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Red Theory: On identity and antagonism in contradiction

By J. Sykes

In our last article we looked at some of the core concepts of dialectical materialism. We broke down the meaning of contradiction, and we looked at how contradictions develop unevenly in complex processes, into principal and secondary contradictions. We also looked at how any given contradiction has its own principal and secondary aspects, with the principal aspect playing the dominant role. Now let's look more closely at identity in contradiction and the role of antagonism in resolving contradictions of different types.

In “On Contradiction” Mao Zedong writes, “In speaking of the identity of opposites in given conditions, what we are referring to is real and concrete opposites and the real and concrete transformations of opposites into one another.”

In one sense, identity means that the two aspects of a given contradiction are also conditions for each other's existence. The bourgeoisie cannot exist without the proletariat, and vice versa. The class of exploiters depends entirely on the existence of a class of exploited from whom they draw their wealth and over whom they wield their power. Without the class of exploiters, the exploited too would not exist as a class. In this contradiction, the capitalist class plays the dominant role. They control the means of production along with the superstructure of the state and its repressive and ideological apparatuses.

However, the two aspects of this contradiction can exchange places. As Mao puts it, “by means of revolution the proletariat, at one time the ruled, is transformed into the ruler, while the bourgeoisie, the erstwhile ruler, is transformed into the ruled and changes its position to that originally occupied by its opposite.” From this qualitatively new position, the proletariat can wield state power in the socialist transition to eliminate exploitation, thereby eliminating the conditions for the existence of both itself and the bourgeoisie as classes.

One way to think about this is to say that identity is what holds things together. In other words, identity represents the real, concrete relationships that bind these opposing forces to each other. In the case of the working class and capitalists, these are the real, concrete relations of production. The capitalists own the means of production, and workers have to sell their labor to the capitalists to survive. Nevertheless, Lenin makes an important point here. “The unity (coincidence, identity, equal action) of opposites is conditional, temporary, transitory, relative. The struggle of mutually exclusive opposites is absolute, just as development and motion are absolute.” This is crucial for revolutionaries to grasp. Struggle and change are both constant and necessary.

So, to sum up, identity is the concrete relationship between contradictory aspects. On the one hand, it means that the two aspects of a contradiction are interdependent. On the other hand, it means that they can exchange places between which aspect is principal and which is secondary.

But what role does antagonism play in the identity and struggle of opposites? Mao says that “antagonism is one form, but not the only form, of the struggle of opposites.” In his essay “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People,” Mao divides contradictions into two categories: those between the masses of the people and the enemy, and those among the people themselves. Contradictions between the people and the enemy are antagonistic. Contradictions among the people are non-antagonistic. For example, under capitalist society, the contradiction between the capitalists and the working class is an antagonistic contradiction. The capitalists derive their wealth through the exploitation of the workers. They get rich from the surplus value produced by workers, that is, the difference between the value added by living labor and the amount the capitalists pay the workers for that labor power. Over the long run, the more wealth the capitalists accumulate, the less the workers are able to take home in pay, and vice versa. This means the material interests of these two classes are directly and irreconcilably opposed to one another. One benefits only at the expense of the other.

But there also exist contradictions among the masses of the people themselves. These contradictions are not antagonistic, not irreconcilably opposed to one another. Non-antagonistic contradictions are resolved through a process of unity-criticism-unity. This is a peaceful and democratic method of resolving non-antagonistic contradictions that means “starting from the desire for unity, resolving contradictions through criticism or struggle, and arriving at a new unity on a new basis.” This is the way communists should seek to resolve contradictions among themselves and among the broad masses of the people.

This brings to a close our preliminary discussion of the primary law of dialectics, the law of contradiction, which Engels called the law of the interpenetration of opposites. It is one of our most powerful and important theoretical tools and deserves serious and ongoing study, well beyond the limitations of these short articles. From here we understand how contradiction operates well enough to proceed, and so in our next article we will look more closely at how contradiction operates in the transformation of quantity into quality.

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

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