In this essay, I shall attempt to clarify somewhat a question discussed in my interview with New Left Reviewfootnote1—although one that is very difficult to deal with briefly: the problem of the difference between ‘real opposition’ (Kant’s Realopposition or Realrepugnanz) and ‘dialectical contradiction’. Both are instances of opposition, but they are radically distinct in kind. ‘Real opposition’ (or ‘contrariety’ of incompatible opposites) is an opposition ‘without contradiction’ (ohne Widerspruch). It does not violate the principles of identity and (non)-contradiction, and hence is compatible with formal logic. The second form of opposition, on the contrary, is ‘contradictory’ (durch den Widerspruch) and gives rise to a dialectical opposition. Marxists, as we shall see, have never entertained clear ideas on this subject. In the overwhelming majority of cases they have not even suspected that there were two oppositions and that they were radically different in nature. In the rare cases where this fact has been noted, its significance has been misunderstood, and ‘real opposition’ has also been considered as an example and an instance of the dialectic, even though it was a ‘non-contradictory’, and hence undialectical, opposition. A few brief words then on the structure of the two oppositions.

‘Contradictory’ or Dialectical Opposition

This is traditionally expressed by the formula ‘a not-a’. It is the instance in which one opposite cannot stand without the other and vice-versa (mutual attraction of opposites). Not-a is the negation of a. In itself and for itself it is nothing; it is the negation of the other and nothing else. Therefore if we wish to attach any significance to not-a, we must at the same time know what a is, i.e. what not-a is negating. But a, too, is negative. Just as not-a is its negation, so a is the negation of not-a. Thus since to say a is in effect equivalent to saying not-not-a, a too, if it is to have any meaning, must be referred to the element of which it is the negation. Neither of the two poles is anything in itself or for itself; each is a negative. Furthermore, each is a negative-relation. If in fact we wish to know what one extreme is, we must at the same time know what the other is, which the first element is negating. Each term therefore, to be itself, implies a relation to the other term; the result is unity (the unity of opposites). Only within this unity is each term the negation of the other.

The origins of this dialectic go back to Plato. Both opposites are negatives, in the sense that they are un-real, non-things (Undinge)—they are ideas. ‘The notion of true dialectic’, says Hegel in reference to Plato, ‘is to demonstrate the necessary movement of pure notions, without thereby resolving these into nothing, for the result, simply expressed, is that they are this movement, and the universal is just the unity of these opposite notions’.footnote2

A movement of pure notions, then, interpenetrating each other. One passes into the other, and this latter into the first. In fact each is simply the Negative of the other. In itself it is nothing. Its essence lies outside it, in its opposite. To be itself, then, and to give meaning to its own Negative, it has to be referred to the nature of the other of which it is the negation. In other words, this is an inclusive opposition. Here, in a nutshell, we have all the key-concepts of the Platonic dialectic: the symploke eidonfootnote3, i.e. the mutual connection or implication of ideas; the koinonia ton genon, i.e. the community of supreme classes; the megista gene, or in Hegel’s terminology the ‘pure concepts’. Here, too, we have the problem of the diairesis, or division into species.footnote4

We are referring, of course, to the later Plato. The way in which these positions differ from his earlier ones is well captured in this overall judgment of Cassirer’s: ‘The first conception of the Platonic doctrine of ideas separates the one from the multiple, the idea and the phenomenon assigning it to different worlds. Being and becoming, ousia and genesis, are opposed in the form of contraries simply excluding each other. But now Platonic thought is led to a quite new problematic: as a result a form of “movement”, kinesis, comes to light, a form which no longer pertains to the occurrence and existence of sensible events, but to the idea itself. If a single phenomenon must “participate” in different ideas, and if these ideas must inter-penetrate within it, such an arrangement is possible only to the extent that the ideas themselves already exist in an original “community”, by virtue of which the one determines the other and the one is changed into the other. As is demonstrated in the Sophist, in the absence of this purely ideal community, of this koinonia ton genon, there can be no knowing, no knowledge. But the way becoming encloses within itself as necessary moments both being and non-being results from the fact that non-being too is not simply unreal, but is inherent in the essence, in the pure idea itself. So now in opposition to the Eleatic doctrine of the unity and immobility of everything, which depends on the absolute opposition between “being” and “non-being”, one must maintain the proposition which states: “there is no certainty in how non-being is, and being is not”.’footnote5

Let us keep digressions to a minimum and come straight to the point. What concerns us in this section is the structure of the contradictory opposition. Since each pole of the contradiction is in itself negative, being simply the Negation of the other, and its essence lies outside itself, in its opposite, it follows that if each pole is to be itself, it must imply the relation to the other, i.e. the unity of opposites; and that only within this unity or this inclusion is each pole the negation or exclusion of the other.