'Quality' -- Conspicuous By Its Absence


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As is the case with all my work, nothing here should be read as an attack either on Historical Materialism [HM] -- a scientific theory I fully accept --, or, indeed, on revolutionary socialism. I remain as committed to the self-emancipation of the working class and the dictatorship of the proletariat as I was when I first became a revolutionary nearly thirty years ago.


The difference between Dialectical Materialism [DM] and HM, as I see it, is explained here.




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This is the (slightly edited) text of a letter a supporter of this site sent to the editors of Socialist Review. They chose not to publish it.




John Rees (in Socialist Review, November 2008) is to be congratulated for failing to mention the many fatal objections there are to dialectical materialism. Space allows me to consider just two.


In line with others who accept this theory, John simply helped himself to the word "contradiction", and yet he failed to say why the things he called "contradictions" merited the use of that word. For example:


Quite simply, there is a contradiction between the drive to accumulate and the blind competitive nature of the market. Both are indispensable to capitalism, but they cannot coexist in a stable form.


But, if there were a contradiction here, it would be something like this: "In capitalism, there is a drive to accumulate and there isn't"; or perhaps, "Capitalism is governed by a blind competitive market and it isn't."


Of course, John may be using this word in a new, and as-yet-unexplained sense. If so, what is it?


In fact, we needn't allow that question to detain us for too long, for, as John knows only too well, his use of "contradiction" was borrowed from Hegel, who in turn 'obtained' it from his unwise attempt to state the so-called 'Law of Identity' [LOI] negatively. From A = A he 'derived' what he thought was also the 'Law of non-contradiction' [LOC]: "A cannot be A and at the same time not A" -- which isn't even, of course, a contradiction! [Why it isn't is explained here, and here.]


But, even if it were, the LOI concerns the alleged identity of an object with itself, whereas the LOC concerns the logical connection between a proposition and its negation. The LOC isn't about objects (let alone their identity), and the LOI isn't about propositions. Indeed, if a proposition were an object, it couldn't say anything, and if it wasn't self-identical, it wouldn't be a proposition to begin with. [Follow the about links for an explanation.]


So, it was from this very basic error that Hegel's claim that everything is 'contradictory' was 'derived', not from a scientific analysis of reality. That, and tradition, are the only reasons comrades like John use this word today. This isn't to deny that capitalism is unstable; it is to deny that we can learn anything at all about that regressive system from a Christian Mystic -- upside down or even 'the right way up'.


The second serious problem concerns Engels's first 'law', the "transformation of quantity into quality". John illustrates this 'law' with the hackneyed example of water suddenly turning into steam at 100oC:


Indeed this is a feature of many different sorts of change, even in the natural world. Water that rises in temperature by one degree at a time shows no dramatic change until it reaches boiling point when it "suddenly" becomes steam. At that point its whole nature is transformed from being a liquid into a vapour.


But, there are many changes in "quality" in nature and society that aren't sudden. For example, metals melt from solid to liquid slowly, so does glass, rock, plastic, toffee, resin, butter and chocolate. John neglected to mention this -- perhaps since they refute his claims.


Some might appeal to the exact melting points of solids as clear examples of dialectical "leaps"; however, this is what we read about the so-called "amorphous solids" (such as glasses, gels, and plastics):


Amorphous solids do not have a sharp melting point; they are softened in a range of temperature. [Quoted from here. Bold emphasis added.]


Amorphous solids tend to soften slowly over a wide temperature range rather than having a well-defined melting point like a crystalline solid. [Quoted from here. Bold emphasis added.]




Almost any substance can solidify in amorphous form if the liquid phase is cooled rapidly enough.... [Ibid.]


This must mean that "almost any substance" will lack a melting point if it has been cooled in the above way. In turn, it implies there are countless non-'nodal' (non-"leap"-like) changes in nature.


[Notice: I am not arguing that there are no sudden changes, only that not everything behaves this way.]


Now, we could only use this 'law' to explain social change if it had no exceptions -- otherwise it can't be a law, but a merely convenient metaphor we use subjectively whenever it suits us, but which we ignore when it doesn’t.


And even the example John considers only works because he has left the word "quality" undefined. This is no mere quibble; the way that Hegel 'defined' this term in fact means that John's example fails to be an illustration of this 'law':


Quality is, in the first place, the character identical with being: so identical that a thing ceases to be what it is, if it loses its quality. Quantity, on the contrary, is the character external to being, and does not affect the being at all. Thus, e.g. a house remains what it is, whether it be greater or smaller; and red remains red, whether it be brighter or darker. [Hegel, Shorter Logic, p.124, §85.]1


[This is an Aristotelian definition of "quality".]


But, water as ice, liquid or steam is still H20; no new "quality" (in Aristotle’s or Hegel's sense) has emerged. Boiling or freezing water doesn't make it "cease to be what it is". Indeed, when heated beyond its melting point, iron remains iron, even as a liquid. The same goes for all the other elements. Liquid nitrogen is no less nitrogen than its gaseous or solid forms are. Sulphur is still Sulphur as a liquid and as a solid. Nothing substantially new has arisen.


Furthermore, countless substances exist in solid, liquid, or gaseous states, so this can't be what makes each of them "what it is and not something else". What makes lead, for instance, lead is its atomic structure, and that remains the same whether or not it exists in solid or liquid form. As such, it remains "the same kind of thing."


John also ignores the countless "qualitative" changes in nature and society that fail to conform to this 'law'. Many of these are detailed at a site I and several others help maintain (link at the end); more specifically, here.


Now, these are just two of the many serious flaws that undermine this theory. Small wonder then that it has presided over 150 years of the almost total failure of Dialectical Marxism.


Indeed, it's high time we allowed practice to deliver its clear verdict: dialectics has been comprehensively refuted by history.


More details can be found at the site I help run:




In solidarity,




[Name and address supplied.]


Added in 2011: Some might conclude that the above is just pedantic nit-picking, but that isn't so. [On 'pedantry', see here.] There are important political reasons for rejecting the use of "contradiction" in the way it has been employed by the vast majority of Dialectical Marxists. [On that, see Essay Nine Part Two.]




(1) It allows them to argue for anything they find expedient and its opposite (often this is done by the same individual, and in the same book, article or even speech!), no matter how anti-Marxist this 'anything' might be, or how counter-revolutionary it proves to be -- 'justified' on the grounds that everything is 'contradictory', and a 'unity of opposites', so Marxist theory and practice should be contradictory, too!


(2) This theory is used to rationalise a whole range of substitutionist tactics and strategies (on the grounds that, although Marx insisted on the self-emancipation of the working class, we can substitute for them (i) The Party, (ii) The Red Army, (iii) 'Third World' guerrillas, (iv) 'Progressive' nationalists, (v) Students,  or any number of other social forces/groups); any who object simply do not 'understand' dialectics or the 'contradictory' nature of Marxism or the former USSR, etc.


(3) It 'allows' dialecticians to survey the long-term decline of Dialectical Marxism and fail to see it for what it is -- a protracted and profound refutation of their core theory, 'Materialist Dialectics' --, simply because this theory tells them appearances 'contradict' underlying reality. So, if Dialectical Marxism looks hopelessly unsuccessful, the opposite is in fact the case. This then 'allows' dialecticians to stick their heads back in the sand, while their movement runs into those very same sands.




(4) Because of point (3), it provides dialecticians with a ready source of consolation for the ineffectiveness of their entire movement, it's perennial divisiveness and its ever present sectarian and internecine warfare -- "Well what else can one expect in a contradictory universe?"


So, this isn't pedantic point-scoring; it has very real political consequences.


[Note the use of the word "Dialectical" prefixing "Marxism". The above isn't claiming that Marxism has failed; the non-dialectical version has been road tested yet.]




1. The Glossary at the Marxist Internet Archive makes this sense of "quality" even clearer:


Quality is an aspect of something by which it is what it is and not something else and reflects that which is stable amidst variation. Quantity is an aspect of something which may change (become more or less) without the thing thereby becoming something else.


Thus, if something changes to an extent that it is no longer the same kind of thing, this is a 'qualitative change', whereas a change in something by which it still the same thing, though more or less, bigger or smaller, is a 'quantitative change'.


In Hegel's Logic, Quality is the first division of Being, when the world is just one thing after another, so to speak, while Quantity is the second division, where perception has progressed to the point of recognising what is stable within the ups and downs of things. The third and final stage, Measure, the unity of quality and quantity, denotes the knowledge of just when quantitative change becomes qualitative change. [Quoted from here. Links in the original.]



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