On the Negation of
By Dave Muller
First published in the Vanguard
(Melbourne) April 1 1987
Engels in his Dialectics
of Nature describes negation of the
negation as the third law of dialectics.
The other two laws being:
1. The law that quantitative changes lead to
qualitative change and vice versa.
(This law is also known as the law of
critical or nodal points).
2. The law of the unity or
interpenetration of opposites.
(This law is also known as the law of contradiction).
Engels explains that the history of nature and human society can be
reduced in the main to these three laws. While Lenin also uses the
term, ‘negation of the negation’, it appears mainly as asides in his
general polemic. These asides by Lenin were in the main directed
against his philosophical opponents within the Russian party.
Yet it is with Engels' work that we find the most exhaustive
elaboration of the negation of the negation. In 1877 Engels devoted a
whole article in the German Social Democratic newspaper Volkstatt to
an explanation of what he and Marx understood by this law of
dialectics. (This article was later republished as Chapter
13 in his
work Anti-Duhring). In this contribution, Engels elaborately
explains how Marx not only understood the concept but concretely
applied it in his work, particularly in Capital. I will return to
this later in the section on economics.
As later history unfolded, explicit reference to negation of the
negation was minimal. There were reasons for this. Negation of the
negation relates to the whole process of dialectical development. In
day to day practical struggles of the working class, the immediate and
particular stages of development were far more important than the
overall and future considerations.
The first law of dialectics told the working class that revolutionary
leaps or qualitative changes occurred only after a long process of
patient and tedious repetitive work.
The law of contradiction had immediate importance to the
identification of classes in society; and who were the friends and
enemies of the people. It further clarified how classes change sides
when the principal contradiction becomes secondary.
While the immediate and particular became paramount over the future and
the whole process, the negation of the negation and the ultimate stage
of Communism still continued as an overall guiding light.
Socialism is the negation of capitalism, The negation of socialism, or
the negation of the negation of capitalism, is Communism.
Expressed around the other way. Communism is the negation of socialism,
which is negation of capitalism. Thus Communism is the negation of the
prior negation, i.e., the negation of the negation.
Let us now formulate a definition of negation. Negation is a process
which, while preserving the essence of what existed, abolishes the form
and existence of what was. Having formulated this abstract definition
of negation we must now deepen our understanding by studying concrete
or practical examples.
Nature provides many examples of the operation of the law of negation
of the negation. Engels cites the grain of barley as a classic example
of this law in agriculture. When a grain of barley is planted under the
right conditions, it germinates and grows into a plant.
Germination is a process of negation. The grain has now gone.
Roots, stalk and foliage have taken its place. But the essence of the
grain, its genes, are preserved in the plant. The genes give the plant
its uniqueness and distinguishes it from other plants. As the
plant matures a second negation takes place. With the ripening of the
ears of barley, the plant dries out and dies off. We no longer have a
plant. We have instead many new grains of barley, the essence of the
plant being preserved in the new grains.
By analogy, we might view socialism as a plant that gives rise to
The state withering away like the foliage and roots of the barley
plant. One grain has led to many grains. A form of spiral development
to which Lenin referred. The cultivation of crops being a cyclical
process not leading back to the starting point but forward to a higher
We have by no means uncovered all the examples of negation of negation
that exist in nature. In fact as our knowledge of nature increases
further examples of negation unfold.
Marx's circuit of capital M-C-M
is yet another example of the law of negation of the negation. The
capitalist invests his money in purchasing raw materials and pays wages
to his workers in the production of commodities. His money no
longer exists. It is used up in the productive process, i.e., it
is negated. But it is not lost - the capitalist has the fruits of
labour in his possession. When he sells these commodities a second
negation takes place. He negates these commodities in realisation of
further money. Not just a return of his original outlay but a higher
monetary return. A profit is thus realised from the expropriated
surplus value produced by the workers.
When a worker banks part of his/her pay packet in a Xmas Club savings
account, a similar process of negation is taking place. In depositing
money with a bank the worker is negating the ownership of this money.
While the money no longer exists for the worker, the essence of
ownership, i.e., purchasing power, is preserved as a credit entry
in the banker's bankbook.
If instead the worker blew his pocket money on the nags or drank it
away, the ownership of this money would also not exist for the worker.
But in this case the essence or the purchasing power is no longer
preserved. Thus in this case the money is no longer negated. It is
totally gone or eliminated from the worker's possession.
For the worker with the savings account a second negation occurs in
December when the deposit is withdrawn. The bank's ownership of the
money is negated while the worker negates the original negation. What
the worker receives is not the original money but new money - the
deposit plus interest. Whether of course this new money buys more than
the old is dependent on the level of inflation.
While there has been no explicit reference to the negation of the
negation in Mao's published works, this does not mean that he did not
understand or apply this law of dialectics in work. In fact Mao's work
is full of concrete examples of negations of the negation.
In his On
Practice (1937) there
is a very clear example le of negation of the negation in the circuit
of knowledge Practice-
Theory-Practice (the latter being at a higher level). Theory is
the negation of practice while the opposite of practice is of course
non-practice. In turn, only when theory is further negated in practical
activity is a higher development of man's knowledge of the world
Mao's advice in the form of Unity-Criticism-Unity
for resolving contradictions within the Communist Party, further
demonstrates his understanding of the operation of the negation of the
negation and its practical application.
Criticism is the negation of unity because the essence of unity is
preserved in that the two opposing views are bound together in
Unity too can be contrasted with its opposite, namely split. The second
negation of the negation of criticism achieves a new unity around some
immediate practical objectives. This negation of criticism in that
Party members are allowed to retain their opposing views while
achieving unity around the common goal. History in the end often
decides who was right and who was wrong.
Mao's example of resolving contradictions using the dialectical
law of the negation of the negation has raised our understanding of
dialectics to a new level. Contradiction is not resolved as the
dogmatists tell us by "one opposite eating up the other", nor is
it resolved as the opportunist preaching by a conciliation of the
opposites into some equilibrium or by some synthesis which "fuses the
two opposites into one" as consensus