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Red theory: Contradiction, the kernel of dialectics

By J. Sykes |
April 10, 2022
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Mao Zedong.
Mao Zedong.

Friedrich Engels lists three laws of dialectics, but, as we shall see, the most important is the law of contradiction, which he calls the law of the interpenetration of opposites. Before we discuss the other two (the transformation of quantity into quality, and the negation of the negation), let’s look closely at contradiction. 

Many of the great theorists of Marxism-Leninism wrote about dialects in general and contradiction in particular. Mao Zedong extrapolated from the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, along with the direct experience of the Chinese revolution, a systematic theory of materialist dialectics, particularly in his essay “On Contradiction.” He was the first to explain dialectics in terms of the uneven development of contradictions, of principal and secondary contradictions, and, within that, of principal and secondary aspects of those contradictions. 

What, then, is a contradiction? When we talk about a contradiction, we are talking about two opposing forces within any given concrete process. Contradiction is universal. The interaction of opposing forces takes place within all phenomena. Lenin said, “The splitting in two of a single whole and the cognition of its contradictory parts is the essence of dialectics.” Marx’s great work, Capital, is an analysis of the particular contradictions at work, from top to bottom, within bourgeois society. Through looking at those contradictions Marx was able to demonstrate the laws of motion that govern capitalist society. 

Capitalism is a complex process. Thus, in capitalism, there are many contradictions at work at the same time. There is the contradiction between the ruling class of exploiters (the bourgeoisie) and the class of exploited (the working class, or proletariat). But capitalism also brings with it monopolies, imperialism, national oppression, and so on. There are numerous classes and social groups with their own interests and struggles. Even among the various strata of a particular class there are different contradictions. But if we look closely at all of these contradictions, we find that capitalism is at the root of all of them. 

In his analysis of capitalism, Marx found that the basis of the class struggle within the capitalist mode of production is the contradiction between the social character of production and the private character of accumulation. 

Millions of people work in a complex division of labor to produce the wealth of society, while that wealth is accumulated in the hands of a small minority of people who own the means of production. In other words, production is social, but profit is private. This contradiction is the basis of the class struggle and the driving force behind the cycles of capitalist crisis. Mao says this contradiction is fundamental and points out that even as capitalism developed into its current stage, imperialism, this fundamental contradiction at the core of capitalism itself remained. As long as capitalism continues to exist, this fundamental contradiction continues to sharpen. The eventual resolution of this contradiction through proletarian revolution will mark the end of capitalism and the beginning of a new process, that of socialist construction. 

While the fundamental contradiction between social production and private accumulation is basic to what capitalism is, there are still many other contradictions at work in such a complex process, and these contradictions can play lesser or greater roles at different times and under different conditions. The principal, or determining, contradiction within that can also change, given the dynamics of the situation. Mao argues that “in capitalist society the two forces in contradiction, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, form the principal contradiction.” However, Mao argues that in national liberation wars against imperialism, the principal contradiction is different, as the class conflicts within that nation take a back seat to the struggle for liberation. We can expand or reduce the scope of our analysis, to look at contradictions operating on a global scale, down to the contradictions operating on a very small, local scale.

Currently, we live in the era of imperialism. Imperialism, led by the United States, strives to dominate the world, politically, militarily and economically, and the principal contradiction on a global scale is the contradiction between imperialism and the oppressed nations. To say that other contradictions are secondary isn’t to diminish their importance, but rather to say that these contradictions are influenced and determined by the principal contradiction. We can’t deal with principal or secondary contradictions if we don't know which is which. For this reason Mao stresses that “Once this principal contradiction is grasped, all problems can be readily solved.” 

Likewise, contradictions develop unevenly. In any given contradiction, one side of that contradiction is the principal, or dominant, aspect. The principal aspect of the contradiction is what plays the leading role within that contradiction, and the nature of a thing is determined by the aspect which plays this leading role. But the principal and secondary aspects also can exchange places. For example, in capitalist society the bourgeoisie and the proletariat exist side by side, but the bourgeoisie plays the leading role. In socialist society the proletariat will take over the leading role to dismantle capitalist productive relations and build socialism. So we see then that when the principal and secondary aspects of a contradiction exchange place it causes a qualitative change in the situation.

This understanding of how contradictions operate in complex processes gives us a deeper understanding of the laws of motion that govern that process. For this reason, dialectical materialism is a powerful tool for revolutionaries to break down a complex process and determine where and how to act. 

It is on the basis of this dialectical analysis of the terrain of struggle in the United States that we talk about a united front against monopoly capitalism, under the leadership of the working class and its party, with the strategic alliance of the multinational working class and the movements of oppressed nationalities as its core. This is a strategy for revolution, based on the concrete analysis of our concrete conditions, which takes into account the complex matrix of principal and secondary contradictions, both within the imperialist United States and on a global scale. 

This method of analysis also functions on a tactical level, in particular, on the ground struggles. We can use dialectical materialism to find the principal and secondary contradictions at work in a given struggle, such as in a union contract negotiation or in struggles against police brutality, and use that analysis to look at the interests of the different forces at work, how they interact, and where to aim our blows. 

In our next article we will proceed to look more deeply at the identity and struggle of the aspects of a contradiction, and then at the question of the role played by antagonism in a contradiction. This will further help us to understand how to apply this method, especially when it comes to questions of different ways of handling contradictions between the masses and the enemy and contradictions among the masses of the people themselves.



See our full series of articles on Marxist-Leninist theory here.