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.
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.
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...
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The Seeds of Contradiction
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,...
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The Path of Communism
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...
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