On Mao’s ‘On Practice’

‘At this time we arranged for a conference at West Lake, ‘Hangchow. This was early in 1922. The leading participants were Chen Tu-hsiu, Li Ta-chao, Chang Kuo-tao, I think Chiu Chiu-pei, and one other, a very capable Hunanese student whose name I do not recall.’
– Henk Sneevliet (alias Maring) to Harold Isaacs, 1935

These notes have been written with several related purposes. First, I want to show that there is a unity between the philosophical views assumed or defended by Mao and his political practice, a unity which, by the way, Mao’s philosophy itself is incapable of accounting for. Many people persist in thinking that Mao must have been some kind of Marxist, since he led the Chinese Revolution, and his Marxist genius was proclaimed to the four corners of the earth. His philosophical essays continue to be placed on reading lists for basic study-groups by revolutionary Marxists. They may feel there is something odd about those works when they actually read them, but they can’t put a finger on what it is. These notes are offered as a help to wavering fingers. In them, I shall argue that the apparent easiness of Mao’s essays does not give them virtue as introductory texts in Marxist philosophy. Rather, that easiness stems from the fact that they are based on underdevelopmental (or ‘statist petty-bourgeois’ for those who like the jargon) versions of familiar empiricist and idealist doctrines, which have long been established as an intellectual feature of our.own Western capitalism.

Which brings me to my second aim, namely, to resist the contemporary revival of that romantic idealism and revolutionary nationalism, out of which the more advanced sectors of the international working class were already beginning to move towards a practical grasp of the materialist dialectics of class struggle, by the latter part of the nineteenth century. By what might be termed ‘the Cunning of Unreason’, obsolete theories of revolutionary empiricism were successfully foisted on people outside the imperialist metropolis, only to be reimported from them nowadays with rhetorical enthusiasm by small groups of youth and students inside it. Indeed, they seem to offer a glamorous perspective for such marginal elements, in which they could become the leaders of the revolutionary ‘people’, just as Byron or Petofi did in the brave days of y-ore. If nothing ever comes of such bold dreams, at least they provide the wherewithal to decorate their lives. Western Maoism is only one present form of the protest ideology of expostulating liberal intellectuals, generically known as Populism. I believe it owes much of its intensity to an unrecognised desire to evade the increasing proletarianisation of intellectuals in modern capitalism. By speaking for the workingclass, so to speak, it may be possible not to become a part of it; or, to become only a special part, at least. Beside this must be set a sincere but incoherent demand for the universal realisation of those goals and values (the ‘rights’ of ‘man’) laid down for humanity by … capitalism.

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