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Red Theory: On the negation of the negation

By J. Sykes |
May 1, 2022
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Mao Zedong.
Mao Zedong.

In our study of the three laws of dialectics presented by Engels, we’ve examined the law of contradiction and the law of the transformation of quantity into quality. Finally, Engels says that the third law of dialectics is the “law of the negation of the negation.” 

We have seen that Mao Zedong has argued that the law of contradiction is the primary law of dialectics. In our last article we looked at how the transformation of quantity into quality was, in fact, an instance of the law of contradiction. Here, we will examine Mao’s argument against the negation of the negation as a dialectical law. 

First, what does the negation of the negation mean, and why have Marxists thought of it as a worthwhile way to explain dialectical progress? The concept comes from the most advanced philosophy of the time in which Marx and Engels were working: Hegel’s dialectical idealism. It describes a process in a sequence of steps, starting with an affirmation, followed by a negation that arises as a result of that affirmation, and then followed by a negation of that negation. Hegel was talking about ideas, and so talked about this in terms of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. 

Engels makes use of this Hegelian language in referring to the negation of the negation as a dialectical law, but this has the potential to create some confusion among Marxists that we would benefit from sorting out. 

Materialist dialectics is concerned with material reality, not just ideas. So to illustrate this sequence, let’s consider capitalism as our first affirmation. Marx says the bourgeoisie creates its own gravediggers. In other words, bourgeois society creates its own negation, the proletariat, a class born out of capitalism itself. Capitalism itself gives rise to the necessity of socialist revolution. The proletariat, through socialist revolution, therefore negates the bourgeoisie, capitalist relations, and so on, step by step. But in doing so, the proletariat also eliminates the conditions for its own existence as a class. This is what Lenin describes in The State and Revolution as socialism’s “withering away,” which allows for a stateless and classless society - communism - to come forth. This is the second negation, the negation of the negation, by this way of looking at it. 

Taken step by step we see that first we have the original affirmation, the thesis. This is capitalism in our illustration. This is followed by an antithesis, which arises from and negates the original thesis. This is the first negation: socialism. Finally we have the synthesis, which negates the antithesis that had negated the original thesis: communism. Thus the final synthesis is the negation of the negation. Essentially, in this progression of thesis - antithesis - synthesis, the final synthesis serves to negate the antithesis that itself negated the original thesis, while also preserving elements of both in a new unity or identity. 

In this process, the “law of the negation of the negation” is what accounts for the “spiral development” that makes progress, rather than mere repetition, possible. This synthesis carries forward something from both the original affirmation and the first negation, synthesizing them, that is uniting them, into something qualitatively new. This new unity becomes a new thesis, or a new affirmation, and the sequence begins again, but at a higher level than before. 

This conception of the dialectic accounts for progress by describing how this step-by-step process leads from one thing to the next, based on resolving the contradictions that arise from the process. Of course this isn’t entirely incorrect, but it is inaccurate. This inaccuracy can lead to some confusion as to what is really taking place, dialectically. The “law of the negation of the negation” is helpful to a point, but we have to go further. Revolutionary science can’t rest with simple explanations. 

The thinking behind the “law of the negation of the negation” confuses the issue in two interrelated ways. First, it gives us too linear an understanding of dialectics, which doesn’t account for the complex processes where multiple contradictions are at work at the same time, which we’ve described in our articles on contradiction. And second, by starting and ending with identity, it enshrines identity, or unity, as primary over contradiction, or struggle. 

To truly put the dialectic on a materialist basis also means, as Mao says in his “Talk on Questions of Philosophy,” to understand that “every link in the chain of events is both affirmation and negation.” In other words, thesis, antithesis and synthesis aren’t separated from each other in a metaphysical way. Affirmation and negation are present at every moment of any given process. 

In his essay “On Contradiction,” Mao made a great contribution to the Marxist-Leninist philosophy of dialectical materialism by clearly explaining that the materialist dialectic cannot be understood as a simple, linear sequence, but as a complex structural matrix of many unevenly developed contradictions all at work simultaneously. It is important to note that if we ignore the complexity of contradiction in favor of a simple, linear sequence, we risk taking a mechanical approach to solving problems by failing to recognize the significance of secondary contradictions in the situation. People who claim that everything that isn’t pure class struggle is a distraction are guilty of this error. 

Furthermore, the “law of the negation of the negation” preserves a Hegelian metaphysical framework. The Hegelian dialectic begins and ends with identity, mediated by struggle. This first identity is the “thesis” of Hegel’s triad, the original affirmation, and the Hegelian “synthesis” (the negation of the negation) is a new identity, with struggle (“antithesis”) acting merely as a bridge between them. This is an important point: in the Hegelian sequence contradiction exists primarily between identities rather than within them. Here identity is absolute and struggle is relative. In reality, on the contrary, contradiction is present within and essential to every moment of the process. Bourgeois society contains a multitude of contradictions (affirmations and negations), as does socialism, and so will communism. Struggle is inherent in every part of the process. Every identity is teeming with contradictions. If we don’t grasp this point we will think that external contradictions should be the focus of our attention, rather than internal contradictions that tend to drive things forward. 

The law of contradiction, as Marxism-Leninism understands it, means that the main thing in dialectics is division, rather than identity. To sum this up, the Chinese revolutionaries put forward the slogan “one divides Into two,” against the Hegelian “two fuse into one,” emphasizing the primary place of contradiction. Struggle isn’t just a bridge between the old identity and the new. No, in fact, identity without contradiction cannot exist: everything divides into two. 

This may seem like an overly philosophical point, but it is important for revolutionaries to grasp to avoid errors based in metaphysical thinking. The “law of the negation of the negation” would have it that dialectics is a continuous movement towards unity, or synthesis. Mao Zedong argues, on the contrary, that “the life of dialectics is the continuous movement towards opposites.” The Hegelian sequence leaves us with a dialectic that sees unity as absolute, and contradiction as relative, temporary, and conditional. On the contrary, affirmation and negation exist within every moment of every process. Contradictions exist within the very essence of things, not just between them, and it is those internal contradictions that are the primary motivators of change. 

Qualitative change doesn’t result from a drive towards synthesis, but from the transformation of the principal and secondary aspects of a contradiction into their opposites. It isn’t by uniting two contradictory things that we make historical progress, but by dividing them. We don’t make socialist revolution by uniting with the bourgeoisie. It is true that socialism carries forward elements of capitalist relations of production in the transition to communism, but the main thing isn’t to preserve those elements, but to destroy and uproot them piece by piece. Qualitative change results from the quantitative accumulation of force which changes the balance of power.

In privileging identity over struggle, the “law of the negation of the negation” can also put Marxists at risk of a kind of fatalism, where Communism exists as the “final cause” at the End of History, drawing everything towards it as the final identity where everything is ultimately resolved. Communism isn’t a final identity without any contradictions. Contradictions will exist within communism as well. Change and progress will continue. History will never end. 

Again, the “law of the negation of the negation” is useful to a point, but if we don’t take it farther we are left open to metaphysical errors. It gives us too linear a description of the dialectical process, and it separates affirmation and negation in a metaphysical way that privileges identity. As Marxism-Leninism has advanced it has advanced the philosophy of dialectical materialism beyond the metaphysical, linear framework of Hegelianism. Mao accomplished this by theorizing the concepts of the principal contradiction, principal and secondary aspects of contradictions, and the uneven development of contradictions within a process. Mao’s writings on dialectical materialism give us a powerful weapon to analyze the forces at work in the complex processes we face. 

Next in our series we’ll look at how these processes shape history. In the following articles we’ll look at the categories and concepts of the materialist conception of history, that is, historical materialism, and what they offer Marxist-Leninists as theoretical tools for changing the world.