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“Opening” Art and Politics: Discursive Practice in Mao Zedong Thought

by Han Yuhai | 15 December 2005 | No Comment | Last modified: 7 Aug 1:08 am

Modern social science is founded on the assumption that the thing-in-itself possesses a relative equilibrium, homogeneity, and stability, and that this characteristic enables us to “grasp” reality by means of stable, precise concepts. Modern social science is founded on the postulate that there is such a stable correlation between “signifier” and reality. This postulate derives from scientism. Mao Zedong, the great modernist that he was, harbored serious doubts about such postulates. He felt that the world’s myriad things were constantly changing, and the assumption that a concept was stable and rigid implied that the reality it described was also stable and rigid. I think that this was Mao’s deepest insight into the roots of “modern authoritarianism”, an insight that went beyond the superficial association of authoritarianism with a given “private property system” or “bureaucratic government” and pointed directly to the modern normalizing framework itself. Indeed, Mao’s relentless affirmation and promotion of the transformation of reality, and his faith that reality was indeterminate, led him to assert that certain concepts were themselves unstable and indeterminate. He advocated the constant “opening” of concepts basic to social science, and the so-called “Cultural Revolution” referred to the rebellion against and subversion of these concepts in the spheres of cultural and sociological knowledge, and to the treatment of such concept as discursive practices. These concepts included such cornerstones of modern knowledge and Marxist social science as class, class struggle, politics, and forces of production.

Among these concepts, class and class struggle are the most salient. According to Marxist orthodoxy, class and class struggle have specific definitions in reference to “property relations”, particularly in reference to the system of private ownership of the “means of production”. For Mao, however, this definition was not so fixed. While class struggle may have been the preeminent form of modern political struggle, in Mao’s eyes, political activity did not always revolve around questions of private property.

More than a few theorists have pointed out similarities between critiques and developments of Marxism from the perspectives of contemporary Western Marxism and those of Mao Zedong Thought. We must keep in mind, of course, the different historical contexts and especially the very different problems addressed by each of these critiques. But we should also emphasize one problematic that is central to both critical perspectives: “the death of politics” associated with modernity — that is, the death of “revolutionary politics”, the rationalization of politics into a passive, bureaucratic, “counter-revolutionary” force.

In particular, while both contemporary Marxism and Mao Zedong Thought reject “property relations” as a primary object of analysis for contemporary social and political life (this being their most pronounced point of departure from classical Marxism), beyond this, however, the two critiques diverge. According to contemporary Western Marxism, in advanced capitalist countries, the degradation of social life and social politics attributable to “property relations” has already been greatly tempered by the development of productive forces and the general rise in material standards of living. On the other hand, as science and technology have become “primary forces of production”, as politics has been reduced to scientific management, as the forms of political domination and the means of surplus-value extraction have simultaneously undergone transformation, people have lost their ability to participate in politics and political resistance. All this is understood as related to the development of an instrumental rationality.

At the same time, a similar “death of the political” was taking place within the socialist countries. Although it was not the abolition of private property in general that Marx prescribed but the abolition of only that sphere of private property acting as “capital”, however, following from the orthodox Marxist doctrine that the origin of class struggle and the contradiction between productive forces and productive relations lay in the system of private ownership of the means of production, Soviet socialists claimed that these contradictions no longer existed within socialist society. In this sense, the socialist abolition of private property also meant the “death of politics”.

In contrast to the advanced capitalist societies, it was not that the development of productive forces had pacified “property relations” in the socialist societies; the political system had “abolished” the “property relations” altogether. But Mao discovered, against the Soviet Union’s vulgar Marxism, that this “abolition of property relations” had brought a new contradiction in its wake. Conflict and stratification of social interests based on “property relations” had transformed into conflict, stratification, and struggle based on “political status”, “class status”, and ideology. Thus, what bore a superficial resemblence to advanced capitalist countries was that, in socialist countries, “property relations” also became “derivative”, and “superiority” in class status, political status or ideology (“redness”) became the criteria for social distinction and “credentials for defining identity”. The struggle around ideological superiority thus became a basic political force.

Socialist politics thus revolved around “identity politics” rather than property relations. For Mao, the socialist “abolition of property relations” defined the character not only of socialist “revolution”, but also of the “construction” of socialist society. In other words, socialist revolution began with the people’s self-conscious transformation of “productive relations” based on their awareness that these “productive relations” hindered the development of “productive forces”. For this very reason, however, the construction of socialist society, as the revolution’s continuation, must take place on the basis of these “productive relations”, even though the classes and groups representing “advanced productive relations” had become the leading and ruling classes and groups and the others had become subordinate groups. At the same time, because property relations had already been abolished, the criteria for delineating social interests and “defining social identity and status” could not be based on property or economic relations, but must instead be based on the standards of “advanced classes”, “revolutionary culture”, and “socialist ideology”. The “competition” and “struggle” around these things (the contestation of “red” identity or status) thus became the driving force in socialist politics, and “economic property relations” became “derivative”. In this sense, “class struggle” indeed existed in socialist society, but it was a struggle in the sphere of “ideology” and “culture” rather than the economic sphere. A struggle not around “economic capacity” but around the “political surface” — this was Mao’s assessment of socialist society.

It is on the basis of this assessment that we can say: While socialism may have abolished the economic relations of private property and allowed for a relative economic equality, the nature of socialist revolution and the construction of socialist society inexorably replaced struggle around economic identity with struggle around political identity, and, in this sense, inexorably replaced economic inequality with political inequality. In replacing an identity politics of “economic property relations” with an identity politics of “advanced productive relations”, socialism landed in a predicament: Seeking an egalitarian society, it had abolished private ownership of the means of production only to generate a new form of inequality. This predicament lay not in whether socialism could develop the “productive forces”, but in its apparent betrayal of its egalitarian promise: The thorough transformation of irrational “social relations” did not, of course, mean that socialist “social relations” were not a “new form of productive relations”; neither, however, did it mean that the new “productive relations” were rational.

The contradictions and struggle inherent to socialist productive relations in fact stem from their irrationality. Whether we let these contradictions “sabotage the forces of production”, or whether we suppress them, as did the Soviets, claiming that “to affirm these contradictions would be to sabotage the productive forces’ development”, sooner or later these contradictions must come to the surface. In this sense, what Mao called the new politically based bureaucratic class was a discovery made from this kind of class analysis perspective. Maurice Meisner points out that Mao analyzed the class structure of the new Chinese society and concluded that:

As in the Soviet Union, the disappearance of the old economically based ruling classes was accompanied by the emergence of a new politically based bureaucratic ruling class… [T]he power and privileges of the bureaucracy, indeed its origins, were rooted in the monopoly of political power exercised by the Party… Mao’s use of the term “bourgeois” focused on the forms of inequality being generated by the new society created by the revolution, inequalities and social relationships based on the possession of political power rather than the ownership of property.[2]

Mao thus concluded that, far from “the death of politics”, under the new conditions “revolutionary politics” was faced with a new kind of challenge.

“Politics” is another concept that was indeterminate or unstable for Mao Zedong. For some people it was the eternal banner of liberation, while for others it became a tool of oppression. Mao was a theorist who resolutely believed that art should serve revolutionary politics. Of his theoretical positions that have been abused on the one hand or attacked on the other, this is one of the most prominent. Politics has been narrowly understood: For some people, politics refers simply to the commands of a ruler or ruling class; for others, politics is the refusal to obey those commands. Mao’s writings and speeches, however, are clear on the point that “politics” here refers not to the usual sense of adventitious power struggles among random interest groups; Mao’s “politics” had only two historical referents: the modern politics of national liberation, and the modern politics of human liberation. If we want to understand Mao’s theory of the relationship between art and politics, we must first recognize a simple and basic fact: “politics” here refers specifically to the modern politics of revolution. As opposed to bureaucratic “managment” or the domination of a given class or interest group, revolutionary politics is an eternal challenge to such management and domination. Whether in practice or in theory, politics is a strategy; it is a construct that is continually open, indeterminate, and without a fixed essence. The politics of Mao Zedong, as a people’s revolutionary, were a politics of people’s revolution, a politics aimed at national liberation and human liberation. Certainly art should be in line with the direction of such a politics. To distort Mao’s position on art and revolutionary politics to mean that art should serve the purpose of management or domination, or to say that Mao’s position was some sort of “aesthetic instrumentalism”, is to express ignorance of the history of China’s New Democracy and socialist revolutions, to express ignorance of modern history. It is to debase revolutionary politics.

Mao’s position on art and revolutionary politics is intimately tied to his theory of the difference between revolutionary politics and bourgeois politics. What modern capitalist society in general creates first and foremost is political alienation, the loss of politics’ liberatory function, and a result of this loss is the loss of art’s liberatory function. Thus, in contradistinction to Trotsky, Mao points out that the first step towards the modern liberation of humankind must be to restore to politics its liberatory function rather than to wait and rely on art’s “inherent” liberatory function. Below is that classic passage that has been so widely attacked, in which Mao advocates the “opening” of politics from the realm of bourgeois professional politicians to create a “politics of the masses” for the people’s revolution; at the same time he advocates the “opening” of literature from “individualist” philosophy to create a “literature and art of the masses”:

Proletarian literature and art are part of the whole proletarian revolutionary cause. Opposition to this arrangement is certain to lead to dualism or pluralism, and in essence amounts to Trotsky’s position of “politics — Marxist; art — bourgeois”. We do not favour overstressing the importance of literature and art, but neither do we favour underestimating their importance. Literature and art are subordinate to politics, but in their turn exert a great influence on politics…

When we say that literature and art are subordinate to politics, we mean class politics, the politics of the masses, not the politics of a few so-called politicians. Politics, whether revolutionary or counter-revolutionary, is the struggle of class against class, not the activity of a few individuals. The revolutionary struggle on the ideological and artistic fronts must be subordinate to the political struggle because only through politics can the needs of the class and the masses find expression in concentrated form. Revolutionary politicians, the political specialists who know the science or art of revolutionary politics, are simply the leaders of millions upon millions of politicians — the masses. Their task is to collect the opinions of these mass politicians, sift and refine them, and return them to the masses, who then take them and put them into practice. They are therefore not the kind of aristocratic “politicians” who work behind closed doors and fancy they have a monopoly on wisdom. Herein lies the difference in principle between proletarian politicians and decadent bourgeois politicians. This is precisely why there can be complete unity between the political character of our literary and artistic works and their truthfulness. It would be wrong to fail to realize this and to debase the politics and the politicians of the proletariat.[3]

This concept of “opening” politics, or to use a scholastic term, rescuing politics from the general alienation of modern capitalism, initiates the revival of revolutionary politics or the return of revolution to politics, and for Mao this includes the politics of the two historical stages of New Democracy and socialism.

First and foremost, the aim of New Democracy politics is to “establish an independent, free, democratic, united, prosperous and powerful new nation”.[4] Of course this means a new stage in the development of a modern nation-state where the responsibility of modernization and modernity has shifted from the urban bourgeoisie, intellegentsia and petit-bourgeoisie to the broad lower strata of Chinese society. The New Democracy revolution proceeds from this broad basis and transforms every aspect of Chinese society from the bottom up; it organizes a modern Chinese nation-state from the bottom up. Politics has shifted from the hands of the urban bourgeoisie to the hands of the masses. This kind of “opening” is a process of dissolving an old order and constituting a new order. According to Benedict Anderson, this kind of nation-state is an “imagined community”, and this process of imagining is what Hegel called a dialectical process: On the one hand, the nation-state manifests its essence concretely in its subjects — the masses of the people; on the other hand, the people can discover their own essence only through such a nation-state, through such an imagined community. The political practice of New Democracy revolution is such a dialectical process of organizing an imagined community, and Mao pointed out that this dialectic of revolutionary politics corresponds to the dialectic of art. He said:

The life of the people is always a mine of the raw materials for literature and art, materials in their natural form, materials that are crude, but most vital, rich and fundamental; they make all literature and art seem pallid by comparison; they provide literature and art with an inexhaustible source, their only source…

Although social life is the only source of literature and art and is incomparably livelier and richer in content, the people are not satisfied with life alone and demand literature and art as well. Why? Because, while both are beautiful, life as reflected in works of literature and art can and ought to be on a higher plane, more intense, more concentrated, more typical, nearer the ideal, and therefore more universal than actual everyday life.[5]

When Mao talks about the “phenomenal” and “essential” forms of literature and art, about their “natural” and “typical” forms, we are reminded of Hegel’s theory of the dialectical relationship between “civil society” and “the state”; we are reminded of Marx’s theory of the dialectical relationship between humankind’s “natural state” and its “species-being”. In fact, Mao’s notion of “typicality” makes sense only within the context of this historical process — the construction of a modern nation-state and its revolutionary literature. For Hegel, civil society was the state’s foundation, and this kind of state inevitably adopted bureaucratic forms of government; in Marx’s words: “The ‘bureaucracy’ is the ‘state formalism’ of civil society. It is the ‘state consciousness’, the ‘state will’, the ‘state power’, as one corporation — and thus a particular, closed society within the state.”[6] For Mao, however, the state Subject was not civil society, but the broad lower strata of a people. As for which classes or strata constituted these “broad lower strata”, this was not a stable concept, but an “open category”. His state expressed itself not as economic liberalism or a “procedural democracy” marked by the separation of bureaucracy from civil society, but as a people’s democracy marked by the people’s broad participation — “Extensive Democracy (da minzhu)”. Mao applied the dialectic of modernity to the political revolution of creating a New Democracy modern nation-state. Here the relationship between the broad lower strata of the people and the New Democracy nation-sate was a relationship of mutual discovery: the New Democracy nation-state discovered its Subject — the broad lower strata of the people — and the people discovered their own essence through the new state as the Subject of society and the state. Mao felt that this kind of political orientation corresponded to the new literary and artistic orientation: the people’s life was becoming the sole wellspring for literature and art, and it was through the new literature and art that the people identified and discovered themselves. And through this dialectic — to speak precisely, through the revolutionary political movement and the revolutionary literary movemen t-

the People emerged for the first time on the new horizon of Mao Zedong Thought. Through Mao Zedong Thought, a silent and spectral people merged to form “the Power of the People”. The People thus entered history- they created history. Mao Zedong Thought became the richest tragic modern experience of the people of the Third World. It became the greatest legacy of our century.[7]

To romanticize this legacy would be ahistorical, but unless we understand all of its rich theoretical content, unless we grasp its specific relationship with Chinese history and modernity, if we lightly dismiss it without truly comprehending it through historical praxis, then we cannot understand that what Amartya Sen called modern China’s “open mind” is a product of this political opening.

Similarly, Mao’s ideas about socialist revolution are also a complex topic deserving serious research. These ideas deal with both Chinese realities and with Marxist theory of modern society. Among them, Mao’s open interpretation of “productive forces” — that concept so central to modern knowledge — is the most important. One point is that when Marx considered the revolutionary or progressive quality of modern society, he did not take the advancement of instrumental rationality as a determining gauge. He saw modern society as a dialectical returning [fugui] process with regard to human species-being — with regard to labor in all its aspects, rather than merely one aspect. According to Marx, capitalist society had merely developed instrumental labor and instrumental rationality in a narrow sense. It did not change the relations among people. In other words, capitalism represents a modern economic revolution, and only in this sense can it be called revolutionary or progressive. Capitalism effected a split between the economic revolution and the revolution of relations among people. It effected a revolution in productive relations between humankind and nature, but not the revolution of political relations among people — it separated these two. By describing modern capitalist history as an evolutionary history of constant improvement of productive forces and labor technology, bourgeois political economy and bourgeois literary theory obscures the basic fact that the reign of the bourgeoisie poltically transformed the political and cultural revolution of relations among people. And socialist revolution attempts to combine these two revolutionary moments (the economic and the political) into one. Marx reformulated the dialectic by examining the contradictions produced by liberal capitalism between productive forces (what Hegel called “the forces by which nature is conquered through the accumulation of labor”) and productive relations (Hegel’s “great struggle for mutual recognition”). By understanding history as the self-movement of active, conscious labor, Marx attempted to prove that socialism was the synthesis of economic and political revolutions. The proletariat’s self-conscious struggle to achieve its labor rights that had be suppressed was its struggle for recognition. It was the political struggle of harbingers of a new society against all the commodified capitalist relations among people. Socialism meant the establishment of new relationships both between people and nature and among people. It did not refer to the simple development of productive forces. This is the key to understanding the important difference between Marxism and Soviet-style Marxism.

Like contemporary Western Marxism, Chinese socialist practice of course also had an important non-Stalinist coloration — regarding what is meant by “productive forces” (whether this is an essentialist concept) and whether the development of productive forces is the essence of socialism (whether the relation between productive forces and productive relations is homogeneous [tongyixing]). Regarding these questions, Mao’s approach was always open. This was especially evident in Mao’s criticism of “productivism”- an important corrective to Marxist dogma. Of course this was not an outright rejection of “productive forces”. On the contrary, Mao regarded modern history not as a simple history of productive forces’ development, but of humankind’s gradual return to its species-being. A history that combined the development of productive forces with the establishment of reasonable relations among people. Modern revolution was not, as the bourgeoisie would have it, the one-dimensional advancement of productive technologies (an economic revolution). It was a political and cultural revolution to release people from one-dimensional labor, from unreasonable political domination. Development of productive forces did not refer rigidly to the heavy industries with a high concentration of capital. In 1958, when China lost the financial resources and technical conditions to continue its industrialization (which had depended mainly on aid from the Soviets, who regarded them as the determining factor for developing productive forces), Mao raised a new banner by declaring that, in developing its productive forces, China could depend only on the consciousness and insights of its laboring people — that if socialism was to liberate the productive forces, in the final analysis this was because socialism liberated “humankind”. That is, it was to liberate humankind as “selfless laborer”. He said:

Were it profitable, [Khrushchev] would even borrow money from the devil. We won’t take such a road. The devil won’t lend us money, and even if he did we wouldn’t accept it. Instead we shall rely on our Chen Village Chen Yimeis and our Dazhai Brigade Chen Yongguis.[8]

And again,

Even if Khrushchev calls us petit-bourgeois, this is only because he is a revisionist, which means that he stands with five percent of the people, whereas we stand with the working class and the poor and lower-middle peasants.[9]

With regard to Stalin, Mao put it bluntly in reference to the Soviet Textbook on Political Economy:

This book was published in 1955, but it seems to be relying on a much older framework. Stalin’s work is not very enlightening.

As Mao saw it, this textbook described modern history not as a history of political revolution in which people progressively cast off their alienation and the unidimensionality of labor, but as a history of economic development. Its account was no different from the bourgeois account, it blurred the difference between socialist and bourgeois revolution — because socialist revolution is the process that combines the economic revolution to liberate productive forces with the political revolution to liberate humankind:

Here, where it says that the development of heavy industry is the economic basis for socialist transformation, we’re not getting the whole story. The whole of revolutionary history demonstrates that the complete development of productive forces is not a prerequisite for the transformation of old social relations. Our revolution began with the propagation of Marxism in order to create a new social discourse in which to push forward the revolution. It was possible to destroy the old productive relations only after we had overthrown the old superstructure in the course of revolution. After the old productive relations had been destroyed, new ones were created, and these cleared the way for the development of new social productive forces. With that behind us we were able to set in motion the technological revolution to develop social productive forces on a large scale. At the same lime, we still had to continue transforming the productive relations and ideology…

This textbook addresses itself only to material preconditions and seldom engages the question of superstructure — i.e., the class nature of the state, philosophy and science. In economics the main object of study is productive relations. All the same, political economy and the materialist historical outlook are close cousins. It is difficult to deal clearly with problems of the economic base and the productive relations if the question of superstructure is neglected.[10]

Bourgeois political economy describes modern history as a developmental and evolutionary history of constant technological improvement and constant progress in the mode of commodity production. It attempts to mystify the historical truth of capitalism — that this history is a political history in which the bourgeoisie uses economic means to legitimize its domination, a history of the formation of bourgeois rule. This mystification takes the form of a split not only between the political and the economic, but also a split between bourgeois art and politics. The disdain for politics that one finds among bourgeois artists of democratic sensibility is a disdain for rationalized, bureaucratic politics, a despair at a bourgeois politics that has lost its liberatory meaning. This disdain and despair takes a toll on progressive bourgeois artists: Finding no form in which to challenge the real domination of capitalism, they can only immerse themselves in interior worlds of depression. As Mao saw it, the proletariat had no need to mystify this historical truth. It should use all available means to change its political status and achieve its own political rule, including whatever economic means it could harness. Doubtless, this illustrates Mao’s critical attitude toward absolute standards regarding productive forces, but I think this does not mean that Mao undervalued “the development of productive forces”. Indeed, Mao’s high esteem for productive forces derives not only from Marxist theory, but also from a complex understanding of China’s distinctive historical fate within the context of imperialism. Moreover, this is what gave Mao such an unprecedentedly high regard for productive forces. But the goal was not to develop productive forces for their own sake, but only inasmuch as they contributed to China’s casting off of its shameful status in the modern world, only within the field of vision of the political revolution in which “the Chinese people [could stand] up” in the modern world”.

Mao’s open interpretation of productive forces had a coloring that was intensely modern but also very distinctive. This distinctiveness is extremely important. Due to its particular historical conditions, it was already a historical fact that China’s “productive forces” were “backwards”, so its only way out was to transform its “productive relations”, to go from “backwards” productive forces to “advanced” productive relations, and thus to accelerate the development of productive forces. This was Mao’s interpretation and application of the Marxist theory of productive forces and productive relations within the particular Chinese and world contexts. The significance of modern revolution is in its being a revolution not only of technology, but of people — not only an economic revolution, but also a political revolution in the relations among people. For this reason, as with all modern revolutionaries, he highly exonerated the significance of the French revolution, because the primary target of that revolution was not the productive forces but the superstructure — it was to transform the entire superstructure into modern productive relations. The French revolution provided the ideological model for the political, economic and legal cultures of the modern nation-state, and it established them within France through revolution, and through the Napoleonic wars it spread them throughout Europe and the world. Mao’s conclusion was that it was revolution — the “productive relations” formed mainly through the French revolution and the English Glorious Revolution- that provided the basis for the ultimate development of capitalist forces of production; and moreover that the development of productive forces would not naturally lead to the formation of new productive relations. He addressed this question from the standpoint of modern history:

From the standpoint of world history, the bourgeois revolutions and the establishment of the bourgeois states came before, not after, the industrial revolutions. The bourgeoisies first changed the superstructure and took possession of the state apparatus before carrying on propaganda to gather real strength. Only then did they push forward serious changes in the productive relations. When the productive relations had been taken care of and they were on the right track, they then opened the way for the development of the productive forces. To be sure, the revolution in the production relations is brought on by a certain degree of development of the productive forces, but the major development of the productive forces always comes after changes in the production relations. Consider the history of the development of capitalism. First came simple cooperation [xiezuo], which subsequently developed into workshop handicrafts. At this time capitalist productive relations were already taking shape, but the workshops produced without machines. This type of capitalist productive relations gave rise to the need for technological improvement, creating the conditions for the use of machinery. In England the Industrial Revolution (late 18th to early 19th centuries) was carried out only after the bourgeois revolution (17th century). In their respective ways, Germany, France, the US and Japan all underwent changes in superstructure and productive relations before the vast development of capitalist industry…

It is a general rule that you cannot solve the problem of ownership and go on to expand development of the productive forces until you have first created a public discourse and seized political power. Although between the bourgeois revolution and the proletarian revolution there are certain differences (before the proletarian revolution socialist productive relations did not exist, while capitalist productive relations were already beginning to grow in feudal society), basically they follow the same logic.[11]

Clearly, in contrast to the evolutionary history in which bourgeois political economists described modern development as merely the evolution of productive forces, Mao’s account of productive forces was much more specific [juti] and historical. This can be seen not only in his specific interpretation of productive forces through ownership systems and relations of labor and distribution, but also in his endeavor to understand productive forces from the standpoint of class and national liberation — in a word, his endeavor to comprehend productive forces from the specific historical standpoint of productive relations. Mao’s criticism of “productivism” and his emphasis on “superstructure” was not merely an attempt to emphasize productive forces from the perspective of productive relations, or to emphasize the superstructure’s “side effects” on the economic base, but to emphasize the convergence of modern economic development with human liberation. In Marxist terms, the dialectical development of modernity, at the stage of socialism, would finally arrive at this convergence, and at that point the people, as if in their own garden, would labor for the collective and for human liberation, because the people would have already become the masters of society and the state, and their labor would no longer be “one-dimensional”. On the one hand, the development of productive forces would finally promote social harmony; on the other hand, social harmony would continue to promote the development of productive forces. What this image follows is Marx’s interpretation of modern history that is also highly teleological — this history is the self-movement of active, purposeful labor which has an ultimate goal, or history has an ultimate goal: complete [quanmian] labor’s sublation of one-dimensional labor; humankind’s final return to its “species-being”.

Wang Hui points out, in his discussion of the Chinese conception of modernization associated with Mao Zedong Thought:

[T]his concept does not merely set technological goals, and it does not point only to the formation of the nation-state and a modern bureaucracy. Rather, it also includes a teleological historical perspective and worldview. It is a type of thinking through which China’s social praxis is understood as a path toward an ontological historical goal, which in turn fosters an attitude that links existential meaning to the historical period in which one finds oneself…

This is because inherent within the Chinese concept of modernization is a tendency toward values based on a content of socialist ideology. Mao Zedong believed in irreversible historical progress and used revolution and the methods of the Great Leap Forward to push Chinese society along the modernization path.[12]

Mao could not, like Weber, harboring a depressed and cold attitude, describe the secularization [chu mei hua] of the entire modern Western superstructure into capitalist “productive relations”, or the secularization of the Protestant ethic into an ethic of capitalist civility. Nor could he, like Marx, in an uninhibitedly critical manner rebuke capitalism for turning all relations into commodity or monetary relations. For Mao understood productive forces from the vantage point of human liberation and Chinese national liberation. This meant that he understood the significance of socialist liberation of productive forces from the perspective of productive relations and the entire superstructure. In other words, the liberation of productive forces, in the dictionary of Mao Zedong Thought, mean not only technological innovation (the material development of production), but also the transformation of the property system, labor relations, methods of distribution, and, moreover, it meant human liberation in general — the transformation of the entire superstructure. In the dictionary of Mao Zedong Thought, productive relations and the entire superstructure were all productive forces, the transformation of productive relations and superstructural revolution were all parts of the overall project of liberating productive forces, and under certain conditions they were the most important parts. But this endeavor was proven by history to be a failure.

In the face of this failure, a question people often ask is: That quasi-religious zeal for human liberation; that strong sense of historical purpose and enthusiasm for making history; that consciousness of the masses as masters and that creative spirit of action; that utopian subjectivity — what good were they with respect to the development of productive forces after all? Could they really give rise to an economic miracle? Today the answer is negative: the failures of the Great Leap Forward serve as a solid basis for this negation — economic failure is directed at the critique of utopianism and political liberation. However, people rarely ask this question from the opposite direction, namely: Will economic progress, or the high development of productive forces, inevitably lead to political liberation, new social relations, the realization or homecoming [huigui] of human subjectivity? Are the development of productive forces and the realization of human subjectivity necessarily corresponding or complimentary processes? Indeed, rare is the person who pursues the question from this direction. And, indeed, it is precisely this question which will lead to the dissolution of the entire modern teleology.

Mao’s open interpretation of modern concepts such as productive forces, politics, etc., at the same time had a strongly socialist coloring in its attempts to overcome the consequences of modernization. Certainly after the Great Leap Forward failure, Mao considered Marxist principles from this direction. He began to work out two possible readings of Marx’s modernist thesis that history was a teleological self-movement of labor and that the development of productive forces would lead to a society corresponding to this telos. Mao increasingly felt that the development of production (technological progress) had not led to the sovereignty and democracy of the people, rather that they had gradually made society dependent upon instrumental rationality, dependent upon a managerial class which wielded this instrumental rationality. This class had become a ruling class — in Mao’s words, “Grandfather Official [guan lao ye]“. Since socialist politics had become subservient to economic development, rather than continuing to emphasize the relationship between politics and the goal of human liberation, Mao discovered that socialist politics could also degenerate into a set of bureaucratic managerial systems. The degeneration of socialist politics, or the degeneration of revolutionary politics, led Mao to recall the modern effects of the modern “death of politics”. In the 1960s, he made a prediction: “It is possible for socialism to fail.”

This degeneration of politics had already led to a distaste for politics among the people, especially sensitive youth and students. This sort of despair and loathing for politics is expected in capitalist societies, but now it was possible for this to emerge within a socialist system. In 1956, when Mao launched the “Hundred Flowers” campaign in an attempt to revive the people’s political zeal and to revive the liberatory significance of revolutionary politics, a young student name Tan Tianrong wrote a big character poster called “A Poisonous Weed”. This poster corroborated Mao’s concern that politics had already become loathsome to young people:

Until now, the Hundred Flowers campaign has remained thousands of miles away from us “ignorant youth”. Our country doesn’t have a censorship system, and yet the editors of all our periodicals (e.g. _People’s Daily_, _China Youth_, _Physics_), are absolutely ignorant of Marxism, they have no clue about dialectics, and their metaphysical brains are stuffed full of hermetically sealed truths [fengsuo zhenli]. [13]

At the same time, another young writer named Wang Meng wrote a novella called “The Young Newcomer in the Organization Department”, which profoundly illustrated revulsion and resistance to the degeneration of revolutionary politics into a bureaucratic system of hierarchy. On March 16, 1957, in Mao’s address to literary and artistic circles, he spoke out in defence of Wang Meng’s story, against their criticism. He said that Wang Meng was a fresh new force that needed to nurtured. The articles criticizing Wang Meng had no sense of this need. Li Xifan had said that Wang Meng’s story was set in the wrong locale, that it was not a typical environment, that this kind of problem couldn’t happen in central Beijing, that the piece could not be said to serve the people. Mao said to Li Xifan, now that Li had obtained a high-ranking office in the Politburo, now that he was eating the Party’s food, all he did was obey the Party’s orders. He had started acting like an old grandmother and his articles lacked vitality so that it pained one to read them.

Although the “Cultural Revolution” was one of the most dramatic movements in modern Chinese history, to imagine it as a sudden outburst, a “historical anamoly” contrary to the laws of history, is untenable. In fact, the complex practices, contradictions and conflicts in the course of China’s modernization and socialism had already burst asunder the stable interpretive frames of modern social science (even Marxism) and those specific categories with unequivocal meaning. Although fundamental categories of both modernity and Marxism such as class, class struggle, politics, history, and productive forces were still generally employed and seen by the party-state [guanfang] as “cornerstones” of social structure, their contents had already become suffused with divergent meanings [qiyi] and contradictions. For instance, “class” was no longer defined in terms of “the system of private ownership of the means of production”; “lass struggle” had already become a struggle around “identity politics” rather than “property relations”; “politics” had already departed from the “political mechanics” of the modern managerial system and become an even more incalculable “explosive mechanics” related to a vaguely defined “masses”; productive forces included such mutually conflicting but also richer contents as “subjective creativity”, “democratic management”, labor in harmony with its end [he mudi de laodong]. These new, special predicaments emerging from reality had in fact already subverted and revised those basic categories of both modernity and Marxism with stable significations and contents. These practices had emerged before the “Cultural Revolution”, and basically speaking they were not creations of the “Cultural Revolution”. But the so-called “Cultural Revolution” announced the de facto dissolution of these categories in a public forum. We could not be more precise than to borrow Marx’s words in order to reveal the true secret of this crisis, for Marx used this tone to illustrate that modern society was a system in the process of its dissolution, that the epistemological edifice of modern social science was a tottering structure in the process of its decay, that the crisis of modernity was in fact unavoidable: the Cultural Revolution “announce[d] the dissolution of the existing world, but it explaine[d] the secret of its own existence; for it [was] precisely the real dissolution of this world order”. From an epistemological perspective, this dissolution was the dissolution of the scientistic interpretive paradigm upon which modern social science depended, the paradigm assuming a “stable relationship” between “stable concepts” and “stable realities”, and in the end this “positive [queding]” society and “social science” founded on “positive” knowledge was unceremoniously brushed aside by the “uncertainty [buquedingxing]” of society. Although the Soviet socialist bloc and Stalinism refused to discard these positive concepts and categories that had already actually dissolved, in fact, the Soviet and Eastern bloc did not avoid the fate of this dissolution. The not-so-elegant dissolution that took place thirteen years after the failure of China’s “Cultural Revolution” was a passive acknowledgment of this dissolution, but it again returned to the predicament that was publicly acknowledged in China in the 1960s: The timeless, positive relationship between the reality of dramatic transformation, on the one hand, and the cultural and epistemological frame for interpreting that transformation, on the other, from that time (the global “1968″ in a sense) could not in fact be reestablished. And is this not the fundamental predicament of modernity, in fact the same sense of inescapable directionlessness [wudipanghuang] that we experience today?

The unstable, chaotic turmoil that Mao “created”, in which he was deeply involved, was simply an aspect of the unstable, turbulant essence of modern human society. Better than saying that Mao personally took unusual pleasure in struggle, activity and turmoil would be to say that he unflinchingly faced the ineluctable fate of modernity in which he had become deeply entangled. Other than facing this fate, has there been a more heroic effort to resist it? How else should we regard Mao’s efforts to overcome “modern authoritarianism”?

The “closedness [fengbixing]” of modern society is founded on the assumption that there is a positive or certain [queding] relationship between a positive concept and a positive reality. Mao’s doubts about this assumption did not simply derive from his perspective on the Marxian dialectic. Although the dialectical perspective proposes that concept, reality and their mutual relationship are contradictory, Marxism is also a kind of stable, homogeneous [tongyixing] framework for interpreting concept, reality, and their relationship. Mao first began to doubt this framework because China’s modern practice had already unsettled the stability of these concepts (class, class struggle, politics, productive forces, even nationalism), and it was already impossible to reconstruct this stable relationship between reality and concept. And if one would defend the stability of reality, then one must defend the stability of those concepts themselves and the stable relationship between them and reality. But this defense is the origin of modern closedness, and moreover it is basically a hopeless deception and self-deception. On the other hand, if one were to open those stable modern concepts on a cultural level, this would be equivalent to opening and acknowledging in reality those practices or experiments. It would not only threaten the stability that the Marxist interpretive framework had established between reality and concept; it must also, and more profoundly, threaten the stability of the entire modern culture and society, for this stability is based on the assumption that concept, reality, and their mutual relationship are stable. And one tangible consequence of this opening would be that the stable relationship between reality and concept would henceforth be untenable, that a stable framework for interpreting reality would have completely disappeared. This, basically speaking, was the effect of an unstable reality, and a reason to push forward the transformation of reality.

What affords reflection is that when, in the 1960s, Mao first directed his “dismissal from office [baguan]” campaign toward bureaucrats in the art and propaganda departments, in fact this was not at all unusual. Because these people, through defending the purity of a concept, not only monopolized the interpretation of reality, but also made these “pure” concepts more conceptualistic, more dogmatic. According to Marxist critical theory of modernity, bourgeois “pure literature” and “art for art’s sake” is based on capitalist society’s systemic one-dimensionality, in which art is divorced from politics. This rupture expresses the degeneration of bourgeois politics and writers’ disgust and despair for this degeneration with respect to human liberation.

For Mao also discovered that politics in the cultural sphere, like all politics, had clearly already degenerated into a sort of domination. But in contrast to traditional politics, it was a domination not only or mainly backed up by the military, the juridical system or the police, but rather by a scientific formula, a sort of cognitive and philosophical domination that touched the soul. This whole cadre of cultural bureaucrats had opened a new field of political domination: it was directed toward the spirit, the soul and cultural thought. It also provided instruments and mechanisms for this sort of domination: “thought crime” was punished just as physical [xingshi] crime. Since cultural bureaucrats in fact wielded this tremendous power to punish, they were no longer revolutionary cultural workers but rather “politico-cognitive [sixiang zhengzhi] workers” superseding the police in the usual sense. Under the management of these “cultural police”, revolutionary art and literature was more dead than alive. Playing on Marx’s term “dead labor”, Mao said that this was a “reign of the dead [siren tongzhi]“:

In all artistic forms — drama, lyricism, music, painting, dance, film, poetry, literature, etc. — the problems outnumber the practitioners, and the socialist reforms of these fields has yielded meagre results. Many fields are still dominated by “the dead”. One must not underrate the accomplishments of film, new poetry, folksongs, painting, and fiction, but they still have their share of problems. This is especially true for drama. The socioeconomic base has already transformed, but at this point the literary and artistic fields, as part of the superstructure serving this base, are still a major problem…

Many Party members zealously advocate feudal and capitalist art rather than socialist art — isn’t this bizarre?

Over the past fifteen years, most of these associations and their periodicals (it’s said there are a few exceptions) have basically (not entirely) failed to implement party policies, acted like old patriarchs upon securing their positions [dang guan zuo laoye], remained aloof from workers, peasants and soldiers, and failed to reflect socialist revolution and construction.[14]

The entire bureaucratic system governs people and culture just as it governs tools and labor. Revolutionary politics had degenerated, and the cultural bureaucracy had instrumentalized and conceptified [gainianhua] a literature divorced from reality; and the tendency toward “pure literature” stemmed from repugnance for this sort of managerial politics. Cultural bureaucrats would rather see the resurgence of this sort of bourgeois aesthetics. Bureaucratic politics and the bourgeoisie are jackals from the same lair — this was Mao’s assessment of the death of the revolutionarity of socialist literature and art.

The profound historical lesson of the “Cultural Revolution” should be discussed in more depth. One of its serious consequences will be regarded and continue to be regarded in this way: Mao’s efforts, through opening the most basic Marxist and modern concepts, to make those concepts richer, more flexible and more effective, and to establish a more flexible relationship between culture and reality, were unfortunately redirected. To put it more absolutely, rather than becoming more flexible or richer, these concepts were completely “shattered”. Mao left a narrow choice after his passing: On the one hand, one could revive the certainty of those pre-Mao cultural categories (proletariat, socialism, modernization, productive forces, etc.), and revive the positive relationship between them and reality (for to revive certainty toward the certainty of society was a pressing need). On the other hand, since the certainty of these cultural categories had long since lost its validity in reality, the “Cultural Revolution” could only announce the predicament of these cultural categories and these interpretive frameworks, and the invalidity of their certainty. It was thus an almost unavoidable result that many Chinese people fell into a profound sense of doubt, revulsion and nihilism. This was in part because the “Cultural Revolution” had shattered those invalid cultural categories and failed to provide more valid, more certain categories, and in part because those revived cultural categories in fact had already been proven, and moreover been continously proven, to be an inadequate orthodox ideology. Mao’s efforts to open those cultural categories to bridge the gap between concept and reality, as a result, opened up an even larger fissure: the fissure between the inadequate orthodox ideology and the mass ideology with its fierce antagonism toward culture and its slogan of “never again believe anything but cash and flesh”. In the end, Mao’s efforts to establish a more flexible, more valid, more revolutionary and active cultural framework for interpreting reality led in fact to “the generalized cultural nihilism caused by the Cultural Revolution”. If we were to say that this is a tragedy, then how heart-rending a tragedy it is, a tragedy that should make every person with a conscience, before discussing it lightly today, ask him or herself: How have I failed to resist, and moreover in what ways have I participated, participated all along, in the creation of this “cultural nihilism”? How have I refused all along to reflect honestly on my own complicity?

Doubtless, Mao’s ideas about art and literature constitute only a portion of his thought, but this is an essential portion. It is certainly not all accurate. Simply to judge whether these ideas are “correct” is not the primary task of academic historical research. Rather than say that these ideas express profound contradictions stemming from reality and Marxism, that they disclose fissures and contradictions within modern socialist society and Marxist principles, we would do better to appreciate that Mao’s thought, including his ideas on art and literature, took place within an assiduous effort to overcome these contradictions.

These contradictions especially surface in the efforts to bridge the gaps between the economic, the political, and the literary-artistic. In Mao’s terms, this is the struggle to unite production with revolution and art and literature. It is well known that a basic principle of Marxism is to rethink economic development and the progression of productive forces from the perspective of political liberation and aesthetic creation — i.e., to rethink labor. This was precisely the basis of Marx’s critique of labor’s one-dimensionality under capitalism, and it was also the source of his critique of bourgeois political economy’s treatment of the progression of productive forces as the totality of history. The Marxist principle of historical evolution contended that socialism would bridge this fissure and lead to the realization [fugui] of the complete [quanmian] essence of labor and humankind. But this evolutionary and teleological conception of history encountered the friction of practice. This friction gravely illustrated that to interpret modernity as a teleological, self-perfect historical process (such as the Marxian self-movement process of labor) is an unreflexive, modernist attitude.

If this is so, what Mao’s efforts prove is the permanence of modern contradictions and the shattering of this self-perfect modern schema. This proof has two layers: On the one hand, the revolutionary state and socialism’s abolition of the private property system could not in one fell swoop push forward the progress of productive forces and the economy — the emphasis on revolutionary politics and revolutionary culture led to the risks of utopianism and a conflict between class struggle and economic development. On the other hand (and what is easily ignored), economic development itself demands that laborers must be managed just like production, economic activities, and tools. Politics degenerates into management, and submission to this sort of politics necessarily entails the instrumentalization and conceptification of art and literature. And, in the revulsion and flight from this sort of politics, demands for “pure literature” and “independent literature” become unavoidable. Instrumental rationality seeps into politics and culture, it sloughs off the critique of politics and culture, and in its wake there forms a one-dimensional world of instrumental rationality, bureaucratic domination and modern authoritarianism without an opponent capable of resistance. Lost is the revolutionarity of politics and the revolutionarity of art and literature, or, we could say, the loss of revolutionary politics and subversive art and literature mark the horizon of modern social change, which disappears in a field of vision where the instrumental rationality of modern society spreads unchecked. And in China, what accompanies this disappearance is the affirmation of one-dimensional modern society by bourgeois artistic and literary thought since the 1980s, at the cost of unresearched ideological criticism of Mao’s artistic and literary thought. Since this sort of criticism is far from reflexive with regard to modernity, it fails to address the vital elements of Marxism and Mao Zedong Thought.

Since Marxism depicts the whole of human history as a history of the mutual movement between productive forces and productive relations, its clearly modernist attitude “productivizes [shengchanlihua]” or “laborizes” the whole of human history. The Marxist critique of capitalist modernization is based on the thesis that capitalist productive relations cannot adapt to the development of productive forces. And accompanying this “productivization” of history is the “productive-relation-ization [shengchanguanxihua]” of the entire superstructure. But what is especially worth noting is that Marx himself, as a scholar and a social scientist, while narrating history, does his utmost to uphold Weber’s so-called “value-neutrality” in that he does his utmost to use “descriptive concepts” rather than “value-laden” concepts. Clearly, he generally uses the neutral concepts “social composition [shehui goucheng]” and “productive relations” rather than “superstructure”, with its value coloration. “Social composition”, however, is an analytical and descriptive concept “signifying the network of relationships and systems constituting a society”. “Superstructure”, however, is a value-laden concept. It signifies not only the sum of a society’s relationships and systemic factors but also a “higher thing” connecting those entities with a valuable life, with an ultimate human meaning. It signifies the critique of those entities from the perspective of this higher meaning. If one were to say that Marx usually refers to productive relations as “social composition” in his research, then to elevate “productive relations” into “superstructure” manifests an even more clearly modernist attitude in linking these entities with a “teleological history” and “humankind’s ultimate meaning”.

The entire modern historical teleology and utopianism is embodied in this utopia of labor and instrumental production. Although Marxism criticizes the bourgeoisie’s use of instrumental labor to obscure or substitute for the one-dimensionality of political liberation and aesthetic creation, Marx’s thesis that the self-development of labor would inevitably lead to human liberation and aesthetic creation itself essentially obscures and subverts his own materialist description of the fissuring in modern society between instrumental labor and political liberation. With this teleology of historical evolution, Marx’s thesis obscures and silences his own profound reflections about modernity.

Perhaps the predicament of Marxism should be understood in this way: As a modernist teleology, it was not that socialist labor, as “purposive labor [you mudi de laodong]” distinct from capitalist labor, failed to achieve greater yields than capitalist labor, but that this “purposive labor” itself failed to achieve or realize the ultimate purpose [mudi] of Marxism (the higher synthesis of instrumental labor and aesthetic creation), and the ultimate liberation of humankind in this sense. Doubtless, socialist “purposive labor” created a miracle on Earth in comparison to the blind, free competition of capitalism. As Meisner points out,

Far from the period of economic stagnation it has been commonly rumored to be, the Mao era was in fact one of the greatest periods of modernization in history, camparing favorably with corresponding periods in Germany, Japan and Russia — hitherto the most economically successful cases of late modernization. These economic successes were accomplished by the Chinese people through their own labor, with little outside assistance or support. In those days, Mao Zedong Thought could still motivate people with a strong sense of purpose.[15]

This sort of labor, however, failed to realize Marx’s notion of “purposiveness [mudixing]“. In the words of Chinese literary theorist Zhu Guangqian, “purposive labor” was not the same as labor’s “harmony with its purpose [hemudixing]“.

A simple conclusion is that, if one were to say that socialist labor is merely “purposive labor” rather than the “labor in harmony with its purpose” that Marx predicted, then what the shattering of Marx’s conception of “labor in harmony with its purpose” in the practice of the most recent historical stage of socialism profoundly expresses, in fact, is precisely the shattering of “modern history in harmony with its purpose”. In this sense, the really existing practice of socialism has not overcome the predicament of modernity. Rather, it has become immersed in this predicament.

Translated by Matthew Allen Hale

* Translation of “‘Kaifang’ Wenyi yu Zhengzhi: Mao Zedong de Huayu Shijian”, originally published in Ershi Shiji Zhongguo Xueshu yu Shehui: Wenxue (Twentieth Century Chinese Scholarship and Society: Literature ), ed. Han Yuhai, Shandong Renmin Chubanshe, 2000.
[2] Meisner, Maurice. Mao’s China and After, Third edition, pp. 303-5. New York: Free Press, 1999.
[3] Mao Zedong. “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art” (May 1942). Selected Works, Volume Three. Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 1967.
[4] “On Coalition Government” (April 1945). Ibid.
[5] “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art”.
[6] Marx, Karl. Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, p. 45. Trans. Milligan and Ruhemann. Collected Works, Volume Three. Moscow: Progress, 1975.
[7] Kuang Xinnian. “Renmin de Lingxiu [The People's Leader]“. Yingcai [Hero], December 1998.
[8] Mao Zedong. “Weishenme Neng Diaodong Renmin de Liliang [Why the Power of the People can be Mobilized]“. From “Shuangshi Tiao [Twenty Articles]“, “Liushi Tiao [Sixty Articles]“.
[9] “On the Question of Depending on the Poor and Lower-Middle Peasants”.
[10] “Notes on Political Economy Textbook“, Note Two.
[11] Ibid., Note Three.
[12] Wang Hui. 2003. “Contemporary Chinese Thought and the Question of Modernity”, p. 148. Trans. Karl. China’s New Order. Harvard University Press, 2003.
[13] Hong Zicheng. 1956, Bai Hua Shi Dai [1956, The Hundred Flowers Era], p. 304. Shandong Education Press, 1998.
[14] Mao Zedong. “Comments on Literature and Art” (December 12, 1963 and June 27, 1964).
[15] Mao Zedong de Zhongguo (Chinese version of Mao’s China by Maurice Meisner).

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