Five Philosophical Theses of Mao Zedong

Image: Zhang Kaiyv


Preface to the collection of texts by the Chinese revolutionary leader

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was a milestone in the XNUMXth century for having started a process of revolutionary movements – of a Marxist nature – over decades. And the Chinese Revolution, led by the CCP, and headed by the figure of Mao Zedong, is certainly one of the most outstanding, above all because of its weight and its representation in colonial and semi-colonial countries, in what was called the Third World.

But the Chinese Revolution has in Mao Zedong, especially in its political and theoretical legacy, its greatest propaganda in which it influenced not only several revolutionary political organizations (mostly coming from the cracks of the pro-Soviet Communist Parties), but also the Marxist intelligentsia – in significant part – located in Europe, especially in France and Italy, where the main contributions came from. His originality in the field of Marxist dialectics was recognized for his fundamental contribution to the theory of contradictions, and its consequences in the field of military science, in the analysis of the socialist transition, in the internal configuration of the Communist Party, and in the constitution of social classes in the pre-revolutionary China.

The book that the reader has in their hands – published by Editora Ciência Revoluárias – is a classic collection by Mao, and contains five of his main theoretical texts: About the Practice e About the Contradiction were written in the late 1930s; On the just solution of the contradictions of the people e About advertising work were written in the second half of the 1950s during the initial phase of the socialist transition in China that followed the First Five Year Plan, and placed in the context of the Great Leap Forward campaign, where an internal struggle in the CCP was beginning, in which Mao criticized the right-wing deviations present in the Popular Democratic Dictatorship constituted in 1949; It is, Where do the right ideas come from? was written in 1963 amid the campaign of the Socialist Education Movement that preceded the Cultural Revolution of 1966.

The text About the Contradiction is central in Maoist Marxist theory, as we understand that the contradictions are not derived from a central contradiction (capital x labor as the supporters of Lukcasian ontology point out), since they have their own origin, although they are interconnected to the main contradiction of the relations of production x forces productive, in which it expresses the class struggle (contradiction) between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. In each specific contradiction articulated to the main contradiction there is a main and secondary aspect, but there is no internal rigidity in the contradictions, since there are internal variations in each contradiction. This means stating that the contradictions are not static, but internally dynamic, as they are part of a dynamic process driven by this set of contradictions.

By highlighting this internal aspect of each contradiction, Mao argues that in a given social formation, internal contradictions determine external contradictions, since social development is mainly due to internal and not external causes. This position of Mao breaks with any economic determinism, whether internal or, above all, external: for external contradictions to express themselves in a social formation, there must be an internal predisposition of the set of internal contradictions. As Mao says, the materialist dialectic does not exclude external contradictions, given that this dialectic considers that external causes constitute the condition of modifications, and internal causes are the basis of these modifications and, therefore, external causes operate through internal causes.

This theoretical contribution by Mao is fundamental for us to understand the particularities of the revolutions of a national liberation nature in the social formations of the so-called Third World, since they were not reducible to the capital x labor contradiction, given the presence of anti-imperialist nationalist traits, such as of the Cuban, Vietnamese revolutions, and of the various African social formations. Traces of historical and national resistance of these peoples shaped their anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist ideologies.

Louis Althusser was the first Marxist thinker in the West to perceive, and apprehend, this innovative pluralist vision of Mao in the Marxist dialectic that went against the monist conception of Hegelian influence[I]. Contradiction is never simple, as it is overdetermined by a plurality of contradictions and determinations, and when their condensation occurs, it is the revolutionary explosive moment, the moment of rupture. Therefore, if the ultimate determination is that of the economic, this also means that there is a relative autonomy of the other structures and practices concerning these structures, with their own and specific temporalities, and not determined in a mechanical way by the economic, nor emanate from an “essence”.

The contradictions are interdependent, they move and change according to the situation. This influence of Mao Zedong on Althusserian theory is made explicit in the texts Contradiction and overdetermination e On the materialist dialectic published in the first half of the 1960s. And this influence will remain in the 1970s when Althusser will analyze the state apparatuses, the role of the communist party and his defense of the concept of dictatorship of the proletariat[ii].

The dialectic defined by Mao is opposed to the so-called “synthesis”, or “negation of negation”. There is no conciliatory moment between contradictions. According to Mao “there is no negation of negation. Affirmation, negation, affirmation, negation… In the development of things, every link in the chain of events is both affirmation and negation. (...) Capitalist society was the negation in relation to feudal society, but it is, in turn, the affirmation in relation to socialist society. What is the synthesis method? Is it possible that primitive society could exist side by side with slave society? They can exist side by side, but that's just a small part of the whole. The total picture is that primitive society is going to be eliminated. (...) In a word, one devours the other, one overthrows the other, one class is eliminated, another appears. Naturally, in the development process nothing is so pure. (...) One thing destroys the other, things appear, develop and are destroyed, everything is like that. If things are not destroyed by others, then they destroy themselves.”[iii]

This destructive and non-conciliatory dialectic of Mao was rescued by the French Marxists who gravitated around Althusser, like Bettelheim and Badiou. Both depart from Mao Zedong's maxim in 1957 in which he stated about the unity of opposites: "one divides into two",[iv] in opposition to the conciliatory Hegelian maxim that “two come together in one”. For Bettelheim, “the negation that it initiates is a false negation, a negation that is not the destruction of what is denied, but conservation within a 'new' synthesis. For this reason, this dialectic is idealistic and tends to close the way to the destruction of the bourgeoisie and capitalism to the proletariat. Indeed, on a whim, in the Hegelian conception of the 'negation of negation' it is the negation itself that is negated”.[v]

Alain Badiou was one of those who best embodied this conception of Mao's destructive dialectic. in your booklet Theorie de la contradiction 1975, he made a brilliant synthesis of Mao's theory of contradictions. Based on the motto of the Cultural Revolution “We are right to revolt against the reactionaries”, Badiou maps the main aspects of this dialectic of rupture with Mao's theory of contradictions. Marxism is defined as an accumulated wisdom of popular revolutions, and revolt as the original place of constructed just ideas whose theory legitimizes the destruction of reactionaries.

The Marxist truth is that which revolt makes its reason for slaughtering the enemy, and for this reason it repudiates all equality in the face of truth. In a single movement, which is knowledge in its specific division into description and directive, it judges, pronounces sentence, and immerses itself in its execution. The revolts are aware, according to their essential movement already given, of their power and their duty: to destroy the reactionaries. That is why there is no synthesis in the Marxist dialectic, but ruptures. Therefore, all truth is essentially destructive. Everything it preserves is false, and the field of Marxist knowledge is always a field of ruins.

Thus, the resolution of a contradiction requires that one of the elements of the contradiction disappear. Or, as Badiou says, the resolution of a contradiction includes the death part. Therefore, the proletariat does not occupy the place of the bourgeoisie, but what it does is destroy that place, because the process of occupation by the proletariat of the dominant place is also the process of dissolution of that place.[vi]

Mao Zedong, in effect, introduces theoretical and political novelties into Marxism. As he himself states in several texts, Marxism cannot be seen as a dogma, but rather a theory that supports revolutionary political action, and has to be thought of in the light of specific realities. And anticipating Althusser – when he defines Marxism as an open problem – Mao states that because it is not a dogma, Marxism does not answer all questions, and therefore its theoretical and political innovation is necessary, and cannot be applied mechanically in completely different realities, but rather rethought in the light of these differences present in the various social formations.

His definition of a materialist dialectic that is not conciliatory, but one of rupture, is precisely applied in his military texts. As Mao observes, general laws generate specific laws, and this applies to the laws of war. For Mao, war is the supreme form of struggle to resolve contradictions, at a certain stage of their development, between classes, nations, states or political groups. According to Mao, “Revolutionary war, whether a revolutionary class war or a national revolutionary war, in addition to the conditions and nature of war in general, has its own conditions and nature, and is therefore subject to the laws of war in general and, also to specific laws”.[vii]

Mao, without a doubt, can be inserted in the current of realist thinking of politics: violence is part of politics. A tradition of political thought that has the figure of Machiavelli as its founding reference, and recovered by Marx in his definition that the State is an instrument of force of the dominant classes, and not of a consensual rationality. And this perspective that violence is one of the essential elements of politics and the State will also be present in opponents of Marx's work such as Max Weber, Vilfreto Pareto and Carl Schmitt. Violence is one of the central elements of politics, as politics cannot be reduced to the “consensus” of different and unequal parties.

Revolution carries with it this element of political violence. As Mao says “a revolution is not an invitation to a dinner, the composition of a literary work, the painting of a picture or the sewing of embroidery; she cannot be so refined, calm and delicate, so mild, so affable, so courteous, restrained and generous. A revolution is an insurrection, it is an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”[viii] War, according to Mao, is a "monster that makes men kill each other, will eventually be eliminated by the very development of human society".[ix] And there are two types of war: just and unjust. All progressive wars are just, and all wars that impede progress because they are counterrevolutionary are unjust.

His undeniable contribution to military science was even recognized by Carl Schmitt who defined him as the “new Clausewitz”[X]. And it is in Clausewitz that Mao relies on defining that war is in itself a political act.[xi]. War has its own characteristics and, in that sense, is not identical with politics in general. As Mao says “when politics develops to a certain stage beyond which it can no longer proceed according to the usual means, war breaks out to remove obstacles from the political road. (…) When the obstacles are removed and the political objective achieved, the war ends. (...) It can therefore be said that politics is war without bloodshed, and war, bloody politics”.[xii]

Mao is the theorist par excellence of revolutionary war and revolutionary political violence. His influence was present in the works of third world authors such as Frantz Fanon and John William Cooke, in which we find a fierce defense of revolutionary war as a means of liberation from colonial and semi-colonial oppression in the phase of imperialist capitalism.

These were the theoretical references of third-world armed movements present in Africa such as the FLN in Algeria, the PAIGC in Guinea and Cape Verde (led by Amílcar Cabral), the Peronist armed movement (notably the Montoneros), the Black Panthers in the USA, and dozens of armed movements ranging from the Italian Red Brigades to the Colombian EPL, and even the controversial Sendero Luminoso. And its theoretical and political influence not only crossed the borders of China, but also its historical context, and is contemporary with revolutionary and anti-imperialist movements and organizations today.

* Luiz Eduardo Motta is a professor of political science at UFRJ. Author, among other books, of In favor of Althusser: revolution and rupture in Marxist theory (Countercurrent).



[I] See Louis Althusser By Marx, Campinas: Editora Unicamp, 2015. On Mao Zedong's theoretical influence on Althusser's work, see Luiz Eduardo Motta, In favor of Althusser, Rio de Janeiro: FAPERJ/Gramma, 2014.

[ii] See your texts About Reproduction, Reply to John Lewis, Conference on the Dictatorship of proletariat, The 22nd Congress, What can't be in a communist party, Marx within his limits, Marxism as a “finite” theory.

[iii] Mao Tsetung, “Conversation on Questions of Philosophy” in Mao Tsetung; Zizek, Slavoj On practice and contradiction pp. 225-226. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar, 2008.

[iv] Mao Tsetung, “The Dialectical Concept of Unity within the Party” in Selected Works, Vol. 5, P. 619. São Paulo: Alfa–Omega, 2012.

[v] Bettelheim “A Letter on 'Mao's Marxism'” in Mao Tsetung, Rossana Rossanda et alli Who's Afraid of China? Lisbon: Don Quixote, p. 80, 1971.

[vi] Badiou, Alain. Contradiction theory, pp 16-17, 26, 86-87, 102-103. Paris: Maspero, 1975. On the destructive materialist dialectic, see also Naves, Marcio Marxism, science and revolution. São Paulo: Quartier Latin, 2008.

[vii] Mao Tsetung “Strategic Problems of the Revolutionary War in China” in Selected Works, Vol. 1, P. 297. São Paulo: Alfa–Omega, 2011.

[viii] Mao Tsetung “Report on an Investigation Made in Hunan Concerning the Peasant Movement” in Selected Works, Vol. 1, P. 28. São Paulo: Alfa –Omega, 2011.

[ix] Mao Tsetung “Strategic Problems of the Revolutionary War in China” in Selected Works, Vol. 1, P. 302. São Paulo: Alfa–Omega, 2011.

[X] Schmitt, Carl. The concept of the politician; partisan theory, P. 205. Belo Horizonte: Del Rey, 2009.

[xi] According to Clausewitz “we see, therefore, that war is not only a political act, but a true political instrument, a continuation of political relations, a realization of these by other means” in Clausewitz, Carl Von. Of war. São Paulo/Lisbon: Martins Fontes, 1979.

[xii] Mao Tsetung. “On Protracted War” in Selected Works, Vol. 2, P. 242-243. São Paulo: Alfa-Omega, 2011.

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