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what are contradictions

I hear the revcoms talk about contradiction a lot, but I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t really understand what you mean by it even when it has been explained to me. I find most of the time revcoms are good at breaking things down but I haven’t seen where you do that for what you mean by contradiction - is it just conflict? How do you get good at identifying what contradictions are at play. Help!

In reply to by Chaiti

First, it would be great to hear from others on how they have been wrestling with this as well. But here are some quick initial thoughts, so we can begin the process of collective grappling together on this:

A good place to start is with this paragraph from p. 18 of “Science and Revolution: on the Importance of Science and the Application of Science to Society, the New Synthesis of Communism and the Leadership of Bob Avakian, An Interview with Ardea Skybreak”, where Skybreak defines contradiction as “just a ‘rapport,’ a dynamic relation or interaction,” which may include struggle and conflict. She states that, understood as such, “Everything is made up of contradictions but not all contradictions are antagonistic”:

Coming out of the ‘60s, I was exposed to the concept of dialectical materialism and realized that the analysis of underlying material contradictions could be applied to any aspect of the material world, and is in fact a key method for deepening our understanding of both the defining features and characteristics of a thing or phenomenon and its patterns of motion and development. And this applies in both nature and society. To this day, I walk around in all sorts of different natural environments and what do I see? I see contradictions. I see contradictions everywhere! [laughs] That’s how I see the natural world. If I’m looking at a hummingbird pollinating a flower, I’m seeing it as a contradiction, I’m thinking about the contradictions.

When I say “contradiction” here I am not talking about a conflict or an antagonism. Everything is made up of contradictions but not all contradictions are antagonistic. In the sense I am using it here, contradiction is just a “rapport,” a dynamic relation or interaction, for instance between a hummingbird pollinator and the flowering plant it is pollinating. And that particular dynamic contradiction is itself situated and playing itself out in the broader context, and in dynamic interaction with, a much larger ecosystem (perhaps a rain forest, or maybe just a backyard garden) which is itself made up of a great many other dynamic particular contradictions within and between the many different elements that make up that broader ecosystem. And then of course there are always lots of dynamic contradictions that come in and impinge on things from outside a particular system, often pushing change in some entirely new directions.

So, if you’re really trying to understand a process, any process, there are questions to consider about different levels of organization of matter, about differences of scale; there are questions to consider about both the internal contradictions within a process or within a thing that define its principal characteristic features as well as some of its pathways for change; and then there are also those external contradictions that can come in and impinge on the whole process and push things in new directions, though always on the basis of those underlying systemic contradictions. I’m not trying to get into all this too much right now, but this kind of dialectical materialist thinking and approach is critical for doing good science, in both the natural and social spheres. And so, yeah, this is how I try to think about things whenever I’m out in a natural ecosystem. I’m asking questions in my mind, and exploring and thinking about these things: what are the underlying causes, how do the underlying contradictions inside a system or an entity actually provide the material basis for that thing, that particular entity, or that particular system, to change over time? I understand that the fundamental basis for a thing to change is contained within that thing, in interpenetration with its external environment.

Then, you’ll want to watch this really interesting discussion of “Dialectical materialism, historical materialism” from a talk Bob Avakian gave back in 2003:  Revolution: Why It’s Necessary, Why It’s Possible, What It’s All About, a film of a talk by Bob Avakian, 2003 - SESSION 3.  The section starts at minute 01:50:00 and goes to about 2:01:07.  (Right after that he discusses what materialism is—also very relevant to your questions!)

I would really recommend you—and other readers—watch this, as it has BA’s signature passion and style. But if for some reason, you or others are not able to access the video, here are some paraphrased excerpts (these are not vetted for accuracy but transcribed for accessibility to our online audience):

Dialectics refers to how things are divided into opposing parts or aspects and to the contradiction, the conflict and struggle between these parts or aspects.  It refers to the fact that there are contradictions within all things and between things and it speaks to how different things interact and affect each other in interacting.  It recognizes how things are in motion and are always changing.  To break this down, let’s look at some examples of this.  Motion itself is a contradiction.  Think about it.  A person who was moving, someone who was walking or running, is in one spot and moving away from that spot at one and the same time.  This is real.  And it’s a contradiction.

Now let’s talk about a sport that more people know about.  Women as well as men.  Let’s talk about basketball.  For example in basketball, there’s what’s called offensive rebounding, that is when your team has the ball and takes a shot, and if it doesn’t go in, then you try to go and get the ball back when it bounces off the rim or the backboard and try to have another chance to put it in the basket.  But there’s a problem here.  You have to play defense within the offense including when you’re doing offensive rebounding because if you send all of your players to the basket to try to grab the offensive rebound and you don’t get it and the other team gets it, they’ll have a very easy time going to the other end of the court and making a basket, so you have to play defense within the offense, even when you’re going for an offensive rebound.  You have to have some members of your team stay back to protect and play defense even while you’re still playing offense.  And the same thing is true of offense within the defense in basketball.  For example, when you’re playing defense and guarding the other team, you may try to steal the ball away from the other team.  In trying to steal the ball away from the other team, you’re taking an offensive action and if you succeed you will go from being on the defense to having the ball and now being on the offense.  So in all these situations of every day life and in sports here, you can see that there’s a dialectical relation between offense and defense.  They’re in contradiction.  There is offense within defense and defense within offense and they’re battling it out.


Now this dialectical understanding applies to all things, to everything in nature, including human beings and to human society and its development throughout history, they are all a matter of contradiction, motion and change.  So a dialectical approach enables us to see beyond the outward appearance of things, to the inner character, the inner nature of them, the real nature of things.  To see the fundamental and most important contradiction within all things.  It enables us to see the relation of the parts to the whole.  For example, parts of our body to our body as a whole, which is obviously very important in medicine among other things.  You can’t treat a disease or something wrong in one part of the body nearly as well if you ignore the rest of the body as if you take it into account.

And with a dialectical approach, when we look at society, we don’t just see it as one big thing or a mess of different things without any relation to each other.  We see the different contradictions within society and their relation to each other.  For example, in capitalist society, we look below the surface and see the contradictions involved in commodity production and exchange which lead to anarchy of production that I spoke to earlier.  And we see within capitalist society the contradiction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.  (Bourgeoisie is just a French word meaning the capitalist class.)  These contradictions are the moving and driving forces within capitalism and they are rooted in the fundamental nature of the capitalist system as a whole.  Seeing things in this way, enables us to understand why capitalism is not the permanent or the highest and final form in which human society can exist but is only one of several forms of society based on exploitation and that capitalism contains within itself, the seeds of its own overthrow and the force which can carry out that overthrow, the proletariat.  So, in very brief that’s dialectics.

Hope this helps, as a start, and we can continue grappling on this together.  

Soon, in the near future, we will get into and collectively grapple with and discuss your second question, about how to “get good at what contradictions are in play.” I do want to say though that the question made me laugh, because that is indeed the constant work and real challenge of being thoroughly scientific, something we all have to collectively work together on, learning and getting better at it. BA consistently models this, and his works bring numerous examples and the underlying method to life, including in how he talks about the 5 STOPS. There is a lot to learn from this, and I am striving to do so, applying them in a living way, to all of what it will take to end all oppression. It’s both challenging, and exhilarating. But here, I invite other readers to pitch in, especially as they are learning from BA and with examples drawn from his works, and we continue grappling collectively and learn together.


In reply to by Moderator 2

Motion Contradiction:

"Motion itself is a contradiction.  Think about it.  A person who was moving, someone who was walking or running, is in one spot and moving away from that spot at one and the same time.  This is real.  And it’s a contradiction."
I disagree with this as follows:

The language describing motion as being in a place and not being in a place at the same time:
The contradiction that appears in this description means that the description is flawed.
A better description would track the motion. In the person walking example one could say "The person is there" while pointing at the person and tracking the person while pointing and speaking.
If location is described as a point in a coordinate system, motion has different math: distance divided by time. To describe motion at a point momentum may be a way to describe it. Also instantaneous speed or velocity. See:

Skeet shooting: The language of "place/not place" is an approximation. If you shoot AT the clay "pigeon" when skeet shooting, you'll miss.

Language of place and motion:
If I say "a person is walking over there", the "over there" phrase refers to an approximate range of space through which the person is walking, not to a precise point. The use of language in which the conjunction of place and motion is described as contradiction is too precise to reflect the ordinary use of that conjunction. The contradiction appears at the limit of the validity and utility of that use of language.


In reply to by Chaiti

I’m glad you asked this! I’ve heard others pose this question recently.

I think one way that has helped me understand contradiction is the latest piece by BA “the latest uprisings” he talks about “the recognition that all of reality—everything and every person—is contradictory. In speaking about contradiction he says ..”Even things which are overwhelmingly one way have an aspect of the opposite within them.. And things are not “static” but constantly in motion and in the process of development, so that the character of something can change.”

So you can think of a lot of examples of that, people can have positive and negative aspects to their lives, or can be of two minds about something, like can be in conflict about not liking Joe Biden but still feeling a need to support the Democratic Party.

He then says: “It is crucially important to identify what, in any given phenomenon (a system, a movement, a person), is the main thing (the principal aspect), which defines the essence of that phenomenon at any given time, and overall.”

He gives the example of Nat Turner and John Brown, who played positive roles but were also religious zealots. But their religious zealotry was in the service of fighting the main (the most egregious) form of exploitation and oppression of that time—slavery.” And then. He goes on to say that you couldn’t fault them for not understanding the role religion plays in shackling humanity.
That BA piece is here:…

Also recommend what the moderator pointed to for going deeper!

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