August Thalheimer: Introduction to Dialectical Materialism


11 - Dialectics II

So far we have discussed the most general and most fundamental law of dialectics, namely, the law of the permeation of opposites, or the law of polar unity. We shall now take up the second main proposition of dialectics, the law of the negation of the negation, or the law of development through opposites. This is the most general law of the process of thought. I will first state the law itself and support it with examples, and then I will show on what it is based and how it is related to the first law of the permeation of opposites. There is already a presentiment of this law in the oldest Chinese philosophy, in the of Transformations, as well as in Lao-tse and his disciples - and likewise in the oldest Greek philosophy, especially in Heraclitus. Not until Hegel, however, was this law developed.

This law applies to all motion and changes of things, to real things as well as to their images in our minds, i.e., concepts. It states first of all that things and concepts move, change, and develop; all things are processes. All fixity of individual things is only relative, limited; their motion, change, or development is absolute, unlimited. For the world as a whole absolute motion and absolute rest coincide. The proof of this part of the proposition, namely, that all things are in flux, we have already given in our discussion of Heraclitus.

The law of the negation of the negation has a special sense beyond the mere proposition that all things are processes and change. It also states something about the most general form of these changes, motions, or developments. It states, in the first place, that all motion, development, or change, takes place through opposites or contradictions, or through the negation of a thing.

Conceptually the actual movement of things appears as a negation. In other words, negation is the most general way in which motion or change of things is represented in the mind. This is the first stage of this process. The negation of a thing from which the change proceeds, however, is in turn subject to the law of the transformation of things into their opposites. The negation is itself negated. Thus we speak of the negation of the negation.

The negation of negation logically results in something positive, in thought as well as in reality. Negation and affirmation are polar concepts. Negation of the affirmation results in negation; negation of the negation equals affirmation. If I negate yes, I get no, the first negation. If I negate no, I get yes, the second negation. The result is something positive.

Thus even in ordinary speech an affirmation results from a double negation. However, and this is the distinctive feature, the old and the original are not re-established by the double negation in dialectics; it is not simply a return to the starting point, but something new arises. The thing or the condition with which the process started is re-established on a higher plane. Through the process of double negation new qualities and a new form emerge, a form in which the original qualities are retained and enhanced.

If the expression, law of the negation of the negation, sounds strange to you, you may also use the expression, law of the creation of the new out of the old, which is quite simple. This law has also been given a special formulation as a law of thought. As such it assumes the following form: the starting point is the positive proposition or the thesis. All thinking starts with some kind of proposition, some kind of statement. This proposition is negated or transformed into its opposite. This new proposition, which negates the first, I call the opposite or antithesis. This is the second stage. Then this second proposition, the antithesis, is again negated, and, as you know, we then(get the third proposition or synthesis, the negation of thesis and antithesis into a higher positive proposition effected by the further negation.

To understand this law correctly one must guard against two misinterpretations or distortions.

Thesis and antithesis are dialectically united in the final proposition, the synthesis. The dialectical union must not be mistaken for the mere summation of those qualities of two opposite things which remain after mutually exclusive qualities are cancelled. Dialectical development does not occur this way; this would simply be a mixture or effacement of opposites, a hindrance to dialectical development. It is a necessary characteristic of dialectical development that it fulfill itself through negations. Without negation there is no process, no development, no emergence of the new. In society this negation is expressed in struggle which abolishes the old. False dialectics or pseudo-dialectics says that a mutual understanding, a compromise is attempted between the old and the new, that an attempt is made to unite the old and the new, without rejecting the old (I do not wish to imply, of course. that all compromise is a negation of struggle. A compromise may even be a weapon of struggle.)

This misunderstanding of the dialectics of development is due to the fact that the role of negation as an essential factor in unification is forgotten. But there is also an opposite misunderstanding arising from a disregard of the fact that the new which emerges from the process of development not only negates or neutralizes the old, but also retains the old. If this is ignored, the dialectics of development is distorted, as, for example, in the case of the French philosopher, |Henri Bergson. With Bergson development becomes an incomprehensible, mystical process in which the relations between the old and the new are conceived of only as oppositions and not, at the same time, as identities.

The fundamental error in Bergson's conception of dialectics is his disregard of the fact that the new which has developed from the old, stands not only in opposition to the old, is not only its negation, but has, at the same time, something in common with the old. If one follows the thought of Bergson, it becomes evident that it cancels itself. There is only one kind of negation in which the thing negated has nothing more to do with that from which the development proceeded. This is complete or unconditioned negation or destruction. If I completely negate a thing, I destroy it, and development is completely stopped. If development is forced beyond its limits, as it is with Bergson, if it is made absolute, it is transformed into its opposite, into fixity or lack of development. Negation in the dialectical process is not absolute, unconditioned, or complete; it is relative, conditioned, and partial. Dialectics concerns itself with definite, concrete negation. The first distortion of dialectics, the distortion which disregards negation, may be called the opportunistic distortion. The second in which the retention of the old in the new is disregarded may be called the anarchistic distortion. These two opposed distortions of dialectics, the opportunistic as well as the anarchistic, are alike in that both put an end to development - the first because it puts an end to negation as the moving force of development, and the second because it puts an end to the connection between opposites.

To make this general abstract law a little clearer, I will give a few examples. Take a grain of rice. Suppose I am giving you the problem of starting a developmental process with this grain of rice. How will you do it? You will put the grain of rice into the earth or into water according to whether you wish to plant wet or dry rice. What will happen? The first negation of the grain of rice occurs. The grain dissolves and out of it a rice plant develops. First negation: the grain of rice dissolves and changes into a plant. The original grain of rice is thereby destroyed. The second act proceeds of itself. The rice plant grows and finally develops rice grains; and as soon as it reaches the point where it produces seeds, grains of rice, it perishes. Second negation: The rice plant is destroyed and the grain is re-established, not the old but new grain, not one but many, and in all probability not of the old quality but with new characteristics. These slight variations connected with reproduction are, as a rule, inconsiderable and inconstant. However, their accumulation and consolidation result, according to the Darwinian theory, in the formation of new species from old. This process is an example of the negation of the negation. The double negation re-establishes the original state but on a higher plane and in a different quantity. The Bergsonian distortion of dialectics, it is obvious, is very closely connected with the present historical position of the bourgeoisie. The mystical or falsified dialectics of the Bergsonian type rejects historical regularity and replaces it by miracle, arbitrariness, and incomprehensibility whereby nothing is impossible.

I will illustrate the two misunderstandings or distortions of dialectics of which I have spoken by using the same example. The first distortion, the Bergsonian, or as one could say, the anarchistic distortion, may be illustrated thus: the law of dialectics demands that I negate the grain of rice. This can be done more thoroughly, it might be said. Instead of planting it in the earth, I can put it into a mortar and break it to pieces. As a consequence its negation will be so thorough that further development becomes impossible. This is the first distortion. It is apparent from this that for each thing there is a particular kind of negation which initiates a developmental process, a negation appropriate to the nature of the thing.

The second or opportunistic distortion of dialectics occurs when negation is ignored. The person to whom I give the grain of rice may say that it can develop "of itself." He neither crushes it nor puts it into the around. He will let it lie on the table. And, of course, it will not develop into a plant. It will finally perish as an organism. This illustrates, incidentally, how these two opposed distortions of dialectics have the same result. No development occurs and the object is destroyed. On the other hand, if I negate purposively and initiate a developmental process, the thing will be destroyed and, at the same time, it will develop into something new and higher. I will give you a second example drawn from the history of social or economic forms. You know that the very first mode of production of which we have any knowledge was primitive communism, i.e., the collective ownership of the decisive means of production by a small community of people. This primitive communism is the point of departure of all social development; it represents the thesis, the proposition. Primitive communism was dissolved, negated. In the place of collective ownership of the means of production and collective production, there appeared private production, slave economy, feudalistic production, simple commodity production, and finally capitalistic production. This is the antithesis. The negation of primitive communism is private production in its various historical forms. Then comes the third stage: the negation, in its turn, of private production, the re-establishment of collective property, of communism on a higher plane. Through this twofold negation the development returns to its starting point, but on a higher plane. Socialist or communist production, as it emerges from capitalist production, is no longer primitive communism, but communism at a much more developed stage since it retains the technical achievements of capitalism. Man is now in control of nature, whereas in the stage of primitive communism it controlled him. And the compass of modern communist society is vastly greater than primitive communism. At most, primitive communism could bring just a few communities together into an economic unit, whereas modern socialism or communism is capable of embracing the entire world economy. I have just emphasized the extent to which modern communism differs from primitive communism. Nevertheless, primitive communism is retained in modern communism. Common ownership of the means of production is re-established. Capitalism is negated, dissolved into communism. But this negation is not absolute or abstract; it is relative, concrete, conditioned. Capitalist technology as well as co-operation in the factory are retained. Finally, I wish to illustrate the two distortions of dialectics in terms of this same example. The first distortion, which disregards the necessity of dissolving or negating capitalism in order to attain socialism, is the well-known reformist or opportunistic conception The second distortion of dialectics in this field, the distortion which overlooks the fact that elements of capitalism are taken over for the construction of socialism, is the conception of anarchists. For these reasons I have called the first the opportunistic and the second the anarchistic distortion of dialectics. History shows that these two distortions alternate and replace each other.

We now ask, where does the law of the negation of the negation come from? What is its relation to the first main proposition of the permeation of opposites? Obviously, it is related directly to the law of the permeation of opposites. It is the permeation of opposites as a process, a process in time, in sequence. The permeation of opposites as a process results in the law of the negation of the negation or the law of development through opposites. The first main proposition, the law of the permeation of opposites, represents the most general relations of things from the point of view of structure or static being. The second proposition of the negation of the negation represents the relation of things as a process, i.e., dynamically. These two propositions are so related that they hold true for ever: process, for everything at the same time and to the same extent. The two propositions permeate each other; they form a coherent whole. The first gives a cross-section of the world, the second a longitudinal section.

We now come to the third main proposition of dialectics, the proposition of the transformation of quality into quantity and of quantity into quality. The proposition states that the mere augmentation of a thing or things produces a change of quality, of characteristics, and, conversely, that a qualitative change produces a quantitative one.

I should like to illustrate this with a few examples. Let us take the first one from physics - water. Water has a definite temperature and if you raise the temperature to a certain point you will not get hotter and hotter water, but at a certain point you will get steam. And, likewise, if you lower the temperature, the water does not become colder indefinitely; at a certain point it becomes ice. It freezes because of the decreased quantity of molecular motion. The temperature is merely an expression of the motion of the smallest particles, the molecules. If you change the quantity of the molecular motion or the speed with which the molecules move about, the characteristics will change at certain points, from gas to liquid, liquid to solid. Conversely, ice can only be changed to water or water to steam if the quantity of molecular motion is changed. The finest example of the law of transformation of quantity into quality is now being given by atomic research. The various qualities of the atoms of chemical elements are correlated with the simple numerical relations of their components of the next lowest order, the electrons.

An additional example from zoology and botany: you know that all plants and animals are composed, in the last analysis, of small elementary units, of cells. Every living being develops from one or several small cells. All differences of living creatures derive from different quantities of cells. If I increase the cells, other organisms emerge with different characteristics and forms.

Then there is the reverse process: it is possible to take a certain number of cells away from an organism without harming it. It will remain the same. But as soon as this is continued beyond a certain point, the organism is harmed. If a man's hair is cut off, he does not suffer, but if his arm or leg is cut off, he will undergo a qualitative change. In fact, he will probably die. You may draw a certain amount of blood from a person, but beyond a certain point, death will result - a qualitative change.

A last example from political economy: you have learned in political economy that a sum of money can only function as capital after it has reached a certain minimum amount. One dollar, for example, is not capital, and neither are ten dollars; 10,000 dollars, however, may function under certain conditions as capital. A mere change in quantity changes a sum of money into capital; it takes on different characteristics, produces a different effect - a qualitative change occurs. If capital is allowed to grow through concentration and centralization a new qualitative change takes place, namely, a change to monopoly capital. You know from your political economy that monopoly capital has characterized an entire period of capitalist development, i.e., the imperialist period. And, on the other hand, as soon as you have monopolistic capitalism, this new quality is in turn transformed into quantitative relations and characteristics. Monopoly capital realizes a higher rate of profit than non-monopoly capital. Monopoly prices are generally higher than prices under free competition, etc.

We ask, finally, what relation obtains between this third proposition of dialectics and the first two. And the answer is clearly that the law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa merely represents a special application of the first proposition, the law of the permeation of opposites. Quality and quantity are polar opposites. Quality is quantity analyzed; quantity is quality analyzed. An apple, a pear, and a plum all have different qualities. They can only be counted together if their different qualities are abstracted from them or negated. I cannot add an apple, a pear, and a plum; I can only say: three pieces of fruit. In other words, negated quality is quantity; negated quantity is quality. These opposites are contained in each thing. Each thing has a definite size, quantity, or degree, and at the same time definite characteristics. All things have, at the same time, quality and quantity. As opposites they permeate each other and are transformed into each other.

This brings me to the end of dialectics. Of course, it must not be assumed that knowledge of these few propositions makes one completely familiar with dialectics. A long list of other propositions, which w cannot discuss here, derive from these few main propositions. Nor must it be assumed that the mere memorization of formulas is the key to dialectics. The important thing is to be conscious of the dialectical nature of things and of thought. Dialectical thinking is not magic. Neither is it part of everyone's natural equipment. It is an art which must be learned and practised. The most general characteristic of dialectical thought is the study of things in their interrelations, in both one-beside-the-other relations and one-after-the-other relations, - that is, in their changes.