Red theory: the leap from quantity to quality


Now that we have entered into the detail of the contradiction, let us examine the question of the transformation of quantity into quality.

In his book Dialectic of nature, Engels cites three dialectical laws: the law of the interpenetration of opposites, of which we have already spoken; the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa; and the negation of the negation.

However, it should be noted that Mao Zedong maintains that contradiction is the primary law of dialectics. The other two laws are either a simple instance of the law of contradiction (in the case of the transformation of quantity into quality), or a metaphysical transfer of Hegelian idealism (in the case of the negation of the negation). It is worth considering this in detail. Here we will examine the question of how qualitative leaps are in fact examples of the law of contradiction.

How is the jump from quantity to quality in fact an instance of the law of contradiction? Mao makes short work of it in his “Talk on Questions of Philosophy”, stating that the transformation of quantity into quality is simply a matter of unity of opposites, quantity and quality. In fact, what happens, dialectically, is that the qualitative accumulation ends up bringing about a change in the unequal development of the contradictory forces, and the previously secondary aspect of a contradiction becomes primary, or dominant, in the process. , manifesting itself in a qualitative leap.

Metaphysical thought would have the change be only a change in quantity. This vulgar evolutionary approach to change ignores the dialectical leap from quantity to quality. This is often expressed by a kind of reformism in the movements in which we work.

Liberal reformers believe that we can create a just society through a series of incremental changes, and that revolution is not really necessary. Social democrats make a similar mistake. They misunderstand the transformation of quantity into quality because they do not 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 in which the principal and secondary aspects of the contradiction are exchanged. It is not a question of the gradual accumulation of reforms, but of the accumulation of force, of power, which determines which aspect of a contradiction is dominant.

What we really see when we look at the history of social change again and again is that a series of small changes eventually lead to a revolutionary leap, after which things are fundamentally different and the situation is qualitatively new. For example, we can see that a series of quantitative steps, such as increased exploitation in our workplace, can create, alongside worker frustration. Actions in the workplace can pile up quantitatively, through meetings, fliers, and the eventual evolution into indirect shop-floor tactics like slowdowns or “work to rule.” Finally, the main and secondary aspects of the contradiction at work change places leading to a qualitative leap, in a direct confrontation between the workers and the bosses, and the workers’ strike.

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

“But this situation is not static; the main and non-main aspects of a contradiction transform 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 main aspect and B is the non-main aspect; at another stage or in another process, the roles are reversed – a change determined by the extent to which the strength of each aspect increases or decreases in its struggle against the other during the development of a thing.

Let us examine Mao’s argument here by returning to our example of the workers’ struggle. As the struggle progresses, the workers intensify their tactics by applying more and more pressure. The 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 strength by the workers, and whether or not the workers have accumulated the strength necessary to become the main aspect of contradiction in this particular struggle, that is, say the dominant force in the process. . If the workers have not built up their forces, intensified their step-by-step tactics to raise the consciousness of the whole rank and file, and built up their strike fund, then their relative lack of power will make the struggle difficult to win. If this quantitative accumulation of force has taken place, then, and only then, is a qualitative leap possible, so that the workers become the dominant force in the process and on this basis can seize time, advance their tactics appropriately. and win the hit.

We then see how dialectical materialism accounts for qualitative change. Mao is right to say that the transformation of quantity into quality is an example 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.

Sharon D. Cole