Happy 130th Birthday to the Great Helmsman!

Several of us at the China Writers’ Group have put together a short PDF booklet commemorating Chairman Mao. Please click here to download the entire thing. My contribution follows.


Serve the People!

Western philosophy promotes the contemplative life away from real world distractions as the sincerest path to freedom—a spiritual freedom seemingly available to anyone who can think. Descartes’ Cogito, for example, requires no special learning or practice. One simply has to have reason enough to “logically” exit the realm of total solipsism. As a supposed “act” (albeit an act of thinking), even an adolescent can assert, “I think, therefore I am.”

In the West, liberation begins alone, in private. Mao understood there is no such thing as liberation, philosophical or otherwise, without validation from the people. The Maoist slogan “to serve the people” does not put forward some altruistic prescription. The slogan is a philosophical recognition that one’s thoughts matter only as public speech since speech is the only conduit via which thoughts effect change in the real world. Words are useless unless they serve the people—that is, unless they change people’s behaviors. Science works when a material change takes place in the laboratory; language works when human beings are moved to act.

So which actions count? To Western ears, wei renmin fuwu sounds like obvious propaganda sloganeering. Westerners cannot hear in it a rival Cogito. The recognition to “serve the people” does not entail that philosophy finally give way to politics. It is an understanding that politics has always been in command, even in the time before Descartes’ Cogito. Philosophy is possible only after politics creates space for it. If one reads “literature and art” as coterminous branches of philosophy, Mao has it in his “Talks at the Yan’an Forum” in 1942 that

literature and art are subordinate to politics, but in their turn exert a great influence on politics. Revolutionary literature and art are part of the whole revolutionary cause, they are cogs and wheels in it, and though in comparison with certain other and more important parts they may be less significant and less urgent and may occupy a secondary position, nevertheless, they are indispensable cogs and wheels in the whole machine, an indispensable part of the entire revolutionary cause. If we had no literature and art even in the broadest and most ordinary sense, we could not carry on the revolutionary movement and win victory. Failure to recognize this is wrong. Furthermore, when we say that literature and art are subordinate to politics, we mean class politics, the politics of the masses, not the politics of a few so-called statesmen. Politics, whether revolutionary or counter-revolutionary, is the struggle of class against class, not the activity of a few individuals. The revolutionary struggle on the ideological and artistic fronts must be subordinate to the political struggle because only through politics can the needs of the class and the masses find expression in concentrated form.


Philosophy is shaped by (and does not apriori shape) class struggle. This lesson is ultimately Marxist but taken to the streets and recognized on a mass scale in China only during Mao’s era. To go back even further in Western history, the goal of ancient Greek philosophy was liberation from Plato’s infamous cave. Once again, the lone philosopher manages to see beyond or past the ordinary words and concepts (shadows) used in unexamined fashion by his fellow citizens. He breaks the chains of counterfeit significance and exits the cave.

The sunlight outside represents absolute unadulterated truth sans language. Yet of course, our so-called philosopher returns to try to awaken his countrymen (still chained to their solipsistic viewing gallery) using language—i.e. the very same shadows he is both trying to liberate his fellow human beings from and forced to communicate with.

But what need for the philosopher at all? Political struggle is the struggle for collective escape from the cave. The Western imagination cannot fathom this. One way to think of Mao’s Cultural Revolution is as a political (rather than philosophical) attempt at liberation en masse.

Of course, whenever the masses rise up to demand their freedom (wherever in the world), the West recoils in horror. Better to follow the “objective” and rational prescriptions of some lone individual philosopher-king and exit the cave responsibly, one-by-individual-one. This allows the Western imagination to keep philosophy confined to the parlor room where it belongs and guarantees the masses remain locked inside the cave forever. The Western imagination, in short, has never been able to cope with the possibility of true mass liberation, of language initiating a political/philosophical project altogether, in service of the people all at once.

A Maoist example, practice, and even Cogito undercuts (Western) philosophy by putting politics first and in so doing, putting the people first. This has nothing to do with caring or sympathizing with the downtrodden or the poor. It means first awakening the people to act and change reality only then to see what sort of philosophy follows. In short, there is no abstract universal human nature that exists beyond politics because politics is class struggle. As long as class struggle exists and is real, philosophy, in its overzealous advocacy of Truth that transcends politics, is fake. The quest to articulate some universal human nature is misplaced. Note Mao’s taught rebuttal of abstract philosophy here:

Is there such a thing as human nature? Of course there is. But there is only human nature in the concrete, no human nature in the abstract. In class society there is only human nature of a class character; there is no human nature above classes. We uphold the human nature of the proletariat and of the masses of the people, while the landlord and bourgeois classes uphold the human nature of their own classes, only they do not say so but make it out to be the only human nature in existence. 


Mao understands that even “proletarian” philosophy is partial. Of course it is! The masses are confined to the same shadows they are simultaneously trying to free themselves from. They must be both the arrow and the bull’s eye. Only when all chains are smashed collectively can philosophy reign—and precisely not under the auspices of the philosopher-king or a collection of learned men at the academy but only at the behest and push of the people themselves.

This is not idealistic nor romantic nonsense; it makes good philosophical sense. Either we change our lived reality together and thus exit the cave altogether or not at all. Truth is not a matter of individual contemplation to be attained in brief, private moments of Emersonian liberation. Rather truth ripples across the population in cascading waves only at times of intense communal clamor. Truth is collective rather than individual awakening. Recognizing (rather than initiating) such collective awakening is the true goal of a philosopher who serves the people; such recognition can only cause the people’s collective desire for liberation to cascade further.

I’ll conclude also by noting that Plato’s Republic is a treatise which asks how to get good people to govern. Socrates answers by saying that good people should not be enticed to rule out of any personal or financial gain. Instead, good people should be punished for not wanting to rule. Punishment is not to be administered by the state. Good people will come to realize that the worst form of punishment is to be ruled by someone less capable than themselves. 

Who knows what forces of history brought Mao to rule? (It was certainly not personal nor financial gain.) Mao is the first historical figure to make it to the highest political office in the land armed with a political agenda that explicitly put people first. We may have to wait another 5000 years to see another like him make it all the way to the apex of power.

Mao himself had little faith supposing a train of well-educated philosopher-kings would continue to reign in service of the people for generation after generation. Therefore, only by empowering the people could Plato’s question of rule not be answered, but put away entirely. This is the essence not of Mao’s philosophy but his practice: empower the people because only they are capable of liberating themselves.

One-hundred and thirty years after the birth of the greatest philosopher-statesman the world has ever known, the political project of mass emancipation, i.e. mass awakening and exodus from the cave, has stalled once again. The goal is not to wish to the helm the return of another Mao Zedong-type figure or even to wax on philosophically about Mao Zedong thought; rather, the only validation of such thought must come from the masses, in China and the world over, who must push to put politics in command once more.

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