This article will feature in Issue 36: Ideology & Faith (May 2020)
Mao was deeply Marxist in his convictions but he heavily sinified Marx’s theory, applying it to the Chinese situation and adapting it from a European context. Born out of the Marxist theory of scientific inquiry called dialectical materialism, Mao ‘sinified’ his own political actions according to this framework. Insofar as this can be interpreted as sinification, it represents a crucial characteristic of dialectical materialism that arises out of its emphasis on the authority of reality.
In his book Karl Marx’s Theory of Ideas John Torrance calls Marx a ‘scientific realist’, someone with the belief that ‘if observation is to yield new truths it must be guided by scientific theory’. This conviction demands an inductive method of law derivation, whereby new opinions are formed from real life observations, which are then checked against existing scientific ideas. Should new observations not integrate into the framework of existing theory, the theory has to be changed in accordance with the new observations. Marxist materialism not only ensures the accuracy of one’s observations, but also the accuracy of the laws against which they are tested, with empirical reality being the ultimate authority of truth.
From this follows the fact that alterations of doctrine, be they scientific or political in nature, are not only deeply embedded in Marxist theory, but due to the importance placed on the need for correspondence between theory and reality, even demanded. When Marx applied his dialectical materialism to historical development, he identified the productive powers as the most fundamental driver of advancement, which is inevitable as ‘implied by the very nature of human productive activity’. How it occurs will not be discussed here, it suffices to note that it moves in stages driven by the development of the productive powers, following which a corresponding moral, political and social superstructure is formed. A move from one stage to the next is characterised by a change in the formation of this superstructure, but never caused by it.
In a society with capitalist powers of production, capitalism’s inherent characteristics create the potential for a socialist revolution. However, Marx affirms that ‘history is not a closed process, in which the foreordained has only to be acted out’. Furthermore, while the causal relationship between productive powers and the arising superstructure is a general derivation holding true for universal situations, ‘in each social formation, more specific laws govern the precise nature of this general derivation’, granting some variability of connection and interdependence between the two. Within this lie both the utility and need to ‘sinify’: by adapting his policies to fit the Chinese situation Mao can align theory with practice satisfying his materialist convictions and, in doing so, become a better Marxist leader whose actions are more effective at overcoming the ‘uncertainty of history’ and usher in a Socialist utopia.
The above analysis aims to show that ‘sinification’ is compatible with Marxism. Let us now examine Mao’s take on this. In On Practice, Mao reflects on dialectical materialism. For him, it starts with perception, the process of experiencing the world and observing phenomena. After the initial observation, it is of the utmost importance to make sense of the experiences by putting them in order and collecting further evidence. To put observations in order, one needs to test them against existing theories. Should existing theories not coincide with new observations, one needs to return to the ultimate testing ground of reality ‘draws[s] his lessons, correct[s] his ideas to make them correspond to the laws of the external world’, he argues.
Just like Marx, Mao gave reality ultimate authority concerning scientific inquiry, justifying this with the conviction that ‘all genuine knowledge originates in direct experience’. This conviction did not only include the derivation of theory, but also its purpose. Theory is of no use if it does not make ‘the leap from rational knowledge to revolutionary practice’ and, in doing so, achieves to change reality according to the theory’s desires. He maintains that during this revolutionary practice, the effectiveness of existing theory to achieve desired outcomes should never be taken for granted but remain under constant scrutiny, remaining subject to change if one finds that it no longer addresses the characteristics of one’s particular reality. What follows from this analysis is that Mao and Marx both valued reality’s authority above all else, out of which came Mao’s need to adapt his theory to it, to ‘sinify’ it according to Chinese reality. While accepting the universal truth of Marxist ideology, his dialectical materialist nature prohibited him from blindly accepting all of it in the formulation of his own policies. This allowed him to create a form of Marxism that was true to itself, while still possessing ‘specific national characteristics and acquiring a definite national form.’
Ultimately, sinification is a specific term coined for a phenomenon very fundamental to Marxist ideology. In a Marxist framework, it describes nothing less than the process of scientific inquiry led by dialectical materialism leading to deviations from general theory due to the unique nature of different realities. It is deeply Marxist in essence and would occur in any situation where Marxist ideology is applied to a national situation.