Applying philosophy in transport (an essay from China)

This excerpt is the second essay of the 1972 edition of “Serving the People with Dialectics”, which tells the story of transport workers in their daily application of materialist dialectics to socialist construction. Enjoy!

Applying philosophy in transport, by the crew of a 150 ton trailer truck, Shanghai

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Our group was set up during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Our job is transporting giant equipment all over the country in the service of major projects. To do this we use a 150 ton trailer made by the Shanghai workers. It is fourteen meters long and three meters wide, and gives the impression of a railway flatcar. Driving this truck and huge trailer with giant machines and equipment gives us great pride, for we can see in our load the rapid development of the socialist construction of our country.

The eight of us used the transport small pieces by light trucks on smooth city roads. Now we’re driving a heavy vehicle loaded with equipment weighing from one to two hundred tons. And we drive it over mountains small bridges, and steep and narrow roads. We are faced with difficulties. What do we rely on to overcome them? On our study of Chairman Mao’s philosophic thinking which gives us strength and lights the road in our advance.

Transport workers must be familiar with road conditions. But as we are roving about the country, we often have to drive on unfamiliar roads. How shall we tackle this problem? Chairman Mao says: “Correct decision stem from correct judgements, and correct judgements stem from a thorough and necessary reconnaissance and from pondering on and piecing together the data of various kinds gathered through reconnaissance”. In transport as in fighting, without the necessary, thorough inspection of the land and road surface, to work out a correct transport plan is out of the question. So wherever we go we first “reconnoitre” five things: road surface, bridges, terrain, and the characteristics of the earth and gradients.

Once in moving a machine weighing more than a hundred tons in the Northwest, we had to pass the so-called “Hell’s Cliff”, where the road is flanked by a gorge dozens of feet deep. According to the local poor and lower-middle peasants and drivers, the stretch of road had been cut out midway across the mountain, the rocks were badly weathered and big chunks broke off under strong vibration. We relied on the local people for help in finding places where there were comparatively more weathered rocks that might fall. After careful “reconnaissance”, we drove over the dangerous road cautiously and steadily, passed “Hell’s Cliff” and delivered the equipment.

But just knowing the road thoroughly is still not enough. This is because the contradictions in things do not reveal themselves fully in all circumstances. Chairman Mao points out: “This is because people engaged in changing reality are usually subject to numerous limitations; they are limited not only by existing scientific and technological conditions but also by the development of the objective process itself and the degree to which this process has become manifest (the aspects and the essence of the objective process have not yet been fully revealed)”. This we tried in the course of our “reconnaissance” to find those phenomena that gave clues to the essence of the matter. In fighting, it is easier to locate the enemy’s pillboxes than his bunkers, and “active reconnaissance” may reveal the actual situation. We generally do an empty run on the most difficult sections so as to learn what the problems are and be ready to meet them.

Another trip was transporting some urgently needed big equipment to a worksite in the Northeast. It was mid-winter, and everywhere was snow and ice, so that road and ravine seemed one. The 110 kilometers were all up and down over four icy mountains. Slipperiness was obviously the main contradiction, but might there not be other problems? We tried out the icy road first with the empty vehicle. We found where the road was fairly safe, and adopted all possible anti-skid measures to ensure safe passage over it.

“Reconnaissance” can only expose contradictions, enable us to recognize them. To resolve them, however, revolutionary spirit needs to be integrated with scientific approach. Chairman Mao teaches: “In given conditions, each of the two contradictory aspects transforms itself into its opposite”. Our task is to “accelerate the transformation of things and achieve the goal of revolution” on the basis of sufficient knowledge of the contradiction involved. We shall tell something of what we’ve learned about “accelerating the transformation of things” from studying and applying Chairman Mao’s philosophic thinking.

The lifting apparatus on our truck is light, but we have to lift equipment as heavy as one hundred tons, forming a contradiction.

Chairman Mao teaches us: “In war, battles can only be fought one by one and the enemy forces can only be destroyed one by one. Factories can only be built one by one. The peasants can only plough the land plot by plot. The same is even true of eating a meal. Strategically, we take the eating of a meal lightly – we know we can finish it. But actually we eat it mouthful by mouthful. It is impossible to swallow an entire banquet in one gulp. This is known as a piecemeal solution. In military parlance, it is called wiping out the enemy forced one by one”. Chairman Mao’s words were the key to solution.

When we were to load a 130 ton piece of equipment without the crane hoist, we wondered how we were to do it until we applied Chairman Mao’s concept of “wiping out the enemy forces one by one”. We lifted up one corner at a time and placed pieces of steel tubing under each. Then, pulling it with winches, we moved it on these rollers till it went up a ramp onto the trailer. After we got to the construction site we unloaded it the same way. The total weight of big equipment is great, but it’s distributed over a large area. By lifting one part at a time, we ended up lifting the whole, while the rollers decreased the moving weight by reducing friction. Thus what was inferior in our loading apparatus on the whole became superior in a part. Such experience repeated helped us to understand many of the laws of loading and enabled us to handle heavy items as if they were light.

Contradictions also occur between the carrying capacity of our vehicle and the much greater weight of the load. When serving the No. 9424 construction project, we had a blast furnace of 10.5 m. in diameter and 34.5 m. high to transport. It weighed 280 tons, twice the carrying capacity of our truck. It was 2.5 times its length and almost three times its width. It was like trying to make an elephant stand on a ball, we though, and wondered how our truck could support it, let alone carry it. Some said: “We’ll have to make a 300 ton trailer, or else take the furnace apart and move it section by section.”

Most of us thought we could do it with what we had without taking it apart. Chairman Mao teaches us: “In his endeavor to win a war, a military strategist cannot overstep the limitations imposed imposed by the material conditions; within these limitations, however, he can and must strive for victory. The stage of action for a military strategist is built upon objective material conditions, but on that stage he can direct the performance of many a drama, full of sound and color, power and grandeur.” The same is true in transporting huge equipment. In the past we carried loads of forty or fifty tons on a 20 ton truck, and had even moved a piece of equipment weighing almost a hundred tons on a 60 ton trailer. In fact, until the Cultural Revolution we had no 150 ton trailer. Where we reviewed our experience in the light of Chairman Mao’s philosophic thinking, we realized that once we knew and mastered the objective laws governing it, and brought our subjective initiative into play, we would be able to make full use of the existing objective material conditions.

The contradiction between the load and the carrying capacity our truck was solved by adding another trailer onto a wide one with 32 wheels, coupling it in a tandem arrangement between the truck and big trailer. We adjusted the length of the whole to the length of the furnace and added some saddle-shaped supports in front and back to hold it steady. The “elephant standing on a ball” became an “elephant lying on flatcars.”

Then came another contradiction, that between the load limit of an ordinary bridge and the great weight of big equipment loaded on the big trailer truck. Once when we were taking a 120 ton item to an engineering project, we had sixteen concrete bridges to cross. Each had a load limit of thirteen tons for trucks and sixty tons for caterpillar tractors. How were we to get our 120 ton load over them? Some bridge engineers and technicians said it couldn’t be done, that the bridges would give way. We decided to analyze this contradiction before trying to find a solution. Chairman Mao says: “When we look at a thing, we must examine its essence and treat its appearance merely as an usher at the threshold, and once we cross the threshold, we must grasp the essence of the thing; this is the only reliable and scientific method of analysis.”

We concluded that three factors were in our favor:

First, a bridge with a load limit of thirteen tons for trucks could bear the weight of a 60 ton caterpillar tractor because the tractor’s large treads distribute its weight over a greater area of the bridges surface than do the truck’s tires. This realization was for us the “usher at the threshold”. Our rig is long and wide and has 56 tires. This gives it three times as much contact with the bridge as the caterpillar tractor. Thus, though the weight of our loaded truck is greater than that of the tractor, it would have about the same weight per unit area.

Second, the weight per unit area is affected by the speed of the truck. Driving slowly would reduce the vibration and strain on the bridge.

Third, investigation showed that all the bridges were in good condition, and actually quite strong. Our analysis led us to the conclusion that a bridge that could take a 60 ton caterpillar tractor could stand the weight of our 120 ton load. But we also thought: Chairman Mao and the Party have given us the task of transporting for this important project; we can’t just be 80 or 90 per cent sure, we must be 100 per cent sure. We asked the local authorities to mobilize the people and strengthen the weaker bridges and, on the day we passed through, the local comrades worked hard alongside us to see that our truck and its huge load got across all the bridges all right.

Sharp curves on the mountain roads add to our problems. Just imagine getting our giant truck and its loaded long tail around hairpin curves! At a place called “Hell’s Gate” there was a sharp turn on a downgrade just before an upturn. The turning radius was 10 m.; our trailer truck with the added tractor needed at least 10.4 m.

Some suggested detaching the tractor, but would that leave enough pulling power? Suppose the truck got stuck at the turn, or fell over the cliff. Chairman Mao points out in “On Contradiction” that “of the two contradictory aspects, one must be principal and the other secondary. The principal aspect is the one playing the leading role in the contradiction”. We saw that in the contradiction between the length of the truck-with-tractor and the short radius of the turn, the former was the principal aspect. This is because the radius of the turn is fixed, but the length of the tractor-truck can be adjusted. The contradiction could be solved if we shortened the turning radius of our vehicle to 10 m. or less. Therefore we decided to keep the tractor close to the truck and run the truck at full throttle so that it would take the curve mainly on its own power.

But another thing had to be taken into consideration in getting around a curve like “Hell’s Gate”, and that was that in taking the outer edge of the road one row of wheels (our trailer has seven axles with eight wheels on each) would be over the edge for an instant. Would this be dangerous? We figured it wouldn’t, that the truck’s power forward would maintain the center of gravity and keep the remaining wheels steady even if the outer wheels hung over.

After a thorough study and full preparations, we started the truck. The driver kept a firm grip on the steering wheel, the head or our crew directed calmly and cooly, while the rest of us watched the wheels. Everything worked out as we planned and we passed successfully through “Hell’s Gate”.

Transporting equipment over eighteen provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions of the country, we have seen great changes. We’ve seen industries grow up all over the place where there were none before, and not just along the coast as in old China. It makes us feel that we’ve got a lot more work ahead for our trailer-truck and that we’ll need a lot more study of Chairman Mao’s philosophic works to do it better.

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