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


Our position on the principal contradiction and the fundamental contradiction are still basically consistent with what was laid out in the Committee for a Proletarian Party’s pamphlet Strategy and Tactics of the Proletariat in the Era of Imperialism. In that pamphlet, the concepts were not treated philosophically, but were linked with the political questions of strategy and tactics. In discussing these philosophical concepts, we will try to clarify their meanings by maintaining this helpful political context.

We continue to agree with Mao Tsetung that the fundamental contradiction determines the essence of the process of development of a determinate thing. Applying this concept to capitalist society, we would maintain that its fundamental contradiction, expressed in class terms, is the contradiction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. This fundamental contradiction remains basically the same, as well as the essence of the process of development that it determines, throughout the different stages of capitalist society, including the stage of imperialism.

Grasping the fundamental contradiction is basic to elaborating our strategic disposition of forces, but it is not adequate by itself to determine the articulation of different tactical lines to cope with the concrete and complex ebbs and flows of the class struggle. As part of a more concrete analysis of the interrelationship among the ensemble of contradictions which accompany a particular stage of development of the fundamental contradiction, a decisive question for determining our tactical line at this stage is being able to identify the principal contradiction. As Mao says, “There is no doubt at all that at every stage in the development of a process, there is only one principal contradiction which plays the leading role.” (Four Essays on Philosophy, pg. 53.)

This principal contradiction could very well be, and very often is, a particular form of the fundamental contradiction. This form of the fundamental contradiction would be conditioned by the specific interrelationship of the fundamental contradiction with the numerous other major and minor contradictions which make up a complex thing. Also, because of the law of uneven development of contradictions, one of the major contradictions may become the principal contradiction exercizing a leading or decisive influence during a specific stage of development. In addition, the interrelationship between the complex thing and its environment may undergo radical change, with a contradiction of larger scope “intervening” and serving to re-align the internal contradictions. An example would be the influence of the outbreak of World War on the particular alignment of class forces within a country.

What is essential is to do a concrete analysis of the uneven development of the contradictions making up a complex thing and the influential contradictions which constitute its environment. As Mao says, “The study of the various states of unevenness in contradictions, of the principal and non-principal contradictions and of the principal and the non-principal aspects of a contradiction constitutes an essential method by which a revolutionary political party determines its strategic and tactical policies both in political and in military affairs. (Four Essays, pp. 59-60) Such an approach would provide a basis for avoiding the political errors associated with mechanical materialism which tends to promote a theory of even development. Examples are Bukharin’s theory of equilibrium and Trotsky’s theory of “permanent revolution.”

We think that Mao’s essays on philosophy, such as “On Contradiction”, provide a valuable antidote to a dogmatic method and doctrinairism. They represent important landmarks in the process of developing Marxist philosophy. But we do not base ourselves uncritically on these essays. For example, we use Mao’s essay “On Contradiction” as a foundation for our distinction between fundamental contradiction and principal contradiction, – but we think that the essay itself tends to be ambiguous on this distinction, often seeming to use the two terms interchangeably.

One example of this ambiguity can be seen in a comparison of passages. On page 43 of “On Contradiction” Mao states that “when capitalism of the era of free competition developed into imperialism, there was no change in the class nature of the two classes in fundamental contradiction, namely, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie...” And on page 51 Mao states that “in capitalist society the two forces in contradiction, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, form the principal contradiction.”

We think, however, that the distinction is implicit in much of the discussion of contradictions, especially with regard to the concrete analysis of the course of the Chinese Revolution. On page 44, for example, in discussing the radical difference between the stage of the bourgeois leadership of the Chinese revolution and the new stage of proletarian leadership, Mao says that “although no change has taken place in the nature of the fundamental contradiction in the process as a whole, i.e., in the anti-imperialist, anti-feudal, democratic-revolutionary nature of the process... nonetheless this process has passed through several stages of development in the course of more than twenty years.” And again on pages 52 and 53, Mao discusses how the principal contradiction changes when imperialism launches a war of aggression against a country such as China. At such a time, in a semi-colonial country like China, the contradiction between imperialism and the country becomes the principal contradiction, displacing what had been the principal contradiction, that between the feudal system and the great masses of the people.

At the same time that we recognize that in practice Mao made a distinction between fundamental and principal contradiction, we believe that theoretical ambiguity on this point opens the door to the empiricism characteristic of political revisionism. If fundamental contradiction is collapsed into principal contradiction, then our strategic thinking becomes coincident with our tactical line in a particular stage. Such ambiguity does not afford a sufficient philosophical guard against the emergence of a revisionist political theory such as the theory of the three worlds, which is opportunistically promoted as a strategic conception for world revolution.

In the practice of leading the Chinese revolution, it is not obvious, however, that Mao did not make this distinction between fundamental and principal contradiction. We think that this distinction helped Mao to clarify the transition from New Democracy to socialism. This is evident in the way that he dealt with the particular question of the contradiction between the proletariat and the national bourgeoisie. By way of contrast, the Neo-Trotskyism of the Party of Labor of Albania leads them to a mechanical conception of the two strategic periods of New Democracy and Socialism, and a resolution of this mechanical distinction which represents a theoretical muddle of the two periods. Trotskyism, although it may take on a very “left” form, shares with Khrushchev and Chinese revisionism many of the same philosophical foundations in mechanical materialism. Often mechanical materialism is interwoven with, and complements, an idealist world outlook. We can see this concretely in the way that many of the parties in the “PLA trend” oscillate between these two philosophical poles.

To begin with, what has to be recognized is that the “transition to socialism” in both the USSR and China were qualitative leaps which spanned a considerable period of time, encompassing a number of stages. In the USSR, for example, the transition to socialism included the stages of war communism, N.E.P., the transition from N.E.P. to the socialist offensive, the winning of the countryside to the side of collectivization in 1929, and the entry into the period of socialism itself (cf. Textbook of Marxist Philosophy, pg. 317) To understand the complexity of this lengthy transition period, it is necessary to identify the principal contradiction at each major stage of development, and beyond that the particular configuration of contradictions at each sub-stage. Ultra-revolutionists in general, like Trotskyists in particular, refuse to recognize this complexity or analyze it, preferring to identify the lengthy qualitative leap with an instantaneous or rapid emergence of a new quality.

Failure to understand the lengthy nature of this qualitative leap to socialism is related to a failure to distinguish between the principal contradiction and the fundamental contradiction. A mechanical conception of the two strategic periods of New Democracy and Socialism relies solely on the notion of the fundamental contradiction, and is unable thereby to dialectically explain the transition from one fundamental contradiction to another, from one quality to another quality. Just as the neo-Trotskyists of the PLA mechanically distort the complex nature of the transition to socialism in a backward, semi-colonial country like China, so the Trotskyists in the USSR were unable to understand the particular stages of the transition there. One example was their mechanical identification of NEP with capitalism. As The Textbook of Marxist Philosophy states, “Naturally, the Trotskyists, by not seeing the paths to the dialectical negation of capitalism within NEP, proposed to the Party a policy that aimed at the disruption of NEP and consequently of socialist construction itself.” (pg. 370) In a sense, the NEP was a “tactical retreat” within the over-all period of the transition to socialism. The principal contradiction in the USSR at that time, the country having emerged ravaged from both World War I and the Civil War, necessitated a tactical line which accommodated elements of capitalism in order thereby to strengthen and solidify the dictatorship of the proletariat and prepare the material conditions for the socialist offensive.

In China, a country more economically backward than Russia, the strategic period of New Democracy lasted significantly longer, at least formally, than the similar period of the bourgeois democratic revolution in Russia. With modern industry comprising such a small percentage of the national economy, it was necessary economically to accommodate national bourgeois elements for a while. But there was no long period of “consolidation” of New Democracy which allowed capitalism to flourish and expand. By 1952, the people’s democratic dictatorship was firmly enough established to begin the transition to socialism. Always having a dual character, progressive in its opposition to imperialism and reactionary in its opposition to socialism, the national bourgeoisie became more of a “target” of the revolution, with its very existence as a class becoming historically reactionary. As Mao stated it:

With the overthrow of the landlord class and the bureaucrat-capitalist class, the contradiction between the working class and the national bourgeoisie has become the principal contradiction in China; therefore the national bourgeoisie should no longer be defined as an intermediate class. (Vol. V, pg. 77)

Without understanding the concrete nature of the beginning socialist offensive, of the “decisive turn” toward socialism, it is impossible to understand how the two strategic periods of New Democracy and socialism are interwoven and interpenetrate. The transition period in China was a complex, contradictory process of development, in which destruction of the old and affirmation of the new mutually penetrated and co-existed. The offensive against capitalism, and specifically against the national bourgeoisie, began in 1952; by 1956, with the extensive state ownership of industry and collectivization of agriculture, this task had been in the main completed. Nonetheless, despite the fact that the national bourgeoisie was expropriated, many of its members continued to receive fixed interest on their expropriated property even after 1956. This practice, which was intended as a tactical means to neutralize the counter revolutionary tendencies of the national bourgeoisie and continue to exploit their experience and expertise as much as possible, was no different from the practice of the Bolshevik Party of “bribing” some of the capitalist intelligentsia.

Only Trotskyists, who have a very narrow and mechanical schema of the dictatorship of the proletariat and collapse the strategic period of New Democracy into that of socialism, would object on principle to such tactical maneuvering and necessary compromises. Historically, Trotskyists have long opposed the strategic “bloc of four classes” opposed to imperialism a strategic line developed by Stalin and other leaders of the Comintern and put into practice by Mao. It is not surprising then that the neo-Trotskyists of the PLA would seize on the question of the national bourgeoisie to vainly try to discredit the Chinese revolution.

These opportunists would attempt to exploit the question of the national bourgeoisie because they do not understand dialectics, because they do not understand that “a leap is a profoundly contradictory process.” (Textbook, pg. 314) The national bourgeoisie was not eliminated at one stroke; it was not decreed out of existence. Elaborating a tactical line which took into account the dual nature of the national bourgeoisie even in the stage of the transition to socialism, Mao and the Left in the CPC allowed the national bourgeoisie to continue to exist while simultaneously preparing the conditions for its liquidation. This tactical line minimized the losses to the dictatorship of the proletariat by giving the national bourgeoisie no other choice but to allow themselves to be liquidated as a class peacefully.

The specific way that the national bourgeoisie was dealt with followed from an analysis of the specific principal contradiction during the period of transition from one fundamental contradiction to another, from New Democracy to socialism. The metaphysical method of the neo-Trotskyists would lead them to believe that either one fundamental contradiction is operative or another is, and that therefore if there is a period of transition to socialism, then the fundamental contradiction of socialism is the only one that can be operative and the strategic and tactical line should follow suit. The objective result is that they effectively liquidate the strategic period of New Democracy and negate the economic, political, and ideological conditions which make it distinct from socialism.

This metaphysical, one-sided, either/or methodology continues to be applied once the transition to socialism is in the main completed. Although the PLA, for example, pays lip service to the notion that capitalism can be restored, they profoundly misinterpret the fundamental contradiction of socialism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. For instance, the Albanian constitution states that “in the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania there are no exploiting classes, private property and the exploitation of man by man have been liquidated and are forbidden.” (Article 16, pg. 13, Tirana, 1977)

In the People’s Republic of China, once the transition to socialism had been in the main completed, the antagonistic contradiction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat became the fundamental contradiction propelling socialist society forward. With the Great Leap Forward which began to prepare the conditions for the long and tortuous advance toward communism, a new principal contradiction emerged, replacing that between the proletariat and the old exploiting classes. A new bourgeoisie emerged, engendered by the material conditions still existing under socialism itself. And the struggle by the proletariat and its political representatives, such as Mao, with this new bourgeoisie arising within the party and the state apparatus itself became the principal contradiction intensified to the point of open battle during the Cultural Revolution.

What was one of Mao’s great strengths was his insistence on doing a concrete analysis of concrete conditions at all times, and especially under the conditions of socialism. To do this analysis well, Mao had to utilize dialectics and, among other things be able to distinguish between the principal contradiction and the fundamental contradiction. As well as being able to penetrate beyond the appearance of things to their essence to identify the fundamental contradiction, he also had to be aware of constant motion and change and take account of the law of uneven development which would bring different principal contradictions to the fore at different times. Mao’s mastery of dialectics allowed him to avoid major right errors, such as conciliation with the national bourgeoisie, and major “left” errors, such as the neo-Trotskyism of the PLA.