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The Three-Headed Beast (Part 15): the universal-particular dialectic

Over a year ago the inter-blog dialogue about Marxism-Leninism-Maoism philosophy, between myself and BF of Workers Dreadnought, was temporarily halted.  Thankfully, he just reinitiated the back-and-forth, which forces me, after a year and almost two weeks, to return to our meandering dialogue.  One of the problems with such a re-engagement is the potential for redundancy: I'm trying to reread everything we have written since the dialogue began, already marked somewhat by redundancy, but it is difficult to keep this sort of style conceptually clear––it has its strengths and its weaknesses.

Whatever problems (redundancies, tangents, spiralling back-and-forths) result from this sort of theoretical discourse are balanced, I would hope, by the fact that theory is already improved if there is more than one (though there is never an individualistic and isolated "one") writer.  A sort of synthetic insight, I would hope, results from this practice.  Moreover, we hope to clear up these problems in the near future since we are planning on editing our dialogue into a more coherent and cohesive publication.

In any case, for those who are new to this dialogue, here is a linked map to the vicissitudes of the discussion: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, and (just recently) fourteen.  Now on with part fifteen...

I want to focus on a problem that BF indicated, in his last contribution to this dialogue, regarding the dialectic between particularity and universality: how can we understand an appeal to regionalization––which is by definition the focus on local particularism––a universalist concept?  (Here I want to note that we're changing the order of the original structure we proposed, but I would suggest that the medium dialogue creates a more intuitive logic in how we approach these issues.)  BF wrote, explicating the concept of a universal development in revolutionary theory: "one cannot simply add a concept to an already existing constellation of concepts that ground an epistemological system, or knowledge, without altering those concepts as well," and "we are left with the question whether Mao’s theory of ‘regionalization’ of Marxism actually is universal inasmuch that it effects other concepts within the body of thought that conventionally forms Marxism? This can be easily answered if we can demonstrate that the concept of the ‘regionalization’ of Marxism has demonstratively effected any other established concept within Marxism-Leninism."  Before moving into the discussion of the dictatorship of the proletariat (as BF promises with his great concluding paragraph), therefore, I want to extrapolate on these claims, and on what BF implies, by examining the dialectic between particularity and universality that is very important for not only understanding Maoism, but any preceding and potentially succeeding development in revolutionary theory.

First of all, on an extremely banal level, the understanding that regionalizing, or perhaps particularizing, Marxism (without losing, as I already indicated, its previous universal insights) is universal because it is a universal fact that the world is composed of localized particularities, regional differences.  This might seem a rather quaint and mundane point to make, but it needs to be said in order to undermine, perhaps cheaply, the post-structuralist and relativist claim that argues for the absence of universality due to universal difference: a bizarre contradiction (there is no universality because of universality) that, on the practical level, results in a paralysis of politics.  Mao's insight, after all, is about operationalizing a universal understanding of revolution through regional particularities.  And it is this dialectic that brings me to my main point.

Mao qualified his theory of regionalization with the context of what he called concrete marxism.  And though a concrete marxism, according to Mao, needed to be articulated through a national/particular form, it still had to possess a global/universal essence in order to be applied as concrete.  The qualifier concrete is meant to indicate the relationship of the particular to the universal: there are universals to human experience (i.e. all humans produce themselves through history and society), but that these universal understandings only emerge in particular contexts (i.e. all humans do not produce themselves just as they please, but in circumstances encountered according to their specific socio-historical contexts).  That is, if we accept that it is a universal fact of human existence that humans produce themselves in circumstances directly encountered from the past, and that this universal production happens in different and historical circumstances across the globe, we should also realize the multiplicity of customs produced to deal with multiple environments and histories.  Mao's focus on regionalization is meant to imply this universality of particularity.  Nick Knight, in Rethinking Mao, argues that it would be a mistake to suggest that Mao's "sinification of Marxism" was some sort of "[s]inocentrism [that] entailed the elevation of Chinese tradition and contemporary Chinese realities at the expense of Marxism's universal truths." (Knight, 199)  Rather, Knight rightly notes:
"Mao perceived the derivation of… universal laws as proceeding (in accord with inductive logic) from the particular to the general.  He believed that if one is to arrive at objective truth, the connection between the particular and the general had to be maintained… Thus, by Mao's criteria, it was valid to accept a universal theory such as Marxism as representing a scientific reflection of objective reality if it had been constructed with regard to the norms of inductive procedure, building from the particular to the universal and utilizing the distilled wisdom of 'scientifically abstracted' indirect experience." (Knight, 204)
A concrete analysis, then, is that which takes universal theoretical insights about human engagement with history and society and connects them to specific and particular circumstances.  General scientific axioms always need to be qualified during specific applications; the general historical materialist understanding of society and history must also be qualified by the nuances of particular societies and histories.  Moreover, there are no scientific understandings that, regardless of their operationalization in particular circumstances, ignore the previously established and universal scientific categories.  Successive categories may rearticulate our previous understanding, may give us a broader conception of erroneous positions due to localized thinking, but they cannot be established by ignoring altogether the prior establishment of theory.  This is why, in some of my posts about the current intifadas in the middle east, my position has always been that we cannot imagine these uprisings, as local as they are, as emerging from an historical vacuum, a point where the revolutionary truths hard won by the blood of martyrs, in different localities, resulted in universal understandings of human progress.

Ultimately Mao was attempting to understand the particular problems facing the Chinese Revolution in light of the particular problems facing world revolution.  His theory was informed by the limits of the Russian Revolution that he adapted to his regional particularities and, through these particularities, reassessed and opened further.  He understood what was universal about these prior experiences, because it resonated with his revolutionary context, just as he understood these prior experiences' particular errors.  But Marxism, as we have pointed out from the beginning of this dialogue, is a living science and science requires mistakes and setbacks in order to remain, always within local contexts, open to the future.