Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Former Members of the Committee for a Proletarian Party

In Defense of Mao Tsetung’s Contributions to Materialist Dialectics

Position Papers Prepared for the National Joint Study


In Imperialism and the Revolution Hoxha makes the charge that “contrary to materialist dialectics, which envisages progressive development in the form of a spiral, Mao Tsetung preaches development in the form of a cycle, going round in a circle, as a process of ebb and flow which goes from equilibrium to disequilibrium, and back to equilibrium again (pg. 112)

Hoxha’s accusation relates directly to Mao’s denial of the validity of the law of negation of negation. Customarily, the law of the negation of negation has been used to explain the spiral nature of progressive development. Namely, the double negation returns the process in question back to the point of the original affirmation but at a higher level of development.

It is true that Hoxha does not explicitly refer to the law of the negation of negation, but as with much of the rest of his attack on Mao, he is merely following the pattern of assault long established by the Soviet revisionists and their ideological fellow travelers. One more recent fellow traveler in this country, the Communist Labor Party, provides a good example of this revisionist trend because it is able to mount a more formidable and sophisticated philosophical struggle against Mao than Hoxha and the PLA.

To cover their own opportunism, all these revisionists often attempt to wrap themselves in the mantle of orthodox Marxism. It is no wonder then that these forces seize on the opportunity to charge heresy when Mao “goes against the tide” by criticizing Engels’ formulation in Anti-Duhring that there are three basic laws or categories of dialectics. According to Mao, there is only one basic law which underlies all motion, change, or development, and that is the unity of opposites. As he says in his 1964 “Talk on Questions of Philosophy”, “The most basic thing is the unity of opposites. The transformation of quality and quantity into one another is the unity of the opposites quality and quantity. There is no such thing as the negation of the negation. Affirmation, negation, affirmation, negation ... in the development of things, every link in the chain of events is both affirmation and negation.” (Chairman Mao Talks to the People, pg. 226)

What Mao is breaking with is a tendency within Marxism which has a conception of materialist dialectics which continues to nurture important aspects of metaphysics. These aspects of metaphysics can be traced back to Hegelian idealism. What Mao understands is that dialectical and historical materialism must make a radical break not only with Hegel’s idealist conception of reality, but also with Hegel’s metaphysical distortions of dialectics itself. Hegel’s dialectical method and idealist conception of the world were a unity of opposites which mutually interpenetrated and conditioned each other.

What is involved in this radical break is more than turning Hegelianism “on its head” – extracting the dialectic from Hegel’s idealism and giving it a materialist interpretation. The “opposite” which is produced by such a process is a materialism which is still strongly influenced by metaphysics. The historical development of the Marxist movement during Engels’ time in the late 19th Century and the subsequent philosophical degeneration of the Second International bears out such an interpretation. To advocate taking over Hegel’s dialectics uncritically, as an inherently revolutionary dialectics, by mechanically attempting to separate it from Hegel’s idealism is to objectively aid in smuggling metaphysics into the Marxist method.

The reason that Hegel’s conception and method cannot be so easily separated is that the systematic, determinist elements of Hegel’s philosophy are embedded in the dialectic itself, most notably with the law of negation of negation. When the systematic, determinist historical march of the Hegelian Absolute Spirit is “turned on its head”, what has often been the result has been the systematic, inevitable historical march of the economic base, i.e., the economic determinism of the theory or the productive forces. It was against the mechanical materialism of the Second International that Lenin had to wage struggle to re-establish Marxism on sound philosophical foundations. It is this Leninist philosophical tradition that Stalin attempted to carry forward but which degenerated under the influence of Soviet revisionism. This new form of metaphysical materialism, represented by the Khrushchev theory of productive forces, was the tradition against which Mao Tsetung, in turn, had to battle. In this process of advances and reversals on the theoretical plane, Mao was able to develop Marxist philosophy to a new level. A primary example of this further advance is Mao’s rejection of the law of the negation of negation.

Mao’s thoroughly revolutionary conception of dialectics leads to the inevitable assertion that the essence of everything contains an identity or mutual penetration of negation and affirmation. In the process of a new thing supplanting an old thing, the new thing arises as both an affirmation of itself, of its future, and a negation of the old thing, of its past. In reality, there can be no affirmation without negation, just as there can be no synthesis without analysis. Any determinate thing affirms itself as a distinct entity only in relation to negating what it is not. And within each thing, in the contradiction which determines its essence, there is an identity of affirmation and negation. Each of the two aspects of the contradiction affirms itself only as a result of negating its opposite, and vice versa.

Hegel’s dialectics metaphysically separates affirmation and negation as moments of development, and then re-unites or synthesizes them in the form of the negation of negation. But, as Mao states, “every link in the chain of events is both affirmation and negation.” This is consistent with the basic principle of dialectics, the inevitable division of unity, or “One Divides into Two.”

When there is a dialectical development from an old quality to a new quality, the negation of the old quality has a positive content and does not represent pure abolition or destruction of the old quality. But this positive content is inconceivable without comprehending the identity of negation with affirmation. The new quality simultaneously affirms itself as well as negates the old quality.

An example of how Mao applied this dialectical understanding of development is found in his advice during the Cultural Revolution to “Put destruction first, and in the process you have construction.” The bourgeois metaphysical way of understanding the relation between destruction and construction is to regard them as only mutually exclusive and opposed to each other but not also identical or united. Thus, destruction is seen as external to construction, or alien to it, and the bourgeoisie draws the counterrevolutionary conclusion that destruction can have no real positive content and the only way to be progressive or move ahead is to be constructive. The foundation for such thinking is the metaphysical law of synthesis or “Two Combines Into One.”

Based on this metaphysical law, Hegel’s “dialectical” triad of affirmation, negation, and negation of negation, or what is also called thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, is not revolutionary, but inherently reactionary. The reason is that it contradicts the essence of Marxist dialectics which regards the identity of the two opposing aspects of a contradiction as always conditional and relative while the struggle between them is unconditional and absolute. In positing the moments of affirmation, negation, and negation of negation, Hegelian dialectics starts with identity, divides it, and then re-establishes a new form of identity at a higher level.

This triadic structure of the dialectic is a direct, organic result of Hegel idealism. Hegel’s innovative idealism does not conceive of the Absolute Spirit as standing above or apart from history but as embodied in the very process of history’s unfolding. The dialectical unfolding of history according to the triadic structure, represents the process of the Absolute Spirit alienating itself and then being re-integrated with itself. This idealism is not overcome by a Hegelian Marxism which replaces the Absolute Spirit with the Human Essence, which is alienated from its own labor under class society, and then re-incorporated with itself under communism.

This metaphysical structure, which gives historical development a predetermined character, must be discarded if we are to elaborate a consistently dialectical, revolutionary method for dealing with reality. Mao concisely sums up this dialectical view of all development in his statement that “the life of dialectics is the continuous movement toward opposites.” Some forms of development, given the nature of the internal contradictions, can be interpreted as displaying a triadic structure, such as seen in affirmation, negation, and negation of negation, with the negation of negation returning to assume a form similar to that of the affirmation but with the content at a higher level. But just as common are structures of change which display a regressive direction or a circular nature.

It is metaphysical to regard the negation of negation as a universal law of the development of things. The Communist Labor Party calls it “the general expression of the form of development observable in all processes.” (Proletariat, Vol.4, No.4, pg.20) The Textbook of Marxist Philosophy claims that the “double contradiction is the general form of movement of all actuality.” (pg.383) But this structure is not a universal form observable in all historical development because it distorts dialectics itself by making identity absolute and giving any progressive development a closed, false character.

In making identity absolute, the law of the negation of negation relies on the metaphysical law of synthesis to explain progressive development. This is one reason that the negation of negation lends itself so easily to reactionary or counterrevolutionary political conclusions. The operation of this kind of “dialectic” can be seen in the notion that socialism can be consolidated as a system, and that it is merely the lower stage of communism. Once socialism is consolidated, then the transition to communism would be a relatively smooth, straightforward, quantitative progression. But seeing socialism as a consolidated system flies in the face of the fact that it is a long transitional period of sharp and tortuous class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. This conception of socialism makes identity absolute and struggle relative, and metaphysically combines two into one. It is not difficult to recognize that such a conception of socialism is not far from Khrushchev’s notion of a “party of the whole people” and “state of the whole people.”

The most blatant example of counterrevolutionary political conclusions can be found in the Communist Labor Party’s assertion that capitalism could not be restored in the USSR because through the irreversible process of the negation of negation, socialism had been consolidated. As an example, speaking of the transition from capitalism to socialism, Jonathan Arthur states that “Once this process has been effected, both ’aspects’ of the old antagonism are gone, never to return. A restoration of the former antagonism is impossible because the conditions for its existence no longer exist. This is what the negation of the negation means.” (Proletariat, Vol. 4, No. 2, pg. 34) What is at issue really is when “this process has been effected.” For Mao Tsetung, this process is a long, complex, and tortuous one, in which the formal aspects of the transition, such as state ownership of the means of production, are no guarantee against the bourgeoisie making repeated attempts at restoration and being able to succeed. This conclusion follows from a concrete dialectical analysis of socialist society, and not from an opportunist, scholastic application of the negation of negation.

The obvious opportunism involved in the CLP’s application of negation of negation is probably the clearest example of how Hegelianism and metaphysical materialism do not necessarily contradict each other but are often complementary “poles.” The Hegelianism of the negation of negation is, in this case, wedded with the economic determinism of a theory of productive forces.

The Party of Labor of Albania relies on essentially the same methodology although it tries to camouflage it under a more “Left” cover. The PLA does not deny that class struggle continues under socialism, but its conception of class struggle follows from the view it shares with other opportunists that socialism can be consolidated as a system. With such a view, it effectively denies that progress under socialism comes about through the unity and struggle of the antagonistic classes of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Thus, it objectively negates the inevitability of twists and turns of socialist development, advances and reversals, and the possibility of capitalist restoration developing out of the internal contradictions of the socialist system. Concurrently, it also refuses to recognize the inevitable emergence of two-line struggle within the communist party. The result is that it promotes a metaphysical, one-sided view of socialist development and deals with the contradictions of class struggle in a mechanical way. Failing to recognize the profound material basis for continued class struggle under socialism, it fails to develop a program to carry the struggle to the roots of the problem. Thus, it would necessarily follow that it rejects the line of continuing the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat and the forms and methods of the Cultural Revolution in China which developed out of this line.

Mao’s views contrast sharply with those of the PLA on the nature of socialism as well as on the nature of communism itself. Mao consistently applies the Marxist axiom that “the life of dialectics is the continuous movement toward opposites” both to socialist society itself and to communism. As he says about communism in his “Talk on Questions of Philosophy,” “I don’t believe that there will be no qualitative changes under communism, that it will not be divided into stages by qualitative changes.... I don’t believe that it can remain qualitatively exactly the same, unchanging for millions of years! This is unthinkable in the light of dialectics.” (Pg. 227) What Mao is saying is that “One Divides Into Two” applies to communism as well, and that it is not a “kingdom of great harmony” without internal contradictions that will propel it forward. It is the metaphysical law of synthesis which lends itself to the conception of communism as a “kingdom of great harmony,” and this conception extends to socialism itself when it is viewed as merely the “lower stage” of communism.

What is claimed about the law of the negation of negation is that it is necessary as a theoretical tool to explain progressive development. But progressive development is not explained by the law of the negation of negation, it is metaphysically distorted. This can be seen in the theoretical shortcomings it leads to in how to view the nature of socialist society and communism. Basing himself on a wealth of experience, in the USSR, China, and other socialist countries, Mao was able to break through some of the metaphysical assumptions and sum up a more profound, concrete, dialectical view of how societies develop – based on internal contradictions, the division of unity, and not on Hegelian triads which go hand in hand with an idealist world outlook.

Progress is explained by the basic law of dialectics – the unity and struggle of opposites. For example, the contradiction between human beings and nature, by the very nature of the unity and struggle of the two aspects, brings about historical development. Not all contradictions bring about progressive development, a motion from a lower to a higher stage. Progressive development is brought about by the nature of the particular contradictions underlying it and the inevitable way that the two aspects of the contradictions struggle with and condition each other. For example, the fundamental contradiction of capitalism, between the social nature of the productive forces and the private nature of the appropriation of the wealth, which finds its expression in the class conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, inevitably brings about historical progress. It is inevitable that the proletariat is the rising aspect of the contradiction which will eventually overthrow the bourgeoisie and usher in a higher form of society, socialism.

It is claimed that only the law of the negation of negation can explain the “leap” from one quality to a completely new quality at a higher level. This completely new quality would no longer have either of the two aspects of the old quality. But the law of negation of negation explains this leap only metaphysically, unable to elucidate the continuity between the new quality and the old quality. The notion it uses to explain the continuity is a form of the metaphysical law of synthesis, the Hegelian concept of “sublation.” Mao is able to break through this theoretical impasse with his conception of the principal and non-principal aspects of a contradiction. A new quality arises when the non-principal aspect replaces the other aspect as the principal. When the two aspects change places, one changing from the dominant position to the subordinate position and vice versa, the two aspects change qualitatively, but they are not completely new aspects. The “leap” from one quality, such as capitalism, to a completely new quality, such as communism, requires a transition period in which the two aspects first change places and then the new dominant aspect removes the conditions for the existence of both. There are no sudden “leaps” from one quality to a completely new quality; rather, the “leap” spans a period of progression, with a number of sub-stages, which establishes the continuity between the completely different qualities. Mao’s conception of the principal aspect of the contradiction helps to explain this continuity, without recourse to a theory of “Two Combines Into One.”

The Hegelian dialectic conceives of the new quality “overcoming” or “sublating” the old quality in the sense that the struggle between the two qualities is merely a mediation or bridge between the old immediate unity and the new immediate unity. It is accurate to argue that identity is absolute, and not relative, in this kind of dialectic because the starting point and the end result are both immediate unities. When we speak of an entity being an immediate unity, we mean that the principal aspect of its essence is a “oneness with itself” and the secondary aspect of its essence is the struggle between its two inherent opposites. The Marxist dialectic, by contrast, sees the relation between identity and struggle in a completely opposite way, with struggle always regarded as absolute.

The concrete application of the basic law of the unity and struggle of opposites better explains the basis for both the progressiveness and tortuousness of historical development, the over-all forward development and the twists and turns and retrogressions. In the unity and struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the proletariat brings about progressive development by defeating and liquidating the bourgeoisie, and in the process of liquidating its opposite it lays the conditions for its own elimination as a class. Its self-negation need not be interpreted as the “negation of the negation,” in which it returns to the form of the thesis except with a richer and more developed content. It negates itself only as a result of affirming the existence of a new “working people” under communism. And these more advanced human beings under communism display their own basic contradictions, their particular identity of affirmation and negation, which will propel human development forward. As Mao states, “every link in the chain of events is both affirmation and negation.”

The negation of negation interprets historical development metaphysically; it effectively denies that every “link” is both affirmation and negation, and thus explains the twists and turns, the zigzags of the process, only artificially. The Hegelian triad grafts onto historical development an irreversible idealist spiral, which is more suited to the development of ideas or an Absolute Spirit than it is to the concrete twists and turns, the material complexity of human history.

Overall, history develops in a progressive direction, but this direction is determined by the unity and struggle of basic contradictions, such as between the relations of production and the productive forces in class society, and not artificially by Hegelian triads, the metaphysical law of synthesis, and idealist spirals.