Front Page Titles (by Subject) 8.: Contradiction and the Negation of the Negation - The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed
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8.: Contradiction and the Negation of the Negation - 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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Contradiction and the Negation of the Negation
We have now seen that, on the Marxist view, everything is changing, and that periods of gradual change are interspersed with sudden changes in which new types of being come to birth. Marxists regard it as a merit of their theory that it is also capable of explaining why nature changes at all. They hold that the driving force behind all change is an inherent contradiction in things. This is the fourth of the propositions in which Stalin summarizes the essentials of Dialectical Materialism. In expounding this view, he quotes the following phrase from Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks: “In its proper meaning dialectics is the study of the contradiction within the very essence of things.” We may supplement this with a rather fuller statement from the same work of Lenin’s: “The identity of opposites . . . is the recognition (discovery) of the contradictory, mutually exclusive, opposite tendencies in all phenomena and processes of nature (including mind and society). . . . Development is the ‘struggle’ of opposites. Two basic (or two possible? or two historically observable?) conceptions of development (evolution) are: development as decrease and increase, as repetition; and development as a unity of opposites (the division of the one into mutually exclusive opposites and their reciprocal correlation). . . . The first conception is lifeless, poor, and dry; the second is vital. The second alone furnishes the key to the ‘self-movement’ of everything in existence: it alone offers the key to the ‘leaps,’ to the ‘break in continuity,’ to the ‘transformation into the opposite,’ to the destruction of the old and the emergence of the new. The unity (the coincidence, identity, resultant), of opposites is conditional, temporary, transitory, relative. The struggle of mutually exclusive opposites is absolute, just as development and motion are absolute.”27 Engels had argued that the fact that things moved at all was proof that contradiction was to be found in nature. “Motion itself,” he wrote, “is a contradiction: even simple mechanical change of place can only come about through a body at the same moment of time being both in one place and another place, being in one and the same place and also not in it.”28 Other examples of “contradiction within the very essence of things” given by Engels and Lenin are: the plus and minus signs in mathematics, positive and negative electricity in physics, the class struggle in the social sphere.
All change, then, takes place through contradiction, opposition, struggle. What makes it evolutionary or progressive is that it proceeds by “the negation of the negation.” Process A is opposed by its contradictory not-A, and, let us suppose, is succeeded by not-A. Not-A, in its turn, however, will be the pole of a further opposition, and so will be succeeded by its opposite, A. This second A, however, will not be merely the first A reinstated, for the first A was the opposite of a not-A that had not yet replaced it, while the second A is the opposite of a not-A which has already replaced the original A. Engels gives the example of a grain of barley planted in the ground. This is “negated” by the plant that succeeds it. This, in its turn, however, is negated (the negation of the negation) by its own decay. From its seeds, however, many new plants may arise. “As a result of this negation of the negation we have once again the original grain of barley, but not as a single unit, but ten, twenty or thirty fold.”29
There is a great deal that might be said about all this, but as much of it would be more relevant to the theory of social development, I shall confine my remarks now to a few fundamental matters.
Dühring himself, and subsequent critics of Marxism, have criticized the whole view on the ground that contradiction and negation are logical notions which cannot be transferred without absurdity to the context of natural processes. The proposition “I am writing” is, for any given individual at any given moment, the contradictory of the proposition “I am not writing,” such critics will say, but the process of writing is itself something happening in the world that cannot conceivably be in contradiction with anything else. On this view, contradiction is a logical, not a natural notion, and it does not make sense to say that one thing or event contradicts another. Such an objection, of course, would have to be elaborated in detail if it were to be pressed against Hegel, since Hegel, in his Science of Logic, held that logic and speculative philosophy were essentially one, and hence that logic is somehow involved in the world that exists beyond human thought. Furthermore, if the Marxist “copy” theory of truth were to be pressed, it might well be concluded that our contradictory notions must copy contradictory things, just as Lenin, in his On the Question of Dialectics, held that our ideas of “causality, necessity, natural law, etc.” were “reflections in the human mind of the laws of nature and of the external world.” My own view is that the Marxist theory of nature is anthropomorphic, and has become so by quite a natural, though misleading, sequence of ideas. It is true that the words “contradiction,” “contrary,” “opposition,” etc., are used by logicians in ways that have to be explained to the plain man. For example, it is not immediately obvious to the plain man that the contradictory of “some men are not mortal” is “all men are mortal.” But the ordinary senses of these logical words are nevertheless closely linked with social conceptions. If one man asserts a proposition and another man denies it, the logical relation of contradiction between propositions will be accompanied by conscious disagreement between men, and this may well arouse an opposition between them that is social as well as logical. Social opposition may show itself in more than merely verbal disputing, and then it becomes a maneuver, a struggle or a fight. Again, a frequent cause of struggle is that two people want the same thing and this thing is something that cannot be shared. One man’s having it, we then say, is incompatible with another’s having it, and in so saying we use a word which has logical as well as social import. Furthermore, if there is a struggle between two men, then if one has defeated the other, the other cannot have defeated the one. Logic settles this, but does not settle the issue of the fight. Such phrases as “incompatibility of temperament” and “contradictory aims” show how natural it is to describe human affairs in words that have logical senses. By a further analogical extension, however, it becomes possible to describe physical processes as “struggling,” “opposing,” and the like, as in Lenin’s phrase “struggle of opposites.” Thus, too, colliding or impinging particles may be described as opposing one another, and so there arises a vague picture of their being opposed in the way that men may be. According to Lenin, in a passage we have already quoted, if nature were free from contradiction it would be “lifeless, poor, and dry”; but since it is contradictory, it is “vital.” (The German text has lebendig.) Now “vital” means “alive,” and in thus opposing it to “lifeless” Lenin talks of nature as if it were a living being. This is not to be wondered at, since he borrows so much of his terminology from Hegel, who undoubtedly thought that there is no such thing as matter utterly divorced from mind. It should be noticed, in this connection, that one of the reasons that Lenin gives in his Philosophical Notebooks for holding that nature is always in movement and struggle is that if it were not self-moved, it would have to get its movement from God. He writes: “Linear procedure and onesidedness, woodenness and ossification, subjectivism and subjective blindness, voilà the epistemological roots of Idealism. Priestcraft (= Philosophical Idealism) nevertheless has naturally gnoseological roots, is not without some basis, is incontestably a sterile flower, but a sterile flower, the blooms on the living tree of the living, fruitful, true, powerful, omnipotent, objective, absolute human knowledge.”30 Elsewhere in the same work he comments: “Intelligent Idealism (der kluge Idealismus) is nearer to intelligent materialism than unintelligent (dumme) materialism. Dialectical idealism instead of intelligent; metaphysical, undeveloped, dead, crude, immovable instead of unintelligent.”31 (I take it that in this last sentence Lenin is saying “Substitute ‘dialectical’ for ‘intelligent’ and ‘metaphysical, etc.’ for ‘unintelligent.’”) What remains when such figures of speech are allowed for is that, according to Marxists, there is nothing in nature that remains changeless, and this may very well be true.
We must next observe that Engels thought that the existence of movement proved that there are contradictions in nature, since if something moves it must be in one place and the next adjoining place at the same moment of time. Now the passage from the Anti-Dühring to this effect that I quoted on page 86 follows very closely what Hegel writes in his Science of Logic, book 2, section 1, chapter 2, C, which is headed “Contradiction.” Here Hegel says: “External sensible motion is itself an immediate fact. Something is moving, not while it is in this now here, and in another now there, but while it is here and not here in the same now, while it both is and is not in the same here. We must grant to the ancient dialecticians the contradictions they showed in movement; but it does not follow from that that there is no movement, but rather that movement itself is an existing (daseiende) contradiction.” Hegel is here referring to Zeno of Elea, who argued that to occupy place A a moving thing has to be at rest there, and to occupy the adjacent place B, it has to be at rest there, and that therefore the thing cannot be in movement at all. In his Lectures on the History of Philosophy Hegel says that Zeno is not to be regarded as denying the existence of movement; movement is as real as elephants. “The question concerns rather its truth; movement is untrue, for its idea contains a contradiction; thus he was intending to say that movement has no true being.” It is therefore obvious that when Hegel says that movement is an existing (daseiende) contradiction he means something very different from what Engels means. When Hegel says that something exists, has Dasein, he is claiming very little for it, for he uses the word Dasein for what has immediate, merely finite being, not for what is ultimately real. Engels, therefore, has taken an argument from Hegel’s speculative philosophy, and used it as if it could be comfortably housed in the Marxist anti-speculative philosophy. But it cannot, surely, belong there, for it is as clear as anything could be that things move, but to say that there could be no movement unless there was contradiction in the realm of fact is to draw a conclusion about matter of fact from a particular conception or notion of what movement must be. We observe things moving, and therefore, according to Engels, we must observe them contradicting one another. Could Dühring’s phrase “arabesques of ideas” find a more striking application?
The notion of “the negation of the negation” is, in the Marxist system, primarily of social significance. It is easy to see that when movements of thought come into conflict with their predecessors the victorious system may well take up into itself features of the defeated system, just as legislation in the English Parliament is frequently (though not always) influenced by the criticisms of the Opposition. Thus, much of the paganism that the early Christians deplored has found its way into Christian thought and ritual. However this may be, the spectacle of such an intelligent Marxist philosopher as Plekhanov disputing whether it is the stalk of the barley, or the whole plant, or “the fertilized ovum,” that is the negated negation of the barley seed, is one that can only arouse embarrassment. It is with some relief, therefore, that we read that barley (or is it oats?) will grow “according to Hegel,” whether the sequence is triadic (seed, plant, seed) or tetradic (seed, stalk, flower, seed).32
[27. ]Selected Works, XI, pp. 81–82. Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks (only a few extracts from which have been published in English) consists of extracts from philosophical authors read by him during the First World War, along with the comments he made on them. There are extracts from and comments on Hegel’s Science of Logic, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, and Lectures on the History of Philosophy; Noël’s La Logique de Hegel; Lassalle’s The Philosophy of Heracleitos the Dark, of Ephesus; on Feuerbach’s Lectures on the Essence of Religion, and Leibniz. Lenin read Hegel’s Science of Logic very carefully, and it is possible from his comments to get a good idea of Lenin’s philosophical ideas at this period of his life. Some students of Marxism have said that in the Philosophical Notebooks Lenin abandons the “copy” theory of perception which he had put forward in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, and they quote such passages as the following: “The reflection (mirroring) of nature in human thought is not ‘dead,’ not ‘abstract,’ not without movement, but is an eternal process of movement, of the arising and resolving of contradictions” (Adoratski’s edition, p. 115). But this, and other similar passages, in my opinion refer to science rather than to perception, and are in any case rather ambiguous. The passage I have quoted in the text comes from a brief essay in the Philosophical Notebooks headed On the Question of Dialectics. It may be seen in Adoratski’s edition (V. I. Lenin, Aus dem Philosophischen Nachlass: Exzerpte und Randglossen, ed. V. Adoratski, pp. 285–86; Wien-Berlin, 1932).
[28. ]Anti-Dühring, p. 135.
[29. ]Ibid., p. 152.
[30. ]Aus dem Philosophischen Nachlass, ed. Adoratski, p. 289.
[31. ]Ibid., p. 212.
[32. ]G. V. Plekhanov, In Defence of Materialism, translated by A. Rothstein (London, 1947), pp. 112–14.