Monday, May 7, 2012

Making Sense of Political Doubletalk: Chairman Mao and President Obama

Mao Zedong has been dead for a long time. His credentials include many important achievements: founding member of the Chinese Communist Party; revolutionary leader; hero of the Chinese civil war; first leader of the People's Republic of China; architect of China's economic policies during its first quarter century; and prolific author.

Among Mao's writings are three of special importance: On Practice,” On Contradiction,” and “Combat Liberalism.” He wrote them between July and September 1937 when he and his comrades were holed up in the caves in Yenan. Footnotes in these essays cite the works of Vladimir I. Lenin and Friedrich Engels on the law of contradiction, the most basic law of dialectical materialism (fashioned by Engels and Karl Marx, the latter being the author of The Communist Manifesto).

The core principle of dialectical materialism is that contradictory, mutually exclusive, opposite tendencies exist in all phenomena and processes of nature, including the mind and society. Mao built his entire framework for political education and action on this platform. Nowhere does he cite Aristotle’s metaphysics, Adam Smith’s economics, John Locke’s political philosophy, David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, or James Madison.

“Combat Liberalism” is only three pages long. In it, Mao defines liberalism, or ziyouzhuyi, which translates literally as “freedom-ism” or “liberty-ism.” The key word in the phrase is ziyou, freedom. Viewers of CNN may recall that “oppose liberalism” was the party's rallying slogan when it sent troops and tanks against unarmed students into Tiananmen Square against unarmed students in June 1989.

What does Mao say in “Combat Liberalism?” He writes that “we advocate an active ideological struggle, because it is the weapon for achieving solidarity within the Party.” In contrast, “liberalism negates ideological struggle.” Mao is especially eager to warn his comrades that liberalism has no place in the communist movement.

“Liberalism stems from the selfishness of the petty bourgeoisie, which puts personal interests foremost . ... Liberalism is a manifestation of opportunism and conflicts fundamentally with Marxism . .. ” (emphasis added). Therefore, “all loyal, honest, active and staunch Communists must unite to oppose liberal tendencies.”

The other two essays require more study. “On Practice” is the more important of the two pieces. It is subtitled “On the Relation between Knowledge and Practice-Between Knowing and Doing.” Mao wrote it to educate party members on the Marxist conception of “truth.”

The core principle is that knowledge becomes verified only in the process of social practice. There is no such thing as purely abstract or theoretical knowledge. But practice is not a matter of personal choice. It is restricted to class struggle. As Mao says, Marxist philosophy, that is, dialectical materialism, has two characteristics: “one is its class nature, its open declaration that dialectical materialism is in the service of the proletariat; the other is ... its emphasis on practice as the foundation of theory which in turn serves practice.”

To continue: “perceptual knowledge turns into logical knowledge through the complex and regularly recurrent practices of production and class struggle of man in society.” Mao attributes the genius of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin to their personal participation in class struggle. Marxism-Leninism is true, says Mao, because it was verified in the subsequent revolutionary class struggle. The communists, in other words, won.

If all this sounds confusing to you, it should; it is. Let’s try to translate it into English. Mao, speaking for the Chinese Communist Parry, vanguard of the proletariat and its leading element, proclaims that logic and evidence are to be used in the service of the proletariat, not the bourgeoisie. This formulation requires selective use of logic and evidence (in the normal sense of the words) by party members. Whenever the revolution and class struggle are served by logic and evidence, then by all means use them. If, however, the opponents of revolution and class struggle use logic and evidence in the service of the bourgeoisie, indeed the exact same logic and evidence used by communists to advance class struggle, then party members must reject that specific logic and evidence. In Mao-think, logic and evidence are not really logic and evidence under circumstances that favor the bourgeoisie.

To repeat, logic and evidence are relative to time and place-the service of the proletariat as determined by the Communist Party.

Let's try to explain this one more time. Truth is when Mao finds it useful to use logic and evidence to advance class struggle, the revolution, and secure power for the Communist Party. As conditions change during these struggles, so too does truth. Today's truth becomes tomorrow's lie if the opponents of class struggle seize on the same logic and evidence.

It may seem to Western minds that Mao is just changing his mind, saying one thing today and another tomorrow. But such perception misses the central point of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. Truth is defined in terms of class struggle, revolution, and advancing socialism, whatever may be in vogue at the time. Each time Mao changed his mind on how to serve best the proletariat, truth changed.

Are you bewildered? Does this sound nonsensical to you? It should. Marxism is a contradiction. It is a framework for reason that is inherently illogical most of the time, nonlogical at other times, and occasionally logical (in Aristotelian terms) at other times. It is logical in the Western dictionary definition of "logic" when being logical serves the proletariat-as Mao thinks appropriate. It is also a recipe for saying and doing whatever you want, if you have the power to execute your commands or your opponents. Marxism-Maoism legitimizes any and every word or deed, as long as you stay in charge.

At this point, let's stop talking about the proletariat and simply talk about the Communist Party. During Mao's life, the “great helmsman” and the party were one. When he spoke, the party spoke. When he issued orders, the party acted. What happened to the proletariat, you may ask? Were its interests well served? In the view of Mao and most communists, the proletariat lacked sufficient class consciousness of what it meant to be the proletariat. Therefore, the Communist Party had the right to run everything. This sounds like a justification for the exercise of unbridled power.

Cutting through the Marxist double talk, Mao says basically this: When it serves your interest, make promises. When it serves your interest, break promises. Breaking promises is not lying-at least not in a Marxist vision. Breaking promises is simply the application of logic and evidence that leads to a new truth, one applicable to the current conditions of class struggle.

As to the written and spoken words that define the content of those promises, their meaning changes as circumstances warrant. The meaning depends on the nature of the class struggle at any moment in time. Accordingly, Chinese dictionaries are revised whenever it is necessary to include new ideological formulations or change old ones. China's constitution, in this spirit, had undergone five comprehensive revisions between 1949 and 1996, reflecting the shifting currents of political definitions.

It's a very small stretch to go from constantly changing conditions of class struggle, which define the truthful use of logic and evidence, to lying. It really is all right to lie in the service of the proletariat, if that is how the party believes class struggle can be advanced.

Now, replace “Chairman Mao” with “President Obama” and “Communist Party of China” with “Democrat Party.” All of a sudden it becomes clear how presidential candidate Obama can say different, indeed contradictory, things at different times with no hesitation and a straight face. He can misstate facts. He can rewrite history. He can utter economic nonsense. His objective is to win, or in Mao’s terms, advance the cause of the proletariat (Democrats) and defeat the selfish (the 1%) bourgeoisie (Republicans). Logic and evidence are not universal means of getting at the truth.  Rather, for Obama, they are tools to be used in the service of Democrats.  It’s as simple as that.

President Obama’s eloquent doubletalk bewilders and frustrates his conservative critics and political opponents, who repeatedly tell the American people that Obama has been inconsistent, has failed to carry out his promises, and so forth. Obama's modus operandi is not to win the argument, but to win a second term by getting enough American to vote for him.  End of story.