Sunday, September 29, 2013

From study and discussion of Mao Zedong's work "On Practice"

Vanguard October 2013 p. 4
Bill F.

Written in 1937, On Practice was delivered as a lecture by Mao to combat subjectivist methods of thinking such as dogmatism and empiricism, which were hindering the struggle of the Chinese people against the Japanese invaders.

The work explains the process of development of ideas and concepts, and the process of testing and validating ideas and concepts through practical application. It is sub-titled “On the relation between knowledge and practice, between knowing and doing”.

The word ‘practice’ was used by Mao to embrace all the varied forms of human practical activity – the struggle for material production, the class struggle, scientific experiment and the struggle for knowledge, and both personal and collective direct experiences in social and cultural life.

Of the struggle for material production to meet the human need for food and shelter, Mao said, “…Marxists regard man’s activity in production as the most fundamental practical activity, the determinant of all his other activities… through which he comes gradually to understand the phenomena, the properties and the laws of nature, and the relations between himself and nature; and through his activity in production he also gradually comes to understand, in varying degrees, certain relations that exist between man and man.”

Mao makes the point that, “Man’s social practice is not confined to activity in production, but takes many other forms – class struggle political life, scientific and artistic pursuits; in short, as a social being, man participates in all spheres of the practical life of society… class struggle in particular, exerts a profound influence on the development of man’s knowledge. In class society everyone lives as a member of a particular class, and every kind of thinking, without exception, is stamped with the brand of a class.”

This process of understanding the physical and natural laws and social relations develops as “human social activity in production develops step by step from a lower to a higher level and that consequently man’s knowledge, whether of nature or of society, also develops step by step from a lower to a higher level, that is, from the shallower to the deeper, from the one-sided to the many-sided.”


As history unfolds, human knowledge expands and gradually leaves behind the darkness of ignorance, prejudice and superstition. The development of large scale industry, social production, science and global trade meant that, “man was able to acquire a comprehensive, historical understanding of the development of society and turn this knowledge into a science, the science of Marxism.”

Marxism could only arise in this modern era, when the era of small scale production characteristic of earlier feudalism and aristocratic privilege had been overthrown by capitalism and its relations of production. This was the essence of the revolutionary wars in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and later.

The new and unique features of capitalism were studied exhaustively by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels and formed the basis of their dialectical materialist theory of human knowledge. As Mao puts it, “… dialectical materialism has two outstanding characteristics. One is its class nature: it openly avows that dialectical materialism is in the service of the proletariat. The other is its practicality: it emphasizes that theory is based on practice and in turn serves practice.”

From this overview, Mao then proceeds to examine the process of acquiring knowledge, testing it in practice, refining it through thought, and then re-applying and re-testing it at a higher level.

Perceptual stage of knowledge

At birth we have no knowledge, only instincts and our five senses. In almost no time, we experience warmth and cold, light and shadows, noise and the sound of voices, the sensations of touch, discomfort and sometimes hunger. Everything is impressions, perceptions, unprocessed by thought because there is as yet no knowledge or experience to form conclusions.

In life, when we encounter new phenomena, new things, new events and circumstances, the process of understanding and acquiring knowledge is the same – it starts with our sensations and perceptions, through which we acquire some minimal or even partial knowledge. “In the process of practice, man at first sees only the phenomenal side, the separate aspects, the external relations of things…This is called the perceptual stage of knowledge, namely, the stage of sense perceptions and impressions.”

These perceptions and impressions then build on the practice, on the life experiences and knowledge already acquired.

Rational stage of knowledge

Mao continues, “As social practice continues, things that give rise to man’s sense perceptions and impressions in the course of his practice are repeated many times; then a sudden change (leap) takes place in the brain in the process of cognition, and concepts are formed.”

As the brain processes the data coming in from the senses, it searches for patterns and associations, trying to make sense of it all. As more data, experience, practice takes place, quantitative change gives rise to qualitative change and a breakthrough occurs. These are “Now I get it!” moments when there is clarity, whether it’s learning to count, learning a language, or understanding the class interests of potential allies and foes in the course of class struggle.

Sifting the various concepts leads to the higher stage of making conclusions, of drafting theories and plans, as Mao says, “Proceeding further, by means of judgement and inference one is able to draw logical conclusions…This stage of conception, judgement and inference is the more important stage in the entire process of knowing a thing; it is the stage of rational knowledge.”

Revolutionary practice

But Marxists are not content with just “understanding the laws of the objective world and thus being able to explain it”. Marxists seek to apply “the knowledge of these laws actively to change the world.”

Therefore, conclusions, theories and plans must be tested in the real world of class struggle, in the practice of revolutionary struggle, to see if they are valid. “The active function of knowledge … must manifest itself in the leap from rational knowledge to revolutionary practice…This is the process of testing and developing theory, the continuation of the whole process of cognition.”

Mao notes that, “whether in the practice of changing nature or of changing society, men’s original ideas, theories, plans or programmes are seldom realised without any alteration.” This may be because objective conditions have not developed sufficiently, or our knowledge is incomplete or not accurate, or often because of wishful thinking that “lags behind reality.” And, even when there is apparent success, he warns, “… man’s knowledge of a particular process at any given stage of development is only relative truth.”

Political errors occur when proper social investigation is neglected and actions are based on superficial knowledge (empiricism) or a theoretical formula is dogmatically applied (adventurism).

“Idealism and mechanical materialism, opportunism and adventurism, are all characterised by the breach between the subjective and the objective, by the separation of knowledge from practice.”

This only leads to isolation of the revolutionary forces, as they either trail behind the masses or run ahead only to disappear over the horizon.

In summary

“Discover the truth through practice, and again through practice verify and develop the truth. Start from perceptual knowledge and actively develop it into rational knowledge; then start from rational knowledge and actively guide revolutionary practice to change both the subjective and the objective world. Practice, knowledge, again practice, and again knowledge. This form repeats itself in endless cycles, and with each cycle the content of practice and knowledge rises to a higher level. Such is the whole of the dialectical-materialist theory of knowledge, and such is the dialectical-materialist theory of the unity of knowing and doing.”

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