May 20, 2024
The following articles are a part of a broader discussion within the CWPUSA on the subject of Mao Zedong’s revision of Marxism-Leninism.

The following articles are a part of a broader discussion within the CWPUSA on the subject of Mao Zedong’s revision of Marxism-Leninism. The first is written by comrade “J”, a member of the CWPUSA, in which he criticizes some views that were expressed during a CWPUSA educational session. The second article was written by the Interim Executive Committee as a direct response to the first. The first Article was shared internally on 7/6/2022, and the second on 7/29/2022. 

Contradictions: Principle? Secondary? Does it Matter?

By Comrade J

Some comrades believe that the concept of the principle contradiction is too “wishy-washy” for their tastes. That it is too ripe for the picking by the enemies of Marxism-Leninism, right or “left”, who inevitably use it as a weapon against the science of historical materialism. Comrades, let me assure you of your fears; the enemies of Marxism-Leninism will seize upon every word we use, every phrase, every unintelligible utterance. One can find in the bourgeois “science” the words imperialism, socialism, state, law, labor, wages, etc etc etc ad infinitum and you may be horrified to learn that none are used in the truly scientific way! Shall we throw out our entire lexicon because we are afraid of words (or rather the misuse of them)? Should Marx have been happy to have stopped before he unleashed upon the liberal mind the historical role of the division of labor? Lenin may have saved us all a lot of trouble if he dropped the word dictatorship from his vocabulary!

It is unscientific to avoid the use of a term just because our enemies will pervert it. We must not accept the refusal to examine the concept in a materialist way; it is easier to claim a concept as too fluid and simply ignore it than it is to go to the roots, to reach a conclusion as to its validity. When asked to define the meaning of principle and secondary contradictions a comrade replied “Big problem, little problem” Big problem indeed! As Engels says in his work Anti-Dühring:

“The law of negation of the negation [here we could substitute the principle contradiction], which is unconsciously operative in nature and history and, until it has been recognised, also in our heads, was only first clearly formulated by Hegel. And if Herr Dühring wants to operate with it himself on the quiet and it is only that he cannot stand the name, then let him find a better name. But if his aim is to banish the process itself from thought, we must ask him to be so good as first to banish it from nature and history and to invent a mathematical system in which -a x -a is not +a2 and in which differentiation and integration are prohibited under severe penalties.”

 Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science; Chapter 13, Negation of the Negation.

If you wish to call the principle contradiction “big problem” that is your prerogative, but in doing so you no more “banish the process itself” than you would stop the rain from falling by revoking the name gravity. If you wish to abolish it completely then you must show that it does not exist in nature, which we will disprove later.

So, what is the principle contradiction? The idea of the principle contradiction was most clearly laid out in an essay by Mao Zedong entitled On Contradiction where the author states: 

“There are many contradictions in the process of development of a complex thing, and one of them is necessarily the principal contradiction whose existence and development determine or influence the existence and development of the other contradictions.”

 Mao Zedong, On Contradiction

What do our comrades find so wishy-washy about this? Do they deny that at any given time there is a singular contradiction (perhaps they’d be more comfortable with the word tension?) which is more responsible for driving forward a given process? Should we put all contradictions on equal footing? 

In a capitalist nation, is the contradiction between the proletarian interest and the petty bourgeois interest an equal partner in the development of society (i.e. economics, politics, culture, etc.) with the contradiction between proletarian and monopoly bourgeois interests? No. The monopoly capitalist plays a decidedly larger role in the development of society; they control a much greater share of the means of production and as Marx explained in The German Ideology:

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

 Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, The German Ideology; Chapter 1 Feuerbach: Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlooks

There should be no argument against this proposition and so it stands to reason that the monopoly capitalist, who represents a majority of the “material force” of society, plays a larger role in all aspects of production (physical and mental) than the petty bourgeois capitalist, who represents only a fraction of the material force. Already we have refuted the idea that all contradictions should be placed on equal footing. If they can not be said to be equal then one must stand above the rest and it is this contradiction which we call the principle. 

Now we should show that the principle contradiction truly exists in nature. All complex natural processes consist of a multitude of contradictions that represent the internal force of development. Let’s start with the physical process of the dissolution of table salt (chemical formula NaCl) in water. It has been experimentally determined that whether a salt will spontaneously dissolve in water depends on the change in Gibbs free energy, itself dependent on the enthalpy of dissolution and the change in entropy. This relation is given by the equation:


ΔG → Gibbs free energy

ΔH → Enthalpy of dissolution

ΔS → Change in entropy

T → Temperature

The enthalpy of dissolution is the experimentally verified difference between the coulombic (electrical) energy stored in the bonds of a crystal and the coulombic energy stored when the positive and negative charges separate and are surrounded by water molecules. Entropy can be thought of (incompletely, but sufficiently) as a measure of disorder. Solids will, in general, have lower entropies than liquids which have lower entropies than gasses. Finally, temperature is an external factor which can affect the extent to which a salt will dissolve but is never the driving force of the process.

To sum up, we have a natural process that depends on two contradictions. One is the contradiction between positive and negative charges and the energy that their interactions store; the other is between states of high or low entropy. If we return to our example of NaCl and input some empirical data we would find that the enthalpy of dissolution is a positive value, i.e. the coulombic energy is greater in the crystal than in solution. By definition a process is spontaneous if its Gibbs free energy value is negative and, since we can experimentally test for ourselves that table salt does indeed dissolve of its own accord, we know that the change in entropy must be positive and that its multiplicative product with the absolute value of the ambient temperature must be greater than the enthalpy. 

In plain English, table salt does not dissolve because it is energetically favorable but rather because it leads to a state of higher entropy or “disorder”. The change in entropy can be regarded as the principle contradiction; it is the driving force that determines the evolution of the system. However, under different external circumstances (i.e. temperature) there is a theoretical point at which the change in entropy ceases to be enough to cause the dissolution of the salt and the once spontaneous process ends. For NaCl this temperature is lower than the freezing point of water so can never be reached, however the solubility of other salts such as KClO3 rapidly approaches zero as the temperature decreases. The point is that external circumstances can cause shifts in the internal contradictions such that the one that was the principle becomes secondary and the one that was secondary becomes principle.

As promised, we have shown that the concept of the principle contradiction does indeed exist in the natural world without need of the human mind to explain or conceive of it. Why then should we be so quick to dismiss it in the realm of social science? An analogous, though vastly more complex, situation to our salts can be found in the relations between imperialism and national capitalism at the time of the Chinese Revolution. Mao writes:

“When imperialism launches a war of aggression against such a country [China], all its various classes, except for some traitors, can temporarily unite in a national war against imperialism. At such a time, the contradiction between imperialism and the country concerned becomes the principal contradiction, while all the contradictions among the various classes within the country (including what was the principal contradiction, between the feudal system and the great masses of the people) are temporarily relegated to a secondary and subordinate position. So it was in China in the Opium War of 1840, the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 and the Yi Ho Tuan War of 1900, and so it is now in the present Sino-Japanese War.

But in another situation, the contradictions change position. When imperialism carries on its oppression not by war, but by milder means–political, economic and cultural–the ruling classes in semi-colonial countries capitulate to imperialism, and the two form an alliance for the joint oppression of the masses of the people. At such a time, the masses often resort to civil war against the alliance of imperialism and the feudal classes, while imperialism often employs indirect methods rather than direct action in helping the reactionaries in the semi-colonial countries to oppress the people, and thus the internal contradictions become particularly sharp. This is what happened in China in the Revolutionary War of 1911, the Revolutionary War of 1924-27, and the ten years of the Agrarian Revolutionary War after 1927. Wars among the various reactionary ruling groups in the semi-colonial countries, e.g., the wars among the warlords in China, fall into the same category.”

 Mao Zedong, On Contradiction

The extent to which imperialism operates within a country, i.e. an external circumstance, can make at one time the contradiction between proletariat and the national bourgeoisie, at another the contradiction between imperialism and national determination, the principle contradiction. This is exactly what Mao wrote in On Contradiction and further expanded upon in his writings on New Democracy. On the eve of revolution, China was a colonial and semi-feudal country. It was colonial due to the Imperial Japanese puppet government in Manchuria as well as the oppression by the international bourgeoisie of the USA, France, Germany, and Britain among others; it was semi-feudal because capitalist relations among the national bourgeoisie and the feudal landlords was in contradiction and still developing. In such a country it should be obvious to all that the imperial character stands above the developing national bourgeois character as the major force of development; it takes only a passing look at the history of China’s so-called Century of Humiliation to see that this is the case. China’s national bourgeoisie was weak compared to the monopoly capital of Japan, Europe, and the USA; it did not fully control the necessary productive forces to be the prime driver of Chinese society of the time. 

During the first imperialist war Lenin correctly identified the rights of nations to self determination. He struggled against a trend he called imperialist economism; those people who, seeing imperialism as inevitable, denied the role of bourgeois democratic revolutions against foreign powers. Their argument was summarized by Lenin: 

“ ‘Right’ [wing]—we are against the ‘right to self-determination’ (i.e., against the liberation of oppressed peoples, the struggle against annexations—that has not yet been fully thought out or clearly stated). ‘Left’—we are opposed to a minimum programme (i. e., opposed to struggle for reforms and democracy) as ‘contradictory’ to socialist revolution.”

 Vladimir Lenin, The Nascent Trend of Imperialist Economism

The “right” imperial economists saw that there could never be economic “freedom” for small nations in the age of imperialism and declared that the fight against oppression was therefore unproductive. The “left” economist, knowing that the bourgeois-democratic struggle would not lead directly to socialism, also declared that it was counter to the entire socialist program. Both reduced the problem to a practice in dogmatic thinking, divorced completely from the historical materialist method, and both were firmly refuted by Lenin over the course of the first imperialist war.

One further point that should be addressed is that some comrades will read this and believe that this is a defense of the slogan of the renegade Second International, chiefly “Defense of the Fatherland”. Here is what Lenin says on this point:

” ‘From self-determination follows defense of the fatherland,’ the author obstinately repeats. His mistake here is to make negation of defense of the fatherland a shibboleth, deduce it not from the concrete historical features of a given war, but apply it ‘in general’. That is not Marxism.”

 Vladimir Lenin, The Nascent Trend of Imperialist Economism

Communists must resist the urge to apply abstract, generalized slogans to all aspects of life; they cannot possibly hold for all cases. Is it justified for a nation of oppressed people to wage ruthless struggle against their oppressor? During Lenin’s life he made clear that the only truly socialist answer was a resounding: Yes! Is it justified for two imperialist nations to fight for the further exploitation of one another and of the colonies? Of course the answer must be: No! When considering whether a war is justified or not we must never forget the concrete conditions under which the war arose.

To briefly summarize, we have discovered that the enemies of Marxism-Leninism, both on the right and the “left”, will readily seize at every opportunity to pervert the science of historical materialism, to distort it into empty slogans and idealist conceptions of nature and society. We must fight against every revisionist trend that would subvert our work and lead the proletariat further from their historical role as liberator of humanity from class society. To deny the truth of the principle contradiction in the development of things is such a form of revisionism.

Responding to Contradictions: Principle? Secondary? Does it Matter?

By the Interim Executive Committee 


The Interim Executive Committee of the CWPUSA commends comrade J for taking the time to write a thorough response to a discussion from the June 28th educational on “How to be a Good Communist” by Liu Shaoqi. In a passage the author mentions “principle and secondary contradictions” which led to a discussion on the Maoist method of thought. During this discussion comrade “A” made the point that “principle and secondary contradiction” is a convenient rhetorical device rather than scientific law and such a rhetorical formula can easily be replaced with something as simple as “big problem, little problem”. Other comrades seconded the view of comrade “A” and advanced this side of the argument which denied the role of “principle and secondary contradictions” in Marxist dialectics. We believe comrades should follow comrade J’s example in engaging in discussion and reflecting on the substance of our meetings as it raises the ideological-political level of our comrades and highlights the collective discussion that must be upheld in the life of a communist organization. However, the mastering of the Marxist dialectical method demands criticism and self-criticism in all spheres of theoretical and practical activity. The rejection of Maoism as a political tendency does not equate to the theoretical overcoming of the Maoist worldview. So it is within this context that we would like to issue a response to comrade J.

Maoism Demystified

Maoist ideology is an eclectic mix of anarchist and Nardonik views on the role of the peasantry, the pseudo-revolutionary phrase-mongering of Trotskyism, and the postulates of ancient Chinese philosophers. At its core, Maoism is a petty-bourgeois current, a pernicious one that discards the Marxist analysis of the class struggle. In place of the class struggle it posits abstract conceptions of the “poor” as a means by which to determine the motor force of revolution. Maoist thought is characterized by metaphysics, idealism, and subjectivism. In practice it used nationalism towards bellicose great-power chauvinism. Throughout its history, it is accompanied by twists and turns of left and right deviations which are justified by the invented philosophies of Mao cloaked in Marxist-Leninist language. The basic concepts of the revolutionary process of Maoism are: protracted people’s war (PPW) and territorial revolution. According to Mao, in the third world countries where the proletariat is weak, the peasantry is the main force of the revolution. The victory of the PPW included the siege of the cities from the countryside. Mao’s ideas, translated to the international arena, stated that the third world countries will besiege and conquer the imperialist countries. The proletariat, allied with the peasantry, other sectors of the petty-bourgeoisie, and the “national” bourgeoisie, along with the success of the PPW, would establish the “New Democratic People’s Power”. The New Democracy plan would seek to develop the capitalist economy and the alliance of the four classes would continue after the revolution. 

To justify all of this, Mao invented a “fundamental contradiction-principal contradiction” distinction. Mao’s views on contradictions make up the main pillar of Maoist theory.[7] According to this, expounded by Mao in his essay On Contradiction (1937), each phenomenon has a specific “head” contradiction and the way to the basic contradiction is through resolving the main contradictions, one by one. This approach conceals the main contradiction of capitalism, the labor-capital contradiction whose solution lay in the socialist revolution. The conception of contradictions laid out by Mao does not grasp uneven development and leads to an incorrect view of imperialism. Further, it postpones resolving the labor-capital contradiction to a distant future which is one of the common denominators of revolutionary democratism. A similar distinction is made between “primary” and “secondary” contradictions. To Mao, for each period, the separation of primary and secondary contradictions is one of the most important components of an objective analysis. This is why Mao characterized the struggle in the countryside as fundamental, the struggle in the cities as secondary and armed struggle as the main contradiction and other forms of struggle as secondary leading to his famous and often cited quote: “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”. These ideas were synthesized in 1974 when the “Three Worlds Theory” was formulated as a theoretical output of the Sino-Soviet conflict.[8] 

Despite all of its anti-imperialist rhetoric, Maoism has been a tool for imperialism. It has helped to weaken the socialist system, strengthen anti-communism through its lines on opposing socialist construction in the USSR, and even ally with the forces of imperialism. China’s role in the opposition to the USSR resulted in: the dividing the international communist movement, the murder of thousands of Indonesian communists, open support of counter-revolutionary forces in Eastern and Central Europe (e.g. Poland in 1980) and in other countries of the so-called “third world” ( e.g. in Angola, Afghanistan, support of Mobutu etc.), and its rapprochement to the USA, just to name a few, all of which are justified by the theories of Maoism. One cannot forget Fidel Castro’s words on Mao: “I believe Mao destroyed with his feet what he did with his head for many years.”[9]

The Historical and Material Origins of Maoism

It is important to understand the environment from which Mao’s views arose and in which they took shape; towards what political and practical ends were Mao’s theoretical conclusions directed. It is a mistake to divorce Mao’s philosophical teachings from their application and justification in the experience of the revolution in China. China was a country of pre-capitalist modes of production, with a peasant majority in the most backwards conditions, and an underdeveloped industry. The wars with imperialist Japan are important to consider in the awakening of Chinese nationalism as a key component in the formation of the characteristics of the Chinese revolution.[10] Following the Second Congress of the 3rd International in July 1920, the policy to be determined for the national liberation wars was discussed and the role of the national bourgeoisie was highlighted. As a result, communist parties were established throughout Europe and Asia, including the Communist Party of China (CPC) which was founded in 1921. Common features of the parties at this time included theoretical inadequacy, inexperience, and class heterogeneity. The CPC was no exception. Since its founding, the CPC has been heavily influenced, ideologically, by the bourgeoisie. Especially the bourgeois nationalism that inspired the democratic bourgeois revolution that overthrew the Qing Empire in 1912. This was reflected in a number of texts and positions of the CPC, where class was identified with national features.[11] Among the founders of the CPC are: Chen Tu-shiu and Li Ta-chao. Chen Tu-shiu believed that Chinese society could overcome its backwardness by turning to the West. He believed that communism was the most effective way because of its ability to “modernize”. Li Ta-Chao was a nationalist who used Lenin’s theory of imperialism to justify his views. These two leaders played a role in the development of Mao’s thoughts.[12]

The agrarian composition of the party and the overestimation of the role of the peasants in the revolution became the object of criticism by the Communist International in the 1920s. The social alliance, on which the Chinese revolution was based, in addition to the petty-bourgeois and peasant masses, also included a section of the bourgeoisie, the so-called “national bourgeoisie”. They sought the integration of the Chinese state, which for a long time, from 1916 to 1928, was essentially divided into states under military leadership. The “national bourgeoisie” was reacting to imperialist interventions and claiming the country’s national independence. The CPC in a number of variations took the view that it could carry out socialist construction without disrupting its alliance with the “national bourgeoisie”.[13]

Following the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), the relations between the USSR and China entered a new stage. The criticism made by the leadership of the CPC of some right-wing deviations (such as anti-Stalinism and peaceful coexistence) of the CPSU at its 20th Congress, criticism which had correct elements, developed into an ideological-political current in the communist movement. This new current projected a series of unscientific positions and utopian considerations in the policy of the CPC, with a practical expression of intense anti-Sovietism, an alliance with the USA, and the strengthening of reactionary movements. Further, the CPC criticisms of the CPSU were marked by contradiction as they did not rely on the defense of the laws of socialist construction, since China, in practice, challenged these laws. The disagreements manifested mainly in inter-state disputes of contesting and claiming sovereignty over territories. With the “Three Worlds Theory”, a foreign policy was developed that characterized the USSR as “social-imperialist”. Regardless of the fact that the CPC criticized the positions that arose from the 20th Congress of the CPSU, it had since the 1950s adopted positions that did not differ from the views developed by a number of forces which supported the so-called “national way” to socialism, in other words socialist construction in compromise with sections of the bourgeoisie,.[14][15]

Marxsist-Leninists assess highly the role that revolutionary democracy has played throughout history. Some examples include: the Jacobins in France, the contribution of the Narodniks to the emancipation movement in Russia, the role of Sun Yat Sen in the anti-imperialist struggles in China, and Cuba’s revolutionary democrat Jose Marti. The revolutionary elements associated with these struggles were able to pave the way for progressive developments in countries with an underdeveloped working class. In many of the countries that won national independence an outstanding role was played by revolutionary democrats representing the interests of the working peasantry, semi-proletarian elements and petty-bourgeois urban sections. While the Chinese revolution set out on an anti-colonial, anti-feudal, bourgeois democratic path, the numerous petty-bourgeois elements that made up the party proved to be revolutionaries capable of clearing the road of various feudal and colonial vestiges for further advance. During that period, the CPC was able to score victories for the Chinese people in its agrarian reforms and economic rehabilitation. However, when the country was faced with the task of socialist construction the CPC was unable to successfully embark upon the path of socialist construction on the basis of the working class.[16] As a result, the lack of a coherent revolutionary strategy in the communist movement in the 1960s, the split in the communist movement resulting from the rupture of relations between the CPC and the CPSU, and the prevalence of right-wing opportunism and Euro-communist tendencies strengthened Trotskyist and anarchist currents, especially among the youth, had manifested in left-wing opportunism. It is the combination of these elements that shaped Maoism as the main ideological current of left-wing opportunism. 

Dialectics and Its Laws

Before we begin investigating the claims of comrade J, it would be best to address the laws of materialist dialectics; what these laws are, how we can know when we have discovered a genuine law of dialectics, and why they matter. Within and between every phenomena there exists certain properties and connections that are necessary. That is to say that these properties and connections must occur under given conditions. Now, not every necessary connection is a law. In order to be considered a law, the necessary connection must not be limited to an individual thing but must be inherent to many phenomena. Furthermore, these connections must be stable and repeated. In other words, a law “exists as long as the corresponding form of the motion of matter, (or of a definite stage in its development) or thought exists.”[17] Thus, a law is a necessary, general, and stable connection of phenomena or of their aspects. This is what a law is generally speaking but what does it mean for a law to be a law of dialectics?

 The laws of dialects were first outlined by Engels in his work Dialectics of Nature where he spoke on their origin and listed the three main laws of dialectics. Engels writes

 “It is, therefore, from the history of nature and human society that the laws of dialectics are abstracted. For they are nothing but the most general laws of these two aspects of historical development, as well as of thought itself. And indeed, they can be reduced in the main to three: The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa. The law of the interpenetration of opposites. The law of the negation of the negation.”

Engels touches on something very important about Materialist dialectics, which is that it represents the most general laws of nature, of everything. These laws are not specific to any one object or phenomena and their interrelation but describe the universal interconnections of existence. V. Buzuev and V. Gorodnov explain this very fact in their work What is Marxism-Leninism? Where they write[18] 

“Significantly, certain particular laws deal with phenomena taking place in separate spheres of nature, society or thinking, whereas Marxist-Leninist philosophy studies general laws which construe universal interconnections in the world. These laws apply to all existing objects and phenomena and are called the laws of dialectics.”

 What is Marxism-Leninism? Materialist Dialectics P. 68-69 V. Buzuev & V. Gorodnov

So, because these laws of dialects represent the most general laws that apply to “all existing objects and phenomena”, we can understand that a law can only be classified as a genuine law of dialectics if it is applicable to every object and phenomena and if a “Law of dialectics” is found to not hold true even once then it cannot be considered a genuine law of dialectics. Considering the above, what would it mean to reject a law of dialectics? It would mean rejecting reality itself and thus closing yourself off to the source of knowledge and making failures, missteps, and mistakes inevitable. 

Investigating the Claims

In his conclusion, comrade J states:

“To briefly summarize, we have discovered that the enemies of Marxism-Leninism, both on the right and the ‘left’, will readily seize at every opportunity to pervert the science of historical materialism, to distort it into empty slogans and idealist conceptions of nature and society”.

Ironically, this is exactly what Maoism and Mao’s dialectics are. Maoism itself is “essentially a system of slogans that changes from time to time depending on concrete situations and the political direction in which the masses are to be mobilized”. This is how V.I. Krivstov describes Maoism in his book Marxism and Maoism where he analyzes the main ideological sources of Maoism. This makes total sense when one takes into account the philosophical foundations of Maoism, that is Mao’s dialectics, and how they are an idealist vulgarization of Marxism. Let us start with Mao’s revision and distortion of Marxism which is detailed by this quote from Mao’s Talk On Questions Of Philosophy (1964) which states 

“Engels talked about the three categories, but as for me I don’t believe in two of those categories… 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.” 

Here we see that Mao rejects two of the principle laws of materialist dialectics namely, the transition of quantitative to qualitative changes and vise versa, and the negation of the negation. Mao asserts that only the law of unity and struggle of opposites truly matters. Mao goes on to revise the transition of quantitative to qualitative changes into simply a struggle and “union of the opposites of quantity and quality”. While it is true that quantity and quality are distinct from each other, it is not correct to say that they are opposites of each other. Furthermore, to deny the negation of the negation is to deny the connection and continuity of development. If there is no destruction of the previous conditions then there can be no development. Thus, how can we replace the negation of the negations with the principle contradiction distinction when the negation of the negation does not exist in Mao’s dialectics to begin with?

Let us examine Mao’s conception of opposites through the following passages by Leibzon.[19]

“Passing off subjective idealism for Marxist materialism, Mao likewise interprets Marxist dialectics after his own fashion. The unity and struggle of opposites — that law of development as a result of the internal contradictions of phenomena — is reduced by Mao to a primitive scheme of no practical use in analyzing reality. For the multiformity of life with its various contradictions — necessary and incidental, essential and secondary, antagonistic and non-antagonistic — he substitutes a simple enumeration of opposites. In fact, he repeats what the ancient Chinese philosophers did when a scientific interpretation of the universe was still in its diapers.

Here is the static interpretation of opposites, as seen by Mao Tse-tung: ‘Without life, there would be no death; without death, there would also be no life… Without the bourgeoisie, there would be no proletariat; without a proletariat, there would also be no bourgeoisie… All opposite elements are like this.’

How does Mao see development, the struggle of these opposites? He sees it as a simple transformation of one into the other through a change of place… According to Mao, the essence of socialist revolution is merely that the subordinated class, the proletariat, becomes the ruling class, and the bourgeoisie takes the place formerly held by its antipode, the landowners and peasants change places, peace and war succeed each other, etc.” 

We can see that this has nothing to do with Marxist dialectics. The law of development in the “dialectics” of Mao, since opposites can change place infinitely, states that all movement is reduced to the disturbance and replacement of equilibrium. From here the idea that the splitting of “unity into two” arises. This splitting into two was especially useful for the Maoist group’s subversive activity in the international communist movement. Such “dialectics” avoids “the concrete analysis of a concrete situation and to construct contradictions according to one’s wishes, to reduce the science and the art of political leadership to aggravation of contradictions, to present unrestrained subjectivism as ideology.”[20] Looking at all phenomena in an ossified state, isolated from one another, and deprived from their interpenetration, metaphysics replaces dialectics completely. The crude straightforwardness, the inflexibility and inertness, the elevation of one of the criteria of cognition to the absolute, and the dissociation of matter are all at the root of the philosophic idealism.

This demonstrates how Mao’s conception of dialectics is, at its core, idealist. Instead of conceiving the dialectical motion as a vertical spiral, Mao conceives it as a simple “replacement” which turns the spiral into a mere circular motion. This is a direct result of Mao’s revision of Marxist dialectics: “In Marxist dialectics, the development curve accelerated by contradictions is in the form of a vertical spiral. The resolution of contradictions means the disappearance of these contradictions and the fact that the phenomenon determined by the relationship between two contradictions becomes a new phenomenon with a qualitative transformation. This happens on a higher level than is denied. In Mao, on the other hand, contradictions develop in a circular cycle. Opposites change places with each other in the process of movement, but there is no qualitative change in the relation of opposites.” Mao has no way of understanding development and thus discards it all together. To Mao, the socialist revolution is not the negation of the capitalist mode of production, it is not the destruction of the old conditions, but is instead simply a change in place between the proletariat and bourgeoisie.[21]

Mao’s “Dialectics” Overlooks Movement of Matter

In the article an example of table salt (NaCl) dissolving in water is given as a justification for the analyzing of processes through “primary and secondary” contradictions: “the contradiction between positive and negative charges and the energy that their interactions store; the other is between states of high or low entropy.” The change in entropy is given as the principle contradiction, but the secondary contradiction is not entirely clear. At first read this example may not seem objectionable. But when we consult with the great teachers we find that the example provided conceals the fundamental features of dialectical materialism, especially since the Maoist conception discards two of its principle characteristics. We do not disagree with the explanation of the experimental process of salt dissolving in water using the change in Gibbs free energy nor do we disagree that contradictions are inherently found in all phenomena as an objective presence in things and processes themselves. Every movement and every change takes place in the form of the conflict of opposing tendencies, and the development of the phenomena of nature and society is explained by the conjunction of internal and external contradictions, driving forces and conditions. In their writings, Marx and Engels did not confine themselves to pointing to the presence of all the contradictions in this or that process as though they were of equal importance, rather, they singled out the essential contradiction upon which all the others depended. Established by Engel’s tremendous work in Dialectics of Nature, his view of the penetration of opposites plays an important methodological role. The work underscored the fact that it is necessary not to isolate the elements of the partial and the general, the necessary and the accidental, the cause and the causal, etc. from one another and not to make them independent, as the metaphysicians always do, but to perceive them in their unity and in their mutual passages into one another. Be it categories such as cause and effect, content and form, quality and quantity, identity and difference, abstract and concrete, and many more. All of these are interconnected, in an inseparable and mutual way. 

 In the case of the example provided by our comrade, we have the interconnection between physics, as the theory of molecular motion, and chemistry, as the science of the motion of atoms or the physics of atoms, and the bridge built between these sciences and engineering known as thermodynamics. We will not attempt to confront this example from the standpoint of thermodynamics (Engels dealt with this painstakingly!) as this is best left for the physicists and chemists but attempt to show how the one-sided elevation of the contradictions straightjackets dialectical thinking, the ability of recognizing the laws of dialectical materialism in a process. This is a big problem with idealistic scientists, who tend to miss movement and cannot see the movement of nature. Instead, attention is focused on the measurable, the observable situation, and motion is taken for granted leading to the neglect of the real essence of things. We see this with the idea that “external circumstances can cause shifts in the internal contradictions such that the one that was the principle becomes secondary and the one that was secondary becomes principle”. Here, the foundation is set for understanding the process as a circular movement and a mere change of place between the interconnected elements associated with the process of the dissolving of the salt compound in the water compound. Motion should not be understood as displacement in space:

“Motion in the most general sense, conceived as the mode of existence, the inherent attribute of matter, comprehends all changes and processes occurring in the universe, from mere change of place right up to thinking. The investigation of the nature of motion had as a matter of course to start from the lowest, simplest forms of this motion and to learn to grasp these before it could achieve anything in the way of explanation of the higher and more complicated forms”[22] 

 Dialectics of Nature. Basic Forms of Motion. P. 362-377. F. Engels.

Engels laid out that the basic forms of motion are attraction and repulsion. All motion consists in their interplay. The scientists of his day, although making groundbreaking discoveries, could not grasp these simple forms of motion from the dialectical standpoint. Engels discovered that what the scientists deemed “energy” was really the repulsion form of motion and “force”, as the opposite of repulsion, was attraction. From this Engels showed how heat “a form of so-called ‘energy’” is a form of repulsion. At the bottom of enthalpy and entropy we find heat wrapped up in both. As a result we cannot conclude as our comrade says in the article that temperature is never the driving force of the process of salt dissolving in water. It must, in its connection to the attractive side of motion in the dissolution, serve as a driving factor. Furthermore, electricity, like heat but in a different way, is bound up in almost every change on the earth. Electrical processes take place simultaneously with physical and chemical phenomena. This is the case with the example of salt, an ionic compound, dissolving in water which is held together by a polar covalent bond. Reflecting on this all it is important to keep in mind what Engels concluded about the forms of motion passing into one another:

“It is by no means merely in our mind that these manifold forms of appearance are comprehended under the single expression of motion. On the contrary, they themselves prove in action that they are forms of one and the same motion by passing into one another under given conditions. Mechanical motion of masses passes into heat, into electricity, into magnetism; heat and electricity pass into chemical decomposition; chemical combination in turn again develops heat and electricity and, by means of the latter, magnetism; and finally, heat and electricity produce one more mechanical movement of masses. Moreover these changes take place in such a way that a given amount of motion of one form always has corresponding to it an exactly fixed amount of another form.”[23] 

 Dialectics of Nature. Basic Forms of Motion. P. 362-377. F. Engels.

It was from here that Engels showed how the change of form of motion in its quantitative aspect was called “work” further proving the law of dialectics of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa. Engels showed that “work” was expressed in units of heat which curiously brings us back to the often mystified concept of entropy (joules per Kelvin) as a “measure of disorder” and its relationship to enthalpy. What does this mean? According to Engels, all qualitative changes in nature rest on differences of chemical composition or on different quantities or forms of motion. As is almost always the case, it rests on both the former and the latter. It is not possible to alter the quality of a body without addition or subtraction of matter or motion – without quantitative alteration of the body concerned.

“Change of form of motion is always a process that takes place between at least two bodies, of which one loses a definite amount of motion of one quality (e.g., heat) while the other gains a corresponding quantity of motion of another quality (mechanical motion, electricity, chemical decomposition).” [24]

 Dialectics of Nature. Dialectics. P. 358 F Engels. 

This seems to be expressed, albeit in an obfuscating manner, by our comrade in his article with the quantitative measurements derived from the equation associated with Gibbs free energy. Measurement expresses the law of the connection between quantity and quality.

Lest we get entangled in one characteristic of dialectics it is important to point out that the dissolving of salt in water as something that occurs naturally must also incorporate the struggle and unity of opposites, their mutual penetration. The chemical dissolution of atoms is indissolubly connected with their union. The electrical energy bound up in the salt and water declares itself in the form of opposite and negative charges. The interaction between these opposing charges in the elements that make up water and salt and their unity give way to them flowing together into a new category: salt water. The manifestation of unity gives way to the negation of the negation. The previous qualitative expression of the compound NaCl as a crystal bound together by electric charges, a relative and temporary state, cannot be physically observed but still exists in a new way after its passing into salt water as Na+ and Cl. The water, previously expressing the bond between H+ and O2-, is identical with itself and yet has become distinct from itself. Attraction is transformed into repulsion and vice versa (ion-dipole interaction). The electrical form of motion is transformed to heat and vice versa. The salt water represents a new stage of development; an electrolyte which serves as a great conductor of electricity as well as a necessary component of the human body. From here springs the possibility of new processes with numerous scientific applications, for example the ocean as a renewable energy resource.

Given all of the above, done in an admittedly simplified manner, why is the contradiction between low and high entropy the primary contradiction? How can the presence of all these forms of motion, their interconnectedness, their passing into other forms, be reduced to primary and secondary contradictions? How are the mutually corresponding quantity and quality in this example reduced to a subjective isolation of contradictions? How does the interpenetration of opposites in this process occur? How does the negation of the negation take place in this entire process with the result of the qualitatively distinct substance of salt water? None of these are sufficiently answered taking into account all of the above in relation to the example provided. Like Engels said:

“If, however, we adhere one-sidedly to a single standpoint as the absolute one in contrast to the other, or if we arbitrarily jump from one to the other according to the momentary needs of our argument, we shall remain entangled in the one-sidedness of metaphysical thinking; the inter-connection escapes us and we become involved in one contradiction after another”.[25]

 Dialectics of Nature. Electricity. P. 450 F Engels.

To understand a process, to fully expose the source of its self-movement, it is not enough to establish the diversity of the contradictions. However, it is necessary, among all these contradictions, to disclose the basic fundamental contradictions which define the movement of the process, that which determines all the other contradictions. 

But what is a fundamental contradiction and how does it differ from Mao’s “principal contradiction”? A fundamental contradiction is best understood as the interaction between opposite aspects of the very essence of a thing. For example, the contradiction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is a fundamental one within capitalism, that is, no amount of alteration to capitalism can be made that will negate said contradiction, not without capitalism making a qualitative change to a different mode of production.

When Mao identifies a contradiction as principal, and the contradiction is also already known as a fundamental one, the scientific scrutiny has already been done and Mao’s principal can be recognized as a slight rephrasing. But when the principal contradiction is different from the fundamental contradiction, the cause for divergence is attributed to relative circumstance, but with this phrasing, subjectivity can be masked by scientific language. This mistake on Mao’s part stems from his initial insistence on subsuming two laws of dialectics into the third law, that of the unity of opposites, and then altering this supreme law to fit a broader utility. This convergence of laws allows dialectics the room to explain all phenomena as only the struggle of opposites, thus obscuring anyone’s subjective use of the law.

The idea of principal and secondary contradictions conceptualizes the notion of contradictions within dialectical materialism as mere problems to be dealt with, whereas the principal contradiction needs to be resolved sooner and the secondary contradictions are able to be resolved later. It is a subjective lens placed over dialectical materialism, reducing its scientific nature in favor of providing a rhetorical utility. Anyone can claim that one ought to do x before y, or that ab is more pressing than bc, but that is not a demonstration of a law of nature, that is merely an argument, a strategy, a rhetorical formula.


Our response here by no means demonstrates an exhaustive knowledge or description of the laws of dialectics. It is meant to guide discussion towards and root it in the dialectical materialist conception of reality. That is to avoid the dictation of rules to the separate sciences and prevent the assigning of the task of dialectics to investigate the particular laws of the various domains of reality. Dialectical materialism is not a method of striving to impose itself on nature, but a method based on the findings of the natural sciences.[26] The dialectic serves as a logic and methodology in the separate sciences, as a guideline for the use of all methods, for the scientific and world-view generalization of the results of their investigations. It makes possible the synthesis of the conclusions of the natural and social sciences and the experience of the social act of revolutionary struggle, for the scientific depiction of the world of Marxism-Leninism with the goal of equipping the working class with scientific knowledge necessary in the building of socialist society. In contrast to Marxism-Leninism, Maoism, both historically and in its various current forms, is a tool for capitalism-imperialism and a hindrance to socialist construction. This is demonstrated by the reactionary nationalist Sino-Soviet conflict, a literal be divided and be concurred strategy, its direct consequence being the splitting of the world into three camps, setting a playfield most beneficial to the still dominant camp of capitalism-imperialism. Even today, China is against capitalism-imperialism in rhetoric, but is against socialist construction in practice. Remember, the social alliance on which the Chinese revolution was based, is still intact, and there are only sparse allusions to its eventual dissolvement. And despite the confusion of many, both early revolutionary China and China currently are a direct result of Mao’s philosophical teachings, that is, Maoism or, Mao Zedong Thought, as it is sometimes obscurely labeled. For it is in accordance with Mao’s dialectics that the contradiction between labor and capital is dismissed in favor of the “national” interest of improving productive forces, the same productive forces that are openly exploited by the “national bourgeoisie” who vie for a higher seat within the capitalist-imperialist pyramid. This mystified form of social democracy is justified using Mao’s idea of principal and secondary contradiction. And it is Mao’s dialectics, a revision of Marxist dialectics, that has provided an easy avenue for opportunism, not only in the CPC, but within communist movements around the globe. Through its rhetorical formulas, Maoism is equipped to pose idealist conceptions as materialist law. The subjectivity of Mao’s language, once mastered, can be wielded against the working class, can split communist parties and the global movement, and can even (such as in the case of “social-imperialism” and “socialism with Chinese characteristics”) transfigure socialism into imperialism and vise versa.


  1. Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science; Chapter 13, Negation of the Negation.
  2.  Mao Zedong, On Contradiction
  3.  Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, The German Ideology; Chapter 1 Feuerbach: Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlooks
  4.  Mao Zedong, On Contradiction 
  5. Vladimir Lenin, The Nascent Trend of Imperialist Economism
  6. Ibid
  7.  Gelenek. Issue 20. Where Mao Illuminates. Sinan Denizci.
  8. Gelenek. Issue 52. Labor Party from Revolutionary Democracy to Reformism. Footnotes 1-2. Burhan Ocal. 
  9.  Walters, B., & Castro, F. (1977). An Interview with Fidel Castro. Foreign Policy, (28), 22. doi:10.2307/1147794
  10.  Gelenek. Issue 20. Where Mao Illuminates. Sinan Denizci. 
  12.  Petty-bourgeois revolutionism (anarchism, Trotskyism and Maoism). Leibzon, Boris Moiseevich. Progress Publishers. 1970. 
  14. Ibid
  15.  Anticommunism. Yesterday and Today. Pt. 15. OPPORTUNISM AND ANTI-COMMUNISM. Ideological Committee of the Central Committee of the KKE.
  16.  Petty-bourgeois revolutionism (anarchism, Trotskyism and Maoism). Leibzon, Boris Moiseevich. Progress Publishers. 1970.
  17.  Marxist-Leninist Philosophy. Categories of materialist dialectics 7. Law. P. 215-216 A.P. Sheptulin 
  18.  What is Marxism-Leninism? Materialist Dialectics P. 68-69 V. Buzuev & V. Gorodnov
  19.  Petty-bourgeois revolutionism (anarchism, Trotskyism and Maoism). Leibzon, Boris Moiseevich. Progress Publishers. 1970.
  20.  Ibid.
  21.  Gelenek. Issue 20. Where Mao Illuminates. Sinan Denizci. 
  22.  Dialectics of Nature. Basic Forms of Motion. P. 362-377. F. Engels.
  23. Ibid
  24.  Dialectics of Nature. Dialectics. P. 358 F Engels. 
  25.  Dialectics of Nature. Electricity. P. 450 F Engels. 
  26. Matter, Dialectics and Society Volume 2 | Number 4. Engels’ Contributions to Modern Physics and Our Understanding of Nature. Hasan Karabıyık