Already a quick glance at our imbroglio makes it clear that we are caught up in multiple social struggles: the tension between the liberal establishment and new populism, the ecological struggle, struggles for feminism and sexual liberation, ethnic and religious struggles, the struggle for universal human rights, struggles against the digital control over our lives… How to bring all these together without simply privileging one of them (be it economic, feminist, or anti-racist…) as the “true” struggle that provides the key to all other struggles? Half a century ago, when the Maoist wave was at its strongest, Mao Zedong’s distinction between “principal” and “secondary” contradictions (from his treatise “On Contradiction” written in 1937) was common currency in political debates. Perhaps, this distinction deserves to be brought back to life in the context of our question.
When Mao talks about “contradictions,” he uses the term in the simple sense of a struggle of opposites, of social and natural antagonisms, not in the strict dialectical sense articulated by Hegel. Mao’s theory of contradictions can be summed up in four points:
-First, a specific contradiction is what primarily defines a thing, making it what it is: it is not a mistake, a failure, the malfunctioning of a thing but, in some sense, the very feature that holds a thing together. If this contradiction disappears, a thing loses its identity. A classic Marxist example: in all history hitherto, the primarily “contradiction” that defined every society was class struggle