Dialectical materialism and the law of contradiction as a law of oppositional complementarity: the theory of two points

Dialectical materialism considers that every phenomenon forms a unity of opposites, the latter being in struggle, in opposition. This is the law of contradiction, the universal law of eternal and inexhaustible matter on the road to Communism. In this context, the term « contrary » is often equated with « opposite ». In his philosophical notes, Lenin said:

« Strictly speaking, dialectics is the search for contradictions in the essence of things themselves. »

« Development is the ‘struggle’ of opposites. »

The terms contrary and opposite are easily interchangeable, and in fact it is easy to switch from one term to the other, with the idea that they are equivalent.

In the French language, there is a great deal of ambiguity in the definition of the two terms; we tend to define something contrary as opposed, and something opposed as a contrary, even if there are nuances, depending on the context.

The basis of these nuances is as follows. “Oppose” is a term from Latin, meaning to place towards, in front of, i.e. to place opposite, against. There is an idea of face to face. Contradiction is what contradicts; the term also comes from Latin. There is an idea of cancellation.

The Latin languages and Russian follow the same pattern; in German, the term contradiction is widerspruch (wider meaning against, spruch meaning to say); the term gegensatz, opposition, in the strict sense means counter-sentence or anti-sentence. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels use the term widerspruch, but in the sense of gegensatz; the distinction is not operative.

Mathematical language, on the other hand, makes an apparently clear distinction, but we can see that it comes to the same thing.

The opposite of 1 is -1, -2 for 2, -3 for 3, and so on. The opposite is set against, and we find the idea of face to face: facing1 is -1, facing 2 is -2, and so on.

The contradiction is called the « inverse ». The inverse refers to a number that can be multiplied by itself to arrive at 1: 0.2 is the inverse of 5, because 5 x 0.2 = 1; 0.01 is the inverse of 100, because 0.01 x 100 = 1, and so on.

This inverse actually contradicts a number, because it prevents it from reaching 1, i.e. it prevents it from forming a unit, from being itself. The inverse annuls the number, annihilates its identity, contradicts it. Here we find the idea of a counter-affirmation to an affirmation.

However, if we think in terms of tension and conflict, it’s hard to see at first sight any difference between contrary and opposite, even in the mathematical language. There are always two aspects facing each other, and one cannot exist without the other.

The terms of opposite and contrary are thus closely related, even interchangeable, because they have in common the fact that they signify negation. The existing nuances have to do with the modalities of this negation, but their substance is common: their dialectical relationship, both linked (and therefore positive) and negative.

These negative nuances are found again and again in any language that seeks to describe material processes. For example, we speak of a headwind [in French a “contrary wind”] to say that the wind intervenes and opposes the initial movement, forming a cancellation.

The word “opposed” implies the idea of resistance, of an obstacle: we say that we have faced opposition. There is a strong idea of tension. However, we can interchangeably say “on the contrary” or “in the opposite direction”.

It is useful here to turn to the Chinese language. The term of contradiction originally chosen in Chinese by Mao Zedong, Mao-dun, is made up of 矛, meaning spear, and 盾, meaning shield. It is based on an old story told by Han Fei Zi (280 – 233 BC):

« A person, eager to sell his spear and shield, praised the excellence of the latter in these terms: ‘Its resistance is such that nothing can dent it. This shield is absolutely impenetrable ».

Turning to the spear, he continued: « Its point is so sharp that there is nothing it cannot pierce. It is omnipenetrating.

– How can your spear penetrate your shield?

The man didn’t know what to say. He had contradicted himself. Logically, an absolutely impenetrable shield and an omnipenetrable spear cannot go together.”

Here we have a contradiction, something contradicts something else, there is a cancellation, even though the idea of spear and shield also implies tension, and therefore opposition.

There are other Chinese expressions worth noting, such as 一分為二, yifenweier, meaning one becomes two, each thing has two sides, etc. 对 立 统 , duili tongyi, meaning the unity of opposites; 相 反 相 承, xiangfan xiangcheng, meaning to oppose and promote each other; 两點論, liangdian lun, which can be translated as the theory of two points.

All these expressions were used in People’s China during the time of Mao Zedong, particularly at the time of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. They are useful for showing that the term contradiction does not in itself adequately capture complementarity and tension; conversely, the notion of opposite does not capture the unity of the two poles, which is much more apparent with the term contradiction.

In concrete terms, contradiction and opposite form two aspects of the same contradiction/opposition, the two terms coming together and repelling each other.

If we want to avoid such back-and-forth, the expression « two-point theory » seems more abstract at first sight, but it allows us to set out the dialectical operational framework. The expression was used in an article for the fiftieth anniversary of the Communist Party of China, published simultaneously in the Renmin Ribao (the People’s Daily), the Hongqi (the Red Flag, the theoretical organ) and the Jiefangjun Bao (the Daily of the People’s Liberation Army).

This 1971 document retraces the history of the Party, with the struggles of two lines, between the red line and the black line at each stage, from the revolutionary war to the construction of socialism and the struggle against the forces of capitalist restoration, including the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution launched in 1966, while stressing that several such revolutions were needed.

The long conclusion deals with learning well and mentions the importance of the two-point theory:

« We have to follow the two-point theory, not the one-point theory. While focusing our attention on the main trend, we need to take note of the other trend that may be masked.

We must take full account of and firmly grasp the main aspect and at the same time resolve one by one the problems raised by the non-main aspect.

We need to see the negative aspects of things as well as their positive aspects. We have to see the problems that have already arisen and also anticipate the problems that we haven’t yet perceived, but which could arise. »

Hsueh Li clarified this in a 1972 article, The Two-point Theory, where he explained from the outset that:

« What is the theory of the two points? It is what we usually call dialectical materialism; it is the Marxist-Leninist theory of the fundamental law of the universe.

Chairman Mao gave us a comprehensible and penetrating explanation in his On Contradiction ».

After recalling the fundamentals of dialectical materialism, he concludes as follows:

« Managing to carry the two-point theory and go beyond the one-point theory is not simply a question of method, but of worldview. The two-point theory belongs to the proletarian world-view and the one-point theory belongs to the world-view of the bourgeoisie and all the exploiting classes.

Without exception, the thinking of people living in a class society is marked by class and is invariably influenced by the political orientation of the class to which they belong.

Even if people do not belong to the exploiting classes, they are inevitably affected by the idealism and metaphysics universally existing in class society.

This is why every person in the revolutionary ranks must see to it that every idealistic and metaphysical point of view is eliminated from his mind, and must make constant efforts to reshape his subjective world while changing the objective world.

Only in this way can the two-point theory be sustained and the one-point theory overcome. »

The expression « two-point theory » allows us to avoid focusing on the idea of annulment that the term « contradiction » may abstractly imply. – and it’s worth noting that the Chinese revisionists went so far as to say that it was necessary to accept the existence of contradiction, to accept negative things, and so on.

The expression « two-point theory » also avoids the use of the term « opposition », which loses sight of unity and runs the risk of refuting even the unity of opposites, in a leftist mode.

What’s more, the expression « theory of two points » immediately underlines the existence of two aspects, which is important at a time when the bourgeoisie seeks to deny dialectics, as evidenced by the nihilistic refutation of the existence of man and woman.

It allows you to change its own state of mind while at the same time transforming reality: have I followed the two-point theory correctly, have I seen the two aspects correctly, using the main trend to see which way to go?

In this way, the expression puts the emphasis on practice: it’s a good equivalent to the terms contradiction and opposition, which are themselves « two points ».

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