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Thoughts of Mao Tse-tung

The vast, unfinished human experience called the “Chinese Revolution” is not, in my view, the kind of event that can be simply approved or disapproved. The People’s Republic, during the twenty-three years of its history, has undergone many shifts, experienced many crises and many upheavals in leadership. At times the leadership itself has harshly condemned previous lines of policy which had received full endorsement from people abroad who believe that “Revolution” must invariably receive total approval. Thus one can acknowledge the many huge and undeniable accomplishments of the People’s Republic without making a total commitment to some general state of affairs called the “Chinese Revolution” and without accepting all of Chairman Mao’s claims as a political and moral philosopher.

I will discuss here not the “Chinese Revolution” but certain themes in the “Thought of Mao Tse-tung,” particularly as they were developed during the recent cultural revolution. While these themes generally derive from Mao’s previous ideas, they take an especially acute form in the “cultural revolution” of recent years.

I shall not concern myself with the question whether Mao is an “original” moral and political philosopher. It is probably true that had he not achieved power, few of us would be interested in his metaphysics or his moralpolitical philosophy. Yet the fact that those with political power are able, to a degree, to put their ideas into practice will always lend a particular interest to whatever ideas they may have. What is more, the ideas themselves concern fundamental issues—in my own view, issues fundamental not only to China in the last quarter of the twentieth century, but to all of us. In challenging the dogma that China’s different culture and its lower “stage of development” make its thought “irrelevant” to us in the West, the Western admirers of Mao, whatever their limitations, have performed a distinct service.

Whether Mao’s vision of cultural revolution is relevant only to China’s present condition (or, more broadly, to “underdeveloped societies”) or whether it has bearing on more universal matters is, one finds, a question that divides the defenders of that vision as well as its skeptics. One can distinguish among the former what might be called the “tough-minded” and the true disciples. The true disciples believe that all of Mao’s words are to be taken at face value. The “tough-minded” believe that there is both a public and an esoteric Maoist doctrine.

Like all sensible leaders, Mao, in the “tough-minded” view, is interested mainly in “modernization” as this term is understood in the West. He is fundamentally a theorist of economic development. He realizes that countries woefully poor in capital, such as China, must depend heavily on intensive use of labor. Hence his appeal to selflessness, austerity, and infinite self-sacrifice—to “moral incentives” in general—as the only way to mobilize the masses for development. As a consummate social engineer, Mao knows well that this morality of sacrifice and collectivity is an interim, instrumental morality. He realizes that modernization will in the end lead to a society in which the dominant goals of life will be consumer pleasures and the pursuit of status, but thinks of all these matters as a hard-headed strategist of development. He is, as it were, self-consciously creating his own version of a Protestant ethic.

Yet it is precisely the parallel to the notion of the Protestant ethic that leads one to question this view of Mao. Neither Calvin nor his successors were strategists of development. They profoundly believed that their ethic was tied to man’s eternal salvation. They were entirely unconcerned with the achievement of wealth as a “spin-off” effect. Nothing could have been further from their vision than an interest in “economic development.” Indeed if they had believed in the supremacy of the goals of economic development, they would have speedily abandoned their ethic of salvation. As Max Weber argued, the economic effects of the Protestant ethic were unintended.

It is true that Mao’s vision of cultural revolution is explicitly committed to economic development and national power, and even to the view that the Maoist ethic will spur such development. This, however, by no means proves that Mao does not really believe in the cultural revolutionary ethic as an ultimate end in itself. Some proponents of Western liberalism have argued simultaneously that individualism is good because it encourages economic enterprise and that it is also good as an end in itself. The same may be true of Maoist collectivism. Thus in treating Mao’s thought I shall accept the interpretation of the true disciples who believe that Mao desires “modernization” but only the kind of modernization that can be achieved within his vision of the good society.

Finally, I shall not be concerned with all the possible motives of Mao’s behavior in the cultural revolution or with what relationship his doctrines bear to the actualities of Chinese politics in 1973. In fact, in many sectors of life there now seems to be a definite retreat—muffled in Aesopian language—from the full implications of Mao’s “cultural revolutionary” vision.


The Maoist Conception of Science

What I call Mao’s conception of science is an element of his ideas of cultural revolution that goes back at least as far as the Yenan period (from about 1936 to 1946) and perhaps has its roots in Mao’s earliest acquaintance with the concept of science in the writings of Yen Fu, Liang Ch’i-ch’ao, and popular tracts of the early twentieth century. This concept of science at first seems based on an inductive-pragmatic view common in the Anglo-American tradition. It is essentially Baconian, emphasizing the importance of induction from observation of concrete facts, as well as “learning by doing.”

This view of science Mao relates to the simple epistemology we find in “On Practice,” an essay written in July, 1937, during the early stages of the Yenan period. Here Mao writes that concepts are immediately derived from perceptions made in the course of man’s social practice and are then immediately applied in practice. Mao, of course, shares with other Marxist-Leninists the conviction that the word “science” is just as applicable to the “truths of Marxism-Leninism” as to the truths of natural science. The view of science described in “On Practice” seems applicable both to the social history of man and to the natural sciences, although, as we shall see, there are in fact considerable differences in the way Mao’s concept is applied to each.

It seems apparent that this conception of science is consistent with many other themes in Mao’s writing during the Yenan years and in his later work on cultural revolution. First, it seems to include an element of populism. If science is basically a matter of learning from immediate practical experience, it should be a matter of common sense immediately accessible to all. Here if you will you can find similarities between Mao’s linking science to populism and John Dewey’s view that an experimental-pragmatic method of science is linked to democracy.

But of course Mao’s view of science also becomes a weapon for attacking those intellectuals who believe that conceptual reasoning can be separated from immediate perception and that truth can be gained through sustained abstract reasoning divorced from immediate practical experience. Such intellectuals are addicted to learning from books rather than from immediate practical experience. To believe in the fruitfulness of abstract thought separate from direct concrete practice and to rely heavily on past experience mediated through books implies that a politically inactive intellectual cloistered in his study may still independently arrive at truth.

Two questions arise at this point. To what extent does Mao consistently maintain his view of science and to what extent is it valid? The first question is particularly relevant to Mao’s view of the “science” of social history and to the supposedly populist implications of this view.

Here it is illuminating to compare Mao with John Dewey. As we know, in spite of Mao’s insistence on deriving truth from concrete situations, as in the case of Lenin and Stalin, “empiricism” is for him a bad word. Empiricism, he argues, fails to place newly experienced concrete situations within the pre-established framework of the “universal truths of Marxism-Leninism.” (By now, we can perhaps add the “universal truths of the thought of Mao Tse-tung.”) Dewey also occasionally attacked “empiricism.” By this he meant the “abstract” empiricism of Locke and Hume1 which attempted to reduce experience to universal elements, namely sensation. To Dewey experience is made up of complex and unique concrete situations. He objects to a “logic of general notions under which specific situations are to be brought,” and he is not prepared to admit the existence of any pre-established universal truth that may not be upset or modified by any new situation. All people, equipped by education with scientific intelligence, will be able to solve the problems that face them by dealing with the situation in which the problems occur. They need not assume in advance that any a priori universal truth necessarily applies to their situation.

In Marxism-Leninism (including Mao’s version of Marxism-Leninism) pre-established universal truths about the world certainly exist. In Mao’s thought there are not only truths that are universal but even some that are eternal, such as his famous “laws of contradiction.” Other truths concerning the “laws of history” are not eternal but they are in principle universal during the period in which they are applied. To be sure, in a speech delivered in February, 1942, when he was launching his “Remolding” campaign, Mao informed us that Marx himself arrived at his “universal truths” from “detailed investigations and studies in the course of practical struggle.”2

Apart from the fact that Marx made most of his investigations for Das Kapital in the dusty archives of the British Museum when he was very little involved in “practical struggles” (other than personal ones such as supporting his family), there remains the old philosophic problem of how universal and necessary truth can be derived inductively from what must always be partial and contingent empirical data. In fact, some of the universal categories of Marxism-Leninism derive from Hegel, who firmly believed that his major categories were based on a general contemplation of the nature of the universe itself and not merely on atomic empirical observations of “learning by doing.”

Quite apart from the question whether all the universal truths of Marxism-Leninism have been derived inductively, there is the thornier question of who is authorized to relate pre-established universal truths to new situations. The Leninist answer is that only the party has this authority; while Mao informs us that “our comrades who are engaged in practical work must realize that their knowledge is mostly perceptual and partial and that they lack rational and comprehensive knowledge.”3 It is thus obvious that those who gather perceptual knowledge at first hand are not necessarily the same persons as those who derive the new rational and comprehensive concepts from this knowledge.

  1. 1

    Reconstruction in Philosophy (Mentor Books, 1949), pp. 84-85.

  2. 2

    Rectify the Party’s Style of Work,” Mao Tse-tung Hsuan-chi, Selected Works, Vol. III (Peking, 1960), p. 60.

  3. 3


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