Some remarks on Bloom and Contend: A Critique of Maoism

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We received these remarks in response to Chino’s “Bloom and Contend”.  We feel the response is a useful contribution to the discussion and debate.  We welcome additional feedback, debate, and questions in the comments sections of both pieces.

by John Steele

There’s a lot in this essay to agree with, and I appreciate the attempt by the author to situate the discussion of Maoism within the concrete development of the Chinese revolution; as he notes, this was “one of the great world-historical revolutions of the 20th century.” But in carrying this out, some problems arise.

Overall, in Chino’s approach and in the basic “lesson” he strives to draw, there is a merging of two different questions:

Maoism as the ideology of the Chinese revolution, and

Maoism as a present-day theoretical or ideological basis for revolutionary analysis and action

The author strives to argue and move from a critique of the former to a critique of the latter, and this second critique (of present-day Maoism) seems to be the chief aim of the essay, even though the first occupies far more space. A major problem I see in this approach is that the historical examination is made the servant, to large extent, of a polemic or argument against a present-day political tendency or tendencies. But it would be perfectly possible to make good arguments and polemical points against Maoism as a basis for contemporary revolutionary politics, without drawing this out of Maoism in the Chinese revolution. And it would be, I believe, far better to do so, for under this approach historical analysis tends to be conducted through the terms of contemporary political polemic, thus pulling away from examining Maoism (in this case) within its historical context. (I think how we view the great revolutions of the 20th century is an important question today, and one that’s almost never answered in a very fruitful way.)

The problem often boils down to the use of very insufficiently developed categories as if they were transparent terms of analysis. The chief culprits here are ‘Stalinist’ and ‘state capitalist’, two adjectives which are subject to a great deal of ambiguity and polemical superficiality.As far as I can see, the only explanation that the former term receives is a brief polemical characterization on page 6: “What we call ‘Stalinism’ today is essentially a distorted version of Marxist theory, taken up and reworked for use as the ideology of a new ruling class.” In the case of ‘state capitalism’ there is a bit more discussion:

I use the term “state capitalist” to refer to any system in which the exploitation and capital accumulation described by Marx occurs in a system in which the vast majority of the means of production have been nationalized, or otherwise placed under the control of a state apparatus. In such a system, the fundamental aspects of capitalist social relations remain. A proletariat, defined by its lack of access to and control over the means of production and subsistence, is forced to alienate its labor to a separate social group and attendant institutions, which to an ever greater degree comes to resemble a distinct ruling class. As ongoing exploitation yields capital accumulation, this becoming-class continually expands its control over wealth and political power through its position in the relations of production, and determines the trajectory of the reproduction of society. 

…as long as the conditions described above exist, “value” in the capitalist sense continues to exist as well. This “value” in the capitalist sense will provide the metric through which use-values are equated, production is conceptualized and coordinated, and foreign trade is conducted. The resulting “law of value” will tend to impose seemingly objective limits and presuppositions on those living under its auspices, including those in positions of state power—no matter their subjective intentions or political pedigree. (2, 3)

Fine so far, but I think the question is more subtle, in the context of both USSR and China, than this general characterization can get at. (I hope to show what I mean in saying this, in a forthcoming piece on 20th century socialism as a “mode of production.”) Chino implies, in the sentence which begins the next-but-one paragraph (“to explore the implications of this concept further, we must examine the broad path of the Chinese revolutionary experience”) that the bulk of the rest of the essay – which does look at the course of the Chinese revolution – will be in service of clarifying this concept in these historical circumstances. Instead, however, state capitalism is simply used through the rest of the essay as if it is already a basic category which is clear and transparent.

Bloom and Contend – the title is taken from a slogan of the “hundred flowers” period (see page 29), although the import of using it as a title is not explained – does take us through the main episodes of the Chinese revolution and of the campaigns and politics of the Peoples Republic of China. The most valuable part of this history, comprising almost a third of the essay, is the relatively detailed discussion of the Cultural Revolution, followed by an analysis of parts of the Maoist “Shanghai textbook,” and its political economy of socialism (44-65).

There’s a lot in all of this which deserves much more comment, critique and discussion than I’m going to give it. But in terms of the overall thrust of the essay’s history, the crux of Chino’s argument comes in the following paragraphs, which also illuminate the limitations of the essay’s evaluation of historical Maoism:

The class collaboration inherent in the united front and the New Democracy strategy secured the victory of the CCP in the war. At the same time, it guaranteed the party’s gradual slide from a revolutionary organization with an intimate relationship to the oppressed and exploited classes, to a force dominating over them. These strategies, in turn, were required in order to pursue “socialism in one country.” For an underdeveloped country such as China in the 1940s, rapid improvement of living standards is a paramount task of any revolution. A world revolution, or at least a regional revolution that includes a chunk of the advanced capitalist zones, is able to accomplish this task without relying on capitalist exploitation. Communes in advanced capitalist countries are able to freely share supplies, technologies and skills with their counterparts in the global periphery. But when limited to the bounds of a single nation-state, and embedded in a capitalist world-system, this kind of transformation is impossible.

Under these conditions, underdeveloped socialist states must either pay for the resources they acquire on the world market, or supplement for them by hyper-exploiting their own populations. They must compete with other capitalist countries through trade, currency, and military might. All these factors require underdeveloped socialist states to carry out capitalist production and development in some form, often through a close alliance with the preexisting bourgeoisie. Mao’s formulations of the united front and New Democracy explicitly aim at this outcome, and provide ideological legitimation for doing so. The strategies formulated in Yan’an thus provide a justification for would-be communist parties to act as surrogate bourgeoisies in underdeveloped contexts, and to generate a new capitalist ruling class which believes itself to act in the name of the proletariat and socialism.  (18-19)

So: rapid improvement of living standards was necessarily a paramount task of the Chinese revolution. But this could only be achieved in a revolutionary way if the Chinese revolution was part of or accompanied by a broader revolution that included advanced capitalist zones. Yet such a broader revolution was nowhere in the offing. Therefore Chinese revolutionaries should have…. What?

What’s lacking in this, here and throughout, is a sense of the Chinese revolution and Maoism as part of our history, along with the Paris Commune (another failure dominated by incorrect assumptions), the Russian revolution, the revolutions and rebellions in the third world, the black liberation movement in this country, etc., etc. These are, have been, great movements and reaches toward human emancipation and even communism – all defeated, all of them failures, yes, often beset by weaknesses and blunderings and incorrectnesses, so many blind alleys as we can see at this point – but if this history of defects and failures is all that we can see, then we might as well give it up. How we treat this history is important. In Bloom and Contend (which is not the worst offender in this regard, by any means) there’s often the suggestion or implication that “the correct line,” the obviously revolutionary path, was always available, there for the taking.

The meaning of any of these rebellions is not exhausted in what it accomplishes.

There’s a lot that’s probably worth saying in some context, critically, about the treatment of the various theoretical aspects of Mao’s thinking, and their treatment in “Bloom and Contend” – united front, mass line, New Democracy, theories of dialectics and practice, etc. But that would take many, many pages, and I’m not out to defend all of that in any case. But I do have to say something about Chino’s critique of Mao’s dialectics (19 – 23) which ends with following sentences:

Many currents in Marxist philosophy, whether emerging from the work of Lukacs, C.L.R. James or Gramsci, take consciousness and creative action seriously. Mao, by contrast, recapitulates an orthodox Stalinist philosophy. For Mao, the dialectic is a universal law inscribed in all physical matter and social phenomena, which has already been discovered. Rather than apply it as a practical method, Mao embraces it as positivist scientific truth. (23)

Chino arrives at this conclusion through a textual analysis of the unpublished “Dialectical Materialism (Lecture Notes)” from the 1930s, along with the wellknown “On Practice” and “On Contradiction” (which, although dated 1937, were extensively revised or rewritten in the early 1950s before publication), and in doing so illustrates exceedingly clearly the pitfalls of a textual approach to revolutionary figures. For – laying aside any quibbles with his analysis of texts (of which I have a number) – if there is anything that distinguished Mao’s political practice, it was the highlighting and bringing to the fore of precisely the necessity of consciousness and creative action. To take the most obvious case, it’s hard to understand the Cultural Revolution, as a serious political endeavor, in any other way.

An important aspect Mao’s thinking, an aspect which marks it perhaps most distinctively, is the advocacy, both theoretically and practically, of episodes and periods in which the political takes (and needs to take) priority over (and causal efficacy with respect to) the economic, the “superstructure” over the “base,” and generally, human creativity and consciousness over matter and brute facts, as well as conscious and motivated volition (“will”) over the limits imposed by what can be ascertained, known, proved (“intellect”).

“The so-called theory of ‘weapons decide everything’…is a mechanistic theory of war,” Mao wrote in 1938 for example in On Protracted War. “Our view is contrary to this; we see not only weapons but also the power of man. Weapons are an important factor in war but not the decisive one; it is man and not material that is decisive.”

“But suppose the United States uses the atom bomb?” Anna Louise Strong asks in a famous 1946 interview. “The atom bomb is a paper tiger with which the U.S. reactionaries try to terrify the people,” Mao replies. “Of course, the atom bomb is a weapon of mass destruction, but the outcome of a war is decided by the people, not by one or two weapons.”

There are many other passages from Mao, and episodes in his political practice, along the same lines — that is, to the effect that the balance of material forces is not decisive in war or struggle generally, but that what is decisive for the outcome of a struggle is the mobilization, just cause, and spirit of the people.

It’s exactly because of this very pronounced aspect of his thought and practice that Mao is often accused of “voluntarism,” and virtually never of the sort of mechanistic positivism that Chino finds. (I have written about this at more length in Badiou and Maoist “voluntarism”, originally written for a Rethinking Marxism conference and published about four years ago on the now-defunct Khukuri blog.)

One final point on the utility of past revolutionary experiences and figures for political practice today: If it ever may have been otherwise, it’s certainly true today, I believe, that it is not useful to approach our present political dilemmas simply or even mainly by means of pro and con positions regarding past revolutionary figures and positions. For and against Marx, Bakunin, Trotsky, Mao… – those debates may be instructive (although usually they’re not), but they get us virtually nowhere (or nowhere, period) with regard to solving the deep problems of present-day revolutionary practice (and more usually they serve as an escape from confrontation with these problems).

The revolutions and rebellions of the past are great creative events in human history, they deserve close study, and they can serve us as resources in many ways. But if they’re looked to as sources of templates for the guidance of contemporary practice, it’s just another common case of the tradition of dead generations weighing like a nightmare, in Marx’s well known words, on the brains of the living.

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4 thoughts on “Some remarks on Bloom and Contend: A Critique of Maoism”

  1. Thanks to John Steele for the comradely engagement and critique. I got swamped with some school and work crap and couldn’t respond for a couple weeks, so my apologies to him for the delay. I’ll get right into my response, taking the main thrusts of Steele’s argument one by one.

    1. Critique of me subjugating history to polemic:

    Steele’s first critique, if I have it right, is that Bloom and Contend is mostly interested in arguing with contemporary Maoists, and thus winds up using the historical Chinese experience as a chess-piece in this present-day polemic. As a result, I impose concepts such as “state capitalism” and “Stalinism” onto the Chinese experience, without demonstrating that these concepts are relevant to the historical case, and at the same time fail to interpret the Chinese experience on its own terms.

    Further down, I’ll address the part about the concepts Steele feels I impose on the Chinese experience. First, I’d like to address Steele’s critique of my method of analysis:

    “A major problem I see in this approach is that the historical examination is made the servant, to large extent, of a polemic or argument against a present-day political tendency or tendencies.”

    In contrast to Steele, I think looking to history to inform questions and debates in the present, is one major way that revolutionaries ought to be engaging with the past. We need to historicize the ideas that have become common-sense dogmas in the present, in order to determine alternate possible interpretations of these concepts, and illuminate the limitations inherent in the concepts themselves based on the context in which they were created, and so on. This is a characteristic part of Marx’s historical materialist method, and I think it’s a good one.

    Of course any effort to historicize X category runs the risk of simply boiling down history to justify an opinion one already holds of X category in the present. But this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Ultimately, I figure the validity of my historicization of Mao’s categories hinges on whether my account can be shown to be (1) historically accurate, and (2) useful for indicating the potentials and limitations these categories may display when applied in practice.

    For example, I argue that the notion of “class struggle under socialism” arose because Mao was forced to grapple with the revolt of the state socialist proletariat ca. 1956-57, and find a way to both accommodate proletarian self-activity and reconcile it with his position managing the accumulation of capital. I believe this interpretation is borne through when you trace the development of Mao’s ideas from his first “contradictions among the people” formulations all the way through his notes in the early 1960s, and thus is historically accurate. And I believe this interpretation helps us identify what things are present and absent in the concept, and thus what it can best be used for vs. not used for. (For example, the concept is explicitly formulated to allow dissent while maintaining production, and thus is well suited to releasing class tensions while insulating the social relations through which production occurs, but not well-suited for overturning class relations and bringing about anarchist communism).

    If my method is faulty, then others should be able to demonstrate that my account of the genesis of the concept is historically inaccurate, and that my resulting account of the limitations of the concept is also faulty. Steele doesn’t argue over the historical accuracy of my account, or my assessment of Mao’s categories. Instead, he argues that my method is unnecessary:

    “it would be perfectly possible to make good arguments and polemical points against Maoism as a basis for contemporary revolutionary politics, without drawing this out of Maoism in the Chinese revolution.”

    In previous back-and-forths with some Maoists, I’ve find their version of Steele’s argument a bit disingenuous. Similar critiques were leveled at Loren Goldner’s 2012 Notes Toward a Critique of Maoism: “Goldner is critiquing China, but that’s not Maoism!” the argument goes, “Maoism only exists after [insert preferred date of synthesis of Mao’s ideas here]! If Goldner wants to critique Maoism, he should focus on [insert Maoist group operating on this synthesis].”

    I ended up writing Bloom and Contend because I tried to do exactly this. I began looking into Maoism by examining Shining Path and the Revolutionary International Movement docs from the 1980s and 1990s. But then, I found that much of the politics of these periods were based on asserting the universal correctness of X,Y,Z idea of Mao’s. It thus proved necessary to go back to the moments in which Mao formulated X,Y,Z category, in order to see where that interpretation of the category came from, what problems the category was intended to solve, what problems the category explicitly ignored, what blindspots or tensions exist within the concept, and so on. I had to do this before it was possible to have any substantive assessment of contemporary Maoist politics and practice.

    In contrast to Steele, I think it is impossible to make a rigorous argument against contemporary Maoism without drawing on the Chinese revolution, just as it would be impossible to make a coherent argument against contemporary Marxists without tracing the genesis of Marx’s ideas. Only in this manner can one come up with a deep assessment of the potentials and shortcomings of a particular set of politics, starting from the historical process and class positions that generated them. Without this, we’re relegated to momentary, tactical assessments of politics: we’re able to critique how a concept is used in a given moment, but can make no overarching critiques of any set of concepts, and must ultimately consider any set of political concepts is as good as any other, if it can be used well in a particular moment. I’m unwilling to cast aside politics and strategy to this extent.

    Bloom and Contend doesn’t offer a critique of the Shining Path, the Naxalites, etc. But I think it does provide a foundation for anyone else who wishes to do so in the future. Building on the sketch I put together, others should be able to track how contemporary Maoists draw upon, reinterpret, and reify Mao’s ideas, and how those reinterpretations express the markings of the context in which the concepts were originally formulated. I hope others take up this task.

    2. Critique of me using unjustified concepts:

    Based on his above critique, Steele further argues that I impose terms and concepts onto the Chinese revolution without justifying their applicability to the Chinese case. In particular, he highlights my use of “Stalinism” and “state capitalism” as problems.

    I didn’t include a lengthy justification for using the term “Stalinism,” because I figured this would require a whole second piece on the history of the Russian revolution, Stalin’s role in it, and my take on how Marxism became ruling class ideology. In lieu of this, I used the word to indicate my sympathies, and then included a descriptive rundown of the elements that comprised “Stalinism” for the purposes of a discussion in Bloom and Contend. I highlighted: party substitutionism, the goal of socialism in one country, party-led state capitalism as a development model, and a reflection theory of consciousness.

    For the purposes of discussion, I’ll gladly set aside the “Stalinism” label, and we can discuss directly whether the Chinese revolution displayed these characteristics, and if so, what their effects were. For my part, I still maintain the arguments in Bloom and Contend: the Chinese revolution displayed all of these characteristics, and they resulted in winning the people’s war and developing the country industrially, while also managing exploitation, alienating the party from the class until it became a force lording over it, and eventually giving rise to a new “red” bourgeoisie. Steele and others are welcome to critique my account of those elements in the Chinese experience, and their effects.

    On my use of “state capitalism,” Steele first reproduces the definition I offer in the intro to Bloom and Contend. S/he then offers this note:

    “Fine so far, but I think the question is more subtle, in the context of both USSR and China, than this general characterization can get at. (I hope to show what I mean in saying this, in a forthcoming piece on 20th century socialism as a “mode of production.”)”

    And then critiques how I wind up using the concept in the piece:

    “Chino implies…that the bulk of the rest of the essay…will be in service of clarifying this concept [state capitalism] in these historical circumstances. Instead, however, state capitalism is simply used through the rest of the essay as if it is already a basic category which is clear and transparent.”

    I’ll certainly give it to Steele that I should’ve more clearly tied together the history I recounted with the definition of state capitalism offered in the introduction. Here are a few concrete points where I think the history I outlined demonstrated the validity state capitalist framework:

    – Simple point: the PRC did not abolish wage labor, the wage reforms of the 1950s being an example.

    – The “exxageration wind” during the GLF, in which bureaucratic factions competed to demonstrate their rate of accumulation of commodities and fixed capital, is an example of competition among different capitals within the PRC, and not only between the state as a whole and other capitalist states.

    – State prioritization of grain exports amid the disaster of the Great Leap Forward are an example of the class relations within the People’s Republic being determined by need to develop the country in intercourse with a capitalist world system, through the world market. Another example is the need to pay the Soviet Union back for its aid loans.

    – The party repeatedly constrained the scope of worker control over production and reproduction, limiting workers to deciding how to implement plans developed by the party, or limiting their input to tweaking the production targets set by the party (rather than, say, deciding what kinds of factories needed to be built and where, etc), are an example of class relations being re-imposed. The rollback of moments of worker control, the explosion of bureaucracy, and the imposition of piecework and compulsory overtime in the early 1950s are one example of this. The rollback of worker committees after 1967 is another.

    – Mao’s justification for preempting proletarian revolt with three-in-one committees, based on the need to maintain China’s position in the interstate system, is a reflection of state justifying its own existence over and above whatever self-activity and transformations of relations of production may be taking place–that is, of the process of fetishism whereby capitalist value is created, and then individuals serve as arbiters or actors on behalf of capital in firms or the state.

    – The foreign policy of the Chinese state developed along ever more opportunist lines over time, eventually orienting toward the U.S, the USSR, or various Third World movements based on simple power calculations, but justified ideologically in terms of Third Worldism or the battle against “social imperialism”. China’s reactionary foreign policy interventions in the 1970s are a good example.

    On the flipside, Steele doesn’t really engage with what I did manage to put into the piece. Instead of demonstrating how the Chinese history I offer doesn’t match the definition of state capitalism I offer, he simply points out that I don’t draw the connections clearly enough, and then mentions that he’s working on an essay that will characterize 20th century socialist regimes as a distinct mode of production other than capitalist.

    This sounds good, and I will certainly read Steele’s piece once he finishes it, and think about how it compares with other theories of state capitalism (JFT, Ticktin, Aufheben, etc), and with other theories of state socialism as a distinct mode of production (i.e. “bureaucratic collectivism”). But since that discussion can’t happen yet, Steele and I (and anybody else) can only have it out on other grounds. For example: To what extent does the definition of state capitalism I offered accurately describe the dynamics of China from1949-1976? Can the economic base of China in that time be described as “capitalist,” or can it not? And so on. Given the weaknesses Steele has rightly pointed out, I’ve still offered a definition of state capitalism, and then a history of events that I argue expresses the definition. I invite Steele and others to debunk my definition and historical facts, and the connection I posit between the two.

    3. Critique of my lack of Mao-era alternatives:

    Steele also reads my critiques of the trajectory of the Chinese revolution, and says “so what?”:

    “Therefore Chinese revolutionaries should have…. What?…In Bloom and Contend (which is not the worst offender in this regard, by any means) there’s often the suggestion or implication that “the correct line,” the obviously revolutionary path, was always available, there for the taking.”

    My first response is that my main task in writing a doc like Bloom and Contend is to historicize Mao’s categories, in order to get a better idea of the potentials and limitations of these categories in political practice–NOT to come up with “what if” scenarios for the past. Even if there were no other way that the Chinese revolution could have unfolded, none of that would change the fact that the ideas generated by it would display various strengths and blind spots, and various possible interpretations, based on the conditions in which they were generated and solidified. And figuring these things out would still help us in the present.

    That said, I’m happy to engage in the “what if” thought experiment, so I don’t come off like a sourpuss. My sense is that there were some periods in which revolutionary transformations were possible, and others in which they were highly unlikely. It seems as if a “dual revolution” scenario (a bourgeois revolution in the countryside and a socialist revolution in the cities, schematically) was possible in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Breaking with the Comintern and developing a different orientation toward the KMT in that period might have avoided disaster and brought such a revolution about. Failing that, it doesn’t seem as if there was the possibility for a proletarian revolution in the 1940s or 1950s, though the upsurge of the Hundred Flowers period might have helped to establish independent worker organizations, or even an independent network of revolutionaries outside the party.

    Then, to me, it seems there was a real potential for a revolutionary break in the late 1960s at the height of the CR–especially considering the international situation in both the Third and First Worlds–though it probably would have required splitting the army and a civil war. Even falling short of this, I think there was still the possibility that more preparedness for repression on the part of the ultra-left could have established an independent movement or underground revolutionary organization, as I mention in Bloom and Contend, which could have then built upon the popular reaction against the CR in the late 1970s, and contributed to opposition against the state from the left for decades to come (rather than the “pro democracy” current that eventually came to a head in Tiananmen 1989).

    More generally, in looking at the extreme situation China faced in 1949, I’m basically for “giving the devil his due”. Inasmuch as a surrogate bourgeoisie was required to develop the country and overcome extreme destruction from decades of war, regular famines (etc), I would say the CCP should’ve done exactly what it did (that, I’d argue, has been historical task of such Stalinist parties). But I would also propose that, in such contexts, it’s the responsibility of revolutionaries to establish separate organizations and movements, autonomous from the party and state, in order to further the self-activity of the proletariat and prepare it to overthrow capitalism when windows of opportunity arise. That’s why I criticize Mao, assuming he was a sincere revolutionary, for failing to break with his own party at X,Y,Z crucial moments and establish an independent revolutionary organization.

    Of course, even if one of these scenarios had come about, it might still have failed. But I bet it would have generated a richer revolutionary experience, and a more useful set of political conceptions, than the course of events as they actually occurred.

    4. Critique of my account of Mao’s dialectics:

    Finally, Steele critiques my account of Mao’s philosophy. In contrast to my claim that Mao inherits a “reflection theory” of consciousness from Stalin, which ultimately reduces consciousness to a reflex of matter, Steele argues:

    “An important aspect Mao’s thinking, an aspect which marks it perhaps most distinctively, is the advocacy, both theoretically and practically, of episodes and periods in which the political takes (and needs to take) priority over (and causal efficacy with respect to) the economic, the “superstructure” over the “base,” and generally, human creativity and consciousness over matter and brute facts, as well as conscious and motivated volition (“will”) over the limits imposed by what can be ascertained, known, proved (“intellect”).”

    Thus, Steele points out, Mao is most often accused of “voluntarism”, not the sort of positivism I diagnose him with.

    In contrast, I think the framing of Mao’s theory of consciousness as “voluntarist” is misapplied. Certainly, Steele is right that Mao emphasized the ability of applications of will to transform the material conditions in China (especially at the height of the GLF). But these interventions, and many other forms of “voluntarism” in this sense, are perfectly compatible with a “reflection theory” of consciousness.

    The main reason Mao believed efforts of will and “cultural” revolutions could transform Chinese society, was that he thought the economic base of society had already been transformed to become socialist in character. Bourgeois ideas within the party were the result of those ideas “floating in” (so to speak) from the capitalist economic base in the rest of the world (and in the most advanced Bettelheim-ian re-writes of Maoist theory, “floating up” from the remaining pockets of capitalist relations in Chinese society, never defined very rigorously), while socialist ideas in Chinese society were the direct expression of a socialist base which was already in place. Mao is a “voluntarist” only in this context, wherein he believes voluntarist ideas or actions to be, basically, the socialist economic base acting on itself.

    That’s why Mao’s writings in the early 1960s, along with the party synthesis in the Shanghai Textbook, describe interventions in the superstructure as actions which bring the superstructure “in correspondence” with the base, and thereby “deepen” or “perfect” the socialist base (whose “imperfections” always remain vaguely defined). Thus Mao certainly does argue for acts of will and intervention in culture, but he does so because he views consciousness instrumentally. He views ideas as a direct expression of material forces–hence phrases like “when tools get angry, they speak through people”. Thus Mao’s “voluntarism” rests on a deeper set of reductively materialist assumptions.

    This orientation toward consciousness comes with philosophical baggage, as I argue in Bloom and Contend. The most important piece of baggage, in my opinion, is the lack of rigor in understanding the content of proletarian consciousness. For Mao, consciousness is a direct reflection of matter in motion, and directly reducible to a given class position. Mao does not view people’s ideas, values, culture (etc) on as active interpretations of reality, which are themselves internally contradictory, and which need to be analyzed and dialectically unpacked in order to identify the different potentials operating within them. Instead, the contradiction is externalized, into a confrontation between singular discrete ideas, or between the groups of people espousing them.

    That is why it is (and was) so easy, on the basis of Mao’s philosophy, to simply denounce given texts, phrases, or actions by the Chinese proletariat as objectively counterrevolutionary, a kind of “false consciousness” expressing the class position of the bourgeoisie. Working with Mao’s ideas, the party developed no work methods or analytical techniques to understand the consciousness of the proletariat as a complex, internally contradictory medium expressing individual or class agency (notwithstanding the “factory” metaphor often used to describe the mass line concept). I think this is a major shortcoming.

    ***

    I’d like to thank Steele for his thoughtful response and writing. I think the long arc of the Chinese revolution has much to teach us about philosophy, strategy, the history of 20th century socialism, and more. Steele says, “The meaning of any of these rebellions is not exhausted in what it accomplishes.” I agree completely.

  2. I wanted to (re)enter this debate (which has been going on
    for a few years on various websites) with some questions for Chino focusing
    specifically on the question of “state capitalism.” At present, I won’t enter
    into the question of Maoism or contemporary politics or even Stalinism.
    Instead, I think it is important first to understand what the socialism of the
    Maoist period was. As John Steele points out, rightly I think, the particular combination of the analysis of the socialist period with the question of contemporary
    Maoisms doesn’t seem to fully cohere in “Bloom and Contend.”

    Coming from the anti-Leninist or anti-Stalinist anti-capitalist political perspective, most critiques of actually-existing socialism, such as Chino’s, adhere to a line that places socialism as a form of capitalism, often called “state capitalism.” Attempts to actually theorize such a political line, however, usually lead to either tortured formulations such as “the deformation of value” or are founded upon the assemblage of capitalistic phenomenon to sustain their argument.

    Chino’s approach is more the latter, while making reference
    to Aufheben as a theoretical backstop. The problem with this approach is that
    capitalism isn’t a collection of capitalistic phenomenon (money, commodities,
    productivism, etc.); capitalism is a particular organization of behaviors and
    phenomenon with a very strong internal logic.

    This leads to a few questions and points on Chino’s text:

    1). At what level is state capitalism different from
    capitalism in the west? Does Chino think of it as a regime of accumulation, as
    flexible accumulation (neoliberal capitalism) is often theorized? Is it not “full”
    capitalism? Is it a transitory mode of production on the road to capitalism, to
    give it the teleological trajectory that Aufheben finds in the USSR? Calling
    socialism “state capitalism” almost seems like an attempt to have it both ways:
    it was fundamentally capitalism, but not quite capitalism.

    2). One of Aufheben’s fundamental points leading them to
    define the USSR as capitalist was that “the vast majority of the population of
    the USSR was dependent for their livelihoods on wage-labour.” Here, Chino’s
    attempt to transplant Aufheben’s theorization of the USSR onto Chinese soil
    without any modification—or even much comment—runs into real problems. This, of
    course, was not true of China during the socialist period. In 1949, the Chinese
    industrial economy was less than half the size of Russia’s in 1917 while its
    population was about 4 times the size. The “vast majority” of China’s
    population up until very recently—after the Mao period—was rural. And that
    rural population was not proletarianized and for the majority of time and
    production did not get paid in anything like wages. The relationship between
    Chinese peasants and the state during the Maoist period was structured by the
    direct extraction of surplus from the peasantry through administrative means. Internally to the village economy the product left over after paying the state was divided within the village among members through various accounting means, but this was not a wage. Most rural production was for subsistence.

    Furthermore, peasants and even urban workers were not able
    to leave their jobs at will. They were not doubly free in the Marxist sense. Thus
    labor power was not treated like a commodity in the way it is under capitalism.
    Wages were used primarily as a form of accounting, not for the market extraction
    of surplus value.

    Under the logic of developmentalist socialism—compared to
    the logic of capitalism—the state’s goal in the countryside was an increase in
    the absolute production of surplus (primarily through increasing the number of rural
    work days). Without peasants being paid wages and without them being able to
    leave to look for other jobs, an increase in labor productivity was only a
    secondary interest linked to the first. The cost of labor power was not an issue,
    as the state did not buy labor power; it extracted absolute rural surplus
    through the monopoly control over agricultural products. (As a side note, developmentalist socialism transitions into a capitalist system when a new ruling class emerges out of this system in the 1970s and begins to focus on increasing productivity and technological modernization. The gains of the initial strategy that focused on raising absolute production had clearly begun to fade in part leading to
    struggles within a divided ruling class.)

    This, I think, shows the main problem with the assemblage
    approach that Chino takes. Capitalism is not just a collection of phenomenon
    (wages, money, commodities, etc.). The way people were remunerated for their
    labor was fundamentally different from the remunerative logic of capitalism,
    wages simply do not operate under the same logic within the two systems.
    Instead of getting at the logic of the system, Chino collects capitalist
    seeming phenomenon and calls the assemblage “state capitalism.”

    3). Chino might retort that he pointed to a capitalist logic
    of the “law of value” operating in Mao period China. And he did assert the
    existence of such a “law,” but without really explaining how it materially operated.
    So I would seek clarification: What is the material basis of this “law of value”?
    How materially does it dominate social and economic relations? How does this
    capitalist “law of value” change the behavior of Chinese peasants? Does it turn
    them into proletarians and how so? How does it operate without a market? And without laborers being free to leave their jobs and look for another? Without the
    commodification of labor power for the vast majority of China’s population is
    this “law of value” really capitalist? At heart, therefore, the question is
    whether, on the one hand, the material logic of Chinese socialism—and there was
    a logic even if it was not always very efficient or coherent—was a capitalist logic.
    Or whether, no matter how much it mimicked capitalism in its productivism, it
    had a fundamentally different logic, on the other hand.

    4). What is the political need to call the Chinese socialism of the Mao period “state capitalism”? This seems like a formulation imported from another time and world. Perhaps instead we should look at the very real and specific material logics of Chinese socialism in order to understand the development of class struggle in China, and especially the emergence of capitalism and China’s new ruling class out of China’s developmentalist socialism.

    Sikandar

  3. Apologies for not responding sooner, but I hadn’t visited the site for some time. There are a few misunderstandings in Chino’s reply that I’d like to respond to.

    Chino says, “In contrast to Steele, I think looking to history to inform questions and debates in the present, is one major way that revolutionaries ought to be engaging with the past. We need to historicize the ideas that have become common-sense dogmas in the present, in order to determine alternate possible interpretations of these concepts, and illuminate the limitations inherent in the concepts themselves based on the context in which they were created…”

    I agree completely. I’m not a fan of ahistorical analysis, and in saying that it’s problematic when historical analysis is made the servant of polemic, I meant to point to a problem of ahistoricism if historical analysis, as I say in the same paragraph, is conducted through the terms of contemporary political polemic, thus pulling away from examining Maoism within its historical context.

    Chino also says that I am “working on an essay that will characterize 20th century socialist regimes as a distinct mode of production other than capitalist.” I probably stated things in a way that led to this conclusion, but actually I do not believe that socialism constitutes a distinct mode of production. Rather, I think that the socialisms of the 20th century need to be understood in their character as nodes within a global capitalism.

    That said, I agree for the most part with Sikandar’s critique of Chino’s attempt to substantiate a state-capitalist categorization of Maoist China. Capitalism has to be understood, not as an assortment of characteristics, but through its internal dynamic. The whole discussion of the character of the Soviet Union, particularly, and the various attempts that have been made to characterize it, presents a very tangled web (see Marcel van der Linden’s Western Marxism and the Soviet Union for a systematic categorization) – a sign of the resistance of the question to simple categories like “state capitalism.”

    And then too, China was not the USSR; I’d agree too with Sikandar on the need to “look at the very real and specific material logics of Chinese socialism in order to understand the development of class struggle in China, and especially the emergence of capitalism and China’s new ruling class out of China’s developmentalist socialism” – within, I’d add, the context of global capitalism during the relevant historical period. This is where the ahistoricism of Chino’s approach come in.

    Finally, when he says, “Steele also reads my critiques of the trajectory of the Chinese revolution, and says ‘so what?’,” I’m really not sure how Chino could have arrived at this conclusion. My criticism is of the attempt to impose an abstract model on actual revolutions. A good example of an analysis of one very important aspect of Maoist China which is both concrete while maintaining a critical edge, is Husunzi’s “A Commune in Sichuan? Reflections on Endicott’s Red Earth” (http://chinaleftreview.org/?p=294)

    John Steele

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