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Internal Contradictions are Primary

      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. [1] 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 socialof 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:

      Although external 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.

      This 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

      Suppose that 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.” [2]   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.” [3] A third popular subjectivist theory claims that what causes what depend on someone’s “perspective”:

      “Causation 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.” [4]

      Both 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

      Ever 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. [5] So getting exposed to the germ is only part of the cause of the disease.
      The 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.

Convincing Someone

      Suppose you 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.
      By 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

      That internal 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.
       Mt. Saint Helens Explodes The 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.

Contradictions and Change

      The 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 Dialectics).
      Contradictions 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.
      In 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.
      In 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.

System 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 activity. [6]

Active External Conditions

      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 small.
      External 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.
      It 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.

Control 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.

What ‘Primary’ Means

      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 internal contradictions. 

External 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.

Which 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 class.

Analyzing 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 victory. 
      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 line.

Which System?

      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.
      A 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.

Overwhelming Force”

      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.” [7] 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. [8]

Internal 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 for it.

Mechanical Materialism

      The 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.


[1] Lenin made this point back in World War I: “the strength of these participants in the division [of the world among imperial powers] does not change to an equal degree, for the even development of different undertakings, trusts, branches of industry, or countries is impossible under capitalism. ... Is it ‘conceivable’ that in ten or twenty years' time the relative strength of the imperialist powers will have remained unchanged? It is out of the question.” Imperialism, the Highest State of Capitalism, Chapter 9.

[2] A. J. Ayer, The Central Questions of Philosophy, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973, p. 180. Lenin gives many examples of views like this in his 1908 book Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, V. I. Lenin Collected Works, Moscow: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1962, vol. 14, pp. 158ff.

[3] N. R. Hanson, Patterns of Discovery: An Inquiry into the Conceptual Foundations of Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958, p. 64.

[4] The full quotation reads: “Causation 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 perspective.”  Ernest Sosa, “Putnam's Pragmatic Realism,” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 90, No. 12. (Dec., 1993), pp. 607.

[5] About one-third of the world’s population has been infected with TB. People infected with TB bacteria have a lifetime risk of falling ill with TB of 10%.” This rate is much higher for people with HIV. World Health Organization website: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs104/en/ Accessed 6/19/12.

[6] A famous example from Mao Zedong makes a similar point: a fertilized egg can be turned into a baby chick by its inner contradictions, which are chemical processes in this case. These processes require oxygen and a specific range of temperatures in order to operate. But for the inner contradictions of some other system—a rock for instance--oxygen and temperature may have no effect, and certainly will not help turn the rock into a baby chick.  You can try any combination of oxygen and temperature you want, but it won’t produce a chick from a rock, because the right internal contradictions aren’t there.

[7] M. Parenti, Blackshirts and Reds: Rational Fascism and the Overthrow of Communism, San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997, p. 75.

[8] 1999 PBS interview with Alexander Haig, http://www.pbs.org/redfiles/prop/deep/interv/p_int_alexander_haig.htm

June 20, 2012

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