Theory: Mao’s ‘On practice’

An introduction to Comrade Mao Zedong’s seminal article on the role of practice in the development of human knowledge, and the relationship between theory and practice.

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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Mao Zedong began his famous article on practice by stating that “man’s activities in production determine all other activities”. Mankind, he explained, is defined by its relationship, through activity, to the means of production. In today’s society we are proletarian or bourgeois, exploited or exploiter, etc.

In a classless society every person, as a member of society, joins in common effort with the other members, enters into definite relations of production with them and engages in production to meet man’s material needs. In all class societies the members of the different social classes also enter, in different ways into definite relations of production and engage in production to meet their material needs.

According to the Marxist view of the world, it is human activity, interaction with our surroundings, that inspires thought and thus forms the basis of all knowledge. This, in turn, shapes further activity. Our theories about the world are confirmed when we achieve the expected results after applying them as a guide to our activity. This process becomes refined and perfected as we continue to practise and think in new ways.

According to Marxism, the material world is primary, ideas are secondary, and knowledge must change in accordance with what we learn from our social practice. It is not that Marxists reject theory or make a fetish of practice; they simply recognise that practice leads to theory; practice is primary.

Dialectical materialism holds that theory depends on practice. To fully appreciate this we have to consider the development of knowledge.

Initially, man’s knowledge was developed as he observed, or became aware of, the world around him. He recognised that shelter kept him dry, food staved off his hunger, etc. This is known as the ‘phenomenon’ stage: we know that fire is hot.

The second stage comes with thinking about our observations. What can we do with the heat? We can use it to keep warm, to cook and preserve food, etc. As this adaptation requires thought, it is called the ‘cognitive’ stage.

Mao explained: “Logical knowledge differs from perceptual knowledge in that perceptual knowledge pertains to the separate aspects, the phenomena and the external relations of things, whereas logical knowledge takes a big stride forward to reach the totality, the essence and the internal relations of things and discloses the inner contradictions in the surrounding world. Therefore, logical knowledge is capable of grasping the development of the surrounding world in its totality, in the internal relations of all its aspects.

This leads to the final, ‘logical’, stage – the ability to predict the outcome of one’s actions. If the theories developed at the cognitive stage are correct, the results of actions guided by such theories will be as expected. If not, the theories will have to be adjusted in the light of experience. Hence, practice further develops logic.

All three stages in the development of knowledge require human participation in the production of change. In learning the taste of the pear, you have to eat it, thus changing the pear.

Mao takes as an example the way that party recruits develop into cadres. Initially, recruits are unsure of their abilities; they doubt if they can carry out political activities, speak in public or even understand Marxism. Through practical participation in party activities, achieving results and correcting mistakes, their confidence grows. In time, confident cadres emerge and change takes place. This process in turn helps to intensify the class struggle.

To say practice is primary and ideas secondary is not to suggest that theory is not relevant or needed. Far from it. As Lenin long ago pointed out: “without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement”.

In stating this, Lenin recognised that theory is only validated through practice. That is, revolutionary theory applied to revolutionary practice. Theory is the understanding of the world, whereas practice is the changing of it! As Stalin put it: “Theory is without purpose if it is not connected with revolutionary practice.”

Does this mean that theory combined with practice leads to change? In true dialectical style, Mao answered, “yes and no. If there is change then the answer is yes, without change no. We must re-practise. The world is not perfect.

To illustrate these points, and to show Marxist-Leninist analysis, Mao considered one of the burning questions of the international communist movement in 1937: opportunism.

He defined right opportunism as “thought not advancing with reality”. Right opportunists, he said, only focus on practice and “always end up grumbling behind social change, never catching up and wise after the event”.

Clearly Mao was aiming this jibe at Bukharin and his supporters within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It is an appropriate description of the right opportunists within the British working-class movement today.

By contrast, Mao saw left opportunism as “no practice”. It is characterised, he said, by “theories always ahead of social change that never meet reality”. Such theories never have objective proof. They talk of how things should be, rather than how to get there.

Mao clearly aimed this at Trotskyism and the armchair theory of ‘permanent revolution’. Many on the left today still spout this theory, despite the fact that no Trotskyite organisation or individual has ever led a single revolution, since reality has always got in the way. Perhaps this is why Lenin described Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution as “Mr Trotsky’s beautiful dream”.

Mao saw both sides of opportunism as counter-revolutionary, and defined Marxism Leninism as the correct combination of theory and practice. He used the study of theory and practice as an opportunity to expose left and right opportunism whilst showing the correctness of Marxism Leninism.

Mao showed that there was no replacement for the application of dialectical materialism and challenged the world communist movement to apply it to our understanding of theory and practice.

Such articles by Comrade Mao Zedong have helped train succeeding generations of cadres and revolutionary fighters in China and throughout the world. They retain their full validity today.