Part Two - Problems of the Marxist-Leninist Theory of Dialectics

10: Contradiction as a Category of Dialectical Logic

Contradiction as the concrete unity of mutually exclusive opposites is the real nucleus of dialectics, its central category. On that score there cannot be two views among Marxists; but no small difficulty immediately arises as soon as matters touch on ‘subjective dialectics’, on dialectics as the logic of thinking. If any object is a living contradiction, what must the thought (statement about the object) be that expresses it? Can and should an objective contradiction find reflection in thought? And if so, in what form?

Contradiction in the theoretical determinations of an object is above all a fact that is constantly being reproduced by the movement of science, and is not denied by dialectics or by materialists or idealists. The point that they dispute is something else, namely: what is the relationship of the contradiction in thought to the object? In other words, can there be a contradiction in true, correct thought?

The metaphysical logician tries to demonstrate the inapplicability of the dialectical law of the coincidence or concurrence of opposites, which amounts to their identity, to the very process of thought. Such logicians are occasionally prepared even to recognise that the object can, in agreement with dialectics, be by itself inwardly contradictory. The contradiction is in the object but must not be in the ideas about it. The metaphysician, however, still cannot permit himself in any way to recognise the truth of the law that constitutes the nucleus of dialectics, in relation to the logical process. The principle of contradiction is transformed into an absolute, formal criterion of truth, into an indisputable a priori canon, into the supreme principle of logic.

Some logicians strive to substantiate this position, which it is difficult to call other than eclectic, by citing the practice of science. Any science, when it comes up against a contradiction in determinations of an object, always strives to resolve it. In that case does it not act in accordance with the recipes of metaphysics, which holds that any contradiction in thought is inadmissible, and something that must be got rid of somehow or other? The metaphysician in logic interprets similar moments in the development of science in such a way. Science, he says, always strives to avoid contradictions, but in dialectics there is an opposite tendency.

The view under consideration is based on a misunderstanding, or rather simply on ignorance of the important historical fact that dialectics was born just where metaphysical thought (i.e. thinking without knowing or desiring to know any other logic than formal logic) finally became caught up in the logical contradictions it had brought to light just because it persistently and consistently observed the ban on any kind of contradiction whatsoever in determinations. Dialectics as logic is the means of resolving these contradictions, so that it is stupid to accuse it of an itch to pile up contradictions. It is irrational to see the cause of the illness in the coming of the doctor. The question can only be whether dialectics is successful in curing the contradictions into which thought falls, in fact, as a result of a most rigorous metaphysical diet that unconditionally forbids any contradiction. And if it is successful, just why is it?

Let us turn to the analysis of a striking example, a typical case of how mountains of logical contradictions have been piled up just by means of absolutised formal logic, and rationally resolved only by means of dialectical logic. We have in mind the history of political economy, the history of the disintegration of the Ricardian school and the rise of Marx’s economic theory. The way out of the blind alley of the theoretical paradoxes and antinomies into which the Ricardian school had got was found, as we know, only by Karl Marx, and was found precisely by means of dialectics as logic.

That Ricardo’s theory contained a mass of logical contradictions was not discovered by Marx at all. It was plainly seen by Malthus, and Sismondi, and McCulloch, and Proudhon. But only Marx was able to understand the real character of the contradictions of the labour theory of value. Let us, following Marx, consider one of them, the most typical and acute, the antinomy of the law of value and the law of the average rate of profit.

David Ricardo’s law of value established that living human labour was the sole source and substance of value, an affirmation that was an enormous advance on the road to objective truth. But profit was also value. In trying to express it theoretically, i.e. through the law of value, a clear logical contradiction was obtained. The point was that profit was new, newly created value, or rather part of it. That was an indisputably true analytical determination. But only new labour produced new value. How, however, did that tie up with the quite obvious empirical fact that the quantity of profit was not determined at all by the quantity of living labour expended on its production? It depended exclusively on the quantity of capital as a whole, and in no case on the size of that part that went on wages. And it was even more paradoxical that the higher the profit the less living labour was consumed during its production.

In Ricardo’s theory the law of the average rate of profit, which established the dependence of the scale of profit on the quantity of capital as a whole, and the law of value, which established that only living labour produced new value, stood in a relation of direct, mutually exclusive contradiction. Nevertheless, both laws determined one and the same object (profit). This antinomy was noted with spiteful delight in his day by Malthus.

Here then was a problem that it was impossible to resolve on the principles of formal logic. And if thought had arrived here at an antinomy, and had landed in a logical contradiction, it was difficult to blame dialectics for it. Neither Ricardo nor Malthus had any idea of dialectics. Both knew only the Lockian theory of understanding and the logic (and that formal) corresponding to it. Its canons were indisputable for them, and the only ones. This logic justified a general law (in this case the law of value) only when it was demonstrated as an immediately general empirical rule under which all facts whatsoever were subsumed without contradiction.

It was found that there was in fact no such relationship between the law of value and the forms of its manifestation. As soon as one tried to treat profit theoretically (i.e. to understand it through the law of value), it suddenly proved to be an absurd contradiction. If the law of value was universal, profit was impossible in principle. By its existence it refuted the abstract universality of the law of value, the law of its own particular existence.

Ricardo, the creator of the labour theory of value, was primarily concerned with the accord of the theoretical statements with the object. He soberly, and even cynically, expressed the real state of affairs; and the latter, riddled with unresolvable antagonisms, was naturally presented in thought as a system of conflicts, antagonisms, and logical contradictions. This circumstance, which bourgeois theoreticians regarded as evidence of the weakness and incompleteness of his theory, was evidence rather of the contrary, of its strength and objectivity.

When Ricardo’s disciples and successors no longer made correspondence of theory to the object their chief concern, but rather agreement of the developed theoretical determinations with the requirements of formal logical consistence, with the canons of the formal unity of theory, the labour theory of value began to disintegrate. Marx wrote of James Mill: ‘What he tries to achieve is formal, logical consistence. The disintegration of the Ricardian school "therefore" begins with him.’

In fact, as Marx showed, the general law of value stood in a relation of mutually exclusive contradiction with the empirical form of its own manifestation, with the law of the average rate of profit. That was a real contradiction of a real object. And it was not surprising that, in trying to subsume the one law directly and immediately under the other, a logical contradiction was obtained. But when, nevertheless, they continued trying to make value and profit agree directly and without contradiction, they then obtained a problem that was, in Marx’s words, ‘much more difficult to solve than that of squaring the circle.... It is simply an attempt to present that which does not exist as in fact existing’.

The metaphysically thinking theoretician, coming up against such a paradox, inevitably interprets it as the result of mistakes committed earlier in thought, in the working out and formulation of the universal law. And he naturally seeks a solution of the paradox by way of a purely formal analysis of the theory, by making the concepts more precise, by correcting expressions, and so on. A propos of this approach to solving the problem Marx wrote: "Here the contradiction between the general law and further developments in the concrete circumstances is to be resolved not by the discovery of the connecting links but by directly subordinating and immediately adapting the concrete to the abstract. This moreover is to be brought about by a verbal fiction, by changing vera rerum vocabula. (These are indeed "verbal disputes", they are "verbal", however, because real contradictions, which are not resolved in a real way, are to be solved by phrases.)’

When the general law contradicts the empirically common position of things the empiricist immediately sees the way out in altering the formulation of the general law in such a fashion that the empirically general will be directly subsumed under it. At first glance that is how it ought to be; if thought contradicts the facts, then the thought should be altered so as to bring it into line with the general phenomena immediately given on the surface. In fact, this is theoretically false, and by taking it the Ricardian school arrived at complete rejection of the labour theory of value. The general law revealed by Ricardo was sacrificed to crude empeiria (experience), but the crude empiricism was inevitably converted into a ‘false metaphysics, scholasticism, which toils painfully to deduce undeniable empirical phenomena by simple formal abstraction directly from the general law, or to show by cunning argument that they are in accordance with that law’.

Formal logic, and the metaphysics that made it an absolute, knew only two ways of resolving contradictions in thought. The first was to adjust the general law to the directly general, empirically obvious, state of affairs. That, as we have seen, brought about loss of the concept of value. The second way was to represent the internal contradiction, express thinking as a logical contradiction, as an external contradiction of two things, each of which was, in itself, non-contradictory, a procedure known as reducing the internal contradiction to a contradiction ‘in different relations or at a different time’. It was done as follows. Profit could not be explained from value without contradiction? Well, what of it! There was no need to persist in a one-sided approach; one must admit that profit originated in reality not only from labour but also from many other factors. It was necessary role of land, and of machines, and of demand, and of many, many other account. The point, they said, lay not in the contradictions but in the fullness. So the triune formula of vulgar economics ‘Capital—interest; land—rent; labour—wages’. There was no logical contradiction there, it is true; it had disappeared, but with it, too, had disappeared the theoretical approach to things in general.

The conclusion was obvious; not every means of resolving the contradictions led to development of the theory. The two ways outlined above signified a solution such as was identical with converting the theory into empirical eclecticism. Because theory in general existed only where there was a conscious and principled striving to understand all the separate phenomena as necessary and the same general, concrete substance, in this instance the substance of value, of living human labour.

The only theoretician who succeeded in resolving the logical contradictions of the Ricardian theory so as to bring about not disintegration but real development of the labour theory of value was, of course, Karl Marx. What did his dialectical materialist method of resolving the antinomy consist in? First of all, we must state that the real contradictions discovered by Ricardo did not disappear in Marx’s system. Furthermore, they were presented in it as necessary contradictions of the object itself, and not at all as the result of mistakenness of the idea, or of inexactitudes in determinations. In the first volume of Capital, for example, it is demonstrated that surplus value is exclusively the product of that part of capital which is expended on wages and converted into living labour, i.e. variable capital. The ‘proposition in the third volume, however, reads: ‘However that may be, the outcome is that surplus-value springs simultaneously from all portions of the invested capital.’

Between the first and the second propositions a whole system was developed, a whole chain of connecting links; between them, nevertheless, there was preserved a relationship of mutually exclusive contradiction banned by formal logic. That is why vulgar economists triumphantly declared, after the appearance of the third volume of Capital, that Marx had not fulfilled his pledge, that the antinomy of the labour theory of value remained unresolved by him and that the whole of Capital was consequently nothing more than speculative, dialectical hocus-pocus.

The general is thus also contradicted in Capital by its own particular manifestation, and the contradiction between them does not disappear just because a whole chain of mediating links has been developed between them. On the contrary, this actually demonstrates that the antinomies of the labour theory of value are not logical ones at all but real contradictions in the object, correctly expressed by Ricardo, though not understood by him. In Capital these antinomies are not done away with at all as something subjective, but prove to be understood, i.e. have been sublated in the body of a deeper and more concrete theoretical conception. In other words, they are preserved but have lost the character of logical contradictions, having been converted into abstract moments of the concrete conception of economic reality. And there is nothing surprising in that; any concrete, developing system includes contradictions as the principle of its self-movement and as the form in which the development is cast.

So let us compare how the metaphysician Ricardo and the dialectician Marx understood value. Ricardo, of course, did not analyse value by its form. His abstraction of value, on the one hand, was incomplete, and on the other was formal, and for that reason was untrue. In what, then, did Marx see the fullness and pithiness of the analysis of value that was missing in Ricardo? First, in value being a living concrete contradiction.

Ricardo showed value only from the aspect of its substance, i.e. took labour as the substance of value. As for Marx, he (to use an expression from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind) understood value not only as substance but also as subject. Value was represented as the substance-subject of all the developed forms and categories of political economy; and with that conscious dialectics in this science began. Because the ‘subject’ in Marx’s conception (in this case he employed the terminology of the Phenomenology of Mind) is reality developing through its own internal contradictions.

But let us look a little closer at Marx’s analysis of value. First of all it investigates the direct, moneyless exchange or barter of commodity for commodity. In exchange, in the course of which one commodity is replaced by another, value is only manifested, is only expressed; and in no case is it created. It is manifested as follows: one commodity plays the role of relative value, and the other, counterposed to it, the role of equivalent. ‘In one expression of value, one commodity cannot simultaneously appear in both forms. These forms are polar opposites, are mutually exclusive.’

The metaphysician will no doubt be delighted to read that two mutually exclusive economic forms cannot simultaneously be combined in one commodity! But can one say that Marx was refuting the possibility of the coincidence of mutually exclusive determinations in the object and in its conception? Rather the contrary. The fact is that we are not yet concerned with the concept of value, with value as such. The passage cited crowns the analysis of the form of the revelation of value. Value itself still remains a mysterious and theoretically unexpressed essence of each of the commodities. On the surface of phenomena it really appears as if two abstract, one-sided forms of its revelation are visible. But value itself does not coincide with either of these forms, or with their simple, mechanical unity. It is a third something, something lying deeper. In relation to its owner, for example, linen as a commodity appears only in the relative form of value; and in that same relation it cannot be simultaneously an equivalent.

But matters appear so only from an abstract, one-sided angle. For the owner of linen is absolutely equal to the owner of a coat, and from the position of the latter the relation under consideration proves directly the opposite, so that we do not have two different relations, but one concrete objective relation, a mutual relation of two commodity owners. From the concrete standpoint each of the two commodities - linen and coat - mutually measures the other’s value and - also mutually serves as the material in which it is measured. In other words each mutually presupposes that the equivalent form of value is realised in the other commodity, the very form in which the latter can no longer be because it is in the relative form.

In other words the exchange really being completed presupposes that each of the two commodities mutually related in it simultaneously takes on both economic forms of the revelation of value in itself, both measuring its own value and serving as the material for expressing the value of the other commodity. And if, from the abstract, one-sided point of view, each of them is only in one form, and functions as relative value in one relation and as equivalent in the other, from the concrete aspect, i.e. in fact, each of the commodities is simultaneously and, moreover, within one and the same relation in both mutually exclusive forms of the expression of value. If the two commodities do not mutually recognise each other as equivalents, exchange simply cannot take place. If, however, exchange does take place, that means that the two polarly excluded forms of value are combined in each of the two commodities.

What you get, then, says the metaphysician, is that Marx contradicts himself. How can he say that two polar forms of the expression of value cannot be combined in one commodity, and then state that in real exchange they are all the same so combined? The answer is that concrete examination of things refutes the result obtained by the abstract, one-sided approach to them, and shows it to be untrue. The truth of commodity exchange is just that a relation is realised in it that is absolutely impossible from the angle of an abstract, one-sided view.

Something else is discovered in the form of the contradiction under consideration, as analysis shows, and that is the absolute content of each of the commodities, its value, the inner contradiction of value and use-value. ‘Thus the contrast between use-value and value hidden away within the commodity,’ Marx wrote, ‘has an outward and visible counterpart, namely the relation between two commodities, the relation in which the commodity whose value is to be expressed counts only as use-value, whereas the commodity in terms of which value is to be expressed counts only as exchange-value. The simple value form of a commodity is, therefore, the simple phenomenal form of the inherent contrast (within the commodity) between use-value and value.’

From the aspect of logic this point is extraordinarily instructive. The metaphysician, coming up against the fact of the coincidence of contradictory determinations in a concept, in the statement of a thing, sees in it a false theoretical expression and strives to turn the internal contradiction into an external contradiction of two things, each of which, in his view, is internally non-contradictory, into a contradiction ‘in various relations or at a different time’. Marx acted quite the contrary. He showed hat the inner contradiction hidden in each of the interrelated things in a contradiction of an external order.

As a result value was presented as an inner relation of a commodity to itself, outwardly revealed through the relation to another commodity. The other commodity played only the role of a mirror in which the inwardly contradictory nature of the commodity that expressed its value was reflected. In philosophical terms, the external contradiction was presented only as a phenomenon and the relation to the other commodity (as mediated through this relation) as the relation of the commodity to itself. The inner relation, the relation to itself, was also value as the absolute economic content of each of the mutually related commodities.

The metaphysician always strives to reduce the internal relation to an external one. For him a contradiction in ‘one relation’ is an index of the abstractness of knowledge, an index of the confusion of different planes of abstraction, and so on, and an external contradiction is a synonym of the ‘concreteness’ of knowledge. For Marx, on the contrary, it was an index of the one-sidedness and superficiality of knowledge when an object was presented in thought simply as an external contradiction, signifying that only the outward form of the manifestation of an internal contradiction had been caught, instead of the contradiction itself. Dialectics obliges one always to see, behind a thing’s relation to another thing, its own relation to itself, its own inner relation.

The difference between dialectics and metaphysics does not consist at all in the former’s recognising only inner contradictions and the latter’s recognising only external ones. Metaphysics really always tries to reduce the inner contradiction to a contradiction ‘in different relations’, denying it objective significance. Dialectics by no means reduces the one to the other. It recognises the objectivity of both. The point, however, does not lie in reducing an external contradiction to an inner one, but in deriving the former from the latter and thus comprehending the one and the other in their objective necessity. Dialectics moreover does not deny the fact that an inner contradiction always appears in phenomena as an external one.

The immediate coincidence of mutually exclusive economic determinations (value and use-value) in each of the two commodities meeting in exchange is also the true theoretical expression of the essence of simple commodity exchange. And this essence is value. From the logical aspect the concept of value (in contrast to the outward form of its manifestation in the act of exchange) is characterised by its being presented as an immediate contradiction, as the direct coincidence of two forms of economic existence that are polar opposites.

Thus, what was effected in the real act of exchange was impossible from the angle of abstract (formal, logical) reason, namely, the direct or immediate identification of opposites. This was the theoretical expression of the real fact that direct commodity exchange could not be completed smoothly, without collisions, without conflicts, without contradictions and crises. The point was that direct commodity exchange was not in a position to express the socially necessary measure of the expenditure of labour in the various branches of social production, i.e. value. And value therefore remained, within the limits of the simple commodity form, an unresolved and unresolvable antinomy. In it the commodity had to be, yet could not be, in the two polar forms of expression of value, and consequently real exchange by value was impossible. But it did happen somehow, and consequently both polar forms of value were somehow combined in each commodity. There was no way out of the antinomy. Marx’s contribution was precisely that he understood that, and expressed it theoretically.

Insofar as exchange through the market remained the sole and universal form of the social exchange of things, the antinomy of value found its solution in the movement of the commodity market itself. The market created the means for resolving its own contradictions. So money was born. Exchange became not direct and unmediated, but mediated – through money; and the coincidence of mutually exclusive economic forms in a commodity came to an end, as it were, since it was split into two ‘different relations’, into an act of sale (which transformed use-value into value) and an act of purchase (which converted value into use-value). The two antinomic acts, mutually exclusive in their economic content, already did not coincide immediately but were completed at a different time and in different parts of the market.

‘The antinomy seemed at first glance to be resolved by all the rules of formal logic; but the semblance was purely external. In fact the antinomy had not disappeared at all, but had only acquired a new form of expression. Money did not become absolutely pure value, and the commodity thus pure use-value. Both commodity and money were fraught, as before, with an inner contradiction that was expressed, as before, in thought in the form of a contradiction in determinations; once again, moreover, the contradiction was unresolved and unresolvable, and revealed itself in the clearest way, though only from time to time, precisely in crises, and then making itself felt the more strongly.

‘The only commodity is money,’ says the commodity owner at times when this contradiction does not show on the surface. ‘The only money is commodities,’ he asserts in a directly opposite way during a crisis, refuting his own abstract statement. Marx’s theoretical, but concrete, thinking showed that the inner opposition of the economic determinations of money existed at every fleeting second, even when they were not manifested in an obvious, visible way but were hidden in commodities and in money, when everything was apparently going swimmingly and the contradiction seemed resolved once and for all.

In theoretical determinations of money the antinomy of value brought out earlier was preserved; in them it formed the ‘simple essence’ both of commodities and of money, although on the surface of phenomena it proved to be annulled, broken down into two ‘different relations’. But these relations, like the direct exchange of commodity for commodity, formed on inner unity that was preserved in all its acuteness and tension in both commodities and money, and consequently also in theoretical determinations of the one and of the other. As before, value remained an internally contradictory relation of a commodity to itself, which was no longer revealed, though, on the surface through a direct relation to another commodity of the same sort, but through its relation to money. Money now functioned as the means by which the mutual, reciprocal transformation of the two originally exposed poles of the expression of value (value and use-value) was effected.

From that angle the whole logical structure of Capital was traced out from a new and very important aspect. Any concrete category was presented as a metamorphosis through which value and use-value passed during their reciprocal transformations into one another. The forming of the capitalist, commodity system appears in Marx’s theoretical analysis as a complicating of the chain of connecting links through which the poles of value, mutually attracting and at the same time excluding each other, have to pass. The path of the reciprocal transformation of value and use-value becomes longer and longer, and more and more complicated, and the tension between the poles increases.

The relative and temporary resolution of the tension takes place through crises, and its final resolution is through socialist revolution.

That approach to things immediately gave thought an orientation in the analysis of any form of economic relation. In fact, just as the commodity market found a relative resolution of its objective contradictions in the birth of money, so the theoretical determinations of money in Capital served as a means of relatively resolving the theoretical contradiction revealed in the analysis of the simple value form. Within the limits of the simple form the antimony of value remained unresolved and fixed in thought as a contradiction in the concept. Its sole true logical resolution consisted in tracing how it was resolved objectively in practice in the course of the movement itself of the commodity market. And the movement of the investigating thought consisted in revealing this new reality that developed by virtue of the impossibility of resolving the objective contradiction originally disclosed.

Thus the very course of theoretical thought became not a confused wandering but a rigorous purposive process, in which thinking used empirical facts to find the conditions and data that were lacking for solution of a clearly formulated task, of a problem. Theory therefore appeared as a process of the constant resolution of problems pushed to the fore by the investigation of the empirical facts itself.

Investigation of the commodity-money circulation led to an antinomy. As Marx wrote: ‘Turn and twist as we may, the sum total remains the same. If equivalents are exchanged, then no surplus value is created; and if non-equivalents are exchanged, still no surplus value is created. Circulation, the exchange of commodities, does not create value. So, he concluded, capital could not arise from circulation, just as it could not arise outside it. It ‘must simultaneously take place in the sphere of circulation and outside the sphere of circulation. Such are the conditions of the problem. That is the nut we have to crack!’

Marx’s way of posing the problem was not at all fortuitous and was not simply a rhetorical device. It was linked with the very essence of the dialectical method of developing theory, following the development of the actual object. The solution of the question corresponds to the posing of it. The problem arising in thought in the form of a contradiction in the determination could only be resolved if the theoretician (and the real owner of money) was ‘lucky enough to find somewhere within the sphere of circulation, to find in the market, a commodity whose use-value has, the peculiar quality of being a source of value; a commodity whose actual consumption is a process whereby labour is embodied, and whereby therefore value is created’.

Objective reality always develops through the origin within it of a concrete contradiction that finds its resolution in the generation of a new, higher, and more complex form of development, the contradiction is unresolvable. When expressed in thought it naturally appears as a contradiction in the determinations of the concept that reflects the initial stage of development. And that is not only correct, but is the sole correct form of movement of the investigating mind, although there is a contradiction in it. A contradiction of that type in determinations is not resolved by way of refining the concept that reflects the given form of development, but by further investigating reality, by discovering another, new, higher form of development in which the initial contradiction finds its real, actual, empirically established resolution.

It was not fortuitous that the old logic passed this very important logical form over as a ‘question’. For the real questions, the real problems that arise in the movement of the investigating mind, always rise before thought in the form of contradictions in the determination, in the theoretical expression of the facts. The concrete contradiction that arises in thought also leads toward a further and, moreover, purposive examining of the facts, toward the finding and analysing of just those facts that are lacking for solving the problem and resolving the given theoretical contradiction.

If a contradiction arises of necessity in the theoretical expression of reality from the very course of the investigation, it is not what is called a logical contradiction, though it has the formal signs of such but is a logically correct expression of reality. On the contrary, the logical contradiction, which there must not be in a theoretical investigation, has to be recognised as a contradiction of terminological, semantic origin and properties. Formal analysis is also obliged to discover such contradictions in determinations; and the principle of contradiction of formal logic applies fully to them. Strictly speaking it relates to the use of terms and not to the process of the movement of a concept. The latter is the field of dialectical logic. But there another law is dominant, the law of the unity or coincidence of opposites, a coincidence, moreover, that goes as far as their identity. It-is that which constitutes the real core of dialectics as the logic of thought that follows the development of reality.

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