Near the concluding sections of Talks at the Yenan Forum of Literature and Art, Mao speaks of political positions which prevent communist cadre from fully engaging in critical-artistic practice. He says that since they are still confused or uneducated, they tow an incorrect line of engagement.
Mao makes many solvent points. Moreover, the points he makes are, I believe, crucial to correctly understand. All of his points I have seen ad nueaseam in literature; although this is hardly surprising when one reads bourgeois literature since, ideologically, such literature is fundamentally directed toward legitimating counterrevolutionary ends. The issue, however, is largely only relevant to communists. So, as a principal of criticism, the radical critic would do well to remember Mao’s sentiment, sentiment which I will now attempt to delineate while using concrete, recent examples:
In the first political statement, Mao says:
“The theory of human nature.” 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. The human nature boosted by certain petty-bourgeois intellectuals is also divorced from or opposed to the masses; what they call human nature is in essence nothing but bourgeois individualism, and so, in their eyes, proletarian human nature is contrary to human nature. “The theory of human nature” which some people in Yenan advocate as the basis of their so-called theory of literature and art puts the matter in just this way and is wholly wrong.
What is important here is to realize that Mao’s attack is two-fold. On one hand, he is attacking the fallacious idea of ‘human nature,’ and ideology which serves fascistic ends, while on the other hand, he is replacing human nature with class nature. To Mao, human nature only exists in the sense of class dynamics; it is natural for the landlord to behave the way he does because it is demanded by his class and class interests. Said again, the landlord’s actions is historically driven by the social-material forces which surround him; it is only under a mode of production—agrarian capitalism—that the landlord acts the way he does, just as the feudal lord behaves with violent impunity due to his position at the top of the social hierarchy.
For literature, this holds a great deal to remember because it is all too often we see characters, protagonists at the bottom of their alcoholic dripped selves, lament so-called human nature; it is expected that when things ‘go south’ the protagonist and company will blame the simple nature of humanity, to wash away the troublesome actions of a former-friend or antagonist, the failure of a great bit of social engineering on the ‘natural’ inclinations of humanity.
Of course, this is absurd and only strengths the reactionary artistic-regime. When the character Snowball in Animal Farm, for instance, flees the farm, it is not because of his ‘natural proclivities’ but because of his anti-proletarian nature—because of his class nature; he flees not because he is born selfish, rude, or inherent evils drive him to reject his friends but because his class interests, that of the bourgeoisie, demand he flee since he cannot imagine collective action undertaken without exploitation as the prime mover.
Moving on to Mao’s second political stance:
“The fundamental point of departure for literature and art is love, love of humanity.” Now love may serve as a point of departure, but there is a more basic one. Love as an idea is a product of objective practice. Fundamentally, we do not start from ideas but from objective practice. Our writers and artists who come from the ranks of the intellectuals love the proletariat because society has made them feel that they and the proletariat share a common fate. We hate Japanese imperialism because Japanese imperialism oppresses us. There is absolutely no such thing in the world as love or hatred without reason or cause. As for the so-called love of humanity, there has been no such all-inclusive love since humanity was divided into classes. All the ruling classes of the past were fond of advocating it, and so were many so-called sages and wise men, but nobody has ever really practiced it, because it is impossible in class society. There will be genuine love of humanity–after classes are eliminated all over the world. Classes have split society into many antagonistic groupings; there will be love of all humanity when classes are eliminated, but not now. We cannot love enemies, we cannot love social evils, our aim is to destroy them. This is common sense; can it be that some of our writers and artists still do not understand this?
All too often in bourgeois literature we see love as a natural given. Provided, affection at first sight may perhaps be a given in some scenarios, where lust predominates, but love is another matter. Neurological illness notwithstanding, love cannot function divorced from the social and material reality of its host’s life. Among the many contradictions—both antagonistic and non-antagonistic—love in the abstract is not only impossible but reactionary, as such a belief in general, universal love, promote it as a an Band-Aid, something to blanket the numerous antagonisms in capitalist society, to try and convince people to forget about their class relations and the historically demanded mission of the proletariat. In doing so, the bourgeoisie and their artistic lackeys, hope to foster a class collaborationist system; love thus becomes the engine foe class traitors to mask their rancid ideology by erasing historical struggle and the materiality which is inherent in that struggle.
In Pride and Prejudice, for example, does the central character Elizabeth Bennet marry Fitzwilliam Darcy because of love? No, she does not. The text explicitly states, through its many convolutions, that ‘Lizzy’ hates Mr. Darcy—she finds him repellent and overly proud. The marriage as a whole is contrived and Elizabeth is only married to Mr. Darcy through an incremental waning of her hostility. What is not acknowledged is Mr. Darcy’s large fortune, one which easily ranks him as one of the richest men in England; the idea is not that Elizabeth loved Mr. Darcy, but rather, she bowed to marrying him due to her explicit economic condition: if romantic love exists, then it is only because Elizabeth was able to stifle herself long enough to find Mr. Darcy bearable and because the cishet-patriarchal regime of the time demanded that she marry sooner or later.
The third of Mao’s points on political positions:
“Literary and artistic works have always laid equal stress on the bright and the dark, half and half.” This statement contains many muddled ideas. It is not true that literature and art have always done this. Many petty-bourgeois writers have never discovered the bright side. Their works only expose the dark and are known as the “literature of exposure”. Some of their works simply specialize in preaching pessimism and world-weariness. On the other hand, Soviet literature in the period of socialist construction portrays mainly the bright. It, too, describes shortcomings in work and portrays negative characters, but this only serves as a contrast to bring out the brightness of the whole picture and is not on a so-called half-and-half basis. The writers and artists of the bourgeoisie in its period of reaction depict the revolutionary masses as mobs and themselves as saints, thus reversing the bright and the dark. Only truly revolutionary writers and artists can correctly solve the problem of whether to extol or to expose. All the dark forces harming the masses of the people must be exposed and all the revolutionary struggles of the masses of the people must be extolled; this is the fundamental task of revolutionary writers and artists.
I love the eloquence of Mao’s explanation because it really does boil down to those final two sentences: one must expose the anti-proletarian elements while extolling the proletariat themselves.
In today’s world, postmodernism has muddled this simple thesis. While it is true that ‘evil’ and ‘good’ are moralist concepts and should be rejected, it would not behoove us to forget that exploitation is fundamentally inhumane. As such, it needs to be rejected and anti-exploitative measures upheld. What postmodernism does is to muddle that distinction between the inhuman nature of exploitation and the humane nature of socialism.
Artistically, this shows up exactly as Mao has spoken—either as a pessimistic worldview (in the case of those who uphold exploitation) or as an incessant and incoherent treatise on the nature of love (as it shows up in those who uphold the necessity of struggle without Marxism as a guiding principal). Each perspective distorts the historical nature of the proletariat. In art, it is respectively seen in early Modernist writers such as T.S Eliot and Virginia Woolf (as the world-weary viewpoint) and in the myriad of Teen-oriented young adult dystopia novels (for the extolling viewpoint). Each miss a vital point.
It is a matter of union. Reactionary artists such as Eliot and Woolf could only express dismay at the barbarity of world war. They could not see the origins of the conflict, how to stop it, or the future of the world if it was to be stopped. They could only angrily wave their literary fists while apologizing for the system which birthed the conflict. More progressive artists working in the contemporary young adult genre of dystopia, by expressing the necessity of violent struggle against unfair systems, make it a point to resuscitate extolling of revolutionary forces; the issue, however, is that the extolling is vague. The insurgent forces of these dystopias act without a guiding force and, indeed, are usually opportunistic forces. So, what is needed, again, is a union: an understanding and ability to expose the system of capitalist-imperialism but also to be guided by that system’s antithesis and fight toward the overthrow of such a reactionary edifice by extolling those who are determined to overthrow it.
Moving on to Mao’s next point:
“The task of literature and art has always been to expose.” This assertion, like the previous one, arises from ignorance of the science of history. Literature and art, as we have shown, have never been devoted solely to exposure. For revolutionary writers and artists the targets for exposure can never be the masses, but only the aggressors, exploiters and oppressors and the evil influence they have on the people. The masses too have shortcomings, which should be overcome by criticism and self-criticism within the people’s own ranks, and such criticism and self-criticism is also one of the most important tasks of literature and art. But this should not be regarded as any sort of “exposure of the people”. As for the people, the question is basically one of education and of raising their level. Only counter-revolutionary writers and artists describe the people as “born fools” and the revolutionary masses as “tyrannical mobs”.
There is a lot to sort out here. Essentially, Mao is speaking against harshly critiquing those people you are trying to raise to a higher level, those workers who you are attempting to elevate to a higher class consciousness. This is good. He does this by arguing that literature, as in the last point, cannot be reduced to merely exposing; part of this implies that to do more than expose requires an engagement with those elements who you are extolling. Obviously, any engagement which features you exposing their shortcomings will not last long and your practice will suffer. So, the road which you need to take is to expose your allies flaws in private and gently. To speak and argue but with the intent on proactive engagement. Not hostile saber-rattling.
What makes this point more convoluted, however, is basically its application to art: when you are engaging with a text, how to expose? Mao explicitly says that “The masses too have shortcomings, which should be overcome by criticism and self-criticism within the people’s own ranks, and such criticism and self-criticism is also one of the most important tasks of literature and art.” What does this really mean?
To deconstruct it: criticism and self-criticism is a vital task of literature (artistic-practice). So, if criticism is important, but one cannot focus solely on exposing, then what does this mean for literary practice? When reviewing or probing a text, does a critic focus not wholly on exposing the reactionary elements in that text; perhaps, but I think Mao is referring only to allies and potential allies, not outright reactionaries; the later would demand exposure with an emphasis on the correct artistic-practice, whereas the latter would be more on the tenants of artistic-practice itself. This seems probable. But then we come to self-criticism. How does this function in literary circles? Does self-criticism have a place in critique? (Is it even possible for it to have a place?) Or, is self-criticism more of a personal guide for the critic and how they conduct their artistic-practice?
I think it is a combination of each, a unity. I view self-criticism as a necessary tool in refining one’s artistic-practice but also in critique. This is unusual, and will demand a full piece at a time in the future to fully extrapolate, but my present thoughts on the matter is that if one does not acknowledge their short-comings while critiquing, where they had come from, then their practice as a critic becomes unduly focused on extolling since they have not exposed their own previous faults; in this sense, it is the revolutionary who inverts the relationship but extolling their own artistic-practice in exposing the reactionary, yet, same critic refuses to expose his own weakness previously surmounted.
More or less, at any rate. Again, this will be something to explore more later on.
But, at any rate, Mao’s next point is:
“This is still the period of the satirical essay, and Lu Hsun’s style of writing is still needed.” Living under the rule of the dark forces and deprived of freedom of speech, Lu Hsun used burning satire and freezing irony, cast in the form of essays, to do battle; and he was entirely right. We, too, must hold up to sharp ridicule the fascists, the Chinese reactionaries and everything that harms the people; but in the Shensi-Kansu-Ningsia Border Region and the anti-Japanese base areas behind the enemy lines, where democracy and freedom are granted in full to the revolutionary writers and artists and withheld only from the counter-revolutionaries, the style of the essay should not simply be like Lu Hsun’s. Here we can shout at the top of our voices and have no need for veiled and roundabout expressions, which are hard for the people to understand. When dealing with the people and not with their enemies, Lu Hsun never ridiculed or attacked the revolutionary people and the revolutionary Party in his “satirical essay period”, and these essays were entirely different in manner from those directed against the enemy. To criticize the people’s shortcomings is necessary, as we have already said, but in doing so we must truly take the stand of the people and speak out of whole-hearted eagerness to protect and educate them. To treat comrades like enemies is to go over to the stand of the enemy. Are we then to abolish satire? No. Satire is always necessary. But there are several kinds of satire, each with a different attitude, satire to deal with our enemies, satire to deal with our allies and satire to deal with our own ranks. We are not opposed to satire in general; what we must abolish is the abuse of satire.
Typically, satire is defined as a lambasting of an idea; there is an idea that is ridiculed by an artistic performance which utilizes stand-ins and non-literal equivalences in order to make an ideological point. Satire is distinguished from parody in that parody retains signs, distorted, from its originating text; whereas parody presents a deformed narrative which brings attention to the originating narrative’s shortcomings, satire is a wholly new narrative meant to deform ideas and institutions.
When Mao speaks of needing to abolish the abuse of satire we must not trip over ourselves. We must remain cogent on his caveat; he delineates several forms of satire: the kind we use on our enemies, the kind within our own ranks, and sort which we use with our allies. Each is differently performed. But, we must remember that the performance of these elements of satire is conditioned by the political thought of the performer and the performee.
Is there an equivalent in our own reality? It is hard to say.
In contemporary North America, for example, there is a humorous online publication calling itself “The Worker’s Spatula.” These comrades have positioned themselves as a Leftist version of the popular mainstream comedy publication “The Onion.” Though each publication is amusing both are, fundamentally, parody: people and groups are named by their real world monikers. It is not satire.
So, at this point, we may only extrapolate what satire could mean in our present circumstance. I do not think this would be hard to outline, so let’s make some simple cursory presumptions.
Obviously, Mao is in favor of retaining satire, but what does he mean by its different kinds? Obviously, how the satire is handled: fundamentally, it is a matter of practice and choosing how one exposing (satirizes) behavior. Where within one’s own ranks and among allies, satire may be gentle yet prodding, critiques meant to bemuse and correct, satire directed at the enemy will be harsh and meant to ridicule with the intent on ideological assault (whereas, with allies and compatriots, the intent is on ideological consolidation). So correct practice becomes linked with how one exposes, to what degree, and for what reasons.
The specific incarnations of this difference in practice will have to be delineated at another time.
But, to advance forward on to the next of Mao’s points:
“I am not given to praise and eulogy. The works of people who eulogize what is bright are not necessarily great and the works of those who depict the dark are not necessarily paltry.” If you are a bourgeois writer or artist, you will eulogize not the proletariat but the bourgeoisie, and if you are a proletarian writer or artist, you will eulogize not the bourgeoisie but the proletariat and working people: it must be one or the other. The works of the eulogists of the bourgeoisie are not necessarily great, nor are the works of those who show that the bourgeoisie is dark necessarily paltry; the works of the eulogists of the proletariat are not necessarily not great, but the works of those who depict the so-called “darkness” of the proletariat are bound to be paltry–are these not facts of history as regards literature and art? Why should we not eulogize the people, the creators of the history of mankind? Why should we not eulogize the proletariat, the Communist Party, New Democracy and socialism? There is a type of person who has no enthusiasm for the people’s cause and looks coldly from the side-lines at the struggles and victories of the proletariat and its vanguard; what he is interested in, and will never weary of eulogizing, is himself, plus perhaps a few figures in his small coterie. Of course, such petty-bourgeois individualists are unwilling to eulogize the deeds and virtues of the revolutionary people or heighten their courage in struggle and their confidence in victory. Persons of this type are merely termites in the revolutionary ranks; of course, the revolutionary people have no need for these “singers”.
Of all of Mao’s remarks on political belief in his Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, this point, I feel, is the most decisive in that many Leftists can feel the need to disregard it out of anti-dogmatism. Indeed, the point does feel somewhat dated or dogmatic, does it not? To uphold without criticism? But this is not the point Mao makes.
Mao’s point here is not rooted in individualism but rather collectivism. Maoist practice upholds correct practice and self-criticism as a means to fully engage with and appreciate an artistic text. Part of being a revolutionary is to extol the proletariat while exposing the bourgeoisie (while maintaining strict discipline and morals with your allies and within your own ranks); this is fundamental to advocating for a cooperative future. As such eulogizing the masses and the fallen leaders of the masses, with due respect to their practice and your own, becomes a vital component of rejecting bourgeois philosophy in that exposing the lies of individuality while pushing for communal practice. To ignore this and the myriad of ideological assumptions which sprout from it is to ignore the sedimentation of previous generation of comrades and actions which have paved the way for you to operate as you do today.
In literature it is easy to see how the bourgeoisie upholds and eulogizes their fallen. Text after text illustrates the glory of dictators, draconian presidents, and fascist war leaders. It is always a history of bloodshed and conspiracy; because the reactionary mind is rooted in suspicion—the bourgeoisie cannot imagine a society run by workers despite being terrified of its ever present specter—reactionary literature upholds the strongmen of capitalist life: we see— the classic self-sacrificing Ur-fascist, the selfless hero who saves the realm and rescues the princess, the disturbed anti-hero who ‘fights the good fight’ but for the wrong reasons, the conniving politician who wages his legal struggle in the shadows with the help of NGOs, and, of course, both the brutal general who is responsible for mass murder in the defense of the realm, and also the archetypical middle-class CisHet youth, assisted by professionals and friends of all stripes to compensate for his lackluster everyman’s appearance.
Bourgeois art upholds and eulogizes their heroes in a thousand different ways. We, proletarians constructing proletarian art, must do the same. Otherwise, we leave the field to reactionaries who can only view the world as a piece of meat to be divided among the strong. As Leftists, we know that this is an incorrect opinion and it must be countered with whatever means we have at our disposal; whether that means is physical or artistic, does not matter.
At any rate, to continue forward, Mao says of the next political point:
“It is not a question of stand; my class stand is correct, my intentions are good and I understand all right, but I am not good at expressing myself and so the effect turns out bad.” I have already spoken about the dialectical materialist view of motive and effect. Now I want to ask, is not the question of effect one of stand? A person who acts solely by motive and does not inquire what effect his action will have is like a doctor who merely writes prescriptions but does not care how many patients die of them. Or take a political party which merely makes declarations but does not care whether they are carried out. It may well be asked, is this a correct stand? And is the intention here good? Of course, mistakes may occur even though the effect has been taken into account beforehand, but is the intention good when one continues in the same old rut after facts have proved that the effect is bad? In judging a party or a doctor, we must look at practice, at the effect. The same applies in judging a writer. A person with truly good intentions must take the effect into account, sum up experience and study the methods or, in creative work, study the technique of expression. A person with truly good intentions must criticize the shortcomings and mistakes in his own work with the utmost candour and resolve to correct them. This is precisely why Communists employ the method of self-criticism. This alone is the correct stand. Only in this process of serious and responsible practice is it possible gradually to understand what the correct stand is and gradually obtain a good grasp of it. If one does not move in this direction in practice, if there is simply the complacent assertion that one “understands all right”, then in fact one has not understood at all.
Because we have already covered issues of practice so much, I feel that this point is somewhat mute in light of the many other considerations of practice, and yet, it is still important to understand because, as this piece has taken pains to detail, if an artist only exposes—critiques—without extolling (part of which is self-critique, as the revolutionary artist is, indeed, part of the class which he wishes to extoll, and part of extolling means to have unity with exposition, including one’s own faults), then they fall into revisionism.
When studying the methods of creative expression or technique of expression, it is vital to take effect into account while also summing up the experience which the technique or method has bequeathed toward the artistic plane. To study without considering the effect which a technique or method has had is to endorse idealism (something which is divorced from material reality). To study without summing up the experience of the technique or method similarly endorses idealism, for it is forming opinions without investigation; together, it is purely subjective intention—to critique with no recourse to practice, to making sense of an experience, to understanding the effect of a technique or method on the wider artistic-cultural practice, is to endorse bourgeois idealism since it is uncritical and forsakes materialist analysis.
To return to our earlier example, literary Modernism, and its pessimistic rants on modernity, a writer who has not investigated literary modernism’s effect, summed up its experience, or studied its method and techniques, is not in a position to judge; their position is incapable of judging because they have neither investigated or practiced the requisite artistic materials. Ultimately, their stand is incorrect. They want to critique for the sake of critiquing, not because they have engaged in the necessary practice and conducted the demanded self-criticisms which would enable them to make a unified exposition-extolling possible in relation to eulogizing the revolutionary ideology and fellow-travelers. One can always perceive when another has an incorrect stand based off of their intention, which is revealed in practice: effect, in other words, never lies and appears possible to utilize in deciphering the intent insofar as it relates to practice.
But, to move on the last of Mao’s points:
“To call on us to study Marxism is to repeat the mistake of the dialectical materialist creative method, which will harm the creative mood.” To study Marxism means to apply the dialectical materialist and historical materialist viewpoint in our observation of the world, of society and of literature and art; it does not mean writing philosophical lectures into our works of literature and art. Marxism embraces but cannot replace realism in literary and artistic creation, just as it embraces but cannot replace the atomic and electronic theories in physics. Empty, dry dogmatic formulas do indeed destroy the creative mood; not only that, they first destroy Marxism. Dogmatic “Marxism” is not Marxism, it is anti-Marxism. Then does not Marxism destroy the creative mood? Yes, it does. It definitely destroys creative moods that are feudal, bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, liberalistic, individualist, nihilist, art-for-art’s sake, aristocratic, decadent or pessimistic, and every other creative mood that is alien to the masses of the people and to the proletariat. So far as proletarian writers and artists are concerned, should not these kinds of creative moods be destroyed? I think they should; they should be utterly destroyed. And while they are being destroyed, something new can be constructed.
I truly feel that for the revolutionary artist, this final point by Mao is ignored at their own peril.
It is a sure fire fact that no matter what text you read, it disseminates ideology; the newspaper, animation, video games… anything, it all has ideology embedded within (whether it is via direct argumentation or its signs, I will leave up to you to decide). But, it must be said that not all texts disseminate the same manner; there is a difference among how a text argues for its ideology. Some texts are content in allowing the main ideas to be slowly released through the plot, narrative, and poetics of a text. Others become blunter and simply, like Ayn Rand’s infamous 70+ page speech in Atlas Shrugged, lecture, hitting the reader over their head with nonstop philosophy. If one approach is to be taken, then it needs to be the former over the latter.
Part of how reactionary writers won their success was due in part to how they fused artistic and ideological premise into a cohesive whole. They were able to do this because they were guided by their bourgeois individualism, by their ideology and philosophy which structured the reality of their text. They did not lecture; hence, why there is a difference in popularity between William Faulkner and Ayn Rand: one crafted whereas the other mechanical reproduced.
Revolutionary artists should not mechanically reproduce. Because our guiding philosophy is historical and dialectical materialism, we must integrate it into our works. Dogmatic recitation does not inspire, it annoys. As with artistic-practice as spoken of more generally throughout this piece, there needs to be a fusion of text and philosophy within an artist’s actual artistic-practice. Done properly, this will promote the ideals of the new society and its morals. Something which stands in opposition to the vast artistic machinery which presently hinders artists and slogs down the production of texts which resonate with humanity on a level deeper than hero worship and personality cults.
With the conclusion of this piece nigh, I should mention that this writing has only been the initial engagement with Mao’s text. Future engagements will be produced which will explore other aspects of Mao’s philosophy and insights on literature and literary criticism.