[Marxism] dialectical contradiction

Rakesh Bhandari bhandari at berkeley.edu
Fri Oct 2 20:27:44 MDT 2009

I had been confused by your footnote against the set theoretic concept 
of contradiction in Biology Under the Influence; what you say here makes 
the point well and compellingly. I am wondering whether you have read 
Andreas Wagner's Paradoxical Life; it seems that ideas that you stated 
in Dialectical Biologist are being rediscovered.

There is another sense of contradiction, recently articulated by Andrew 
Collier in his short and stimulating book on Marx: "two demands, both 
necessary for the successful working of the same system, but mutually 

I think here of Marx's analysis of the development of  contradictions of 
the falling profit rate, especially the famous paragraph that begins 
with capital being identified as the true barrier to itself.

What does Marx mean?

Here's a quick take, but I'd be happy to hear other interpretations.

The system requires the valorization of the extant capital and 
encourages ceaseless productivity growth which proves necessary to 
relieve the relentless upward pressure on the value composition of 
capital that growth of the technical composition of capital  engenders 
(especially on the assumption that unit values remain constant).

In other words, the system requires (and encourages or 'incentivizes') 
the cheapening of capital and wage goods but the system also requires 
that the extant capital be allowed to valorize itself. These are both 
structural tendencies, yet they may prove to be incompatible. And the 
system may collapse under the weight of the contradiction. The value 
destroyed by the new cheaper capital and wage goods may be so great as 
to undermine the profitable accumulation that those new commodities 
should make possible.

I am interested in how Marx understands contradiction in his theoretical 
work. This chapter is an important one to study as is Marx's analysis of 
the polar opposition between and mutual assumption of commodities and 

Yours, Rakesh

The following considerations might be helpful:
1. "contradiction", in its etymology "speaking against" was a process 
unfolding in time, negating a proposition in order to get beyond it.
2. Formal logic removes the temporal dynamic aspect to make it a formal, 
structural relation.
3. The formal logical statement "implies" is a static, set-theoretic 
relation but is a detemporalized equivalent to "leads to" (in time).
4. In real systems, variables change(except at equilibrium, a set of 
measure 0!). That is, A leads to not-A. If there is an eventual 
equilibrium, this is equivalent to proof by contradiction. In living 
systems, social systems, eco-systems etc there is permanent change ( A 
always leads to (implies!) not-A.These may be periodic or chaotic . The 
terror of early computer programmers was to get into an endless (and 
expensive) loop, which was equivalent to contradiction in the program.
In formal logic, you may not (but can) hold to contradictory 
propositions at the same time . In dialectical logic, two propositions 
may be separately false but jointly true; health is socially determined, 
and you are responsible for your health. Either one alone can result in 
passivity but jointly can result in self-care and collective action...
5. You can create formally disjunct mathematical sets, but with real 
things no division of a whole world into mutually exclusive categories 
really holds. Environmental/genetic, physical/psychological, 
biological/social, etc interpenetrate, and furthermore it is when we 
recognize their interpenetration that we get the exciting new insights.
All of these and other aspects of contradiction make it an important 
tool in science.

Richard Levins

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