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A Comparison of Marxist and Hegelian Dialectical Form

A Comparison of Marxist
and Hegelian Dialectical Form
fan Hunt and Roy Swan

Our aim in this paper is to exhibit the formal differences that distinguish the Harxist dialectic from its
Hegelian predecessor. In sum, whereas in Hegel’s
system identity has primacy over contradiction and,
what comes to the same thing, self-identity has
primacy over mutability, Marxism reverses this bias
and insists on the primacy of contradiction and mutability. This transition in form is to be seen as
necessitated by the transition from an idealistically
conceived to a materialistically conceived content.

The point here, which we shall assume rather than
argue, is that a true materialism, certainly a dialectical materialm, must take plurality, difference and
change to be ultimately real, and must reject the
idealist reduction to an ideal or essential unity
underlying the appearances. Dialectical idealism
” marks itself as dialectical by modelling opposition
and process as essential, but nevertheless it reduces
them to the self-differentiation and self-development
of a single ideal subject. Now, as a dialectical
materialist might expect, the development of a new
form ha~ not been so quickly, and not everywhere so
thoroughly carried through as the transition in content. It is for this reason that we believe this
paper will prove useful. For the same reason it will
not be surprising that the position we shall counterpose to that of Hegel’s Encyclopaedia of the philosophical Sciences will be based on a comparatively
late Marxist text, Mao’s essay On Contradiction.

, I Hegel
Our plan is to bring out the characteristic form of
the Hegelian dialectic as it appears in a single
movement or pulse-beat of the method, and in the
system as a whole.

The two most basic features of Hegel’s philosophy
of dialectical idealism are idealism and selfdetermination – self-determination being nothing but
the essential feature and fully realised form of the
dialectical process. It is a philosophy of the selfdetermination of the Idea, which process is thought
to encompass and inform the whole of reality. Reality appears as the process of the Idea externalising
and estranging itself as the objective world only to
return to itself by realising itself in the objective

world and recogn1s1ng the objective world as nothing
but itself. This process is circular, but also progressive, for in traversing its circular path the at
first merely abstract Idea creates itself as an objective being; indeed, an objective being that is at
once fully subjective and conscious – a concrete subject. Having established the progression we must reemphasise the circularity. In creating itself as an
objective being the Idea progresses within an allencompassing but self-enclosed circle, merely becoming explicitly what it already is implicitly. Moreover, the true subject of this progression is hown to
be not the implicit but the explicit Idea, which as
concrete subject creates itself by first positing
itself in and then unfolding itself from its own
abstract form. So in becoming an objective being the
Idea becomes determinate, but it is determined not
from without – which would render it finite and unfree – but from within, through the process of its
own self-becoming or self-unfolding. The Idea is
thus true infinitude and freedom, and reality is
nothing but the self-determination of the Idea.

This is first spelled out in abstract terms in the
first part of the Encyclopaedia~ the Logic, which conĀ·
sists in an extended deduction of categories or pure
concepts. The Philosophy of Nature and the Philosophy of Spirit, the later parts of the Encyclopaedia,
continue to use the method developed and made use of
in the Logic, but are concerned not with deducing
further pure concepts, but with disclosing how the
logical categories are expressed in the realm of
actual concrete existence, in Nature and Spirit. The
step from the abstract logic to the concrete existences of Nature and Spirit is seen as a deduction,
as are the developments within Nature and Spirit.

The beginning of the whole progression, the first
idea of the Logic – which is ‘being’ – is therefore
linked through a series of steps, all regarded as
deductions, with the final actual existence – an idea
which as a concrete existence is termed ‘Absolute
Spirit’. To accept this progression as a series of
deductions is to accept that the whole system is
grounded in the first idea. Further, Hegel’s
specific deductive method is intended to make what
is initially implicit at last explicit in such a way
that the final idea contains and grounds the whole
series of ideas from which it is itself deduced.

Only in this way can the system be truly self-



Hegel’s deductive method differs from the more
familiar ‘mathematical’ method in two basic respects.

First, it is not axiomatic in the sense of beginning
from concepts, propositions, laws, etc., which are
themselves undeducible and thus prior to and outside
the deductive system itself. Second, his method
does not proceed purely in accordance with the law
of non-contradiction as the basic principle of formal
logic, but develops the rhythm of contradiction and
resolution as the engine of its own dialectical logic.

Dialectical logic starts with a posited idea, the
thesis, which leads to another idea precisely because,
as it stands on its own so as to present a stable
significance, it necessarily reveals that its meaning
can only be grasped if another concept is brought
into play. But this concept turns out to be its
contradictory, and reason, unable to rest in such a
contradiction, must entertain a third concept, a
‘synthesis’, in which the two opposite ideas are contained in a unity. This unity depends for its content on the continued opposition of the ideas it
contains, and when it too is taken as a thesis
reveals its own abstraction (‘one-sidedness’) of
content. So the new thesis passes over to its own
opposite in order to overcome its abstraction, and
the whole process repeats itself until a synthetic
category is reached which is fully concrete and contains all significance in itself. The succession of
thetic and synthetic categories thrown up in this
way is considered by Hegel to be a series of increasingly adequate definitions of what is, the Absolute
or truly infinite, while the corresponding series of
opposing or antithetic categories is taken to define
reality as only finite.

However, the dialectical movement along the series
of increasingly adequate determinations of what is,
is conceived by Hegel to fall short in itself of
infinitude and freedom. Each deduction is necessitated and in this way unfree, and while each deduction
leaves behind some finite determination through a
transition into and reflection with its opposite, it
merely arrives at a new finite determination, which
reveals itself as a more adequate but less than
absolute definition of what is. ‘Dialectical
Thought’, the ceaseless appearance and resolution
of contradiction, must, for Hegel, be superseded by
‘Speculative Thought’.

In ‘Speculative Thought’, the Absolute Idea is no
longer conceived simply as one more finite determination albeit comparatively concrete, but as the unity
of the whole system, and as a thought with itself as
its o~ content. Of course, ‘being’, as Hegel conceives it, is just such a thought, but is devoid of
concrete content. What Hegel intends is to show that
everything that is in all its concreteness unfolds
out of the emptiness of ‘being’ while remaining a
thought, or a system of thought, which has only itself
as its content. The Absolute Idea is thus supposed
to encapsulate the whole system, freely taking up
into itself all contradictions as its own development
as a determinate being, while it in turn cannot conceivably be encapsulated or limited by something outside it. The Absolute Idea has the circularity of
total self-consciousness, and as a totality whose
only premise is that thought is – a premise which
the Cartesian tradition accepts as self-validating is absolutely and freely self-determining.

Hegel’s dialectic thus has a creative, selfgrounding character, which is exemplified in each
single triad, and which, in a sense, contains the
whole of Hegel’s philosophy of the self-determining
Idea. However, while each triadic movement of deduction more or less clearly exhibits the universal form
of the dialectic, the immediate or directly given
aspect of the deductions becomes richer as we progress
from the abstract to the concrete.

At the most abstract level of the concepts of
Being, the most characteristic aspect is the ‘transition’ or passing over of each concept into a different concept. This characteristic form is bound up
with the content of Being, in which the major triad
is Quality, Quantity, Measure. These categories
signify the immediate reality accessible even to
‘sense’, which is seen as the most primitive form
of thought. In both Quality and Quantity any given
determination is shown to pass over with logical inevitability into a further determination, so that we
must expect unlimited qualitative and quantitative
wealth in reality. The two orders of Quantity and
Quality are also shown to involve each other, in that
a change in quantity beyond a certain point manifests
itself as a change in quality which in turn gives way
to a new quantitative development. For Hegel the
endless progression inherent in these categories is
the ‘wrong’ or spurious infinity, for it consists in
the capacity of the mind to pass from any given
finite determination to a further finite determination
without ever coming to rest in an actual infinity.

The characteristic movement of ‘transition’ which
Engels (in Dialectics of Nature, article headed
‘Dialectics’) sums up as the law of Quantity into
Quality and vice versa, concerns the succession of
states in time, and is seen as a relatively poor
expression of the dialectic.

In the Doctrine of Essence categories that are
apparent to ‘Understanding’, the next highest form
of thought, are dealt with. These categories involve
a fundamental duality of the ‘mediate’ and the
‘immediate’, or of the essential and the apparent.

The understanding insists on the rigid distinction
between the opposed categories, but they are shown
during the section to be totally inter-dependent, to
have meaning only in terms of each other. They do
not merely ‘pass over’ into each other, as do the
categories of Being, they ‘reflect’ each other. The
resulting dialectical identity of Essence and Appearance in Actuality may be conceived as a more fully
realised identity than that of Quality and Quantity
in Measure. And the richer dialectical process of
this section gives rise to a law which is richer and
more adequate to describe it – that of Interpenetration of Opposites.

In this second section understanding gives way
before ‘Dialectical Reason’. In the final section,
the Doctrine of the Notion, Dialectical Reason
develops into the highest form of thought, ‘Speculative Reason’, which is the realised ‘truth’ of all the
lower forms. Hegel characterises the dialectical
process of this section as follows:

The onward movement of the notion is no longer
either a transition into, or a reflection on
something else, but Development. For in the
notion, the elements distinguished are without more ado at the same time declared to be
identical with one another and with the
whole, and the specific character of each
is a free being of the whole notion.

[Logic, p. 224]
The Idea does not merely pass over into or reflect on
its opposite, thus seeming to be alienated in and
determined by the other; it is clear from the beginning that in becoming its opposite the Idea as
Subject is becoming only its own objective self so
that through its opposite it is freely developing
and determining itself. The Idea thus reveals itself
as what is, the essence that appears. The resultant
dialectical identity of the Idea, which in its fullest
form is the Absolute Idea, is perfect self-identity,
the ‘true infinitude’ of ‘self-mediation’. The law
to which this section gives rise, and which alone can
bring out the fully realised character of the dialectical process, is Negation of the Negation.

Negation of the negation has a two-way teleological


: I ..

movement which brings out how the Absolute Idea is not
simply another idea, but encapsulates the whole
system. To begin with, Being as the implicit Notion
differentiates and negates itself as Essence only to
negate this negation in realising and returning to
itself as the explicit Notion or Absolute Idea. It
is through this process that the Notion reveals and
creates itself as a concrete or self-objectified
subject, or as the truth that knows itself as the
truth – ‘for truth can only be where it makes itself
its own result’ [Logic, p.274]. By the same token,
the concrete subject has deduced itself only through
~ts own activity.

It deduces itself in the form of
the essence of thought, a deduction which reflects
back on all previous deductions, determining them as
the work of the very concrete subject that is being
deduced. Every transitional and imperfect category
is shown to be a mere aspect of the whole which the
whole abstracts from itself and grants a provisional
immediacy or independence, an immediacy which must
display its inadequacy or finitude by setting itself
aside and rendering explicit the infinite Notion that
is implicit within it. The negation of the negation
that moves from the preceding to the succeeding categories is itself taken up into a negation of the
negation moving from the ultimate category to its predecessors. The earlier categories as apparent preSU2positions and thus external limitations or negations of the Absolute Idea are in turn negated in the
revelation that in reality they presuppose the
Absolute Idea and are nothing but the moments of its
self-unfolding. In sum, what is apparently a result
declares itself to be the ‘absolute prius’ – it is
the resultant truth that ‘makes itself its own
resul t’ .

We are now in a position to sum up the dialectical
method as it appears in a single movement or pulsebeat of the system, thus showing how, while the
method is enriched and made explicit as the current
unfolds, the whole method is implicit nevertheless
even in the first triad of Being.

According to lIegel we have the transition of
‘being’ into ‘nothing’, and of both into ‘becoming’,
the quantitative development of each term determining
its supersession by a qualitatively new term. This
onward movement also appears as the oscillation of
reflection, the opposites ‘being’ and ‘nothing’

depending on each other and actually interpenetrating
to sustain each other in the dialectical identity of
‘becoming’. In sum, each concept by itself is shown
to be inadequate and unstable in meaning – whether we
think of it as a pure conception or as a definition
or description of reality as a whole or in any part and to require other concepts to be brought into play
if we are to grasp its full significance. From the
higher perspective of development or negation of the
negation we see that the concept in thus setting itself aside and reflecting into another effects the
uncovering of its own significance or ‘truth’. Or,
better still, the ultimate concept is exhibiting the
structure and necessity of its own meaning and truth
in the form of its abstracted elements with their
logical connections. Thus the concept of ‘becoming’

differentiates itself into and reconstructs itself
from the concepts of ‘being’ and ‘nothing’. But this
is really true and comprehensible only if seen as a
moment in the self-development of the Absolute Idea,
which as the real subject of the whole process is
here starting to unfold its truth, beginning with the
concept of ‘being’ as the pure form and barest
characterization of its thought-activity.

We have seen how the deduction from abstract
‘being’ of the concrete existence of thought with
itself as its content is identical with the selfdetermination of the Idea, and how Negation of the
Negation most adequately shows the infinitude and
freedom of the Absolute Idea. We may now consider

the progression of the system in its entirety as the
overarching triad of Logic, Nature and Spirit, and
how the moments of Hegel’s dialectic determine, and
are determined by the whole progression.

As we have seen, the Logic presents the Idea as
a universal, or pure category. Nature further
realises the Idea as a particular, and Spirit is the
synthesis of the universal and particular in the
Idea. Alternatively, the Logic presents the essence
of the Idea, the Nature the outward appearance, and
Spirit its actual existence as a concrete selfdetermining subject. Or again, the Logic presents
the Idea as an immediately given subject, Nature is
the estrangement of the Idea from itself, or its selfobjectification, and Spirit is the return of the Idea
to itself from estrangement, negating Nature as such,
but affirming Nature as itself. In all these respects the transition from the Idea to Nature is
dialectically necessary, although Hegel presents the
transition to Nature and ultimately to Spirit as a
free development of the Idea. Hegel, however,
considers the Logic to have shown that the free
development of the subject is the essence o~ objective logical transition. So he says:

… the Idea does not merely pass over into
Life, or as finite cognition allow life to
show in it: in its own absolute truth it
resolves to let the moment of its particularity, or of the first characterization and
other-being, the immediate idea, as its
reflected image, go forth freely as Nature.

And Hegel adds,
We have now returned to the notion of the
Idea with which we began. This return to
the beginning is also an advance. “le began
with Being, abstract Being: where we now are
we also have the Idea as Being: but this
Idea which has Being is Nature.

[Logic, p.296]
The Idea in going forth freely into its otherness
as Nature, goes forth into mediation, externality,
alienation. It is the essence of Nature, but as
Nature it ceases to exist’ as subj ect and as obj ect of
its own contemplation. The notions of Nature – and
the same is true of the notions of Spirit – are
developed in a sequence that parallels that of the
Logic. The major triad of Nature is ‘Mechanics’,
‘Physics’, and ‘Organics’. The first term of
‘Mechanics’ is totally abstract ‘space’. The last
term of ‘Organics’ is Man as free ego. This marks
the return of Ideality, subjectivity, freedom, into
the external necessity of Nature. It thus constitutes the transition from Nature, the Idea in its
mediation or otherness, to Spirit, the Idea in its
self-mediation or ‘for-itself’.

The realm of the Spirit is the realm of human
history, understood as the self-creation of the Idea
in Nature. This is a gradual process of self-creation, a gradual process of return to self out of
otherness. The major triad of Spirit is ‘Subjective
Spirit’, ‘Objective Spirit’, and ‘Absolute Spirit’.

Subjective Spirit deals with the subjective side of
human development. Here the more ideal expressions
of human thought are deduced from the more sensuous,
the several phases of thought and will accomplishing
a progressive internalisation of the object, which
presents itself as external and particular. The
object is thus idealised, as the theoretical Idea
confronts the given external world and attempts to
conform itself to it, so as to arrive at ‘the True’.

In Objective Spirit, the Idea in its free universality attempts to realise itself objectively in moral
and social life, embodying itself in institutions
such as the family and the state. Hence the
‘Practical Idea’ is progressively actualised as
Spirit actively confronts the external world, and
moulds it into conformity with itself so as to


achieve ‘the Good’.

lfuile Subjective Spirit expresses the universal
implicit in the sensuous world of particular things
in Nature, and Objective Mind realises the universal
in the particular, forming rational human institutions, the objective world is still not fully
identified with the subject, and remains somewhat
external to it.

To overcome this contradiction the transition is
made to Absolute Spirit wherein art, religion and
philosophy are treated. In philosophy the Idea as
Free Mind finally confronts an obj ect which is ade.

quate to it and does not limit it – itself. Free
Mind realises that in both Theoretical and Practical
Mind the: subject, Spirit, conforms itself only to
itself. The history of philosophy is presented as
following a development that corresponds to that of
the Logic; so, the first philosophy, that of the
Eleatics, regards the Absolute as pure ‘being’, the
first category of the Logic. It is only with the
Hegelian system itself that the final philosophy
comes into being. This is a philosophy which is in
itself the Absolute Idea – as shown in the Logic and contemplates the whole of objective reality as
essentially nothing but the Absolute Idea – as the
completed Encyclopaedia has now revealed.

Absolute Spirit, like the Logical Absolute Idea
which it objectively realises, has the circularity
of total self-consciousness. Thus Hegel says: ‘The
Eternal Idea, in full fruition of its essence,
eternally sets itself to work, engenders and enjoys
itself as absolute’ [Philosophy of Spirit, p.315].

If we look again at the triad of Logic, Nature,
Spirit, considering which aspects constitute a progression in time, a phenomenon, and which are
essentially atemporal, we can remodel the whole
system as the triad Logical Idea, (pre) History,
Philosophical Idea, in which the first, the Logical
Idea, sets out the logical necessity of the progression in History, and the last, the Philosophical
Idea, reveals its purpose in the absolute selfdetermination of Spirit. From this standpoint,
History appears enclosed like a kernel in two shells
– the Logical Idea and the Philosophical Idea.

In any case, the major triad of the whole system,
Logic, Nature, Spirit, conforms to the laws or
general characteristics of the method generated and
displayed in the Logic, where the whole presents
itself in its abstract or implicit form. We will
here set out the movements of Negation of the
Negation from the standpoints of the Logical Idea and
the Philosophical Idea respectively. The Logic as
the implicit Idea, or the Idea in itself, puts
itself forth as Nature, and thereby apparently loses
sight of itself as concrete subjectivity. But
Nature as the negation of the Idea is at once
implicitly the Idea, and so develops by its own
dialectic into the explicit Idea, which is Spirit.

In Spirit as the unity of Nature and the Idea, the
Idea rediscovers itself as concrete sub,iectivity,
but now in actual existence, or in and for itself.

It thus becomes evident – or rather, what had
already become evident in the Logic and in its transition to Nature is actually unfolded – that the
Logical Idea, which is essentially self-mediation or
self-manifestation, puts itself forth in its otherness and negation as Nature only to negate that negation by actualising itself in and for itself as
Spirit. However, this movement of Negation of the
Negation represents the movement of Ideas as a process in time, from preceding to succeeding terms,
which is ultimately only an ‘appearance’ or moment.

And in the same way, this first movement of Negation of the Negation represents the Idea and Nature
as essence and appearance, with Spirit reflecting
into the Logic on the one hand and Nature on the
other as its apparently independent presuppositions.


We must therefore pass on to the second and superior
movement of Negation of the Negation. The Idea of
philosophy as the highest expression of Spirit realizes itself as the final cause and absolute prius of
the whole development. It contemplates its abstracted essence in the Logic, which defines the Idea as
dialectical process, or thought thinking itself. It
traces its actual unfolding in Nature and Spirit,
which reveal themselves as dialectical process, the
self-creation of the Idea. On the one hand it sees
itself to be the outcome and truth of an objective
and necessary process, all preceding stages, in
actuality as in Logic, having inevitably put themselves aside. On the other hand it knows this whole
development as its free subjective activity, for as
concrete subject it performs the extended deduction
that reveals actual existence as the self-creation
of its own philosophical Idea. It is itself just
this process of self-exhibiting truth, and thus the
earlier stages that are its presuppositions are taken
up into itself as ‘vanishing elements’. It negates
itself by putting itself forth as these presuppositions only to negate that negation by revealing
these presuppositions to be nothing but its free unfolding of its own truth. This revelation at once
determines that the original negation is immediately
the Negation of the Nepation. And, by the same token,
this second movement of Negation of the Negation
absorbs the first movement of Negation of the Negation, which proceeds from the Logical Idea as the
appearance of itself in time.

So, Hegel’s whole philosophy can be summed up and
expressed in terms of Negation of the Negation, or,
equally well, of self-mediation, true infinitude, and
so on. Hegel also conveys the movement of his
dialectic in an apt metaphor: philosophy, and therefore reality, is a ‘circle of circles’ [Logic, p.20],
a ‘circle which closes with itself’ [ibid., p.23].

It is also true that, not only each component circle,
but the all-encompassing circle, precisely in its
completion, ‘bursts’ out beyond itself. But in becoming other it is becoming only itself – contradiction
or mutability is secondary to, is no other than,
identity or self-identity – so that the perpetual
bursting out of the circle is at once, and more
properly, its perpetual closing with itself.

11 Marx and Mao
l’le want here to bring out the characteristics of the
mature Marxist dialectic, at first in abstract terms,
and then in a concrete example. lITe then look at how
the ‘unity of opposites’ comes to displace the
Hegelian ‘Ne~ation of the Negation’ as thequintessential moment of the dialectic.

In the transition +rom the Hegelian to the mature
Marxist dialectic, the initial step is from an ideal
to a material content, from the Idea to (material)
labour, from Spirit to ~ociety, which in early Marx
is conceived in its fruition as the union of humankind with nature in free, conscious self-determination.

As Marxism develops, it effects no radical alteration of the materialist content, although it does
render it radically more concrete. However, the
developinp; Marxism effects a radical change in dialectical form, and later in its formulation of the
dialectical process. In terms of Hegel’s metaphor of
the circle, there is a change from an emphasis on the
circle ‘closing on itself’, to an emphasis in mature
Marxism on ‘bursting-out’ if the circle, which while
completing, more fundamentally brings to dissolution
one process and begins another. Whereas Hegel sees
a ‘circle 0+ circles’, that is, every ‘bursting out’

as in turn a circle enclosed in the all-embracing
circle of the Absolute, mature Marxism sees an endless pro~ression, a spiral movement (i.e. a ‘bursting-

out’ of a circle) which does not close on itsel~, but
is open-ended.

By an emphasis on self-enclosure we mean, to begin
with, the encompassing of all otherness within the
subject that is supposed to ensure the true infinitude and ~reedom of the subject. Thus, in early Marxism, the conclusion of social ‘prehistory’, itself a
pdrt of nature and natural history, is Society brought
to fruition, and this is after the Hegelian manner
conceived as in turn encompassing (practically and
theoretically) nature and natural history. In mature
Harxism society is conceived as a part of natural
history which does not in turn enclose natural
history. Rather, it is stressed that, both historically and laterally, and in depth as well as in
breadth, an endless proeression of processes exists
beyond human history – and for that matter any other
particular process – and that therefore there must
always be an infinity of processes beyond those that
we have come to know in practice.

If, then, Hegelian idealism is ultimately a
dialectical monism, in that all processes are ultimately taken up and grounded in the single process of
Spirit, as a diversity within a unity, mature Marxism
is ultimately a dialectical pluralism, where reality
is seen as an interlocking whole of separate aspects
or processes, as a unity within a diversity.




The Hegelian process is characterised by a distinctive kind of triad. The first term is mere or immediate identity, the subject-in-itself. The second term
is mediation, the subject-for-itself, or confronted
by otherness. The third term is mediated identity,
the subject-in-and-~or-itself, being and completing
itsel~ in and through otherness.

In mature Marxism the dialectical process may still
be conceived as triadic, but the triad takes a form
different from the Hegelian. Each process begins with
a mutual transformation of opposites, develops
through dialectical contradiction, and ends with a
“further mutual transformation of opposites. Alternatively, and more fundamentally, we can focus on the
aspect of mutability by conceiving another triad
spanning the transition from one process to another,
a progression from dialectical contradiction,
through a transformation of opposites, to a new
dialectical contradiction. But whichever way we
look at it, we have here neither an initial mere
identity, nor a final self-mediated identity.

The point of transition from one process to
another, the mutual transformation of opposites,
might be thought to represent a transitory synthesis,
or fusion of two into one, but this is not the case.

This transitional moment constitutes a transitory
dialectical contradiction – a dialectical contradiction of a special kind, characterised by a balance
of opposin~ terms. So, the whole progression consists of nothing but dialectical contradiction, the
qualitative transition from one particular dialectical contradiction to another taking effect through
a special moment of dialectical contradiction, when
opposing terms momentarily balance as they change

places from principal to subordinate, and thus
precipitate the dissolution of the old contradiction
and the emergence of a new.

We will now outline a single movement of the
mature Marxist dialectic as presented by Mao Zedong,
whose formulation is, as far as we know, the most
correct and simple. After considering its application to the process of knowledge, we will then
elaborate the contrast of the Marxist and Hegelian
conceptions of the kernel of dialectics, and sum up
the distinctive character of the Marxist conception.

For Hegel there is one all-encompassing dialectical process whose content and form may, indeed must,
be expounded simultaneously. For Mao there is a
mUltiplicity of processes, and the unique content of
each determines its form. Nevertheless, we may abstract and generalise a certain universal form,
al though “”e must study individual processes if we are
to flesh out this schema into particular models. Our
exposition, then, begins with the universal form and
goes on to the particular form of the epistemological
process, as the unity of objective and subjective

Mao sets forth the universal form of dialectical
processes in On Contradiction. He defines dialectic
as the ‘law of the unity of opposites’ (p.71), or as
the law of dialectical contradiction. For Mao, all
terms are opposed, although only in an abstract way.

In certain cases, or ‘in given conditions’ (p.67),
however, the opposition between two terms is also
concrete, and this opposition contains a concrete
identity or unity. It is this concrete unity of
opposites that constitutes dialectical contradiction.

(We are to understand that all terms exist in
dialectical contradiction – no term could exist in
and by itself, in mere identity – but any particular
term is not necessarily in dialectical contradiction
with any other particular term.)
The existence of a dialectical contradiction constitutes a ‘thing’, and its developmerrt constitutes a
process. A process may (perhaps must) contain secondary contradictions alongside its ‘principal contradiction’, but this is only to say that it contains other
processes. In the principal contradiction one of the
two terms will constitute the ‘principal aspect’ of
the contradiction. This principal aspect is the
dominant term, and plays the major role in determining the character of the process.

The principal contradiction develops through the
mutual interaction or ‘struggle’ of its terms. The
terms are mutually exclusive opposites, but they only
exist as such insofar as they mutually interact.

Thus the struggle of mutually exclusive terms constitutes the unity of opposites, or dialectical
contradiction. In that it consists of disequilibrium
and struggle, the dialectical contradiction necessarily develops. This development culminates in the
resolution of this struggle of the terms, and thus of
the contradiction or process. But the resolution is
essentially transitory, for a new contradiction or
process necessarily arises to replace the old – ‘the
old unity with its constituent opposites yields to a
new unity with its constituent opposites’ (p.34).

The transition from the old contradiction or
process to the new is basicallY characterizable as a
mutual transformation of opposites. More properly,
the moment of mutual transformation, the essence of
which is that the secondary term of the initial
contradiction gains primacy and reduces the principal
term to secondary status, signals the point or phase
of resolution and dissolution of the initial contradiction, and at once conditions, sometimes more or
less directly constituting, the emergence of a new
contradiction. In their concrete particularity the
terms of the old contradiction will necessarily die
out and those of the new will necessarily be novel.

If the old and new contradictions constitute stages


of the development of an over-arching or ongoing
process, however, then taken in their more universal,
ongoing aspect, there will be a more or less direct
continuity between the old and new terms, especially
between the old secondary and the new principal term
and between the old principal and the new secondary
term. Whatever continuity there may be between the
stages of its development, an ongoing process will
itself also reach a point of dissolution, thus historically conditioning radically novel contradictions.

To illustrate this movement of the Marxist dialectic, in an example as close as possible to the central
dialectic of Hegel’s system, we may sketch the
dialectic of a subject knowing an object, the identity
of subject and object, or the epistemological-practical process, following more or less the position
outlined by Hao in On Practice.

First we need to conceptualise exactly the subjective and objective processes whose interconnection is
to be sketched. From the standpoint of materialism,
the subj ective process is i tsel f (immediately) ob,; ective. Provisionally, the objectivity of the subjective
may be viewed as consisting in the intersubjectivity
of all the ~rocesses involved in knowledge, as well
as in the fact that the knowledge process itself can
be known in a natural epistemology.

The objective process in principle can be any
natura~ process anywhere, any time, but a process
becomes properly objective, a reality-for-us, only
when it is that to which some subiective activity is
directed. The objective process is thus immediately

At the furthest limit of opposition or separation
of the objective and subjective, the subjective
process appears as the grasping of an abstract concept, which can even seem a product simply of imagination (Hume) , or as a priori (Kant), and the objective
process can appear as the matter of nature, which is
seen in different ways as a ‘beyond’ in Magic or
Religion. Considered from its extremities, the
relation of obiective and subjective processes a~pears
as the dialectic of concept and object. However,
object and concept are mediated by practice, so that
their connection divides into two moments, one the
relation of concept (theory) to practice, the other
the relation of practice to the ob;ect.

If we are to comprehend the objective and subjective processes, not as they are ‘in themselves’, but
in their interconnection, we may regard the subjective process as reaching out, as it were, to include
the side of practice which relates it to the object,
and vice versa with the objective process. The subjective process then appears as including the practice
of learning and applyin~ theory, and we may term it
‘theoretical practice’. The objective process is
seen as including the practice which transforms it,
that is, it merges with, in essence, the labour
process. (The labour process, or human industry, is
the activity transforming nature, the objective
world, into products necessary to life, and so is
the focal point of the objective process insofar as
it is subject to human activity.) The labour process
includes perception considered as an activity compelling reality to affect the subject: ‘If you want to
know the taste of a pear you must change the pear by
eating it yourself’ (~1ao, Four Essays, p.81). But
perception as an ob;ect-transforming practice extends
beyond the labour process proper, and must be separately conceived as an element of the objective
process. Nevertheless, the centrality of the labour
process to the transformation of the objective
justifies our speaking of the labour process in most
contexts as though it were coextensive with the
objective process.

It is worth emphasising before we continue, that
the shift we have gone through in modelling the
dialectic of object and subject is an example of the


possihle, and necessary, multiplicity of ways of
modelling complex processes, which undergo internal
development and articulation, and exist, not only in
themselves, but in relation to other processes.

Thus, ~rom what is initially an apparently wider
perspective on the dialectic of subject and object
(reality-for-us), we arrive at a modelling close to
the dialectic of theory and practice, knowing and
doing, which is the object of Mao’s discussion in
On Practice and in a narrow sense, constitutes only
one side, theory-practice, of the relation between
the subjective and objective as a whole. Our modelling which focusses on theoretical practice and the
labour process has both sides (i.e. theory-practice,
practice-object) of the relation between subject and
obj ect expl ici t.

Now from our new perspective, practice appears in
its two-sidedness, as having subjective and objective
moments reflecting the determination of the ob~ective
by the subjective, and vice-versa. It is with the
latter determination that the dialectic between an
inadequate theoretical practice and a developing
labour process commences. It is the labour process
which sets the problem for theory to solve by moving
(extensively or intensively) heyond its former limits,
and by providing the means whereby theoretical practice may solve the problem of providing effective
control over the labour process. Initially, the
subject cannot fully develop and control the labour
process, but in struggling to do so acquires
perceptual experience.

As perceptual knowledge accumulates and is analysed a more-or-Iess adequate concept is formed in
theoretical practice through which the labour process may be consciously directed. If the concept is
initially less adequate, the process of accumulating
perceptual experience continues until it culminates
with an adequate concept of the object. Here the
stage of quantitative change of theoretical practice
and the labour process is succeeded by a ~rocess of
qualitative change as the labour process comes under
conscious control with respect to a given object.

The determination of the subject by the object in
perception gives way to the determination of the
object by the subject in the application of conceptual knowledge. Object and subject change places,
the object is adequately idealised, and the subject
adequately realises its concept, and thereby
establishes the at least provisional adequacy of its
concept as a basis for further knowledge. The criterion of knowledge is not fulfilled, and the theoretical practice itself is not fully com~leted, until the
concept is realised in the obiective process, which
is the very opposite of regarding, as do the
empiricists and a priori rationalists, the adequate
idealisation of the object as the criterion of

At this stage, our model of a single movement of
the epistemological-practical process exhibits, at
least implicitly, the triadic pattern of dialectical
contradiction, transformation of opposites, dialectical contradiction. The movement from object to
concept necessarily includes as its secondary aspect
the opposite movement from concept to object, and
together these constitute the development of the
contradiction between concept and object. The transformation of opposites occurs when theory guides
the labour process on the basis of an adequate,
established concept, and actualises the movement from
concept to ob;ect as the principal aspect, with the
opposite movement still present but now secondary.

The resulting transformation of both the labour
process and theoretical practice leads to a new
contradiction, which we have suggested is usually a
new epistemolop,ical problem set on the basis of the
resolution of the old.

Our modellinp, both in abstract and particular

terms, brings out clearly the unity of opposites,
conceived as having two moments, mutual dependence
and mutual transformation. Thus, without theoretical
practice nothing could be an object of conscious
activity, and without the objective process (in
essence, without the labour process) there could be
no theoretical practice. Moreover, theoretical
practice and the labour process each in realising
itself passes over into, becomes the other. The
labour process thus emerges as the essence of the
epistemological-practical process with theoretical
practice as its reflection in the sUbjective. The
unity of subject and object is thus asserted, in
materialism, to be essentially objective.

If the Hegelian categories of Being, the law of
transition of quantity into quality and vice-versa,
and the Negation of the Negation are not immediately
evident in our modelling of the Marxist dialectic,
they are, nevertheless, present, although, as we
shall see, with a different significance, and in the
case of Negation of the Negation, with less than
complete universality.

In Hegel, transition of quantity into quality and
vice-versa establishes the cumulative evolution of
the Idea, considered as having temporal existence.

In mature Marxism, while the significance of the law
must be different, it is somewhat similar nevertheless ~
Quantity into quality is clearly already implicit
in the unity of opposites in its two moments. The
quantitative development of a contradiction, the
existence and working out of the struggle between
dependent terms, culminates in a qualitative leap to
a new principal contradiction which then undergoes
its own development. The terms of a contradiction
reflect the same transition: each undergoes a
quantitative development which leads to a qualitative
transformation of its position, and a further
quantitative change in that new position. Thus in
our example, the quantitative development of theoretical practice as the subordinate aspect of the
process leads to its becoming principal, and passing
into a new (different) phase of quantitative change.

The movement thus encompasses the gradual formation
of a concept, the qualitative leap to a potentially
adequate content, and then the gradual application
and extension of the concept as it is used to master
objective reality. However, the transition is not
necessarily from less rich to more rich processes,
and it exhibits regress as well as progress. In our
example, the process does exhibit an overall cumulat_ ive evolution, in that ignorance becomes knowledge,
and knowledge in turn opens the door to a new
specific ignorance, revealing unknown and unappropriated nature as such in ever new instances. But,
while the epistemoloRical-practical process is not
the sole instance of cumulative evolution, not all
processes exhibit the same features.

If 0uantity into Ouality establishes the cumulatively evolutionary character of the Hegelian
dialectic, Negation of the Negation, as the most
definitive moment of Spirit, further establishes the
transition as closing on itself so that it proves to
be subjective and teleological.

It is important to emphasise that Negation of the
Negation cannot have the same meaning in Marxism. In
material processes the end is the beginning, not of
itself and as its own purpose, but of a new and
different process. We do not have an ultimate synthesis which Unites subject and object in a concrete
actualised subject. Opposed terms necessarily appear
in a pair, as a dialectical contradiction, and necessarily give way to a further pair, a new contradiction. Thus the unity of subject and object is a
process of metabolism between human beings and nature
in which theoretical practice and the labour process
are interconnected, interpenetrating but irreducibly

different, aspects. It is true that a particular
process such as the epistemological-practical process
has a somewhat subjective and teleological character,
though even here it is seen as a succession of events
in time (Hegel’s ‘wrong infinity’) and the knowing
and acting subject does not freely put itself forth
as objective reality, but confronts it as primarily
given and other.

Nevertheless, there is a limited exemplification
of Negation of the Negation in the mature Marxist
dialectic, which we can explain with our example.

In the case of an ongoing process, such as the
epistemological-practical process, we have seen how
one dialectical movement initiates another essentially
similar movement. The problem of ignorance in practice is resolved only to return to a (new) problem of
ignorance in practice; each cycle of knowledge,
mutual transformation of object and subject, gives
way to a new cycle of knowledge, a new mutual transformation of object and subject, and so, from this
standpoint constitutes a repetition. The ongoing
epistemological-practical process exhibits an alternating opposition between theoretical practice and
the labour process, with now one term dominant and
the other secondary. Such repetition appears
explicitly in an (apparently) exact reproduction of
alternating contradictions, e.g. day-night; nightday; etc. This repetition is modelled in the Daoist
form of the dialectic, which has a characteristicemphasis on mutual transformation of opposites:

‘Misery, alas! is what happiness rests upon. Happiness, alas! is what misery is hidden in …. What is
upright becomes again treacherous and what is good
becomes again unpropitious’ (Lao Zi). Through this
emphasis it sets up a pattern of alternation, implying
a cosmology of eternal recurrence. This kind Df conception, dialectical but cyclical, is traditional in
China, and seems to have influenced On Contradiction.

However, it must be emphasised that a series of
processes, e.g. of cycles of knowledge, appears merely
repetitious only because it is viewed as a series of
stages constituting a more universal contradiction.

Terms thus undergo a see-saw repetition only insofar
as they are regarded more universally, as terms of an
ongoing contradiction, which, however, must itself
develop in stages with each, considered as a particular stage, in its own right constituting a novel

It is in affirming the evolutionary character of
such ongoing processes that Negation of the Negation
transcends 0uantity into Ouality, and secures a residual si?TIi~icance in the Marxist dialectical form.

The ongoing terms of an ongoing process such as the
epistemolo~ical-practical process are themselves
necessarily developing, since they constitute a more
universal contradiction that is itself inevitably
characterised by disequilibrium and struggle, and in
which one ongoinp term, whether it appears in its
particularity as the primary or secondary term of any
stage, must constitute the initial primary ongoing
determinant. This onp,oing determinant may then be
regarded as the ‘subject’ of Nep,ation of the

In our example, the labour process initially
appears as the principal ongoing aspect. Thus the
labour process, as a p,iven reality which sets
objective problems, may be viewed as a thesis, the
subsequent attainment of mastery and control by the
subject over the labour process as the negation of an


objective problem and the re-emergence of the labour
process as a given reality as the Negation of the
Negation. There is another aspect to the ongoing
process, knowing and acting humanity in theoretical
practice, which equally, but secondarily from the
standpoint of ~aterialism, may be taken as the ‘subject’ of Nepation of the Nepation. Here ignorance is
the nepation of knowing and actin~ humanity, and the
subsequent acquisition and use of knowledge the
Negation of the Negation. Consequently, from the
standnoint of materialism, the P.egelian subject
appears as a mysti~ied inversion of the real subject
o~ the epistemological-practical process, the labour

The ‘reaffirmation’ of the labour process as
objective in the Negation of the Negation is identical with the mode o~ production and reproduction of
the labour process through its opposite. This selfproduction or reproduction is at the same time development and self-mutability. Ultimately, if it is not
deflected from its path by external causes, the ongoing process will go through a transformation of
opposites in which the objective labour process
becomes secondary and the secondary aspect, knowing
and acting humanity in theoretical practice, becomes
principal. This Hao conceives as the character of
achieved communism in which ‘all mankind voluntarily
and consciously changes itself and the world’ (Mao,
Four Essays, p.20).

However, this process, while evolutionary, is
neither primarily subjective nor teleological. Human
knowledge and capability are perpetually appearing as
ignorance and impotence with respect to particular
objective processes, and the knowledge growing
successively ereater with each successful solution of
problems is the product and reflection of the objective labour process, not its prior condition and
reason for existence.

In documenting the evolutionary path of ongoing,
more universal processes, Negation of the Negation
appears as a mere moment of the unity of opposites,
s~ecifically, as a direct consequence of the unity
and struggle of ongoing terms in relation to
particular stages of the ongoing process.

The Marxist unity of opposites thus inverts the
truth of the Hegelian dialectical form. As subsumed
under the Negation of the Negation, identity rather
than opposition must be viewed as ultimately primary.

ll.1i th the Negation of the Negation i tsel f subsumed,
the Unity of Opposites reveals contradiction as
ultimately primary. Hao concludes, on the basis of
the primacy o~ contradiction, that self-identity is
conditional, relative, secondary, whereas mutability
is unconditional, absolute, primary.

There are, in fact, three aspects of disequilibrium in the Marxist dialectical movement. ‘le have
the primacy of one term over another in any contradiction, the primacy of contradiction over identity,
and the primacy of mutability over self-identity.

If we may imagine, for the sake of argument, an
alternatinp. repetitive process that is non-evolutionary – a process exhibiting the ‘Daoist’ form – it
will be seen that such a process would exhibit equilibrium throughout. Its two aspects would be equal
as ongoing determinants, so that the ongoing process
would exhibit no developmental bias. The ongoing process would therefore be inherently sempiternal, capable of repeating itself endlessly. This means that
the unity and opposition of the terms would be in
equilibrium, as their continued unity in the form of
the enduring process would be as unconditional as
their continued struggle. And this is to say that


self-identity would be in equilibrium with its mutability, the perpetual transition to new contradictions
being just as much the perpetual reproduction of old
contradictions. Conversely, in the dialectical form
established by Mao, there is disequilibrium

Hegel goes beyond the Daoist dialectic in recognising endless nonrepetitious becoming-other, but-he
subordinates the objective necessity of becominpother, which he sees as the wrong infinite, to the
subjective teleology of self-identity, seen as the
true infinite. He recognises disequilibrium, but
pives weight to the subjective and conservative
aspect. It is only with mature Marxism that objective evolution becomes truly primary, truly absolute.

If the Hegelian form can be summed up in a single
term, ‘sel ~-determination’, ~1ao can still express the
essence of the dialectical materialist outlook in the
same or a similar term, e.g. ‘self-movement’. For
‘internal and necessary self-movement’ (Mao, Four
Essays, p.26) distinguishes the dialectical outlook
as such from the metaphysical outlook, defined as a
‘vulgar evolutionism’ which recognizes development
as quantitative increase and decrease only. Only the
dialectical outlook, which grasps internal contradiction as the essence of each thing, can explain not
only quantitative development but also qualitative
transition, and thus account for otherness and
becoming-other, or the existence of many different
things and the changing of one thing into another.

Now, the self-movement of the mature Harxist dialectic must of course be distinguished from the selfdetermination of the Hegelian dialectic – and this
distinction will contain all the distinctions made in
this part. But -:he fact that the mature Marxist
dialectic is a self-movement at all does make it
possible to assert that there is a kind of free subjectivity – that of dialectical contradiction itself
– in all its pro:esses, whether human or merely
natural. In all cases, however, this sub’jecti ve
freedom is more properly understood as objective

Author’s postscript
At the time of publication, Part 11 appears to us as
provisional in that there are certain implications of
the Marxist-Maoist dialectic which are not explored
here and which point to further formulations that
modify Mao’s model in certain significant respects,
but also as relatively final in that it elaborates
the position of On Contradiction in such a way as to
be compatible with all its important statements and
at once correct, if in certain cases only by omission
or ambiguity, from a further developed standpoint.

We feel that if nothing else this exposition represents a properly formed and placed stepping-stone from
which we, and hopefully others, can now begin to
reach forward.

References for Part I
Hegel, G. W. F., Logic, trans. W. Wallace, Clarendon
Press, Oxford, 1975.

Hegel, G.W.F., Philosophy of Nature, trans. A.V.

Miller, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1970.

Hegel, G.W.F., Philosophy of Mind, trans. A.V. ~~iller,
Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1971
References for Part 11
Mao Zedong, Four Essays on Philosophy, Peking
Forei~n Languages Press.

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