Elementary Principles of Philosophy
by Georges Politzer

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1. Preliminary precautions

WHEN dialectics is spoken of, it is often couched in mystery and presented as if it were something complicated. Knowing poorly what it is, people speak of it without rhyme or reason. This is all regrettable and leads to errors which must be avoided.

In its etymological sense, the term dialectics simply means the art of disputation. In this sense, we often hear it said of a man who argues at length and even, by extension, of someone who speaks well that he is a dialectician!

It is not in this sense that we are going to study dialectics. From the philosophical point of view, this word has assumed a special significance. In its philosophical sense, dialectics, contrary to what is thought, is within the reach of everyone, for it is a very clear and unmysterious thing.

But, while dialectics may be understood by everyone, it still has its difficulties. Here is how we ought to understand them.

Among different types of manual labor, some are simple and others are more complex. Making packing cases, for example, is an easy task. Assembling a radio set, on the other hand, represents a task that demands much skill, precision and manual dexterity.

Hands and fingers are working tools for us. But thought is also a working tool. And, while our fingers do not always do detailed work, the same is true for our brain.

In the history of human labor, at first man knew only how to perform crude tasks. Scientific progress has enabled man to accomplish more exacting tasks.

This is equally the case in the history of thought. Metaphysics is that method of thought which is capable, like our fingers, only of crude motion (such as nailing down the cases or pulling out the drawers of metaphysics). Dialectics differs from this method because it allows for a greater precision. It is nothing other than a method of thought of great precision.

The evolution of thought has been the same as that of manual labor. It is the same history and there is no mystery: everything in this evolution is clear.

The difficulties which we encounter stem from the fact that, for twenty-five years we nail down cases, and then, suddenly, we are placed in front of radio sets to be assembled. Without a doubt we shall have enormous difficulties; our hands will be clumsy and our fingers awkward. Only gradually shall we succeed in becoming more supple and accomplishing this task. What was very difficult at the beginning will later seem simpler to us.

The same thing is true in the case of dialectics. We are awkward and clumsy due to the old metaphysical method of thinking, and we must acquire the flexibility and precision of the dialectical method. But we see that there is nothing mysterious or very complicated about this.

2. Where did the dialectic method come from?

We know that metaphysics considers the world to be a complex of fixed things and that, if we look at nature, we see that, on the contrary, everything moves and changes. We find that the same holds true for thought. The result of these findings is a disagreement between metaphysics and reality. In order to give a simple definition of the main idea conveyed by these words, we might say that “metaphysics” implies “immobility” and that “dialectics” implies “motion.”

Motion and change, which exist in everything which surrounds us, form the basis of dialectics.

According to this very text by Engels, we see that, from the dialectical point of view, everything changes, nothing remains where it is, nothing stays what it is and that, consequently, this point of view is in perfect agreement with reality. Nothing remains in the place which it occupies since even that which seems immobile to us moves; it moves with the revolution of the earth around the sun and the rotation of the earth on its axis. In metaphysics, the principle of identity maintains that a thing must remain itself. We see that, on the contrary, nothing remains what it is.

We have the impression that we always remain the same, and yet Engels tells us that “the same are different.” We think that we are identical but we have already changed. From the child which we were, we have become an adult and this adult, physically, never remains the same: but gets older every day.

Hence, the misleading appearance is not motion, as the Eleatic philosophers claimed, but immobility, since, in fact, everything moves and changes.

History also proves to us that things do not remain as they are. At no moment is society immobile. There was first, in antiquity, a slave society; this was then succeeded by a feudal society and then capitalist society. The study of these societies shows us that the factors permitting the birth of a new society continually and imperceptibly developed within them. In this way, capitalist society changes every day and has ceased to exist in the U.S.S.R. Because no society remains immobile, the socialist society erected in the Soviet Union is also destined to disappear. It is already visibly transforming, and this is why metaphysicians do not understand what is taking place there. They continue to judge a completely transformed society with the feelings of a man who is still under capitalist oppression.

Our feelings themselves change, which we hardly notice. We see what was only an attraction turn into love, then sometimes degenerate into hatred.

What we see everywhere, in nature, history and thought, is change and motion. It is with this observation that dialectics begins.

The Greeks were startled by the fact that change and motion are encountered everywhere. We have seen that Heraclitus, who is called the “father of dialectics,” was the first to give us a dialectical concept of the world, i.e., he described the world in motion and not fixed. Heraclitus’ way of seeing can become a method.

But this dialectical method was able to assert its authority only a long time after that, and we must see why dialectics was dominated by the metaphysical concept for such a long time.

3. Why was dialectics dominated for a long time by the metaphysical concept?

We have seen that the dialectical point of view was born very early in history, but that man’s insufficient knowledge enabled the metaphysical concept to develop and take precedence over dialectics.

We can draw a parallel here between idealism, which arose from the great ignorance of men, and the metaphysical concept, which derived from the insufficient knowledge of dialectics.

How and why was this possible?

Men began the study of nature in a state of complete ignorance. In order to study the phenomena which they found, they began by classifying them. But a mental habit resulted from this way of classifying. By making categories and separating them from each other, our minds get used to making such separations and we find in this the first characteristic of the metaphysical method. Hence, it was really from the insufficient development of science that metaphysics emerged. Only 150 years ago, people studied the sciences by separating them from each other. For example, chemistry, physics, and biology were studied separately and no relation was seen between them. This method was further applied within the sciences: physics was concerned with sound, heat, magnetism, electricity, etc., but it was thought that these different phenomena were totally unrelated; each was studied in separate chapters.

We easily recognize in this practice the second characteristic of metaphysics which requires that one disregard the relations between things and that there be nothing in common between them.

Likewise, it is easier to conceive of things in a state of rest than in motion. Let us take photography as an example. We see that, firstly, pictures are taken of things in their immobility (this is photography), then, only later, in motion (this is cinematics). So, this example of the development of photography and cinematics mirrors that of the sciences and the human mind. We study things at rest before studying them in motion.

Why is this so? Because people were ignorant. In order to learn, people took the easiest point of view. Now, immobile things are easier to grasp and study. Certainly the study of things at rest is a necessary stage of dialectical thought—but only an insufficient, fragmentary stage, which must be integrated into the study of things which are becoming.

We run across this state of mind in biology, for example, in the study of zoology and botany. Because they were not well known, animals were first classified into breeds and species, since it was thought that there was nothing in common between them and that it had always been this way (third characteristic of metaphysics). From this was derived the theory called “fixism” (which maintains, contrary to “evolutionism,” that animal species have always been what they are, that they have never evolved), which is, consequently, a metaphysical theory which stems from man’s ignorance.

4. Why was the materialism of the 18th century metaphysical?

We know that mechanics played a large role in the materialism of the 18th century and that this materialism is often called “mechanistic materialism.” Why was this so? Because the materialist concept is linked to the development of all the sciences and among these it was mechanics which developed first. In common speech, mechanics is the study of machines; in scientific language, it is the study of motion as displacement. Mechanics was the science which developed first because mechanical motion is the simplest kind of motion. It is much easier to study the motion of an apple on a tree which is blowing in the wind than to study the change produced in a ripening apple. The effect of the wind on the apple can be more easily studied than the ripening of the apple. But the former study is “partial” and thus opens the door to metaphysics.

Although they do indeed notice that everything is in motion, the ancient Greeks cannot make use of this observation, for their knowledge is insufficient. So, things and phenomena are observed and classified, and people are satisfied with studying their displacement, from which mechanics is derived; and the inadequacy of scientific knowledge gives rise to the metaphysical concept.

We know that materialism is always based on science and that in the 18th century science was dominated by the metaphysical spirit. Of all the sciences, the most developed during this period was mechanics. “This is why it was inevitable,” says Engels, “that the materialism of the 18th century be a metaphysical and mechanistic materialism, because the sciences were like that.”

We shall say, then, that this mechanistic and metaphysical materialism was materialist because it answered the fundamental question of philosophy by saying that the primary factor is matter; but it was metaphysical because it considered the universe to be a complex of fixed and mechanical things and because it studied and saw everything from the point of view of mechanics.

There comes a day when, through the accumulation of research, one finds that the sciences are not immobile; one notices that they have been transformed. After having separated chemistry from biology and physics, one comes to the realization that it has become impossible to deal with one of the sciences without having recourse to the others. For example, the study of digestion, which belongs to the domain of biology, becomes impossible without chemistry. Towards the 19th century, the interconnection of the sciences is clearly seen and a retreat of the metaphysical spirit in the sciences ensues, due to a more profound knowledge of nature. Up to then, the phenomena of physics had been studied separately; now, no one could deny that all these phenomena were of the same nature. This is how electricity and magnetism, which used to be studied separately, have come to be united in a single science: electromagnetism.

Likewise, by studying the phenomena of sound and heat, scientists have realized that both derive from phenomena of a similar nature.

By banging with a hammer, one obtains a sound and produces heat. It is motion which produces heat. And we know that sound consists of vibrations in the air; vibrations are also motion. Hence, these two phenomena are similar in nature.

in biology, by classifying more and more minutely, scientists have succeeded in discovering species which are incapable of being classified as either plant or animal. Hence, there was no abrupt separation of plants and animals. After further study, they arrived at the conclusion that animals have not always been what they are. The facts condemned fixism and the metaphysical spirit.

It was during the 19th century that the transformation we have just seen and which enabled materialism to become dialectical occurred. Dialectics is the spirit of science, which, in the course of its development, abandoned the metaphysical concept. Materialism was able to be transformed because the sciences changed. Metaphysical sciences were in harmony with metaphysical materialism just as the new sciences are in harmony with a new materialism, i.e., dialectical materialism.

5. How dialectical materialism was born: Hegel and Marx

If we ask how this transformation of metaphysical materialism into dialectical materialism was brought about, the answer we generally get is:

If we have a tendency to present things in this way, it is due to the metaphysical method, which demands that we simplify things in order to make a schema. We must, however, always keep in mind that the facts of reality should never be schematized. Facts are more complicated than they seem or than we think. It follows that there was not such a simple transformation of metaphysical materialism into dialectical materialism.

Dialectics was, in fact, developed by a German idealist philosopher, Hegel (1770-1831), who was able to understand the change which had taken place in the sciences. Reverting to the old idea of Heraclitus, he found, with the help of scientific progress, that everything in the universe is motion and change, that nothing is isolated, but rather everything is dependent on everything else, and this is how he created dialectics. It is due to Hegel that we speak today of the dialectical motion of the world. What Hegel first grasped was the motion of thought, and he called it naturally dialectics.

But Hegel is an idealist, i.e., he gives primary importance to spirit and, consequently, he entertains a particular idea about motion and change. He thinks that it is spiritual changes which provoke changes in matter. For Hegel, the universe is idea become matter and, before the universe, there was first spirit which discovered the universe. In short, he finds that both spirit and the universe are in perpetual change, but concludes that changes in spirit determine changes in matter.

Example: The inventor has an idea; he realized this idea, and it is this materialized idea which creates changes in matter.

Hence, Hegel is certainly a dialectician, but he subordinates dialectics to idealism.

It is then that Marx (1818-1883) and Engels (1820-1895), followers of Hegel, but materialist followers and therefore giving primary importance to matter, think that his dialectics makes assertions which are correct but upside down. Engels says in this regard that with Hegel dialectics was standing on its head and it had to be put back on its feet. Hence, Marx and Engels transfer the initial cause of this motion of thought defined by Hegel to material reality and call it naturally dialectics, borrowing the same term from him.

They think that Hegel is right to say that thought and the universe are perpetually changing, but that he is mistaken to declare that it is changes in ideas which determine changes in things. It is, rather, things which give us ideas, and ideas have been altered because things have been altered.

Therefore, we ought to avoid saying, “Marx and Engels possess, on the one hand, materialism, inherited from the French materialism of the 18th century, and, on the other hand, Hegel’s dialectics; consequently, it remained for them only to join the two together.”

This is a simplistic, schematic concept, which forgets that phenomena are more complicated; it is a metaphysical concept.

Marx and Engels will certainly take dialectics from Hegel, but they will transform it. They will do the same with materialism in order to give us dialectical materialism.


Selsam and H. Martel, Reader in Marxist Philosophy: From the Writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin (New York: International Publishers, 1963), Part III “Dialectics and the Dialectical Method.”


1. What is meant by dialectical motion?

THE FIRST law of dialectics begins by remarking that “nothing stays where it is; nothing remains what it is.” Dialectics implies motion and change. Consequently, when one speaks of seeing things from a dialectical viewpoint, this means seeing them from the point of view of motion and change. When we want to study things according to dialectics, we shall study them in their motion and in their change.

Here is an apple. We have two ways of studying this apple: either from the metaphysical or from the dialectical point of view.

In the first case, we shall give a description of this fruit, its shape and color. We shall list its properties; we shall speak of its taste, etc. Then we can compare the apple with the pear, see their similarities and differences and finally conclude that an apple is an apple and a pear is a pear. This is how things were formerly studied, as numerous books will attest.

If we want to study the apple from the dialectical point of view, we shall place ourselves within the framework of motion; not the motion of the apple when it rolls and moves from place to place, but rather the motion of its evolution. Then we shall find that the ripe apple has not always been what it is. Before that it was a green apple; before being a flower, it was a bud. In this way, we shall go back to the condition of the apple tree in spring. The apple has not always been an apple: it has a history. Likewise, it will not remain what it is. If it falls, it will rot, decompose and scatter its seeds, which will, if all goes well, produce a shoot and then a tree. Hence, neither has the apple always been what it is nor will it remain what it is.

This is what is called studying things from the point of view of motion. It is study from the point of view of the past and the future. By studying in this way, the present apple is seen only as a transition between what it was, the past, and what it will be, the future.

In order to clearly explain this way of seeing things, we are going to take two more examples: the earth and society.

From a metaphysical point of view, we shall describe the shape of the earth in all its details. We shall find that on its surface there are seas, land and mountains; we shall study the nature of the soil. Then we can compare the earth to other planets or to the moon, and we shall finally conclude that the earth is the earth.

Whereas by studying the history of the earth from the dialectical point of view, we shall see that it has undergone transformations and that, consequently, the earth will undergo in the future even more transformations. We must then take into account today that the present state of the earth is but a transition between past changes and changes to come. This transition is such that the changes which take place are imperceptible, although they are on a much larger scale than those which occur during the ripening of an apple.

Let us now look at the example of society, which is of particular interest to Marxists.

Let us still apply our two methods. From the metaphysical point of view, we will be told that there have always been rich and poor. We shall find that there are large banks and enormous factories. We will be given a detailed description of capitalist society, which will be compared with past societies (feudal, slave-owning) by looking for similarities and differences, and we will be told that capitalist society is what it is.

From the dialectical point of view, we shall learn that capitalist society has not always been what it is. When we find that in the past other societies lived for a while, we shall deduce from this that capitalist society, like all societies, is not permanent and has no intangible basis, but rather it is only a provisional reality for us, a transition between the past and the future.

From these few examples, we see that to consider things from the dialectical point of view means to consider them to be provisional, having a history in the past and about to have a history in the future; having a beginning and going to have an end.

2. For dialectics, there is nothing final, absolute, sacred

“For it (dialectics), nothing is final, absolute, sacred. It reveals the transitory character of everything and in everything; nothing can endure before it except the uninterrupted process of becoming and of passing away, …” (Engels, Feuerbach, p. 12.)

Here is a definition which underlines what we have just seen and what we are going to study:

   “For dialectics, there is nothing final.”

This means that, for dialectics, everything has a past and will have a future; consequently, it is not here once and for all and what it is today is not final. (Examples of the apple, earth, society.)

For dialectics, there is no power in the world, nor beyond the world, which can hold things in a permanent state, hence there is "nothing absolute." (Absolute means not subject to any condition, hence, universal, eternal, perfect.)

"Nothing sacred," this does not mean that dialectics despises everything. No! A sacred thing is a thing which is regarded as immutable, which must neither be touched nor be discussed but only venerated. Capitalist society, for example, is "sacred". Well, dialectics tells us that nothing can escape from motion, change or the transformations of history.

"Transitory" comes from "transire" which means to pass; a transitory thing is one which grows old and must disappear. Dialectics shows us that anything which is transitory eventually has no longer any reason for being, that everything is destined to disappear. What is young grows old; what is living today dies tomorrow, and nothing exists, for dialectics, "except the uninterrupted process of becoming and of passing away."

Hence, to assume the dialectical point of view means to consider nothing to be eternal, except change. It means understanding that no particular thing can be eternal except "becoming."

But what is this "becoming" which Engels speaks of in his definition?

We have seen that the apple has a history. Let us now take the example of a pencil which has its own history, too.

This pencil, which is worn down today, was once new. The wood from which it is made came from a board, and this board came from a tree. We see then that the apple and the pencil both have a history and that neither one has always been what it is. But is there a difference between these two histories? Certainly!

The green apple became ripe. When it was green, could it, if all went well, not become ripe? No, it had to ripen, just as, if it falls to the ground, it has to rot, decompose, and scatter its seeds.

Whereas the tree from which the pencil comes may not become a board, and this board may not become a pencil. The pencil itself can always remain whole and not be sharpened.

Hence, we notice a difference between these two histories. In the case of the apple, if nothing abnormal occurs, the flower becomes an apple and the green apple becomes ripe. Thus, given one stage, the other stage necessarily and inevitably follows (if nothing stops the evolution).

In the history of the pencil, on the other hand, the tree may not become a board, the board may not become a pencil, and the pencil may not be sharpened. Hence, given one stage, the second stage may not follow. If the history of the pencil proceeds through all its stages, it is due to foreign intervention—that of man.

In the history of the apple, we find stages which succeed one another, the second stage deriving from the first, etc. This history follows the “becoming” which Engels speaks of. In the history of the pencil, the stages are placed side by side, without deriving from each other. This is because the apple is following a natural process.

3. Process

(Word coming from Latin and meaning: forward motion, or the act of advancing, of progressing.)

Why does the green apple become ripe? Because of what it contains. It is due to internal sequences which stimulate the apple to ripen; it is because it was an apple even before it was ripe; it is because it could not help but ripen.

When one examines the flower which will become an apple, then the green apple which will ripen, one finds that these internal sequences, stimulating the apple in its evolution, act under the pressure of internal forces. This latter is called autodynamism, which means a force which comes from the being itself.

When the pencil was still a board, the intervention of man was necessary in order to make it become a pencil, for never would a board transform itself into a pencil. There were not internal forces at work, thus no autodynamism and no process. Hence, dialectics implies not only motion but also autodynamism.

We see then that dialectical motion contains within itself processes or autodynamism, which is its essential feature. For not every motion or change is dialectical. If we approach the study of a flea from the dialectical viewpoint, we shall say that it has not always been what it is and that it will not always be what it is. If we crush it, this certainly represents a change for it, but will this change be dialectical? No. Without us, it would not have been crushed. Hence, this change is not dialectical, but mechanical.

Therefore, we must be careful when we speak of dialectical change. We think that if the earth continues to exist, capitalist society will be replaced by a socialist and then a Communist society. This will be a dialectical change. But, if the earth explodes, capitalist society will disappear not through an autodynamic change, but through a mechanical change.

In another context, we say that there is a mechanical discipline when this discipline is not natural. But it is autodynamic when it is freely consented to, i.e., when it comes from its natural milieu. A mechanical discipline is imposed from the outside; it is a discipline coming from leaders who are different from those they command. (We understand then to what extent nonmechanical discipline, autodynamic discipline, is not within the reach of every organization!)

Therefore, we must avoid using dialectics in a mechanical fashion. This is a tendency which we derive from our metaphysical habits of thinking. We mustn’t repeat like a parrot that things have not always been what they are. When a dialectician says that, he must look for how things were before. For saying that is not the end of an argument, but the beginning of scrupulous research into what things were like before.

Marx, Engels and Lenin studied at length and in detail what capitalist society was like before them. They observed the smallest details in order to take note of dialectical changes. Lenin, in order to describe and criticize the changes in capitalist society, and to study the imperialist period, made very detailed studies and consulted numerous statistics.

When we speak of autodynamism, we should never turn it into a literary phrase either; we should only use this word knowingly and for those who understand it totally.

Finally, when studying something, after having seen what its autodynamic changes are and stated what change one has found, one must look for the reason why this change is autodynamic.

This is why dialectics, research and science are closely linked.

Dialectics is not a way of explaining and knowing things without having studied them, but rather a way of studying well and making good observations, by looking for the beginning and the end of things, where they come from and where they are going.


1. The sequence of processes

WE HAVE just seen, in connection with the history of the apple, what a process is. Let’s have another look at this example. We have looked for where the apple came from and we were obliged to push our research as far back as the tree. But this problem of research also arises in regard to the tree. The study of the apple leads us to the study of the origins and destiny of the tree. Where does the tree come from? From an apple. It comes from an apple which has fallen and rotted in the earth, giving birth to a shoot. This leads us to study the ground, the conditions in which the seeds of the apple were able to sprout, the influences of the air, sun, etc. In this way, starting with the study of the apple, we are led to study the soil, proceeding from the process of the apple to that of the tree. The latter process has its sequence in turn in that of the soil. We have here what is called a “sequence of processes.” This will enable us to express and study the second law of dialectics: the law of reciprocal action. Let us take another example of the sequence of processes, that of the Workers’ University in Paris.

If we study this school from the dialectical point of view, we shall look for where it came from, and find at first this answer: in the autumn of 1932, some comrades meeting together decided to found a Workers’ University in Paris in order to study Marxism.

But where did this committee get this idea of teaching Marxism? Obviously because Marxism exists. But then, where does Marxism come from?

We see that research into the sequence of processes involves us in detailed and complete studies. Much more: by looking for the source of Marxism, we shall find that this doctrine is the very conscience of the proletariat. We see (whether we are for or against Marxism) that the proletariat then does exist; and so again we ask the question: where does the proletariat come from?

We know that it derives from an economic system, viz., capitalism. We know that the division of society into classes, that class struggle, was not caused, as our adversaries claim, by Marxism. On the contrary, we know that Marxism observes the existence of this class struggle and draws its force from the already existing proletariat.

Hence, from process to process, we arrive at the examination of the conditions of existence of capitalism. We have in this way a sequence of processes which shows us that everything influences everything else. This is the law of reciprocal action.

As a conclusion to these two examples of the apple and of the Workers’ University in Paris, let us see how a metaphysician would have proceeded.

In the example of the apple, he could only have thought, ‘‘Where does the apple come from?” And he would have been satisfied with the answer, “The apple comes from the tree.” He would not have looked any further.

For the Workers’ University he would have been satisfied with saying, about its origin, that it was founded by a group of men who wished “to corrupt the French people” or some such nonsense.

But the dialectician sees the entire sequence of processes which end, on the one hand, with the apple, and, on the other, with the Workers’ University. The dialectician connects the particular fact, the detail, to the whole.

He connects the apple to the tree, and he goes back further, all the way to nature in its entirety. The apple is not only the fruit of the apple tree, but also that of all of nature.

The Workers’ University is not only the “fruit” of the proletariat, but also the “fruit” of capitalist society.

Hence, we see that, contrary to the metaphysician who conceives of the world as a complex of fixed things, the dialectician will see the world as a complex of processes. And, if the dialectical point of view is true for nature and for the sciences, if is also true for society. “The old method of investigation and thought which Hegel calls ‘metaphysical,’ which preferred to investigate things as given, as fixed and stable, a method the relics of which still strongly haunt people’s minds, had a good deal of historical justification in its day.” (Engels, Feuerbach, p. 45.)

Consequently, things and society were studied during this period as a complex of “ready-made, fixed objects,” which not only do not change, but, particularly in the case of society, are not destined to disappear.

Engels points out the great importance of dialectics, this:

Hence, neither should capitalist society be regarded as a “complex of ready-made things”; rather, it should be studied as a complex of processes.

Metaphysicians realize that capitalist society has not always existed, and they say that it has a history; but they think that, with its appearance, society has stopped evolving and will remain “fixed” from now on. They regard all things as finished and not as the beginning of a new process. The story of the creation of the world by God is an explanation of the world as a complex of completed things. God accomplished a completed task each day. He made plants and animals and man once and for all; whence the theory of fixism.

Dialectics judges things in a different way. It does not regard things as “fixed” objects, but rather as objects “in motion.” Nothing is complete; it is always the end of one process and the beginning of another process, always changing and developing. This is why we are so sure of the transformation of capitalist society into a socialist society. Since nothing is permanently finished, capitalist society is the end of a process to which socialist society and then Communist society and so forth will succeed. There is and there will continually be a development.

But we must be careful here not to look upon dialectics as something inevitable, from which one might conclude, “Since you are so sure of the change which you desire, why do you struggle?” For, as Marx says, “in order to deliver socialist society, a midwife is necessary;” whence the necessity of revolution, of action.

The fact is, things are not so simple. One mustn’t forget the role of men who may advance or slow down this transformation (we shall take up this question again in chapter 5 of this part, when we speak of historical materialism).

For the moment, all we wish to point out is the existence of a sequence of processes in everything which is produced through the internal force of things (autodynamism). We repeat, for dialectics, nothing is complete. We must understand the development of things as having no final act. At the end of one theatrical production of the world the first act of another play begins. More precisely, this first act had already begun in the last act of the preceding play.

2. The great discoveries of the 19th century

What determined the abandonment of the metaphysical spirit and obliged first scientists, then Marx and Engels, to consider things in their dialectical movement, is, as we know, the discoveries made in the 19th century. As Engels points out in Ludwig Feuerbach, there were three especially great discoveries of this period which caused dialectics to advance. (p. 46.)

    (1) The discovery of the living cell and its development

Before this discovery, “fixism” had been adopted as the basis of all reasoning. Species were considered to be foreign to each other. Moreover, two kingdoms were categorically differentiated: the animal kingdom and the plant kingdom.

Then this discovery takes place, enabling the idea of “evolution,” which thinkers and scientists of the 18th century had already started to spread, to become more precise. This discovery leads to the understanding that life is made up of a succession of births and deaths and that every living being is an association of cells. This finding then leaves no boundary remaining between animals and plants and thus dispels the metaphysical concept.

    (2) The discovery of the transformation of energy

Formerly, science believed that sound, heat and light, for example, were completely alien to each other. Yet now it is discovered that all these phenomena can be transformed into each other, that there are sequences of processes in inert matter as well as in living nature. This revelation brings still another blow to metaphysical thinking.

    (3) The discovery of evolution of man and animals

Darwin, says Engels, reveals that all the products of nature are the result of a long process of development of originally single-celled microorganisms: everything is the product of a long process having the cell for its origin.

Engels concludes that, thanks to these three great discoveries, we can follow the sequence of all these natural phenomena not only within the different domains, but also between the different domains.

It is, therefore, the sciences which made the elaboration of the second law of reciprocal action possible.

Between the plant, animal and mineral kingdoms there is no sharp break, but rather only processes; everything is connected. And this is true for society as well. The different societies which have spanned the history of mankind should be regarded as a series of sequences of processes in which one society has necessarily come from the one which preceded it.

Hence, we should remember that science, nature and society must be seen as a sequence of processes, and that the motor working to develop this sequence is autodynamism.

3. Historical or spiral development

If we examine the process which we are beginning to know a little more closely, we see that the apple is the result of a sequence of processes. Where does the apple come from? The apple comes from the tree. Where does the tree come from? From the apple. We may then think that we have here a vicious circle in which we always return to the same point. Tree, apple. Apple, tree. Likewise, if we take the example of the egg and the hen. Where does the egg come from? From the hen. Where does the hen come from? From the egg.

If we regarded things in this way, this would not be a process, but a circle. This appearance, moreover, has created the idea of the “eternal return.” That is to say, we always come back to the same point, the point of departure.

But let us see exactly how the problem is stated.

Hence, we do not return to the same point of departure; we come back to the apple, but on another level.

Similarly, if we begin with the tree, we have:

Here again we return to the tree, but on another level. The scope has widened.

Hence, we do not have a circle, as appearances might make us think, but a process of development which we shall call a historical development. History shows us that time does not go by without leaving any traces. Time passes, but the same developments do not return. The world, nature and society constitute a development which is historical, a development which, in philosophical language, is called “spiral.”

We use this image in order to make our ideas clear; it is a comparison to illustrate the fact that things evolve according to a circular process, but do not return to the point of departure; they come back a bit above, on another level, and so on, which produces an ascending spiral.

Hence, the world, nature and society have a historical (spiral) development, and what stimulates this development, let us not forget, is autodynamism.

4. Conclusion

We have just studied, in these first chapters on dialectics, the first two laws: that of change and that of reciprocal action. This was indispensable in order to approach the study of the law of contradiction, for it is this law which will enable us to understand the force which stimulates dialectical change, viz., autodynamism.

In the first chapter relative to the study of dialectics, we saw why this theory had been dominated for so long by the metaphysical concept and why the materialism of the 18th century was metaphysical. After having rapidly seen the three great discoveries of the 19th century which enabled materialism to develop in order to become dialectical, we understand better now why it was necessary for the history of this philosophy to go through the three great periods which we have seen: 1) materialism of antiquity (theory of atoms); 2) materialism of the 18th century (mechanistic and metaphysical); finally culminating in 3) dialectical materialism.

We have maintained throughout that materialism derives from the sciences and is linked to them. We can see, after these three chapters, how true this is. We have seen in this study of dialectical motion and change and of the law of reciprocal action that all our arguments are based on science.

Today, when scientific studies are specialized to the extreme and when scientists (generally ignorant of dialectical materialism) sometimes cannot understand the importance of their discoveries in relation to the totality of the sciences, it is the role of philosophy, whose mission, we have said, is to provide an explanation of the world and of the most general problems, and, in particular, it is the mission of dialectical materialism, to unite all the particular discoveries of each science into a synthesis, thereby establishing a theory which makes us more and more, as Descartes said, “masters and possessors of nature.”


WE HAVE seen that dialectics regards things as being in perpetual change, continually evolving, in a word, undergoing a dialectical motion (first law).

This dialectical motion is possible because everything, at the moment when we are studying it, is but the result of a sequence of processes, i.e., a sequence of stages come from each other. And, continuing our study further, we have seen that this sequence of processes necessarily develops in time into a progressive motion, “in spite of any momentary backsliding.”

We have called this development “historical” or “spiral,” and we know that it generates itself, through autodynamism.

But what are the laws of autodynamism? What are the laws which enable the stages to proceed from each other? They are called the “laws of dialectical motion.”

Dialectics teaches us that things are not eternal: they have a beginning, a maturity, and an old age, which has an end, a death.

All things pass through these stages: birth, maturity, old age, end. Why is this so? Why are things not eternal?

This is an old question which has always interested humanity. Why must we die? We do not understand this necessity; throughout history, men have dreamed of eternal life, of the ways of changing this state of affairs. For example, in the Middle Ages, they invented magic potions for eternal youth or life.

Why then is everything which is born obliged to die? This is a great law of dialectics which we should compare with metaphysics in order to really understand it.

1. Life and death

From the metaphysical point of view, things are considered in an isolated fashion, taken by themselves, and, because metaphysics studies things in this way, it considers them unilaterally, i.e., from one side. This is why it can be said that those who see things one-sidedly are metaphysicians. Briefly, when a metaphysician studies the phenomenon called life, he does so without relating this phenomenon to any other. He sees life for itself and by itself, unilaterally. He sees it from one side only. If he examines death, he will do the same thing; he will apply his unilateral point of view and conclude by saying: life is life and death is death. Between the two there is nothing in common; one cannot be both alive and dead, for the two are opposite things and completely contrary to each other.

To see things in this way is to view them superficially. Upon closer examination, it will be seen firstly, that they cannot be opposed, nor even can they be so brutally separated, since experience and reality show us that death continues life and that it derives from the living.

As for life, can it derive from death? Yes. The transformation of the elements of the dead corpse will give birth to other lives and be used as fertilizer for the earth, making it more fertile, for example. Death, in many cases, will help life; death will enable life to be born; and, in living bodies themselves, life is only possible because there is a continual replacement of dead cells by those which are newly-born. (See Translator’s notes.)

Hence, life and death are constantly being transformed into each other, and in everything we observe the invariability of this great law: everywhere, things are transformed into their opposites.

2. Things change into their opposites

Metaphysicians set opposites against each other, but reality shows us that opposites are transformed into each other, that things do not remain themselves, but are transformed into their opposites.

If we examine truth and error, we tend to think that there is nothing in common between them. Truth is truth and error is error. This the unilateral point of view, which sets the two opposites at loggerheads, as one might do with life and death.

And yet, sometimes when we exclaim, "Hey, it's raining!", no sooner have we finished saying so than the rain has stopped. The sentence was correct when we began it, but it was transformed into an error. (The Greeks had already observed this fact, so they said that in order not to be mistaken it was best to keep silent!)

In the same vein, let us go back to the example of the apple. We see a ripe apple on the ground and we say, “There is a ripe apple.” However, it has been on the ground for some time and already it is beginning to decompose, so that truth becomes error.

Science also provides us with numerous examples of laws, considered for many years to be “truths” and which scientific progress has proven to be “errors” at a certain moment.

Hence, we see that truth changes into error. But does error ever change into truth?

In the beginning of civilization, notably in Egypt, men imagined fights between the gods in order to explain the rising and setting of the sun. This is an error to the extent that it was said that the gods push or pull the sun to make it move. But science says that this theory is partially justified in that there are in fact forces which make the sun move. So we see that error is not diametrically opposed to truth.

If, then, things do change into their opposites, how is this possible? How does life change into death?

If there were only life, 100 percent pure life, it could never be death, and if death were totally itself, 100 percent pure death, it would be impossible for the one to change into the other. But there is already some death in life and thus some life in death.

By looking closely, we see that a living being is composed of cells, that these cells are renewed, that they disappear and reappear in the same place. They live and die continually in a living being, in which there is therefore both life and death.

We also know that the beard of a dead man continues to grow. The same is true for his nails and hair. These are clear-cut phenomena which prove that life continues after death.

In the Soviet Union, the blood of the dead is preserved under special conditions for blood transfusions: thus, with the blood of a dead person a living person is remade. Consequently, we can say that in the midst of death there is life. “Life is therefore also a contradiction which is present in things and processes themselves, and which constantly asserts and solves itself; and as soon as the contradiction ceases, life too comes to an end, and death steps in.” (Engels, Anti-Dühring, p. 133.)

Hence, things not only change into each other, but also a thing is not only itself, but another thing which is its opposite, for everything contains its opposite.

If we represent a thing by a circle, we have force which pushes this thing toward life, pushing from the center outwards, for example (expression), but we also have forces which push this thing in the opposite direction, forces of death, pushing from the exterior inwards (compression).

Thus, within everything opposed forces, antagonisms, exist.

What happens between these forces? They struggle with each other. Consequently, a thing is not only moved by a force acting in a single direction, but everything is really moved by two forces acting in opposing directions: one towards the affirmation and one towards the negation of things, one towards life and one towards death. What does the affirmation and negation of things mean?

In life, there are forces which maintain life, which tends toward the affirmation of life. Then there are also forces in living organisms which tend towards negation. In everything, some forces tend towards affirmation and others towards negation, and, between affirmation and negation there is a contradiction.

Hence, dialectics observes change, but why do things change? Because they are not in agreement with themselves, because there is a struggle between forces, between internal antagonisms, because there is contradiction. Here is the third law of dialectics: Things change because they contain contradictions within themselves.

(If we are obliged, at times, to use more or less complicated words—like dialectics, autodynamism, etc.—or terms which seem contrary to traditional logic and difficult to understand, it is not because we like to complicate things at whim as the bourgeoisie does. No. But this study, although elementary, seeks to be as complete as possible and to facilitate the later reading of the philosophical works of Marx, Engels and Lenin, who use these terms. In any case, since we must utilize something other than everyday language, we are determined to make it comprehensible to everyone in the framework of this study.)

3. Affirmation, negation and negation of the negation

Here we must make a distinction between what is called a verbal contradiction—which means that, when someone tells you “yes,” you answer “no”—and the contradiction which we have just seen and which is called a dialectical contradiction, i.e., a contradiction in facts, in things themselves.

When we speak of the contradiction which exists in the heart of capitalist society, this does not mean that some people say yes and others say no about certain theories. This means that there is a contradiction in factual reality, that there are real forces which are fighting each other: first, a force which tends to affirm itself, viz., the bourgeois class which tends to maintain itself; then, a second social force which tends toward the negation of the bourgeois class, viz., the proletariat. Hence the contradiction does exist in reality, because the bourgeoisie cannot exist without creating its opposite, the proletariat. As Marx says, “What the bourgeoisie, therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.” (Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto, New York: International Publishers, 1948, p. 21.)

In order to prevent this, the bourgeoisie would have stop being itself, which would be absurd. Consequently, by affirming itself, it creates its own negation.

Let us take the example of an egg which is laid and sat on by a hen: we find that in the egg there is a seed which develops at a certain temperature and under certain conditions. This seed, while developing, will produce a chick; hence, the seed is already the negation of the egg. We see then that in the egg there are two forces: one which tends to make it remain an egg and one which tends to make it become a chick. Therefore, the egg is in disagreement with itself and all things are in disagreement with themselves.

This may seem difficult to understand, because we are used to the metaphysical way of reasoning, but this is why we should make an effort to become accustomed to seeing things in their reality.

A thing begins by being an affirmation which comes from negation. The chick is an affirmation born from the negation of the egg. It is one stage of the process. But the chick, in turn, will be transformed into a hen. During this transformation, there will be a contradiction between the forces which fight to make the chick become a hen and those which fight to make the chick remain a chick. The hen will thus be the negation of the chick, the latter having derived from the negation of the egg.

The hen will therefore be the negation of the negation. And this is the general course of the stages of dialectics.

These words summarize dialectical development. They are used to represent the sequence of stages, to indicate that each stage is the destruction of the preceding one.

Destruction is a negation. The chick is the negation of the egg, since by being born it destroys the egg. Similarly, the ear of wheat is the negation of the grain of wheat. The grain will germinate in the soil; this germination is the germination of the grain of wheat and will produce a plant. This plant, in turn, will flower and produce an ear; the latter will be the negation of the plant or the negation of the negation.

Hence, we see that the negation which dialectics speaks of is another way of speaking of destruction. There is a negation of what disappears, of what is destroyed.

Just as when we made a distinction between verbal contradiction and dialectical contradiction, here we must clearly understand what verbal negation, which says “no,” is and what dialectical negation, which means “destruction,” is.

But while negation means destruction, it does not mean just any kind of destruction, but dialectical destruction. Thus, when we crush a flea, it does not die from internal destruction, from dialectical negation. Its destruction is not the result of autodynamic stages; it is the result of a purely mechanical change.

Destruction is a negation only if it is a product of affirmation, if it comes from it. Thus, the egg which is sat on, being the affirmation of what an egg is, engenders its own negation: it becomes a chick, and the latter symbolizes the destruction or the negation of the egg, by piercing and destroying the shell.

In the chick we observe two adverse forces; “chick” and “hen.” In the course of this development of the process, the hen will lay eggs, whence a new negation of the negation arises. From these eggs, then, a new sequence of the process will begin.

In the case of wheat we also see an affirmation, then a negation and negation of the negation.

Let us take materialist philosophy as another example.

In the beginning, we find a primitive, spontaneous materialism, which, due to its ignorance, creates its own negation: idealism. But the idealism which negates the old materialism will itself be repudiated in turn by modern or dialectical materialism, because philosophy, along with the sciences, develops and provokes the destruction of idealism. Hence, here also, we have affirmation, negation and negation of the negation.

We may also observe this cycle in the evolution of society.

In the beginning of history we find the existence of a primitive Communist society, a society without classes, based on the common ownership of the land. But this form of ownership becomes a hindrance to the development of production and, in this way, creates its own negation: a class society, based on private ownership and the exploitation of man by man. But this society as well carries its own negation within itself, because a superior development of the means of production brings about the necessity of negating the division of society into classes, of negating private ownership. So we return to the point of departure: the necessity for a Communist society, but on another level. In the beginning, there was a lack of commodities; today, we have a very high capacity of production.

Notice that for all the examples we have given we return to the point of departure, but on another level (spiral development), a higher level.

We see then that contradiction is the great law of dialectics. That evolution is a fight between antagonistic forces. That not only do things change into each other, but also everything is transformed into its opposite. That things do not agree with themselves because there are struggles inside them between opposed forces, because there are internal contradictions within them.

Note. The expressions “affirmation,” “negation,” and “negation of the negation” are only verbal shorthand for the moments of dialectical evolution. Therefore, we should be careful not to run about trying to find these three stages everywhere. Sometimes we shall not find all of them because the evolution is not complete. So we mustn’t mechanically try to see these changes as such in everything. Let us especially remember that contradiction is the great law of dialectics. That is the essential point.

4. Summary

We already know that dialectics is a method of thinking, of reasoning and of analyzing which enables us to make good observations and to study well, for it obliges us to look for the source of everything and to describe its history.

We have seen that the former method of thinking certainly had its necessity in its time. But to study with the dialectical method is to observe, let us repeat, that all things, apparently immobile, are but a sequence of processes in which everything has a beginning and an end, where in everything, “in spite of all seeming accidents and of all temporary retrogression, a progressive development asserts itself in the end...” (Engels, Feuerbach, p. 44.)

Only dialectics enables us to understand the development and the evolution of things; it alone permits us to understand the destruction of ancient things and the birth of new ones. Only dialectics lets us understand all developments in their transformations by letting us know them as entities made up of opposites. For, as far as the dialectical concept is concerned, the natural development of things, evolution, is a continual struggle between antagonistic forces and principles.

Hence, while for dialectics the first law is the observation of motion and change—”Nothing remains what, where and as it was.” (Engels)—we now know that the explanation of this law resides in the fact that things change not only by transforming themselves into each other, but also by transforming themselves into their opposites. Contradiction is therefore a great law of dialectics.

We have studied what contradiction is from the dialectical point of view, but we must again lay stress on this in order to add certain details and to point out certain errors which we should not commit.

It is quite certain that we must first familiarize ourselves with this assertion, which is in harmony with reality: the transformation of things into their opposites. Certainly, this shocks our understanding and surprises us, because we are accustomed to thinking with the old metaphysical method. But we have seen why this is so. We have seen in detail, with examples, that this exists in reality and why things are changed into their opposites.

This is why it can be maintained that, if things are transformed, if they change and evolve, it is because they are in contradiction with themselves, because they carry their opposites within themselves, because they contain within themselves an interpenetration, a unity and struggle of opposites.

5. The unity and struggle of opposites

Each thing is an interpenetration of opposites.

To declare such a thing at first appears absurd. "A thing and its opposite have nothing in common." This is what is generally thought. For dialectics, however, each thing is, at the same time, itself and its opposite; each thing is an interpenetration of opposites, and we must explain this.

For a metaphysician, the unity and struggle of opposites is an impossible thing. For him, things are made up of a single piece, in harmony with themselves. Here we are declaring just the opposite, namely that things are made up of two pieces—themselves and their opposites—and that there are two forces in them which fight each other because things are not in harmony with themselves, because they contradict themselves.

If we take the example of ignorance and science, i.e., knowledge, we know that from the metaphysical point of view these are two totally opposed and contrary things. Someone who is ignorant is not a scientist and someone who is a scientist is not ignorant.

However, if we look at the facts, we see that they do not give rise to such a rigid opposition. We see that at first ignorance prevailed, then science appeared; and we thereby ascertain that one thing is transformed into its opposite: ignorance is transformed into science.

There is no ignorance without science or knowledge. There is no 100 percent pure ignorance. An individual, no matter how ignorant he may be, can at least recognize objects and his food. There is never absolute ignorance: there is always some knowledge in ignorance. The seeds of knowledge have already been planted in ignorance. Therefore, we are correct in maintaining that the opposite of a thing is found in the thing itself.

Let us look at knowledge now. Can there be 100 percent pure knowledge? No. One is always ignorant of something. Lenin says, “The object of knowledge is inexhaustible,” which means that there is always something to be learned. There is no absolute knowledge. All knowledge and every science contains some ignorance.

What exists in reality is relative knowledge and ignorance, a mixture of knowledge and ignorance.

Hence, in this example it is not the transformation of things into their opposites which we observe, but rather the existence of opposites in the same thing, or, in other words, the interpenetration of opposites.

We could go back to the examples which we have already seen: life and death, truth and error, and we would find that, in both cases, as in everything, an interpenetration of opposites exists, i.e., each thing contains at the same time itself and its opposite. This is why Engels says:

This text by Engels clearly shows us how dialectics should be understood and the true meaning of the interpenetration of opposites.

6. Errors to be avoided

This great law of dialectics, contradiction, must be clearly explained in order not to create any misunderstandings.

First, it should not be interpreted in a mechanical way. We mustn’t think that in all knowledge there is truth plus error, or both something true and something false.

If this law were applied in this way, it would justify those who say that there is something true plus something false in all opinions, so “let’s remove what is false, and what is true and good will remain.” This is said in certain so-called Marxist circles, where it is thought that Marxism is right to point out that, in capitalism, there are factories, trusts and banks which hold economic life in their hands, that it is correct to say that this economic life is going badly; but what is false in Marxism, they add, is class struggle: let’s leave out the theory of class struggle and we shall have a good doctrine. It is also said that Marxism applied to the study of society is correct and true “but why mix in dialectics? This is the false side, let’s remove dialectics and keep the rest of Marxism as true!”

These are mechanical interpretations of the interpenetration of opposites.

Here is another example: Proudhon, after having learned of this theory of opposites, thought that there was a good and a bad side in everything. So, observing that there is a bourgeoisie and a proletariat in society, he said, “Let’s remove what is bad, the proletariat!” That is how he constructed his system of credits which was to create "parcelled out property," i.e., to allow the proletarians to become owners. In this way, there would only be the bourgeoisie and society would be good.

However, we know very well that there can be no proletariat without the bourgeoisie and that the bourgeoisie exists only through the proletariat: these are two opposites which are inseparable. This unity and struggle of opposites is internal and real: it is an inseparable union. Hence, in order to get rid of the opposites it is not sufficient to cut one from the other. In a society based on the exploitation of man by man, there necessarily exists two antagonistic classes: masters and slaves in antiquity, lords and serfs in the Middle Ages, bourgeoisie and proletariat today.

In order to abolish capitalist society, to create a society without classes, both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat must be eliminated - in order to enable free men to create a materially and intellectually more advanced society, to go towards communism in its superior form and not to create, as our adversaries claim, a communism which is "egalitarian in poverty."

Hence, we must be very careful when we explain or when we apply the interpenetration of opposites to an example or to a study. We should avoid trying to find everywhere and to apply mechanically, for example, the negation of the negation, or to find the interpenetration of opposites everywhere, for our knowledge in general is limited and this can lead us to blind alleys.

What counts is this principle: dialectics and its laws oblige us to study things in order to discover their evolution and the forces, the opposites, which determine this evolution. We must therefore study the interpenetration of opposites contained in things, and this interpenetration of opposites is tantamount to saying that an affirmation is never an absolute affirmation, since it contains within itself a negative portion. And this is the essential point: It is because things contain their own negation that they are transformed. Negation is the “solvent”: if it did not exist, things would not change. As, in fact, things do change, they must then contain a solvent principle. We can declare beforehand that it exists since we see things evolving, but we cannot discover this principle without a detailed study of the thing itself, for this principle does not have the same appearance in everything.

7. Practical consequences of dialectics

Hence, in practice, dialectics obliges us always to consider both, not one, sides of things: never to consider truth without ignorance. The big mistake of metaphysics is precisely to consider only one side of things, to judge unilaterally. If we make many mistakes, it is always to the extent that we see but one side of things, because we often reason unilaterally.

While idealist philosophy maintains that the world exists only in the ideas of men, we must recognize that, in truth, there are some things which exist only in our thoughts. This is true. But idealism is unilateral: it sees only this aspect. It sees only man who invents things which are not found in reality and it then concludes that nothing exists outside of our ideas. Idealism is correct to point out this faculty in man, but, by not applying the criterion of practice, it sees only that.

Metaphysical materialism is also mistaken because it sees but one side of problems. It sees the universe as a mechanism. Does mechanics exist? Yes! Does it play an important role? Yes! Metaphysical materialism is thus correct to say this, but it is a mistake to see only mechanical motion.

Naturally, we are prone to seeing only one side of things and people. If we judge a comrade, almost always we see only his good or his bad side. We must see both, without which it would not be possible to have cadres in organizations. In political practice, the unilateral method of judgment leads to sectarianism. If we encounter an adversary belonging to a reactionary organization, we judge him by his bosses. Yet, he is perhaps only an embittered, discontent employee, and we should not judge him like a fascist boss. Likewise, we can apply this reasoning to bosses and understand that, while they may seem bad to us, it is often because they themselves are dominated by the structure of society and, under different social conditions, they would perhaps be different.

If we keep the interpenetration, the unity and struggle of opposites in mind, we look at things in their multiple aspects. We see then that this reactionary is, on the one hand, reactionary, but, on the other, he is a worker and in his case there is a contradiction. We should look and find out why he has joined this organization and, at the same time, why he should not have joined. In this way we can judge and discuss his case in a less sectarian manner.

In accordance with dialectics then, we must consider things from all the angles which we can differentiate.

To summarize, and as a theoretical conclusion, we shall say: Things change because they include an internal contradiction (themselves and their opposites). The opposites are in conflict, and changes arise from these conflicts. Thus change is the solution of the conflict.

Capitalism contains an internal contradiction, the conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Change is explained by this conflict and the transformation of capitalist society into a socialist society is the end of this conflict.

There is change and motion wherever there is contradiction. Contradiction is the negation of the affirmation. When the third term, negation of the negation, is achieved, the solution appears, for, at that moment, the reason for the contradiction is eliminated, obsolete.

Hence, it can be said that, while the sciences—chemistry, physics, biology, etc.—study the laws of change particular to them, dialectics studies the most general laws of change. Engels says, “Dialectics is nothing more than the science of the general laws of motion and development of Nature, human society and thought.” (Engels, Anti-Dühring, p. 155.)


F. Engels, Anti-Dühring, pp. 131-159 (link to MIA)


BEFORE tackling the problem of the application of dialectics to history, it remains for us to study one last law of dialectics.

This will be facilitated by the studies which we have just made wherein we have seen what negation of the negation is and what is meant by the interpenetration, the unity and struggle of opposites.

As always, let us proceed by examples.

1. Reforms or revolution?

When speaking of society, people ask, “Should we instigate reforms or make a revolution?” They debate whether, in order to transform capitalist society into a socialist society, successive reforms or an abrupt transformation—revolution—is needed.

With respect to this problem, let us recall what we have already studied. Every transformation is the result of a struggle between opposing forces. When something evolves, it is because it contains its opposite, everything being an interpenetration of opposites. We can observe the struggle of opposites and the transformation of the thing into its opposite. How does this transformation take place? This is the new problem which confronts us.

One may believe that this transformation occurs little by little, through a series of small transformations, that the green apple changes into a ripe apple through a series of progressive changes.

Many people think in this way that society is transformed little by little and that the result of a series of these small transformations will be the transformation of capitalist society into a socialist society. These small transformations are reforms and it will be their total, the sum of the small, gradual changes, which will give us a new society.

This theory is called reformism. The supporters of this theory are called reformists, not because they demand reforms, but because they think that reforms are sufficient, that their accumulation will imperceptibly transform society.

Let us see if this is true:

    (1) Political argumentation

If we look at the facts, i.e., what has happened in other countries, we shall see that, where this system has been tried, it has not been successful. The transformation of capitalist society—its destruction—has succeeded in a single country: the U.S.S.R., and we find that it was not through a series of reforms, but through revolution.

    (2) Historical argumentation

Generally speaking, is it true that things are transformed by small changes, by reforms?

Let us still look at the facts. If we examine historical changes, we see that they do not occur indefinitely, that they are not continuous. There comes a moment when, instead of small changes, change takes place with an abrupt leap.

In the history of societies, the outstanding events which we find are abrupt changes, revolutions.

Even those who are not familiar with dialectics know, nowadays, that violent changes have occurred in history. However, until the 17th century, it was believed that “nature does not jump,” that it makes no leaps. People refused to see any abrupt changes in the continuity of change. But science stepped in and revealed, with facts, that changes did occur abruptly. The revolution of 1789 opened people’s eyes even better; it was in itself an obvious example of a clean break with the past. It came to be seen that all the decisive stages of history had been important, abrupt and sudden upheavals. For example, as friendly as they may have been, the relations between two states grew colder, more strained and bitter, then took on a hostile character—and, all of a sudden, it was war, an abrupt rupture with the continuity of events. Another example: in Germany, after the war of 1914-1918, there was a gradual rise of fascism, then one day Hitler took power: Germany entered a new historical stage.

Today, those who do not deny these abrupt changes maintain that they are accidents, an accident being something which happens but which might not have happened.

In this way, people explain revolutions in the history of societies by saying, “They were accidents.”

With regard to the history of France, for example, it is maintained that the fall of Louis XVI and the French Revolution occurred because Louis XVI was a weak and soft man. “If he had been an energetic man, we would not have had a revolution.” We even read that, if he had not prolonged his meal at Varennes, he would not have been arrested and the course of history would have been changed. Hence, the French Revolution was just an accident, it is said.

Dialectics, on the contrary, recognized that revolutions are necessities. There are, indeed, gradual changes, but their accumulation ends up producing abrupt changes.

    (3) Scientific argumentation

Let us take the example of water, if we start at 0° Centigrade, and raise the temperature of the water from 1°, 2°, 3° up to 98°, the change is continuous. But can it continue indefinitely? We can go again up to 99°, but, at 100° Centigrade, we have an abrupt change: the water is transformed into steam.

If, inversely, from 99° we go down to 1°, again we have a continuous change; but we cannot lower the temperature like this indefinitely, for, at 0° Centigrade, the water is transformed into ice.

From 1° to 99° the water still remains water; only its temperature changes. This is what is called a quantitative change, which answers the question “How much?”, i.e., “How much heat is there in the water?”. When the water changes into ice or steam, we have a qualitative change, a change in quality. It is no longer water: it has become ice or steam.

When a thing does not change its nature, we have a quantitative change (in the example of water, we have a change in the degree of heat, but not in nature). When it changes in nature, when a thing becomes another thing, this change is qualitative.

Hence, we see that the evolution of things cannot be quantitative indefinitely: things which change finally undergo a qualitative change. Quantity changes into quality. This is a general law. But, as always, we mustn’t be satisfied with only this abstract formula.

In Engels’ book Anti-Dühring, in the chapter entitled “Dialectics, Quantity and Quality,” we can find a large number of examples illustrating how exact this law is, not only in the natural sciences, but in everything else; a law according to which “quantitative change suddenly produces, at certain points, a qualitative difference…” (Engels, Anti-Dühring, p. 138.)

Here is another example, cited by H. Wallon in volume VIII of the French Encyclopédie (in which he refers to Engels): nervous energy which accumulates in a child provokes laughter; but, if it continues to grow, laughter changes into a fit of tears; in this way, children who become excited and laugh too hard end up crying.

We shall give one last well-known example: that of someone running for an elected office. If 4,500 votes are needed for an absolute majority, the candidate is not elected with 4,499 votes; he remains what he is: a candidate. With one more vote, this quantitative change determines a qualitative change, since the candidate becomes an elected official.

This law provides us with the solution to the problem: reform or revolution.

Reformists tell us: “You want the impossible which happens only by accident; you are utopians.” But with this law we can see who really is the one who is dreaming the impossible! The study of the phenomena of nature and science shows us that changes are not gradual indefinitely, but that at a certain moment change becomes abrupt. We are not declaring this arbitrarily; rather it is science, nature and reality which declare this to be true.

We might then ask, “What role do we play in these abrupt changes?”

We are going to answer this question and develop this problem by applying dialectics to history. Here we have come to a very famous part of dialectical materialism: historical materialism.

2. Historical materialism

What is historical materialism? It is simply, now that we know what dialectics is, the application of this method to the history of human societies.

In order to clearly understand this, we must clarify what history is. History implies change, change in society. Society has a history throughout which it is constantly changing; we see great events taking place in it. So, the following question is raised: since, in history, societies change, what explains these changes?

    (1) How can history be explained?

In this regard it is often asked, “For what reason must there always be war? Men ought to be able to live in peace!”

To these questions we are going to provide materialist answers.

A cardinal might explain that war is a punishment from God; this is an idealist answer, for it uses God to explain events. This is explaining history by spirit. It is spirit which creates and makes history.

Speaking of Providence is also an idealist answer. Hitler, in Mein Kampf, tells us that history is the work of Providence, and he thanks the latter for having placed his place of birth on the Austrian border.

To make God or Providence responsible for history is a convenient theory; men can do nothing and, consequently, we can do nothing to stop war, we must let it happen.

From a scientific point of view, can we support such a theory? Can we find its justification in facts? No.

The first materialist affirmation in this discussion is that history is not the work of God, but the work of men. So then, men can act on history and they

    (2) History is the work of man

This text of Engels tells us then that it is men who act according to their will (desires), but that these desires do not always go in the same direction! What is it then which determines, which decides the actions of men? Why do their desires not go in the same direction?

Some idealists will agree that it is the actions of men which make history and that these actions result from their will: it is will which determines action, and it is our thoughts and our feelings which determine our will. We would then have the following sequence: idea—will—action. In order to explain action, we must revert back to find the determining idea-cause.

Now we make it immediately clear that the action of great men and of doctrine is undeniable, but that it needs to be explained. It is not the sequence “idea—will—action” which explains it. In this way some people claim that in the 18th century Diderot and the Encyclopedists, by spreading to the public the ideas of the Rights of Man, seduced and won, by these ideas, the will of those men who, consequently, made the revolution. Similarly, in the U.S.S.R. the ideas of Lenin were spread and people acted in conformity with these ideas. People then conclude from this that, if there were no revolutionary ideas, there would be no revolution. This point of view leads to the conclusion that the motor forces of history are the ideas of great leaders, that it is these leaders who make history. You know the formula of Action Française, “Forty kings made France”; we might add, kings who did not have many “ideas”!

What is the materialist point of view on this question?

We have seen that there were many points in common between 18th century materialism and modern materialism, but that the former materialism had an idealist theory of history.

Hence, whether frankly idealist or disguised behind an inconsistent materialism, this idealist theory which we have just seen and which seems to explain history explains nothing. For what provokes action? Engels says:

Will, ideas, it is claimed. But why did the philosophers of the 18th century have preciselythese ideas? If they had tried to propound Marxism, no one would have listened to them, for, at this time, people would not have understood. It is not only the fact that ideas are conveyed which counts; they must also be understood. Consequently, there are definite times for accepting ideas as well as for forging them.

We have always said that ideas are of great importance, but we must see where they come from.

We must then search for the causes which give us these ideas, and for what are, in the final analysis, the motor forces of history.


V. I. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Chapter 3 (link to MIA)

F. Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy, Chapter 4 (link to MIA)

Control Questions

Chapter 1
  1. 1. Where does the metaphysical method come from?
  2. 2. Where does the dialectical method come from?
  3. 3. How and why did metaphysical materialism change into dialectical materialism?
  4. 4. What is the philosophical relationship between Hegel and Marx?
Chapter 2
  1. 1. What is a mechanical change?
  2. 2. How does dialectics conceive of change?
Chapter 3
  1. 1. How does dialectics conceive of change? (Compare the answer from the preceding course with that of this one.)
  2. 2. What is a historical development?
  3. 3. How and why do things change?
Chapter 4
  1. How should we not understand dialectics?
Chapter 5
  1. 1. What is dialectics?
  2. 2. What are its laws?