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Red theory: The leap from quantity to quality

By J. Sykes

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Now that we’ve gone into some detail on contradiction, let’s look at the question of the transformation of quantity into quality.

In his book Dialectics of Nature, Engels names three dialectical laws: the law of the interpenetration of opposites, which we’ve already dealt with; the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa; and the negation of the negation.

However, it is noteworthy that Mao Zedong argues that contradiction is the primary law of dialectics. The other two laws are either, merely an instance of the law of contradiction (in the case of the transformation of quantity into quality), or a metaphysical carryover of Hegelian idealism (in the case of the negation of the negation). It is worthwhile to examine this in some detail. Here we’ll look at the question of how qualitative leaps are in fact instances of the law of contradiction.

In what way is the leap from quantity to quality actually an instance of the law of contradiction? Mao makes short work of this in his “Talk on Questions of Philosophy,” stating that the transformation of quantity into quality is simply a matter of the unity of the opposites, quantity and quality. In fact, what takes place, dialectically, is that quantitative accumulation eventually causes a shift in the uneven development of contradictory forces, and the previously secondary aspect of a contradiction becomes primary, or dominant, within the process, manifesting as a qualitative leap.

Metaphysical thinking would have it that change is only a change in quantity. This vulgar-evolutionist approach to change fails to account for the dialectical leap from quantity to quality. Often this is expressed as a kind of reformism in the movements in which we work.

Liberal reformists believe that we can create a just society through a series of incremental changes, and that revolution isn’t actually necessary. Social democrats commit a similar error. They misunderstand the transformation of quantity into quality because they don’t understand that it is a function of dialectical contradiction. They believe that if enough social democratic reforms are accumulated, then the capitalist state can be transformed into a socialist state without a proletarian revolution to overthrow the power of the bourgeoisie.

These reformists misunderstand not only the place of antagonism in the class struggle, but also the way that principal and secondary aspects of contradiction exchange places. It isn’t a question of the incremental accumulation of reforms, but of the accumulation of force, of power, that determines which aspect of a contradiction is dominant.

What we actually see when we look at the history of social change, over and over again, is that a series of small changes eventually leads to a revolutionary leap, after which things are fundamentally different and the situation is qualitatively new. For example, we may see that a series of quantitative steps, such as increasing exploitation in our workplace, can build, alongside workers frustration. Workplace actions may build up in a quantitative way, through meetings, leafleting and the eventual move towards indirect shop floor tactics like slowdowns, or “work to rule.” Eventually, the principal and secondary aspects of the contradiction at work change places resulting in a qualitative leap, into a direct confrontation between the workers and bosses, and the workers strike.

As we have already seen in our study of contradiction, qualitative change occurs when the principal and secondary aspects of a contradiction exchange place. Look at this passage from Mao’s essay “ On Contradiction.”

“But this situation is not static; the principal and the non-principal aspects of a contradiction transform themselves into each other and the nature of the thing changes accordingly. In a given process or at a given stage in the development of a contradiction, A is the principal aspect and B is the non-principal aspect; at another stage or in another process the roles are reversed–a change determined by the extent of the increase or decrease in the force of each aspect in its struggle against the other in the course of the development of a thing.”

Let’s examine Mao’s argument here by returning to our example of the workers’ struggle. As the struggle progresses, the workers escalate their tactics applying greater and greater pressure. Class struggle develops consciousness and organization, and the quantitative accumulation of these things leads to a qualitative leap in the struggle. The strike will be won or lost depending on the accumulation of force by the workers, and whether or not the workers have accumulated the force necessary to become the principal aspect of the contradiction in this particular struggle, that is, the dominant force in the process. If the workers haven’t built up their forces, escalated their tactics step by step to raise the consciousness of the broad rank and file, and built their strike fund, then their relative lack of power will make it a difficult struggle to win. If this quantitative accumulation of force has taken place, however, then and only then is a qualitative leap possible, such that the workers become the dominant force in the process and on that basis can seize the time, appropriately advance their tactics, and win the strike.

So we see then the way in which dialectical materialism accounts for qualitative change. Mao is correct to say that the transformation of quantity into quality is an instance of the law of contradiction. In our next essay we will examine the third law of dialectics as presented by Engels, the negation of the negation.

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

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