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


Consistently applying the method of materialist dialectics, Mao Tsetung has provided valuable insight into the relation between principles and flexibility: “The integration of principle with flexibility is a Marxist-Leninist principle, and it is a unity of opposites.” (SW, Vol. V, pg. 516) In other words, Mao is claiming that there is an internal identity between principles and flexibility which dictates that although the two are mutually exclusive as opposites, they are also interdependent.

Principles cannot be applied without being in unity with flexibility. In the process of putting Marxist-Leninist principles into practice, it is inevitable that they will not be fully realized all at once, without difficulties and setbacks for the eventual realization of principles, whereas unprincipled compromises undercut or sabotage realization.

Marxist-Leninist principles are forms or modes of revolutionary activity which have been scientifically summed up as having universal validity on the basis of the historical experience of the proletariat. As Lenin explains, “Principles are not an aim, a programme, a tactic or a theory. Tactics and theory are not principles. How do we differ from the anarchists on principles? The principles of communism consist in the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat and in the use of state coercion in the transition period.” (LCW, Vol. 32, pg. 469)

Principles like the dictatorship of the proletariat have a universal applicability within certain historical limits. This universal applicability is established by the scientific generalization of past revolutionary practice and is verified by future practice. This practice need not be direct practice in the application of these principles. When Marx, for example, first put forward the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat, he had no direct historical model upon which to base this principle. He was primarily summing up the laws of motion of capitalist society that would inevitably lead to its revolutionary overthrow and assessing what would be necessary to thoroughly defeat the bourgeoisie once it was overthrown.

This idea of universal applicability, however, should be clearly understood in terms of the viewpoint and method of materialist dialectics. When we are speaking of principles, we are not referring to static, ahistorical, immutable forms which are applied uniformly under all concrete circumstances. Lenin understood well the Marxist-Leninist axiom, described by Mao, of the necessary integration of principle with flexibility:

As long as national and state distinctions exist among peoples and countries ... the unity of the international tactics of the communist working-class movements in all countries demands, not the elimination of variety or the suppression of national distinctions (which is a pipedream at present), but an application of the fundamental principles of communism (Soviet power and the dictatorship of the proletariat), which will correctly modify these principles in certain particulars, correctly adapt and apply them to national and national-state distinctions. (LCW, Vol. 31, pg. 92)

As an example of this modification of the principle of the dictatorship of the proletariat which adapted this general form to nationally specific conditions, the people’s democratic dictatorship in China was a particular application of the dictatorship of the proletariat to a semi-feudal, semi-colonial country. In opposition to this view, Trotskyites have historically relied on a dogmatic, ahistorical interpretation of principles which pits them against flexibility. For them, the general form of the dictatorship of the proletariat remains essentially unchanged, whether it be applied to an advanced imperialist country like the USA, a backward military-feudal imperialist country like Russia, or a semi-colonial, semi-feudal country like China. In denying the integration of the principle of the dictatorship of the proletariat with flexibility, the Trotskyites, in effect, distort the principle itself by regarding it as a pure and monolithic dictatorship of one class and not a historically specific form of class alliance under the leadership of the working class.

It is essential that we apply the Marxist theory of knowledge in order to understand the relation between principles and flexibility. Principles do not reside and become fully real in some Platonic realm of pure forms. Principles are universal forms which become real in the course of historical development. What often happens among dogmatists is that they ignore, liquidate, or mechanically distort the integration of principles with flexibility. Relying on an a priori methodology, they treat the development of principles as an end in itself, instead of seeing that the goal of developing principles is to struggle to achieve principled revolutionary action. The application of principles is always a struggle which demands the use of flexible tactics and the willingness to compromise if necessary.

The Marxist theory of knowledge recognizes that human cognition always moves in cycles from the particular to the general, and from the general back to the particular again. Before we can know the common essence of things, we have to know the particular essence of individual things. And after having summed up the general essence of things, we must proceed to apply this knowledge to the further investigation of concrete particular things. Only in this cyclical process are we able to supplement, enrich, and develop our knowledge. Dogmatists short-circuit this process of knowledge at this point of summing up the general essence of things. As Mao argues,

Our dogmatists are lazy-bones. They refuse to undertake any painstaking study of concrete things, they regard general truths as emerging out of the void, they turn them into purely abstract unfathomable formulas, and thereby completely deny and reverse the normal sequence by which man comes to know truth. (Four Essays, pp. 37-38)

Marxist-Leninist principles represent the common essences of general truths summed up from many particular revolutionary actions or activities. However, treated as ends in themselves, they wither, petrify, and degenerate into “abstract unfathomable formulas.” Principles become constantly enriched and deepened in the process of being applied by human beings who are engaged in revolutionary action. The modification and adaptation of principles to concrete, specific historical conditions do not dilute and compromise them, but strengthen them and make them more intricate and conformable to the complexity of material reality.

Principles become strengthened in unity with flexibility; divorced from flexibility, they stagnate and can become counter-revolutionary in their objective impact. Such a divorce of principle from flexibility is a form of opportunism, a violation of Marxist-Leninist principle itself. Such a rupture is not necessarily politically innocuous, but can lead to costly mistakes for the revolutionary movement. As the Chinese Communist Party explained in its 1963 polemic against Soviet revisionism, More on the Differences Between Comrade Togliatti and Us:

Flexibility based on principle is not opportunism. On the contrary, one can make opportunist mistakes if one does not know how to exercise the necessary flexibility and to suit the action to the moment, in the light of the specific conditions and on the basis of persevering in principle, and one will thus bring unwarranted losses to the revolutionary struggle. (Whence the Differences?, pg. 346)

There are numerous Marxist-Leninist principles, some of which are subordinate to others within given historical circumstances. In a complex situation in which Marxist-Leninists are struggling to advance the cause of the revolutionary movement, they will be guided by a number of principles, major or minor in nature. It is often necessary to seek a compromise on some of these principles in order the better to prepare the conditions for the realization of a principle more vital to the advance of the proletariat’s interest.

The ultimate Marxist-Leninist principle, simply stated, is to do that which most advances the revolutionary interests of the proletariat. As Lenin says, “the good of the revolution, the good of the working class, is the highest law.” (LCW, Vol. 42, pg. 48) That is why the question of principles and compromises is inextricably interwoven with the question of political strategy and tactics. In the context of what most advances the interests of the working class, no principle can be considered inviolate.

To juxtapose principles and compromises as abstract categories is to approach them from an inherently bourgeois metaphysical perspective. The question of principles and compromises is not an ahistorical, “moral” question, but a political-historical question which is inseparably linked with the correct elaboration of concrete strategy and tactics. As the earlier quote from Lenin made clear, “tactics and theory are not principles,” but still the question of applying principles cannot be separated in practice from the development of strategy and tactics. The reason is that strategy and tactics always have to be developed as the key to advance the revolutionary interests of the proletariat in a concrete historical context.

To clarify the differences between Mao Tsetung and Enver Hoxha on the nature of principles and compromises, it is most helpful to take just such a relevant concrete historical context in order to judge, not just what the two of them say on paper, but how they put their understanding on these questions into practice. The context we have chosen is the struggle against Khrushchev revisionism in the vital period of 1962 to 1964.

Before we proceed to discuss, in particular, Hoxha’s criticisms of the struggle of Mao and the CPC against Soviet revisionism, we think it would be useful as background to explain certain “principles” of struggle which Mao has developed out of summing up the rich history of successes and failures of the Chinese revolution. In reviewing these principles, we think that it is possible to gain a better understanding of how the CPC under Mao’s leadership views struggle and unity, principles and compromises. Such a review will begin to provide a basis for answering Hoxha’s charge that “during the entire period that Mao was alive, the Chinese policy, in general, was a vacillating one, a policy changing with the circumstances, lacking a Marxist-Leninist spinal cord.” (IATR, COUSML Ed., pg. 105)

In the essay Current Problems of Tactics in the Anti-Japanese United Front, written in 1940, Mao explained that there were certain principles that comrades in the CPC should follow in carrying out struggle against the die-hards in the period of the anti-Japanese united front. Although Mao is referring to the struggle against die-hards, and not specifically to the struggle against revisionists, and the historical context is the anti-Japanese united front and not the international united front against the world’s main enemy in 1962-1964, U.S. imperialism; we still believe that these principles of struggle have a certain broader applicability.

The struggle against revisionism has its own particular laws, distinct from those which govern the battle against die-hards in general. But what is valuable to understand in drawing this close analogy is that the ideological struggle against revisionism which can in no way compromise on principle must at the same time be conditioned by the broader context of the all-around revolutionary battle with imperialism. We do not necessarily agree with Mao’s principles in their entirety, nor do we endorse a mechanical application of them to the struggle against revisionism in particular; but what discussing them in this context helps to highlight is the sharp contrast between the mature tactical sophistication of Mao and the CPC and the self-defeating sectarianism and dogmatism of Hoxha and the PLA.

In speaking of the struggle against the die-hards, Mao refers to three main principles that should be followed. These are that Marxist-Leninists should fight 1) “on just grounds,” 2) “to their advantage,” and 3) “with restraint.” (Cf. SW, pp. 426-427) What these three principles mean is that 1) Marxist-Leninists should never attack without provocation, but once they are attacked they should never fail to counter-attack, 2) Marxist-Leninists should never fight without a plan and the certainty of success in achieving their goals, and they should never take on all the die-hards at once but should direct their blows at the most reactionary and dangerous of them first, and 3) they should know when to bring a particular struggle to a close before another attack is launched on them and should never fight on ceaselessly day after day.

As Enver Hoxha’s “diary”, Reflections on China, makes evident, he must disagree with all three of Mao’s principles in struggling against revisionists because he puts none of them into practice. What becomes most obvious after reading this diary is that Hoxha does not have a good handle on tactical flexibility because, fundamentally and most seriously, he does not have a good handle on objective reality. His estimate of the balance of forces between Marxist-Leninists and revisionists in the early 1960s and the chances of winning over the majority of communists and defeating Khrushchev were heavily weighted with empty phrase-mongering and bravado. For example, Hoxha attacks China’s more sober and flexible tactical policy in this period as “an opportunist road of vacillation and concessions to the Khrushchev traitor group which finds itself in grave difficulties, and is intriguing in order to escape defeat.”(ROC, COUSML Ed., pg. 7, reprinted in Proletarian Internationalism, Vol. 1, No. 4)

And later Hoxha claims that “Khrushchev wants to hold the meeting of the 81 parties and expel us. In acting in this way he is committing suicide.” (pg. 35)

The tactically flexible policies of the Chinese Communist Party were based precisely on the estimate that they were a small minority both in the international communist movement and the socialist camp. The overwhelming majority of parties and socialist countries backed Khrushchev and regarded the CPC and PLA as splitters and wreckers. These two Marxist-Leninist parties had very few reliable allies. Possible allies like the Vietnam Workers Party, the Korean Workers Party, the Communist Party of Indonesia, and the Communist Party of New Zealand had strong centrist tendencies and wavered between the two camps.

This unfavorable objective situation did not call for the abandonment of the resolute struggle on principle, but it did necessitate a flexible tactical policy which took the weaknesses of the Marxist-Leninists into account and did not exacerbate them. Mao’s first principle of struggle that Marxist-Leninists should fight “on just grounds” was especially relevant since the revisionists banked a great deal of their tactics on isolating the Marxist-Leninists by labelling them dogmatists and splitters. What must be remembered is that the Marxist-Leninists had an awesome responsibility in standing up for principle and facing the likelihood of splitting the powerful socialist camp and the large international communist movement.

In such circumstances, when Marxism-Leninism was under attack, communists could not compromise on principles; but to effectively counter the effort to isolate them, they also had to demonstrate a genuine interest in trying to reach principled unity. Laying down inflexible pre-conditions for meetings of the 81 parties, for example, would have only tended to isolate the Marxist-Leninists further and prevented them from gaining a valuable forum for carrying out the struggle from within the international communist movement while that was still possible. Marxist-Leninists had to take advantage of every opportunity to carry out struggle which would prepare the best possible conditions for a split.

The PLA, however, insisted on laying down just such inflexible pre-conditions and pursued a sectarian and self-isolating tactical line. When it came to withdrawing its pre-conditions for a meeting with the CPSU and other parties, pre-conditions which would have required the revisionists to admit beforehand that they were revisionists, the PLA replied that ”we are not budging a hair’s breadth from our correct positions of principle.” (ROC, pg. 10)

When the CPC advocated taking part in such a multi-lateral meeting, the PLA accused it of seeking some sort of unprincipled compromise. There can be no doubt that it would be a compromise to agree to minimal conditions for such a meeting to ensure that it take place, but such a compromise would not be unprincipled if such a meeting provided an opportunity for Marxist-Leninists to better carry out the struggle and extend and deepen their influence.

Marxist-Leninists were not dealing merely with a battle between ideas and ideologies, but were confronted with parties and countries that represented real material forces in the world. Under such conditions, to attempt to establish some form of tactical unity with centrist forces like the Rumanians, in order to increase their contradictions with the Soviet revisionists, would not represent an abandonment of principles. In attempting to build some ties with the Rumanians, the CPC was following through, in effect, on the second principle of struggle developed by Mao, namely, that Marxist-Leninists should wage struggle “to their advantage.” In waging struggle “to their advantage” communists must differentiate between their greater and lesser enemies and seek to direct their main blows at their greatest enemies. In line with creating contradictions in the enemy camp and attempting to isolate the main enemy as much as possible by tactically uniting all who can be united, communists can seek temporary tactical compromises with middle, vacillating, or even centrist forces. This policy does not at all mean that struggle is not carried on with centrist forces to eventually force them to clearly take sides, but such struggle on questions of principle is conducted simultaneously with the view in mind of maintaining some form of tactical unity with them and preventing them from going over to the side of the revisionists.

The PLA rejected such tactical flexibility as a form of unprincipled compromise. In effect, they lumped all the revisionists and centrists, like Khrushchev, Tito and the Rumanians, into one solid camp of reaction. They defined all these different forces as being equal members of one common front of international revisionism which should be regarded as the main enemy of Marxist-Leninists and fought “consistently, unwaveringly, to the end, in any form, at any time, and under any circumstances that it presents itself.” (ROC, pg. 28) This stance represented a form of ultra-leftism which flew in the face of Lenin’s well-known advice that “to refuse beforehand to maneuver, to utilize the conflict of interests (even temporary, unstable, vacillating and conditional) allies is not this ridiculous in the extreme?” (Left-wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder, FLP, 1965, pg. 66 or LCW, Vol. 31, pg. 70)

In rejecting such advice, Hoxha and the PLA exposed themselves as idealists who objectively separated the ideological struggle from the political, economic, and military struggle. Communists cannot compromise on the ideological struggle, but they have to be flexible to some extent in how they have to carry it out and aware of what impact it will have on successfully carrying out the other forms of struggle.

The idealist deviations of the PLA in treating the ideological struggle as a separate, sealed-off realm became apparent in how they viewed the proposal of Mao and the CPC to create a broad front against U.S. imperialism which would even have included the revisionists like Khrushchev. In 1964 when the Chinese advanced such a proposal, U.S. imperialism was the main enemy of the world’s people, and the Soviet Union was still considered part of the socialist camp despite its new revisionist leadership. Such a proposal was a correct tactical policy given the concrete political alignment of class and national forces in the world. The focal point of such a policy was the need to supply all possible aid to the Vietnamese in their growing war with the U.S. imperialists.

In such an historical context, the response of Hoxha to the Chinese proposal was: “Is it possible for us Marxist-Leninists to create a common front with the modern revisionists? Apparently, to the Chinese and Japanese it is possible. To us no, this can never be!” (ROC, pg. 35) Such a short-sighted and idealist attitude opposes itself to the third principle of struggle developed by Mao that Marxist-Leninists should exercise some restraint in carrying out struggle against reactionary forces, such as die-hards or revisionists. Such restraint relates mainly to the timing and tempo of the struggle and its integration with the effort to achieve unity in the front against imperialism. In the context of the united front against U.S imperialism which was vital for strengthening the hand of revolutionaries in direct military combat with the U.S.A., like the Vietnamese, the ideological struggle with Khrushchev revisionism, which could recognize no bounds as regards principles, needed to be integrated with some degree of tactical restraint.

What Hoxha and the PLA did not understand is that it is in the course of waging the revolutionary class struggle that revisionists are best exposed for their conciliation and collaboration with imperialism. To be effectively exposed by revolutionaries, revisionists need to be drawn and dragged into common fronts of struggle where their words can be tested in the crucible of deeds. In their dogmatism and sectarianism, the PLA objectively weakened the struggle against U.S. imperialism, and concomitantly, weakened the struggle against modern revisionism itself. Historically, the PLA put itself in the same ultra-left camp with the forces in the Third International who opposed Lenin’s policy of seeking a united front with the social democrats in the 1920s. It also put itself in the same camp with the Trotskyites in the 1930s who opposed the popular front against fascism.

In conclusion, we can see that Hoxha and the PLA oppose all three of the principles of struggle developed by Mao (fighting “on just grounds,” “to our advantage,” and “with restraint”) because of a consistent and longstanding tendency to dogmatism, sectarianism, and idealism. Although the PLA tries to pay their respects to orthodoxy and spin many fine words about principles and compromise in such articles as “On Alliances and Compromises and the Criticism of the Theory of Three Worlds” (Albania Today, No. 3 [46], 1979) , its practice in the revolutionary class struggle belies these fine words and exposes the PLA for opportunist and self-serving phrase-mongering.

When it comes to the real test of applying Marxist-Leninist principles in their practice, the PLA fails miserably. Attempting to hide under the mantle of orthodoxy, Hoxha and the PLA only reveals their own ultra-left and costly opportunism on questions of principles and flexibility. The basic reason is that they fail to understand the fundamental Marxist-Leninist axiom that principles and flexibility are a unity of opposites, that principles must be integrated with flexibility or they can eventually end up as a counterrevolutionary dogma.