Gerry Healy


The Dialectical ‘Cell’ of Nature and Capitalism

News Line 9 June 1981

   In his article, On the Question of Dialectics, (Volume 38, Lenin’s Collected Works, page 359), Lenin describes the dialectical method as follows:

   ‘Thus in any proposition we can (and must) disclose as in a “nucleus” (“cell”) the germs of all the elements of dialectics, and thereby show that dialectics is a property of all human knowledge in general.’

   He went on to explain what this ‘cell’ was all about by referring to the way in which Marx carried out his analysis of Capital.

   ‘In his Capital, Marx first analyses the simplest, most ordinary and fundamental, most common and everyday relation of bourgeois, (commodity), society, a relation encountered billions of times, vis, the exchange of commodities. In this very simple phenomenon, (in the ‘cell’ of bourgeois society) analysis reveals all the contradictions (or the germs of all the contradictions) of modern bourgeois society.’

   Firstly, we will reveal the dialectical ‘cell’ of all human knowledge in general and then go on to examine a commodity as the cell of bourgeois society.

   One of the forms of reflecting the external world in the mind is through the use of scientific concepts developed by Hegel and rescued from his objective idealist method by Marx. This is explained in his book, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, in the chapter on the critique of the Hegelian dialectic. The main object of these concepts is to single out in thought the objects which are nearest to us, from the standpoint of cognition and practice.

   ‘Concepts’, wrote Lenin, ‘are the highest product of the brain which is the highest product of matter.’ (Vol. 38, page 167). On page 136 of the same book he explains the use of concepts as follows:

   ‘Concepts must be hewn, treated, flexible, mobile, relative, mutually connected, united in opposites, in order to embrace the world.’

   Through the method of conceptual analysis we set out to reproduce the dialectical world of the real from the dialectical movement of thought.

The Activity of Cognition

Living perception begins with external reflection. It is essential to be clear on the dialectical role of reflection if we are to train our senses to use it to the best advantage. When we speak of the development of thought through reflection we must in fact acknowledge that the source of sensation leading to thought is in the external world around us.

   When we reflectively apprehend the external world we establish contact through sensation. This is a universal objective moment of being which denotes the unity between man and the world, established through external reflection. The abstract image of that moment of unity through sensation appears in the mind as Semblance. It is an objective moment of the world as a whole, which means that Semblance too is objective. It is the starting point of new thoughts whose materiality exists in the external world. This is registered in our mind through sensation and appears in the form of an abstract thought image.

   Semblance is a reflective moment which emerges as the category of Essence, simply denoting ‘self-identity’, (page 135, Vol. 38 Lenin’s Collected Works). It has a two fold character which can best be described as an example of a ray of light starting from the external world, reflected into man and through him into its counterpart, the external world. In his explanation of Semblance, Lenin quotes Hegel approvingly:

   ‘Thus Semblance is Essence itself, but Essence in a determinatedness, and this in such a manner that determinatedness is only its moment. Essence is the showing of itself in itself.’ (Page 133, Vol. 38, Collected Works.)

   And again … ‘Essence contains Semblance within itself, as an infinite internal movement … In this its self movement Essence is Reflection. Essence is the same as Reflection.’ (Ibid.)

   Hegel explains the contradiction within Essence as ‘mere pairs of co-Relatives’ not yet absolutely reflected in themselves, hence in Essence the actual unity of the Notion (opposites) is not realised, but only postulated by reflection.  Essence is Being which is starting to mediate about itself through the self-related abstract image of itself.

   Hegel speaks of this stage as ‘Being coming into mediation with itself’, through the negation of itself (Semblance – Essence) – ‘other’ to which Being is now opposed in its own reflected self. Instead of Being and nought, we now have the terms Positive and Negative. The former as Identity and the latter showing itself as Difference.

   These can be described as a pair of correlative terms in reciprocal relationship as opposites, moving from Essence of the lower to Essence of the Higher. The difference between them is implicitly the ‘essential difference’ between positive and negative. The positive is identical self-relation in such a way as not to be the negative.  Their difference lies in their opposition to one another.

   Although a definite tendency such  as either Positive or Negative may in a complex situation be altered by contact with other tendencies, it still has truth, despite these modifying influences. Positive and negative is stamped, as it were, with a characteristic of its own, only in relation to its other; the one is only reflected into itself as it is into its own other. In this relation they are explicitly the same. Either one can annul the other and itself.

   As a difference, essential difference is only the difference of essential difference from itself. As Trotsky explained in In Defence of Marxism, (Page 65, New Park edition);

   ‘Every worker knows that it is impossible to make two completely equal objects. In the elaboration of bearing brass into cone bearings, a certain deviation is allowed for the cones which should not, however, go beyond certain limits, (this is called tolerance). By observing the norms of tolerance, the cones are considered as being equal. (“A” is equal to “A”). When the tolerance is exceeded the quantity goes over into quality; in other words, the cone bearings become inferior or completely worthless.

     ‘Our scientific thinking is only a part of our general practice including techniques. For concepts there also “tolerance” which is established not from formal logic issuing from the axiom “A” is equal to “A” but by the dialectical logic issuing from the axiom that everything is always changing.’

The ‘Cell’ in Dialectical Thought.

   The positive produces its own negative which polarises into a further negative for a new positive. These constitute the twin correlative terms in transition into essence of the higher order. The identity of the positive with its negative in unity with difference as negative of the new positive is revealed a ground

   The transition of difference into contradiction is through the incorporation of the movement of the twin correlative opposites as the source of the contradiction.

   The build-up of these contradictory properties within essence of the higher order creates the conditions for essence itself to be formed in the concept of appearance. The positive and negative correlative terms now emerge as form (whole) and content (part). The abstract unity and identity of opposite correlative terms appear now as the whole within the part, and completes the dialectical ‘cell’ in thought. It is this process to which Lenin refers when he explains that:

   ‘Dialectics is the teaching which shows how opposites can be and how they happen to be (how they become) identical – under what conditions they are identical, becoming transformed into one another.’ (Page 109. Vol. 38, Lenin’s Collected Works)

   The dialectical cell in thought appears in this abstract unity and identity of opposites as the property of ‘all human knowledge in general’.

The Commodity as a Cell

   Dialectical concepts reflect the movement of matter in the objective world. If we retrace this development in relation to commodity production then we shall be able to appreciate the Hegelian influence in Marx’s Capital.

   ‘Human concepts are subjective’, stressed Lenin, quoting Hegel, ‘in their abstractness, separateness, but objective as a whole, in the process, in the sum total, in the tendency, in the source.’ (Op. Cit. page 208)

   The bourgeois economist David Recardo established that living human labour was the only source of value.  This, at the time, represented a considerable advance towards objective truth in the sphere of political economy. His difficulty arose when it came to explaining the contradiction presented by the need to show the origins of profit. Value had become the manifestation of profit and this in turn was the source of the contradiction for Recardo, which he tried to resolve in thought. In reality profit was part of the newly-created value, and only new labour could create new value. Ricardo tried to make value and profit appear without contradiction.

   Marx explained that ‘that was simply an attempt to present that which does not exist as in fact existing.’ (Theories of Surplus Value). That is subordinating and immediately adapting the concrete to the abstract. It seemed to Ricardo that id thought contradicts the facts then the thought should be altered so as to bring it into line with the general appearance of thought, which was immediately given on the surface – a method which is theoretically false. Marx showed that these were necessary contradictions in the object itself, not inexactitudes of determinations.

   He showed that surplus value is ‘exclusively the product of that part of capital which is expended on wages and converted into living labour, that is called variable capital.

   The contradictions which Ricardo laboured under were not logical ones, (thought interpreting thought), but real contradictions within the object itself. The essence is value but the inner contents of this value is the direct coincidence of two forms that are polar opposites, namely value and use value.

   The emergence of the commodity ‘cell’ as in dialectical thought concepts, has its original source in the external world of Nature. Living perception has to be understood here as the work of human beings. From the sensations created through such work, the objective abstract image is replaced by abstract value, embodied in, say for example, cloth.

   The positive is work and the negative is the abstract work contained in the cloth. The abstract work is the negative of the positive which polarises into the negative of the new positive called use-value. Here is the source of the polar opposites, value and use-value. In the transition from essences of the lower, (value), into essence of the higher, (use value), the path of cognition reflects the actual real movement of the process of production. Essence of the lower presents us with the thing-in-itself as value, which in turn becomes a ‘thing-for-itself’ as use value, its opposite, when it emerges in appearance as exchange value.

   These relations which appear in phenomena as relations between things are, on the contrary, relations between human beings – relations between classes through the class struggle. The new labour needed to transform the cloth into say a jacket or a skirt as a use-value, changes value as a form, which appears as cloth, into exchange-value, as the form in which value appears in a jacket or skirt. Use-value appears in its equivalent value form which is money.

   The pair of correlative concepts as opposites, viz. value and use-value, are now embodied as a unity of opposites within exchange value. Exchange value, which is the unity of value and use-value, has now become appearance as part which then finds its identity in the external world through the universal equivalent money as the whole within the part.

   This is the ‘cell’ of the commodity. The abstract opposites are use-value and exchange value, whose unity and identity as opposites is embodied in the real world in the form of a commodity  which in simple terms is anything of use for sale.

   Through money as the equivalent of value the contradiction appears to be overcome, but is transferred to the class struggle.