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On Attempts to Massify Philosophy

Around two years ago I picked up a small book, published at the end of the Cultural Revolution in China, entitled Selected Essays on the Study of Philosophy by Workers, Peasants and Soldiers.  The essays in this book are the product of various study groups based in different sites of production during the GPCR––ship yards, glass factories, motor plants, village communes, etc.––and at first read appear like a rather strange and perhaps humorous attempt to "philosophize".  Take, for example, the essay entitled "Dialectics of Building a 10,000-Ton Freighter" where the authors (a workers' philosophy study group in Tientsin Hsin-kang Shipyard) write:
Standard practice in building a ship is to use a berth corresponding in size to the ship under construction.  Our shipyard has only a 5,000-ton berth.  Was it possible to build a 10,000-ton freighter there? […] Some shook their heads and said: "it would be sheer adventure." […] Others ridiculed the idea as "reckless". […] The bourgeois "experts" and "authorities" who could not get along without the crutch of foreign literature considered it out of the question to build a freighter of such size on this berth. […] But the broad masses of revolutionary shipbuilders said firmly: "With the invincible Mao Zedong Thought we can certainly build a 10,000-ton freighter on a 5,000-ton berth!"
Then the essay goes on to explain why 10,000-ton freighters are philosophically important, and why producing them rather than purchasing them is a philosophical necessity, with an excitement for the details of ship-building––juxtaposed perhaps awkwardly with philosophical statements such as "matter can be transformed into consciousness and consciousness into matter"––that could only be expressed by people who are really into ship-building.

As someone who possesses a doctorate in "philosophy", and is thus supposed to be interested in what it means to be a philosopher, there is that snobbish university bred part of me––that liberalism that continuously needs to be kicked in the teeth––that wants to dismiss the sort of philosophizing found in this book as crude, ludicrous, absurd, and embarrassing.  After all, if my students ever philosophized in their papers in the manner of some of these essays (i.e. in "Dialectics Applied in Driving Safely", a member of a PLA transport argues that there is a revolutionary and counter-revolutionary way to drive a truck) I would be extremely disappointed.  Since first year students are often under the impression that "philosophy" is just their "opinions about life", first year philosophy essays are generally filled with whacky speculations about the students' "own personal philosophy", which is never as unique as they might imagine.

I know of other marxist academics who have encountered these essays and have used them as examples of "bad marxist philosophy".  Since the workers at the shipyard clearly do not possess the requisite background to perform "proper" and "rigorous" philosophy, these "curious" essays are worthy of little more than derision and scorn.  One quite famous, and now retired, marxist academic at the university where I work apparently even mocked this book in a lecture––look at how stupid these workers and peasants are compared to those of us who are the "real" marxist philosophers!  As academics we want our marxism to be taken seriously as an intellectual system; we get defensive whenever we encounter representations that appear to resemble the papers of first year students and seem to make our chosen system of thought into something less rigorous than we think it should be.

And yet there is something completely different between spurious first year philosophy papers and the essays found in this book.  First year philosophy students are usually "philosophizing" ruling class opinions they imagine are unique (often cribbed without reflection from crude understandings of Nietzsche) because they imagine that they are unique philosophy individuals.  The writers of the essays in this book, however, emerge from work teams that are trying to make sense of their labour, to bring meaning to their practical activity.  In this context, dialectics are not an abstract philosophical problem but a concrete engagement with the concrete world.

Returning to the example of the 10,000-ton freighter we discover an attempt to comprehend dialectical logic in the real world, in practical activity: "we must base ourselves on existing objective conditions, and shipbuilding is no exception.  But material is a dead factor, while men are living [this is the unity of opposites].  Once we grasp… materialist dialectics and give full play to man's dynamic role, we can create the conditions. […] Those who thought it impossible to build a large freighter on a small berth actually saw only things, not people; they saw only the prevailing conditions and not the developing ones.  This view is contrary to materialist dialectics."  Whether or not we agree with this assessment of dialectics is not the point: these essays are not concerned with making academic arguments, they are attempts on the part of workers and peasants to interpret the meaning of their labour and, after this act of interpretation (which is the moment of philosophy), attempting to apply what they have examined to their objective experience in order to change their circumstances.

Whatever their problems, the fact that these essays exist should actually be cause for excitement, rather than scorn, amongst those of us who claim to be marxists.  These essays are the result of a period where there was a great attempt, however short-lived and ultimately failed, to bridge the gap between intellectual and manual labour.  The mental division of labour, marxists should know, is one of the problems with which all socialist revolutions must engage: we cannot simply believe that some people are destined to be the intellectuals and others are destined to be the menial workers, the former predestination valued more than the latter.  And the GPCR, whatever its mistakes and ultimate failure, was a moment in time where there were massive attempts to eliminate this division: intellectuals [often kicking and screaming] were sent to work in village or factory communes; mass art projects and exhibitions, artistic and literary production from below, were launched; worker and peasant universities were built in massive numbers with a curriculum aimed at embedding learning within concrete circumstances and making knowledge accessible [as depicted in Breaking With Old Ideas]; and workers were expected to study marxist philosophy rather than simply allow the party officials to the thinking for them.

Unfortunately, we know these attempts to bridge the gap between mental and manual labour eventually failed.  Perhaps one of the seeds of this failure can be observed in Selected Essays on the Study of Philosophy by Workers, Peasants and Soldiers: the over-reliance on "immortal Mao Zedong Thought", which was then the codification of marxist theory aimed at people who, probably for the first time in their life, were just encountering philosophy.  And as much as the codification might have been a good entry point into dialectical thinking, the fact that it was wed to the figure of Mao Zedong could lead to the confusion between a person and a philosophical system––we are generally wary these days, and for good reason, of cults of personality.

Still, the fact that workers and peasants were studying philosophy in the context of their own concrete circumstances should be treated by those of us who claim to be marxists as tremendously exciting.  Even more exciting is the fact that these essays were published.  We need to imagine what it would be like for a worker or peasant who, previous to the revolution, was treated as "stupid" and less important than those who were privileged to attend university.  Suddenly these people are encouraged to study philosophy, are told that their labour is just as important (if not more so) than the contemplative labour of those who spend all their time in the ivory tower, and get to see their essays printed in magazines and books.  The idea was to try and transform every worker into an intellectual, and every intellectual into a worker.

A similar approach happened with art during the GPCR: suddenly everyone from every point in life was producing literature and posters.  As Mobo Gao pointed out in Battle For China's Past, regardless of the often didactic and perhaps crude artistic nature of these attempts, we should be impressed by the fact that there was a pursuit of mass art––the rise of cultural sites of production was unprecedented.  Peasant and worker artists were showing their work at galleries alongside the more "respectable" artists; even if we might take issue with the aesthetic quality of most of what was produced, we cannot deny that this situation, because it was casting the net wide in an attempt to turn the masses into artists or art critics, also led to the production of some very significant art installations such as Rent Collection Courtyard.

In any case, just as there was an attempt to massify art, there was an attempt to massify philosophy.  To pour scorn on these attempts is to pour scorn on those who, for the first time in their lives, were participating in privileged sites of production.  So what if much of their art or philosophy was not as "aesthetically worthy" or "intellectually rigorous" as those who scorn their attempts complain?  Derision here is anti-marxist: it is anti-worker and anti-peasant––this is the intellectual elitism that is contingent on the contradiction between mental and manual labour.  Academic marxists, regardless of their political commitment, are just as prone to experiencing this elitism as other academics.

Moreover, what is important about these attempts is the fact that, regardless of what we might think of some of the productions, they in some sense are an argument for the importance of art and philosophy.  For example, we philosophers are usually very aware of the joke, that is commonplace in this society, that our degrees are worthless because philosophy is worthless––we should have become medical doctors, lawyers, or engineers.  The attempt to massify philosophy demonstrated by Selected Essays on the Study of Philosophy by Workers, Peasants and Soldiers, however, is also an argument for the importance of philosophy.  For if it wasn't deemed important, why encourage workers and peasants to launch philosophical study groups?

As for the story of the 10,000-ton freighter, the workers actually did succeed in building it on a 5,000-ton berth.  I would like to imagine that their philosophizing about the concrete situation contributed to this process.


  1. Lovely post JMP!

    I always find myself torn at this essay marking-time of the year between trying to find ways to boost the engagement of those 1st years (who have just discovered some form of leftism and are sputtering about it mostly incoherently) and marking them according to someone else's ideological rigour.
    Thanks for the reminder that I already know which side I'm on!

  2. I wish I had some first years in my classes this year who just discovered some form of leftism...

  3. Grading essays is a lot different from mockery: undergraduates, like I suppose everyone else, need a lot of criticism and holding-to-standards-of-rigor to develop. Everybody sucks at everything the first time, so boosting engagement in the form of taking it easy on papers you agree with is irresponsible, if understandable. Those professors, on the other hand, are just assholes.

    This post was just absolutely fascinating, by the way. Just the image of a group of people, not used to anyone expecting to think, sitting down together and trying to pick up abstract concepts not as gods or vestments but tools to wield in common against concrete problems - that's communism in the flesh.


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