First Published: Marxist-Leninist Quarterly No. 5, Summer 1973
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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In the study of Mao Tse-tung’s essay On Practice the intention is not simply to point out the theoretical contribution it makes to Marxism, but to reveal its practical core, that is, the political purposes for which it was developed, by presenting it within the revolutionary context from which it originated.
The aim of study is to guide action, to help solve the problems of revolution and to provide a framework for ideological unity. This view constitutes an implicit criticism in the first place of a tendency amongst some high-powered Marxist intellectuals to study in a vacuum, treating theory as a form of class struggle in its own right, independent of practice. By doing so they not only negate the practical essence of theory but alienate the masses for whom study is made a burden. This aggravates the opposite and equally erroneous tendency to stress activism at the expense of theory. Mao Tse-Tung’s article ’On Practice’, provides a natural basis for a discussion on the correct approach to theory since, on dealing with the Marxist theory of knowledge, it raises the whole question of the correct relationship between theory and practice.
’On Practice’ was written in 1937 when the Chinese Red Army, having established itself at Yenan after the Long March, and now in the United Front with the Kuomintang, was experiencing a period of respite. It thus took the opportunity of assessing the experiences of the Second Revolutionary Civil War, during which, particularly under Wang Ming’s leadership from 1931-34, serious political, military, and organisational mistakes had been made. These had disrupted the internal unity of the party, upset political work and caused grave losses in battle. Although these errors had been criticised in their specific instances, they had persisted because the ideological attitudes of ’doctrinarism’ and ’empiricism’ which underlay them, had not been dealt with. ’On Practice’ was designed precisely to liquidate these erroneous ideologies.
Wang Ming took the line of ’left’ doctrinarism, starting not from a concrete analysis of China’s actual revolutionary situation but from an abstract understanding of the class struggle gleaned from random study of Marxist texts. He followed the principles of socialist revolution mechanically and dogmatically, failing to relate theory to the specific conditions of struggle in China. In the end, he took up policies of positional warfare and urban uprisings which had nothing to do with the real situation. His abstract and dogmatic approach was masked by a smokescreen of ’leftist’ clichés–a king of sloganeering which is just a show of bravado. Such behaviour is often typical of petty-bourgeois cadres who, coming from an economically unstable class, are unsure of their position and want to prove themselves to be 110% revolutionary – a symptom of what Lenin called ’the infantile disease of communism’. These cadres, desiring a change in their own status, long to race ahead to liberation and often lack the patience for carefully planned strategy or the stamina for a long drawn out struggle. Their policies are based more on their own subjective desire for revolution than on the objective potentialities for it. Accordingly, Wang Ming and his followers were convinced that China was on the brink of socialist revolution so they pushed ahead with reckless and adventurist military campaigns-blind to the real situations, they ignored their failures and glorified their occasional successes as sure proof that the enemy was in a state of total collapse. Politically, they confused the democratic with the socialist revolution and regarding capitalism as the main enemy they insisted on attacking all bourgeois elements instead of uniting with the national bourgeoisie and the rich peasants against imperialism and feudalism. Organisationally they were utterly sectarian, treating diverters from their line as deadly enemies, substituting abuse for rational discussion, so making discipline a matter of mechanical obedience. These doctrinaires were above all elitists who thought they possessed special gifts which made them born leaders of the revolution: ’they believed them selves to be infallible instead of seeking the truth from facts and swaggered and bragged while afraid of just criticism’.
These so-called Marxist intellectuals made easy ideological captives of many in the Party’s ranks whose theoretical level was rather low – ’doctrinairism’ exploited the ’empiricism’ of those who restricted themselves to their own fragmentary experiences and failed to appreciate the importance of theory for revolutionary practice. The empiricists respected only action, despised theory and regarded ’pure’ experience as infinitely superior to studying Marxism-Leninism. But neglecting to use theory and an understanding of history in summing up the experiences of class struggle. These supposedly ’practical’ men, according to Mao, ’cannot have a comprehensive view of the entire objective process (of revolution), lack clear direction and long range perspective and are complacent over occasional successes and glimpses of the truth. If such persons direct a revolution they will lead it up a blind alley’. Nevertheless, the hard core empiricists were elitist and thinking they played the central role in the revolution. They considered that they had innate qualities of perception and understanding which set their own experiences above everyone else’s. Since they put a premium on direct experience, they only had faith in their own subjective impressions and opinions, completely ignoring the experience of the masses. They treated their own limited point of view of the revolution as representative of the whole and failed to realise that direct experience cannot be used as an absolute and unalterable formula for the entire situation but is always limited by conditions and reflects the situation only partially and one-sidedly. The superficial and subjective understanding of the empiricists meant that they often took accidental or temporary advances or retreats as the essence of the general trend of the whole revolution. Thus they lacked firm political orientation and their actions were uncoordinated, unprincipled and individualistic.
To arrive at an objective understanding of revolution in its totality it must be assessed from all sides in all its aspects and conditions. Mao recognised that above all knowledge of revolution rested on the experience of the masses in all areas of struggle. ’Doctrinarism’ and ’empiricism’ separated the concrete practice of the Chinese Revolution from the universal nature of Marxism-Leninism. The first by isolating the universal element, theory, treating it as an absolute and imposing it on practice, and the second, by rejecting the universal element and treating practice as absolute. Mao, on the contrary, affirmed in ’On Practice’ the essence of Marxism-Leninism as the unity of theory and practice, that from the investigation of particular circumstances the universal laws of revolution maybe derived by summarising experiences ’ using the analytical tools of historical and dialectical materialism So study is used to guide action and the unity is ultimately realised by testing the theory’s validity through the practice of the masses.’ On Practice’ laid the ground for the development of the correct strategy of protracted warfare of a guerrilla nature, determined by the conditions of the uneven development of revolution through out China and the relative strength of the enemy. It was the correct strategy based on the experiences of the anti-imperialist and anti-feudal struggles, the foundation of a network of class alliances which held in embryo the New Democracy of the future. Party unity could then be rebuilt on the basis of an understanding of these strategies and not on blind obedience to discipline. In this way ’On Practice’ dealt with the subjective one-sided and individualistic approaches of ’doctrinarism’ and ’empiricism’: it provides a lesson in how to think, how to come to know the world objectively, and all-sidedly, and to develop correct strategies for changing it, enabling cadres to distinguish genuine from distorted versions of Marxism-Leninism, so helping them to use their initiative in acting in an independent but principled way.
The basic question of all philosophy is that concerning the relationship between thinking and being. On the character of this relationship between our subjective ideas and objective reality, consciousness and matter, hangs the whole explanation of knowledge and above all the explanation of our general, abstract idea or conceptual knowledge. This goes beyond the immediate individual and sensuous experience of perceptual knowledge to grasp the essence, the causal structure of nature and society.
Prior to dialectical materialism, philosophers had not examined the problem of knowledge with in the context of man’s social nature and his historical development. In a society divided into the masses engaged in productive toil and a leisured and privileged minority freed from such tasks, ideas appear as the result of mental labour divorced from practical activity. Philosophers, as members of the leisured minority, always took the problem of knowledge to be a theoretical Issue and sought its explanation in the spontaneous activity of the mind. As a result, consciousness, the subject, appears as divorced from the world, the object, as these philosophers are from production. Thus they could never adequately explain how knowledge of the real world is possible, that is, how subject and object are inter-related. But just as the existence of these philosophers is entirely dependent on the labour of the masses, so is knowledge in practical activity. ’The standpoint of life, of practice, should be first and fundamental is the theory of knowledge.’ This is the essence of proletarian philosophy.
Practice is the socio-historical activity of man directed towards the transformation of nature in accordance with his needs. It is made up of those basic types of human activity on objective and real necessary for man’s life as a social being. In the first place, man must struggle to produce from the raw materials of nature goods to satisfy his material requirements secondly, he must carry out scientific experiments to develop his productive techniques, giving him control of natural forces to turn them to his own purposes; and thirdly, he must enter into relations with other men to organise production and the distribution of products. In these social relations men come into contact with each other not merely as individuals but as classes based on the division of labour and relations of product exchange, so that social organisation involves the class struggle. The struggle for production, scientific experiment and the class struggle constitute man’s life activity, practice. It must be emphasised that practice is social and historical and not individual and immediate in character: an individual’s practice is part of and is determined by the activity of the historically developed society.
Knowledge is the reflection in man’s mind of the objective processes of nature and society and is gained through social practice because this alone brings man into contact with things in the world, so that he comes to learn their properties and law of development. Knowledge depends entirely on the three forms of practice: theory is no fundamental source of ideas because it involves no direct interaction between man and objective reality. Marxists describe the relationship between knowledge and practice, thinking and being, as an identity or unity of opposites. This does not mean that they exactly coincide but that they are mutually interdependent, determining each other’s content. In this relation of contradiction, practice is the primary aspect because it is the beginning and the end of the process of knowing, that is, all theory is a generalisation from and directed towards the needs of practice. For example, astronomy and with it mathematics was developed by agricultural peoples because it was indispensible to their way of life-for example to calculate the seasons. Practice is in turn shaped and advanced by the application of knowledge. The development of theory and practice go hand in hand; production begun on a small scale, involving only limited scientific understanding of techniques and giving a restricted horizon on society, but with the all-round development of the productive forces, particularly under capitalism, scientific knowledge develops to reflect all the laws of matter in action and the proletarian, the universal class, gain a comprehensive and historical view of the laws of social development. Knowledge is thus inextricably bound up with man’s social life and development and the theory of knowledge should be looked at from the practical point of view and in historical perspective.
How then does knowledge derive from practice? All knowledge begins with experience; this is the first step in the process of cognition. ’Whoever wants to know a thing has no way of doing so except by coming into contact with it, that is, by living (practising) in its environment.... If you want to know the taste of a pear you must change the pear by eating it yourself.....If you want to know the theory and methods of revolution, you must take part in revolution.’ These lines have sometimes been taken as the ’message’ of Mao’s article. Simple and direct though they are, they hay been distorted both by the ’left’, who regard the words as an exhortation to revolutionaries to leave behind their books and study and plunge into the struggle, and by the Right, who seek to discredit Mao as a crude philosopher and pragmatist. However behind the word ’experience’ two different lines may be concealed. Empiricists also say that all knowledge comes from experience. But what is distinctive and revolutionary about Mao’s line, that is, the dialectical concept of experience, practice, is that it takes man not to be limited to the role of a passive observer, merely collecting the data of his subjective and one-sided impressions, but as playing an active part in changing reality, grasping things as objects and thus gaining an insight into their laws of development. While for the empiricist knowledge remains at the level of immediate reflection of experiences, for the dialectical materialist this stage of perceptual knowledge is only the first in the process of cognition, which must advance from the superficial understanding of phenomena to the deeper understanding of the essence of things given at the rational stage of conceptual knowledge.
In practice, when man comes into contact with things as phenomena, he sees only the separate aspects of things, their properties such as colour and external relations such as comparative size. The task of conceptual knowledge is to select, from the unsystematic collection of accumulated data, the essential elements from the merely accidental ones, so forming a body of judgements which may be tested in practice and developed into a systematic and comprehensive theory. This then provides a structure to experience, by reflecting the essence and totality of the thing under investigation and revealing its internal laws of development and interrelations with other things. ’The perceptual and the rational are qualitatively distinct, but they are not divorced from each other; they are united on the basis of practice’. In other words, the relationship between the two is both materialist and dialectical. Firstly, conceptual knowledge is based on perceptual knowledge gained through investigation which gives various observations under various conditions. For example, from man’s discovery at the very beginning of society, of how to make fire by friction, and after many centuries of experiment and of productive practice using various forms of energy, science has formally been led to the universal law of the mutual transformation of all forms of matter in motion. Secondly, conceptual knowledge reflects reality more truly and completely than perceptual knowledge because, being more generalised, it is able to reveal the structural essence of things. For example, the law of value, though rarely realised in the determination of a particular price, reflects the true nature of class society. Mao illustrates the two stages of cognition with the example of the proletariat which, at the outset of its struggle against capitalism, saw only certain of its phenomena and external relations and responded with spontaneous acts of machine-smashing and burning down factories. After many years of various kinds of economic and political struggles, synthesised by Marx and Engels into a coherent theory, the proletariat finally comes to grips with the essence of their exploitation, and with an understanding of the laws of society are able to transform it.
’The Marxist philosophy of dialectical materialism has two outstanding characteristics; ’one is its class nature: it openly avows that dialectical materialism is in the service of the proletariat. The other is its practicality: its emphasises the dependence of theory on practice emphasises that’ theory is based on practice and in turn serves practice’. Marxists do not come to a standstill at the point of acknowledging the existence of objective reality; they do not merely wish to explain the world but set out to change it. However, unless they are equipped with a knowledge of the laws of change, people can only remain helpless before the world, leaving everything to Fate and submitting with docility to all that happens. Conceptual knowledge, because it does reflect the objective processes of nature and reality, is the tool of change that is why dialectical materialism, which of all philosophies is the only one to realise that conceptual knowledge is based on perceptual knowledge, so revealing the objective and materialist core of theory, arms the people in changing the world. To simply acknowledge the existence of the real world, to admit the reality of perceptions, is not true materialism because it omits the essential point of man’s interaction with his environment. While perceptual knowledge merely parallels passive experience, conceptual knowledge implies, because it is only made possible by and in turn makes ’possible, active involvement in changing things. The process of cognition does not end with conceptual knowledge; theory must submit to the test of truth in practice; it must be put into practice in order to be reformed and further developed. ’Practice, knowledge, again practice, again knowledge’. This unity of theory and practice expresses the mutual transformation of man and objective reality in which man, determined by the material conditions of his life, is able with theory to transform reality and in so doing transform himself. The key to the process is ’Practice, because this is the means by which transformation is accomplished, by which subject and object are united. Without an understanding of practice, philosophy has no possibility of explaining the objective content of conceptual knowledge, leaving man paralysed before the world, divorced from it so that in the end his life is inexplicable.
’Idealism and mechanical materialism (empiricism), opportunism and adventurism, are all characterised by the breach between the subjective and the objective, by the separation of knowledge from practice. Philosophy which looks at the problem of knowledge only from the standpoint of theory, failing to appreciate the correct relationship between perceptual and conceptual knowledge on the basis of practice, falls into two schools: idealism and empiricism. In both objective reality remains beyond the grasp of understanding.
The empiricists, while saying that all Knowledge comes from experience, deny that knowledge is a process involving two stages, that perceptual knowledge must be deepened and systematised into conceptual knowledge and therefore they ultimately fall short of materialism. For them the essence of things is laid bare in their appearance to our simple sensations. Thus they regard the observation of phenomena as the fundamental task of science and effectively attempt to reduce the rational into the perceptual. However, conclusions drawn on the basis of phenomena, from data based on perception alone, inevitably give rise to subjective, partial and thus superficial understanding because they give only a one-sided picture of reality. For example, a wage may appear to be a fair exchange for services rendered, but in fact the transaction contains the hidden essence of exploitation in the form of surplus labour given to the employer. Hume, the most -consistent philosopher in the British Empiricist tradition, was aware of the inadequacies of the system. He pointed out that perceptions reflect phenomena singly and thus isolated from and unrelated to each other, so that there is nothing in our experience that gives any indication of necessary and universal relations between the objects of our observation. Empiricism does not show when a relation is a causal one and when it is a mere coincidence, that is, the differences of relation between the striking of a match and the match lighting, and praying for rain and it raining. It thus does not explain general laws as distinct from particular instances and undermined the basis of science by placing true judgements about objective reality on a par with subjective beliefs. Because it fails to appreciate the qualitative difference between concepts (general ideas) and precepts (sensations), and thereby reduces essence, with appearance, empiricism deprives knowledge of any objective content and restricts it to subjective impressions. This amounts to scepticism, particularly since mere observation offers no means of ascertaining whether knowledge reflects reality or not. For the empiricist, in theory, matter is absorbed into consciousness; the objective is taken as directly coinciding with, the subjective. Similarly, the empiricists whom Mao opposed in the 19308 in practice reduced the objective to the subjective by taking their personal impressions as universal, neglecting theory, which they assumed to be entirely absorbed ill experience, and failing to take into consideration the experiences of others involved, in the struggle, so that they did not understand the revolution objectively, in its totality, and were unable to appreciate the relationship between particular experiences and the general laws of revolution. In the sense that empiricism does not recognise the dialectical unity of subject and object based on practice ,but merges the one with the other, it provides the basis for the ultra-leftist desire to realise in the present, regardless of the objective conditions, the ideal of the future.
In an attempt to preserve the status of science from the alarming conclusion of Hume, Kant developed his complex system of Transcendental Idealism, a system which amounts to a struggle, to unite subject arid object but fails. Idealists regard experience as far too transitory and unreliable to be the fundamental basis of science; on the contrary it takes the mind in its autonomous activity as the source of knowledge, the repository of inevitable truths of reason, the only suitable basis for science. In other words, idealism admits only the reality of reason yet fails to appreciate that reason or conceptual knowledge is only reliable because it is based on perceptions and, quite the reverse of dialectical materialism, it regards scientific laws as the product of the mind imputed to nature. Kant, however, is not a straightforward idealist. Taking this premise of idealism as, the basis of his explanation of conceptual knowledge and the empiricist premise that all knowledge comes from experience, to explain perceptual knowledge he held the elements of dialectical materialism in his hands, yet because he had no conception .of ’practice and thus had no means of uniting the two, he lapsed into dualism -i.e. he treated consciousness and matter as fundamentally separate entities. While the structure of our minds provides the conceptual framework of our experience, it always adds a subjective colouring to it, such that we can never know the world as it really is independently of our perceiving. Thus Kant, having set out to explain how knowledge of objective reality, science, is possible, is faced with the world of the unknowable “thing-in-itself”. Hegel, who achieved the ultimate in idealism, regarded this ’thing-in-itself” as an absurdity; “on the contrary”, he declared "there is nothing we can know better" because it, expresses the thing in the abstract when we have in thought stripped away all its attributes. Thus it is a pure product of though. There is no gap, for Hegel, between subject and object because the subject creates the object, thought creates the laws of the objective world such that the ’ structural essence of reality is entirely dependent on the structure of our minds. Though Hegel’s idealism is hard to take seriously, his formulation of the dialectical interrelation between subject and object is an invaluable contribution to philosophy. Marxism has taken this element with a materialism which overcomes the scepticism of the empiricist and Kant’s dualism by answering the problem of whether knowledge reflects objective reality in the following manner: "human action had solved the difficulty long before human ingenuity had invented it. From the moment we turn to our own use these objects according to the qualities we perceive in them, we put to an infallible test the correctness or otherwise of our sense perceptions ..... if we find that the object does agree with our idea of it , and does answer the purpose intended for it then that is positive proof that our perceptions of it and of its ’qualities, so far, agree with reality outside ourselves’. In other words, practice proves the objectivity of knowledge. While in theory idealism regards conceptual knowledge as an immutable set of truths fixed in the structure of our minds, divorced from reality, in practice idealists reduce objective truths to mental ones which on the one hand are open to revision regardless of objective conditions and are on the other fixed and unchangeable, so that their thinking lags behind the development of the real situation and takes the form of Rightism.
It is worthwhile here to say a word on the charge of pragmatism levelled at Mao. Only the most superficial reading of ’On Practice’ could give rise to such an impression. In its philosophical sense, pragmatism serves up the old content of empiricism in a new form. It declares that we may describe the causal structure of nature according to how we wish to explain our perceptions of it, that is, we may adapt our conceptual knowledge or invent laws to suit the needs of our immediate experience. In other words, like empiricism, it denies the objectivity of the laws of science. The position of dialectical materialism is quite the opposite: we cannot freely choose the laws of science; conceptual knowledge is determined by the way things are in the world, not by the mind. Nor in practice can Mao be said to adhere to pragmatism, for although he is an able tactician, revolutionary policy is for him always a matter of principle, and never to be twisted or sacrificed to suit temporary, individual demands.
Lenin remarked that in the sphere of philosophy revisionism goes back to Kant’s dualism. By 1960, a struggle between two lines had emerged in the sphere of philosophy in China, when Yang Hsien-chen (Lui Shao-chi’s ’agent’ in the sphere of philosophy in China) sought to undermine Mao Tse-tung thought by twisting the fundamental concepts of dialectical materialism. Although he declared himself to be a materialist, adhering to the principle ’being is primary, thinking is secondary’, he in fact only used this Marxist terminology to mask an attack on materialism. In talking about the identity of thinking and being Yang Hsien-chen was careful to interpret this as meaning that social being and consciousness exactly coincided not that there was any relationship of contradiction which accounted for their interaction and mutual transformation. This interpretation cuts out the objective core of knowledge, opening an unbridgeable .gap between consciousness and matter and severing the relationship between practice and knowledge. By conflated thinking and being he aimed to deny that the superstructure of society can come into contradiction with its economic base. From this position he, along with the rest of the reactionary world, tried to discredit Mao’s line of the people’s communes, which at that time, in 1961-62, were experiencing temporary economic difficulties. Yang Hsien-chen claimed that these superficial setbacks were essential proof that the line of the people’s communes was totally incorrect. Policies: in this view, should immediately and totally succeed, if correct, because theory and practice are identical. Furthermore, this denial in philosophy of the objective content of knowledge, making scientific laws depend on the subjective will, paved the way for revisionism. In practice they were turning a blind eye to objective reality, ignoring the scientific method of investigation to gain knowledge from the masses and so invent the law of the dying out of class struggle, of backward forces of production and advanced relations of production, which backed their policy of mechanisation before collectivisation, leading China back to the road to capitalism. Mao Tse-tung Thought on the other hand stresses the dialectical element of the phase of cognition that theory and practice develop together. "Often correct knowledge can be arrived at only after many repetitions of the process leading from matter to consciousness and then back to matter". What accounts for the initial difficulties which the people’s communes underwent was not that the policy was false, but that, due to subjective and objective limitations, it was incomplete. Theory and practice do not readily conform, and the test of the truth of a theory is not its immediate success but practice over a period in which limitations are overcome, conditions changed, and theory and practice mutually developed towards conformity. In this way, Mao stressed the need for investigation and the mass line.
Successful mobilisation of the masses against revisionism did not bring the Cultural Revolution to a conclusion: on the contrary, at this stage it reached a cross-road, for in the struggle against revisionism an ultra-left tendency emerged, particularly amongst students, which manifested itself in a desire to outstrip the given objective conditions and realise in the present the future ideal of full communism. These ’leftists’ were completely carried away by the struggle against the capitalist roaders, which they based not on an investigation of the objective conditions but on the subjective principles that ’left is better than right’. For them, Mao Tse-tung Thought became more a series of slogans than a scientific method leading to knowledge. Obsessed by their own experiences in their struggle against Rightist professors and administrators, they tended to exalt their position in the Cultural Revolution, thinking that if they lost the struggle the whole country would be taken over by the capitalist roaders. This type of ’I am the core’ thinking leads to arrogance, isolation from the masses and individualistic actions justified by ’leftist’ rhetoric but in fact based on an utterly distorted and one-sided view of the situation because it leaves out of all consideration the masses themselves. Thus, the Cultural Revolution constituted not only a struggle against idealism from the Right but also against the typically empiricist errors of placing pure action above the study of Marxism-Leninism and rating class sentiment higher than political consciousness. 
At the centre of the marxist theory of knowledge as put forward in ’On Practice’ lies a two pronged attack: on the one hand against Right opportunism and on the other against ’Left’ adventurism. As a contribution to theory, ’On Practice’ demonstrates the correct relationship between perceptual and conceptual knowledge. The failure to formulate this relationship had been the error of all previous philosophy. But the article provides not only a lesson for philosophers: its essence is of definite practical implication for making revolution. A revolutionary policy does not evolve out of the heads of a few clever leaders but is based on an investigation of objective conditions and integrally connected with the struggle of the masses. In thus giving first place to practice, revolutionaries must not fail to attach importance to the guiding role of theory; they must never totally immerse themselves in a single practical task and lose sight of the comprehensive and systematic view of the whole situation given by summing up the experiences of the masses. ’On Practice’, while occasioned by a particular struggle, contains the universal truth about idealism and empiricism, which apply in every particular instance of Right and ’ Left’ opportunism.
 For example, Althusser and his concept of theoretical practice as put forward in his Book For Marx.
 These remarks on Wang Ming are based on Mao’s ’Resolutions on Some Questions in the History of Our Party’, Vol. 4, Collected Works.
 Engels: Ludwig Feuerbach
 Lenin: Materialism and Empirio-Criticism
 See article in October Broadsheet on ’Apriorism’, and also Peking Review, 10.1970.
 Engels: Socialism, Utopian and Scientific.
 Peking Review, 15.1970.
 For an interesting account of events in the latter part of the Cultural Revolution, see W.Hinton, One Hundred Day War.
 Peking Review, 43.1972