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The Three-Headed Beast (Part 13): The Regionalization of Marxism - concrete vs. abstract marxism

Finally, we return to the interblog dialogue between myself and BF of Workers Dreadnought.  This dialogue began in the fall and the careful reader can read the first entry here.  The most recent contribution, BF’s Regionalization of Marxism, thankfully returns us to our overall outline of Maoist philosophy, perhaps proving that, despite the problems that arise from this form of writing, we aren’t as convoluted as some might think...

My last contribution to this shared essay concluded our discussion of what we called the analysis of class and nation in peripheral capitalist formations.  Although more can probably be said on this matter, BF decided that it was appropriate to shift gears and move unto our next topic, the regionalization of marxism.  My last entry ended with a suggestion that it might be appropriate to go further on the first topic, and perhaps connect it to the thought of the Frankfurt School, but in side discussions we both decided this was, at least for the moment, inappropriate––these issues will reemerge at other and more suitable points in our collaborative project.  The decision to move on to what we have called the regionalization of marxism flows logically from our last exchange: an analysis of class and nation in the peripheries requires, or at least should lead to, a theorization of marxism that is “a concrete analysis of a concrete situation.”

In BF’s opening of this topic, he has provided a general summary of the general dynamic of the regionalization of marxism as it has been practiced and understood by those movements inspired by the Chinese Revolution: “[the regionalization of marxism is] a de-centering of the Marxist project from Europe, which allowed for the development of concepts and additions/subtractions to be made which allows for the creative application of Marxism-Leninism (at this point) to new particular conditions.”  He examined how this was connected to Protracted Peoples War (PPW) and did an excellent job of defusing typical euro-marxist misunderstandings of the importance of this theory and its possible universal significance. What I am interested in discussing in this contribution, however, are some of the historical and philosophical foundations of this subject.

Taking as my entry-point BF’s claim that the regionalization of marxism was already evident, in some ways, in the work of Lenin, I want to argue that what makes this a Maoist development is the fact that Lenin never theorized it in a significant way.  Here we get into what BF has called an “epistemological shift.”  There are things Lenin theorizes that, by reading them backwards unto Marx and Engels, we can understand as possible directions in marxist thought that existed in germ form but could not be realized until revolutionary praxis and theory emerging from praxis.  For example, it is clear that the theory of “the dictatorship of the proletariat” existed in germ form in the work of Marx and Engels, but Lenin’s State and Revolution excavated this germ and gave it deeper philosophical significance.  The same can be said for Lenin’s theory of imperialism that, though possibly indicated by Marx and Engels, could never be theoretically realized until the crystallization of finance-capital in Lenin’s time, thus enabling him to use the historical materialist method to grow the critical germs into Imperialism The Highest Stage of Capitalism.  It is worthwhile to recall Jorge Luis Borges’ essay “Kafka and His Precursors” where it is suggested that we can find Kafka-esque themes in literature preceding Franz Kafka but, “if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality… every writer creates his own precursors.  His work modifies our conception of the past.” (Borges, Labyrinths, p. 201)  Thus the emergence of both Leninism and Maoism, inspired as they both are by the preceding traditions, also inspire our reading of these past traditions.  They are epistemological shifts in that, in some ways, they are heterodox developments in the theory [neither Lenin nor Mao were interested in being dogmatic marxists] and say things that their precursors might never have said themselves (and sometimes, because of their social context, could not possibly say), but they also reveal ways to read their precedents.

The fact that Lenin already possessed a germ understanding of the regionalization of marxism is clear because he was interested in theorizing revolutionary praxis in the context of Russia and so needed to analyze the particular and concrete situation of his environment.  Mao, however, learned from the Russian experience and, understanding precisely what Lenin was attempting to do, theorized a concept of the regionalization of marxism from earlier on.  The fact that this theorization played an intrinsic role in, and was initially unique to, the dynamics of the Chinese Revolution is evident in the many debates at the time surrounding the notion of “Marxism with Chinese characteristics.”  Both the left and right lines of the Chinese Revolution, in fact, argued that they were pursuing a “Chinese Marxism”, though for the latter group this often meant a Confucianism disguised by marxist language.  No one involved in the Russian Revolution, after all, spoke of or hotly debated “Marxism with Russian characteristics,” even if this is what Lenin was doing in his writing.

The emergence of Mao’s theorization of the regionalization of marxism can be traced to two significant texts: Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society (1926), and Report on the Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan (1927).  Inspired by the Russian Revolution, Mao is trying to make sense of the concrete situation of China and how to construct a proper historical materialist analysis in these circumstances rather than simply apply, uncritically and wholesale, an abstract Marxism, or an abstract Marxism-Leninism on the class stratification and social dynamics of his situation.  Separated by a year, these two documents are extremely interesting.  In the first text, Mao does a good job of pointing out the general class structure of his society but, at the end of the day, maintains what had become an orthodoxy in the Chinese Communist Party at that time––peasants are still backwards and need to be led by the more revolutionary industrial proletariat.  His involvement with the peasant movement in Hunan, however, causes Mao to take his analysis of classes in the text he wrote a year earlier to its logical conclusion: the peasantry of China may possibly represent the country’s most revolutionary force and that “[e]very revolutionary party and every revolutionary comrade will be put to the test, to be accepted or rejected as [the peasants] decide.” (Mao, Selected Readings, p. 24)

This practical experience would lead to Mao’s theorization of the regionalization of marxism and it is this theorization that possesses universal significance.  Obviously Mao’s insight about the peasantry cannot be applied on every other situation in the rest of the world––as some euro-marxists accuse Maoism of doing––or it would simply rearticulate the problem of sloppy historical materialism that Mao encountered in 1926 and 1927.  Rather, Mao’s insight regarding the peasantry led him to a deeper and philosophical point regarding historical materialist theory that lurked behind his analysis of class and the peasant movement, just as it lurked behind the writing of Lenin (an important example of this being The Development of Capitalism in Russia).  Lenin was regionalizing marxism, and this is clear from so much of his writing, but he never theorized the concept itself.

Mao’s theoretical contribution to Marxism begins with a rejection of Marxist abstraction.  In The Sinification of Marxism (1938), a selection that describes this theoretical approach, Mao writes that “without historical knowledge and an understanding of the concrete movement, it is impossible to lead a great revolutionary movement to victory.” (Mao, The Political Thought of Mao Tse-Tung, p. 161) Obviously, this was the insight he had gained from his initial experience with the peasantry.  More theoretically salient, however, is that Mao also claims that Marxist “theories are not to be looked upon as dogma but as a guide for action.  We must not study the letter of Marxism and Leninism, but the viewpoint of its creators with which they observed and solved problems.” (ibid.)

Therefore, Mao is preeminently concerned with a concrete rather than abstract marxism.  Prefiguring the claims made by theorists such as Frantz Fanon, Mao writes “[t]here is no such thing as abstract Marxism, but only concrete Marxism.  What we call concrete Marxism is Marxism that has taken on a national form, that is, Marxism applied to the concrete struggle in the concrete conditions… and not Marxism abstractly used.” (ibid., p. 162)  Sinification implies, obviously, adapting Marxism to the historical and social reality of China––the hotly debated "Marxism with Chinese Characteristics" mentioned above.

The rejection of Marxist abstraction and dogmatism, for Mao, is extremely important.  A Marxist understanding of any country in general, and China in particular, must begin with a proper historical materialist understanding of that country’s history, social struggles, and current historical context––just as the European Marxists did in Europe, and specifically the Russian Marxists of the Russian Revolution.  To apply the abstract categories of another country or countries (or of another historical juncture) to the concrete situation of one’s lived experience is merely an exercise in dogmatism and leads to revolutionary defeat.  This is why the thoroughly European and Trotskyist understanding of China evinced by Chen Dushiu, as discussed at other points in this interblog dialogue, was incapable of being properly revolutionary.

Several years after the piece on sinification, Mao’s essay What Is A Marxist Theoretician? (1942) re-emphazies the same historical materialist position.  In this essay he claims that if a theorist applies pre-formed Marxist categories of thought on a social-historical context without first understanding the concrete reality of this context, then this theorist is not a legitimate Marxist theorist but a dogmatist:
Our comrades must understand that we do not study Marxism-Leninism because it is pleasing to the eye, or because it has some mystical value, like the doctrines of the Taoist priests who ascend Mao Shan to learn how to subdue devils and evil spritis.  Marxism-Leninism has no beauty, nor has it any mystical value.  It is only extremely useful.  It seems that right up to the present quite a few have regarded Marxism-Leninism as a ready-made panacea: Once you have it, you can cure all your ills with little effort.  This is a type of childish blindness and we must start a movement to enlighten these people.  Those who regard Marxism-Leninism as religious dogma show this type of blind ignorance.  We must tell them openly, ‘Your dogma  is of no use,’ or, to use an impolite formulation, ‘Your dogma is less useful than shit.’  We see that dog shit can fertilize the fields and man’s can feed the dog.  And dogmas?  They can’t fertilize the fields, nor can they feed a dog. (ibid., p. 179)
Mao’s overall point is that Marxism is not a dogma but a call to action. (Mao, Selected Readings, p. 65) This point is fundamental to his understanding of Marxism and is theorized in numerous essays.  On Practice, Oppose Book Worship, and even his lectures on art at the Yenan forum, among others, all elaborate on the importance of resisting abstract dogmatism and beginning with the concrete historical situation.

This understanding of Marxism has become foundational to the most critical and non-Eurocentric historical materialist analyses.  The Sinification of Marxism, for example, is arguing that a Marxist analysis of China needs to take into account the Chinese reality rather than imposing European categories.  This is the starting point for understanding class and history for writers such as Frantz Fanon and Samir Amin, among others.  Class struggle in a colonized country that does not take into account the colonized population, for example, is not revolutionary class struggle.

At the conclusion of BF's last entry to this collaborative project, he wrote that "[t]here must be thus, a further development of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism in the First World that is attentive to the new particular conditions that have arisen in the last 30 years that has allowed for the development of a singularly different superstructure, a bourgeois-democratic post-political society, and a correct line towards the unique situation of the colonized indigenous populations in the settler-colonies of Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand amongst others."  I obviously agree with BF, and the point of this entry has been to demonstrate that Mao's theorization of regionalizing marxism teaches us why there should be these developments: historical materialist theory must always be a concrete analysis of a concrete situation, regionalized (but not revised, and this is often a difficult distinction to make) according to social and historical circumstances.

Now, back to BF and the return of our "mighty", if not somewhat convoluted,  collaboration!