This is how one should approach what is arguably Mao's central contribution to Marxist philosophy, his elaborations on the notion of contradiction: one should not dismiss them as a worthless philosophical regression (which, as one can easily demonstrate, relies on a vague notion of "contradiction" which simply means "struggle of opposite tendencies"). The main thesis of his great text ÇOn ContradictionÈ on the two facets of contradictions, "the principal and the non-principal contradictions in a process, and the principal and the non-principal aspects of a contradiction," deserves a close reading. Mao's reproach to the "dogmatic Marxists" is that they "do not understand that it is precisely in the particularity of contradiction that the universality of contradiction resides":
For instance, in capitalist society the two forces in contradiction, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, form the principal contradiction. The other contradictions, such as those between the remnant feudal class and the bourgeoisie, between the peasant petty bourgeoisie ant the bourgeoisie, between the proletariat and the peasant petty bourgeoisie, between the non-monopoly capitalists and the monopoly capitalists, between bourgeois democracy and bourgeois fascism, among the capitalist countries and between imperialism and the colonies, are all determined or influenced by this principal contradiction.
When imperialism launches a war of aggression against such a country, all its various classes, except for some traitors, can temporarily unite in a national war against imperialism. At such a time, the contradiction between imperialism and the country concerned becomes the principal contradiction, while all the contradictions among the various classes within the country (including what was the principal contradiction, between the feudal system and the great masses of the people) are temporarily relegated to a secondary and subordinate position.
This is Mao's key point: the principal (universal) contradiction does not overlap with the contradiction which should be treated as dominant in a particular situation - the universal dimension literally resides in this particular contradiction. In each concrete situation, a different "particular" contradiction is the predominant one, in the precise sense that, in order to win the fight for the resolution of the principal contradiction, one should treat a particular contradiction as the predominant one, to which all other struggles should be subordinated. In China under the Japanese occupation, the patriotic unity against the Japanese was the predominant thing if Communists wanted to win the class struggle - any direct focusing on class struggle in THESE conditions went against class struggle itself. (Therein, perhaps, resides the main feature of "dogmatic opportunism": to insist on the centrality of the principal contradiction at a wrong moment.) - The further key point concerns the principal ASPECT of a contradiction; for example, with regard to the contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production,
the productive forces, practice and the economic base generally play the principal and decisive role; whoever denies this is not a materialist. But it must also be admitted that in certain conditions, such aspects as the relations of production, theory and the superstructure in turn manifest themselves in the principal and decisive role. When it is impossible for the productive forces to develop without a change in the relations of production, then the change in the relations of production plays the principal and decisive role.
The political stakes of this debate are decisive: Mao's aim is to assert the key role, in the political struggle, of what the Marxist tradition usually refers to as the "subjective factor" - theory, superstructure. This is what, according to Mao, Stalin neglected: "Stalin's Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR from first to last says nothing about the superstructure. It is not concerned with people; it considers things, not people. /.../ /It speaks/ only of the production relations, not of the superstructure nor politics, nor the role of the people. Communism cannot be reached unless there is a communist movement."
Alain Badiou, a true Maoist here, applies this to today's constellation, avoiding the focus on the anti-capitalist struggle, even ridiculing its main form today (the anti-globalization movement), and defining the emancipatory struggle in strictly political terms, as the struggle against (liberal) democracy, today's predominant ideologico-political form? "Today the enemy is not called Empire or Capital. It's called Democracy." What, today, prevents the radical questioning of capitalism itself is precisely the belief in the democratic form of the struggle against capitalism. Lenin's stance against "economism" as well as against "pure" politics is crucial today, apropos of the split attitude towards economy in (what remains of) the Left: on the one hand, the "pure politicians" who abandon economy as the site of struggle and intervention; on the other hand, the "economists," fascinated by the functioning of today's global economy, who preclude any possibility of a political intervention proper. With regard to this split, today, more than ever, we should return to Lenin: yes, economy is the key domain, the battle will be decided there, one has to break the spell of the global capitalism - BUT the intervention should be properly POLITICAL, not economic. Today, when everyone is "anticapitalist," up to the Hollywood "socio-critical" conspiracy movies (from The Enemy of the State to The Insider) in which the enemy are the big corporations with their ruthless pursuit of profit, the signifier "anticapitalism" has lost its subversive sting. What one should problematize is the self-evident opposite of this "anticapitalism": the trust in the democratic substance of the honest Americans to break up the conspiracy. THIS is the hard kernel of today's global capitalist universe, its true Master-Signifier: democracy. - Mao's further elaboration on the notion of contradiction in his "On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People"(1957) also cannot be reduced to its best-known feature, the rather common sense point of distinguishing between the antagonistic and the non-antagonistic contradictions:
The contradictions between ourselves and the enemy are antagonistic contradictions. Within the ranks of the people, the contradictions among the working people are non-antagonistic, while those between the exploited and the exploiting classes have a non-antagonistic as well as an antagonistic aspect. /.../ under the people's democratic dictatorship two different methods, one dictatorial and the other democratic, should be used to resolve the two types of contradictions which differ in nature - those between ourselves and the enemy and those among the people.
Slavoj Zizek, Mao Zedong: the Marxist Lord of Misrule