On the Negation of the Negation

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 Communism.

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 level.

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 achieved.  

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 discussion.

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