Gerry Healy


The ‘Cell’ of Materialist Dialectics

Marxist Monthly, Vol 1, No. 2, April 1988

Dialectical Logic as a science is developed in the process of cognising phenomena negated from the infinite motion of the external world.  The phenomena which demand our most urgent attention are generated by the world class struggle and its continuous interaction with the property relations established by the October 1917 Socialist Revolution.  This process constitutes the form and content of the political revolution now well underway in the USSR. It is achieved through the use of images which are sensations whose source is in the world of the class struggle.  They are then analysed ‘in themselves’ through the use of dialectical thought, (logic).  As Lenin explains on page 225 of volume 38 of his Collected Works, ‘images and thought, the development of both, nothing else.’

Since the infinite motion of the external world, (including the class struggle), has to be negated into concepts, great care must be taken as to how we define them.  It amounts to definitions of the object in itself which is being cognised.   Every concept, therefore, must be an abstract concept, if the ‘subject’ is to define the ‘object’ of cognition.  From the standpoint of materialism, the dialectical relationship between subject an object is dominated by the requirements of objective revolutionary practice.  Left-sounding words as forms devoid of content are always abstract and lifeless. ‘One of the most difficult tasks confronting the philosopher’, wrote Marx and Engels, ‘is to descend from the world of thought to the actual real world.  Language is an immediate actuality of thought. Just as philosophers have given thought an independent existence, so they were bound to make language into an independent realm …neither thoughts nor language in themselves form a realm of their own, they are only manifestations of actual life … Language, of course, becomes a phrase as soon as it is given an independent existence.’ (Vol. 5, Collected Works Marx and Engels, p.446-447)

The objective being of things and human beings can only be established through practical activity involving objects.  The purely verbal and theoretical tasks are inadequate for this purpose. In What is to be Done Lenin, however, sternly warned ‘that the worst sin we commit is that we downgrade our political and organisational tasks to the level of immediate “palpable”, “concrete” interests of everyday economic struggle. (p. 446 Vol. 5 Collected Works.).  “Lend the economic struggle a political character.”

‘We repeat’, Lenin continued, ‘this kind of thing displays as much “sense for the realities of life” as was displayed by the hero of the popular fable who cried out to a passing funeral procession “many happy returns of the day.”’ (Ibid.) The task facing the working class of the world is to create through its revolutionary practice the conditions for the overthrow of capitalism and the smashing of the capitalist states in all the capitalist countries.  This strategic ‘whole’ cannot be achieved except through the unconditional defence of its ‘part’ – the conquest of the October 1917 Socialist Revolution against nuclear war-crazy world imperialism. Only the building of sections of the ICFI as the world party of socialist revolution can resolve this historic task.

                                                           A Sum and Unity of Opposites

I materialist dialectics each concept records only one particular moment of concrete reality as a concrete abstraction.  Each negation of negation of a new content contains the property of the thing that is being negated, (abstracted). Since each negated moment records a different moment of sensation, the ‘thing, phenomenon etc. builds up into a ‘sum and unity of opposites’. Their unity emerges not from their similarity to each other, but on the contrary through their difference and opposition to one another. Lenin always opposed empty word forms, insisting that truth is always concrete. The word form must have an ‘in itself’ historical content. Concepts negated in the process of cognition are both abstract and concrete, and cannot be separated. Marx, in the fifth Thesis of Feuerbach, emphasised that ‘Feuerbach, not satisfied with abstract thinking wants sensuous contemplation but he does not conceive sensuousness contemplation as practical human activity. (p.4, Vol. 5 Marx and Engels Collected Works)

 Man’s thinking cannot be separated from his practice, because he is the result and product of his own labour.  Everything that is human in man is determined by his development of tools as instruments of production which is a universal practice.  This ‘universal’ embodies  both the ‘individual’ and the ‘particular’, as objective reality, which is manifested in the concept.

In reality, the universal exists only through the individual and the particular.Its properties can only be revealed through an analysis of the particular. Universal reality in the class struggle can only be manifested through analysis of its law-governed relations between the individual and the particular in contrast to the self-created images of the subjective idealist pasted over this dialectical reality. Such bourgeois ideological bankruptcy is totally inadequate in contrast to the union of analysis synthesis of dialectical logic for the working out of the universal definitions of concepts. As Lenin explains in the box, (p. 99 Vol. 38, Collected Works), when he quotes Hegel from a previous paragraph: ‘A beautiful formula, “Not merely an abstract universal, but a universal which comprises  in itself the wealth of the particular, the individual, the single” (all the wealth of the particular and the single)!! Tresbien’ (double quotes are Hegel, single quotes Lenin)

The sum and unity of opposites, (contents), cannot exist outside a certain coherent whole in which the interaction of each opposite, (content), realises its specific nature through interaction with another opposite, (content), within the given whole. Each separate content negated from a dialectically divided whole must express one-sidedly the universal nature of this whole in its difference from other contents instead of an abstract identity with them.This process of interacting contents is already a substance, which through the union of analysis and synthesis was historically formed. It is essence in existence which through the build-up of the Measure of qualities of the contents changes the motion in transition to Appearance. Engels, on page 22 of Dialectics of Nature explains the process under the heading ‘Abstract and Concrete’ – ‘The general law of the change of form of motion is much more concrete than any single concrete example of it.’  This ‘change of form of motion’ provides the impulse for the transition to appearance.

In his article, On the Question of Dialectics, (page 361 Vol. 38), Lenin describes the ‘cell’ when ‘we separate the essence from the appearance and counter-pose the one to the other’. In the Critique of Political Economy, page 206, Marx describes the ‘cell’ as follows: ‘The concrete concept is concrete because it is a synthesis of many definitions.’ The ‘synthesis of many definitions’ is the negation of contents which contain the concrete from which they have been negated from the external world of the class struggle.

Marx continues: ‘thus representing the unity of diverse aspects’ as abstractions containing the concrete negated into each content. ‘It appears therefore in reasoning as a summing up, a result, and not as the starting point, although it is the real point of origin, and thus also the point of origin of perception and imagination. The first procedure attenuates  meaningful images to abstract definitions, the second leads from abstract definitions by way of reasoning to the reproduction of the concrete situation … the method of advancing from the abstract to the concrete is simply the way in which thinking assimilates the concrete and reproduces it as a concrete mental category.’

For Marx also, as well as Lenin, the ‘cell’ of materialist dialectics was the transition through change of form of the build-up of the concrete properties of the abstract definitions (negations) into concrete appearances by way of reasoning through the union of analysis and synthesis.  Marx begins first with the concrete external world from which he negates ‘abstract images’ and from these he establishes a synthesis which is the thing, phenomena etc, as the sum and unity of opposites (page 221 Vol.38). The dialectical motion from the abstract to the concrete can only be perceived through its opposite from the concrete to the abstract. This is the fore most determinant in the unity and transformation of opposites into one another as a law-governed process. This is the unbridgeable gulf between materialist dialectics and the eclectical combinations of subjective idealism. The transition of opposites into one another is a decisive element.  Theory as a guide to practice occurs only in the transition of the abstract to the concrete and vice versa in which the union of analysis and synthesis are closely interwoven.  Theory does not develop out of nature as such, but in man’s struggle to transform nature by his practice. Concrete truth is formed in the process of motion itself. The union of analysis and synthesis are internal, inseparable opposites in the process of dialectically analysing motion in its immediacy, that is, in a state of ’becoming’.

                                                                      The Logical Method

Lenin defined the logical method of analysing the historical-materialist process in a state of becoming as ‘the splitting of a single whole and the cognition of its contradictory parts - this is the essence (one of the “essentials”, one of the principle, if not the principle, characteristics or features) of dialectics.’ (p. 360 Vol.38) Development through the inseparable union of analysis and synthesis must correspond to the internal division of the whole negated from the concrete external world outside thought. In this negation of the concrete historical reality, we are in principle concerned with the universal moments of its development in their concrete historical interaction. It is this historical interaction of concrete phenomena in the external world which constitutes the essence of dialectical concepts.  Lenin in Element (5) describes it as ‘the thing (phenomena, etc) as the sum and unity of opposites.’ (page 221 Vol. 38)

As negation form the concrete universal, this general summation of opposites (contents) is an abstraction into which has been negated the moments of the external concrete whole. To establish phenomenon, we must discover its origin in the external world, otherwise without establishing the inner connection of phenomena we replace dialectical logic as a theory of knowledge with eclecticism, and the decent into empiricism begins.

                                                      The Dialectical ‘Cell’ of ‘Capital

Each negation must express and contain only those previous negations of the forms of the ever-changing existence of the object of cognition. Dialectical logic does not reproduce the whole of history as such. It negates the concrete historical concepts as a whole which interact upon one another in the external world, emerging in logic as internal contradictions. A commodity contains the interaction of two polar opposites: use value and exchange value. It is a ‘relation’, wrote Lenin, ‘encountered billions of times, viz. the exchange of commodities. In this very simple phenomenon, (in this ‘cell’ of bourgeois society), analysis reveals all the contradictions, (or the germs of all the contradictions), of modern society.’ (page 360-361 Vol. 38).  Their subsequent development through  conflict as ‘polar opposites’ is the essence of the class struggle, in the course of which this ‘cell’ appears indifferent forms.

‘A commodity’, Marx said, ‘is a use-value or object of utility, and a value. It manifests itself as this two-fold thing, that is, as soon as its value assumes an independent form – viz, the form of exchange value.’ (page 60, Vol. l, Capital). The ’polar opposites’ – use value and exchange value – are responsible for the commodity being a ‘two-fold’ thing or a contradiction which must be resolved. This is realised when both acquire the independent form of exchange value. The value of a commodity has its origin in the contradictory nature of value and not in the form of exchange value.  This only applies when use-value and value take the form of exchange value. Value ‘in itself’ could be, to use the example provided by Marx, 20 yards of linen.

20 yards of linen may be a roll of cloth. As such, it represents the contradictions of the indeterminate beginning. Value here is the product of the simple negation. It is the relation of a commodity to itself and not another commodity for the purpose of exchange as a use value. In such a relation, it is a living unresolved internal contradiction.  Such an internal contradiction cannot be resolved through the buying and selling of 20 yards of linen within the context of elementary commodity exchange, linen for linen. The source of this inner contradiction of the 20 yards of linen is the source of the self-movement of the qualitative contradiction within the indeterminate beginning. The scientific method of dialectical logic enables us to disclose the inner contradiction which is responsible for its development towards its form of exchange value.

The qualitative inner contradiction for a tailor who by the nature of his trade has access to the purchase of cloth as an indeterminate beginning is to negate the simple negation of advertising for male or female customers outside his own trade, who may require a suit or costume, as a use-value. Eventually such customers appear and select the cloth of their choice with the tailor providing style illustrations, in which ‘impressions flash by’, both for the tailor and his customers, as to the semblance of the suit or costume required, and a mediatory analysis by the tailor as to how best to create the garment needed by the customer. 20 yards of linen to one coat, contains an implicit antagonism since the part played by the linen and the coat are different. Linen has a relative value, whilst that of the coat is an equivalent value. The second commodity, [coat], is not the one whose value is expressed. Its function is merely to serve as the material in which the value of the first commodity is expressed. (page 49, Capital, Vol. l)

Both linen and coat are mutually exclusive universal opposites. In the case of the linen, the relative value is expressed in to coat, whilst the relative value of the coat is expressed in the linen. In this relation, the relative coat is relative to the equivalent of the linen. Thus we have the semblance of an implicit quantity of linen united with the explicit quality of the coat as Measure. There are two owners, the tailor who has access to the linen as value to make the coat, whose role is explicit, and the implicit owner who needs the coat as a use value. The universal contradiction is negated into an inner identity of mutually exclusive opposites as a contradiction in one relation at one moment of time and vice versa. The contradiction is resolved through the use of money which enables the use value to transform itself into exchange-value and vice versa. In this relation money itself becomes a commodity which replaces value as use-value. Value as the inner contradiction of the commodity form is resolved by money in the act of exchange. It is value and use-value, the inner essence of each commodity which is reflected in its relation to another commodity. Value and use-value as different commodities are unity of mutually exclusive economic forms at the same time. ‘Money’, said Marx, ‘plays the universal equivalent in the world of commodities’. (Our emphasis).

                                                                Commodity Fetishism

Marx goes on to explain the process of commodity fetishism: ‘A commodity’, he writes, ‘is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour:Because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses … it is a definite social relation between men that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.’ (page 72, Capital. Vol. l)

The fetishist process manifests itself according to Marx in this way: The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society.  Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange.’ (page 73, Capital, Vol. l). Since exchange takes place through the universal equivalent of money, the oppressed workers, employed and unemployed, are especially concerned and dominated by the things money can buy, since they have so little money.  Fetishism is a transmission belt for bourgeois ideology amongst the poorest of the poor who from early morning to nightfall eke out a miserable existence trying to obtain the things they need for a pitiable standard of living. Bourgeois ideology utilises religion and the non-stop technique of the press, radio and television to keep the oppressed in ignorance as to the class source of their plight.

For the owner of commodities, ‘exchange’, Marx said, ‘is a transaction of a special kind … they do not confront each other as commodities but only as products or use values.’ (page 86, Capital, Vol l)

Their owners are obliged to conform to the dialectical laws governing commodities which means that they enter into transactions without thinking, as a matter of daily routine practice. The act of exchange converts products into commodities. These products are external to man. If he has no money, he can neither but nor sell them. Both the buyers and sellers are private owners. From the moment of the transaction, the distinction becomes firmly established within the commodity between use-value and exchange-value involving two separate owners. ‘The act of exchange gives to the commodity converted into money not its value, but its specific value form.’ (page 90, Capital. Vol. l) ‘The-money form of an object is not an inseparable part of that object, but is simply the form under which certain social relations manifest themselves. In this sense every commodity is a symbol, since so far as it is value, it is only the material envelope of the human labour spent upon it.’ (Ibid.) Money is a universal measure of value of the human labour power measured by labour time contained in commodities.

It is not, however, labour in general, but labour as a concrete historical form which constitutes the substance of value. Dead labour for example, cannot create any new value. Its value is simply transferred into the product as it is sold. The property of motion which living labour possesses creates value but value itself does not. It becomes congealed abstract value when it is embodied in the property of some product. ‘Whether the coat serves as the equivalent and linen the relative value, or the linen as the equivalent and the coat as relative value,the magnitude of the coat’s value is determined,  independently of its value-form, by the labour time necessary for it production. But whenever the coat assumes in the equation of value, the position of equivalent, its value acquires no quantitative expression; on the contrary, the commodity coat now figures only as a definite quantity of some article …therefore a definite number of coats suffices to express the definite quantity of value in the linen… use value becomes the form of manifestation, the phenomenal form of its opposite, value … The bodily form of the commodity becomes its value form. (page 55-56, Capital, Vol. l)

Living concrete labour becomes the form under which its opposite, abstract human labour manifests itself because ‘labour is directly social in its form’ (Op. Cit page 58-59). A product becomes a commodity in the course of exchange. In the process of exchange ‘all the different kinds of private labour, which are carried on independently of each other … are continually being reduced to the quantitative proportions in which society requires them.’ (Op. Cit page 75) ‘Thus the labour time, socially necessary for their production forcibly asserts itself, like an over-riding law of nature. Could commodities themselves speak, they would say: Our use-value may be a thing that interests men. It is no part of us as objects. What however, does belong to us as objects, is our value … In the eyes of each other, we are nothing but exchange values. (Page 83)

Without a dialectical conception of value as the source of contradiction, it is impossible to understand the role of money, profit, wages, surplus value or capital. There is an economic reality existing outside in the class struggle generated by the world economic and political crisis of capitalism. This reality is the direct exchange of a commodity representing value with another commodity representing use-value. They exist as categories independently of each other without money being involved. These categories emerge in the cognitive process of Reflection through the negation process in an historical synthesis with the division of the objects into value as an indeterminate beginning and the use value of those who need a product.

Categories such a ‘thing’, property, quality, measure, form, content, causality, necessity, chance, time, motion, are universal and exist independently outside thought. They emerge as the outcome of human experience and serve as the basis in which man seeks to cognise and change the world. Historical experience of this kind exists objectively and must be separated from the dialectical functions of human thought, which proceeds from ‘living perception to abstraction and from this to practice.’ Dialectical logic in the negation of categories must strive to reproduce the history of the capitalist system in a state of becoming. Facts must never be derived from other facts as the subjective idealists and positivists argue.  This demands a most critical analysis of all negate categories. Historical manifestations of the external world, when negated become logical in form.

                                                                      Surplus Value

The negation of the contents, which transform value into use-value, are the ‘sum and unity’ of opposites, which as a completed use-value is exchanged for money, thus resolving the internal contradiction of value. ‘The common feature of all commodities is that they are products of labour’, wrote Lenin. ‘As values, all commodities are only definite masses of congealed labour time. Value has to be a universal form, since different commodities can be exchanged for one and the same commodity, ending with the money form of value. At a certain stage in the development of commodity production money becomes transformed into capital. The formula of commodity circulation is C-M-C (commodity-money-commodity), ie, the sale of one commodity for the purpose of buying another. The general formula of capital, on the contrary, is M-C-M, ie, purchase for the purpose of selling (at a profit). The increase over the original value of the money that is put into circulation is called by Marx surplus value.’ (page 61-62, Vol. 21 Collected Works.)

The real history of capitalism begins at surplus value, at the point where it grows and accumulates from the unpaid-for labour of wage workers. The capitalist pays in workers’ wages only a portion of the value of what the worker produces.  The value of the products manufactured in the surplus labour time over and above that paid for in wages the capitalist appropriates. These surplus products are transformed into surplus value for which the capitalist pays nothing. Capital manifests itself in two ways. There is constant capital which is the means of production, parts of which are included in the finished product.

The second part is variable capital which is set aside by the capitalist to pay for labour power. Variable capital, which pays the wages is responsible for the creation of surplus value, which must not be allocated to the entire capital expenditure, but only to variable capital. In the process of capital accumulation, a part of surplus value is set aside for expansion, that is, for the extension of the means of production by the capitalist. In this way workers, who produce surplus value from their unpaid labour, when transformed into capital for the purpose of exploitation, consciously or unconsciously create a ‘rod for their own backs. In this relation the means of production expands through the growth of surplus value, part of which is relegated to the growth of constant capital as fresh investment in the means of production. The other part is allocated to an increase in variable capital.

Surplus value is a qualitatively new economic reality arising as it does between the interaction of commodity, money, commodity and labour power. Commodity, money, commodity (C-M-C) is a law governed process, which is only manifested through the interaction with labour power. The growth of surplus value, therefore, cannot be related to commodity-money-commodity, or labour power as surplus entities, but only to their interaction. The negations of the previous categories, value, use-value and exchange-value, arises from the absolute contradiction within value. It is manifested in the forms of use-value and must precede the laws of money-commodity-money. Labour power is in this relation (M-C-M) historically speaking a commodity, which finds its form of expression in surplus value.

The law of surplus value as a form inevitably produces a crisis of over-production and an enormous growth on unemployment. It is not just enough to explain how money is a commodity, but to be able to analyse how the absolute contradiction within value compels a commodity to become money through exchange-value.  This is the ‘cell’ of materialist dialectics which is constantly changing and manifested in many forms such as wages, capital, profit and surplus value.