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Zizek on Mao

One of the world’s leading philosophers tackles the ideology of Chairman Mao Zedong.

Slavoj Zizek’s Introduction to the works of Chairman Mao Zedong is important in engaging intellectually with the thoughts of the Great Helmsman. It has become conventional in recent years to downplay the ideological motivations of Mao and to assume instead that he was motivated entirely by the love of power and self-aggrandizement. While these motivations were no doubt present – how many people are so free of ego that they could say they were not ever motivated thus?- they do not explain how he could he gave such lengthy speeches on ideology. The speeches and articles contained within the book demonstrate that Mao did have interest in ideology and did try to pursue his intellectual understanding of the world and of the Marxist analysis that underscore his understanding of the working of the world.

Zizek is above all a philosopher and one of the characteristics of a good philosopher is the ability to find the right categories for phenomena of the mind and of the universe. Accordingly, he is able to identify Mao’s understanding of the world to be flawed with respect to his approach to contradiction. In common with all good Marxist thinkers and practitioners of dialectical materialism, Mao identifies the contradictions that provide the dynamic forces that drive progress. However, although these contradictions provide the “negation” of forces opposite to each other, he fails to “negate the negation.” In other words, he is not able to make quantitative change into qualitative change.

A revolution is initially a quantitative change: that is, people act to overthrow the old order and to install a new order: violence is likely although not inevitable. To make the revolution permanent, however, it is necessary to cause the new government viewed as the proper, permanent government. Hence, the revolutionary government must somehow be institutionalized (without, revolutionaries would hope, diluting the original revolutionary purpose). This Mao, according to Zizek, failed to do. Instead, he lived in a world of permanent contradictions and opposites, which consequently remained in conflict with each other.

It is for this reason that the Cultural Revolution, as a particular example, was initiated. This was a form of Permanent Revolution (as the Khmer Rouge subsequently followed) that meant everything must be challenged forever. There could be no rest or surcease from the revolution because there must always be conflict and contradiction violently resolved. Millions died as a result.

For more details, see Slavoj Zizek presents Mao on Practice and Contradiction (London and New York, 2007). This is part of a series entitled “Revolutions,” which also includes Zizek on Robespierre “Virtue and Terror.” The Name Zizek has diacritic marks (like small versions of the letter “u”) of both of the Zs; however, it is difficult to show this in hypertext.

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