Grasp Revolution, Promote Production - Questions of Outlook and Method, Some Points on the New Situation

Marxism "Embraces but Does Not Replace"

by Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1180, December 22, 2002, posted at

EDITORS NOTE: The is the third in a series of excerpts published in the RW from an important tape-recorded talk by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP, in the first part of 2002: "GRASP REVOLUTION, PROMOTE PRODUCTION, Questions of Outlook and Method, Some Points on the New Situation." These excerpts have been edited for publication in the RW. Footnotes have also been added.

Having talked about the principle of "grasp revolution and promote production" and its application to many different spheres, and in an overall sense, I want to move to a discussion of the next main point--which is philosophical and methodological questions. I want to begin by focusing on one of these very pithy statements that Mao is sort of famous for making--and the more you grapple with different things that people like Mao, leaders of our class historically, have put forward (and this is especially true of Mao) the more you see how much is really concentrated in some of these very brief statements. Now, as we know, Mao wrote many works-- some of them long, some of them short--through the course of his several decades of leadership: he wrote "On Contradiction," "On Practice," "On Protracted War," lots of things on the question of new democracy, and so on. But especially toward the end of his life--partly for reasons of health, but also because this is one of his methods--he would often come out with very short, pithy statements that focused people's attention and unleashed a whole bunch of wrangling.

For example, in what we call "the last great battle" against Deng Xiaoping, in the years '73-'76 (more or less), they were focusing on the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat: why is the dictatorship of the proletariat essential, what is and should be the character of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the whole question of continuing the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat. And, instead of writing a whole long essay--which he was probably incapable of doing at that point, but even if he had been, he might very well have used this other method--he posed the question: Why did Lenin say that the dictatorship of the proletariat is essential? Then he followed that up with another sentence: The whole nation should discuss this. And if you think about it [BA laughs], that's very pithy. You know, it's like "he's not giving us much guidance"--why did Lenin say that? But what Mao was doing was calling on people to wrangle with that question themselves, to study and to wrestle with the question both in its own right, so to speak--as a matter of principle and theory--but also to situate that in the context of the class struggle that was raging and intensifying at that time in China. So that's kind of a general method that he used at times, and I think there's something to learn from that as far as methods of leadership. Sometimes, posing really important questions is an important way of leading, although sometimes people want answers and we have to give them, so you can't always just pose questions and think you've done your job--if you can just come up with a good question, that's not always enough, but sometimes it's the best method of leadership.

And the statement I want to focus on here is where Mao said (I believe it was in "Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art"): Marxism embraces but does not replace theories of physics, theories of aesthetics in art, and so on. I want to talk a little bit about what this means and some of the implications and applications of this. This, like everything else, is a unity of opposites, it contains two contradictory aspects: on the one hand, the aspect of "embraces" and, on the other hand, the aspect of "does not replace." Let's go into this a little bit.

What does it mean, and why was he emphasizing, that Marxism does indeed embrace all these different disciplines and fields of inquiry and struggle and so on? Well, of course, partly this is a bit polemical, because there are some people who argued (and, of course, many who still argue) that Marxism does not apply to certain spheres, that it only applies to politics or maybe to philosophy in a general sense. And people like Trotsky in the course of the Soviet Revolution came up with the slogan: in politics, proletarian; in art, bourgeois. In other words, leave the superstructure to tradition, more or less. This was also a big line, of course, in China, and it became a focus of big struggle (and it was not only bourgeois art in that case, but also feudal culture). This became a big focus of struggle in the Cultural Revolution. So, on the one hand, when Mao says Marxism does embrace all these things, this is polemical. He's arguing, yes, Marxism does embrace and is applicable to all these different spheres. And what does that mean? Well, it has to do with the fact that there's objective reality.

Now, I'm going to talk about objective reality a number of times in this talk. It's interesting, I've seen some reports where some of our people, particularly those working among the youth and working among different social and political movements, have observed [BA laughs] that apparently in some circles, if you use the phrase "objective reality," it's like a code word and right away everybody knows you're associated with our Party, because you talk about objective reality and objective truth, instead of identity politics or "my truth" or agnosticism and relativism in general. So, to the degree that's true, it's sort of an interesting commentary on the times and the character of things and where they still have to go and develop--that you're immediately identifiable as being with a certain trend, and our Party in particular, if you talk about objective reality! Nonetheless, there is objective reality, whether anybody likes it or not. And there's no part of reality that is theoretically unknowable, although there will always be parts of reality that are unknown by human beings (and since there's no god, they won't be known by god either). But there is nothing that's inherently unknowable, and there are not ultimately different world outlooks and methodologies for comprehending reality in the fullest and most systematic way--in other words, there is only one world outlook and method that enables you to comprehend reality in the fullest and most systematic way, and that is Marxism (or, today, Marxism-Leninism-Maoism).

Now let me stop here and make a point, however--this is another way in which some of the methodological points I want to stress relate to the fact that life is complex and what we're setting out to do is complex and difficult. It is true--and this is a very important point actually--that while there is no other world outlook and methodology that can enable you to increasingly and more and more deeply and broadly understand reality in a comprehensive and systematic way, that doesn't mean that people who don't have this outlook, or even people who are strongly opposed to it, don't discover some important truths. If you look at people throughout history--people like Darwin, for example--they were far from proletarians. They were not Marxists. In fact, I heard that Marx actually wanted to dedicate Capital to Darwin, and Darwin declined. Apparently, he didn't want to be associated with Marx in that way. But the fact remains: Darwin wasn't a Marxist, yet he discovered a very important--and, ironically and amazingly, a still very contentious--truth.

So this is another contradictory aspect of reality we have to understand: on the one hand, Marxism is the only world outlook and methodology that enables you to thoroughly and systematically and in a comprehensive way engage and learn more and more deeply about reality; but it isn't true that people who don't have the Marxist outlook and methodology, or are even opposed to it, cannot discover important truths. There's not only Darwin but Einstein and many other people throughout history, going back even before Marxism was brought into being. Obviously, such people have discovered many important truths, and that will continue to be the case, even in the socialist transition period--this is a very important point to understand or we'll make some very serious errors in the direction of bureaucratism, dogmatism, and some of the errors that we associate, for example, with Stalin.

But, with all that, it is true that Marxism embraces all these spheres. It embraces all of reality. It is a world outlook and methodology that can and should be applied to every sphere of reality in order to grasp it most deeply as it actually is and as it's actually moving and changing, in its motion and development. So that speaks to the "embraces" aspect. But what about the "does not replace" aspect?


This has to do with something Mao emphasized in "On Contradiction," which is the particularity of contradiction. Reality doesn't exist as an abstraction or in general. Material reality exists in the form of particular forms of matter in motion at any given time, although all particular forms are always coming into being and going out of being and undergoing transformation while they exist. So this is another important unity of opposites to grasp. But what I want to emphasize right here is the particularity of contradiction. Mao pointed out in the same essay, "On Contradiction," that qualitatively different contradictions are resolved by qualitatively different means. For example, colonial oppression is resolved by national wars or the struggle for national liberation. The struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is resolved by the class struggle. The requirements of production are resolved by carrying out production, although once again the complexity of life is that, just as soon as you do that, you enter into relations of production, and the sphere of production interpenetrates closely with, is a unity of opposites with, those relations of production and with the struggle over them. So this again is the complexity of reality, but at the same time reality does exist in relatively-- relatively --discrete forms. Otherwise, it would be impossible to distinguish one thing from another. And, more fundamentally, matter would not actually exist if it all were just some sort of undifferentiated blob--or, to put it another way, matter could not exist in that mode--it does not exist in that mode because of the very nature of matter. (Whether there could have developed another kind of matter that existed in different ways than matter as it has actually developed is in fact a very interesting question that has to do with various fields of science, and the philosophy of science; but that is beyond the scope of what I am speaking to here. The essential point here is that matter actually does exist in different, relatively discrete forms--it has particularity, relatively.)

So it is necessary, in order to actually make progress in, and carry out transformation in, any particular sphere or discipline or activity, to go deeply into the particularity of contradiction. If people are trying to do something, for instance, in the sphere of physics or some of the other sciences--wrestling, for example, with problems concerning the origin of the known universe--and we send a comrade to meet with a group of scientists wrangling with this and our comrade says, "What's the problem? Marxism- Leninism-Maoism--that's the answer"--Well, that's not going to be very satisfactory, and it's actually not going to supply the answer. If we all memorize quotations--or let's say we all memorize everything that Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao said about physics--that is not going to supply the answer that's needed to these kinds of vexing and at the same time very exhilarating questions and it's not going to contribute, positively, to the wrangling about questions having to do with the nature of matter and with the transformation of matter, with the origins of the known universe, etc. Not only coming in and just doing something as crude as reciting all the quotations from all the great Marxist "classics" about this particular sphere, but also just coming in and saying, "Dialectical materialism teaches us that everything is matter in motion, and that motion is absolute while temporary forms of stability of matter are secondary and partial"--well, that's true, but what the hell does that have to do with the particular problems? Actually, it does have to do with them, but you have to apply this concretely. You have to actually go deeply into the particularity of contradiction that you're confronting, into the particular sphere or discipline, or the particular problem within that sphere or discipline, and really wrestle with that.

And this has to do with the whole principle of combining the masses with the experts, with the principle of red and expert, of red leading expert, the non-professional leading the professional. That doesn't mean that people who don't know anything about a sphere come in and issue orders to people who do; or that people come into a sphere and, as soon as someone raises something that contradicts what we believe to be true at a given time, you simply bring down the official line, slam the door shut, and close off debate. Now, there have been tendencies in the history of our movement to do this, but this is something we have to learn from by negative example. If we are really going to carry out everything we're seeking to carry out historically, we're going to have to rupture with such methods. We're going to have to learn how to go deeply into things.

For example, there is a role for experts in relation to our ability to lead in various spheres, and such experts can be an important link when they're won over to our world outlook and methodology. They can be a link between the Party (and the vanguard forces in general) and others who are expert in a particular sphere. You have to have people who are both expert in a sphere and also consciously seeking to apply the "embrace" principle, consciously seeking to apply our world outlook and methodology. Otherwise, it's going to be very difficult to lead. And if you don't know anything about a sphere, it's impossible ultimately to lead other than by the most commandist and bureaucratic methods--which everyone is going to rebel against, openly or secretly, and the results are going to be very undesirable in terms of our strategic goals, because after all, despite what the anarchists might say or think, we're not just trying to grab power in order to exercise power over the people. We're trying to carry out a world-historic transformation in which the masses will ultimately emancipate themselves and achieve a classless society and a world of freely associating human beings. That's a tall order, as the saying goes--that's a tremendously great challenge--and it can't be accomplished by those kinds of bureaucratic methods.

So, again, you can err in one direction or the other (or one and then the other, or some combination of them). You can forget the "embraces" part and get lost in a particular sphere and think that our basic principles have nothing to do with this, or that this has nothing to do with our strategic objectives. You can fall into tailing spontaneity, tailing the masses, pragmatism, losing sight of the relation between the particular and the universal--that is, between a particular arena of activity or struggle and our ultimate goal of achieving communism, and between learning about one particular sphere and increasing the store of knowledge of humanity as a whole. So you can forget the "embraces" aspect and forget the universal in that sense.

On the other hand (and this is what I was just speaking to) you can also lose sight of the particular, the "does not replace" aspect. That's what Mao means with "does not replace": he means you can't just have Marxist principles in a general or abstract sense. You have to apply them. You have to apply them in a living way, and you have to learn from others in the course of applying them and apply the mass line in the spheres of science, and so on, in order to be able to correctly learn and lead. So, again, these errors can go on one side or the other: forgetting the universal, forgetting the broad strategic objectives, forgetting the "embraces"; or, on the other hand, forgetting the particularity of contradiction. You can fall into forgetting the "does not replace." You can fall into forgetting the need to actually go deeply into a sphere, to immerse yourself in a certain sense, but immerse yourself without losing the other aspect, without losing the sense of the universal, without losing the sense of the strategic, without losing the aspect of "embraces." So the difficult task is to immerse yourself to really deal with the particularity of contradiction, to learn in a particular sphere, while overall leading and in order to lead in the best way; but also to keep in mind the universal, keep in mind the "embraces."

This is a very crucial principle that Mao concentrated, it is very dialectical in reflecting reality, and it requires a tremendous amount of continual work and summation to be able to apply this correctly, because again you can veer one way or the other, or you can find some sort of worst of all worlds combination of halfway being universal and halfway dealing with the particular, but not really applying either aspect correctly, so that you end up with a pragmatic mush. These are all the kinds of errors which everyone who has set out to do what we're setting out to do is familiar with [BA laughs] and has committed on more than one or a few occasions. But there's no way to correct that, no way to do the right thing, except to continually grapple with these principles and how they apply, and to keep coming back to the overall and the universal, but then go back in turn to the particular...and on and on--which parallels in a certain sense the ongoing theory-practice-theory dialectic.


Now, connected with this is a sort of fascinating point in an article by Ardea Skybreak (in the RW ) on "Working with Ideas."* This is something to ponder and wrangle with in a broad and an open-ended way, which in fact is in line with the substance and spirit of that article. It's the following argument:

"Failing to recognize the degree to which it is important to `let the reins go a bit' in the unfolding of intellectual work will result in a suffocating and stifling bureaucratized atmosphere, and the production of a very few slowly and laboriously crafted, overly labor and energy intensive, good works. Many other works will never be undertaken at all, and in fact, few intellectuals will ever want to work under such energy and morale sapping strictures, and those few good works that do get produced may well contain many good points and minutely calibrated precisions, but they will also be stripped of much of life, humor, artistry, and especially of those thought-provoking tangents and ruminations which are the stuff on which further intellectual exchange and dialogue tends to build."

This is actually raising a very important point. It has to do with what I was saying earlier about the Mensheviks and their methodology, or the revisionists in China: "What's this got to do with carrying out production? This is just another one of these diversions from the task at hand. Why do we need to talk about philosophy or world history or, God forbid, singing and dancing? What does that have to do with what's immediately on our agenda?" Now, we do have to pay attention to our agenda. There are things we're trying to accomplish in the world, and if we don't accomplish them, it's not good. We're engaged in a very intense class struggle. But this goes back to the "grasp/promote" principle, with which I introduced this talk, and I think what's being gotten at, in this quote from this Ardea Skybreak article, is really something to think about and wrestle with--what it is attempting to focus on and wrangle with is a very important question.

And, to expand a little bit on this point, it's interesting to think about the relation of what's said there in that Skybreak article to certain criticisms that have been raised with regard to the sphere of art and culture and how it came to be handled in China after a certain point in the Cultural Revolution. One of the things that has been pointed out is that a tremendous amount of work and collective effort and struggle and attention to minute detail actually went into producing the model cultural works that came forward through the Cultural Revolution, because this wasn't a matter of bringing something new into being in a vacuum-- they were going up against and struggling every step of the way against the old and against the attempt to stifle and suffocate these model works and to uphold tradition in opposition to them. So there was a tremendous amount of work that was concentrated on this, that had to be concentrated on this. And even our enemies have, ironically, had to acknowledge that these works, whatever they think of them politically (and they don't like them politically and ideologically, obviously), were tremendous artistic creations and represented something new in the sphere of art.

I remember reading not too long ago (within the last year or so, I think) an article in the New York Times where they acknowledged this. This article mentioned how in China people still talk about these works that came forward then, model works of the Cultural Revolution, and what tremendous achievements they were. And I specifically remember that there was one guy they quoted who worked on these model works who was refreshingly and excitingly unrepentant. He not only upheld those works but raised pointedly: "How many works of a high artistic level have these clowns in power now brought forward?" I'm paraphrasing, but that was the essence of what he said. This is reflecting the fact that it's not easy to bring forward works like these model works, and we should not lose sight of the fact that these are tremendous achievements of our class and of its vanguard leadership. These were really new things, world-historical new things, that were brought into being.

At the same time--and I'm not trying to pass a verdict on this, I'm raising it as a question that I think is worth not only pondering but looking into further and wrestling with in terms of its specificity but also in terms of some of the broader questions it raises that I'm trying to point to and promote some wrangling around--the criticism has been made that, after a certain point, things around these model works turned into their opposite (or bringing forward new works turned into its opposite) to a certain degree and in a certain sense, because nothing could be promoted other than these model works, and everything that people attempted to create (this is the criticism that was raised) had to be gone over with the same degree of laborious and fine-tuned and calibrated attention (to refer again to the Skybreak article) that the model works had required in order to be brought into being. This is an interesting question. As I said, I'm not trying to pass a verdict on whether this is a valid criticism, but it is something that I think is definitely worth looking into, investigating, struggling over, wrangling with--trying to learn more about it, and about the larger implications of whatever the truth of this is.


I will say that, as a general principle, if you try to put the same amount of attention to everything as you put to certain things you're trying to bring forward as concentrated models, you're going to stifle and suffocate a lot of effort and initiative on the part of people. Everything can't be a model work, and everything can't be and shouldn't be the result of that level of attention, concentration, and leadership. To my understanding, things like even questions of "stage management" of these model operas- -for example, where different props were placed and all those kinds of questions--were ultimately decided, although others were involved, at a very high level of leadership. There was a tremendous amount of attention to detail. And once again, in a general sense, I would say that that's not a very good method-- that's not going to allow enough initiative for people, if everything (even where you put a certain prop) has to go up to the very highest level to be discussed and evaluated and approved or not approved. If it's a decision at a Central Committee level or Politburo level whether this tree is here or six inches away, that is obviously going to stifle a lot of initiative, at least if that's a general method. But again, reality is very complicated and these works weren't being brought forward in a vacuum; they were being brought forward in the course of very intense struggle where people were using any shortcomings that could be found in them to attack the whole thing, not just a particular work--a particular ballet or Peking Opera, "The Red Detachment of Women" or the redoing of "White Haired Girl" or whatever--but the model works as a whole and the whole breakthrough in the arena of culture.

So it's a very complicated question how you handle this, and sometimes things can be very innocent and sometimes they're not--it depends on the specific condition, time, and place. Take, for example, things that kicked off the Cultural Revolution.

There was this well-known artistic work in China, "Hai Jui Dismissed from Office," and, as I recall, someone wrote a review of this, and their review was just a thinly veiled form (what later came to be known as the Lin Biao and Confucius method, the Aesopian indirect method) of attacking Mao by analogy. This was at a crucial point in the Chinese revolution; and Mao, being rather astute and not obtuse, picked this up right away and wrote an essay or a commentary pointing this out and calling on people to do criticism and struggle around this. At other times, Mao would have said, and did say, "Oh, you know, let that go." Somebody makes a comment that, yes, if you took it and tracked it down to its ultimate logical conclusion, would be very bad. But so what? It's a more or less innocent--or, if not so innocent, harmless--comment in the particular context. But, in other contexts, it's not so innocent or so harmless. Even subtle, little fine nuances of things can have tremendous meaning in certain contexts, while in other contexts they have almost no meaning at all.

So, there again is the particularity of contradiction, and there's the matter of levels. What are we dealing with here? But, along with the particularity of contradiction, there's the relation between the particular and the universal. Again, what are we dealing with here? What is the particularity? You have to know it and understand it. What does it have to do with larger questions of the class struggle, for example-- which are the universal in that context. As Mao pointed out in "On Contradiction," what's particular in one context is universal in another, and vice versa.

In other words, if you're fighting a war, then taking that war as a whole, the war situation as a whole is the universal; and any particular campaign within that war can be regarded as the particular in relation to that universal. But, in turn, if you take that particular campaign and look at it, and examine it internally, so to speak, then that campaign becomes the universal, and any particular battle within that campaign is the particular. Then if you go to the next level and take that battle, and examine it internally so to speak, that becomes the universal, and particular tactics in that battle--blocking tactics or tactical offensives or whatever--become the particular...and so on, and so on, and so on. Again, what makes reality so complex and our work so difficult is that you have to distinguish between what levels you're dealing on, what's the particular and what's the universal, and what's the relationship in turn between whatever you're determining to be universal in that context and the universal on a larger and broader scale. For example, going back to the example I was just using, a war as a whole is a universal with regard to that war; but, with regard to your revolutionary objectives as a whole, it's a particular. So this is the kind of dialectical thinking and methodology that we have to apply.

Getting back to the particular thing I was talking about, in the sphere of art and culture, even such things as where stage props are situated could be a big deal--it could be a very important particular that touches on the whole universal--or it could be not very important, and even if people are up to a lot of skullduggery and evil intent with moving it six inches to the left or the right, maybe you'd just go, "Eh, who cares? Let's not fight over that."

This has to do with a statement that was attributed to Mao by the revisionists who seized power in China shortly after Mao's death. (And again it's important to keep in mind, with such statements in general, that we don't really have any way to authenticate them--that is, statements that are attributed to Mao after he's dead and the coup has taken place, when these revisionists are in power and they can, in the short run, craft things the way they want to, more or less. So we have to try to critically evaluate these things.) In "GO&GS" ("Great Objectives and Grand Strategy")** I referred to one of these statements attributed to Mao, where he talks about the treatment of intellectuals (and I'm going to come back to that in a little bit).

But another thing that was interesting--and this involves the statement attributed to Mao that I want to focus on here--was that there was this conference on developing agriculture and learning from a model area, Dazhai, in agriculture (in 1975 I believe), where Hua Guo Feng and others spoke (Hua Guo Feng would be, a year later, the leader of the coup which put an end to socialism in China, and then he in turn was dumped from high office after Deng Xiaoping came back fully to power and Hua Guo Feng was no longer needed by the top revisionists). According to what was said after the coup, the Gang of Four attacked Hua Guo Feng's speech at that conference and criticized a lot of the conference. And, supposedly, in commenting on their criticisms, Mao made the remark which was variously translated as "Shit, wide of the mark!" or "Barking up the wrong tree."

Now, let's accept that at face value in order to illustrate a point that I'm trying to emphasize here: even if Mao said that, that doesn't necessarily mean that he thought the substance of their criticisms was wrong. It might have meant instead: look, this is not the way to focus the class struggle right now, because you're going to confuse things. You're going to mix up the main enemy with secondary enemies or middle forces. Many people may be enthusiastic for this conference, and you're going to confuse them. You're going to make them think you're down on the effort to make advances and leaps in agriculture. Plus there are other questions around which the class struggle is much more clearly crystallizing, and we should keep our attention focused on that.

Now, again, this is hypothetical to a large degree because of the source of this and the context in which these quotes came out. But nonetheless, the principle applies that sometimes things are worth really pursuing down to the most minute detail, and on many other occasions this is not the case and it's much better to let things go. Mao pointed out that there is a unity of opposites between leadership and centralism, on the one hand, and laissez-faire on the other hand. He said there is a certain role for laissez-faire--not laissez-faire capitalism but laissez-faire in a more general sense. But again, as reality is complicated, laissez-faire can lead to laissez-faire capitalism if it's not correctly handled in relation to our overall objectives.


A certain theme is obviously being repeatedly emphasized here--that all this is complex and difficult. I'm not saying that to spread pessimism and defeatism or demoralization, not at all, but just to emphasize that we can learn and master these things--in an ongoing way and not in some absolute sense--but it takes work. It takes struggle. It requires applying the universal, taking up the "embraces" aspect, as well as getting into the particularity of contradiction and distinguishing between different levels and correctly handling the dialectical relationship between different levels. This is a question that is being wrestled with in the part of the Skybreak article that I cited. It's discussing the intellectual sphere in particular--working with ideas--but there's a way in which this also applies to the artistic sphere. And there is the question: is there even some validity to some of the criticisms that have been raised with regard to the Cultural Revolution--that if you insist on paying the same amount of minute calibrated attention to more than just a few things, you're going to stifle a lot of initiative; and if people work "for you" it's going to be working for you, and they're going to work without enthusiasm and initiative, they're not really going to be unleashed.

In any case, beyond that particular criticism, there is the more general principle that I've been speaking to, concerning when we should, and when we should not, pay great attention to things, even to minute details of things. This is something that we should keep in mind, and it applies to many different spheres--not just to the intellectual and artistic spheres, although it does apply in important ways there. Sometimes we have to pay a lot of attention and really see each step through. There are times like that, and if we don't recognize that, we're not going to achieve a lot of our objectives and the masses are not going to be happy with us, and for good reason, because sometimes they need that level of attention and leadership from us--going back and forth with them, not in a commandist sense but by applying the mass line. They need us to pay that much attention especially where there are tremendously difficult new things that are being brought into being, or struggles that are being waged at close quarters with the enemy. Other times we're going to drive them crazy if we do that--and drive them away--because they need to be able to go out and take some initiative. At those times, the masses need us to not pay such close attention to detail, and not only is it necessary to give them more room for their own initiative, but it's also necessary to let different flowers bloom and schools of thought contend (to use that phrase), to let different experience accumulate in order to sift through and get the richest synthesis at a certain crucial point. So there's another unity of opposites that we have to learn how to handle.

And, going back to the intellectual sphere, in "GO&GS" I referred to this comment about Duhring. This is another one of these quotes that, as I pointed out, is attributed to Mao in circumstances in which we have no way of verifying whether it's authentic or not. But just to take it up and deal with the principle that it's touching on (and, for the purposes of our own thinking and our own wrangling with these questions, let's just assume for the moment that Mao did say this): he made a comment to the effect that there was too much stifling of the intellectual atmosphere, it wasn't a conducive atmosphere for intellectual work, inquiry, and wrangling, and he made the point (this was another one of his typical ways of going at things) that even Engels protested when Duhring was deprived of his seat in the university.

Everybody knows that Engels wrote this whole long polemic Anti-Duhring (and it has been pointed out that Engels thereby made Duhring much more famous than he would have been otherwise) but even though Engels ripped into Duhring on many different levels--politically, as well as with regard to political economy, methodologically and philosophically in general--when the reactionary German authorities cracked down on Duhring, Engels was part of the people who protested this. What Mao is getting at is something he spoke to in "On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People"--and again this has to do with the particularity of contradiction and the principle of "embraces but does not replace" --that the ideological sphere is different than other spheres and it's particularly harmful in the ideological sphere, broadly understood, to apply crude methods. It's always bad to apply crude and crudely coercive methods, but it's particularly harmful in the ideological sphere, where things have to be grappled with and the truth has to be arrived at through a complex process of wrangling, and where oftentimes correct ideas are in the hands of a minority and don't appear, even to good people, to be true. So, again, it's particularly important not to handle things crudely in that sphere.

In other words, Mao is saying: we shouldn't act like the reactionary German authorities and suppress every intellectual whose ideas or theories we don't agree with. We have to wrestle those things out through ideological struggle.

If people are actually counter-revolutionary and engage in counter-revolutionary political activity against the dictatorship of the proletariat, and especially if they take that to the point of organizing attempts to overthrow the proletarian dictatorship, that's one thing. But if they merely express backward or even reactionary ideas, that's another thing.

This gets back to the point I was making earlier about how even people who have reactionary political views and even methodology that's radically different from ours can still come up with important aspects of truth. And if we lose sight of the particularity of contradiction--if we take the fact that these people are politically and maybe even ideologically reactionary and confuse that with the particularity of whatever sphere of knowledge they're dealing with, and we assume that automatically they are bound to be wrong about this or that sphere of science or medicine or whatever, simply because they're generally, or maybe even extremely, reactionary ideologically and politically--we're going to make all kinds of mistakes. This is the point Mao was getting at. And this does require us to sort things out, to see things on different levels, and not to be reductionist in our thinking.

What do I mean here by reductionist? Well, here you have someone whose overall world outlook and methodology and political stand is reactionary, so you conclude that this is going to apply to everything--you reduce everything to this one aspect, or one level--you "mash" everything together, so that everything they say about everything is going to be wrong. Even if they get up and say, "The sun came up this morning," they're bound to be wrong because they are reactionary ideologically and politically. No. Everything has to be examined in its own right to determine if it's true or false. As Mao said in another work, we should take a sniff at everything and decide whether to boycott it or support it.

Now it's true, and this also makes it complex, that if you are politically and ideologically reactionary, if your methodology is opposed to the correct methodology--or even different from it--then, ultimately, or in the final analysis, this is going to show up not only in your methodology in general but also in your analysis of any particular thing. But, as we used to say--including in the course of the struggle around what stand to take on China--between here and the final analysis there is often a great deal. If you "mash" and reduce everything down to what's true in the final analysis, you'll make a lot of mistakes.

Going back even further, we pointed this out emphatically in the polemics we wrote against PL (Progressive Labor Party), which at a certain point came out and said that all nationalism is reactionary. This is obviously one of the most important questions for the whole revolutionary process worldwide but also in a particularly concentrated way in the U.S.: the relation between the national question and the class question (or the class struggle and ultimately the achievement of socialism and communism) is a very complex and obviously pivotal and crucial question. We have, of necessity, spent a great deal of time investigating and grappling with this question, this relation, and in a certain period--in the period of a few years leading up to the formation of the Party--there was a tremendous amount of attention and struggle devoted to this.

Many things were written, polemics back and forth, on this question of how to correctly understand the national question, or different national questions, and their relation to the proletarian revolution overall. PL adopted the position that all nationalism is reactionary, and we had to bring out that there are different kinds of nationalism. There is the nationalism of the oppressor nation (the European-American nation in the U.S., for example) and there's the nationalism of oppressed peoples and nations--which is very different, especially in its political effect. So we had to point out that, yes, in the final analysis, ideologically, all nationalism is bourgeois--it's a reflection of the bourgeois world outlook--but that's true in the final analysis. It doesn't mean that in every particular instance, or even in a struggle overall, such nationalism can only play a reactionary role because in the final analysis the bourgeoisie is a reactionary class. We had to get into all of the particularities there. We had to get into the different levels of reality, different levels of matter in motion, different levels of the association of matter, if you want to put it that way; we had to distinguish different stages and different levels of things and correctly assess and handle the relation between the particular and the universal.

Now, on the other hand, we had to struggle against people whom (drawing from the history of the Russian Revolution) we came to call Bundists, within our own ranks and more broadly in the revolutionary movement of that time, in particular the BWC (the Black Workers Congress) and the PRRWO (the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization, which emerged from the Young Lords Party). They were basically arguing that the nationalism of an oppressed people or nation is bound to be revolutionary and that revolutionary nationalism is essentially identical with proletarian ideology. And we came up with a formulation that really infuriated them [BA laughs], partly because it was sort of deliberately provocative: we said all nationalism is...nationalism, and all nationalism is ultimately bourgeois ideologically. So then they accused us of being just like PL. PL said all nationalism is reactionary, and we said all nationalism is bourgeois, ideologically. Are those the same thing? No--precisely because we drew a distinction, including in these polemics, between world outlook--the character of nationalism as an ideology, as a world view-- and the application of that ideology in different circumstances. And we correctly emphasized (as we did in the struggle against PL) that, in the case of an oppressed people, nationalism, even though it's ultimately bourgeois ideologically , can assume a progressive and even a revolutionary expression politically , but ultimately it's not going to be able to lead people all the way to liberation--even to national liberation let alone to complete social emancipation, in other words, the elimination of all class distinctions and oppressive social divisions.

Here again, you have to look at the particularity of contradiction and correctly handle the relation between the particular and the universal, between the immediate and the final analysis, and not crush together all the different levels. This is another illustration of the fact that there are no "magic" formulae, or sing-songy formulas that you can memorize, that are going to tell you exactly what to do in every situation. That's the complexity of reality. And you can't deal with all this, other than by applying both the "embraces" and the "does not replace"; by dealing both with the universal and what's true in the final analysis, on the one hand, and with the particularity of contradiction and with different levels and how something is assuming an expression at a given time, on the other hand.

To turn again to the example of nationalism, politically there are many forms of nationalism which propel people into motion and into struggle with which we're going to have to and must seek to unite. At the same time, we can't tail that. We can't think that that's going to ultimately lead to where things need to go. The fact that nationalism is bourgeois ideology is going to ultimately have its effects. But, again, what's true ultimately or in the final analysis is not the same thing as what's immediately true or true in any particular set of circumstances. So sorting these things out--correctly handling the relation between them and correctly forging (and reforging in the course of ongoing reality and practice) the necessary synthesis--is not easy. But just as it's difficult, it's also crucial, it's key to being able to make advances through all the twists and turns.

So, in getting back to what Mao said about the intellectual sphere, the sphere of ideas, he was stressing: We cannot handle things in a crude manner there, and we cannot mix up qualitatively different contradictions. We cannot treat the ideological sphere as exactly the same as the political. And we cannot confuse the fact that someone may be backward, even reactionary, in terms of their political stand, or their ideology, with whether or not they have any truth in their hands and whether or not there is any role they can play in our arriving at a deeper understanding of a particular aspect of reality and our understanding of reality as a whole--which is dialectically related to transforming it.

There is the particularity of contradiction. There are different levels of matter in motion. There is a need to distinguish and correctly handle these contradictions, to distinguish between the particular and the universal and between different kinds of matter in motion, which exist in relatively discrete forms, and between different levels of matter in motion (or different aggregations or associations of matter in motion which exist on different levels). That's one point I have been repeatedly returning to and emphasizing, because it's really important to focus on this and wrestle with it, both on the level of conception and in terms of how, without being narrow and pragmatic, this applies to many different spheres.




*"Working with Ideas and Searching for Truth: A Reflection on Revolutionary Leadership and the Intellectual Process, Revolutionary Worker #1144, March 24, 2002 (and available online at

[Return to article]

** "Great Objectives and Grand Strategy" is an unpublished work by Bob Avakian; excerpts from it have been published in the RW, issues #1127 through 1142, November 18, 2001 through March 10, 2002. They are available online at

[Return to article]

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)