This is a speech at the 20th group study session of the Political Bureau of the 18th CPC Central Committee on January 23, 2015.
Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 1, 2019.
Dialectical materialism is the worldview and methodology of Chinese Communists. Mao Zedong once said that Marxism consists of several branches of learning, but the foundation is Marxist philosophy. In his works produced during the years of the revolutionary war such as Oppose Book Worship, On Practice, and On Contradiction, and in those from the period of socialist construction including On the Ten Major Relationships and On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People, Mao cleverly applied the worldview and methodology of dialectical materialism, gave distinctive Chinese characteristics to Marxist philosophy, and set a shining example for our Party in grasping and applying dialectical materialism.
Deng Xiaoping was extremely adept at resolving practical issues through the application of dialectical materialism. He stressed that we must grasp the principal issues in the primary stage of socialism and uphold economic development as our central task; that we must refine our work through constant trials and adhere to the criteria of “three favorables” (namely determining whether what we do is favorable to growing the productive forces in a socialist society, increasing the overall strength of the socialist state, and raising people’s living standards); and that we must lay equal emphasis on material progress and cultural and ethical progress, “cross the river by feeling for the stones,” and balance the relationships between economic planning and the market and between allowing a few people to prosper first and ensuring that everyone prospers. Jiang Zemin pointed out that “without the worldview of dialectical and historical materialism, one cannot adopt a correct stance or a rational attitude to understand complex objective things or grasp the laws governing their development.” Adding to this, Hu Jintao has mentioned that “the worldview and methodology of dialectical and historical materialism are the most fundamental theoretical features of Marxism.” We need to study and understand Marxist philosophy so that we may enhance our ability to resolve fundamental issues in the new era.
Today, in order to unite the people and lead them in realizing the Two Centenary Goals and the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation, our Party must continue to draw on the wisdom of Marxist philosophy, and more consciously uphold and apply the worldview and methodology of dialectical materialism. At the same time, in the course of our practical work, we must better balance the relationships between phenomenon and essence, form and content, cause and effect, contingency and necessity, possibility and reality, internal cause and external cause, and generality and specificity. By doing so, we will be able to enhance our capacity for dialectical thinking and strategic thinking, and perform more effectively in all areas of our work.
In light of China’s realities and conditions in the present era, we should focus on the following issues in our study and application of the worldview and methodology of dialectical materialism.
First, we need to study and grasp the principle that the world is unified on the basis of matter and that matter determines consciousness, and we need to continue to formulate policies and advance initiatives in accordance with objective reality.
The principle of material unity of the world represents the most basic and core viewpoint of dialectical materialism and is the cornerstone of Marxist philosophy. Friedrich Engels pointed out, “The real unity of the world consists in its materiality, and this is proved not by a few juggled phrases, but by a long and wearisome development of philosophy and natural science.”  To uphold this viewpoint, the most important thing is that we proceed always from objective reality rather than subjective desire.
What is the most important objective reality of today’s China? It is that our country is still in the primary stage of socialism and will remain so for a long time to come. This is the objective foundation for understanding the present, planning for the future, formulating our policies, and advancing our undertakings. We must not depart from this foundation, otherwise we will make mistakes, perhaps even disastrous ones. Most of our Party members are aware of this fact, yet when facing specific issues some become confused, often retreating into subjective thinking and sometimes even becoming hotheaded and letting their imaginations run away with them. Some tend to become impulsive in their decision-making and opinion-giving, blindly expand industries and launch projects, or set unrealistically big goals. This can only lead to a waste of resources and efforts and cause our losses to outweigh our gains. Why do such problems occur, and even occur repeatedly? Looking at it from the way of thinking, the answer is that they fail to proceed from a basis of reality.
Of course, objective reality is not fixed, but rather develops and changes all the time. Change is the most natural thing in the world. To proceed on the basis of reality, not only must we be aware of the fact that China’s most basic national condition remains unchanged, with the country still being in the primary stage of socialism, but we must also be aware of the new features emerging in each phase of China’s economic and social development. As China’s productive forces, national strength, and living standards of its people have made historic leaps forward, and as the substance of China’s basic national conditions shifts constantly, important changes have also emerged in the domestic and international risks and complex issues that we face. Some problems that haunted us in the past no longer exist, but new ones are constantly surfacing, many of which have not been encountered or handled before. If we cling to our perception of China’s realities as they were in the past without adjustment, we will find it difficult to move forward. We need to accurately grasp the changes in the domestic and international environments, conduct dialectical analysis of the stage-specific characteristics of China’s economic development, correctly identify new changes and new features in different stages of China’s development, reconcile our subjective world with objective reality, and determine our work principles in line with reality — these are methods of work that we must keep firmly in mind.
It should also be noted that, although dialectical materialism stresses that the unity of the world consists in its materiality, it does not deny the reaction of consciousness to material things. Rather, it is believed that this reaction can sometimes be immense. Our Party emphasizes that the ideals and convictions of our members are the marrow of their spirit, and that “our revolutionary ideals soar above the clouds,” embodying the dialectics of the mutual transformation between the mental and the material. If our Party members and officials are firm in their ideals and convictions and maintain high morale in their activities and initiatives, and if our people are high-spirited and determined, then we will surely create many miracles. Conversely, if our Party members and officials were to waver or weaken in their ideals or purpose, and if our people were low-spirited with a desire only for ease and comfort, then we would fail to fulfill any of our tasks. Therefore, we must persevere with teaching ideals and convictions, with developing morality and thought, and with ideological work, and strive to cultivate and promote core socialist values, so as to use the Chinese spirit enriched with the essence of the era to consolidate China’s strength.
Second, we need to study and grasp the basic principle of the movement of opposites in all things, constantly strengthen awareness of problems, and actively face and resolve contradictions on the road ahead.
The Chinese people have long been familiar with the concept of contradiction, as expressed in the statement that “yin and yang make up the Tao.” Contradictions exist everywhere; they represent the inner substance of the relations between all things and the fundamental driving force behind the development of all things. At a basic level, people’s activities of knowledge and practice are processes of constant effort to understand and resolve contradictions.
Problems are a manifestation of the contradictions between things. Through emphasis on strengthening awareness of problems and upholding a problem-oriented approach, we acknowledge the universality and objectivity of contradictions, and we must become adept at understanding and resolving contradictions to make breakthroughs in our work. At present, China has entered a critical stage of development, a challenging stage of reform, and a period in which problems are becoming increasingly prominent. The issues we are facing are more complex than ever; not only are we dealing with a long-term accumulation of problems, but we also have to address new problems generated during the process of solving old ones. Most of the problems, however, are newly emerging alongside changes in China’s overall circumstances and environment. The surfacing of many of these problems is inevitable in the current stage of development, and they cannot be avoided or sidestepped.
Our Party’s efforts to lead the people in carrying out revolution, economic development, and reform initiatives have always been aimed at resolving China’s practical problems. If we turn a blind eye to challenges, or even dodge or disguise them; if we fear to advance in the face of challenges and sit by and watch the unfolding calamity, then they will grow beyond our control and cause irreparable damage. As the saying goes, “An ant colony can cause a 1000-zhang levee to burst; a crack in the chimney can cause a 100-chi high building to burn.” Sudden qualitative changes will take place when challenges accumulate to a certain extent. The correct attitude toward them is to confront them head-on, to make use of their mutually reinforcing nature and during the process of resolving them, to promote the development of things.
Since the 18th National Congress of the CPC in 2012, we have emphasized that GDP growth should no longer be regarded as the sole criterion for evaluating economic performance. Instead, we have called for efforts to expedite the transformation of China’s mode of economic growth and the restructuring of the economy, alleviate overcapacity, comprehensively deepen reform and advance law-based governance, promote the development of an ecological civilization, and so on. These efforts are all targeted at resolving deep-rooted problems that have widespread influence and are closely interrelated. If we do not rise to challenges and adapt our initiatives to the circumstances, if we do not carve a path forward and overcome the obstacles ahead, then these problems will continue to accumulate and potentially move in an even less favorable direction, eventually becoming a destabilizing factor or even a disruptive force.
To actively confront and resolve problems, we also need to balance the relationships between principal and secondary issues and between the principal and secondary aspects of issues. As the saying goes, “When we grasp the general principles everything falls into proper place; when we grasp the root of the issue the minor details sort themselves out.” In the face of complex situations and arduous tasks, the first thing to do is to take stock of the bigger picture and have a clear understanding of the various contradictions. At the same time, we should prioritize the resolution of principal challenges and the principal aspect of them in an effort to facilitate the resolution of other challenges. Since the 18th National Congress of the CPC, we have committed ourselves to comprehensive moves to complete a moderately prosperous society in all respects, further reform, advance the rule of law, and strengthen Party discipline. The Four-Pronged Strategy tackles the major problems currently affecting the Party and the country. In implementing this strategy, we should attend to both general planning and specific, critical problems. For example, we have formulated an overall plan to complete a moderately prosperous society in all respects, while emphasizing that the measurement for moderate prosperity lies in the rural areas; we have created a top-level design for furthering reform, while promoting targeted reforms in key areas and links; we have designed systematic plans for advancing the rule of law, while emphasizing a Chinese-style socialist rule of law system; we have committed to strengthening Party discipline, while improving Party conduct and upholding integrity, striving to eliminate the Four Malfeasances that are so strongly opposed by the public, namely going through the motions, excessive bureaucracy, self-indulgence, and extravagance, so as to ensure officials do not dare to be, are not able to be, and do not want to be corrupt. In every aspect of our work we should address both major and minor problems and both major and minor aspects of a problem, while focusing on major issues and major aspects of a problem. Different problems cannot be solved by undifferentiated measures.
Third, we need to study and grasp the fundamental method of materialistic dialectics, constantly enhance our capacity to apply dialectical thinking, and improve our ability to deal with complex situations and problems.
“The correct method is a prerequisite for success in all undertakings,” and the further our undertakings develop, the more we must strengthen our dialectical thinking abilities. At present, the relationships between various interests in Chinese society are immensely complex. They require us to skillfully balance local and overall needs, short- and long-term considerations, and key and general concerns, in an attempt to make the best strategic choices while weighing up the pros and cons. As we comprehensively deepen reform, our efforts should be systematic, holistic, and coordinated rather than haphazard. Simultaneously, as we advance reform, we should fully consider the interests and demands of different regions, industries, and groups, and accurately determine the points of convergence and consensus of various interests, so that all people can benefit more thoroughly and more fairly from the fruits of reform.
To study and apply materialistic dialectics, we should oppose metaphysical ways of thinking. Having understood this long ago, our ancestors created many parables to criticize and satirize the metaphysical. Some examples are the blind men trying to size up an elephant and mistaking a single part for the whole; the man from the State of Zheng trusting the measurement rather than his own feet when buying shoes; the limited outlook of a frog observing the sky from the bottom of a well; the man plugging his own ears to steal a bell; trying to help the shoots grow by pulling them upward; cutting one’s feet to fit the shoes; and drawing a snake and unnecessarily adding feet. Of all things in the world, metaphysics requires the least amount of effort; as it is neither based on nor subjected to the test of objective reality, people can talk as much nonsense as they like. Upholding materialistic dialectics, in contrast, demands a high level of genuine effort. On the one hand, we should strengthen investigation and research to accurately understand objective reality and truly grasp objective laws. On the other hand, we should continue to observe things dynamically, not statically; holistically, not one-dimensionally; systematically, not fragmentally; and in context, not in isolation, with a view to properly handling various major relationships. All subjectivist, formalist, mechanistic, dogmatist, and empiricist views are metaphysical ways of thinking, and cannot produce positive results in practice.
Fourth, we need to study and grasp the principle of the dialectical relationship between knowledge and practice, always put practice first, and continue to promote theoretical innovation on the basis of practice.
The viewpoint on practice is the core of Marxist philosophy; practice determines knowledge, and is both the source and driver as well as the goal and ultimate purpose of knowledge. Knowledge creates a reaction on practice — correct knowledge facilitates correct practice, while erroneous knowledge leads to erroneous practice. The integration of knowledge and practice was also an important topic of discussion for ancient Chinese philosophers. For example, Xunzi said, “Not having heard of it is not as good as having heard of it. Having heard of it is not as good as having seen it. Having seen it is not as good as knowing it. Knowing it is not as good as putting it into practice.” Liu Xiang of the Western Han Dynasty remarked, “Hearing with ears is not as good as seeing with eyes. Seeing with eyes is not as good as treading with feet. Treading with feet is not as good as touching with hands.” Lu You of the Song Dynasty stated that “acquiring knowledge from books is far from enough; it is only through practice that we gain a deeper understanding.” Wang Fuzhi of the Ming Dynasty expressed the notion that “knowledge and practice are mutually reinforcing to exert a positive effect.” The most fundamental way to promote our initiatives is to rely on knowledge gained from practice.
Our Party always attaches importance to theoretical work, and emphasizes that theory must conform to practice. Theory, once divorced from practice, will become rigid dogma, losing its verve and vitality. Practice, without the guidance of correct theory, is like “a blind man on a blind horse approaching a deep lake at midnight.” The more deeply theory reveals objective laws, the more significant its leading role becomes in guiding social development and reform. To uphold and develop Chinese socialism, we must attach great importance to the role of theory, boost confidence in our theories, and strengthen our strategic resolve. With regard to correct theories that have been produced on the basis of repeated practice and comparison, we must firmly uphold them without indecision or hesitation.
Just as there are no limits on practice, there are no confines on theoretical innovation. If the undertakings of the Party and the people are to advance without interruption, we must first advance the development of theory. In line with our changing times and practical development, we must continue to deepen our understanding, draw on past experiences, and achieve theoretical innovation. We must uphold dialectical unity between theoretical guidance and practical exploration, and enable positive interaction between theoretical and practical innovation, in an effort to develop Marxism for 21st-century China on the basis of this unity and interaction.