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The Transition of Quantity into Quality

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

Things in their connection are many sided and the knowledge of determined processes is not limited to the disclosure of their quality. Above all, we note that every thing along with its qualitative definiteness possesses a quantitative definiteness. A thing is big or little, its movement quick or slow; one collection of things may be distinguished from another by the number of its elements, by their mutual arrangement; temperature may be high or low, and so on.

At the first glance the quantity and the quality of a thing are quite independent of each other. A thing may be increased or decreased and remain qualitatively the same. Things different in magnitude may have one and the same qualitative definiteness, and conversely – one and the same quantitative definiteness may belong to qualitatively different things.

Both the huge Putilov Works and our smallest factory are socialist enterprises, just as in Germany a small factory and the gigantic Krupp’s are both capitalist enterprises. We see that the socialist or capitalist quality of an enterprise does not depend on its magnitude. Here at any rate quality evidently does not depend on quantity.

So far then it would appear that quality and quantity are radically distinct from each other. If a thing changes its basic quality it ceases to be that which it was, it is turned into something else. Whereas with a change of quantity a thing does not cease to be itself. As Hegel said, quantity, unlike quality, is “indifferent” to the definiteness of the object. That is why in the early stages of scientific development the quantitative knowledge and the qualitative knowledge of things are markedly independent of each other.

Even at the most rudimentary stage of development social man came into contact with quantitative differences of things, even the most primitive practice forced him to count and to measure. The primitive savage, reckoning by means of pebbles and his fingers, was preparing the first beginnings of arithmetic. An important role in this respect was played by the emergence of private property and the development of exchange. The reckonings of the merchant were another step in the history of arithmetic; and the landowner in protecting his boundaries was revealing the beginnings of geometry. In ancient Egypt and Greece we see the first steps of mathematics as a science.

However, both among the Greeks and also among the Arabs, who developed mathematics even further, the study of mathematical relations was very loosely connected with the study of particular things and specific properties. The application of mathematics was confined to the comparatively narrow field of commercial accounts, to land measurement and astronomy. While to the alchemists, when it was their turn to investigate the properties of things, quantitative definiteness appeared a quite non-essential aspect of the matter.

They were interested in what substances and forces made up a given thing, and never set the question as to what quantities of substances were united together. And we must point out that in their way they were right – to apply an accurate quantitative measure to undefined and diffuse properties and forces was quite impossible. The study of the quantitative aspect of things was impracticable without a definite level of attainment in the knowledge of their qualities.

The more exactly and accurately we grasp qualitative distinctions, the more are we empowered to discover definite quantitative relationships. The more deeply we reveal the definiteness in which lies the relative stability and independence of a thing, the more exactly can we measure it.

Only when chemistry progressed from undefined forces and propensities to the identifying of actual chemical elements – oxygen, hydrogen, etc. – only when chemical changes were understood as the necessary mutual actions of relatively stable substances, only then was it possible to put the question – “what quantity of each substance enters into the composition of this or that body?”

The discovery of quantitative differences was very fruitful for science. The knowledge of chemical combinations was enriched by a new and extraordinarily important aspect. Our knowledge became more comprehensive and exact. The possibility of a new approach to the object permitted the solution of a large number of hitherto insoluble questions. For example, with a merely qualitative investigation of chemical changes it was not clear in all cases whether we were dealing with dissolution or combination, with a simpler or a more complex substance. Thus for a long time chemists regarded iron-rust as a simple element, and iron as a combination of iron-rust with phlogiston. The real relation of iron-rust and iron was discovered only with the help of weights, by the application of quantitative measurement to the processes under study. Iron-rust was shown to be heavier than the iron out of which it was formed – and hence iron-rust was shown to be a combination of iron and oxygen. And thus by the combination of qualitative and quantitative analysis, a huge number of simple chemical substances was very quickly revealed.

We see the same relation of quantitative and qualitative investigation in the history of every science. Only at a definite stage of the knowledge of quality does a quantitative study of concrete things become possible.

Only after the qualities of capitalism and of small-scale production, etc., were established, did it appear possible to define the degree of the development of capitalism in this or that country, by taking into account the quantity of goods produced in its factories, the magnitude of the concentration and centralization of capital, the specific gravity of the small property still unabolished in the particular country by capitalist development. According to the degree of the selection of relatively stable qualities froth the variegated network of social interactions, was the application of statistics, was the enumeration of social phenomena made wider and more fruitful.

The whole history of social practice shows that only at a certain stage of development does knowledge of quantitative definiteness begin to play an essential role in man’s recasting of things. Simple activity in relation to particular aspects of things gives no basis for an accurate quantitative evaluation of the changes being produced. As we know particular properties are in themselves unstable and relative. By considering them we can, in any given case, expect only an approximate, only a more or less probable, result. And only in a radical, all-sided recasting of things do we obtain the key to their stability and to their changes and are we able accurately to define the limits of the processes which we are evoking. Mastering the quality of the object in its entirety gives us the basis for reckoning the quantitative connection between our actions and the results which we obtain.

In the economy of small-scale production and with but a narrow circle of social connections, the reckoning of quantitative definiteness plays but a small part. The peasant and the small craftsmen work “by the eye” without exact measurements. The development of machine production requires a closer determination of quality and necessitates accurate measurement and the application of mathematics, both in science and production. A modern engineer can do very little without the aid of complex mathematical calculations. To construct a machine it is not enough to master its general qualitative characteristic, we must know how to produce an exact quantitative reckoning of all its details.

A peasant wishing to know the properties of a soil is satisfied by a scrutiny of it, an examination by touch, whereas an expert subjects it to a chemical analysis and finds out not only what are the ingredients of this soil, but also what quantities of them enter into its composition. Chemistry has distinguished in the composition of the soil a number of more or less stable elements, and therefore it is evidently possible to establish in each particular case their quantitative relations. In the restricted practice of a peasant it is impossible for qualitative study to be sufficiently highly developed to make possible an accurate quantitative estimate of soil composition; for this there are needed the dimensions of large-scale scientifically organized production.

In a planned socialist economy an accurate quantitative accounting plays an incomparably greater role than under capitalism. The quantitative indices of capitalist production and of trade returns reveal naked facts before which capitalists are quite helpless, whereas for us these dry figures become an active stimulus and effective guide to action. In them are incarnated our fighting slogans, from them originates intense class conflict. The percentage of the accomplishment of the Five Year Plan, the quantity of hectares under crops, the indices of the productivity of labour, etc. – in these figures we measure our successes and express the extent of the problems lying before us. The more widely and deeply socialist planning controls production, and the more we master the particular improvement of each branch of our economy, the greater will be the role that exact quantitative indices will play.

And so at a determined stage of the development of science and practice the gulf between quantitative and qualitative investigation is bridged, their closer connection is made apparent and they begin mutually to supplement each other. However, the transition to this new stage is not accomplished automatically, not of itself; before knowledge makes the transition to the study of the quantitative definiteness of things, it must go through much preparatory work.
For enumeration, not only are the objects of enumeration necessary, but also the ability to scrutinize these objects, to disregard all their properties except their number, and this ability is the product of long historical, empirical development.” Engels, Anti-Dühring.
We say: in such and such a factory there are so many workers. Each worker has his own characteristics – there are no two people absolutely identical. But when we express their common number we disregard their differences. Iron-rust, iron itself and oxygen are qualitatively different from each other. But when we speak of their quantitative relationships we disregard all their differences, we select only their common aspect which is expressed in their weight.

Thus for a quantitative knowledge of things we must, firstly, know their qualitative definiteness, since without this, comparison itself would be unthinkable; secondly, we must find that general thing in their qualitative definiteness which permits us to disregard their differences.

The metaphysic of properties gave no basis for quantitative investigation for the very reason that it was impossible to disclose general characteristics in propensities and forces that were sundered from each other.

As Hegel said, quantity is definiteness without difference. To obtain a quantitative characterization of things we must find “non-different” features in the things which we wish to compare, identical, common features that are not fortuitous or non-essential but are such as will allow us to determine by their means their quantitative relations and the qualities arising out of them.

The aspect of “non-difference,” of identity, in the basic quantitative comparison of chemical elements is their weight. The great French chemist, Lavoisier, who first began consciously to apply the quantitative approach to chemical phenomena, had first of all to prove the correctness of comparing elements and their compounds by weight, and he did this by his discovery of the law of the conservation of matter; in all chemical changes the weight of the elements taking part remains identical, “non different.” Lavoisier’s discovery depended on the great preparatory work of mechanistic natural research. Lavoisier lived in the epoch of the great French revolution and two centuries earlier mechanism had, at the beginning of the Renaissance, insisted, as against the mediaeval metaphysic of properties, on the need of picking out the general, the identical and, consequently, the measurable in all the processes of nature.

The positive historical problem of mechanism is this – to take the first steps to the disclosure of the simplest, quantitative relations between things themselves, to create a bridge between abstract mathematics and the study of concrete processes. The natural scientists of the seventeenth century picked out velocity, mass and volume as the most simple and general aspects of all physical phenomena, to which one could apply the quantitative approach. The conversion of these aspects into unique essential properties of nature led the scientists to a complete negation of qualitative distinctions in nature, to a purely quantitative view of the world. The creation of mechanics as a science was their great service, yet at the same time, the source of their mechanistic limitations. They showed the mechanistic relations in nature and declared there were no others.
Mechanics knows only quantity. It depends on velocities, masses and volume. Wherever it meets with quality – as for example in hydrostatics and aerostatics – it cannot reach satisfactory results, since it does not lend itself to the scrutiny of molecular states and molecular movement. Mechanics, therefore, is only an auxiliary science, a propaedeutic to physics." Engels, Second note of Anti-Dühring
On the basis of mechanics, science went on to the study of qualitatively unique physical-chemical processes in their quantitative definiteness. And here was revealed that the “indifference,” the “non-difference” of quantity to quality is by no means absolute – it has its limitation. The study of the different physical states of a substance, of the unique forms of energy – heat, electricity, etc., the formation of qualitatively different physical combinations – all these revealed the internal connection of quantitative and qualitative changes. At the beginning of the nineteenth century natural science laboured much to disclose this connection. Hegel gave to it, although in a distorted idealistic form, a general expression as one of the laws of development. Finally, in the materialistic dialectic of Marxism this law was revealed in all its precision as one of the basic laws of the objective world and of knowledge and revolutionary practice.

Let us proceed. Quantitative changes at a determined stage lead inevitably to changes of quality. Solid iron may be heated in greater or less degree and still remain a piece of iron. However, when the heat reaches a certain point it causes the iron to melt and enter into a qualitatively different state. Capitalist enterprises though they may be on a big or little scale yet have their higher and lower limits of magnitude. Complete capitalist planning as between all industries is too big a task for capitalism. From the other aspect a capitalist undertaking can by no means be as small as it likes.
Not every sum of money, or of value, is transformable into capital; before this transformation can be effected there must be a definite minimum of money or exchange-value in the hands of an individual owner of money or commodities.”Capital, vol. i, chap. ix.
This minimum, adds Marx, varies at different developmental stages of capitalist production and is relatively different for each industry.

Almost every petty-bourgeois dreams of becoming a capitalist. But for him to undergo such a qualitative change there is in the majority of cases not sufficient quantity of money. The accumulation of money when it does reach the determined limit turns the petty-bourgeois into a capitalist, into an exploiter of hired labour; quantitative change leads to a change of quality.

We can show this in the changing of anything, the changing of any phenomenon. Every thing on its emergence as qualitatively unique is changed quantitatively. Up to the known limits of quantitative change it remains qualitatively the same, but at the determined stage change of quantity leads to change of quality, or, as Hegel said, “quantity goes over into quality”; instead of the former quality there appears a new one.

The transition of quantity into quality is one of the basic laws of dialectic. It is the law of emergence of the new, the law of development, which shows how in the course of gradual changes the leap from one quality to another is prepared. Every theory which explains the emergence of this or that new thing has this law as one of its most essential methodological postulates.

Bourgeois scientists, though they deny or are ignorant of dialectic, are, without knowing it, absolutely forced through the influence of their own practice to base their investigations on dialectical principles. As Marx and Engels pointed out, such an elementary application of the law of transition of quantity into quality constituted a whole epoch in the history of chemistry. No sooner had this science arrived at the stage of the systematic study of the quantitative relations of the elements, than before it rose the question of the connection between the quantitative and qualitative changes of substances.

The celebrated French chemist, Lavoisier, pointed out that every chemical compound possesses a determined quantitative relation of its elements. Around this question raged a fierce controversy. Many chemists were attempting to demonstrate that “chemical compounds exist in all possible combinations of the constituent elements” and that there are no leaps, no breaking of the gradualness in chemical processes. The opponents of leaps cited solutions and fusions. They did not understand the difference between a mixture, in which no new substance emerges, and an actual chemical compound, in which a qualitatively new substance is formed. A simple mixture of oxygen and hydrogen is possible in any quantitative relation, but in the forming of the qualitatively new body – water – these two elements unite only in definite quantitative proportions. Thus between water and the other combination of oxygen and hydrogen – peroxide of hydrogen – there are no intermediate compounds whatever. In the formation of peroxide of hydrogen, exactly twice as great a relative quantity of oxygen enters into the compound as in the formation of water. Not any, but only a definite quantitative difference conditions the difference of qualities, of leaps from one chemical combination to another.

In fierce controversy with the upholders of quantitative gradualness, the doctrine of the transition of quantitative changes into qualitative developed into an harmonious chemical theory. The disclosure of the dialectical connection of quantity and quality allowed the connection of a great number of compounds into systematized orders. Discussing one of these orders Engels wrote: “We thus see a whole order of qualitatively different bodies formed by the simple adding of elements, which, however, are always in one and the same relation.”* Marx, in his application of the law of transition of quantity into quality, cited in Capital these achievements of chemistry, thereby stressing the universal significance of dialectical laws.
* Anti-Dühring.

It is, however, quite clear that in the reformulation and subsequent application of dialectic by the Marxist the content and significance of the law we are discussing emerges with incomparably greater precision and fullness than in even the most valuable dialectical attainments of bourgeois natural research, which remain at an elementary level.

The working out of the law of transition of quantity into quality reached its highest degree in Leninism. Lenin showed more deeply than anyone before him the concrete and significant appearance of this law in the course of social development; he also showed its connection with the other laws of dialectic.

As Lenin so often pointed out, dialectic demands the scrutiny of every historic moment in all its qualitative uniqueness and, at the same time, in unbroken historical relationship with the epoch preceding. The methodological basis for understanding this historical connection of the new quality with the old is the law of transition of quantity into quality. We find the most brilliant example of the application of this law to the study of concrete development in the Leninist theory of imperialism. On the basis of the dialectical method Lenin disclosed the uniqueness of the imperialist epoch as a continuation, but at the same time a qualitatively new stage in the development of capitalism.

Imperialism as monopoly capitalism is the necessary result of the development of pre-monopoly capitalism. From this historical connection, from these premises of the development of imperialism, Lenin proceeds in his investigation.
The enormous growth of industry and the remarkably rapid process of concentration of production in ever larger enterprises represent one of the most characteristic features of capitalism.”Lenin, Imperialism, chap. i.
The growth of industry, the enlarging of undertakings, all these are quantitative changes belonging to capitalism. They also appear as the premises of the transition of capitalism to a qualitatively new stage. “Concentration at a certain stage of its development approximates, so to speak, closely to monopoly.”* The emergence of the new is prepared by gradual changes of the old. However, that does not mean that the transition itself, from the old to the new, is accomplished by degrees. Between pre-monopoly capitalism and imperialism there is not simply a quantitative difference – in imperialism we have a qualitatively new stage of capitalism, opposite in a certain degree to the old. In imperialism “certain basic properties of capitalism have begun to be turned into their opposite.”

* Lenin, loc. cit.
Free competition is the fundamental property of capitalism and of commodity production generally. Monopoly is the direct opposite of free competition; but we have seen the latter being transformed into monopoly before our very eyes, creating large-scale production and squeezing out small-scale production, replacing large-scale by larger-scale production, finally leading to such a concentration of production and capital that monopoly has been and is the result.” Lenin, Imperialism; chap. vii.
Free competition, the basic trait of capitalism, continues even in the new epoch to exist alongside monopolies, but the emergence of these latter creates a qualitatively new degree in the development of capitalist contradictions. A contradictory unity of monopoly and competition lies at the basis of the qualitative uniqueness of imperialism.

The transition to a new quality proceeds through a conflict, in which at a determined stage, there emerges a break, a decisive turning, a leap. At the basis of the whole process lies a conflict of contradictory tendencies, and that is just why the emergence of the new, the transition of the old quality into its own opposite, proceeds not as if due to the action of an external, alien force but as the result of growth, of the quantitative growing of itself. Free competition through the contradictory growth of capitalism leads to its own opposite.

The enemies of dialectic, as also its false foolish “friends,” depict the dialectical method as a preconceived scheme, as a master-key, with whose help it is possible to solve any problem directly “out of one’s head” – to obtain the answer to any question. The Leninist application of the dialectical laws is a brilliant rebuttal of this gross caricature of the dialectical method. Lenin regards the laws of dialectic not as a preconceived scheme but as the way to an understanding of concrete factors, a starting-point for the attentive study of objective actuality in its whole historical connection. “In order to give the reader as well-grounded an impression of imperialism as possible,” Lenin cited an enormous quantity of facts. The quantitative changes of capitalism are for him no abstract phrase, but an object of detailed statistical study. He brought forward the most detailed statistical data which allow us to see “to what extent bank capital, etc., has grown, showing just how the transition from quantity to quality, from developed capitalism to imperialism, has expressed itself.”Lenin, Imperialism.

And by very virtue of this concrete approach, a leap is for Lenin not an instantaneous automatic change which proceeds on such and such a day and hour, but a whole period of intense struggle. With Lenin the important thing is to determine, not the day and hour of the “final” changing of one quality into another, but the content of the break (what quality is replaced by what) and the concrete stages of the struggle in the transition to the new quality. “Needless to say, all the boundaries in nature and in society are conditional and changing, and it would be absurd to dispute, for instance, over the year or decade in which imperialism became ‘definitely’ established.”Lenin, Imperialism.

Based on a huge mass of facts, the Leninist analysis discloses the basic line of the development of capitalism from free competition to monopolist decay and gives a concrete picture of the leap. Free competition, when it has reached the recasting stage of its development goes over into monopoly. In tense conflict through a number of partial breaking moments the general break in social life is accomplished – the leap from the pre-monopolist system of capitalism to imperialism.

And so, here are the principal phases in the history of monopolies:

(1) 1800 – 1870. The development to its final limit of competition. Monopoly only in its smallest beginnings.

(2) After the crisis, after 1873 – extended period of the development of cartels, but these are not yet of a permanent nature. They are still a transitory phenomenon.

(3) The close of the nineteenth century and the crisis of 1900-1903 – cartels are becoming one of the bases of the whole economic life. Capitalism has turned into imperialism.”
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