As a communist who endorses the revolutionary theory of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism it is very important to insist that, whenever I refer to myself as a “maoist” (as often happens when I find myself enmeshed in theoretical arguments), that what I mean by “maoism” is something that goes beyond Mao Zedong the person. Similarly, I believe in a leninism that stands over V.I. Lenin and a marxism that stands over Karl Marx. Simply put, I treat marxism as a living science and not a set of religious texts codified by genius prophets whose words and actions are sacrosanct representations of a divine law of history. Although years back, during the first few posts of the interblog dialogue I shared with BF of Workers Dreadnought, there was a discussion of the concept of a living marxism and a maoism beyond Mao, I want to reemphasize this position.
Just as there are many Trotskyists who treat Trotsky as a prophet––who see themselves as guardians of a pure theory that emerged after the October Revolution––there are also a lot of self-proclaimed maoists who imagine Mao Zedong as some sort of super-human genius who was incapable of error. Rather than treat the name as a cipher of the theory, there is a tendency to make the person the theory and the theory the person. Thus, whenever the actions of the person whose name the theory bears are critiqued, there is the knee-jerk reaction to explain away these actions: once the person and theory are made identical, upholding the latter requires the defense of the former.
A critical communist, however, needs to understand the names are nothing more than indicators of important theoretical ruptures, only named so to indicate those theorists who produced universal concrete analyses of concrete situations that further developed revolutionary science. Similarly, when we speak of Einsteinian physics today we are not speaking of Einstein the person, nor are we even speaking of a science limited only to Einstein’s theories and research; there is an Einsteinianism beyond Einstein since physicists who work within this paradigm have developed the science further within the the theoretical boundaries he conceptualized, some even correcting mathematical errors.
Critical communists, therefore, do not doubt that Marx was wrong about certain things within the boundaries he conceptualized; it’s the theoretical landscape he opened (along with Engels) that is important. And Marxist-Leninist-Maoists hold that the structure of these boundaries was further conceptualized by Lenin and, after Lenin, Mao––the theoretical insights of each world historical revolution re-universalizing the territory in a dialectic of continuity-rupture. Continuity because the initial universalization is accepted as possessing the germ of further historical insights; rupture because these insights break with certain ways of practice, challenge dogmatic mummery, and produce new questions. A science is open to the future and the chain of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism argues that we have to imagine that new world historical revolutions, beginning from the standpoint of the previous position on the scientific chain, will produce a further moment of continuity-rupture, re-universalizing revolutionary communist theory. As Marx was never tired of reminding us (and a point echoed often by radical theorists like Samir Amin), we can only answer those questions presented by history.
Moreover, although these developments bear the name of a person since it was that person who theorized these moments of re-universalization, it must be emphasized that these names are simply ciphers for a world-historical progress. Marx and Lenin and Mao were smart people, obviously, and great revolutionaries, and yet there were other brilliant revolutionary intellectuals in their respective epochs––the entire notion that they were more “genius” than anyone else, that they possessed some supernatural insight, or that “genius” is something that is not utterly social, is idealist and anti-materialist. These figures were simply people who had the privilege to be at the right point of history at the right point of time, the privilege to have the socialization and training that allowed them not only to become revolutionary leaders but also have the intellectual/social resources to theorize the concrete circumstances of the revolutionary situations they were partially organizing. In this way they are symbols of a process, individuated personae in a collective reality where people make history as a species and, at the same time, are made by this history.
Returning to my initial point, I get somewhat annoyed when critics of maoism assume that I somehow endorse Mao’s actions during the last part of his life: shaking the hand of Nixon, allowing China to support some pretty messed up regimes, etc. A very simplistic and knee-jerk reaction to these criticisms is to point out a host of concrete realities: there was real-politik involved where China needed to be recognized by the UN (did it?); there was the fact that Mao’s political line was already defeated and Deng’s camp was already in charge of China. But these explanations, even if they do possess some historical truth, make the mistake of celebrating Mao Zedong the person over Maoism as a theory.
Mao was a great revolutionary leader and theorist but he was also a person and people are not angels, not pure representatives of a divine order––they are messy, covered in the filth of history. If we understand that Marx’s errors can be critiqued by his own theory, then we should also understand that Mao’s errors can be critiqued by maoism. So as a critical maoist I do not endorse Mao’s political dealings with the Nixon-led US at the end of his life and I think that is completely in line with Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. Similarly there is no possible way I endorse Marx’s erroneous positions on colonialism, nor do I endorse Lenin’s erroneous positions during the management of the Soviets… This in no way, obviously, condemns the fact that the theoretical boundaries defined by these revolutions are incorrect.
If we fail to have this understanding of a living science of revolution then we risk becoming dogmatic purists and will never be able to apply revolutionary theory to our concrete circumstances. While I agree that it is dangerous to reject the universal developments of the theory for an “anything goes” movementist approach, it equally dangerous to imagine that we can safeguard a theory’s purity as if it exists outside of time and space, beyond history and society, and are thus never able to comprehend our particular concrete circumstances. The application of the universal requires and understanding of the concrete particular; the dialectic between universal and particular is vitally important––and this is what is meant by revolutionary communism as a living science.