The history of class society, the Communist Manifesto said, is the “history
of class struggle,” the conflict of the social groups inside society that have opposite relationships
to production. This means that social
change does not come about primarily by factors outside society, like climate
or environmental processes, although these things certainly make a difference.
Instead, the effect that those external factors have on capitalist society is
mainly determined by factors internal to capitalism. Although the U. S. empire
was riding high after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it now faces a variety
of constantly increasing challenges from other capitalist powers, including Europe,
Russia, China, India, Venezuela, etc. These problems for the U. S. have emerged
because of the inner laws of development of world capitalism. The same is true of other events, like Katrina disaster in New Orleans, which
was not primarily caused by the hurricane, but by internal
contradictions—physical and social—of
New Orleans and of the U. S. capitalist system.
The General Principle
These processes are examples of the one
of the main principles of dialectics. This principle, which says that conflicts
inside something are the main cause of how it develops, is called “internal
contradictions are primary”.” We can state that
principle more carefully this way:
conditions make a difference, what happens to a thing almost always depends
mainly on its internal relationships, and how it changes and what it becomes
are due primarily to its internal contradictions.
principle applies to phenomena of all kinds in nature, society, politics and
thought, and expresses a key idea of dialectics. It is directly opposed to the
mechanical materialist idea that change is caused mainly by external. The role of
internal contradictions is particularly
important for understanding the growing weaknesses of the capitalist system.
How to Get Tuberculosis
someone comes down with an infectious disease like tuberculosis (TB). What
causes this change from health to disease? Materialism says that causation is an objective
relationship. Several theories common in capitalist philosophy deny this and make causation
depend on a subjective element such as the perspective or interests some individual or group. One common capitalist view, called “empiricism,” claims that the difference between accidental relationships and causal ones “consists
in our attitude towards them.” Others claim that causal connections only exist because of scientists’ theories: “Causes certainly are connected with effects; but this is
because our theories connect them, not because the world is held together by
cosmic glue.” A third popular
subjectivist theory claims that what causes what depend on someone’s “perspective”:
is not an absolute
relation, however, not a relation that holds in metaphysical reality independently of any perspective. For Earthians it may be a discarded cigarette that causes a forest fire, while for Martians it is the presence of oxygen. Strictly speaking ‘X causes Y’ is true or false not
absolutely, but only relative to a perspective.”
of these claims about what causes forest fires are objectively wrong, whether
you are from Earth or Mars. Materialism rejects all these bogus ideas and says that
causes are objective. But what kind of objective cause makes someone come down
with an infectious disease?
The Germ Theory of Disease
since the late 1800s, it has been known that germs transmit diseases like TB.
You can’t get TB without being exposed to a certain kind of bacteria. These
germs are necessary to get the disease, but are they the main cause of the
disease? Mechanical materialism says that the answer is “yes,” and the
scientists who first discovered the role of germs in TB thought so, too. We now
know, however, that the answer is “no.” One way to see this is to recognize
that for many diseases, TB included, only a small percentage of the people who
are exposed to the germ that transmits the disease will actually get sick. So getting exposed to the germ is only part of the cause of the disease.
rest of the explanation of how infectious disease develops goes roughly this
way: when a germ enters your body, it is attacked by your body’s immune system.
That system tries to destroy the germs or neutralize their effects. If the
germs win the struggle, you get sick. If the immune system wins, you don’t get
sick or your illness is minor. Vaccines can strengthen the immune system. The
system can also be weakened by other factors, like the presence of HIV. In any
case, the outcome of this internal conflict is the main factor that determines
whether you get sick once you are exposed to the germ.
Since you can’t get sick without being exposed to the germ, however, limiting exposure also limits the
disease. The absence of TB germs prevents TB, although their presence is not
the main cause of the disease.
try to convince someone that capitalism should be done away with. Convincing is
a struggle that takes place within a relationship that has some degree of
unity. You can’t just try to make your external influence stronger, by saying
the same thing over and over, or yelling real loud. You have to figure out what
are the contradictions in that person’s thinking, experience, and actions, and
show that the idea of removing capitalism resolves some of them. What those
contradictions are depend on who you are talking to. Some people will see the
point that capitalism inevitably produces racism, for example, while others
won’t agree with this point or won’t think it is that important.
making an argument, or involving someone in a political activity, you are
providing an external influence, one that will only be effective if it modifies
a contradiction inside that person in the right way. Ideas will be accepted
only if they help resolve contradictions that are already inside someone, perhaps
by answering questions that person cannot otherwise answer. When this happens,
external ideas become internal ones.
Systems and Processes
contradictions are the main cause of change is an
important idea, worth working out. To help do this, we need to discuss what a
system is, what “internal” means, and what being “primary” involves.
kind of thing that something can be internal to is a system, process, object or
relationship, something whose various parts or sides are connected to and
depend on each other. This kind of thing has to have enough coherence and
organization to be able to tell it apart from any bigger system that contains
it. We’ll call it “process” or “system.” A system can be an atom, a rock, a
person, a family, a mass organization, a political party, a class, an economic
mode of production, a planet, a galaxy, etc. For most purposes, we can also include
theories, or kinds of thinking as systems. Collections of objects that may have
little connection with each other, like the people listed on a random page of
the phone book, or the contents of someone’s pocket, don’t count as systems,
since these things don’t have enough connection or coherence.
It is important that the systems we
are talking about are whole things, not just pieces of things. The changes in
your left foot might be mainly due to processes in your whole body, not just your foot. Likewise, the internal contradictions of California’s economy might not be the main
factors that determine economic changes in California, since that state’s economy is integrated into the whole U. S. economy. The changes in the
whole U. S. economy, however, are mainly due to its internal contradictions,
even though the U.S is also contained in the larger world economy, and
therefore is affected by the contractions inside the capitalist system itself.
internal contradiction principle says that the primary causes of the changes in
any system or process are contradictions inside it. This is a more specific version
of a general principle about contradictions, that they cause change. (For
discussion of dialectical contradictions, see Introduction to Marxist
cause change because the clash of opposites that interfere with each other,
which every contradiction contains, is a source
of activity. The struggle of the conflicting sides of a contradiction is
redirected into one or more directions and produces change.
a basketball game, each side needs to adjust its play to its opponent’s game, and
when the game is on the line, everyone plays with more intensity. In class
struggle under capitalism, capitalists constantly have to come up with new ways
to exploit workers and stay on top. On their side, workers are constantly
fighting to keep things from getting worse.
the nucleus of an atom, the contradiction of the forces of attraction and repulsion
also constantly cause change. Even if the nucleus doesn’t fly apart, it still changes shape and particles move around inside it.
Contradiction is the source of all these changes, and the
pattern we see in these cases is completely general. There are contradictions in everything and these contradictions cause change.
Versus External Conditions
Our previous examples show that the internal contradictions of a
thing or process usually need some specific external conditions in order to
operate and produce change. To explain how internal contradictions can be
primary, therefore, we need to say
a few words about how to tell a system or process from its external conditions.
Partly this is done by the explanation of what a system is, that is, a set of
inter-connected relationships that depend on and influence each other. But
there is more to the relationship of a system and its external conditions than
that. One thing that distinguishes many conditions from the system that
operates in them is that conditions can be passive. In order to live, a human
being must breath oxygen--oxygen is a condition for human life. But oxygen does
not tend to produce life, human or otherwise. It isn’t a source of that kind of
It can happen, however, that an external condition is active and
can stimulate internal change, like when you get hit by a car and break a leg.
For a human being, being hit by a car is a serious external action, and you are
bound to get some damage from it. But the fact that the collision results in
injury still depends on the internal make up of the thing that gets hit. If the
same car had hit a concrete wall, the damage to the wall would probably be
conditions can also limit or prevent internal change. Plants without water
cannot grow, and plants with only a little water will only grow a little. When there
is a lot of racism, cynicism or patriotism among workers, students or soldiers, it will limit the growth of the
working-class movement, although the growth of the movement can also reduce these limiting factors.
isn’t only external conditions that can limit development, however. Capitalism’s development, for example, is limited by a falling rate of profit, crises of overproduction, and imperialist wars, things that result from the internal contradictions of capitalism. Both
internal and external factors can hold back development, but internal contradictions are still the main source
of a thing’s development.
is not Cause
When an external event triggers a complex process, it is seldom
the primary cause of that process, but it can
often exert some control. When a human being knows that he or she can control a
process with an external stimulus, we often hold him or her responsible for the
results, even if that stimulus was not the main cause. A forest full of dry
fuel won’t start to burn without some triggering event. We hold a person who
throws away a cigarette in an area of high fire danger responsible for the
fire, although the dry fuel supply was the main cause of the fire, which could
just have easily been started by a lightning strike. Being the main cause of
some event and being responsible for initiating it are not the same thing.
Even when an external condition provides a stimulus for change, it
is the internal organization of the system that determines what external
conditions count, how much importance they have, and what change will result.
In fact, whether something counts as an external condition for a system at all
will depend entirely on the internal make up of that system. Oxygen supply is
an external condition for human life, but a supply of argon gas is not, although
that gas is also found in the air we all breathe. The stuff is there, but it
presence makes no difference to our internal processes, so it doesn’t count as
an external condition.
Internal contradictions are primary partly because they are the
active source of development and change, while external circumstances often
produce no particular activity at all. Even when an external stimulus is a
source of activity of some kind, the effect that it has is modified by a
thing’s internal contradictions, and may be enhanced, redirected or canceled
out by those internal contradictions. Mao Zedong put the point this way:
“external causes are the condition of change and internal causes are the basis
of change.” The development of imperialist war and economic crises are
conditions that help make ending capitalism possible, but the basis of that
change is the internal make up of the anti-capitalist movement and the internal
contradictions of that movement.
The way an external condition or event makes a difference is by
affecting an internal contradiction. An external influence can strengthen or
weaken one side of a contradiction, and even change which side is dominant. You
can give a child a booster shot to strengthen his or her immunity to some
disease because the shot effects specific internal contradictions. A teacher
who thinks the school
board just doesn’t have enough
money to fix the broken toilets at his school may change his mind when he finds
out the board just gave itself a big raise. This information makes a difference
to him because it contradicts his illusions about the school board. To someone
who is already well aware how capitalist institutions work, however, it
probably wouldn’t be a big deal. Racist propaganda can provoke hatred and
resistance or it can lead to demoralization and weakness, depending on the audience’s
Can Become Internal
The distinction between a system or process and its external
circumstances is easy to see in many cases, but we need to point out a few
complications. One is that what starts out being external can become internal.
Having food is an external condition for human life, but when you eat it, some
of it becomes part of your body, internal to you. This is also true of other
physical and social influences. When you learn something, features of your external
environment become internal to your thinking. People are strongly influenced by
their social circumstances and relationships, by their family and their class,
influences that become part of their make up. This only happens, however,
because our internal organization makes it happen. Our internal organization
makes us mold ourselves according to our experiences and relationships.
System Are You Talking About?
A second complication is that almost all systems or processes exist inside of larger systems, and those larger systems can provide external
circumstances for the smaller ones. This means that when we say internal contradictions
are primary, we need to pay attention what system we are talking about. The
working class is a system, but it is also part of the capitalist system, which
is dominated by the capitalist class. The internal contradictions of the
working class are the main influence on its development, but the whole capitalist
system—and its sharpening contradictions—not only provides the external conditions for that development but penetrates
into the working class.
The internal contradictions of the capitalist system are the main influence on
the development of that system, but not necessarily the biggest influence on
every part of that system, including
the working class. Capitalist attacks against the working class may be
effective or not, depending on the internal contradictions of the working
Revolution with Internal Contradictions.
Keeping your systems straight is crucial for analyzing
internal contradictions correctly.
In order for the working class to become the dominant side of the
worker-capitalist contradiction, it is not enough for the working class to grow
stronger. A condition external to the working class must also be present: The
capitalist class must get weaker, at least for a certain period of time. In
fact the working-class movement needs there to be weakness on the capitalist
side in order to grow strong in the first place.
The internal logic of capitalism leads to ever-larger crises,
particularly the crises brought on by the wars that rival capitalists must
fight. Imperialist war exhausts capitalist powers, and weakens their hold on the
masses, making some powers ripe for revolution and others too weak to intervene
to help them, a pattern that was repeated several times in the 20th century. For the capitalist system as a
whole, these crises are the product of its internal contradictions. For the
working class, however, they are external conditions favorable to working-class
The internal contradictions of the working class direct its development, and the internal contradictions of the whole capitalist system determine how it changes. These two levels,
the working class and the capitalist system are also linked together. As the struggle of the imperialist powers weakens
them, the struggle for a revolutionary line inside the working class becomes
more important, and the pressure from the bosses to cave in become
stronger. Lenin’s party was able to take
power at the end of World War I precisely because they did not cave in, but won
over a large part of the working class of Tsarist Russia to their revolutionary
We have already seen that
when you have systems inside systems, you have to use the right one, or you
will not understand
how internal contradictions work. Some
changes in a thing should really be considered changes in a bigger system that
contains it. As an example, consider a worker who is unemployed. Is this due to
his or her internal contradictions? This is not usually true. Someone can be
trained for a certain kind of job and have a good work record, but still not be
able to find that kind of job, just because business is bad and no bosses are
hiring, or because of race or gender discrimination. Being employed or
unemployed is part of a relationship the worker has to the capitalist system,
or at least to the particular industry he or she works in. Whether he or she
has a job is caused by the internal contradictions of that larger system much
more than it is due to the characteristics of the individual worker.
physical example of this same phenomenon is a planet orbiting around the Sun.
Most of the changes in the planet will be due primarily to its internal
contradictions, but changes in its orbit around the Sun may not be. That orbit
depends on the relationships between the planet, the Sun, and the other planets,
so changes in the orbit can be due to the internal contradictions of the solar
system, not just the planet. In both cases, what seemed at first sight to be a
characteristic of one thing is actually a characteristic of a larger system
that it fits inside of, and the internal contradictions of that system mainly
determine its properties.
A common objection to “internal contradictions are primary” says that there are some cases where the external influence is so
overwhelming that the cause of a things’ destruction must be mainly external.
If someone sets off a nuclear weapon on your front porch, your house is going
up in smoke, no matter what its internal structure is. The internal contradictions principle only requires, however, that internal factors are almost always
the primary cause of change. There are exceptions, but they are rare. Those are
cases where not only the existing internal structure, but any other structure
that could have been there instead would have still resulted in destruction.
Most cases where people claim that overwhelming force is present just don’t
hold up, however. The U. S. government did not organize an evacuation when hurricane
Katrina struck New Orleans, and over 1200 people were killed. When faced with
hurricane Ivan, a category 5 storm in 2004, the Cuban government was able to
organize a huge evacuation that resulted in no one being killed by the storm.
The fact that Cuba was able to do this shows that hurricanes are not
overwhelming forces, and that internal political structure can allow people to
deal effectively with strong external forces, even if they can’t be stopped.
Some people claimed that the downfall of the USSR in 1991 was
caused mainly by external pressure of U.S. capitalism, and especially by its
military spending. Writer Michael Parenti,
for example, claimed that the USSR was “Pressed hard throughout its history by
global capitalism’s powerful financial, economic, and military forces,” and was
“swept away when the floodgates opened to the West.” This ignores the profound internal contradictions of Soviet state
capitalism, which the Soviet rulers tried to resolve by moving to private
ownership of capital, rather than controlling it through the party and
government. Former U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig was right when he
said that the end of the Cold War was caused by the internal contradictions of
the USSR, and that building enormously expensive “Star Wars” weapons systems and other U. S. actions
were merely “catalysts” to its downfall.
Contradictions and Struggle
The struggle of opposites is constant inside a dialectical
contradiction, but many political struggles will only occur if someone deliberately
decides to fight for a particular position. This kind of deliberate struggle
aims at intensifying existing contradictions or shifting the balance between
the contradictory sides. Because internal
contradictions are the main cause of change, this kind of struggle often works. But
the fact that internal contradictions are primary provides a clear explanation of why fighting for an idea or program works, by
modifying the internal contradictions of things. Struggle is inseparable from leadership. When you fight for an idea or an
action, you a trying to lead others. Your leadership will be good or bad,
depending on what you fight for for, and your skill and persistence in fighting
primacy of internal contradictions is central to dialectics and thus to dialectical
materialism. A useful definition of mechanical materialism is materialism based on the idea that external influences as the main cause of change inside a system or
process. In the next blog, we will discuss the history of this view.