Front Page Titles (by Subject) 7.: The Law of the Transformation of Quantity into Quality - The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed
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7.: The Law of the Transformation of Quantity into Quality - H.B. Acton, The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed 
The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).
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© 1962 by H. B. Acton. The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by H.B. Acton’s estate. It is reproduced here by permission and may not be reproduced in any form without written permission.
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The Law of the Transformation of Quantity into Quality
Granted that nature is changeful, what forms do its changes take? The Marxists hold that they have discovered the law in accordance with which the changes of nature occur. They call this law “the Law of the Transformation of Quantity into Quality and vice versa.”17 In what follows we shall discuss the transformation of quantity into quality and neglect the reverse operation, since this is not a matter that Marxists give much attention to. According to this law, as we have already seen, “the process of development” is (a) one in which a number of insignificant and gradual changes in the quantity of something are abruptly succeeded by a marked change in its quality, and (b) one in which these abrupt changes are not accidental but are “the natural result” of the preceding quantitative changes. In the passage from which I have already quoted, Stalin also says (c) that these changes of quality are “an onward and upward movement,” (d) that they are a “development from the simple to the complex,” and (e) that they are “from the lower to the higher.” With this sort of change is contrasted the sort of change that nature is held not to undergo, namely gradual changes, “movement in a circle,” “simple repetition of what has already occurred.” Stalin quotes Engels to the effect that Darwin had helped to prove this law by showing that the organic world had evolved from the inorganic, and refers to the following illustrations of it given by Engels: the sudden change of water into steam when the temperature is raised, and to ice when the temperature is lowered; the melting points of metals; the critical points of temperature and pressure at which gases are converted into liquids, etc. Engels had also cited, as examples of the law, the fact that chemical combination takes place only when the combining substances are in the proper proportions—“Chemistry can be termed the science of the qualitative changes of bodies as a result of changed quantitative composition”18 —and Marx’s statement that to become capital a sum of money must be more than a certain minimum. Incidentally, in this passage Marx says: “Here, just as in the natural sciences, we find confirmation of the law discovered by Hegel in his Logic, that at a certain point, what have been purely quantitative changes become qualitative.”19
It will thus be seen that this is another notion that Marxists have adapted from Hegel. In his discussion of the category of “measure” Hegel gives the following examples of the transformation of quantity into quality across what he calls “nodal lines”: (1) The series of natural numbers is formed by the addition of units, so that each number has the same relation to its neighbors that any other number has. But nevertheless, according to Hegel, the series also generates at various points along it different, new relations, such that some numbers are the squares, or square roots, of others. (2) The notes of a musical scale ascend gradually, the interval between any two successive notes being the same as that between the first of them and the note that preceded it. At a certain point in the scale, however, the regular ascension is variegated by a sudden return, with a difference, to the keynote from which the series of notes began. Thus there is a gradual ascension from low C until the next higher C, at which point there is an abrupt return and a relationship to the starting note which the intervening notes did not have. (3) In chemical combination the substances that combine do so in certain definite proportions. Thus only from certain combinations of Oxygen and Nitrogen do the various oxides of Nitrogen result. (4) Water suddenly becomes ice when the temperature is lowered to freezing point. That is, water is gradually cooled down to freezing point—a nodal line—and then suddenly changes from the liquid quality to the solid quality. (5) Birth and death are each of them sudden changes succeeding the gradual changes of growth and decay. (6) By a sudden transition beyond a certain point, carelessness becomes crime, justice becomes injustice, virtue becomes vice. (7) The population of a state may gradually increase without causing any fundamental change in the character of the state. But if the population gets above a certain level the old institutions cease to be adequate, and the state changes its form. “The state,” writes Hegel, “has a proportion relative to its size, such that if it grow beyond this it becomes unstable and collapses under the very constitution which, with another range of size, brought to it happiness and strength.” This is illustrated in the note to § 108 of the Encyclopedia by the constitution of a Swiss canton which “does not suit a great kingdom.” (8) In the note to § 108 of the Encyclopedia Hegel also refers to puzzles about the number of grains it takes to make a heap, and the number of hairs that have to be plucked from a horse’s tail to make it a bald-tailed horse. It is by these examples that Hegel illustrates his principle.20
Before we discuss the Marxist view, it will be as well, I suggest, to look at these examples a little more closely, since they differ from one another quite a lot. They are not easy to classify, but may conveniently be grouped into four classes.
The first class comprises (4) and (5), and, a little less obvious perhaps, (1) and (2). These are the examples that most clearly correspond to those employed by Marxists. In all these cases there is a series of regular changes, of temperature, of growth and decay, of number and of pitch, and at some point in each of the series a member emerges which is not merely the next in the series but has some peculiar characteristic over and above that of being next that differentiates it from the preceding ones. The water gets colder and colder and then, suddenly freezing, becomes a solid; the sleeping embryo wakes up and breaks from the mother; the man’s body gradually decays and then collapses in death; the number 4 is not merely the one that follows 3 but is also the square of 2; the next higher note is not merely the one that follows B but is also the higher C. The general formula seems to be as follows: something has properties A, B, and C; the quantity of C is gradually changed and as a result A or B becomes D. (If the conception were to be fully analyzed we should have to distinguish between unspecific properties like color or physical state and specific ones like scarlet or solid, and between intensive quantity like the loudness of a noise and extensive quantity like size or population. But the scale of our work does not allow of such detailed treatment of this matter.)
The second class is exemplified by (3), the case of chemical combination. Here the notion is not that of a series of gradual changes leading to a sudden jump. Instead there are two (or more) substances which can be combined in all sorts of ways and proportions and yet retain their separate identities; but there is a definite proportion and way of combining them which results in their losing their separate identities and becoming a different sort of substance. Just as water suddenly becomes ice at 0°C, so a mixture of Hydrogen and Oxygen suddenly becomes water when sparked under the requisite conditions. The general formula appears to be: A has properties P and Q, B has properties R and S; mechanically combined they retain their separate identities, but chemically combined they become C, with properties X and Y (or with properties P, S, and X, etc.).
Example (8), it seems to me, makes up the third class, although (6) could conceivably be grouped with it too. A few grains are not a heap, and a million grains are; hairless Harry is bald, and hirsute Horace is not; and so we suppose that there must be a definite number of grains beyond which a heap is attained, and a quantity of hair beyond which baldness lies. But in fact this sort of case is quite different from the first two. With them the “leap” was a leap in nature, from liquid to solid, from mechanical mixture to chemical compound. But with the present case the point of transition calls for human legislation, and it is for us to decide how little hair a man must have if he is to be called bald. If Horace loses a few hairs a day for a long period a time will come when his friends will say: “Horace is bald.” But baldness did not flash on to his head in the way in which his wet hair might have frozen in the cold. There is an intermediate stage when some of his friends might have said he was bald and others might have said he was not.
The fourth class comprises the moral and political examples, i.e., (6) and (7). (7) might have been included in the first class, as the gradual increase of population is analogous to the gradual decrease of the temperature of the water. The “nodal line,” however, is not nearly as definite in the political example. In normal circumstances water freezes at 0°C, but we have no such knowledge of an exact level of population beyond which the constitution fails to operate. There are various reasons for this. The breakdown of a constitution is not something that can be apprehended by the senses, as the transformation of a liquid into a solid can be. Indeed, there is no very definite criterion of the failure of a constitution to work which could be correlated with the fairly definite notion of the population of a state. Temperature and freezing are notions with the same possibilities of precision, whereas the fairly precise notion of population does not consort very well with the rather rough notion of a constitutional breakdown. That Hegel’s comparison of the two cases is suggestive cannot be denied, but it would be misleading (even within the confines of the Hegelian philosophy) to regard them as closely analogous. The importance of thus distinguishing between these different levels of precision (as we may call them) for the philosophy of the social sciences need hardly be emphasized.21 The moral examples given in (6) are even less susceptible of quantitative treatment. It is not by the accumulation of quantitative changes that carelessness becomes crime and virtue becomes vice. It is true that there may be a transition from carelessness to negligence, and from negligence to criminal negligence, but it is not any amount of carelessness that leads to this transition but rather the circumstances in which it takes place and the precautions that might have been taken. There is a slight similarity with (8), since what constitutes criminality is in part a matter of legislation. But the legislation is not the fixing of a quantity, since there is no quantity such as numbers of grains or hairs on which the legislation is based. (Unless it be de minimis non curat lex.) Again, we say that providence is a virtue, but it becomes meanness or miserliness, not when the provident man gets more and more provident, nor when he saves more and more money, but when he saves what he ought to spend or give away. (This is the sort of criticism that is brought against Aristotle’s doctrine that virtue is a mean between two extremes, a doctrine that Hegel, no doubt, had in mind when writing the section we are now discussing.)
We may now return to the Marxist interpretation of the Law of the Transformation of Quantity into Quality. The Marxists chiefly have in mind changes such as those exemplified in the first group of cases given by Hegel, in which there are natural jumps across “nodal lines.” The first question we have to ask is: To what sort of natural changes is this law applied—to the evolution of nature as a whole, or to the changes that take place within the various parts of nature? If the intention were merely to say that some of the changes that take place in the world conform to this law, then it could hardly be contested, for water does freeze and boil. Some Marxists, perhaps, have been content with this, and have thought that if it be granted that such sudden changes occur in inanimate nature it follows that human societies must necessarily undergo revolutionary transformations. But there is no force in this argument. If some natural changes are across “nodal lines” and others are not, some special reasons must be given to show that social changes are of the sort that do occur across “nodal lines.” Apart from such special reasons, all that can be legitimately concluded is that since some physical changes are of this nature, and since human society is a part of the physical world, it is conceivable that some of the changes that take place in human societies conform to this pattern. If all physical changes exemplified this law, there would be slightly more reason for expecting it to be of relevance to human societies, though again the inference would be shaky enough, since it might well happen that the human parts of nature are subject to different laws of change from those that apply in the purely physical parts. But it can hardly be maintained that everything in the physical world changes in the way that water changes into ice or steam. It is characteristic of glass, for example, that on being heated it reaches the liquid stage gradually, and can therefore be manipulated and molded in a way that ice cannot be. In advance of detailed enquiry, the melting of glass might just as well be regarded as a model of social change as the freezing or boiling of water.
The Marxist view appears to be, then, that the law in question is exhibited in the development of nature as a whole. Stalin, in the passage from which I have quoted, refers the laws of dialectics to “nature,” and uses the phrase “the process of development” when he writes specifically of the Law of the Transformation of Quantity into Quality. If we turn to Engels’ Dialectics of Nature we find that Stalin has been faithful to his tradition, since Engels writes: “It is, therefore, from the history of nature and human society that the laws of dialectics are abstracted. For they are nothing but the most general laws of these two aspects of historical development. . . .”22 The scheme presented by the Marxists commences with a universe in which there was only one type or only a few types of physical substance. Changes in the temperature or density or some other quantitative feature of this prime material resulted in the emergence of a greater variety of physical substances until life and mind and human societies have come into existence. This is the evolutionary picture of things that has been familiar since the middle of the last century. What differentiates the Marxist version is the emphasis on sudden leaps as, for example, liquid is considered to have brusquely distilled into a previously gaseous universe and so instituted a new type of being. From time to time something new emerges that is not merely a change of order or arrangement, that is no mere stirring up of the old ingredients.
At this stage we can see how the Law of the Transformation of Quantity into Quality combines the first two classes of example given by Hegel. The change of water into ice exemplifies the acquisition of new properties by the same chemical substance, whereas in chemical, as distinct from mere mechanical, combination, new substances with new properties are produced. In either event, materials come into the world that had not been there before. We can now see why Stalin, in language reminiscent of Herbert Spencer, says that there is a development “from the simple to the complex.” The world is regarded as acquiring physical and chemical variety through stages of mere repetition punctuated by leaps into the hitherto non-existent. The new types of substance are “the natural results” of their components and predecessors, in the sense that we regard freezing and chemical change as normal and natural. The universe gets more various in as natural a way as water turns to steam. What can be meant by saying, then, that the more complex beings are “higher,” and that the evolutionary movement is “onward and upward”? I do not wish now to discuss the tendency we have to prefer variety to monotony, but I have no doubt that we do all tend, other things being equal, to prefer a rich and varied world to one with little in it, and this, no doubt, is the explanation of the use of the word “higher” in this connection. Furthermore, inasmuch as human beings are the most complex of things, and the only ones that frame theories about the development of the world, they may take themselves as standards by which to judge the rest, both out of pride and convenience. Either the evolution of the universe is directed toward the production of man, who is thus the favorite, if not yet the lord, of creation, or else, man, once he has emerged, decides to use his species as the standard of the world’s development. Clearly a Marxist would have to prefer the second alternative.
The view here summarized is substantially that which, in English philosophy, has come to be known as the theory of Emergent Evolution. On this view, there is no need to postulate a Creator of the world; the change and variety of things can be accounted for by supposing that new qualities have emerged from combinations and concentrations of a few original ones by processes we can come to recognize. Exponents of Emergent Evolution, like Marxists, stigmatize as “mechanistic” any attempts to maintain that complex beings are really only groups of simple ones to which they may be reduced. The process of the world is not, according to them, a combining and re-combining of the old elements in manifold ways, but is rather a constant development of types of being that have not existed hitherto. The key word is “novelty.” Thus on this view, life and mind are not merely certain re-arrangements of matter, but something that emerges when these re-arrangements take place. But for these re-arrangements there would be no life and mind, but life and mind cannot be reduced to them. Dr. John Lewis, the Marxist philosopher, gave several pages of his introduction to A Textbook of Marxist Philosophy to showing how Dialectical Materialism and Emergent Evolution are at one on this issue.23 If, however, we turn to the part of this work that is translated from the Russian, we find what looks like vacillation. Mechanism, we are told, “arrives at an absolute monotony of nature,”24 and this is what we should expect; but we are a little surprised to read a few pages later: “Breaks are never absolute.”25 Other Marxists have turned against Emergent Evolution with considerable emphasis. Thus Mr. Caudwell, in his Further Studies in a Dying Culture, writes: “Thus, instead of a world of becoming in which all unfolds itself with complete determinism, because all phenomena are materially real, we have a world unfolded in time and space by the Jack-in-the-box appearance of new and unpredictable qualities. Such a philosophy is incompetent to explain society or the generation either of itself or other philosophies.”26 A similar critical attitude toward Emergent Evolution is adopted by Mr. Cornforth in his Dialectical Materialism and Science.
The reason for this modification of attitude is easy to see. Marxists wish to emphasize two things, the occurrence of sudden leaps in nature, and the possibility of a science of society that will allow social predictions to be made. They hold both that sudden leaps occur and that they can predict what the future form of human society will be. These two views, however, do not easily go together, as I shall now endeavor to show. Both Marxists and Emergent Evolutionists criticize mechanists for not allowing that there is genuine novelty in nature. Now there is a sense of “new” according to which there is something new whenever any change has taken place. In this sense of the word there would be something new if some already existing elements were merely re-arranged. What is new would be the re-arrangement, and someone who knew what the elements were and had had some experience of their being re-arranged could conceive of all sorts of possible re-arrangements that had never in fact existed. But someone might say: “There is nothing really new when old elements are being merely re-arranged. I mean by ‘new’ something of a sort that has never existed before at all.” In this second sense of the word, there is only something really new when something occurs which could not have been conceived of in advance of its occurrence. Nothing that a blind man smells or touches can give him, in advance of seeing, any idea of what the color green is like, and therefore if a man born blind comes to see, he will be seeing things new to him each time he sees a color for the first time. It is possible that a man who has knowledge of some elements and of their re-arrangements will be able to predict how they will be re-arranged in the future, for he knows at least what it would be like for them to be re-arranged in certain ways. But no one could possibly describe in advance of its occurrence a color or a sound which no one had ever yet experienced. If something is new in this second sense it cannot be predicted because no one is able to make or to understand the prediction. Now it is clear that changes leading only to new arrangements of the old units are the sort of change that Stalin describes as “a movement in a circle” and as “a simple repetition of what has already occurred.” It is such changes, however, which can obviously be understood in advance of their occurrence. It is not so obvious that predictions could be made of occurrences that (a) are not mere re-arrangements of elements that already exist, and (b) have never been experienced before. If such predictions are impossible, then two major theses of the Marxist philosophy, the thesis of sudden qualitative “leaps,” and the thesis that at least one qualitative “leap” in the transformation of human society, viz., the transition to Communism, can be foreseen, are in contradiction with one another. This is probably the reason why the Leningrad philosophers say: “Breaks are never absolute,” and why Mr. Caudwell refuses to accept aid from Emergent Evolutionists.
We must distinguish, I suggest, between qualitative leaps or breaks which have been observed on many occasions, like that of water to ice, and those major breaks with the past, like the emergence of liquid or life, which, according to the Marxist theory of evolution, have occurred on specific occasions. There was a time, we may suppose, when there was only gas, and then the first liquid emerged; there was a time when there was only matter, and then life emerged. Once liquids and life have come, it is possible that predictions will be made about when new liquids will emerge and about when new forms of life will emerge—for the man making the predictions will know in a general way what it is that he is predicting. It is conceivable that before such new things first came into existence someone might be able to predict that something very peculiar was about to happen—there might be circumstances analogous in some ways to those that preceded some earlier cosmic “leap”—but he could not, before it occurred, say what sort of thing it was going to be. If this be so, and if Communist society is a qualitatively different type of society from Capitalist society, then it is only possible to predict it if other societies have turned into Communist societies just as water has before now turned into ice. But Marxists do not believe that other societies in the past have turned into Communist societies. They think, rather, that the Communism of the future will be a break through to something that has not existed before. If, therefore, the “Communist quality” of the future society is a new sort of break with the past across a nodal line that we have not yet reached, we can have no idea of what is peculiar to it, and talk about it is talk about our ignorance. It may be said, of course, that according to Marxists there has been a Communist society in the past, viz., Primitive Communism, which is alleged to have existed before classes were instituted. If this were to be granted, then it could be said that prediction of the Communism of the future was comparable to prediction of some new liquid by someone who already has knowledge of liquids. This objection has some point, but it is in fact difficult for a Marxist to uphold, since the Communism of the future is, according to his theory, at several removes from Primitive Communism, and like it only to the extent that it would have no private property and no classes. These formal features cannot constitute what is new in the Communism of the future.
Marxists, it should be mentioned, rest their case in part on the fact that Mendeléeff, in the nineteenth century, was able, on the basis of his Periodic Table, to predict not only that certain hitherto unknown elements probably existed, but also what their properties would be. But Mendeléeff was not able to predict the discovery of properties that nothing had ever had before. The elements that were subsequently discovered (Gallium, Germanium, etc.) possessed, not properties that had never before been known of, but different groupings of qualities possessed by other already known elements as well. If, therefore, this conception is to be applied to the Communist society of the future, all that could be predicted would be that certain properties, A, B, and C, which had never before belonged to any single society, would co-exist in the future Communist society. But this would surely be “simple repetition of what has already occurred, a mechanistic or metaphysical circular change. For the dialectical change that Marxists sponsor is more than a re-arrangement of already existing entities, whether they be already existing units or already existing qualities.
In conclusion, it is perhaps worth pointing out that it is easy to confuse the emergence of new qualities with something that is quite different. The confusion arises when we fail to see the difference between Hegel’s example that on page 75 I numbered (8)—the example about the number of grains it takes to make a heap—and his example about water changing to ice when the temperature is lowered to freezing-point. In the second case there is a marked observable difference; first there is liquid, and then there is solid. In the first case, however, there is no such marked difference at the point of transition, since there is an element of choice about whether we call a set of grains a heap or not. The addition of grain after grain is gradual and remains so, but in some circumstances (e.g., if we were buying or selling sand by the heap) we may have to decide quite definitely between what is a heap and what is not a heap. Now I am not at all sure that all of the “leaps” implied in the evolutionary picture of the world are of the water-into-ice sort rather than of the not-heap-to-heap, or bald-to-hirsute sort. If the world began as a gas, then the emergence of liquidity could be compared to the sudden freezing of water. But it is possible that the emergence of life has been no such abrupt occurrence. For it may be that the natural changes have been gradual, that we feel no hesitation in saying that certain things are without life and that others are clearly alive, but that the point at which we draw the line is one that we have to choose, not one that the facts press upon us in unmistakable fashion. Strictly speaking, indeed, every observable change is a change of quality. Each coldness that we experience as the water approaches freezing-point is a distinct coldness, though we have no separate name for each of them. This may be illustrated by the distinction we make between “warm” and “hot,” for which there would seem to be no precise analogies in the degrees of coldness. Where there are very marked qualitative differences, we feel that a distinct name is needed, but it is unwise to assume that every different name for the stages in a transition corresponds to some marked leap or break.
Now the last paragraph needs to be supplemented by a further complication. Although the transition from grains to heap is one that allows us to draw the line between the two at various, more or less arbitrary points, the distinction has some analogy with the sudden transition from water to ice. For when the grains of sand are added, one after the other, a point is reached when the “look,” of the grains becomes different. First there was a plurality of grains, and then, after a while, we see them as a whole. To begin with we should describe ourselves as adding grains to grains, and then as adding grains to the heap. Psychologists give the name “form quality” to the “look” that wholes have as distinct from the separate appearance of each of their parts. For example, if we look closely at the liquid in a glass we may see small particles swimming about in water, but if we look at it from further away we should say that the water is turbid. In this case turbidity is a form quality analogous to the form quality of being a heap rather than a collection of grains. These are qualities that can no more be described before they have been experienced than hitherto unseen colors could be, and they may thus be regarded as a sort of emergent quality. That they are different from transformations of quantity into quality of the chemical combination sort or of the water-to-ice sort may be seen from the fact that the grains of some substance that does not combine chemically with water, and is not even soluble in it, may have a turbid “look,” though in fact they remain separate. However, there is no need here to take this matter further, now we have seen how unduly simplified the Marxist theory is.
[17. ]Engels, Dialectics of Nature, English translation by C. Dutt, p. 26 (London, 1946).
[18. ]Ibid., p. 30.
[19. ]Capital, vol. 1, p. 319 (Everyman edition). In a footnote Marx writes: “The molecular theory of modern chemistry, first scientifically worked out by Laurent and Gerhardt, rests on no other law.” (I understand that this is questionable.)
[20. ]The first seven examples are from the Science of Logic, I, III, 2, B.
[21. ]It should be noticed that in Hegel’s writings the notion of the transformation of quantity into quality is first put forward in connection with social affairs—the series of gradual and almost unnoticed changes that lead to a sudden revolutionary outbreak. Nohl, Hegel’s Theologische Jugendschriften, p. 220. Hegel also makes the point in the Preface to the Phenomenology.
[22. ]P. 26.
[23. ]Pp. 12ff.
[24. ]P. 335.
[25. ]P. 340.
[26. ]P. 233.