We received these remarks in response to Chino’s “Bloom and Contend”. We feel the response is a useful contribution to the discussion and debate. We welcome additional feedback, debate, and questions in the comments sections of both pieces.
by John Steele
There’s a lot in this essay to agree with, and I appreciate the attempt by the author to situate the discussion of Maoism within the concrete development of the Chinese revolution; as he notes, this was “one of the great world-historical revolutions of the 20th century.” But in carrying this out, some problems arise.
Overall, in Chino’s approach and in the basic “lesson” he strives to draw, there is a merging of two different questions:
Maoism as the ideology of the Chinese revolution, and
Maoism as a present-day theoretical or ideological basis for revolutionary analysis and action
The author strives to argue and move from a critique of the former to a critique of the latter, and this second critique (of present-day Maoism) seems to be the chief aim of the essay, even though the first occupies far more space. A major problem I see in this approach is that the historical examination is made the servant, to large extent, of a polemic or argument against a present-day political tendency or tendencies. But it would be perfectly possible to make good arguments and polemical points against Maoism as a basis for contemporary revolutionary politics, without drawing this out of Maoism in the Chinese revolution. And it would be, I believe, far better to do so, for under this approach historical analysis tends to be conducted through the terms of contemporary political polemic, thus pulling away from examining Maoism (in this case) within its historical context. (I think how we view the great revolutions of the 20th century is an important question today, and one that’s almost never answered in a very fruitful way.)
The problem often boils down to the use of very insufficiently developed categories as if they were transparent terms of analysis. The chief culprits here are ‘Stalinist’ and ‘state capitalist’, two adjectives which are subject to a great deal of ambiguity and polemical superficiality.As far as I can see, the only explanation that the former term receives is a brief polemical characterization on page 6: “What we call ‘Stalinism’ today is essentially a distorted version of Marxist theory, taken up and reworked for use as the ideology of a new ruling class.” In the case of ‘state capitalism’ there is a bit more discussion:
I use the term “state capitalist” to refer to any system in which the exploitation and capital accumulation described by Marx occurs in a system in which the vast majority of the means of production have been nationalized, or otherwise placed under the control of a state apparatus. In such a system, the fundamental aspects of capitalist social relations remain. A proletariat, defined by its lack of access to and control over the means of production and subsistence, is forced to alienate its labor to a separate social group and attendant institutions, which to an ever greater degree comes to resemble a distinct ruling class. As ongoing exploitation yields capital accumulation, this becoming-class continually expands its control over wealth and political power through its position in the relations of production, and determines the trajectory of the reproduction of society.
…as long as the conditions described above exist, “value” in the capitalist sense continues to exist as well. This “value” in the capitalist sense will provide the metric through which use-values are equated, production is conceptualized and coordinated, and foreign trade is conducted. The resulting “law of value” will tend to impose seemingly objective limits and presuppositions on those living under its auspices, including those in positions of state power—no matter their subjective intentions or political pedigree. (2, 3)
Fine so far, but I think the question is more subtle, in the context of both USSR and China, than this general characterization can get at. (I hope to show what I mean in saying this, in a forthcoming piece on 20th century socialism as a “mode of production.”) Chino implies, in the sentence which begins the next-but-one paragraph (“to explore the implications of this concept further, we must examine the broad path of the Chinese revolutionary experience”) that the bulk of the rest of the essay – which does look at the course of the Chinese revolution – will be in service of clarifying this concept in these historical circumstances. Instead, however, state capitalism is simply used through the rest of the essay as if it is already a basic category which is clear and transparent.
Bloom and Contend – the title is taken from a slogan of the “hundred flowers” period (see page 29), although the import of using it as a title is not explained – does take us through the main episodes of the Chinese revolution and of the campaigns and politics of the Peoples Republic of China. The most valuable part of this history, comprising almost a third of the essay, is the relatively detailed discussion of the Cultural Revolution, followed by an analysis of parts of the Maoist “Shanghai textbook,” and its political economy of socialism (44-65).
There’s a lot in all of this which deserves much more comment, critique and discussion than I’m going to give it. But in terms of the overall thrust of the essay’s history, the crux of Chino’s argument comes in the following paragraphs, which also illuminate the limitations of the essay’s evaluation of historical Maoism:
The class collaboration inherent in the united front and the New Democracy strategy secured the victory of the CCP in the war. At the same time, it guaranteed the party’s gradual slide from a revolutionary organization with an intimate relationship to the oppressed and exploited classes, to a force dominating over them. These strategies, in turn, were required in order to pursue “socialism in one country.” For an underdeveloped country such as China in the 1940s, rapid improvement of living standards is a paramount task of any revolution. A world revolution, or at least a regional revolution that includes a chunk of the advanced capitalist zones, is able to accomplish this task without relying on capitalist exploitation. Communes in advanced capitalist countries are able to freely share supplies, technologies and skills with their counterparts in the global periphery. But when limited to the bounds of a single nation-state, and embedded in a capitalist world-system, this kind of transformation is impossible.
Under these conditions, underdeveloped socialist states must either pay for the resources they acquire on the world market, or supplement for them by hyper-exploiting their own populations. They must compete with other capitalist countries through trade, currency, and military might. All these factors require underdeveloped socialist states to carry out capitalist production and development in some form, often through a close alliance with the preexisting bourgeoisie. Mao’s formulations of the united front and New Democracy explicitly aim at this outcome, and provide ideological legitimation for doing so. The strategies formulated in Yan’an thus provide a justification for would-be communist parties to act as surrogate bourgeoisies in underdeveloped contexts, and to generate a new capitalist ruling class which believes itself to act in the name of the proletariat and socialism. (18-19)
So: rapid improvement of living standards was necessarily a paramount task of the Chinese revolution. But this could only be achieved in a revolutionary way if the Chinese revolution was part of or accompanied by a broader revolution that included advanced capitalist zones. Yet such a broader revolution was nowhere in the offing. Therefore Chinese revolutionaries should have…. What?
What’s lacking in this, here and throughout, is a sense of the Chinese revolution and Maoism as part of our history, along with the Paris Commune (another failure dominated by incorrect assumptions), the Russian revolution, the revolutions and rebellions in the third world, the black liberation movement in this country, etc., etc. These are, have been, great movements and reaches toward human emancipation and even communism – all defeated, all of them failures, yes, often beset by weaknesses and blunderings and incorrectnesses, so many blind alleys as we can see at this point – but if this history of defects and failures is all that we can see, then we might as well give it up. How we treat this history is important. In Bloom and Contend (which is not the worst offender in this regard, by any means) there’s often the suggestion or implication that “the correct line,” the obviously revolutionary path, was always available, there for the taking.
The meaning of any of these rebellions is not exhausted in what it accomplishes.
There’s a lot that’s probably worth saying in some context, critically, about the treatment of the various theoretical aspects of Mao’s thinking, and their treatment in “Bloom and Contend” – united front, mass line, New Democracy, theories of dialectics and practice, etc. But that would take many, many pages, and I’m not out to defend all of that in any case. But I do have to say something about Chino’s critique of Mao’s dialectics (19 – 23) which ends with following sentences:
Many currents in Marxist philosophy, whether emerging from the work of Lukacs, C.L.R. James or Gramsci, take consciousness and creative action seriously. Mao, by contrast, recapitulates an orthodox Stalinist philosophy. For Mao, the dialectic is a universal law inscribed in all physical matter and social phenomena, which has already been discovered. Rather than apply it as a practical method, Mao embraces it as positivist scientific truth. (23)
Chino arrives at this conclusion through a textual analysis of the unpublished “Dialectical Materialism (Lecture Notes)” from the 1930s, along with the wellknown “On Practice” and “On Contradiction” (which, although dated 1937, were extensively revised or rewritten in the early 1950s before publication), and in doing so illustrates exceedingly clearly the pitfalls of a textual approach to revolutionary figures. For – laying aside any quibbles with his analysis of texts (of which I have a number) – if there is anything that distinguished Mao’s political practice, it was the highlighting and bringing to the fore of precisely the necessity of consciousness and creative action. To take the most obvious case, it’s hard to understand the Cultural Revolution, as a serious political endeavor, in any other way.
An important aspect Mao’s thinking, an aspect which marks it perhaps most distinctively, is the advocacy, both theoretically and practically, of episodes and periods in which the political takes (and needs to take) priority over (and causal efficacy with respect to) the economic, the “superstructure” over the “base,” and generally, human creativity and consciousness over matter and brute facts, as well as conscious and motivated volition (“will”) over the limits imposed by what can be ascertained, known, proved (“intellect”).
“The so-called theory of ‘weapons decide everything’…is a mechanistic theory of war,” Mao wrote in 1938 for example in On Protracted War. “Our view is contrary to this; we see not only weapons but also the power of man. Weapons are an important factor in war but not the decisive one; it is man and not material that is decisive.”
“But suppose the United States uses the atom bomb?” Anna Louise Strong asks in a famous 1946 interview. “The atom bomb is a paper tiger with which the U.S. reactionaries try to terrify the people,” Mao replies. “Of course, the atom bomb is a weapon of mass destruction, but the outcome of a war is decided by the people, not by one or two weapons.”
There are many other passages from Mao, and episodes in his political practice, along the same lines — that is, to the effect that the balance of material forces is not decisive in war or struggle generally, but that what is decisive for the outcome of a struggle is the mobilization, just cause, and spirit of the people.
It’s exactly because of this very pronounced aspect of his thought and practice that Mao is often accused of “voluntarism,” and virtually never of the sort of mechanistic positivism that Chino finds. (I have written about this at more length in Badiou and Maoist “voluntarism”, originally written for a Rethinking Marxism conference and published about four years ago on the now-defunct Khukuri blog.)
One final point on the utility of past revolutionary experiences and figures for political practice today: If it ever may have been otherwise, it’s certainly true today, I believe, that it is not useful to approach our present political dilemmas simply or even mainly by means of pro and con positions regarding past revolutionary figures and positions. For and against Marx, Bakunin, Trotsky, Mao… – those debates may be instructive (although usually they’re not), but they get us virtually nowhere (or nowhere, period) with regard to solving the deep problems of present-day revolutionary practice (and more usually they serve as an escape from confrontation with these problems).
The revolutions and rebellions of the past are great creative events in human history, they deserve close study, and they can serve us as resources in many ways. But if they’re looked to as sources of templates for the guidance of contemporary practice, it’s just another common case of the tradition of dead generations weighing like a nightmare, in Marx’s well known words, on the brains of the living.