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Gerry Healy

Contradiction, reflection and cognition

1. The Dialectics of Contradiction

Idealist and metaphysical thinking tends to describe contradiction in a formal way – as a word form without a content. In his book In Defence of Marxism Trotsky emphasised that Hegel in his Logic “established a series of laws”, amongst them “development through contradiction”. [1]

He explained that because Hegel wrote before Darwin and before Marx “... he operated with ideological shadows as to the ultimate reality. Marx demonstrated that the movement of these ideological shadows reflected nothing more than the movement of material bodies”. [2]

Lenin further emphasised this when he wrote “I am in general trying to read Hegel materialistically: Hegel is materialism which has been stood on its head (according to Engels) – that is to say, I cast aside for the most part God, the Absolute, the Pure Idea, etc.” [3]

On the question of contradiction, Lenin quotes from Hegel extensively and approvingly. We reproduce for the benefit of the anti-Hegel, Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky brigade, the following quotations on contradiction:

“Ordinarily Contradiction is removed, first of all from things, from the existent and the true in general; and it is asserted that there is nothing contradictory. Next it is shifted into subjective reflection, which alone is said to posit it by relating and comparing it.” [4]

By “subjective reflection” Hegel is referring to the “self created” thought images of individuals, which by comparing contradiction to equally sceptically created “thought images”, “posit it” within these “self created” images by relating it and “comparing it”. Hegel continues:

“But really it does not exist even in this reflection, for it is said that [A] it is impossible to imagine or to think anything contradictory. Indeed, Contradiction, both in actuality and in thinking reflection, is considered an accident, a kind of abnormality or paroxysm of sickness which will soon pass away.” [5]

Lenin uses a heavy rule on the side margin for emphasis where Hegel writes that:

“Contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality, and it is only insofar as it contains a Contradiction that anything moves and has impulse and activity.” [6]

Contradiction, therefore, cannot be regarded as an “empty word form” or by a “subjective” external impression, because it is contained within the very essence of all material objects and processes. It is the dialectical unity of external and internal contradiction. Thus the infinite self-movement of matter is contradictory.

Hegel is again quoted with obvious approval by Lenin when he writes:

“We must grant the old dialecticians the contradictions which they prove in motion; but what follows is not that there is no motion, but rather that motion is existent Contradiction itself.” [7]

An Exhibition of Contradiction

On the side margin of his notebooks, Lenin takes a quotation from Hegel and says of it: “This is very important for understanding dialectics.” [8] [emphasis GH]

“... But the Other is essentially not the empty negative or Nothing which is commonly taken as the result of dialectics, it is the Other of the first, the negative of the immediate; it is thus determined as mediated, – and altogether contains the determination of the first. The first is thus essentially contained and preserved in the Other. – To hold fast the positive in its negative, and the content of the presupposition in the result, is the most important part of rational cognition.”

The development of Contradiction in the essence of objects manifests itself as IDENTITY of the infinite source of sensation in the external world. As active participants in the class struggle, internationally and in Britain, this will include an important source for our sensations.

Because it contains DIFFERENCE already in the external world, as a self-related concept, IDENTITY is negated into finite DIFFERENCE in thought. Since IDENTITY contains DIFFERENCE it is a negative onlyin itself”. As Hegel explains: “It is the Other of the first, the negative of the immediate ... and altogether contains the determination of the first. [INFINITE IDENTITY – GH] The first is thus essentially contained and preserved in the Other.” [9]

IDENTITY as a Negative now becomes a POSITIVE image on the Negative of the finite negative of Difference in thought. That image is called Sensation, whose as yet unknown properties incorporate the antithesis of IDENTITY (Negative) and DIFFERENCE (Positive) as well as Contradiction derived from the first negation of IDENTITY into DIFFERENCE. “The dialectical,” writes Lenin, “ = ‘comprehending the antithesis in its unity ...’ [Hegel]” [10]

When Trotsky emphasised in In Defence of Marxism that “Marxism without the dialectic was a clock without a spring”, this antithesis “comprehended in its unity” is the dialectical spring of contradiction which as Hegel so correctly wrote is the “root of all movement and vitality”. [11]

Let us now examine how the dialectical spring as antithesis works. Hegel writes:

“Thus although Imagination everywhere has Contradiction for content, it never becomes aware of it; it remains an external reflection, which passes from Likeness to Unlikeness, or from negative relation to intro-reflectedness of the different terms. It keeps these two determinations external to each other, and has in mind only these and not their transition, which is the essential matter and contains the Contradiction.” [12]

Lenin comments: “Ordinary imagination grasps difference and contradiction, but not the transition from the one to the other, this however is the most important.” [13]

The transition of “difference” into contradiction is through the law in which the antithesis as the dialectical spring negates the first negation as “negation of the negation”.

Negation, Connection and Transition

Lenin defines negation materialistically in the following way:

“Not empty negation, not futile negation, not sceptical negation, vacillation and doubt is characteristic and essential in dialectics, – which undoubtedly contains the element of negation and indeed as its most important element – no, but negation as a moment of connection, as a moment of development, retaining the positive, i.e., without any vacillations, without any eclecticism.” [14]

Dealing with this question 25 years later, Trotsky was to write:

“Dialectic training of the mind, as necessary to a revolutionary fighter as finger exercises to a pianist, demands approaching all problems as processes and not as motionless categories.” [15]

Lenin is training the Bolshevik cadre in the dialectical materialist method of resolving problems as the outer form whose internal essence is Contradiction. In the paragraph he makes three main points:

  1. He warns against the danger of ignoring negation as “empty” and “futile”. In this way the contradictions build up, thus appearing to idealists as insoluble under conditions where they become politically paralysed and drift rapidly rightwards into the swamp of reformism and subservience to the capitalist state.
  2. “Vacillation and doubt is characteristic and essential in dialectics” so we must avoid “sceptical negation”. This is especially important because the IDENTITY of this sceptical source may reveal itself after being negated into the many DIFFERENCES which have emerged through negation of the negation into the theory of knowledge. We must avoid the tendency to posit sceptical images derived from what has already been proved in past knowledge.
  3. We must train ourselves to understand “Negation as a moment of connection” between the IDENTITY of the external source of sensation and the negative of finite Difference upon which we retain the positive, i.e. “without any vacillations, without any eclecticism”, such as imaginary positives.

Lenin continues his dialectical training on how to mentally and physically apprehend contradiction at the very essence of objects in the external world. He writes:

“Dialectics consists in general in the negation of the first proposition, [IDENTITY (infinite and objective) into DIFFERENCE (finite and subjective) – GH] in its replacement by a second (in the transition of the first into the second, in the demonstration of the connection of the first with the second, etc.) The second can be made the predicate of the first.” [xvi16]

The second records the changes in the first and Lenin quotes Hegel to demonstrate the source of these changes:

“… for example, the finite is infinite, one is many, the individual is the universal”. [17]

This is possible because we are dealing with law-governed connections between the external world (object) interpenetrating with law-governed thought (subject).

Hegel and Lenin on Contradiction

Hegel writes: “The first or immediate term is the Notion in itself [which is Nature as a law-governed process – GH], and therefore is the negative only in itself.” [18] On the side margin, Lenin notes: “‘in itself’ = potentially, not yet developed, not yet unfolded.” Hegel continues: “The dialectical moment with it therefore consists in this, that the distinction which it implicitly contains is posited in it.”

IDENTITY which contains DIFFERENCE exists in the external world of Nature. Hegel continues:

“The second term on the other hand is itself the determinate entity, the distinction or relation; hence with it the dialectical moment consists in the positing of the unity which is contained in it …” [19]

This unity is antithesis.

Lenin submits these paragraphs from Hegel to the analysis required for Trotsky's “dialectical training of the mind”. “In relation to the simple and original, ‘first’, positive assertions, propositions etc., the ‘dialectical moment’, i.e., scientific consideration, demands the demonstration of difference, connection, transition.”

Nature and the class struggle in society exist independently in the external world, the identity of our first positive assertions start here and contain Difference. Since the IDENTITY of the source of our sensation is in the external world this is also the source of external reflection and negation as a moment of connection. Identity is negated into Difference as a process of transition. Identity now becomes a negative negated as a positive image on the negative of difference, which also contains contradiction as the result of the first negation (IDENTITY).

Lenin continues: “Without that the simple positive assertion is incomplete, lifeless, dead. In relation to the ‘second’, negative proposition, the ‘dialectical moment’ demands the demonstration of ‘unity’, i.e., of the connection of negative and positive, the presence of this positive in the negative.” [emphasis GH]

The Negative here is IDENTITY which has been negated as a Positive image on the Negative of DIFFERENCE.

Lenin concludes this vital paragraph:

“From assertion to negation – from negation to ‘unity’ with the asserted – without this dialectics becomes empty negation, a game, or scepsis.”


A. The words underlined (it is said that) are missing from Volume 38 – see Hegel’s Science of Logic, Allen & Unwin, 1969, p. 439.


1. Trotsky: In Defence of Marxism, New Park Publications, p. 66.

2. Ibid.

3. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 38, Progress Publishers, 1972, p. 104.

4. Ibid., p. 139.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid., p. 140.

8. Ibid., p. 226.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid., p. 98.

11. Ibid., p. 139.

12. Ibid., p. 142.

13. Ibid., p. 143.

14. Ibid., p. 226 (box).

15. In Defence of Marxism, p. 70.

16. Volume 38, p. 226.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid., pp. 226/227.

19. Ibid., p. 227.

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Last updated: 26.10.2012