Intrinsic to the revolutionary experience of Communism has been the tool of social investigation and its broad application throughout the tenure of socialists. In Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet What is to be Done? we see some of the first concrete evidence of social investigation performed as Lenin details his analysis of the Russian political climate and what his investigation has unearthed. The ultimate conclusion of Lenin’s piece is that the working class cannot develop revolutionary consciousness without the leadership of advanced revolutionaries spreading the idea of Marxism; this development would give birth to the formal conception of a vanguard party composed of the most advanced elements of the working class.

So what is social investigation?

Social investigation is the process by which a Marxist can interpret the material conditions and social realities of any given instance into a particular analysis which precedes the development of a concrete revolutionary program. In the particular-universal dialectic we understand social investigation to be the process by which the universal principles of Marxism become a particular method of action.

Lenin’s example is not the only and certainly not the most prolific example of social investigation in the history of Marxism. Mao Tse-tung’s 1927 Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan remains one of the most important narratives of social investigation in the history of the Communist movement. Not only because of its exemplary use of the mentioned investigation but the conclusions drawn therein reoriented the entire Communist program in China; historically resulting in the victory of the Communism and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

Important to note, however, is the lack of any concrete or codified method by which social investigation can be performed. Like all developments in the science of Marxism this can be attributed to the process by which knowledge is ascertained being the real experience of revolutionaries; experience that when synthesized becomes the correct theory which we then wield as a weapon in the class struggle. As Louis Althusser put forth on studying Marx’s seminal work, Capital, our duty is to ‘extract’ the method used in the construction of the work for application in our contemporary understanding (in the case of Althusser, understanding the dialectical method pervasive in Marx’s work on capitalism). Upon close study of Mao’s work we can hope to perform the same extraction and understand the universal principles of social investigation. Granted, unlike Marx and Capital, Mao theorized a great deal of dialectics and epistemology which can be used in the study of his own work.

The first paragraph in Mao’s report is of fundamental importance to our study and must be thoroughly examined perhaps more so than any other section of his work.

During my recent visit to Hunan I made a first-hand investigation of conditions in the five counties of Hsiangtan, Hsianghsiang, Hengshan, Liling and Changsha. In the thirty-two days from January 4 to February 5, I called together fact-finding conferences in villages and county towns, which were attended by experienced peasants and by comrades working in the peasant movement, and I listened attentively to their reports and collected a great deal of material. [1]

Mao’s investigation quickly stresses the relevance of first-hand investigation of conditions. In the cases that Mao was not able to first-hand investigate he calls upon the experience of local peasants and other communists active in the area. No doubt he chose to begin his report by reflecting what he would later detail in his work on the acquisition of knowledge, truth, and revolutionary theory:

All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience. But one cannot have direct experience of everything; as a matter of fact, most of our knowledge comes from indirect experience, for example, all knowledge from past times and foreign lands. To our ancestors and to foreigners, such knowledge was–or is–a matter of direct experience, and this knowledge is reliable if in the course of their direct experience the requirement of “scientific abstraction”, spoken of by Lenin, was–or is–fulfilled and objective reality scientifically reflected, otherwise it is not reliable. Hence a man’s knowledge consists only of two parts, that which comes from direct experience and that which comes from indirect experience. Moreover, what is indirect experience for me is direct experience for other people. Consequently, considered as a whole, knowledge of any kind is inseparable from direct experience. [2]

It is this direct experience which must form the foundation of any social investigation. In which case the direct experience of the investigator cannot be utilized he should rely on the direct experience of those living within the concrete conditions of any given instance. The facts of the investigation can then become synthesized into knowledge via the ‘exchange of experiences’ between the investigator and those who have existed in the same instance. Mao’s report then continues:

Many of the hows and whys of the peasant movement were the exact opposite of what the gentry in Hankow and Changsha are saying. I saw and heard of many strange things of which I had hitherto been unaware. I believe the same is true of many other places, too. All talk directed against the peasant movement must be speedily set right. All the wrong measures taken by the revolutionary authorities concerning the peasant movement must be speedily changed. Only thus can the future of the revolution be benefited. [3]

This leads to the next stage in the development of knowledge, the formation of theory, and the principle of social investigation: the deepening of perceptual knowledge into rational categories.

In dialectical logic we understand how the accumulation of quantitative instance becomes a qualitative transformation. This is the process by which all change occurs. The working class through instances of direct experience, a collection of perceptual knowledge, was able to become self-aware; making the qualitative leap from a socially necessitated class of exploited labor, a ‘class-in-itself’, to a politically conscious Proletariat, a ‘class-for-itself’. Because direct experience accumulated and became synthesized the working class was able to interpret this perceptual knowledge categorically in conceptions of capitalist society. Thus understanding the perceptual knowledge to be rationally interrelated, the working peoples understood their relative position in the exploitative and oppressive relationships of capitalism. This is the transformation in ‘stages’ of knowledge that reflects the universal method of social investigation found in Mao’s report.

Mao had synthesized the perceptual knowledge of his direct and indirect experiences in the investigation and begun to understand their relationships in the broader whole of Hunan. He had differentiated the facts from the rumors, the truth from the hearsay, and understood the ‘why’ behind the actions of the peasantry. In any social investigation the investigator must make the qualitative leap towards a rational categorization of his experience. He must understand the interrelated character of his experience and understand them as internal developments of the social conditions in which he finds himself. This is the stage in which the contradictions in any given instance become apparent and the discerning of these contradictions, their aspects, and the conditions in which they exist becomes the primary goal of the investigation. Thus, the process of social investigation becomes a concrete application of dialectical materialism.

As Mao beautifully summed:

The real task of knowing is, through perception, to arrive at thought, to arrive step by step at the comprehension of the internal contradictions of objective things, of their laws and of the internal relations between one process and another, that is, to arrive at logical knowledge. To repeat, logical knowledge differs from perceptual knowledge in that perceptual knowledge pertains to the separate aspects, the phenomena and the external relations of things, whereas logical knowledge takes a big stride forward to reach the totality, the essence and the internal relations of things and discloses the inner contradictions in the surrounding world. Therefore, logical knowledge is capable of grasping the development of the surrounding world in its totality, in the internal relations of all its aspects. [4]

In the final part of the passage Mao makes clear that all wrong theory regarding the peasant movement must be set right. He urges the the Party to correct their line so that the “revolution be benefited”.

This speaks to a certain meta-narrative surrounding the process of social investigation; one that is uniquely important to the application of the dialectical method. Dialectical materialism is a proletarian science. Meaning, in the political understanding of the phrase, that the science developed hitherto in the tradition of Marxism-Leninism and now Maoism serves to empower the Proletariat as a ‘class-for-itself’. Unlike previous developments in philosophy, prior to the advent of Marxism, dialectical materialism does not entrench the values and interests of the bourgeoisie; the relationships of the old society. Rather through understanding the motion, contradictions, and features of class society the oppressed and exploited peoples are able to ‘map’ their path toward liberation. This is a foundational element of social investigation in that it objectively assists the revolutionary effort and is constantly reaffirming the purpose of its own application. The investigator must never lose grasp of this integral understanding.

As Lenin explained:

People always have been the foolish victims of deception and self-deception in politics, and they always will be until they have learnt to seek out the interests of some class or other behind all moral, religious, political and social phrases, declarations and promises. […] And there is only one way of smashing the resistance of those classes, and that is to find, in the very society which surrounds us, the forces which can—and, owing to their social position, must—constitute the power capable of sweeping away the old and creating the new, and to enlighten and organise those forces for the struggle. Marx’s philosophical materialism alone has shown the proletariat the way out of the spiritual slavery in which all oppressed classes have hitherto languished. [5]

Mao then finishes the introduction to his report in a very powerful way.

For the present upsurge of the peasant movement is a colossal event. In a very short time, in China’s central, southern and northern provinces, several hundred million peasants will rise like a mighty storm, like a hurricane, a force so swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to hold it back. They will smash all the trammels that bind them and rush forward along the road to liberation. They will sweep all the imperialists, warlords, corrupt officials, local tyrants and evil gentry into their graves. Every revolutionary party and every revolutionary comrade will be put to the test, to be accepted or rejected as they decide. There are three alternatives. To march at their head and lead them? To trail behind them, gesticulating and criticizing? Or to stand in their way and oppose them? Every Chinese is free to choose, but events will force you to make the choice quickly. [6]

Here, Mao draws deep conclusions from his social investigation in Hunan. First, the peasant movement embodies the principal contradiction in semi-feudal China in that the victory of the revolutionary peasants will sweep away the comprador, the imperialist, the gentry, and all blighted functionaries of the old society. Second, the position of the Communists to the peasant movement is still yet to be determined and the primary objective of the Party should be to lead this movement towards revolutionary ends.

Therefore we see the duality of the dialectical method embodied in Mao’s social investigation. He now greatly understands the contradictions and relationships relative to the conditions of Hunan and furthermore in relation to the social whole of China. He has also come to understand the role of the Communists in this given instance which for all intents and purposes is the goal of any social investigation; understanding the social landscape so that the revolution might take a concrete form in those conditions. We can also vividly see the connection from his latter words in the passage to Marx’s thesis on the role of Communists found in the Manifesto. The role being to join the masses in their class struggle and guide this struggle towards the accomplishment of a social revolution. This can only be done after the fruitful application of a real social investigation otherwise the revolutionary forces on the ground will be without any direction; devoid of any concrete understanding the forces will tend in all directions creating chaos for the effort as a whole.

And this highlights the importance of objectivity in the process of social investigation. Not objectivity in the bankrupt bourgeois sense of an analytic science but in the necessity to be ‘many-sided’ in our analysis of the present conditions. It is this dedication to an ‘all-sided’ analysis which gives an edge to the weapon of theory. Being objective is therefore not just a principle of ‘good science’ but a unique condition of the dialectical method; the revolutionary science of Marxism. Our efforts at being objective empower the revolutionary subject in understanding the features and characteristics of any given condition. Objectivity leads to correct understanding and correct understanding produces correct practice which consequentially resolves the contradictions that present themselves.

Mao continues his report as almost an extension of his thesis paragraph. He carefully dissects the relationships in Hunan and draws the right conclusions from his synthesized knowledge and logical understanding. The content of which is a better subject for the historians and sinologists who have spent decades understanding the subject of Mao’s report. For our purposes, in understanding social investigation as an application of the dialectical method, Mao has already given great understanding. Perhaps in the future we may be able to expand on our historical examples and explore many other instances of social investigation performed throughout the epoch.

Ultimately social investigation is a tool in the arsenal of a revolutionary; a weapon to be utilized in the march towards social revolution and the eventual victory of the masses. We must never forget this especially when applying such a process in the advent of concrete conditions. The tool is valuable only insofar as it accomplishes its purpose, as Mao would summarize his theory of knowledge, in that the ideas of man come to a real fruition. The goal of our study, our investigation, our struggle is not to simply reinterpret the world but to qualitatively transform it. Transform the material conditions in which we exist and the social relationships that spring forth. Until then we build for the revolutionary consciousness of the masses; the victory of the exploited and oppressed peoples; the destruction of the old society and the construction of the new.


  1. Mao Tse-tung. 1927. Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan. p.1:
  2. Mao Tse-tung. 1937. On Practice. p. 4:
  3. Mao Tse-tung. Report. p.1
  4. Mao Tse-tung. On Practice. p.2
  5. Lenin, Vladimir. 1913. The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism. p. 7:
  6. Mao Tse-tung. Report. p.1

Join the conversation! 4 Comments

  1. […] in a concrete form in any particular instance (which is why social investigation is so important, refer to my piece on such);however, understood universally in capitalism, as a mode of production, the principal […]

  2. […] “rational knowledge” of class society but is definitely ripe for such a transformation. I delve more into detail on this specific epistemology in an earlier piece on practice/knowledge and…. Without chastising such efforts on behalf of the masses we must ultimately develop these […]

  3. […] or “rational knowledge” of class society but is definitely ripe for such a transformation. I delve more into detail on this specific epistemology in an earlier piece on practice/knowledge and…. Without chastising such efforts on behalf of the masses we must ultimately develop these […]

  4. […] почему так важно общественное исследование, см. мою статью на эту тему). При капитализме как способе производства, главное […]


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