On Contradiction



Rating: 5/5

Time to read: a few hours

Level: advanced

“On Contradiction” is one of Mao’s most invaluable essays written. It serves as a brief and informative introduction to the basics of Marxism, specifically to materialist philosophy and dialectical materialism. If you would like to learn about dialectical materialism–or would just like a brief refresh–I highly recommend starting with this essay.

Mao’s writing is extremely enlightening and full of interesting analogies and metaphors. I am personally a big fan of Mao’s writing style, and thus I truly enjoyed reading his essay. The one drawback I found, however, was the difficulty in comprehending the text. In some cases, I had to reread paragraphs numerous times to only get a vague understanding of what was being said. For this reason, although the essay is fairly brief, it took me several hours to read and somewhat comprehend it.

So, I rated this essay 5/5 based on its deep and explanatory analysis regarding dialectics.



Contradiction: a unity of two opposites, as outlined by the Marxist scientific philosophy of dialectical materialism.  A contradiction is an interactive relationship between two entities that have an incompatible development. Additionally, the two aspects of a contradiction rely on each other for their conceptual existence (e.g. light and dark, life and death, proletarian and bourgeoisie). This is the source of all change, driven by the struggle between the two entities. For a more in-depth understanding, see the link in dialectical materialism.

Dialectical materialism: the scientific philosophical foundation of Marxism; dialectical refers to the relationship and interaction between two opposing entities (see contradiction) which guides movement forward. Materialism refers to a materialist philosophy in which the objective world exists independently of humans and human consciousness (meaning that humans are just another evolution and the objective world would exist regardless if we perceived it or not) as opposed to the world being the product or reflection of ideas. You can get a more in-depth understanding of this here

Struggle: interaction between the two (mutually exclusive) aspects of a contradiction that brings about change.



A contradiction, as stated above, is a unity of two opposites. This means that each contradiction is composed of two separate, opposite entities. These two separate entities depend on each other for their existence. For example, the concept of light depends on the existence of the concept of dark, or the lack of light. Now broaden the application of this concept, in which in any given entity is defined by its relationship with something else–its opposite. This quality is known as “identity,” as the identity of one aspect of a contradiction both depends on and determines its opposite. Just as in the example of light and dark, the existence of light necessitates the existence of dark–otherwise how would we conceptualize light if we had nothing to compare it with? Thus, the existence of light depends on the existence of dark, as well as determines the quality of dark. When the two entities interact–or struggle-with one another, it produces motion, or change. For example, in the contradiction between light and dark, as one increases, the other decreases. The existence of an opposite for any given entity is the driver of this change, since, if there was no opposite, there would be no relationship to cause change.

Contradictions have many important qualities that are necessary to know in order to completely understand them. For example, there are universal and particular contradictions. Particular contradictions are relationships on a localized, individual level. For example, the contradiction between the petty-bourgeois and the proletariat in a city may be particular to that area. However, certain aspects of a particular contradiction may be universal. Going off the previous example, the existence of contradictions based on class would be universal, in that contradictions will always exist between classes, as long as class society exists. But clearly, we cannot say something is universal based on looking at one or two examples. It is necessary to analyze countless particular contradictions before certain aspects and patterns among them can be analyzed together and labeled a universal contradiction. For this reason, it is important to note that a universal contradiction is a composition of certain aspects of many particular contradictions. In the previous example, the universal contradictions between classes cannot be drawn just be seeing the relationship between the petty-bourgeois and the proletariat, but rather by analyzing that relationship among numerous others, such as between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie, the peasant and the lord, the slave and the slave master, etc.

Additionally, within a given process, there are principle and secondary contradictions. The principle contradiction is the most essential relationship in the process, and thus it determines all of the other relationships in the process, i.e. the secondary contradictions. For example, within a capitalist society, the principle contradiction is generally between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, while a secondary contradiction may be between the petty-bourgeoisie and the proletariat. However, since processes and relationships are always changing, the principle contradiction may be replaced by a secondary contradiction, which then becomes the dominant contradiction, while the former principle contradiction becomes secondary. For example, in China, prior to the socialist revolution, the principle contradiction was between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. This changed, however, when Japan invaded China. At this point, the principle contradiction became between the Chinese people and the invading imperialist force, while the contradiction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie became secondary. Understanding the principle contradiction in a process is crucial in understanding the entirety of the process and the direction it will take. This same concept is also applicable to the two aspects of a contradiction as well–one aspect is principle, and determines the development of the contradiction, while the other aspect is secondary. Just like contradictions within a process, the aspects within a single contradiction are changing and evolving, and, depending on the situation, the roles may be switched and the dominant aspect could become secondary while its opposite becomes dominant.

Contradictions are the basis for all motion and change, and understanding how they operate and interact–either on their own or in a given process–is immensely beneficial and can be used to guide your strategies and actions.



What are Contradictions?

  • Contradictions are the basis of simple forms of motion, and are present in every development from beginning to end
  • Without contradiction, nothing would exist
  • There is interdependence of contradictory aspects in all things, and the contradictions between these aspects determine the life of all things and push their development forward
  • There are contradictory, mutually exclusive tendencies in all phenomena and processes of nature

    • This is known as the Law of the Unity of Opposites
  • A single process contains only a single contradiction, while a complex process contains many

Process of Development

  • There are two primary theories of how things develop:
    • Metaphysical
    • Dialectical
  • The process of development according to metaphysics:
    • All things are in isolation from one another
    • Everything has always been in place–only in varying amounts
    • External forces are the prime determinant of change
  • The process of development according to dialectics:
    • All things occur in relation with one another
    • Everything is constantly changing
    • Internal contradictions (not external) are the prime determinant of change
    • Each process of development is qualitatively different
    • Qualitatively different contradictions can only be resolved by qualitatively different methods
      • The same solution cannot be used to resolve different contradictions
      • Dogmatists attempt to apply the same solution to qualitatively different contradictions
  • Dialectics can be used to predict the course of events by analyzing contradictions and the resulting development arising from the interaction of the two aspects of the contradiction

Objectivity and Completeness in Understanding

  • To discover the essence of a process, you must understand the two aspects of each contradiction involved in the process
  • The most essential thing in Marxism is the concrete analysis of concrete conditions (Lenin)
    • Dogmatists use stereotypes that are not set in concrete conditions and thus lack a meaningful analysis and understanding of the contradictions. Thus, they are unable to understand the resolution of the contradictions
  • We must shun subjectivity, one-sidedness, and superficiality
  • You must analyze a situation objectively in order to understand the materialist root and thus its contradictions
  • You cannot be one-sided–in order to grasp the entire situation and all of its contradictions, you must be familiar with both sides: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, rather than just the proletariat or just the bourgeoisie
    • By being all-sided, you can understand both aspects of the contradiction
    • By being one-sided and only studying one aspect of a contradiction, you only see a part and not the whole
  • “Know the enemy and know yourself, and you can fight a hundred battles with no danger of defeat.” (Sun Tzu)
  • To really understand an object, we must embrace it and study all its sides and connections (Lenin)

Universality and Particularity

  • In order to understand dialectics, you must understand the relationship regarding general (universal) and individual (particular) contradictions
    • Without particular contradictions, there can be no universal contradiction
      • Thus, the general (universal) resides in the individual (particular): to make generalized claims, you must first understand the particular aspects that make up the universal law
  • Universality and particularity is inherent in everything
  • It is important to discover the universality and particularity in everything, and understand their relationship within the object itself
  • The relationship and interaction between the local (particular) conditions in Tsarist Russia with the global, external conditions (universality) led to the possibility of revolution

Principle and Secondary Contradictions in a Process

  • There are many contradictions in the process of development in a complex thing. One of these contradictions is the principal contradiction, and the rest are secondary contradictions
  • The principle contradiction determines the existence & development of secondary contradictions
  • In order to understand an entire process, you must first grasp the principle contradiction. Then it becomes much easier to solve the other problems
    • For this reason, all contradictions within a process should not be held equal–the principle contradiction must be held with greater importance above all
  • The principle contradiction in capitalism is (generally) between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie
    • Secondary contradictions include the contradiction between the petty-bourgeoisie and proletariat, proletariat and peasants, etc.
  • There can only be one principle contradiction at a time, albeit it may change depending on the circumstances
    • The new supersedes the old: as old contradictions are resolved, new contradictions arise in their place

Principle and Secondary Aspects of a Contradiction

  • Just as there are principle and secondary contradictions within a process, there are principle and secondary aspects within a contradiction
  • Like principle & secondary contradictions, principle and secondary aspects of a contradiction change overtime, with the principle aspect of the contradiction determining the future of the contradiction
  • Examples of principle aspects in a contradiction:
    • Between the economic base and superstructure of a society, the economic base may be the principle aspect
    • Between theory and practice, practice may be the principle aspect of the contradiction
  • Each aspect of a contradiction determines the other, and both aspects coexist in a single entity
  • Understanding principle and secondary contradictions and principle and secondary aspects of a contradiction is necessary to guide the revolutionary political party in both political and military tactics


  • Without an opposite, an entity loses its conditions for existence–its identity
    • E.g. no life without death, no death without life, no landlords without tenants, no tenants without landlords, no proletariat without bourgeoisie, no bourgeoisie without proletariat, etc.
  • Identity is a product of a unity of opposites, as one aspect is defined by the other, and they are intertwined and interconnected.
  • Here are a few concepts associated with the meaning of identity:
    • Each aspect of a contradiction is required for the other’s existence
      • E.g. the concept of life would not exist without the concept of death
    • In the right conditions for a given process, each aspect of a contradiction will transform itself into its opposite
      • This sort of transformation is only possible due the interconnected nature of aspects of a contradiction
      • Examples:
        • By means of revolution, the proletariat become the ruling class and the bourgeoisie become the ruled classed
        • To build the Communist Party is to eventually necessitate the end of the Party; to reach the dictatorship of the proletariat is to work towards the end of class rule
        • Under the conditions of class society, war is transformed into peace and vice versa
        • China had a revolution without having to follow the western path of development of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie due to the conditions of the time
          • The conditions of the time determine the outcomes: when certain conditions and contradictions are present, certain aspects of contradictions transform into one another

Struggle and Change

  • The unity of two opposites is temporary and conditional, while the struggle of mutually exclusive opposites is absolute
  • Struggle is inherent in identity, and without struggle there is no identity
  • There is struggle in identity, universality in particularity, and generality in individuality
  • The bourgeoisie attempts to portray opposites as dead and unchanging as opposed to living and changing in order to continue their rule [e.g. capitalism and liberalism are said to last forever]
  • The task of the communist is to propagate the dialectics behind a situation to the masses [e.g. the process of capitalism, in which the proletariat will ultimately defeat and overthrow the bourgeoisie] in order to further accelerate the progression of the contradictions between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie

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