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The Relativity of Qualities and the Universal Connection of Things

Prepared by the Leningrad Institute of Philosophy under the Direction of
M. Shirokov 1941

Quality is the inalienable and specific mark of a thing or an event. It is inalienable because without it the thing ceases to exist as that given thing. It is specific because it distinguishes that thing from other things.

The question arises, wherein lies this uniqueness, how can we give a definition of a given quality.

Molière, with good reason, ridiculed the mediaeval savants. Their explanation of “soporific action” as due to “soporific force,” and of soporific force as due to “soporificness” are indeed extremely vapid and laughable. But in what lies the root of this error of the mediaeval scholars? It lies in their determination to find a definition of an isolated quality apart from all relations. Try to define any quality without alluding to some other or implying, to however small a degree, its relation with something else, and inevitably you will find that you have fallen into the plight of Molière’s “sage.”

The quality of a thing can only be understood by distinguishing it from other qualities. Thus in the very category of quality there is implied a relationship with something else, a distinction from it. It is impossible to define a thing without indicating its differences, impossible to say what a given quality resembles without indicating, however faintly, that which it does not resemble.

A lake is characterized by a certain quality, dry land has another quality. But we include in our definition of a lake the fact that it is surrounded on all sides by dry land.

If a man utters his views on any question he cannot express what he is asserting without indicating that with which he disagrees, that which he denies.

In every definition of the quality of a thing affirmation and negation are indissolubly connected. One of the greatest materialists, Spinoza, expressed this thought in the following aphorism: “Every definition is a negation.” All the knowledge of one quality is indissolubly connected with its limitation by other qualities, by that which the given quality does not resemble – its negation. Hegel, Marx and Lenin, all stressed the correctness of this idea.

And so a definition must include in itself an indication of the discriminating relations of the given quality to another. Yet this is by no means so easy as may seem at the first glance. It so happens there exists in the world an endless number of things from which the given thing differs. And are we really expected to enumerate all these differences? Clearly they cannot all be of the same importance for the definition of the given thing, and their simple enumeration would do nothing except confuse.

What is the way to disclose the qualitative uniqueness of objective processes or things in a really complete and adequate manner?

Lenin pointed out the first steps towards this. He suggested that we should proceed from any very simple pronouncement: A terrier is a dog. Capitalism is a social formation. A planet is an element of the solar system. The proletariat is a class of capitalist society. An individual thing is a general thing – that is how we must begin. Each quality by its own peculiarity, in its uniqueness, is a part of something general and therefore contains something of the general in itself.

The terrier even in its individual peculiarities expresses the general features of a dog in general. A planet even in its particular movements expresses the general connection of the solar system. Capitalism in its own specific form expresses the general laws of society’s development, the contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production.

Thus the unity of the general and individual is not external, they mutually penetrate each other. We see this unity of opposites in the individual thing itself –“the individual is the universal. That is to say opposites are identical.” “Every individual thing is in some way or other a universal.”

And at the same time the individual thing as a part, as an individual aspect of a whole, expresses that whole not fully but one-sidedly. In this lies the internal contradiction of every individual thing. Capitalism, by expressing the general law of every means of production in its peculiar way, aids the development of productive forces, but at the same time there lies within its qualitative peculiarity its limitation: at a determined stage of development the preservation of property in the means of production becomes an obstacle to the development of productive forces. Capitalism played a definite historical role in the development of society. But if we are to understand this historical role we must relate it to the whole and find its connection with the whole line of social development. That is why Marx in expounding the theory of the capitalist means of production proceeds, after his chapter on the conversion of money into capital, to treat the question of labour and production from a universal point of view.

A planet in its movement expresses the connection of the whole solar system, but its movement is only one aspect, which outside the whole is impossible.

But the universal itself exists through the particular. Every particular is incomplete and one-sided. However, the incompleteness of one aspect is supplemented by another incompleteness, by another one-sidedness. Although they are mutually opposed yet at the same time they presuppose each other, amplify each other and are the inseparable poles of a single whole.

And so in virtue of their contradictory nature, their internal incompleteness, particular qualities cannot exist in isolation, they presuppose other opposite qualitative peculiarities and exist only in union with them. A planet exists as a planet only because there is a sun round which it revolves. Beasts of prey exist only in company with herbivorous animals. Animals as a whole can exist only because plant-life exists, whose green leaves under the influence of sun-light turn inorganic substances into organic. And in return animals exhale carbonic acid gas, which is required for the synthesis of organic substances,’ and so give food to plant life.

The capitalist appears as capitalist only because capitalism produces not only capitalists but also proletarians – people who have nothing to sell except their power to labour. And conversely the working class, as a class of the oppressed and exploited, exists only because exploiter-capitalists confront it. Water is ceaselessly evaporating and being condensed; this maintains the flow of rivers.

A particular entity (an object, a phenomenon, etc.) is (only) one aspect of idea (truth). For truth there are needed still other aspects: of actuality, which also seem to be independent and particular (existing peculiarly for themselves). Only in their aggregation and in their relationship is truth realized.

Thus wrote Lenin in his materialist working-over of Hegel’s dialectic (whence, among other things, his use of the word “idea”).

A particular entity, a thing, which is characterized by a definite quality, only seems to be quite independent. On this “seeming” are based all the metaphysical systems. Dialectic exposes this “seemingness,” discloses the deep connection of particular things and demonstrates the relativity and mutual penetration of different qualities.

But are we not arriving at that same absolute relativism which we exposed and rejected in the metaphysic of mechanism? By no means! “Dialectic” – as Lenin constantly explained – “contains a moment of relativism, of negation, of scepticism, but does not amount to relativism.” The mechanists reduce properties to relations – and external relations at that. For them there is no objective basis of relations and therefore the qualitative definiteness of things is submerged in universal relativity, in the complete indefiniteness and instability of particular phenomena. The sole issue of such a position is idealism, which enables them to introduce definiteness into the world through the agency of the subject and its “point of view.” Dialectical materialism is free from these difficulties. Dialectic proceeds from the internal definiteness of a thing as the basis of its relation to another. For dialectic the relation of qualities to each other is not an external fortuitous relation, it issues from their inner nature and is the expression of an objectively existing whole which embraces both related qualities.

The second quality to which the quality of the given thing is related is not that to which the given thing is indifferent according to its inner nature, it is not an external “other” independent of it, but its own opposite, its other.

For animals, which all directly or indirectly feed on plant-life, the existence of plant-life is by no means a matter of indifference. Planets presuppose the sun; capitalists – the proletariat.

The mutual definition and mutual exclusion of qualitatively different things and phenomena play their part not only with things that exist contemporaneously, but also when one exists after the other and when the presence of one excludes the presence of the other. Socialism is created out of the internally necessary wreck of capitalism. Both systems exclude each other and only in a state of severe conflict can they co-exist at the same time. But in this development they are mutually connected – capitalism prepares the revolutionary transition to socialism, the emergence of a socialist society under the pressure of internal necessity is the result of the irreconcilable contradictions of the capitalist system. The irreconcilable hatred of capitalists towards the Soviet Union, similar to our irreconcilable hatred of bourgeois society, gives clear enough evidence that these systems are not absolutely external, not “indifferent” to each other. Socialism is the opposite of capitalism and in this sense we can say that socialism is the “other” of the capitalist system. Capitalism is related to socialism, as to its own opposite, as to the social formation necessary for its replacement. Socialism is related to capitalism as to the foregoing stage of social development. We shall understand nothing in capitalism or in socialism if we do not keep in view their mutual relations – the relations of irreconcilable conflict in which is expressed their historic succession and connection.

And so from different sides we have sought to show that the relations of things flow out of their inner nature. There are no isolated qualities of things. Every quality in its existence and development presupposes a number of others.

This idea was turned by metaphysicians into an absolute and thus into a source of errors, opening the door to the crudest superstitions.

The German philosopher, Leibnitz, in his philosophical enquiries stumbled on the problem of the mutual connection of qualities. In essence he was the first in the history of philosophy who stated this problem in precise terms. Leibnitz was strongly influenced by the mechanistic viewpoint, and at the same time sought to overcome its limitations on the basis of a widely extended system of objective idealism.

The mechanistic theory of the relativity of properties was understood by him more deeply than by anyone else, and he developed it to its extreme limits. Every thing, every unit of the world (or as he said – “monad”) in all its content is nothing other than a reflection of all other things. All things, all properties exist only in relations. All the characteristics of each thing are the result of its relations with all other things: All things, all conceptions, possess only reflective, relative attributes.

But if each monad is only a reflection of all other monads then whence comes that which is reflected? The view-point of “reflective definitions” if turned into an absolute, leads to the assertion that everything in the world is a reflection without the existence of anything to be reflected, a relation without that which is related. One of the historians of philosophy characterized this view in the following way: in a room there is nothing except a multitude of mirrors which entirely cover walls, floor and ceiling; all the mirrors reflect each other, but it is perfectly clear that no definite image will be reflected in any of them. A world in which there is nothing except purely reflective relationships is as empty and as without content as those mirrors.

To avoid the emptiness of absolute relativity, Leibnitz distinguished between those qualities in his monads which were shared in common and those which constituted their uniqueness, for they differ infinitely from one another and no two can be exactly alike. Leibnitz was so anxious to preserve the integrity of these individuals (or monads) that he refused to admit that they could affect one another. Nevertheless, each behaved as though it were part of a whole and helped to constitute that whole. The only way in which to explain such a combination is by the hypothesis that they have all been created by an exact mechanician. Every monad is, as it were, a separate time-piece, and all of them though sounding different notes strike always at one and the same time and in harmony. The concordance of things among themselves is a previously established concordance, is “a pre-established harmony.” Only thus is it possible for each separate monad in itself, in its qualitative particularity, to be a reflection of the world of all monads as a whole. All is in concordance, all has been foreseen in the best possible way. All is for the best in this best of possible worlds.*

* By “best possible” Leibnitz did not mean “best conceivable,” but the best that you can have under what he supposed to be the necessary conditions of human life and human freedom, or the necessary conditions of his own social order.

Leibnitz lived in that “happy” era when merchant capital had entered into partnership with the land-owning class, in the “happy” century of absolute monarchy. In this epoch the capitalist and landowner had made the great discovery that feudal extortion and business trickery harmonized splendidly with each other in the system of primary capitalist accumulation, and that the material and mental culture of the nobility could find itself at one with the still undeveloped culture of capitalism. Leibnitz was the spokesman of this “happy” century, and to him through the rosy spectacles of stabilized absolute monarchy, the whole world seemed to have been made specially to enable brilliant princesses, very rich bourgeois and royal academicians to flourish and enjoy themselves.

But one can plainly see that in the actual connection of qualities there is no “pre-established harmony.”

In spite of Leibnitz’s metaphysic there are no eternal qualities; qualitatively unique things are only transitory forms of unitary evolving matter. And if this is so, if qualities come and go in the unitary process of the development of the material world, then what is there wonderful in the fact that they are internally connected among themselves? And there is no need of any “pre-established harmony” to explain their internal connection within the unity of the solar system. They “only seem to be independent and separate and to be existing privately for themselves” (Lenin) whereas in actuality they exist as the result of the division of unity, each as the opposite of another.

In the same way after Darwin, we do not wonder at the internally necessary relations of the organic world. As Darwin pointed out the specialization of organisms in different directions, the emergence of qualitative differences between them, was one of the necessary conditions of their survival. In the process also of evolution the “division of unity” led to the emergence of independent species which are internally connected with each other and each of which in relation to another, is, in fact, its other.

The differentiation of an undeveloped whole, the emergence of differences between qualities by means of the division of unity proceed also in social development. The emergence of classes, the polarization which takes place in the conversion of a simple merchant economy into capitalist economy (for example the differentiation of the peasantry), the oppositeness of separate social usages – in all these examples we see always that same “immanent emergence of differences – the internal objective logic of evolution and the struggle of the differences of polarity.” (Lenin.)

And so in the relativity of qualities there is nothing pre-established, there is nothing ready-made, no previously given concordance. The relativity of qualities is the product of never ceasing material development.

However, the connection of things is not only foreign to the idea of “anything pre-established” but also quite remote from “harmony.” The relativity of qualities is not a product of a peaceful reconciliation of extremes, it arises in a harsh conflict of contradictions, it exists only in a process of eternal emergence and annihilation. It arises out of discordance, out of conflict, and having arisen is turned into its own opposite, into a source of new contradictions and of new splitting. “Reason becomes unreason, a boon is turned into a misfortune.” (Goethe.)

A concordance is never wholly realized, it always exists merely as one of contradictory tendencies.

Only men isolated in their studies from all contact with the real world can dream of world harmony, “because just as this can never be in the development of nature, so too it can never be in the development of society. For only by means of a number of attempts (each one of which taken separately will be one-sided and will suffer from a certain discordance) is an ultimately victorious socialism made possible out of the revolutionary co-operation of proletarians of all countries.” (Lenin).

Absolute concordance “cannot obtain in the development of society, just as it cannot obtain in the development of nature.” Biologists who think dialectically, know quite well how important it is to estimate not only the concordance, the agreement of an organism with its environment, but also its disagreement. In the simultaneous and contradictory emergence of concordance and discordance the development of the organic world is accomplished.

And so different qualities are internally connected with each other, yet their relativity is ever changing and profoundly contradictory. In actual development, which is denied by the upholders of “pre-established harmony,” concordance and discordance are interwoven and there is no stable harmony in the relations of separate things.

The world does not consist of ready-made finished objects” (Engels), matter is in ceaseless development. And so not only are separate objects changeable and transitory, but with their changes there is indissolubly connected the change of their mutual relations. Not only do particular animals emerge and vanish, but also whole species of animals. The whole world of animals and plants arose during a definite period and has found the limit of its biological development in the formation of human society. In society the change of social structures proceeds through the change of people and their relations.

The internal contradictions of development penetrate both the general and the particular. The recasting of particular things, in the process of establishing new connections, in the process of setting up a new “general” class, is at the same time a process of destroying the old “general” class. A collective-farm worker is still a peasant, but at the same time he already appears as a member of an enterprise of a socialist type. The connections of the old are not yet all severed and already the decisive relations of the new type have been forged. Through the spreading of the new socialist relations in the country-side proceeds the breaking of the old private property connections and with it the remaking of the peasant into a worker of socialist society. The mutually relative qualities of the petty-bourgeoisie are being replaced by the new qualities of socialist workers. And until this process is consummated, the peasant-collective-farm-worker will be conscious of deep internal contradictions in his position in society. In its turn the consummation of the construction of socialism will set going new problems, open up new perspectives, will require the creation of new relations and through the development of these will remake mankind.

The unity of the general and the particular is relative; their contradiction is absolute, just as movement and development are absolute. That is why always and in everything “every generality only approximately embraces all particular objects.” Always and in everything the eternal development of matter and the eternal succession of its general stages of development proceed through the deep contradictions of every particular thing.
Every concrete thing, every concrete something, stands in different and often contradictory relations to everything else, therefore it exists as itself and as something else” (Lenin).
Bourgeois thought, in the majority of cases, is unable to understand these contradictions and bourgeois scientists, to keep on the right side of bourgeois ideology, make use of two formal metaphysical devices. They either acknowledge a purely stagnant universal, in harmony with itself, into which particular things have to be forced; or they declare that general ideas are a fiction of the mind. Quite frequently they produce an alternative subjective-idealist argument against the Marxian dialectic. They point out that the general law of value never appears in its pure aspect in relation to the particular commodities on the market, and this allows bourgeois economists and revisionist theoreticians to declare that the law of value is a subjective fiction. Engels in a letter to Conrad Schmidt explained the actual dialectic of the general law and its partial manifestation.

He asked Conrad Schmidt:
Did feudalism always correspond to its idea? – The answer is ‘No.’ Must we then conclude that feudalism was a fiction, that it reached full perfection only in Palestine for a short time and even so (for the most part) on paper? Or are the basic ideas in the natural sciences also fictions because they by no means always coincide with actuality? Even after we had accepted the theory of evolution our ideas on organic life only approximately agreed with actuality. For otherwise there would be no evolution. The idea of ‘fish’ for example includes life in water and breathing by gills. How will you progress from a fish to a land animal unless you overcome this idea? And it was overcome, for we know of fishes whose air bladder developed further into lungs and permits them to breathe air. How can we progress from the reptile that lays an egg to the mammal that brings forth its offspring alive unless we bring one of these two ideas to a clash with actuality? Indeed, in the monotremata we have a sub-class of mammals that lay eggs, the duck-billed platypus. In the year 1843 I saw a duck-bill’s egg in Manchester and in my conceited ignorance made fun of the stupid notion that a mammal could lay an egg; now we know it is a fact.” Engels Correspondence, published 1923.
In its development the world is infinitely varied. Old connections are interwoven with new and not merely in the process of emergence of the new, for even after the new type of relation has been more or less established, the old continues very often to exist along with the new, as another species.

The emergence of animals and plants by no means abolished inorganic nature from which the life of organisms sprang. On the contrary the very existence of animals and plants presupposes a definite inorganic environment – hills and plains, rivers and seas, a particular kind of soil, an atmosphere, etc. In just the same way human society needs a definite geographical environment.

Every universal is also only part of a system of wider connections and is in a state of internally necessary relations with other universals. Thus all the relations of things constitute an extraordinarily complex and variegated network. Lenin in the fragment “On Dialectic,” often emphasizes this complexity: “Every particular is by thousands of transitions connected with particulars of another species (things, phenomena, processes), etc.”

Thus Lenin notes two types of relations between things; the relation within a given universal and the relation to things of another species.

The capitalist exploits the workers. This relation flows out of the internal nature of the capitalist as a social phenomenon, and is a relation not outside but within the social whole. This same capitalist may be ill from an infectious disease. His relation to the bacteria which caused the disease also cannot be regarded as a purely external phenomenon. The biological characteristics of man, although they are changed in social life, nevertheless create the internal basis for infectious disease. But if we compare these two relations we shall see that one of them is relatively external in comparison with the other. The connection of a millionaire with his workmen is an organic and direct connection; the connection of the millionaire with the germ of some disease which he might contract is (with the whole pernicious character of them both to mankind) very, very remote.

There are no things absolutely external to each other, but there exist things and events, “whose internal mutual connection is so remote or so difficult to define that we can forget it, can hold that it does not exist” (Engels).

And so in conflict with the mechanistic ascription of all connections to external relations we emphasized that the relations of things flow out of their internal nature. And at the same time, whatever the upholders of “pre-established harmony” may say we must not forget that the mutual relativity of qualities is infinitely various, deeply contradictory and by no means absolute.

The unitary development of matter is accomplished through particular things. Their relative independence and stability in development, their contradictions and conflict, which belong to them internally and are manifested in their external relations – all these destroy the idealistic legend of an absolutely attuned harmony of nature. Thus Engels noted that with the whole unity of development there always remains “a chaotic aggregation of the objects of nature in some or other determined field or even over the whole world.”

There are no absolutely external things, but also there is no absolute concordance of things. In vital development the relatively external and the relatively internal are interwoven, condition each other, and create a vital connection of everything with everything in the unitary flow of the development of matter. Lenin, formulating one of the elements of dialectic, wrote:

The relations of each thing (phenomenon, etc.) are not only many and varied, but also general, universal. All things (phenomena, processes, etc.) are connected with each other. In development there is realized the connection (of all parts) of an infinite process, the necessary connection of the whole world... the mutual determining connection of everything.”

In summing up this chapter we will recall one very essential Leninist instruction.

In order to disclose the quality of an object, to express its internal uniqueness, we must consider it in its all-round connection. But the different relations of a thing to others must be united in our knowledge and action, not arbitrarily, not externally, not haphazardly, but on the basis of that thing’s own development, its own self-movement. In the self-movement of an object “its connection with the surrounding world is changed.” When we disclose the line of this change, we reveal the actual quality of the object, we find the form of movement that belongs to it.

Lenin in the discussion on trade unions in 1921 greatly stressed the many-sidedness of the special nature of trade unions, the infinite number of relations which connected the trade unions with the other elements of proletarian dictatorship.

But in opposition to Bukharin and Trotsky, Lenin found the special functions of unions in that connection which will lead to the general, i.e. to the whole system of proletarian dictatorship, by disclosing the relativity of all the elements of that system.

To understand the trade-union question properly a whole series of questions must be faced: the tendencies in the field of trade unionism, the relation of classes, the relation of politics to economics, the special character of the state, of the party and of the trade unions themselves. In other words trade unions do not exist in isolation but only in relation with other organizations of the working class – with the party, the state, local state and economic organizations, the great mass of workers, etc. In these relations we see the many aspects of the role of trade unions – the defence of workers from bureaucratic perversions, the productive role in the sense of utilizing the unions for propaganda for increased production, the drawing of masses into the actual control of production, and the task of raising the political consciousness of the workers, etc.

But all this many-sidedness and relativity of the trade unions does not mean that what they really are is purely a question of the “point of view,” so that they can be just as truly regarded in several different ways. On the contrary, in spite of, indeed along with, the many-sidedness of the subject under consideration, there emerges one and only one solution. In all the different functions of trade unions, in the change of these functions at different stages, we see the appearance of one line of development – the movement towards communism, the line of a “coalition” with all the other organizations of the working class, the line of drawing the backward masses up to the level of the “immediate directing advance guard,” the line of promoting workers more and more to positions of authority. In this line of development, there is also disclosed the unitary, qualitatively unique definiteness of the trade unions – which is to be a school of communism.

And so as Lenin has shown us, dialectical logic demands a scrutiny of all the connections of the object in the unity of its development. There are no changes in isolated things. Removed from its connection the category of self-movement is insufficient for the determining of a thing, just as an abstract proposition on “general connection” removed from actual material development will lead only to metaphysics and absolute relativism.

It is necessary to unite, to connect, to combine the general principle of development with the general principle of the unity of the world, of nature, of movement, of matter, etc.” (Lenin).

Neither the mechanists nor the Menshevist idealists understood the unity of self-movement and general connection. For the mechanists all changes are to be attributed to the change of external relationships, and so in essence they deny development. The Menshevist idealists attribute all development to the internal self-movement of things, and thus obviate the general connection of processes. For them interference by an external influence is accidental and a hindrance to development. This tendency was for example manifested in their conception of biological development – all development was ascribed to the internal changes of the organism, independent of its surrounding environment Thus both the mechanists and the Menshevist idealists are at one in this – neither group understood that absolutely external connections do not exist, that development by internal necessity goes on through an external relation to something else, while those relations to something else themselves flow out of the internal nature of each thing.

Only this uniting of self-movement and general connection gives us the key to the unity of quality and property.
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