Sunday, 6 June 2010

Mao's Botanical Contradiction

I don’t know what to make of this. I don’t really understand it and I don’t think it is science. But it does involve plants, so I can a talk about it here.

Last year my son Jerome completed an honours thesis in the Arts Faculty of University of Sydney titled Hong Kong, the Final Struggle: Marxism, Imperialism and the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front 1982-1997. Not much to do with botany I’ll grant you.

But…Chapter One is about Mao Zedong (Tse-tung)’s Law of Contradiction(s) and his belief in ‘materialistic dialectics’. Now, as I said, I don’t really get this but here is how Jerome explained it to me (and why it has something to do with plants).

“It is probably offensive to your scientific sensibilities, but Mao believes that all motion (in nature, society or even thought) is the result of the struggle between two halves of a contradiction” says Jerome.

He quotes Mao as saying that “Simple growth in plants and animals, their quantitative development, is likewise chiefly the result of their internal contradictions.” According to Jerome, Mao doesn't say what exactly is in contradiction within plants – my son suggests that scientists should deal with that – but he (Mao) holds a strong conviction that things external to the plant, such as climate and geography, are not the primary reason for growth. In Jerome’s interpretation of Mao, these external factors are the 'condition' whereas contradictions are the 'cause'.

I still didn’t get it and made disparaging remarks about Mao’s botany. Jerome said it wasn’t just Mao, but all Marxists of a certain vintage that held these views. Apparently Lenin, though, was quite confused by it all.

In a final attempt to explain this theory to me, Jerome quotes from Fredrick Engels’ 1877 Anti-Dühring, which he says he oddly and fortuitously found on his home bookshelf.

Engels says, according to Jerome: “Let us take a grain of barley. Millions of such grains of barley are milled, boiled and brewed and then consumed. But if such grains of barley meet with conditions which for it are normal, if it falls on suitable soil, then under the influence of heat and moisture a specific change takes place, it germinates; the grain as such ceases to exist, it is negated, and in its place appears the plant which has arisen from it, the negation of the grain.

But what is the normal life-process of this plant? It grows, flowers, is fertilised and finally once more produces grains of barley, and as soon as these have ripened the stalk dies, is in its turn negated. As a result of the negation of the negation we have once again the original grain of barley, but not as a single unit, but ten, twenty or thirty fold.”

The ‘negation of the negation’ is the key concept for materialist dialectics, according again to Jerome. And Jerome believes this is what Mao was referring to when he said plants develop according to contradiction. Jerome does say that it is unclear whether Engels sees the main 'cause' of development as contradiction as Mao does, but in both cases progress results from contradiction or two processes cancelling one another out.

So now you know. This may explain lots of things, but not, I suspect, how plants grow.

Image: Pictures of communist leaders on the wall of a home in southern China - Mao Zedong is at the far right...

1 comment:

Jim said...

... and that, comrade, is why internet censorship is such a good idea... ;)