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On Mao’s ‘On Practice’

Rip Bwdkeley
‘At this time we arranged for a conference at
West Lake, ‘Hangchow. This was early in 1922.

The leading partieipants were Chen Tu-hsiu,
Li Ta-chao, Chang Kuo-tao, I thi~, 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

‘Since ancient times, those who create new· ideas
and new schools of thought have always been
young’ people without much learning. ‘

lMao’Tse-tung, 1958

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 ~ 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-boU:I~geois’ 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 working
iclass, 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.

It’s not much intellectual strain in 1977 for revo:lutionaries to come on like good old Tom Paine,
IWilliam Godwin, Winstanley, Rousseau and bits of
!the US Con’stitution. How much harder it is proving,
lfinally to put such ideas behind us on the bookshelves.!

of history (where inc;leed they have an honourable and
sometimes glorious place). and to think instead the
new ideas which are needed for the practice of the
;.nternational prolefarian revolutionary movement
itoday.

These notes make only a negative contribution to
that task. From an avowedly ‘philosophical’ dimension, they explore events central to the world we are
all variously engaged in, the Chinese civil war or
Revolution. I have tried always to attend to the material reality of the ‘thoughts’ I shall criticise. And
I mean to show, not the obviOUS fact that Mao Tsetung was central to those events, but the less obvious one that those events were themselves constitutive of what is perhaps misleadingly (at least for
non-Marxists) called his ‘philosophical’ work.

But do Mao’s philosophical ideas deserve this
much attention? Aren’t they just the fag end of a
historical process through which ‘dialectical materialism’ became little more than a misnomer for a
pseudo-dialectical empiricism? Which may be
appropriate, perhaps, for the theoretical politics of
state capitalism, but can hardly interest radical
theoreticians today, whichever continent they work
in? Well, that may be so, but negative theoretical
work can be as important as positive contributions,
if less satisfying. I have not the time, nor for that
matter the interest to spur me to a comprehensive
examination of the long sad history through which
Marxism gave rise to ‘Marxism’. But I think. it may
be worth while to discuss in some detail one famous
but not too massive example of the process, still
rampant within ‘Western Marxism’, by which bourgeOis philosophical ideas apprQpriate or infiltrate
the theory which should rather be opposing and
undermining them. The problem of the practice of
the theory of a future communist society within
capitalist society is of the first importance to our
socialist politics today. Whether we like it or not,
few people will come to understand Maoism through
reading up on the politics of great Populist philosophers of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century
Europe, whose ideas have in fact been transposed
into·the ‘revolutionary’ orthodoxies of under~
developed nationalism in our own day. Maoism needs
Ito be criticised as such, and I take Mao’s philosophical views as a means to indicate the outlines of
criticism of his politics as a whole.

The value of these netes, if any, can only be that
of additional reflections to add to other more concrete accounts of the Chinese;’Revolution, a few of
which are mentioned below. ‘ro see fully what I am
getting at must require in the reader a further, or
an existing acquaintance with the history of Maoism,
rather than its hagiology. A history of the Chinese
Revolution could In fact be written around an orientation to jis philosophers, but” although the groundwork for such an edifice has already been laid doWQ
in a number of important monographs in English,
notbiIlg so ambitious will be ~te~~~ ~ere~
3

Lastly, it is nothing less than prudent for me to
conclude this introduction by stating in the plainest
of terms that the criticisms I shall go on to elaborate do n.ot. mean that I think Mao succeeded in China
only by ‘luck’. I am as willing as any Maoist Third
Worl?-ist or fellow-traveller to attribute the’ event~al VIctory of the CCP to the pOlitics, military genIUS and overall line evolved by Mao Tse-tung. I
wO.uld .add that it was his shrewd perception of the
obJectIve requirements for a successful struggle for
power, more than anything else, which brought
about both Mao’s politics and his related philosophical rationalisations. (1)
‘ ..• the outstanding thing about China’s 600
million people is that they are “poor and blank”
. •. On a blank sheet of paper free from any
mark, the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written … ‘

Mao Tse-tung, 1958

Mao,

Tse~Tung:i.n

1923

Mao’s mentor in Communism,
Li Ta-Chao

practice is valuable only as the means to more
varied and more relevant inputs to the senses; there
is an active ‘internal’ aspect to thought and knowledge
but it is rarely spoken of as material, and never as
practice. Such doctrines cannot add up tO,the Marxist one of a unity of practice with knowledge, no
matter how heavily they are camouflaged in Marxian
‘. •. the criterion of truth proposed in “On
terminology.

People are regarded as active by Mao
Practice “would be hard to disagree with. ‘

in two ways, both in their physical ‘practice’ (i.e.

J onathan Ree (2)
‘behaviour’ in the original vocabulary of modern
The opening pages of Mao’s essay ‘On Practice’ (3)
empiricism), and also in their internal mental
are an impressive and skilful re-statement of empir· faculties. But these activities are inter-dependent,
icist ideas in Marxist terminology. Knowledge may
not united. What is more, the interdependence is innot be itself practice. But while the Great Conjuror
direct, for the free potentialities of the inner mental
dispenses with the core of Marxist epistemology
powers are never thought of as in any way constrainwith his right hand, he almost succeeds in distract- ed by the actual nature of those gross behavioural
ing our attention from this with the flourishes of his activities Mao understands by ‘practice’. The free
left. Knowledge ‘depends on’. ‘arises from’, and
mental subjectivity is limited in its scope only by the
‘can in no way be separated from’ practice. Further· range of the my sterious data, said to be garnered
more, it depends ‘mainly on … activity in material from the body’s encounters with the world. And even
production’. Indeed, no knowledge of ‘certain relathis limitation is virtually withdrawn, once Mao contions that exist between man and man’ ‘can be accedes that ‘developed technology’ can give the scholquired apart from activity in production’. (Except,
ar adequate access to the immediate experiences of
everyone else (para. 9). (This makes it pOSSible,
as we shall see, if one happens to be a ‘scholar’).

amongst other things, for the son of a moderately
Besides being the ‘source’ of knowledge, practice
well-off peasant in a rural district of China in the
is also the sole ‘criterion of truth of .•. knowledge
of the external world’, and it is by practice that
first part of this century to transmute himself into
‘knowledge is verified’. The science of Marxism
the quintessence of the understanding formulated by
itself could not have beeIl formulated ‘until the
the modern industrial working class.) But apart
modern proletariat emerged along with immense
from these familiar divisions of labour, to which we
forces of production (large scale industry)’ .

shall return, enough has been said, perhaps, to
One way to characterise the philosophical probindicate the very fundamental distinctions which Mao
lems with which Mao was faced would to be say they either postulates or assumes between the physical
were those which resulted from his prior political
and the mental activities of human beings. The two
commitment to Marxism, which he was obliged sub- forms of activity are allegedly connected by two
sequently to deepen and defend intellectually so as,
mysterious but again familiar transducers – ‘perception’ anp ‘will’. The broad outlines of all this are
almost, to become the Marxist he had decided to be
sixteen years before. And this task had to be under- to be found in several pre-Kantian philosophies, of
course.

taken in the absence or neglect of those very forces
Mao himself iilustrates this schema very well at
and relations of production which Mao himself ackpara. 7. Let us suppose it is indeed the summer ,of
knowledged to be constitutive of Mar~ism!,(4)
The distinctive elements in Mao’s account of know- 1937, nearly a year after Mao completed the Long
ledge and practice are already beginning to emerge
4 It was’ not until 1936 that Mao set himself to study at all
by the end of para. 5. Sense experience itself is an
seriously the theoretical foundations and sources of Marxism.

absolute passivity to external causation of some kind;
The works that then became available to him (since he read
1 Professor S. Schram’s arguments in favour of an early date for
Mao’s philosophical essays, in ‘Mao Tse-tung as Marxist
Dlalectician’, China Quarterly (CQ) 29 1967, appear to me conclusive. Thus I accept a rough date 1937-40 for the substance
of Mao’s philosophical views and for at least the original drafts
of the texts. For the textual analysis of ‘On Dialectical
Materialism’ with its extensive plagiarisms from Chinese trans·
latioos of Soviet texts, see Prof. K. A. Wittfogel’s translation
ab! comments on Part 1 in Studies’ in Soviet Thought 3 1963,
and als,o Schr~ ‘8 ‘Mao and the Theory 01. Permanent
Revolution 1958-69 1 ; CQ 46 1971 n.5 pp223-4.

2 J.Ree, ‘Philosophy in China’, Radical Philosophy 14 1976
3 I bave used the Foreign Languages Press 1968 edition of Four
Ellavs in Philosophy. But since ‘On Practice’ is available in
10 many different editions, I have followed Professor
Wlteman’s lead In referring to it by numbered paragraphs,
_~ch its shortnes8 makes possible Without inconvenience.

4

only Chinese) were either translations or s’equels to philosophical work by the avowedly Stalinist group which succeeded
Deborin and his followers in all positions of power in Soviet
philosophy, such as Mitin, Yudin et al. The low esteem in
which Mao’s firsteHorts in the field were held by more experienced theoreticians within the CCP is indicated by some
evidence discussed by Wittfogel, loc.,~it.. ~ ,!he delay betw~en
their original restricted circulation within the Party, and their
subsequent inclusion in the official Selected Works, is attributable to a combination of Mao’s own low evaluation of them (and
it is noteworthy that he wrote very little more on such matters) ,
his supposed embarrassment at the obvious plagiarisms, and
the increasing possibility, as his ~ began to diverge
more openly from Stalin’s, of setting his earlier failure to work
within the 1ntel1ectn a 1 guidelines of Stallnism In a more positive
light. But of course it never was a m.eJ.:alJ intellectual disagreement, even as e~ly as 1937,

March; nine months after the heavy defeats suffered
by the Red Army when it tried to fight both the
Japanese and the Kuomintang together; six months
after the Sian Incident and the signing of the AntiJapanese Agreement with the Kuomintang; and two
months before the tactfully re-named ‘Eighth Route’

and ‘Fourth Front’ Armies will- cross the Yellow
River a second time into action against the Japanese
(5). The entente with the Kuomintang has made it
possible to refurbish not only the supplies, but also
the politics and overall ideology of the Army. Mao
faces the problem of vindicating the new line to his
cadres. Whether he is ready for this task or not, he
knows he must lead in the work of education, both to
gain more support for his line, and generally to confirm his recently gained but by no means uncontested
supremacy within the Party (6). Since he is challenged on basic principles, he must fight back on the
same ground. To cobble together his notes, he
refers constantly to basic Soviet texts (7). But they
cannot give him the kind of example he needs to
make this stuff even halfway real to his audience.

So what can he come up with? Aha, that’s it!

‘For instance, some people from outside come
to Yenan on a tour of observation. In the first
day or two, they see its topography, streets and
houses; they meet many people, attend banquets,
evening parties, and mass meetings, hear talk
of various kinds and read various documents,
all these being the phenomena, the separate
aspects and the external relations of things.

This is called the perceptual stage of cognition,
namely the stage of sense perceptions and impressions. That is, these particular things in
Yenan act on the sense organs of the members
of the observation group, evoke sense perceptions and give rise in their brains to many
impressions together with a rough sketch of
the external relations among these impressions:

this is the first stage of cognition. At this stage,
man cannot as yet form concepts, which are
deeper, or draw logical conclusions.

‘As social practice continues, things that give
rise to man’s sense perceptions and impressions
in the course of his practice are repeated many
times; then a sudden change (leap) takes place
in the brain in the process of cognition, and concepts are formed. Concepts are no longer the
phenomena, the separate aspects and the external relations of things. Between concepts and
sense perceptions there is not only a quantitative
See for instance C. A. Johnson, Peasant Nationalism and
Communist Power, Stanford UP 1963 pp73-4. But the general
framework and conclusions of this work have been very effectively refuted by E. Lerner’s Critique, Bulletin of Concerned
Asian Scholars 6 1974. Schram accepts a very similar evaluation of Johnson to Lerner’s at Mao Tse-tung. Penguin 1977
p203n
6 The turning-point at the Tsun-yi Conference, at which Mao’s
group took over the Central Committee, was two years past.

But Mao did not enjoy an undisputed supremacy until about 1942.

A striking illustration of this was the re-publication in Yenan
itseU, in July 1940, of Wang Ming’s The Two Lines, a central
document of the pro-Comintern faction or ’28 Bolsheviks’.

See J. E.Rue, Mao Tse-tung In Opposition 1927-1935, Stanford
UP 1966 Ch.1 n.17 and passim. I find this fact hard to reconcile
with Prof. Schram’s judgement, op. cit., that Wang Ming had
‘ceased to play any real role by the end of 1939’.

7 See (1) above for partial analyses revealing the extent of
plagiarisms in ‘On Dialectical Materialism’, and for Schram’s
shrewd observation that Mao’s reported disclaimer in respect
of this essay. in conversation with Edgar Snow, was very far
from a categorical denial of authorship. Wittfogel argqes persuasively that one of the texts with which Mao worked on
Marxist philosophy from mid-1936 was the translation of the
article on Dialectical Materialism written by Mitin et al for
the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia, to which both his discusslcms
of Deborlnism and his use of the famous quotation from Leriin,
• antagonism and contradiction, can be attributed. But from
O.. Bri~re, S. J., ‘L’effort de a philosophie Marxiste en Chine’,

‘but also a qualitative difference. Proceeding
further, by means of judgement and inference
one is able to draw logical conclusions. The
expression in San Kuo Yen Yi. ‘knit the brows
and a stratagem comes to mind’, or in everyday language, ‘let me think it over’, refers to
a man’s use of concepts in the brain to form
judgements and inferences. This is the second
stage of cognition. When the members of the
observation group have collected various data
and, what is more, have ‘thought them over’,
they are able to arrive at the judgement that
“the Communist Party’s policy of the National
United Front Against Japan is thorough, sincere
and genuine”.’ (paras. 7 and 8)
The agreement with the Kuomintang, which will
stand for three years, has also made possible visits
by sympathetic national democratic elements from
the rest of China to the Communists’ base area in
northern Shensi. After a certain amount of ‘practice’ in familiarisation with the Party’s United Front
Policy as presented in documents, banquets and
meetings, they are imagined, plausibly, to become
convinced of the virtues of the CCP line. But notice
first of all that the practice of such an ‘observ.ation
group’ isa very special kind of practice, and one
which fits well into Mao’s empiricist account of
knowledge. Given that they are outsiders, the observers do not directly engage in the formulation of
that line; still less do they take any part in the work
of production, training and combat, which are the
central practices of the line, and to which the entertainment of sympathetic guests is decidedly peripheral. Mao does not discuss the unity, nor even the
inter-dependence, of the Party’s material antiJapanese activities with the corresponding poliCies
as understood by its own cadres or followers .. For
in fact the new policy was not worked out by all the
Party members in and through their practice. It has
been formulated for them by their leaders. The observation group, in their marginality to the practices
which they come to ‘know’, are the inverted counterparts to the directing ‘mind’ of the Party, into which
the rich detail of Party members’ experience must
first be reflected along the appropriate upward and
inward channels for such reports, and out from
which are then subjectively and boldly generated the
‘logical knowledge’ encapsulated in the new line,
along with suitable commands (acts of pure will or
leadership) to direct the behavioural ‘practice’ of
the lower organs or limbs of the Red Leviathan.

Bull. de 1’Univ. de 1’Aurore 3 1947, it can be seen that Mao
also had other sources to draw on, in the first published works
by Yeh Ch’ing ~md Ai Ssu-ch’i. The latter is particularly interesting, since he is admitted by Briere to have had a knack with
down-to-earth examples and applications of philosophical ideas
to the Chinese context, which is precisely almost the sole positive feature in Mao’s own philisophical work on which all
commentators agree. Briere pOints out that all Chinese Marxist
works on philosophy in this period devote some discussion to
the war, so this feature of Mao’s essays was by no means unique
to their author either. The same writer illustrates the importance attached to philosophy by the Chinese Left in this period,
by pointing out that Yeh Ch’ing’s Marxist bookshop in Shanghai,
where he was a regular customer, had about hall its stock ·in
philosophical titles. Many of these were translations, as we
should expect from Yeh Ch’ing’sown pro~.inence in this field.

I know of no thorough comparison of earlier philosophical works
by Chinese Marxists with Mao’s own. According to Brlere, Yeh
Ch ‘ingmoved rapidly from a ‘mechanicist’ position in 193-‘, in
line with Minin, Enchmen and Stepanov, to one at least superfiCially in line with the victoriOUS Deborinists in 1936, with a
book not inappropriately titled Philosophical Problems. Ai
Ssu-ch’i published Popular Philosophy in 1936 (though Brl~re
sarcastically remarks tbit he never saw any but stuaents
buying it, and even they didn’t seem to find it intelligible), and
ls said by Wittfogel t9 have produced a work cm the relat100
between theory and practice. ‘before 1936’, which mayor may
not have been the same book.

5

With the device of the observation group, then,
Mao turns his back on any attempt to discuss knowledge as an integral part in the same material practice (e. g. class struggle) of which it is knowledge.

There is no conspiracy or intellectual failure; the
politics of Marxist epistemology is just not Mao’s
politics, for many reasons. Instead, he holds a
modified version of traditional empiricism, with its
view of knowledge as a privileged subjectivity, alien
to its object. The idealist and elitist consequences
of such a position are transformed perhaps, but far
from avoided. Not only Locke, but also Bacon looms
in the background. For a comprehensive survey of
the data of experience, so far as we have managed
to gather them in, some inner light or faculty of
understanding can be relied on to distil, intuit or
‘disclose’ the true natures or the essences of the
reality underlying them.

As in the West, soin its Eastern guise, empiricism will do intellectual ‘coolie service’ for a ruling
group, by vindicating the important division between
manual and mental labour. Already in 1930 Mao had
written his revealing essay ‘Oppose Bookism’ (8).

This was aimed principally at proving that the best
way to carry out the directives issued by the distant
Central Committee in Shanghai, with whom Mao was
in acute .disagreement, was in fact not to follow
them, but to rewrite them in the field, according to
the ‘objective and subjective conditions of the
struggle’ as interpreted by Mao himself. The essay
shows clearly the empiricism of his epistemology;
the complementary exhortation to the cadres’ will;
and thirdly, that it was for just such an audience of
cadres that Mao wrote:

ted. The almost poignantly defensive “Must you go
out? Not necessarily”, shOwing that Mao already
found it hard’ to keep in touch with those he led, we
shall return to shortly.

Not only was this text aimed at people engaged in
‘leadership work’. It also expressed the vital importance to the senior leadership of frequent, accur~
ate and comprehensive information, relayed from
the junior and peripheral sense organs of the Party.

In reality, it would not be such people who were expected to exercise their conceptual ‘audacity’, or to
make ‘leaps’ into fresh interpretations of a situation
whenever the spirit moved them. The thinking subject was nominally a collective one, but such privileges were not shared by all its parts. However,
while Mao was still struggling to secure for himself
an absolutely undisputed mastery within the Party,
something not generally reckoned to have been his
before the early 1940s, democratic-sounding versions of his theory can often be cited. And they
would continue to recur, in periods of acute intraParty strife, even later. Why this was possible, I
hope to show in what follows.

Marx’s place in Maoism

But even as early as 1930, the ‘leaps’ expected of
junior cadres have a distinctly Follow My Leader
air about them. The argument was not so much
about the Follow bit, as about who should play
Leader. Eventually the inconsistency, between a
formally collective subject and a philosophical theory worked out in the Western bourgeois revolutions
for isolqted individual subjects, was to be resolved
through the total substitution of the Leader for the
Collectivity (Party or Nation, never the unmention’Many doing leadership work only sigh when
able industrial proletariat). And later still, that
confronted with difficult problems, instead of
substitution was to prove not unfruitful with its own
solving them. They become frustrated and ask
internal contradictions, whether ‘non-antagonistic’

for a transfer on the grounds that their “talent
or the other kind. Once any ideology is attenuated
is too small for the job”. These are the words
to the emptiness of a theology, it becomes easy
of a coward. Stretch your legs, take a walk
enough for all opposing forces to fight in the name
around your work area, and learn the Confucian
Of the same Church (9).

way of “enquiring into everything”. Then, no
Both in ‘On Practice’ and elsewhere, for instance
matter how small your talent. you will be able
in his 1942 speech on ‘Reform in learning, the Party,
to solve problems. Though your mind may be
and literature’ (10). Mao got into embarrassing
blank when you go out, it will no longer be so
difficulties due to his empiriCism. In general, he
by the time you return: it will be filled with the
favoured what may be called the ‘D. Phil’ approach
facts you need for the solution of the problems,
to the training of leaders and theoreticians. They
and in this manner they will be solved. Must
must have some contact at first with actual social
you go out? Not necessarily. You may call an
practice and material reality (the distinction between
investigative meeting of those who understand
people and the ‘world’ they have contact with is his,
the situation, and by this means locate the
not mine). But once they have gone through this
“source” of a problem that you consider diffinecessary initiation, they are excused thereafter
cult and clarify its “present conditions”. The
from remaining in constant contact with the real
problem is then easily solved. ‘

social world, provided they still ‘go out’ occasion(Rue, op. cit., p306)
ally. Thanks to modern technology, Mao writes in
para. 9, ‘the “scholar” can indirectly “know all the
As a description of the methods to be followed by
wide world’s affairs”‘. What is more, ‘most of our
a conscientious trade union bureaucrat today, these
knowledge comes from indirect experience’ (my
lines could hardly be bettered. The extent to which
they were a nostalgiC self-portrait may be debatable, emphases).

As for the notoriously bookish Arch-Theoretician,
though I should guess they were very much so. ~ne
tormented by his boils in the British Museum Readcan wonder how much use it could have been to Ining Room, He achieved ‘real knowledge’ because
experienced cadres of lower calibre, to be told in
after all He did ‘participate’ in the revolutionary
this hectoring manner that one only needs to look at
problems and solutions will be spontaneously genera- movement. Mao entirely begs the question as to just
what the nature or the extent of Marx’s participation
8 Translaled as an Appendix in Rue, op. cit.

9 Marxist readers may feel I am rejecting the theory of democratic centralism. But not so. The difference, as so often in
politics, lies in the details. Stalinist and Maoist polical practice alike effectively deny access by junior Party members to
central decision-taking bodies. Instead these claim to take their
decisions on behaU of the members, and on the basis of reports
of rank-and-file opinion together with some higher understanding of the global situation. But rank-and-file members are un-

6

able to see these reports, or to engage in open intra-Party
debate over the wisdom claimed by their chiefs, still less to
elect other Central Committee members in their stead. I try
to show in these notes that the philosophical rationale constructed to defend such authoritarianism neither is nor can be
a MarXist one.

10 Extracts in S. Schram, The Political Tboui’bt of Mao T5e-tnng,
revised ed. Penguin 1969, p174ff

was (11). As if aware of this, in the 1942 speech he
added .another, stupefyingly Platonist account of
Marx’s theoretical work on ‘research on commodity
production’ in which a theory was derived from
‘observations on universally existing phenomena’,
and in which investigation was carried on ‘by turning
to a reality that was all-inclusive’! Mao finds that
his own subdivision of mental labour, between the
primary reception (or ‘reflection’) of data, on the
one hand, and the activity of systematising and interpreting them, on the other, threatens to degrade
Marx to the status of the ‘half -intellectuals’ whom he
is upbraiding. And so he anxiously hastens to revise
this latter activity into a contemplative idealist
passivity (and thus another good example of all that
Mao can manage to mean by ‘practice ‘). It is ‘observation’ after all, the observation of real universalso The Sage of the Reading Room has done ‘personal research’. Through inner reflection he has somehow encountered reality or science; his writings
simply report his discoveries in that mysterious
realm. On the idealist assumptions, within which he
is trying to formulate something which looks like
Marxism, this is about the best that Mao can do.

with the same physical stimulation (with minor variations) through practices which bring them ‘into
contact With’ the same phenomen~: then ‘proceed
further’ to reach the same underst’3.nding or ‘logical
knowledge’? In terms of another of Mao’s illustrations, why cannot the Nationalist officers (for of
course it is of officers on both sides that we are
speaking here) draw the same conclusions from the
Agrarian Revolutionary War as their Communist
counterparts?

Well, we know the Nationalists are supposed to be
the baddies, and baddies are always stupid, as in
Hollywood so in Peking opera. But setting aside such
satisfying, but simple-minded, calvinisms, what can
Mao say as to why wisdom is only to be found on the
Communist side? Don’t the Nationalists also ‘experience a good deal of fighting and . .. suffer many
defeats’? Then why is it not true for them that ‘this
experience . .. enables them to comprehend the
inner thread of the whole war’? (para. 13). Blinkered
with the empiriCist notion of experience as a neutral,
universally available, exchangeable and objective
raw material for SCience, Mao cannot see the Marxist dissolution of this problem, the denial that any
two such sides have experiences which are the same,
‘Wh.Qever wants to know a thing has no way of
the
denial that they are in any sense fighting or
doing so except by coming into contact with it,
‘having’ the same war, even. Marxism supplies what
that is, by living (practising) in its environment. t
Mao lacked, a theory of experience as the activity of
‘As to the sequence in the process of cognition,
a material subject, and hence as an activity which
perceptual experience comes first; we stress
varies as subjects vary in their material and histthe significance of social practice in the process
orical being. (The association in Mao’s mind between
of cognition preCisely because social practice
defeats and the lessons of experience is richly sigalone can give rise to human knowledge and
nificant. His own schooling in political and military
it alone can start man on the acquisition of
defeat was most intensive between the Autumn
perceptual experience from the objective world
Harvest Uprising of 1927 and the close of the
. .• Knowledge begins with experience – this is
Kiangsi Soviet period in 1934. The next year, after
the materialism of the theory of knowledge. ‘

the Long March had already begun, the tide began to
turn for the Red Army when Mao began to share the
(0. P. paras 9 and 16, my emphases)
overall military command with Chu Teh.)
Ironically, the irrationality of Mao’s position is
In other words, practice is only significant beidentical with that of the progressive materialists
cause experience, the passive acquisition of data
of the European Enlightenment, who also derived
from the WOrld, is primary. Mao writes as if this
Lockean position was what Marxist epistemology was their theory of knowledge from Locke. Ironically,
because Li Ta-chao, Mao’s intellectual godfather in
all about. There are serious difficulties, however,
the years when both Mao and the CCP were being
for anyone trying to reach even seemingly Marxist
formed, objected to just such an inconsistency
conclusions from such pre-Kantian assumptions
between materialist determinism and revolutionary
about the unproblematic nature of sense perception.

activism in ‘Marxism’, which only goes to show the
Mao can say nothing to explain why some people’s
debased form in which Marxism was current even
experiences are to be preferred to those of others,
then (13). But Marx himself criticised this inconsistlet alone as to why some people’s experiences may
ency in the eighteenth-century materialists with
not even be available to others. On the contrary, as
we have already seen, ‘developed technology’ means devastating force in The Holy Family, the Theses
on Feuerbach, and The German Ideology, and his
that, in prinCiple at least, any person can have inanswer to it was what deserves the name of Marxism
direct access to the experiences of any other, no
matter how estranged may be their respective living or nothing does (14). But such is the inertia of ignorance that the political and intellectual struggle
practices (12). If all are endowed with the same
against the same irrationality still continues.

‘physical sense organs’, why may not all who meet
11 Mao lacks any conception of the work of theory as itself a part
of practice, and also any realisation that a person is a materially active totality, in which no sub-sections can be isolated
from others merely by dubbing- them ‘judgements ‘-. That is why
an ‘ignorant’ person is fully entitled to judge the work of an expert, for there will often be aspects of the expert’s total practice which are quite clear, even more clear to the ‘ignorant’

person than to the expert herself. Nor does Mao pay any attention to one of the most important epistemological features of
Marx’s theoretical work, even when it is looked on as ‘pure’

theory in the bourgeois sense. namely its claim both to prove
and to illustrate that effective progress in science can no longer
be made except in the context of a proletarian commitment to
the abolition of class society. But perhaps Mao’s neglect of such
aspects of Marx is scarcely to be wondered at, in view of the
analysis of the references in the four-volume Selected Works
made by V. Holubnychy, ‘Mao Tse-tung’s Materialist Dialectics’

CQ 191962. Only 4% of Mao’s references are to works by Marx
and Engels, and none of those are to any of Marx’s ‘economic’

writings (the term is Holubnychy’s).

12 Amongs~ other things, this doctrine legitimates as ‘science’

view of people in China as a passive ‘sheet of paper’ on whose
‘poor and blank’ surface either the wily Communist militarists
(Johnson) or the ‘true military leaders’ (Mao) are subjectively
free to write whatever ‘characters’ they choose.

13 M. Meisner, Li Ta-chao and the Qri~ns of Chinese Marxism,
. Harvard 1967, esp. Ch. VI
14 Obviously I have some opinions, no matter how inadequate, as
to what Marxism is as well as what it isn’t.If I have partially
shown what these are, without defencijng them, that is because
it is impossible to write about everything at once. I intend to
develop my ideas further in a contribution to the current debate
on the ‘possibility of a dialectics of nature in New Left Reyiew,
Marxism Today, Radical Philosophy, ~ and other
journals of the British Left.

the production of weighty tomes on Marxism, on revolution and
on the working class by scholars who are avowedly neither
workers, nor revolutionaries, nor Marxists – the Lichthiems,
Brandts, Poppers, McClellands, Johnsons etc. Lemer’s
Critique of Johnson, loco cit. in (5) above, brings out very
clearly, though probably without the author’s intention, the
extent to which both Mao and Johnson HI!!. in an a-historical

7

(Briefly, if experience is not itself a practice
which can be either more or less successfully engaged in, but simply a uniform raw material or
‘Nature’ encompassing each essentially identical
human being, we are left with an inconsistent combination of acute optimism with simultaneous acute
pessimism. Anyone who ‘looks’ often enough can
understand, unless they wickedly refuse to activate
their inner faculties. But on the other hand, if we
ourselves originate from the natural ‘given’, it is a
mystery how we can ever radically change it or ourselves. Activists such as Mao smother the mystery
with undefended assertions of naked possibility or
. romantic will, sometimes coupled with an ’emergence’ theory to account for the causal independence
of human beings from their natural origins. Those
who are more aware of the inconsistency, on the
other hand, are often reduced to political inactivity.

The growth of Western ‘pessimarxism’ in recent
years, in which the removal of the ‘dialectic’ from
‘Nature’ goes together with the absence of the theoreticians from class struggles in their own society,
is an urgent case in point. It is only possible to continue in pOlitics with such views at the price of a
massive intellectual concession to the opponents of
Marxism ‘- the concession of dualism.)

Maoist empiricism
For Mao, theoretical understanding has to be
both based in, and entirely independent of the data
of experience. A free and, to all intents and purposes, immaterial internal subjectivity, variously’

termed ‘judgement’, ‘concepts’ or ‘inference’ (15),
alone determines itself to acquire a true understanding of the matter in hand, or not, as it chooses. The
passivism of Mao’s Lockean epistemology forces
him into a complementary idealist view of ‘man’ as
possessed of an innate capacl,ty for immediate intuitions of the truths underlying presented phenomena. Just a little ‘thinking over f, and conclusions
can successfully be reached. And just as all good
common-sensical empiricists have always believed,
once that int~rnal miracle has been accomplished,
it leads to modifications in future behaviour.

Since anybody can do this, anybody who doesn’t
has either been too lazy to gather in the necessary
data, or else must be wilfully refusing to ‘see’

their meaning in the approved manner. The remedy
in either case must be to coerce her will, though
possibly by different methods. (Echoes of the Holy
Office are not accidental.) Mao’s position means
that reasoning from the experiential base can take
us only a small way along the road to knowledge.

After that, something more convincing than reason
15 I have tried not to make anything out of the more or less verbal
tangles which Mao, or perhaps his translator, sometimes gets
into, such as saying at one point that concepts are reached by
the activity of judgement and at another that judgements are
made possible by concepts, or more often, contrasting the
‘stage of conception, judgement and inference’ with the rather
more intelligible ‘stage of perception’. I am not interested in
picking on elementary confusions in the essay, but in expounding and criticising its overall sense.

16 Demands by Red Guards in 1965-66 for the emphasis to be
taken off ‘redness by background’ and placed instead on ‘conscious redness’,. and on overt ‘manifestations’ of ideological
purity, were a consistent result of Mao’s idealist politics.

See D. Munro, ‘The Malleability of Man in Chinese Marxism’

CQ 48 t971, esp. the section on ‘TJle Social Nature as Mental
Phenomena’ •
17 This sentence, with slight variations, was repeatedly and indiscriminately attributed by Mao to Marx, to Engels, to Lenin,
and to Stalin. His official editors do not offer any textual references to back him up. Apd alone amongst Western commentators, Father Briere does actually locate it, on p320 of
Zlnoviev’s ‘Leninisme’, Paris 1926, through which I have
tracecllt back to a citatic:m by Lenin, Complete Works 1974
Vol. 17 , p39, where it is clearly attributed to Engels alc:me,

8

has to take over. (The Humean nature of all this
should be evident.) Quite often, in reading Mao, one
meets with important conclusions which are radically unsupported by argument; the explanation is that
these were in fact decrees, and doubtless they were
well understood to be such by those for whose benefit they were originally promulgated (16).

Much of the later part of ‘On Practice’, as well as
the long footnote at the beginning, is taken up with
attacks on groups inside the CCP which resisted
Mao’s rewriting of Marxism, during his long slow
rise to supremacy. In the footnote Mao repeats his
favourite tag, that ‘Marxism is not a dogma, but a
guide to action’. (17) The obstructive ‘dogmatists’

were Party leaders to the left of Mao (a majority in
the early 1930s) who, admittedly in the course of
imposing on the CCP the rigid and misguided instructions dictated to them by Stalin through the
Comintern, had inconveniently insisted on pointing
out some of the things Marx had actually written
about the connection between his theory and the
revolutionary practice of an advanced industrial
proletariat. Such obstacles were to be overcome,
not by any rethinking of collective experience and
the categories of the Party’s material subjectivity,
but rather by the free mental faculties of ‘true
revolutionary leaders’, so gifted as to be ‘good at
making themselves and all their fellow-revolutionaries progress and change in their subjective knowledge’ (para. 20). Notice that once a Leader is
allowed to be capable of making himself progress in
this way by his own spiritual and voluntarist bootstraps, the question of his relationship to the practice of any class becomes entirely irrelevant (18).

Failing historical materialism, idealism is the only
possible theory for revolution. No wonder, then,
that ‘As early as 1930, Ch’u Chiu-pai~echoeing
Comintern complaints, accused Mao and his small
band of revolutionaries of being “petty bourgeois
populists” who had turned their backs on the urban
proletariat’ (19) .. And Mao himself, who only three
years before had ‘stood up’ as an ardent Hunanese
nationalist, seems almost to have given his own
admission of this in 1923, by arguing that since
there were hardly any workers in Hunan anyway,
how could he be expected to base his politics on
them? (20)
The eventual result of the mistrust with which
‘dogmatism’ was regarded was to be an increasing
difficulty for most people in the Chinese People’s
Republic to gain access to works written by Marx
and Engels, since after all their European and proletarian content was irrelevant to the needs of
‘China’, and their revolutionary tone of voice or
but unfortunately without a reference. Despite, or rather
because what it says is true, this slogan has been a godsend
for Lenin’s Stalinist or revisionist epigones in their capitulations to ‘practical polities’

18 The frequency with which such views can be found in the utterances of revolutionaries today proves nothing, one way or the
other, as to whether or not they are consistent with Marxism.

The true proposition ‘All Marxists are revolutionaries’ does
not entail its converse ‘All revolutionaries are Marxists’,
despite the frequent but fallacious assumption that it does.

The fallacy is one which many people on the Left seem happy
to share with the extreme Right, or with analysts in the US
State Department, which is a pity.

19 M. Meisner, ‘Leninism and Maoism: Populist Perspectives’ t
CQ 45 1971
20 A. W. Macdonald, ‘Mao and the Hunan SeU -Government· Movement’ 1920′, CQ 681976. Chang Kuo-tao’s not unbiased recollection of Mao’s views, as expressed at the CCP’s Third
Congress, is quoted by Dov Bing in his’ Reply to Mrs
Muntjwerf’s Comment ‘Was There a Sneevlietian Strategy? ‘

at CQ 54 1973 p353. What makes Chang’s memoir ring true,
for me, is Mao’s known diffidence and lack of success as a
trades unions organiser at this period; see Rue, op. eit. ,
Ch~ll

‘guide to action’ had long been successfully transferred to, and surpassed by the Sun Chairman. (21)
By the 1960s, it was even possible for Lin Piao to
say that after all Marx was only a bookish halfintellectual anyway, who despite his ‘excellent foresight’ ‘never personally led any proletarian revolution’, and anyway ‘The population of China is over
ten times larger than that of Germany … ‘! (22)
Passivity and assiduity in experience for those at
the bottom, together with dutiful readiness to leap
wherever their betters have leapt before them, are
harmoniously complemented by freedom in subjective interpretation and in the direction of the collective effort, for those at the top. Such leaders need
from theory, more than anything else, a vindication
of their right to opportunism, as expressed in one
of Mao’s favourite Hunanese proverbs: ‘There is no
pattern for straw sandals; they take shape as you
work on them. ‘(23) Mao wrote to defend that right,
not only against the ‘dogmatists’ who wanted more
contentful interpretations of Marxism, but also
against any in the Party who might threaten to steal
the Maoists’ stage-thunder from below, the
’empiricists’ •
‘On the other hand, mistakes are going to be
made by those comrades engaged in practical
work who make an incorrect application of their
experience. It is quite true that such men have
had a great deal of experience and should be
valued highly. But there is great danger if they
are satisfied with their experience. They should
realise that the greater part of their knowledge
is gained from immediate perception and is
therefore limited, and that they fall short when
it comes to reasoned, universal knowledge, that
is to say, they fall short in theory. Thus their
knowledge, too, is comparatively inco~plete.

Yet without comparatively complete knowledge
it is impossible to finish the revolution … ‘ (24)
Or, as he puts it rather more bluntly in O. P. para.

17, if such ‘vulgar “practical men” • •• direct a
revolution, they will lead it up a blind alley. ‘ It is
the old argument from the man at the top to those
below, that they have no right to reach independent
conclusions, because they simply cannot see the
whole picture; meanwhile, he is careful to see that
they never do. Later, when he needed to have
senior cadres and professionals shaken up by youn21 See for instance the composite ‘Hong Kong interview’ in
R. Dunayevskaya, Philosophy and Revolution, Delta 1973,
where Peking students of the late 1950s are said to have had
good reason to be envious of businessmen in this respect!

And at p221 of Mao Tse-tung, Schram refers to a text in Boyd
Compton’s Mao’s China, in which Mao criticised those who
‘repeat quotes from Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin from
memory’, and spoke of ‘seventeen and eighteen-year-old
babies’ being taught to ‘nibble on Das Kapital and AntiD11hring’ instead of learning about their own country.

22 Quoted in F. Wakeman, History and Will, U. of California P.

1973 pp20 -21
23 Schram, loc.cit. in CQ 46 p231, gives an example of Mao’s
use of this proverb in January 1958.

24 In Schram, The Political Thought p178, from the speech
referred to at (10) above.

25 Mao Tse-tung, Selected Works Vol. 1 1954 p135
26 Mao Tse-tung, Selected Works Vo1.4 19~ plO
27 As in the famous Report of an InvestrgatiOn into the Peasant
Movement in Hunan, in Selected Works Vol. 1
28 This distortion of the history of philosophy is related to the
more general Stalinist orthodoxy, under which it was not
permissible to think that any ‘mechanical’ (i. e. pre-nineteenth
century) materialists had ever conceived of motion as an
internal or natural property in matter. Whether or not Mao
went along witb this falsification so far as Europe was concerned, his closer feeling for the history of Chinese thought
can hardly have permitted him to apply it universally. For the
more balanced indeCision whicb prevails in recent Soviet
history of philosophy, see tbe summary at pp88-95 in M.

Iovcbuk, Philosophical Traditions Today, Progress 1973

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ger inexperienced people, he did not tolerate from
them the kind of argument he uses here himself.

Such reasoning depends for its cogency, it turns out,
on just who is speaking, and when; this is the logic
of opportunism. By now it may be clearer how Mao
was able to put on a mask of democracy in the
course of intra-Party struggles. In 1933, ‘This
great evil, bureaucracy, must be thrown into the
cesspool’ (25), presumably along with the higher
Party authorities who were demanding that Mao comply with their decisions. And in 1941″, with internal
disputes still continuing, ‘It is my wish .that, together with comrades of the whole Party, I should
continue to be a pupil of the masses and learn from
them. ‘(26) The message is plain; other comrades
must learn whatever Mao says is there to b~ learned
from the masses. The inarticulate masses have no
other voice through which to express what they have
to teach. And any other voices pretending to such a
function will be those of ’empiricists’, who can give
no more than a partial reflection of the truth from
their limited experience. The ‘spontaneity’ of the
masses is precisely this tendency to hasty overgeneralisation, which must always be restrained by
the well-guided ‘consciousness’ of the Party. But
when this very argument was used against his own
parochial rural populism in the early years, it was
Mao who argued the ’empiricist’ line (27). And as
for over-generalisation, it could be said with some
justice that Mao himself t’ended to think of the whole
world in terms of the unique theatre of his greatness,
the specificities of China between 1911 and 1976.

In philosophical terms, once he had adopted classical European empiriCism under the label of
‘dialectical materialism’, Mao was obliged to invent
a spurious candidate for the name ’empiricism’,
both as the mistaken theory to be replaced by
‘Marxism’, and as the theoretical content to the
mistaken politics of the ’empiriCist’ comrades within the CCP. At O. P. para. 17. he set out a version
of ’empiricism’ which has never been held by anyone
since Protagoras, though it bears some striking
resemblances to the faked up dummies of ‘inductivsim’ which first Hume, and more recently Popper,
have so stoutly, self -importantly and reP4ttitiously
‘defeated ~I~l8) .jAccording to ’empiricism’, then,
‘knowledge can stop at the lower, perceptual stage’

(or, relatively junior cadres can. think for themselves and know what they are doing). In the shadOW”‘l
boxing that ensues, Mao devalues the ‘data of perception’ as ‘merely one-sided and sU!l’-rficial,
continued on pa.. 15

9

his ‘revised’ theory of philosophy as the ‘class
struggle in theory’. Since it is a discourse without
an object, there can never be an epistemological
break which would constitute philosophy as ‘theory’

in a sense parallel to that of scientific theory. Thus
Althusser has conceded the point made against him
by Desanti in the sixties, that it is precisely the
function of ideology to prevent the splintering of
scientific discourse by cloSing it off from ‘thirdlevel’, Le. ‘philosophical’, conflict (24) . According
to the new Althusser, philosophy must remain a
constantly-shifting field of forces in which there can
be no absolutely ‘correct’ position, since correctness and incorrectness do not depend on correspondence to an object, but are determined by a conjuncture which is largely ‘outside’ philosophy and which
– although philosophy does not like to think so constitutes philosophical discourse as such(25).

This means that the task for those attempting to be
both Marxists and philosophers (it would be mistaken to believe that there is any easy or readymade conjunction of the two) must be one of intervention rather than construction. For any attempted
Marxist philosophical edifice will find its foundations
sinking into sand as the balance of class forces in

On ‘On P ..aclice’continued
reflecting things immediately and not in their
essence’. The debt to Plato’s Theaetetus is no less
certain for being indirect, as it almost undoubtedly
was. But we can search in vain for any trace of that
Kantian insight, that the very possibility of senseperception is dependent on, and hence not prior to
the forms of subjective apprehension, which lies
behind the modern dialectical tradition in philosophy
(That insight was of course to be much modified and
transformed through consideration of the historical
and collective nature of human subjectivity, the
central issue treated in the historical materialism
of Marx and Engels. But such notions could be
nothing but ‘idealism’ for the idealism of Mao.)
Knowledge and practice are ‘united’ for Mao, then,
only through being inter -dependent, as all good
empiricists have always maintained. They are not
united, because in the last analysis knowledge is not
entirely active, since it depends on a ‘given’, and
since also, in transforming that ‘given’, knowledge
is active as a free non-material subjectivity, little
resembling the physical practices of production.

But never mind. So long as both one’s social practice and one’s free theorising, or ‘conscious redness’, are ‘pure’ and ‘revolutionary’, there is no
need to enquire too closely into how they are possible. And this retention of an empiricist distinction
between knowledge and practice underpinned the
allocation to the cadres/intellectuals of the status
of a ‘class’ within the united ‘people’, though this
was not coupled with any too close examination into
their actual relationship to the productive practices
of the ‘masses’. Nevertheless, if joined with the admission in the 1949 Constitution, that the People’s
Republic of China was a state capitalist society,
this was a complacent anticipation of almost all that
Marxist critics of the Chinese Communists later
tried to prove against them.

The rejection of ‘dogmatism’, on the other hand,
was also aimed at relieving the Chinese ‘people’

(more or less) of the necessity for anything so
characteristic of the Western barbarians as their
shameless propensity for all-out military ~ war-

other instances of the social formation alters, and
this can only be avoided if the Marxist in philosophy
is distinguished by his or her awareness of what
Althusser terms ‘the primacy of the practical function over the theoretical in philosophy itself ‘(26) .

The need for this awareness was surely what Marx
was pointing to when he levelled the following accusation at the thought of the Left Hegelians: ‘(it)
has proclaimed itself the pure, resolute, absolute
Criticism which has achieved self-clarity, and in
its spiritual pride has reduced the whole process of
history to the relation between the rest of the world,
which comes into the category of the ‘masses’, and
itself ‘(27) . It is perhaps in terms of this criticism
that the problematic Marxist notion of the ‘end of
philosophy’ can best be understood. Certainly, as
the ‘disembodied’ nature of Edgley’s position
illustrates, Marx’s reminder of the inherent limitations of philosophy – of its obligation to refer itself to social and political practices – has lost none
of its relevance for Marxists concerned with
philosophy today.

24 See Jean-Toussaint Desanti, ‘MaterialismejEpistemologie’,
Tel Quel 58
25 See Louis Althusser, op. cit. pp142-50
26 ibid. p143
27 Karl Marx, Early Writings op. cit. p381

fare within one ‘nation’. In the 1930s and 1940s it
was vital to assure intellectuals, officials and businessmen that there was no thought in Communist
heads of actually fighting the war against Japan by
means of a full-scale social revolution of workers
and peasants. On the contrary, winning the war of
national liberation before and instead of the Nationalists was supposed to count as winning the class
struggle also. It was peace and land reform, but
not socialism, which dissolved the armies of Chiang
Kai -shek.

Some kind of neutral or objective observational
basis for knowledge is always claimed by theories
of ‘national unity’ or ‘national interest’, whether of
the Right or of the ‘Left’. Only on such an assumption could both the democratic visitors and their Red
Army hosts ‘see’ the validity of the United Front
policy; perish the divisive thought that one class
might be inherently bound (and not just by its different experiences, but by what it was) to see things
differently than another. As for human activity,
when our own European empiricism could no longer
credit its earlier theological account of the nature
and goals of human action, it fell back upon categorical assertions of national will and personal subjectivity, in the movement known as Romanticism.

In the same way, Mao both postulated and came to
identify himself with a free subject, ‘China’, to
which all class divisions were irrelevant, and in
which all might share, if they chose, including the
working people of Brixton or C olumbus, Ohio.

In 1949 Mao won a battle that was lost in Europe
in 1848. The European defeats set revolutionaries
the task of working out a theoretically improved
practice. Mao’s victory inhibited such progress in
China for a time. But later setbacks, in the Great
Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural
Revolution, were to prove more fruitful. From
them, not Mao but the Chinese proletariat began to
take its first hesitant but decisive steps forward,
almost, since the bitter defeats of the 1920s and
1930s. To do so was at the same time to abandon
the rubbishy theoretical equipment with which they
had been brow-beaten for thirty years, during the
forging for China’s new rulers of their very own
empiriCist version of the ‘Mandate of Heaven’.

15

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