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Some History of "Internal Contradictions are Primary"

      A previous blog post described the important dialectical principle that “internal contradictions are primary.” This means that although external conditions make a difference, what happens to a thing almost always depends mainly on its internal relationships, and how it changes and what it becomes are due primarily to its internal contradictions (see “Internal Contradictions are Primary”). This principle is fundamental to dialectical materialism, and helps to define what dialectical materialism means. This blog post reviews some of the history of the idea that internal contradictions are primary.

      Prior to Marx and Engels, the most important contributions to the development of dialectics came from the German philosopher G. F. W. Hegel. We note here some of Hegel's comments on the role of internal contradictions.

      "Negativity," that is, the struggle of opposites, Hegel wrote, is the "the internal source of all activity, vital and spiritual self-movement, the dialectical soul which all truth has in it and through which it alone is the truth." In his own notes, Lenin described this passage as "the kernel of dialectics."[1] Other comments by Hegel express similar ideas: "contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality; it is only in so far as something has a contradiction within it that it moves, has an urge and activity."[2] "This inner contradiction of the concrete is itself the driving force of development."[3]

      Marx and Engels make many applications of the idea that things develop because of their internal contradictions. Their fundamental principle that class struggle drives the development of class society, that "All history of hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,"[4] illustrates this idea, since classes are the opposing sides of contradictions inside society. Marx's analysis of commodity production in capitalist society is another clear example of causation by inner contradictions, since he shows how the development of the capitalist system is a result of its internal contradictions, in particular, the contradictory nature of commodities. "The inner opposition of use value and value wrapped up inside commodities," he wrote, "is thus expressed through an external opposition, that is, through a relation which holds between two commodities, one commodity whose value is to be directly expressed only as use value, and another commodity in which value is directly expressed only as exchange value."[5] Commodity production eventually becomes transformed into capitalist production, and at that stage "the laws of appropriation or of private property, laws that are based on the production and circulation of commodities, become by their own inner and inexorable dialectic changed into their opposite."[6]

      More importantly, the fundamental internal contradictions of capitalism tend to become more intense:

"This internal contradiction [between capitalists' drive to expand production and their need to limit workers' consumption] seeks to resolve itself through expansion of the outlying field of production. But the more the productive power develops, the more it finds itself at variance with the narrow basis on which the conditions of consumption rest. It is no contradiction at all that on this self-contradictory basis, there should be an excess of capital simultaneously with a growing surplus of population. For while a combination of these two would, indeed, increase the mass of produced surplus value, it would at the same time intensify the contradiction between the conditions under which this surplus value is produced and those under which it is realized. "[7]


      This intensification sets limits on the future development of capitalism, or as Marx puts it, "The real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself."[8] As Engels summed the matter up,

"Capitalist production being a transitory economical phase, is full of internal contradictions which develop and become evident in proportion as it develops."[9]

      When discussing the development of the party by internal struggle, Engels makes the point that this is a general principle of dialectics:

"It seems that any workers' party of a big country can develop only through internal struggle, as indeed has been generally established in the dialectical laws of development."[10]

      Throughout the 1920s, Soviet philosophers struggled against mechanical materialism. By the early 1930s, they had defeated mechanical views and produced a series of party dialectics texts that included emphasis on the primary role of the internal:

"[According to the dialectical materialist viewpoint,] the causes of development are not found outside a process but inside it, the main attention is directed at revealing the source of the 'self-development' of a process. From this point of view, knowing a process means revealing its contradictory sides, establishing their mutual relations, and tracing the movement of its contradictions. This viewpoint gives the key to 'jumps,' shows the transformation of the process into its opposite, and explains the destruction of the old and the origin of the new.... Not only social phenomena, but all phenomena of objective reality develop in an internally contradictory way." [11]

      Developing the ideas of the Soviet textbooks further, Mao Zedong gave a classic presentation of the idea that internal contradictions are primary in 1937 in his essay "On Contradiction," where he wrote:

"The fundamental cause of the development of a thing is not external but internal; it lies in the contradictoriness within the thing. There is internal contradiction in every single thing, hence its motion and development. Contradictoriness within a thing is the fundamental cause of its development, while its interrelations and interactions with other things are secondary causes."[12]

      In 1938, Stalin wrote that "development takes place by way of the uncovering of inner contradictions,"[13] but he did not explicitly discuss the relative importance of internal contradictions and external circumstances. Later Soviet philosophy often supported the internal contradiction principle explicitly. One influential author from 1952 declared that

"In each process, internal and external opposites are interlaced, connected with one another, and interact with each other. But inner contradictions and the struggle to overcome them are basic and decisive. This struggle is the main moving force of all development and all movement."[14]

      After the restoration of capitalism in the USSR in the 1960s, when Soviet philosophers began to defend opportunist positions on the resolution of social contradictions, they often continued to defend the primacy of internal contradictions. One text stated, for example, that "it is the internal contradictions that play the decisive part in all development."[15]


[1] Lenin, "Conspectus of Hegel's Science of Logic," Collected Works, Moscow, 1961, vol. 38, p. 229.

[2] G. F. W. Hegel, Hegel's  Science of Logic, A. V. Miller, trans., Atlantic Highlands, 1969, p. 439.

[3]G. F. W. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie, Stutgartt, 1970, vol. 18, p. 44.

[4] Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, in Marx Engels Collected Works, New York, 1976, vol. 6, p. 484.

[5] Marx, Das Kapital, Bd. I, in Marx Engels Werke, Berlin, 1956, vol. 23, p. 75-76; Cf. Capital, vol. I, in Marx Engels Collected Works, New York, 1976, vol. 35, p. 71.

[6] Engels, Anti-Dühring, quoting Marx, in Marx Engels Collected Works, New York, 1976, vol. 25, p. 150.

[7] Marx, Capital, vol. III, in Marx Engels Collected Works, vol. 37, p. 243.

[8] ibid., p. 248.

[9] Engels to Danielson, September 22, 1892, in Marx Engels Collected Works, vol. 49, p. 537.

[10] Engels to E. Bernstein in Zurich, October 20, 1882, in Marx Engels Collected Works, vol. 46, p. 342, emphasis added. See also Engels to Paul Lafarge, October 30, 1882, ibid., pp. 350-1.

[11] A. Aisenberg, et. al., eds., Dialekticheskii materializm, Leningrad : OGIZ-Priboi,1931, pp. 161, 164.

[12] Mao Zedong,  "On Contradiction," Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung, Beijing, 1965, vol. I, p. 313.

[13] J. V. Stalin, "Dialectical and Historical Materialism," Socheneniia, Moscow: Izdatel'stvo "Pisatel'," 1997, p. 258.


[14] M. M. Rosenthal, Marksistiskii Dialeticheskii Metod, Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe Izdatel'stvo Political Literature, 1952, p. 268.

[15] A. Spirkin, O. Yaknot, The Basic Principles of Dialectical and Historical Materialism, Moscow: Progress Publishers, p. 63.

July 4, 2012

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