Introduction to the Revolutionary Philosophy of Marxism – part two

In the second part of his introduction to a new edited collection, The Revolutionary Philosophy of Marxism, Alan Woods explains some of the fundamentals of the Marxist dialectical method and how these apply to both the natural world and human society. He also details how Marx masterfully applied the dialectical materialist method to his study of capitalism.

Part one |

The unity of opposites

For Hegel, the division of the One and the knowledge of its contradictory parts constitutes the essence of dialectics. For the One is the whole consisting of two conflicting and opposite poles. It is only by identifying these contradictory tendencies that a correct knowledge of the object under consideration can be recognised in its true, dynamic reality.

Hegel’s basic idea was that of development through contradictions. To give it another name, dialectics is the logic of contradiction. Whereas traditional (formal) logic attempts to banish contradiction, dialectics embraces it, accepts it as a normal and necessary element of all life and nature. Giordano Bruno, the 16th-century Italian philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician—whose theories anticipated modern science and whose reward by the Inquisition was to be burned at the stake—gave us a charming definition of dialectics when he described it as la divina arte degli opposti (“the divine art of opposites”).

Hegel refers to the “restless unity,” that underlying tension which is the basis of all matter. The unity—coincidence, identity, and resultant dynamic interplay—of opposites is conditional, temporary, transitory, and relative. The mutually exclusive relationship of opposites is absolute, and it is the basis of all movement, change, and evolution.

Alan Woods speaking at the launch of The Revolutionary Philosophy of Marxism at the 2018 Northeast Regional Marxist School in NYC:

In Moralising Criticism and Critical Morality Marx wrote: “It is characteristic of the whole grobianism of ‘sound common sense,’ which feeds upon the ‘fullness of life’ and does not stunt its natural faculties with any philosophical or other studies, that where it succeeds in seeing differences, it does not see unity, and that where it sees unity, it does not see differences. If it propounds differentiated determinants, they at once become fossilised in its hands, and it can see only the most reprehensible sophistry when these wooden concepts are knocked together so that they take fire.”

In the Science of Logic, Hegel begins with the category of Being, with the bare assertion “it is.” But this statement, despite its apparently commonsensical and concrete character—we have established the basic fact of existence—does not get us very far, and in fact leads us to a false conclusion. Pure Being, as Hegel points out, is the same as pure nothing. It is being stripped of all its concreteness and actuality. What appeared to be concrete turns out to be an empty abstraction.

Being and nothing are generally considered to be mutually exclusive opposites. But in reality, there can be no being without nothing, and no nothing without being. The unity of being and not being, as Hegel points out, is becoming: the constant movement of change that means that at any given moment, we are, and are not.

Life and death are considered to be mutually exclusive opposites. But in fact, death is an integral part of life. Life is not conceivable without death. We begin to die the moment we are born, for in fact, it is only the death of trillions of cells and their replacement by trillions of new cells, that constitutes life and human development.

Without death there could be no life, no growth, no change, no development. Thus, the attempt to banish death from life—as if the two things could be separated—is to arrive at a state of absolute immutability, changeless, static equilibrium, but this is just another name for—death. For there can be no life without change and movement.

I have before me a photograph of a baby, taken many years ago. That baby was me, but no longer exists. A vast number of changes have occurred since that photograph was taken, so that I am no longer what I was. And yet it is possible for me to say to somebody looking at the photograph: “oh, that’s me,” and I would not be telling a lie. This dialectical process was described most beautifully by Hegel in the Preface to The Phenomenology of Mind:

"The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant’s existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. These stages are not merely differentiated; they supplant one another as being incompatible with one another. But the ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes them at the same time moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other; and this equal necessity of all moments constitutes alone and thereby the life of the whole."

Seed germination Image U.S. Department of AgricultureHegel: "The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through... the former is refuted by the latter... But the ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes them at the same time moments of an organic unity" / Image: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Love and hate are opposites. Yet it is common knowledge that love and hate are very closely identified, and can easily be transformed from one to the other. It is the same with pleasure and pain. One cannot exist without the other. From a medical point of view, pain has an important function. It is not just an evil, but a warning from the body that all is not well. Pain is part of the human condition. Not only that: pain and pleasure are dialectically related.

Without the existence of pain, pleasure could not exist. Don Quixote explained to Sancho Panza that the best sauce was hunger. Likewise, we rest far better after a period of vigorous exertion. And in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Prince Hal says:

"If all the year were playing holidays, To sport would be as tedious as to work; But when they seldom come, they wish’d for come."

A world in which everything was white would actually be the same as a world in which everything was black, as polar explorers discovered when they suffered from snow blindness.

Quantity and quality

In the Science of Logic, particularly the section on measurement, Hegel elaborates his theory of the nodal line of development, in which a series of small, apparently insignificant changes eventually reach a critical point in which there is a qualitative leap. Chaos theory and its derivatives are clearly a form of dialectical thinking. In particular, the idea of the transformation from quantity to quality is central to it—one of the basic laws of dialectics.

In his book Anti-Dühring, Engels pointed out that in the last analysis, nature works dialectically. The advances of science over the last hundred years have completely borne out this assertion. American scientists have been at the forefront of some of the most important developments in modern science. I am thinking in particular of the work of R.C. Lewontin in the field of genetics, and above all, the writings of the evolutionary biologist, Stephen J. Gould.

Let us cite one easily understood example.

When water at normal atmospheric pressure is heated or cooled, there is a leap from one state of aggregation to another: at 0 degrees Celsius it is a solid (ice), and at 100 degrees it changes to a gaseous state (steam). If we increase the temperature still further, to 550 degrees, it becomes plasma, an entirely different state of matter, where the dissociation of atoms and molecules occurs. The leaps between each of these states are known as phase transitions. The study of phase transitions constitutes a very important branch of modern physics. Similar changes can be observed in the history of society, where the equivalent of a phase transition is a revolution.

Nucleation is the first step in the formation of either a new thermodynamic phase or a new structure by means of self-organisation. It is the process that determines how much time is required before a new phase or self-organised structure appears. This phenomenon is seen in thermodynamic phase transitions of every type. From a saturated solution to a crystal, from the evaporation of a liquid to a gas, or in the transition from water to ice.

It is possible to actually reach a position of supersaturation of a solution, where, for example, water under normal conditions can be heated or cooled above 100oC or below 0oC without becoming steam or a solid. What is required in many circumstances for the phase transition to occur is either an external shock or the presence of some impurity. Water, when heated, does not form bubbles of steam at any random point, but they all begin ascending from a scratch or imperfection on the surface of the saucepan. This is a nucleation point forming around a catalyst.

In thermodynamic terms, a supersaturated solution will have reached a level of concentration—or temperature or whatever other quantitative element is involved—where the alternative phase represents a lower entropy, but there is an entropy cost in forming the first “nucleus.” Sometimes this nucleation point forms randomly over a period of time and, as is also the case with radioactive decay, there is an increasing probability over time of it forming. However, its formation is aided by the presence of some catalyst on whose surface the entropy leap is lowered.

We can visualise this process when we think of the crystallisation of a pearl in a clam. Indeed, we often talk about the “crystallisation” of anger within a factory or society and the analogy is an apt one. In the case of the formation of a pearl, all of the conditions for its formation can exist except one: some impurity around which it can take shape. That “impurity” is often a worm that has burrowed through the shell of a clam and died. Here the imagery is quite striking: a beautiful pearl forming a sarcophagus around a rather ugly piece of dead biological matter.

We will return to this analogy later.

Evolution Image Flickr Paul HudsonThe two percent genetic difference that separates us from the other primates is a qualitative leap that carries humankind to an entirely different and higher level / Image: Flickr, Paul Hudson

We often see the apparent repetition of stages of development that have long since been overcome. We see the same thing in the study of embryos, which apparently go through the stages of evolution. A human embryo starts as a single cell, then divides and acquires more complex forms. At one stage it has gills like a fish, later it has a tail like a monkey. The similarity between human embryos and those of other animals, including fish and reptiles, is striking, and was already noted by the ancient Greeks. Over two thousand years before Darwin, Anaximander (c. 611–546 BCE) deduced that man had evolved from a fish.

The genetic difference between humans and chimpanzees is less than two percent and we share a large percentage of our genes with fruit flies and even more primitive organisms. The last desperate counterattack of the Creationists—hiding behind the banner of “intelligent design”—was shattered against the remarkable results of the Human Genome Project. However, the two percent difference that separates us from the other primates is a qualitative leap that carries humankind to an entirely different and higher level.

The process of evolution has gone on uninterruptedly from the first primitive life forms that emerged, as we now know, at a surprisingly early period in the Earth’s history. The first primitive organisms probably emerged on the bed of the primeval oceans, deriving energy, not from the sun, but from volcanic vents, generating heat from below the earth’s crust. The earliest protozoa developed into chordata, through to the earliest land-dwelling amphibians, to reptiles, and later to mammals and humans.

History and nature know both evolution—slow, gradual development—and revolution—a qualitative leap, where the process of evolution is enormously accelerated. Evolution prepares the way for revolution, which in turn prepares the way for a new period of evolution on a higher level.

The unity of opposites can be clearly observed at all levels of matter. Conflicting tendencies are found at all levels in nature, from the largest galaxies to the smallest subatomic particles. The identity of opposites is the recognition—or discovery—of the mutually exclusive tendencies that exist in all the phenomena and processes of nature. This is what Engels meant when he defined dialectics as the most general laws of nature, society, and human thought.


It is an elementary truth of chemistry that opposite charges attract, while like charges repel. But here we have an apparent paradox. The nuclei of all atoms except hydrogen contain more than one proton, and each proton carries a positive charge. The protons must feel a repulsive force from the other protons. So why would the nuclei of these atoms stay together? What holds the nucleus together?

The unity of opposites pulling together and tearing apart the atom are the strong nuclear force and the electrostatic force respectively. Neutrons and protons bind to each other through the strong nuclear force, however, this force only operates over a very short range. Positively charged protons, however, are constantly repelling each other through electrostatic repulsion. This force operates over much larger distances.

The strong nuclear force holds most ordinary matter together. In addition, the strong force binds neutrons and protons to create atomic nuclei. Just as centrifugal forces attempt to tear galaxies apart while gravity holds them together, electromagnetism is the force that would theoretically rip a nucleus apart, while the nuclear force—130 times stronger than electromagnetism—holds it together.

The nucleus holds together, but only within certain limits. If the number of protons or neutrons exceeds these limits, the nucleus becomes unstable due to radioactive decay. If the nucleus becomes very large it can undergo an even more dramatic transformation.

As the nucleus increases in size, the repulsive electrostatic force eventually overcomes the attractive nuclear force and the nucleus becomes unstable. All that is then required is to fire a single neutron at the nucleus and—quantity transforms into quality—the nucleus splits in two, emitting a large amount of energy and often emitting more neutrons in the process. This is what physicists refer to as nuclear fission.

If a certain amount of fissionable material is present, it will ensure that neutrons released by fission will strike another nucleus, thus producing a chain reaction. The more fissionable material is present, the greater the odds that such an event will occur. Critical mass is defined as the amount of material at which a neutron produced by a fission process will, on average, create another fission event.

In the transition from a controlled to an uncontrolled nuclear reaction there is a qualitative leap—a transition from quantity into quality. If you insert material—a control rod—into the fissile material to absorb more neutrons than are being emitted by the fission reaction, the reaction remains under control. However, remove the control rod an inch too far and you have a cascade of neutrons and quantity transforms into quality—producing a nuclear meltdown.

The same processes can be observed at all levels of nature. In his book Ubiquity, the American physicist and author, Mark Buchanan, points out that phenomena as diverse as heart attacks, avalanches, forest fires, the rise and fall of animal populations, stock exchange crises, the movement of traffic, and even revolutions in art and fashion are all governed by the same basic law, which can be expressed as a mathematical equation known as a power law. This is yet another striking confIrmation of the dialectical law of the transformation of quantity into quality.

The dialectics of Capital

In his marvellously profound Philosophical Notebooks, written during the period of his Swiss exile in the years of World War I, Lenin wrote: “It is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists understood Marx!”

Even allowing for an element of exaggeration—these were, after all, rough notes written for self-clarification, not intended for publication—the fundamental idea expressed by Lenin is correct. Capital itself is a masterful application of the dialectical method refined by Hegel and perfected by Marx and Engels. The first chapter of the first volume is purely philosophical in character and is precisely based on Hegel, as Marx himself pointed out.

For that very reason, this chapter is generally considered one of the most difficult in the entire work. It is not about economics but about philosophy. It is rooted in the method of Hegel’s dialectical masterpiece The Science of Logic. Yet it is fundamental to an understanding of Marx’s analysis of the capitalist economy.

Petrol Petrol Stations Gasoline Prices Refuel Fuel Image Max PixelPrices fluctuate according to the laws of supply and demand, but these fluctuations take place around a given point, which is the real value of a commodity. This value is the product of human labour / Image: Max Pixel

In the first volume of Capital, Marx derives all the laws of capitalist society from an analysis of its basic “cell”—the commodity. Marx analyses the commodity and explains that it has two aspects, which are really contradictory tendencies. At first sight, the commodity appears to be something very simple and concrete: an object of use. Whether this use is really necessary or is the product of caprice is indifferent to this consideration. But on closer examination, we see the commodity is not simple at all. It is not just a use value, but also an exchange value—something entirely different.

Humankind has produced use values from the earliest period, but under capitalism, the nature of commodities undergoes a fundamental change. The capitalist does not produce objects for human use but objects for sale in order to obtain a profit.

The use value of a commodity is confined to its concrete attributes; but in exchange value there is not a single atom of matter. The price of an individual commodity is determined by a vast number of transactions that take place daily in the world economy. Prices fluctuate according to the laws of supply and demand, but these fluctuations take place around a given point, which is the real value of a commodity. This value, as even economists prior to Marx explained, is the product of human labour.

Particular and universal

In his Philosophical Notebooks, Lenin writes:

"In his Capital, Marx first analyses the simplest, most ordinary and fundamental, most common and everyday relation of bourgeois (commodity) society, a relation encountered billions of times, viz., the exchange of commodities. In this very simple phenomenon, in this “cell” of bourgeois society, analysis reveals all the contradictions (or the germs of all contradictions) of modern society. The subsequent exposition shows us the development (both growth and movement) of these contradictions and of this society in the sum of its individual parts. From its beginning to its end."

Such must also be the method of exposition (or study) of dialectics in general—for with Marx the dialectics of bourgeois society is only a particular case of dialectics. To begin with what is the simplest, most ordinary, common, etc., with any proposition: the leaves of a tree are green; John is a man; Fido is a dog, etc. Here already we have dialectics (as Hegel’s genius recognised): the individual is the universal.

The medieval scholastics cracked their brains over the question as to whether universals (abstractions) actually exist. Hegel solved this problem brilliantly by pointing out that the particular and the universal are in fact the same: every particular is, in one way or another, a universal. Every individual belongs to a genus or species that defines its true nature, however, genesis and species are made up of individual creatures. The limit of these categories in biology is determined by the ability to reproduce.

Consequently, the opposites—the particular as opposed to the universal—are identical: the individual exists only in the connection that leads to the universal. The universal exists only in the individual and through the individual. Every individual is—in one way or another—a universal. Every universal is a fragment, or an aspect, or the essence of an individual. Every universal only approximately embraces all the individual objects. Every individual enters incompletely into the universal, etc., etc. Every individual is connected by thousands of transitions with other kinds of individuals—things, phenomena, processes, etc. As Aristotle pointed out: “But of course, there cannot be a house in general, apart from individual houses” (Metaphysics).

. . . This apparently contradictory assertion can be shown from even the simplest sentence. It is impossible to express the nature of any particular without immediately turning it into a universal. Such is the nature of any definition, for example when we say John is a man, Fido is a dog, this is a leaf of a tree, etc., we disregard a number of attributes as contingent; we separate the essence from the appearance, and counterpose the one to the other.

Hegel pointed out that, in ordinary language, statements do not take the form of “a = a” (John is John, a house is a house, etc.) but “a = b” (John is a man, a house is a building), which implies the unity of identity and difference. And Lenin comments:

"Here already we have the elements, the germs, the concepts of necessity, of objective connection in nature, etc. Here already we have the contingent and the necessary, the phenomenon and the essence. . ."

. . . Thus in any proposition we can—and must—disclose as in a “nucleus” (“cell”) the germs of all the elements of dialectics, and thereby show that dialectics is a property of all human knowledge in general. And natural science shows us—and here again it must be demonstrated in any simple instance—objective nature with the same qualities, the transformation of the individual into the universal, of the contingent into the necessary, transitions, modulations, and the reciprocal connection of opposites. Dialectics is the theory of knowledge of (Hegel and) Marxism. This is the “aspect” of the matter—it is not “an aspect” but the essence of the matter—to which Plekhanov, not to speak of other Marxists, paid no attention.

Can human society be understood?

Even the most superficial observation proves that human society has passed through a number of definite stages and that certain processes are repeated at regular intervals. Just as in nature we see the transformation of quantity into quality, so in history we see that long periods of slow, almost imperceptible change are interrupted by periods in which the process is accelerated to produce a qualitative leap.

In nature, the long periods of slow change—stasis—can last for millions of years. They are interrupted by catastrophic events, which are invariably accompanied by the extinction of animal species that were previously dominant, and the rise of other species that previously were insignificant but were better adapted to take advantage of the new circumstances. In human society, wars and revolutions play such a significant role that we are accustomed to using them as milestones that separate one historical period from another.

The burning of the royal carriage during the French revolution of 1848Just as in nature we see the transformation of quantity into quality, so in history we see that long periods of slow, almost imperceptible change are interrupted by periods in which the process is accelerated to produce a qualitative leap / Image: public domain

It was Marx and Engels who discovered that the real driving force of history is the development of the productive forces. This does not mean, as the enemies of Marxism frequently assert, that Marx reduced everything to economics. There are many other factors that enter into the development of society: religion, morality, philosophy, politics, patriotism, tribal alliances, etc. All these enter into a complex web of social interrelations that create a rich and confusing mosaic of phenomena and processes.

At first sight it seems impossible to make sense of this. But the same thing could be said of nature, yet the complexity of the universe does not deter scientists from attempting to separate the different elements, to analyse and categorise them. By what right do men and women imagine that they are above nature, and that they alone in the entire universe cannot be understood by science? The very idea is preposterous and a manifestation of that burning desire of humans to be some kind of special creation, entirely separate from all other animals and with a special relation to the rest of the universe determined by God. But science has mercilessly stripped away these egocentric illusions.

Marx and Engels, for the first time, gave communism a scientific character. They explained that the real emancipation of the masses depends on the level of development of the productive forces—industry, agriculture, science and technology—which will create the necessary conditions for a general reduction of the working day and access to culture for all, as the only way of transforming the way people think and behave towards each other.