed in 1949. Again, predictably, this new regime was opposed by the capitalist powers, especially the United States, which for decades supported the regime of Chiang Kai-shek, an anti-Communist, and refused to acknowledge the rulership of Mao’s Communist Party. Predictably, once the Communists gained control of the Chinese government, there were many internal conflicts within the party, and Mao’s own point of view was eventually discarded.

The Path of Communism

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Half a century after Mao wrote On Contradiction, communism, which had become the political philosophy of the ruling class in two of the most populated nations in the world and in many smaller countries, came under attack. In the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, it eventually collapsed altogether. In China, the years preceding the end of the twentieth century saw considerable social revolt.

Ultimately, Mao’s analysis of social change was vindicated. Central to the ideas in On Contradiction and other essays of the period is the concept that all social conditions contain the seeds of their own contradictions, conflicts, and ultimate destruction by new events and conditions. Ironically, the success of communism created its own problems and its own underclasses. Communism did not, as Mao suggested, lead to the dissolution of political parties. Instead, the Communist regimes became the ruling classes, as had the feudal and capitalist classes before them, and the struggles continued. With all his criticism of dogmatists, Mao apparently did not foresee that the Communists, once they achieved real power, would become as dogmatic and intolerant as their predecessors. Finally, as Mao might have foreseen if he had carried his arguments a few steps further, communism became one more step in social development, leading to some as yet unforeseen successor system.

Since Mao’s time, the struggle between capitalism and communism has seen many changes, as well as several alliances between the two conflicting systems of thought, including the alliance against the fascists and, as the twentieth century ended, a temporary alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union against imperialist Middle Eastern powers. This conflict, when it is resolved, will lead to another series of contradictions. In the final analysis, communism is clearly no more permanent a political situation than the older forms of government it displaced.