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Fodla32

A Short Course in Dialectics

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I'm interested in how quantitative change becomes qualatitive? What does dialectics say about this?

 

I'm approaching the question from the perspective of the reformism vs revolution debate. If quantatitive change can lead to a change in quality, is this not an argument for reformism?

 

A chara, that is the next section :hammersickle:

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Before moving on to the topic of quality and quantity, I just want to make a few more remarks on the dialectic between internal and external causes.

 

Over the last few decades there has been a growing gap between reality and our images of it. So much so, that it could be said that the images we see on the media really have nothing to do with any kind of reality. Advertizements create a world that clearly has no existence - and yet, we kill ourselves trying to bring this unreality into our personal realities. Marx talks about the magical quality of the commodity in the first chapter of Das Kapital. Today, media images are the ultimate commodity. We consume media images at a fantastic rate. They are everywhere. Utterly unavoidable. And yet, we feel their unreality beneath our skins. Its a nasty feeling, that drives us to try and make them real. This is the secret of advertizing - or any kind of propaganda. We buy the product being advertised, in the vain hope that its possession will make the unreality of the advertisement into reality. We still have this idea - one which was true for 200,000 years - that images are images of something. That there really is an inside to the outside image. Almost in despair now, we have this vague hope that the media will actually make something happen - will make something real. After all, we have given the media almost total control over our perception of the world. If the media can't make something happen, make a real event, then nothing can. Is a kiss a kiss - without the photo? Is a murder a murder - until the cameras arrive?

 

The invasion of Libya. Here was an event - of historical importance - and we can really say it was created by the media. We know quite well that the invasion and destruction of Libya could not have happened without Al Jazeera. Yes, the BBC, Fox News, CNN played their part, but it was Al Jazeera that made it happen. In other wars, the media drummed up the patriotic hysteria in the imperialist countries. It sang the praises of the imperialist troops, and their victories. But, in Libya, the media created the victories - before they even happened. And not just for the populations of the West. For the Libyans too. Tragically, Arabic speaking people had come to trust Al Jazeera. When Libyans were told that their Brother Leader had deserted them, and flown off to Venezeula, they was general panic. Libyans were paralyzed when they saw film of Green Square over run by rats. That this event had been filmed on a set in Qatar made no difference. When people were told of the futility of resistance, most gave up hope. For them, the war was already over. Reality hobbled far behind - almost an uninteresting appendix. The event had already taken place, on the TV screens of hundreds of millions of people.

 

And what a shabby reality it was, hobbling after the TV image. Crazed gangs hacking Black bodies with machetes, while NATO bombed 40 years of African progress into dust. How could that real have anything to do with the event created by the media? It couldn't. The two have no connection. The dialectic between the image and real is totally annihilated.

 

It seems to me that the burning hope of every Revolutionary is to bring the real into being. To live the real. This was the great ideal of Socialist Realist art. To create images that were of being in the real.

 

Tomorrow, we will call for the release of Georges Abdallah. He was of a generation of Revolutionaries that lived totally in the real. And living in the real always means living with death. Living as if it could easily be your last day. Living with the full knowledge of finality. And this is precisely why the French regime buried him alive, rather than killing him. Death is no deterrent to someone who fully accepts the real, who accepts his or her own death, who, like Socrates, lives with death. Instead, they buried him alive. Under the image of humanitarianism. To separate him from death, from Revolution. Or, at least, to drain the real out of his image, for the TV viewers. Martyrs are always real. Too real.

 

This is how Revolution - real Revolution - not the TV dinner type - is dealt with today. Like all of reality, it is entombed in an image that is an image of nothing that ever existed. And it is kept there - buried alive.

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Finally, we can't leave the topic of internal and external causes without a brief discussion of the USSR. The Communist Party started as a very small group. Probably of the order of Jesus and his twelve disciples - and probably just as unsure of what they were really about. Lenin had not yet become Lenin. Most of the others probably had only fairly vague social democratic hopes. They lived in a Feudal society, that was only just beginning to feel the impact of capitalism. There was the dialectic between the various hopes, dreams and ideologies of the various members of the group. There was the dialectic between the group and the Feudal society they lived in, and the dialectic between that society and the capitalist West - a dialectic that also had roots in the dialectic between the empires of Constantinople and of Rome.

 

When we think of the massive complexity involved, it becomes silly to say Lenin should have done this, or Stalin should have done that. Could one man, or a group of men, really step so far outside history? I don't think so. Russian Communism, in many ways, continued in line from the Tsars. As does Putin today. Some smart people like to dub the USSR as the New Tsarism. Perhaps they are more correct than they would like to be. The key word is "new." Nobody can deny the newness of what happened after 1917. This newness was felt all over the world. Particularly in the Third World, but also in Europe and USA. The idea of a new world became possible in peoples minds. The USSR only began to fail when the newness began to fade. Particularly during the Cold War, when both sides settled down into a game of deterrent. Capitalism can stand that. Because it is the lowest common denominator of human existence. Nothing good is expected of it - least of all, anything new. Capitalism is mind numbingly boring. Painfully boring. It cannot be anything but boring even if it tried. Even when its killing millions of people. How boring is killing someone with a drone or a stealth bomber - or with dirty water? The media makes atrocity seem exciting for a few minutes, then its swallowed in boredom. But, when Communism stops the war for the new, stops being in the real, stops being exciting, it dies. I think this is what Che Guevara understood. He could have settled into ministerial life in Cuba, and continued the important work of building the Cuban economy and infrastructure. But, I think that something inside him told him that Communism would lose the war, if it wasn't fighting in the jungles of Angola and Congo and Bolivia.

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4. Quality and Quantity

 

In one respect, this is a very simple concept, but, in others, it is the most difficult. In common language, quality usually refers to an item being of good make. But, when you think of it, what you are really saying is that it is a particular kind of thing or process. Quality talks about what a thing\process is. Quantity expresses how much or how many things are being taken into consideration. So far so simple. If I look at a BMW, I may say that that's a quality car. I'm putting it in the category of all quality cars (as opposed to poorly made cars.) Also by saying its a BMW, I am saying it has the quality of being a BMW car. If I say there are two BMWs in the car park, I've expressed a quantity. But, I have also referred to their quality of being BMW cars - as opposed to any other make of car. So, we see that quality and quantity are related. That is all the more so if I make a statement, for example, that a certain bar of chocolate is quality chocolate, and if I have made this judgement on the basis of there being more coco beans in the good quality chocolate than the poor quality chocolate (though, in reality, there are other factors to be taken into consideration.)

 

If I say that a certain atom has the quality of being a hydrogen atom, I will also have made a statement about quality. I will have said that the atom is made up of one proton and one electron. If I take the electron away, it will not be a hydrogen atom with no electron. It will, in fact, be just a proton. I could have added or subtracted heat energy, or gravity, or a number of other forces, but these would not have been structural elements, and would not have changed the quality of the atom. A hot hydrogen atom or a cold hydrogen atom is still a hydrogen atom. But if I add or subtract the structural elements, i.e. protons or electrons, I will have changed the quality of the atom.

 

So why would Marx have been bothered with all of this? Well, it's clear that in any transition from one form of society to another, just like with the hydrogen atom, there will be changes in the quantity of structural elements.

 

In the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism, we saw a number of key structural changes, of a quantitative nature. One obvious change was simply who had the money. Between the 13th and the 18th centuries, the great Feudal landowners found themselves becoming more and strapped for cash. The Black Death played a large part in this process. Perhaps 50% of Europe's population was wiped out - as many as 200 million people. The Thirty Years War, between 1618 and 1648, killed up to 40% of German speaking people, between the war itself and hunger and disease. During this time, very little in the line of rents were paid to the German landowners. And during peace time, there was a massive shortage of farm labourers, and agricultural wages greatly increased. A smaller population also meant less demand for food, so food prices decreased. This left many of the large estates on the verge of bankruptcy. All the while, the merchants and bankers had been becoming very wealthy indeed. There is nothing so profitable to bankers and merchants as war and famine. The Feudal aristocracy found themselves having to borrow money from the emerging capitalist class, just to keep their heads above water. As Napoleon put it, the hand that gives is always stronger than the hand that receives (one reason why the West loves giving charity to their colonies.) Before long, de facto power was in the hands of the capitalists - though the Feudal lords maintained military power until after the French Revolution.

 

 

So, here, we see two structural elements changing in quantity:

 

1. Massive population decrease.

2. Massive transfer of wealth from one class to another.

 

 

Despite the commonly held view, the Middle Ages were a time of great technological advance. Marx describes these advances, in some detail, in Das kapital. The following are the most important developments:

 

1. The Heavy Plough, made of iron, and run on wheels, greatly increased food production during the Middle Ages, leading to a decrease in food prices.

 

2. Tidal Mills, allowed millers to use the massive power of the rising and falling tide. In short, the high water is stored in a gate, and continues to drive the wheel, even when the tide has fallen.

 

3. The hour glass, and later the mechanical clock, meant that society could be run on an artificial division of time - without this, capitalism would be impossible.

 

4. The Blast furnace was introduced in the 11th century, and became very common as the Middle Ages progressed. These furnaces could produce large quantities of iron and steel at affordable prices. They also produced a phosphate rich slag as a waste product, which was used as an artificial fertilizer.

 

5. Distillation. This might sound like more a step back than forward - particularly for those of us who have a sore head on a Saturday morning, but the availability of pure alcohol allowed many developments in medicine and chemistry. The distillation process itself has been of the utmost importance to science - and made the perfume industry a mass industry.

 

6. The Glass Lens. Needless to say, this development allowed microscopes and telescopes to develop, and made life much easier for people with eye problems.

 

7. The Printing Press. Of huge importance. This invention took the control of information out of the hands of the Feudal lords and their priests.

 

8. The Spinning Wheel. Revolutionized the production of cloths and fibers, and led to the first modern factories, when the this invention was combined with the water mill.

 

So, we see that we had here massive structural changes to what Marx refers to as the technological base of society. Each one of these changes shifted society onto a more scientific model, i.e. a model based on the measurement of quantity. How much one had became more important than what one was, i.e. it was now better to be a wealthy commoner than a poor aristocrat. This is a massive structural change. In the heyday of the Feudal system, simply having a title was a guarantee of wealth, privilege and power. It wasn't called a "title" for nothing. Having one literally entitled you to the very best society could offer. By the end of the Middle Ages, this was no longer the case.

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Since we have mentioned the technological base, I think we can discuss the dialectic between base and superstructure. Marx uses the term "base" to refer to the level of technological development of any society. He uses the term "superstructure" to refer to the culture that develops on this technological base.

 

Needless to say, there is a very intense dialectic between the two. We see above how developments in technology, during the Middle Ages, tended to undermine Feudal culture, and promote a Capitalist culture. But, any dialectic goes two ways. Technology is not divorced from the culture of those who are developing it. I think we would be fairly safe to claim that today, the internal combustion engine is still dominant more for cultural reasons than technological ones. Already, we could massively reduce our dependence on this form of engine, and develop other forms of energy transference. But, that would tend to reduce the power of the capitalist elite, just as the Heavy Plough worked against the dominance of the Feudal lords. This is particularly so, given that the USA is almost totally dependent on the Petro-Dollar for its continued world dominance.

 

David Harvey is fantastic on the dialectic between technology and culture, and I'd advise anyone to watch his lectures on You Tube - or read his books (which I admit I haven't managed to do yet, but its on the list.)

 

We live in a culture today that demands instant communication and colossal quantities of entertainment. I don't think we could say that this demand was created by the invention of mobile phones and cable TV. This demand seems to have more to do with the tendency of Capitalism to atomize society, and turn each individual into an isolated consumer. But, the introduction of these devices certainly made the isolation of individuals more chronic. That would seem to be a contradiction - more communication devices, less communication between people. But, that is the reality. Its as if the media stages society for us, and we watch it unfold on our screens, as a dumbfounded audience.

 

Here we see that a massive increase in the quantity of a structural element, i.e. communication, has had a profound effect. So much so, that some people refer to the type of society we now live in as Post-Capitalism, rather than Capitalism. I wouldn't go that far. The argument for Post-Capitalism is that Western populations really don't consume manufactured goods anymore, but now consume signs. Of course, there is some truth to this. Most people buy an iphone, not for what it can do, but as a sign that "I am part of the iphone people - the real people - as seen on TV." But, I think Marx covered this idea with his concept of Commodity Fetishism. That said, I think Marx can hardly have imagined what we see today - where not only money, but the media also, has abolished any meaning or social bonds, and where the majority of people have been reduced to helpless consumers of a media world that has no existence whatsoever. And what's left of reality, of real society, becomes invisible to itself.

 

Baudrillard speaks of the way that the language of advertising (a language of extreme simplification - to the point of meaninglessness; imagine hearing some real information about BMW cars in a BMW ad, it would seem totally out of place) has invaded and demolished all other forms of language. For example, politics used to have a fairly distinctive form of language. But, today, politicians speak to the public (and to each other) in advertising language. A clear effect of this process is that, today, politics is considered a private matter. To be expressed, in private, at the ballot box. It is almost bad manners to talk about politics to other human beings. Certainly not what you do in good company. At the very most, you are allowed to throw your eyes up to heaven, and say "sure, they're all the same." Then stop taking about it. If everything is the same, then there is no possibility of politics. No possibility of change. This is precisely the method that was used to take religion out of the public sphere, and reduce it to a private matter. That is precisely what we see with politics. Politics has been removed from the public sphere. Instead, we get advertising for a virtual (pretend) status quo. The more political programmes on our screens, the less politics. Ever wonder why nobody ever makes a real political statement on political TV programmes? Advertising language not only destroys political language, but it acts as a deterrent to anybody who would dare to introduce it. Connolly posted an excellent discussion on what's referred to in the media as "concision." You can read it here on the Political Theory forum. In short, if you are not simplified enough, you will be cut. And we see this very clearly in these shows where the public (God help us) are allowed to sit in the audience and give their opinions. Anyone saying anything genuinely political will be dismissed as a bad mannered and ignorant person, who doesn't know how to behave in public.

 

Baudrillard points out that advertising language is already being replaced by an even more simplified language, i.e. the language of computer science and genetics. This is a language of pure determinism, with no need for imagination. Everything is predictable. In a sense, everything has already been done. We do what we are programmed to do. No need for human language at all. The Smart Economy.

 

 

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So, whats the relevance of all this to our topic? Well, we saw that in the Middle Ages, massive death and destruction withdrew huge numbers of people from the social. Today, the system of mass communication has helped cause, and has recorded, the withdrawal of hundreds of millions of people from the social. In the early 20th century, advertising siad "I consume!" Precisely because so few people did consume. Today, advertising says "I care!" (about forrests, pandas, African babies, my community, etc.) simply because so few people do care.

 

Here we see a dialectic between the base and superstructure, which is leading to quantitative changes in the structural elements of society. To a great extent, the majority of people in the West are as dead to society as if they had really died of bubonic plague. Another of advertising's favourite slogans is "I am present." There is no surer indication that very few people are present.

 

As Revolutionary Marxists, we need to study this dialectic very carefully. How many Leftist groups waste their whole energy and resources on advertising? Trying to bring a Working Class into being by putting up posters with pictures of an imaginary Working Class on them. If the tendency of advertising is to alienate and isolate people, should we be doing even more of it? What does it actually mean when the majority has withdrawn from the social? What does it mean when the metaphors of advertising, computer science and genetics are becoming more numerous in our daily language than the metaphors of the human and of the communal? This is a massive quantitative change, which surely must have a qualitative effect.

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I think this brings us to the question that Lugh raised above. Are the reformists not correct when they say that by making small changes in society, as the number of these small changes increases, you automatically change the quality of the society, i.e. what it is? We spoke above about the change in language, and how society tends to change when its language changes. One of the hopes of the Frankfort School, in particular, what that by introducing a type of language - that is now popularly known as Politically Correct Language - that would presuppose that its hearer would not be a racist, or a homophobe, or a sexist, etc. that it would make it very difficult to actually promote these bigoted ideas in public. That has certainly proved to be the case, and legal systems have been changed to reflect this new language, and the understanding that comes with it.

 

Good Freudian Marxists that they were, the Frankfort School regarded the Oedipus Complex as a key structural element in the Capitalist form of society. Undoubtedly, they were correct. However, the breaking down of the nuclear family, and the massive movement of women into the workforce has not had the effect they desired. Indeed, Capitalism today demands that both partners in a family home go out to work. This massive new pressure on families has tended to make their members much more viciously conservative. The large numbers of single parent families has tended to increase isolation in society. Many single mothers are incredibly isolated from society, and it is highly unlikely that they will pass on to their children something that they don't experience as real themselves, i.e. a sense of the communal.

 

In effect, the followers of the Frankfort School did not manage to abolish the Oedipus Complex, but just to make it more dysfunctional, and more inclined to support Capitalism. And, when we think that the Oedipus Complex is particularly geared towards creating heterosexual people, with a strong sense of responsibility towards family and community, a desire to rear children, and an ability to believe in something greater than themselves, you might think that it was not a great idea to tamper with it until something better was in sight. The isolated egomaniac, with very low attention span and no belief in anything, is actually the perfect Capitalist consumer.

 

And I think this is how reformism has generally worked. Tampering with the structural elements, rather than adding or subtracting them. In truth, reformers never have the power to add or subtract structural elements. And let's not forget that some of the most noted reformers have not been of the Left - reformers such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher tweaked the structural elements to make Capitalism far more vicious and destructive. That's not to say that reformism has given us no benefits. Certainly, I'm glad that people can't be refused work or education on the basis of race, gender or sexuality. But, the obvious point is that the need to commodify your work has not been touched. Indeed, if anything, it has been made more acceptable - something to be desired even. Certainly, its better that women and Black people and the poor are allowed to vote now, but, the reformists have not changed the structural fact that it is only those with wealth who make real decisions. In the old days, when only the wealthy landowners could vote, voting meant something. The vote was only extended to the poor by making the vote worth nothing. Worth nothing, that is, except to the Capitalists, who now enjoy the allegiance of millions of people, because they have been granted "the vote" and they live in "a democracy."

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So, that brings us to the Soviet Union. Its clear that private land ownership was common for the first 15 years of the Soviet state. Many private companies still operated. Money was used, and commodification of labour was very common - people were paid wages for work done by the hour. So, was Lenin a reformer rather than a revolutionary? I would say that the answer to that is no. Lenin was well aware of the structural elements of the Tsarist Russian Empire, and he set about to add to and subtract from them. The nationalization of large areas of the economy was adding a structural element, i.e. state enterprise in the production and distribution of commodities. As time went on, this state enterprise became a state monopoly, i.e. the subtraction of the element of private industry. Stalin went on to nationalise the land, thus subtracting the structural element of private land ownership, and adding the element of collective farming.

 

Its true that not every structural element of the Tsarist society was changed. Money and wages remained right up till 1989. But, by adding and subtracting structural elements, the USSR went beyond reformism, and into the process of revolution. I would say that being a revolutionary has an added element. After all, Capitalist states have also operated state monopolies in production - for example, the ESB in the Irish free state had a monopoly in the production and distribution of electricity. But, this added element emerged only because private capital in Ireland was not capable of building the infrastructure necessary to electrify the free state area. It could not be said to be a structural element, as private enterprise in industry was still considered the desirable norm, i.e. the structural element. The Irish electrification was carried out by the state to strengthen private capital, not abolish or weaken it. In contrast, the USSR carried out state industry as part of a revolutionary process. It was done with a revolutionary attitude. It was done to expand collective enterprise and eliminate private enterprise.

 

It seems to me that our consideration of quantitative changes in structural elements leading to qualitative changes, brings us to the realization that revolution is a process in time. There is no black and white divide between Communism and Capitalism. One could even view all the forms of society known to man, from Primitive Communism to Slave Society to Feudalism to Capitalism to Communism, as a continuum. The elements of all forms of society are all present all of the time, and everywhere. But, the elevation and combination of certain of these elements to the level of the structural, at any given time, will determine which of these forms of society will be dominant.

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5. Contradiction

 

The final topic in our study of dialectics is Contradiction. This is probably the most difficult topic. It's no news to anybody that contradictions exist. But, the claim of dialectics is that all unities are composed of the combination of opposites in contradiction.

 

For this section, I will depend on Mao Zedong's 1937 essay "On Contradiction," which can be found pinned on this political theory forum. It is a terrific overview of the topic, written in very accessible language, but without being so simplified as to lose its meaning.

 

We have already claimed that dialectics is the study of processes and their interactions. Now we can be a bit more specific. As we saw, Socrates and Hegel had an idealist dialectics, i.e. they considered God to be the unmoving and eternal guarantee of the world. Marx developed a materialist dialectics, which claims that all of existence is the result of the interactions of natural processes. This view raises the question then, of where anything new comes from. Surely one process acting on another process will only produces changes in both processes. At most, the processes will combine to get a hybrid between the two. In answer to this question, Marx introduces the concept of contradiction within the process itself. Lenin defines materialist dialectics as follows: "Dialectics, in the proper sense, is the study of contradiction in the very essence of objects."

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Recently, biology has been moving away from the idea that evolution occurs as a consequence of random mutation in the gene. The idea had been that, eventually, a random mutation would occur that would give the possessor of this gene an advantage in dealing with the environment it lived in, and would pass that advantage on to its offspring. Those without the advantage would die out, and the new mutation would become the norm.

 

However, recent research points to a different understanding. Authors such as Bajrami regard the genetic structure as comprising of memory holding modules. The organism, be it human or otherwise, experiences tension with its environment. This tension is remembered within the gene. In effect, the gene internalizes the tension, or contradiction. As it reproduces cells within the organism, it tries to resolve these contradictions. However, within the reproduction of cells in a single individual, the opportunity for resolving the contradiction will be limited. The best opportunity occurs when a whole new DNA structure is being created, i.e. in sexual reproduction. This is why organisms which use sexual reproduction are much more adaptable to their environment than organisms which use other forms of reproduction, such as cloning.

 

We can see the logic of this argument when we consider, for example, the question of lactose tolerance. Human infants are born quite tolerant to lactose. Otherwise they could not feed on their mother's milk. Their bodies naturally produce an enzyme called Lactase, which breaks down the lactose in the milk into sugars. However, the Lactase gene generally shuts off at about three or four years old, or whenever a given society considers weaning appropriate. After that, humans are lactose intolerant, and milk is no longer any good to them as a food source.

 

However, once animals had been domesticated, around 6,000 years ago in Europe, enjoying milk throughout ones life became a possibility. We can imagine that people use small quantities of milk in their cooking, even if it didnt really agree with their stomachs. Over time, cattle rearing peoples developed lactose tolerance. Those who were not cattle rearing, i.e. the majority of the human race, remained lactose intolerant. For example, most Chinese people are lactose intolerant.

 

If we were to follow the classical Darwinian logic, we would have to imagine a tribe, rearing animals, eating their meat, and perhaps also using small quantities of milk. Suddenly, one individual is born who is lactose tolerant. Because he can drink milk, he manages to reproduce, while the rest of the tribe dies out. Obviously, this is a nonsensical account. Quite apart from the fact that not being able to drink milk is hardly going to kill off people who have a good supply of meat, it seems that lactose tolerance was developed very quickly, once people started herding cattle. If they were waiting for random mutations, with no connection to the problem at hand, they might have been herding their cattle for millions of years before a lactose tolerant gene was developed by random mutation.

 

It is much more logical to imagine the genes of the entire tribe working to solve a particular dietary contradiction, i.e. the availability of rich and tasty milk, which your stomach can't digest.

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In physics, String Theory posits the idea that the fundamental element in the universe is a string of pure tension. Each of the nuclear particles seen in the universe consist of these strings vibrating at different frequencies. A different frequency, a different particle. Close to the time of the Big Bang, these frequencies where so high, i.e. their energies were so high, that they could bend space into ten different dimensions.

 

Tension between what and what? I have seen it put in terms of the contraction between the tendency of the string to collapse into a single point, i.e. a thing of no dimension and infinite energy, and thus infinite mass, and the fact that no such point could exist in this universe (if it did, it would instantaneously suck in the entire universe like a Black Hole.) Put another way, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle does not allow infinitely high frequencies, which is what a single point would represent. I think we can imagine the moment of the Big Bang as a window being broken into many shards of glass. As time goes on, the shards lose energy, eventually coming to rest, i.e. an equilibrium state.

 

If String Theory is correct, contradiction is the essence of our universe.

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Mao states the above principles by saying:

 

"Contradictoriness within a thing is the fundamental cause of its development, while its interrelations and interactions with other things are secondary causes."

 

Later in the essay, On Contradiction, Mao draws our attention to the need to pay careful attention to the analysis of the situation we find ourselves in. He writes:

 

"In studying a problem, we must shun subjectivity, one-sidedness and superficiality. To be subjective means not to look at problems objectively, that is, not to use the materialist viewpoint in looking at problems. I have discussed this in my essay "On Practice". To be one-sided means not to look at problems all-sidedly, for example, to understand only China but not Japan, only the Communist Party but not the Kuomintang, only the proletariat but not the bourgeoisie, only the peasants but not the landlords, only the favourable conditions but not the difficult ones, only the past but not the future, only individual parts but not the whole, only the defects but not the achievements, only the plaintiff's case but not the defendant's, only underground revolutionary work but not open revolutionary work, and so on. In a word, it means not to understand the characteristics of both aspects of a contradiction. This is what we mean by looking at a problem one-sidedly. Or it may be called seeing the part but not the whole, seeing the trees but not the forest."

 

Today, we Communists find ourselves in a situation where it is almost impossible to see the trees from the forest. The analysis of the productive forces found in Das Kapital help us less and less in the consumer society we experience in the West - though that analysis remains entirely valid for the Third World, where most production takes place. However, even in Western consumer society, Marx's analytical attitude remains our main instrument.

 

There are a number of contradictions that we will, as Communists in the 21st century, have to analyse in detail, and state in terms that the Working Class can relate to, such as:

 

1} The fact that most Western workers now regard themselves as capitalists, with their bodies and their wits as their capital. With such a view, there are no classes - only successful capitalists, and those who have not yet succeeded. However, there is a clear contradiction here, i.e. for the vast majority of the Western population, capitalist success never comes.

 

2} The fact that most Western workers believe that it is by virtue of the capitalist system that they are not dying of starvation and dirty water, as so many millions in the Third World are. We can all feel the contradiction in this statement, but what is its precise nature?

 

3} Even those who are not overly happy with the capitalist system know that this system is structured as a kind of food chain - and no matter how poor you are in the West, you are still well up the chain. Westerners don't want to do anything to endanger their privileged position. And yet, there is a deep contradiction between this thinking and having any respect for yourself as a human being. In effect, tens of millions of Western workers have been rendered permanently useless and dependent on social security benefits. Tens of millions more are doing jobs that are really quite useless, and barely pay a living wage. Are the Left Wing parties really quite comfortable with this situation? Is increased social security all our "revolutionaries" really want these days?

 

4} The empire is too strong. Resistance is futile. This is just the way it is. That's life. But is it? Are these statements not in contradiction with the facts as we already know them? We are seeing the weakness of the empire every day. We see that the armed might of the USA is not able to defeat the Afghan Resistance. We saw that it took NATO nine months of continuous bombing to defeat a small country like Libya. We see that its victory in Iraq looks very unsure, even ten years later. However, we just have no belief in our own ability to present a disciplined response to an empire in terminal decline.

 

There are many more contradictions, these are quite obvious ones. All of these contradictions form stable unities, that allow the capitalist system to continue functioning. But, we have not really done the work of analyzing them to anything like the level that Mao had managed to analyse Chinese society and its contradictions in the 1930s. Its clear that the success of the Chinese Communist Party rested on these successful analyses, and their translation into effective action, i.e. the breaking of the unities that sustained the Chinese Feudal system and the imperial domination exerted on it by Japan and the Western powers.

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Mao quotes Lenin when he says:

 

"In order really to know an object we must embrace, study, all its sides, all connections and "mediations". We shall never achieve this completely, but the demand for all-sidedness is a safeguard against mistakes and rigidity."

 

I think is is a lesson that we have really forgotten in the West. Nobody can deny that Communism has suffered a catastrophic defeat in the West. And it wasn't the cleverness of the enemy that defeated us. It was a certain rigidity in Communist thinking, born of a failure to understand the situation we were in - from all sides.

 

The following passage from On Contradiction is very interesting:

 

"If people do not pay attention to the stages in the process of development of a thing, they cannot deal with its contradictions properly. For instance, when the capitalism of the era of free competition developed into imperialism, there was no change in the class nature of the two classes in fundamental contradiction, namely, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, or in the capitalist essence of society; however, the contradiction between these two classes became intensified, the contradiction between monopoly and non-monopoly capital emerged, the contradiction between the colonial powers and the colonies became intensified, the contradiction among the capitalist countries resulting from their uneven development manifested itself with particular sharpness, and thus there arose the special stage of capitalism, the stage of imperialism. Leninism is the Marxism of the era of imperialism and proletarian revolution precisely because Lenin and Stalin have correctly explained these contradictions and correctly formulated the theory and tactics of the proletarian revolution for their resolution."

 

In the late 19th century, capitalism managed to avoid the class war that was emerging in Europe, simply by beginning the process of transferring production to the Third World, and starting to give the Western working class a cut of the action. That is why Mao calls Leninism the Marxism of the era of imperialism. The full scale class war was transferred to undeveloped countries like Russia, China, Vietnam and South America. Those leading the newly emerging industrial proletariats in those countries needed brand new thinking, as the task they faced was very different in kind from the situation European Communists were used to. In the first place was the task of fighting the brute force of imperial armies. In the second was forging alliances with the peasants, i.e. the vast majority, and in the third was the great task of taking the process of industrialisation out of the hands of Western capital, and putting it under native control. As we see today, Western capital has no interest in building real and sustainable industry in its colonies. All it wants is to remove natural resources at low cost, and to use the workforce as sweatshop labour. The USSR and the Peoples Republic of China began the process of building national industries that served the purposes of the nation. This was work that Marx had not really spoken about, as he had imagined Communism taking hold in the already industrialised nations of the West, i.e. the task of rapid industrialisation would not be faced, since it had already been achieved by the bourgeoisie. Needless to say, building industrial power in peasant societies involved a great deal of sacrifice and cruelty.

 

So, we see here a very great contradiction between Western Communists, who still stuck to the letter of Marx's writing, and those in the Third World who faced an entirely different situation. Lenin, Stalin and Mao were forced into new thinking, while Western Marxists mostly remained frozen in the mid 19th century. They criticized the likes of Stalin and Mao - and Lenin too - for their cruelty, while they paid no attention to the shifting sands under their own feet. It doesn't seem to have occurred to a lot of Western Marxists that the very reason that the class war was so intense and cruel in the Third World was precisely because the intensity was being drained out of the class antagonism in the West and being transferred to the East and South.

 

I think we can summarize this contradiction in terms of the necessity of collective consciousness among Third World Communists (because of the sheer brutality of the enemy they face and the sheer enormity of the process of economic and social development before them), and the autonomous consciousness that remains so dear to Western Marxists, who have the luxury of clinging to Enlightenment ideals. I think that contradiction is very clearly seen when we see some Western Marxists scoff at that DPRK and its mass theatrical effects.

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Mao continues:

 

"Marx and Engels were the first to provide us with excellent models of such concrete analysis.

When Marx and Engels applied the law of contradiction in things to the study of the socio-historical process, they discovered the contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production, they discovered the contradiction between the exploiting and exploited classes and also the resultant contradiction between the economic base and its superstructure (politics, ideology, etc.), and they discovered how these contradictions inevitably lead to different kinds of social revolution in different kinds of class society.

 

When Marx applied this law to the study of the economic structure of capitalist society, he discovered that the basic contradiction of this society is the contradiction between the social character of production and the private character of ownership. This contradiction manifests itself in the contradiction between the organized character of production in individual enterprises and the anarchic character of production in society as a whole. In terms of class relations, it manifests itself in the contradiction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat."

 

I think the first line here is of vital importance. Marx and Engels gave us the model of concrete analysis. They looked at the really existing situation of their time, and they applied this model to it. Sadly, too many Marxists today don't seem to understand the difference between the model of analysis and the data that is fed into the model. In effect, they are still reading Marx as if the input data had not changed over the last 140 years. The bourgeois critics of Marx also make the same mistake. They claim that because the data recorded in Das Kapital has now changed, that Marx must be wrong. Both groups are missing the point. The model is correct, but the data inputted into the model needs to be the accurate data for any given situation, i.e. must be changed for each situation. As Mao says, Marx and Engels "discovered how these contradictions inevitably lead to different kinds of social revolution in different kinds of class society."

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And so we come to one of the most famous passages in all of Mao's writings:

 

"In a semi-colonial country such as China, the relationship between the principal contradiction and the non-principal contradictions presents a complicated picture.

 

When imperialism launches a war of aggression against such a country, all its various classes, except for some traitors, can temporarily unite in a national war against imperialism. At such a time, the contradiction between imperialism and the country concerned becomes the principal contradiction, while all the contradictions among the various classes within the country (including what was the principal contradiction, between the feudal system and the great masses of the people) are temporarily relegated to a secondary and subordinate position."

 

Needless to say, this passage is of the most vital importance to the current Irish situation. Sadly, it is ignored by all sides. Irish Socialists try to pretend that the British occupation is of secondary - or even no importance. And, while Irish Republicans have got the principal contradiction correct, they forget about all other contradictions, and so leave themselves cut off from the mass of the people. There is nothing much for me to add here. Mao couldn't be more explicit. Communists must lead the Peoples War against foreign occupation, while using that war to expose the class contradictions on which imperialism, i.e. late capitalism, is based. In other words, Irish people in general, and particularly those organising resistance, must come to understand that imperialism structures every aspect of Irish life - cultural, linguistic, economic. Beyond that, we must understand that the empire we resist is no longer the British empire of old, but the Anglo-American-Zionist empire which rules nearly all of the world. To resist this empire, we must also understand the contradictions that form its unity, i.e. those contradictions that give this empire its particular form and essence.

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Mao then draws our attention to a point of the most vital interest. He tells us that not only are there principal and secondary contradictions, but in every contradiction, there will be a principal aspect and a secondary aspect. He continues:

 

"Some people think that this is not true of certain contradictions. For instance, in the contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production, the productive forces are the principal aspect; in the contradiction between theory and practice, practice is the principal aspect; in the contradiction between the economic base and the superstructure, the economic base is the principal aspect; and there is no change in their respective positions. This is the mechanical materialist conception, not the dialectical materialist conception. True, the productive forces, practice and the economic base generally play the principal and decisive role; whoever denies this is not a materialist. But it must also be admitted that in certain conditions, such aspects as the relations of production, theory and the superstructure in turn manifest themselves in the principal and decisive role. When it is impossible for the productive forces to develop without a change in the relations of production, then the change in the relations of production plays the principal and decisive role. The creation and advocacy of revolutionary theory plays the principal and decisive role in those times of which Lenin said, "Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement." When a task, no maker which, has to be performed, but there is as yet no guiding line, method, plan or policy, the principal and decisive thing is to decide on a guiding line, method, plan or policy. When the superstructure (politics, culture, etc.) obstructs the development of the economic base, political and cultural changes become principal and decisive. Are we going against materialism when we say this? No. The reason is that while we recognize that in the general development of history the material determines the mental and social being determines social consciousness, we also--and indeed must--recognize the reaction of mental on material things, of social consciousness on social being and of the superstructure on the economic base. This does not go against materialism; on the contrary, it avoids mechanical materialism and firmly upholds dialectical materialism."

 

Now, this will not be so easy to understand without some knowledge of Marxist theory, but anyone who has read the Short Course in Marxism should have no problem. What Mao is saying here is that, in general, our culture (the superstructure) is determined by the base (the technological and material resources of a society.) There is, however, always some level of contradiction between the base and the superstructure. For example, new technology may be resisted by the powers that be, and it may take a long time for the effects of those technologies to be felt at the cultural level. However, in general, the base will win out, thus our analysis of any society will begin with the base, i.e. the technological and material resources available to that society. Some Western Marxists today criticize Lenin for trying to introduce Communism to Russia before there was a material and technological base available for a Communist society. That would seem like a standard Marxist position to take, and Lenin was aware of it himself, which is why he tended to overstate the level of capitalist development in Russia before 1917.

 

However, Mao is rejecting this position. He claims that there will be times when the superstructure take the place of the principal contradiction. In other words, there will be times when culture will take the leading role. Not only take the leading role, but culture can actually bring a non-existent base into being. There was certainly little or no capitalist base in China in the 1920s and 30s, hence their was very little pressure from technology to move towards even a capitalist, much less a Communist, form of society. But, according to Mao, by bringing about a Cultural Revolution, China could bring the technological and material base for Communism into being. In other words, in such exceptional times, the base could follow the superstructure (which had never happened in history before.)

 

Was Mao correct in this? Stalin took the same approach. Trotsky also wanted to take this approach in the early 1920s, but changed his mind in the late 20s towards a more gradualist approach. In general, the base did follow the superstructure - changes in the culture did bring industrialization into being, though the sacrifices were very great and many resisted cultural changes that were being planned by the Communist Party rather than being driven by slow and "organic" development of the material base. But, despite resistance, both the USSR and China achieved in a single generation what had taken centuries in Europe. However, when Deng Xiaoping came to power, in 1977, he rejected the Cultural Revolution, and set China on its current course, i.e. allowing capitalism to take its usual form of development, but under the control of the Communist Party.

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