Reviews, Theory

Theory Review: Mao’s “On Contradiction”

After getting asked some questions about Mao, and openly saying things I knew zero about, I was led to read Mao’s work On Contradiction after being challenged to 1) substantiate my claims, and 2) find out if an anon was not bs’ing me when he said Mao’s rejection of the negation of negation is not un-Hegelian. It is primarily for the second reason that I bothered reading this, since I was highly skeptical, and it is from the standpoint of this question that I judge Mao here.

This is not meant as a ‘critique’ of Maoism in the sense of challenging the theoretical whole, or even of this particular theory of contradiction as a theory, or as an internal critique of its own coherence. This is an external critique which Maoists themselves can easily shrug off as inconsequential since they can just say the obvious: their theory of dialectics is not intended to be Hegelian-Marxist. Nonetheless, because I read this with the intent to compare it against Marx’s Hegelian dialectics I shall judge this not against its own internal coherency, but against the method we find in Capital and the Science of Logic.

So, is Mao actually dialectical in Hegel’s (and Marx’s sense) or is he not?

Audio of my reading Part 1 and Part 2. Text used is here.

The straight answer, from what I managed to read from On Contradiction, is no, Mao does not understand dialectics in the Marxist or Hegelian sense. It’s also ironic that for someone with an obsession against metaphysics, his entire essay is virtually a sad and ugly metaphysical dress on something quite ordinary. Mao constantly appeals to matter in motion and its contradictions, but it should be telling to readers that the concrete examples are not about physics, rather, they are about human affairs in a human context and with human subjects thinking and acting in situations.

First, for all Mao writes here, he says very little. He repeats and repeats claims, but does not truly explain. For all the talk of dialectical contradiction, dialectical development, and unity of opposites, Mao not once gives an explanation as to why this is the case. Other than the dogmatic claim that all is essentially contradictory, that all is resultant from more and more complex contradictions of matter in motion, and that all is to be grasped in its contradiction for proper theory and practice, Mao never explains the necessity of contradiction as an element that needs to be philosophically and theoretically accounted for. It is assumed as obvious, and that’s it. This is an issue I have even with Marx himself, who failed to ever explain what dialectics really are and why the method of Capital has any value for knowledge and action. It is only in Hegel that we find the explanation of the method and its necessity, but even in Hegel there is a cautious silence in proclaiming this method as useful for anything of practical science and life—perhaps because he had enough insight to realize there was no use for such a method in mundane activities and practical problem solving.

Dialectics as a description and dialectics as a method are two different things, and one is much easier than another. Mao describes and even provides a method, but this is not the method of Marx or Hegel.

Contradiction As Conflict

Mao’s comprehension of contradiction is not Marxist or Hegelian at all. Whereas for Marx/Hegel dialectics was the structural necessary and unified contradiction of things, for Mao this is not the case except for the lip service he pays to ‘essential’ contradictions. For Mao contradiction is every mundane and contingent opposition of things, such that he can speak of workers and peasants in contradiction in one turn, capitalists and feudal lords in another, and national capital against imperial capital in yet another just as much as he can speak of the workers against the bourgeoisie and capital against labor.

For instance, in the course of China’s bourgeois-democratic revolution, where the conditions are exceedingly complex, there exist the contradiction between all the oppressed classes in Chinese society and imperialism, the contradiction between the great masses of the people and feudalism, the contradiction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the contradiction between the peasantry and the urban petty bourgeoisie on the one hand and the bourgeoisie on the other, the contradiction between the various reactionary ruling groups, and so on. . . . When we speak of understanding each aspect of a contradiction, we mean understanding what specific position each aspect occupies, what concrete forms it assumes in its interdependence and in its contradiction with its opposite, and what concrete methods are employed in the struggle with its opposite, when the two are both interdependent and in contradiction, and also after the interdependence breaks down. —Mao, On Contradiction, [bold emphasis mine]

Contradiction for Mao is simply conflictnot an essential opposition of absolute logical necessity. There is no essential logical opposition necessary for him to consider it a dialectical contradiction, and the bolded above is what reveals this as key to the rest of the essay. Now, there is nothing wrong with one taking interest in contingent contradictions, but these are oppositions which are not essential, they are existent by chance and natural irrational elements. Mao shows this is what he means with the following paragraph:

When Sun Wu Tzu said in discussing military science, “Know the enemy and know yourself, and you can fight a hundred battles with no danger of defeat,” he was referring to the two sides in a battle. Wei Chengi of the Tang Dynasty also understood the error of one- sidedness when he said, “Listen to both sides and you will be enlightened, heed only one side and you will be benighted.” But our comrades often look at problems one-sidedly, and so they often run into snags.

What is contradiction here? It is a conflict of two sides. How is the contradiction understood? By looking at the nature of the conflict, what each side says about it, that is, to know the full relevant context. This is this useful practical and theoretical advice, but how is this dialectical?

Dialectics As Contextualism

Mao continues:

In the novel Shui Hu Chuan, Sung Chiang thrice attacked Chu Village. Twice he was defeated because he was ignorant of the local conditions and used the wrong method. Later he changed his method; first he investigated the situation, and he familiarized himself with the maze of roads, then he broke up the alliance between the Li, Hu and Chu Villages and sent his men in disguise into the enemy camp to lie in wait, using a stratagem similar to that of the Trojan Horse in the foreign story. And on the third occasion he won. There are many examples of materialist dialectics in Shui Hu Chuan, of which the episode of the three attacks on Chu Village is one of the best. 

What is dialectical about all of this, according to Mao, is being practically aware of the full context of the problem. This is, as you can already tell from the story example, nothing special whatsoever to Marxism or Hegelianism. This is, far from being dialectical in the Marxist/Hegelian sense, a very good practical pragmatism. To go into battle without knowing the full context is foolish, and to try to resolve problems without knowing the full context is foolish, but none of this has to do with the logic of dialectics. This is actually normal analytical logic working at its best; this is common sense at its pinnacle. This is not to demean what Mao says here, not all. In fact I wish more people were pragmatic and didn’t bother with trying to apply metaphysical and weird logical analyses where they are not needed. Nonetheless, this has almost nothing to do with a philosophical theory of logic like Hegel’s, and likewise is far from Marx’s logic of dialectics as found in all his works, and especially in Capital.

While Mao’s ‘dialectics’ are simply in fact one principle of objective contextualism: the monistic principle of internal relations—of the constitutive conditions of things as part of them—Marx’s dialectics are specific to strict concepts of objects. Mao’s dialectics can also be simply understood as the principle of causality: knowing all the causal factors of your object gives you knowledge that in battle definitely allow for more control and precision to strike.

Contradiction As Exclusive

The dialectic of the commodity, for example, is precisely in that the commodity seems to be a contradiction, and yet it is perfectly comprehensible and stable as this contradiction which is just as much its conceptual as well as real movement. The very way we think the commodity as that which exchanges for another commodity is the very reality of what a commodity does—here we can openly see the movement of the contradiction unlike Mao’s simple static examples and claims.

Mao makes a typical mistake of seeing contradiction as excluding and opposed factors, whereas Marx is well aware this is not the case. The commodity’s contradiction is no excluding contradiction, it is both a use-value and exchange-value at the same moment, that is, the commodity’s use-value is its exchange-value, and vice versa. Mao says:

In war, offence and defense, advance and retreat, victory and defeat are all mutually contradictory phenomena. One cannot exist without the other. The two aspects are at once in conflict and in interdependence, and this constitutes the totality of a war, pushes its development forward and solves its problems.

This is true, but this is not something special which Marxists alone recognize. What would make these dialectical in a Hegelian sense is when they are instantiated as a seeming contradictory unity in one moment: a defensive offense, retreat which is an advance, victory which is a defeat (Pyrrhic victory). This is when these are truly dialectical phenomena, when they can seemingly baffle while not being nonsense. Rational contradiction is a key aspect of Capital’s dialectics, and rational contradiction is not contradiction as nonsense. As said above, the commodity moves because its essence is to exchange for another commodity—this is the actual contradiction of the commodity: its reality is that it is useful only for this movement of exchange.

Dialectical Movement

Mao says:

What is meant by the emergence of a new process? The old unity with its constituent opposites yields to a new unity with its constituent opposites, whereupon a new process emerges to replace the old. The old process ends and the new one begins. The new process contains new contradictions and begins its own history of the development of contradictions.

Nowhere here, nor in the essay, does he elaborate the reason why this emergence occurs necessarily. What I infer is that he’s quite at home with the notion of endless struggle and opposition of principles given Chinese culture’s dominant world outlook of dialectical monism, the given mystical unity of opposites as the law of reality which was and is still quite common—this, however, does not mean Mao was a mystic as such, only that he seems to see no need to explain the reality of contradiction because it seems obvious. Everything is contradictory in that it is always along with an opposite, but the problem is the lack of explanation of why.

Here Mao notes that in the experience of history it’s just one conflict resolved only to have another, and if we are talking about the historical empirical occurrence of conflicts, sure, he need only appeal to the empirical factors of the conflict (people, interests, etc.) to explain the rise of the new one. This is, however, not what Marx does in Capital where contradictions are logical and truly essential and holding universally and eternally for all instances of the concept. In Capital Marx’s dialectics move through logical moments and their self-transcendence in sublation, keeping the contradictory factors completely in a form in which they are longer mistaken as two contradictory things, but instead as one unified object with two aspects.

Dialectical Development

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.

Process, or development, is huge in Hegelian/Marxist dialectics. In fact, I’d say they’re the only thing people actually care about using these logics for. When you tell people about the commodity’s contradictions, and then the dialectic of value that leads to money, you can imagine their eyes glaze over as you lose them with seemingly inane analysis. Once you begin talking about the development of capital as the relation of capitalist and worker, as exploitation, as the drive for automation, and as an engine on eternal verge of crisis you’ve got them hooked.

Developmental dialectics, however, tends to change the needed mode of explanation. It becomes increasingly difficult to speak, like Mao does, of ‘internal contradiction’ explaining the development of things, because this contradiction spoken of begins to appear as a rigid abstraction with little explanation if contradiction itself remains spoken of as rigid. As said in the last section, the commodity is a perfect example of this. If you think the contradiction of a commodity is the static contradiction of use-value and exchange-value as exclusive, that alone does not make one consider a development. However, if we comprehend this dialectic correctly and grasp that a commodity’s use-value is its exchange-value, then the movement of commodity exchange occurs naturally. We correctly conceive the conceptual essence of why it must move and how it does move in reality.

The ‘contradictions’ of development are no longer just immediate contextual or temporal contradictions, but become tied to essences which are appearing in time. These essences are the reality of the total potentiality of what exists to develop as it does. Mao seems to not be too far off when he mentions the essential process determined by a fundamental contradiction, but it’s a contorted way to say what should basically be this: the essential contradiction is the genesis of a developmental process. This essential dialectic, like the commodity’s, however, is not what Mao has in mind at all if his examples are any indication.

As noted prior, Mao is considering contingent developments and not truly essential ones in the purely logical sense. This is, again, not to dismiss what Mao is doing here. Mao is not wrong to call these essential in the normal sense, but these are—if I may be a bit obtuse—not essential essences such as the logical essence of a thing purely as itself and not as it is under the influence of external factors—a chicken’s essence as chicken does not change anywhere, though a chicken may be and act in different ways based on its contexts externally modifying this essential essence. We may say a chicken is essentially tame because it has been around humans since being a chick, etc.

When Mao speaks of the ‘essence’ of things here he’s talking about the ‘fundamental’ reason for an event in history, a history which is mixed with aspects of what it necessarily must be like as well as just arbitrary contingent ways it just happens to be. The essence of a war, for example, is the fundamental reason for why it occurs—for Marxists this is always a class’s reason based on need to control. The essential reason for WWI is for Marxists imperialist capitalism. The essential reason for WWII was yet again, the catastrophic collapse of capitalism and the attempt to save it through fascism etc. The essential reason for the communist revolutions was a failure of capital and a miserable unbearable condition of the people, a process which develops through various stages (as does war) until all the ‘contradictions’ (problems) have been dissolved by getting rid of the source, or managed by properly structuring the conflict so that it is not a conflict anymore even if the base that generated it still remains.

The process of development of a war, for example, is not a pure concept. A lot of factors come into why a war has developed a certain way, much of it unknown until much later after the war is over. Mao’s thinking here is good, it is exactly what proper conceptual unification is about, however, these are contingent arbitrary concepts and not necessary in the world according to any historical laws. Contingent events just happen to happen for ultimately irrational reasons, conflicts sometimes have no reason to them other than psychological whim. Ultimately, the problem with trying to conceptualize the purely empirical is that there is no clear ultimate reason (concept) which explains everything about such an event from the event itself no matter what we claim. 

The problem with Mao’s essences is that because of their contingent content they are exactly the opposite of what he thinks: they’re not essential nor objective. What is essential to Marxists is not essential to Freudians, and is not essential to social Darwinists, nor to physicists. In cases of contingency there is a loss of objectivity if one does not have a pure concept precisely in that the empirical factors themselves do not speak of what factor is the essential factor—if there even is one. One can focus on psychological factors such as that Hitler had ‘little man syndrome’ or that he scapegoated the Jews out of self-hatred for not being a pure Aryan himself, or one can go and claim Hitler and his group did as they did because of their genetically determined character and politics, or perhaps one can blame gravitational waves from a far away galaxy as being the historical decisive cause that move the right particles in his brain and led to his first thought of hatred toward the Jews… etc. When we do not have the logical concept as the focus, the essential factor is just subjective whim. Marxists may be right, it’s all a result of capitalism… or perhaps sometimes individuals are really driven by psychological irrational reasons, or even more likely: it’s many factors.

Particular & Universal Contradiction

Mao says:

The universality or absoluteness of contradiction has a twofold meaning. One is that contradiction exists in the process of development of all things, and the other is that in the process of development of each thing a movement of opposites exists from beginning to end. . . . Contradiction is present in the process of development of all things; it permeates the process of development of each thing from beginning to end. This is the universality and absoluteness of contradiction which we have discussed above.

For Mao the universality of contradiction is not the Marxist sublating universal which contains the contradiction (the commodity is such), it is merely the formal analytical recognition of the law of contradiction which posits all things are contradictory somehow. What of particularity?

It can thus be seen that in studying the particularity of any kind of contradiction–the contradiction in each form of motion of matter, the contradiction in each of its processes of development, the two aspects of the contradiction in each process, the contradiction at each stage of a process, and the two aspects of the contradiction at each stage–in studying the particularity of all these contradictions, we must not be subjective and arbitrary but must analyse it concretely. Without concrete analysis there can be no knowledge of the particularity of any contradiction.

Particularity is simply the empirical conflict of things. To know that things are contradictory is obviously not enough, we must know what and how things are contradictory. Once again, this is nothing but Mao’s good, but formal, method of contextualism.


I only read to the end of section three of the essay because I had enough of Mao’s mostly empty rhetoric which said very little with a lot of words. It also is clear that Mao is saying something sensible, intelligent, but alas, quite common in human thinking. Imperialist generals think like thishave thought this waylong before Marxists called anything dialectical. Good bourgeois theoreticians think this way. Why? It’s just what a good analytical thinker does. Nonetheless, this has nothing to do with Marx’s logic nor Hegel’s. It has nothing specific to do with dialectics as such.

As a philosophical work, I give this a 1/5. It really won’t help you make Marxist theory, but maybe you really need these practical tips. As a practical piece of advice, I suppose the pragmatic emphasis on knowing and using context is a good reminder for practicality and theory, but again, it’s nothing unique to Marxists or Hegelians. It is clear to me Mao is trying to shift Marxism towards his own needs, practical needs of revolutionary problem solving of problems here and now, and this is good, but again, there is nothing dialectical about this.

There is no dialectical way to do anything; no one ever can intend to be dialectical like a commodity isit just happens. If so, uh… who cares? Why call it dialectical when it isn’t? Why would we want it to be dialectical? There isn’t anything good about it; things aren’t supposed to be dialecticalthey just are. To the reader, if you’re a Marxist, some advice from me: don’t obsess over dialectics, it’s not what you think it’s for, nor can it do what you want it to. As Mao shows, all you need is good thinking to solve your practical problems, and as Marx assumed: developmental dialectics turned into a system only point towards openings in the system towards something else, but you cannot actually dialectically deduce this something else and what it will be like until history has already passed you by and the answer is already here.


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