Unity and Struggle of Opposites

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Unity and Struggle of Opposites


the universal law of natural and sociohistoric reality, being the law of the cognition of reality as well and expressing the essence, or “nucleus,” of dialectics.

This law occupies a central position in materialist dialectics and is of universal methodological significance. No phenomena exist in the world outside the process of infinite development, the process of the formation of opposing aspects and their mutual transformation within each whole, and outside the process of their contradictory interrelationships. Characterizing an object as subordinate to the law of unity and struggle of opposites points to a source of general movement and development to be found not somewhere outside the object, not in metaphysical or supernatural forces, but within the object, in its self-motion and development. This law focuses on the disclosure of the inner mechanism and the dynamic of self-motion. It enables us to understand any whole as a complex and divided system, containing elements or tendencies that are directly incompatible. It allows us to interpret any given structure in such a way that it is permeated by the logic of its historical formation. The law of the unity and struggle of opposites removes the illusion of finality from any organic form of existence in nature and society. It focuses on the transient nature of such forms and their transition to higher and more developed forms through the exhaustion of their potentials. For example, in biological evolution the formation of new forms of life occurs precisely through the unity and struggle of opposites in heredity and variability. In physical processes the nature of light was explained precisely by means of the unity and struggle of opposites appearing, for example, as corpuscular and wave properties; this, moreover, cleared the path fora “drama of ideas” in physical science, whereby the opposition and synthesis of corpuscular and wave theories characterized scientific progress. The most basic expression of the unity and struggle of opposites in the world of commodity capitalism is that of use value and value; the most highly developed oppositions in capitalism are the working class and the bourgeoisie, because the capitalist emerges as the personification of capital, “the creation of labor which stands in opposition to labor” (K. Marx, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch. , 2nd ed., vol. 26, part 3, p. 307).

The relatively superficial aspect of the unity and struggle of opposites consists of the existence of independent poles or extremes, such as left and right, good and bad, plus and minus, and the north and south poles. These poles equally and mutually presuppose one another (they are indivisible and correlated) and exclude one another (they displace and alienate; they are incompatible). Common sense, because of its narrow focus, is cognizant of only the superficial aspect of the unity and struggle of opposites. It sees in the interrelationships of opposing elements only the interaction of logically equal extremes. Based on this idea, metaphysical conceptual thinking interprets poles dualistically, as eternal and universal absolutes (“light” and “darkness,” absolute positive and absolute negative). Dialectics, on the contrary, does not at all dwell on the recognition that opposing elements appear as poles. Dialectics perceives beyond their interaction an uneven relationship of opposing elements emanating from one another, their mutual transition and penetration approaching complete identification with one another, and their contradictions and resolution through struggle. “Dialectics is the teaching which shows how opposites … happen to be … identical” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch. , 5th ed., vol. 29, p. 98). From the point of view of rational dialectical thinking, genuine opposition does not exist without unity and identity, mutual penetration, and struggle. In precisely the same way there is no concrete unity without specific oppositions (for example, new and old, or traditional and creative).

The concept that extremes are linked everywhere, that they alternate and replace each other, and that they “coincide” evolved initially in the history of philosophy. The concept of polarity (for example, in Laotsu’s writings and in Pythagoreanism) grew out of this idea; in other forms, polarity is discussed in a number of the most modern schools (for example, by F. W. von Schelling and A. Whitehead and in the doctrine of organicism). Strictly speaking, the dialectic is conceived when the problem of contradiction is revealed; initially the contradiction is discovered in the form of an image such as “the harmony of the lyre and the bow” (Heraclitus) or an aporia. Of the ancient philosophers, Plato studied most intensely the dialectics of the unity and struggle of opposites. During the Renaissance the idea of the “coincidence of opposites” was developed by Nicholas of Cusa and G. Bruno. In modern times I. Kant founded the theory of antinomies, J. Fichte founded the theory of dialectics in the functioning of the ego, and Hegel founded the theory of the unity and struggle of opposites as a logical principle. The latter is one of the most important historical premises of Marxist dialectics.

Two tendencies prevail in contemporary bourgeois philosophy. Positivists reduce opposites to poles, and their inter-relationship to one of mutual supplementation (complementarism). The irrationalists believe that opposites contain antinomies that are not expressed through cognition or are unresolved (the dialectics of tragedy, for example). In Maoist pseudodialectics the unity and struggle of opposites is replaced by the mythological concept of the age-old, devastating war between universal absolutes and by the concept of the fatal split of each object into antagonistic poles. Proceeding from these concepts, the Maoists find antagonistic contradictions in socialist society as well. Reformists and rightwing revisionists, on the contrary, propagandize the thesis of the reconciliation of opposites; this serves as a methodological “basis” for their conciliation with the bourgeoisie in politics.

In Marxist philosophy the unity and struggle of opposites is a fundamental methodological principle. V.I . Lenin considered it important to investigate the unity and struggle of opposites “as a law of cognition (and as a law of the objective world)” (Lenin, ibid. , p. 316). The division of a unit into poles is only a result of opposites acquiring relative autonomy. The subsequent disclosure of movement as dialectically contradictory self-movement is made possible only by extending this principle to the process of cognition as well. Dialectics necessitate the introduction of historical methods into the logic of thought and the understanding that the very “truth is a process” (Lenin, ibid. , p. 183).

The expression “struggle of opposites” includes the following ideas: (1) any organic system contains an inner contradiction; (2) this contradiction is continually resolved and reproduced; (3) the contradiction is further complicated by the fact that each of the relatively independent external opposites is in itself contradictory; (4) the progressive surmounting of the whole and transition to a higher form are possible only through the complete resolution of the contradictions.

In society, development is achieved as the unity and struggle of opposites characteristic of a process in which people (as classes and so forth) are making their own history. Progress in material and spiritual culture occurs as a result of self-contradictory tendencies and modes of activity, of increasingly diverse capabilities, forms of intercourse, theories, and values. What constitutes dialectical movement is the “coexistence of two contradictory sides, their conflict and their fusion into a new category” (Marx, in Marx and Engels, Soch. , 2nd ed., vol. 4, p. 136; compare with p. 146). However, under the conditions of class formations, the creative dialectics of the process of human activities is constrained and mutilated by class antagonism.

Capitalism, the final antagonistic structure, gives rise to and forms the working class, which is historically summoned to ultimately surmount the world of antagonisms. Raising itself in its development and education, the working class becomes more and more a creative revolutionary force, opposing all forms of social oppression. It also becomes capable of “ridding itself of all the muck of ages” and creating a communist society (Marx and Engels, ibid. , vol. 3, p. 70).

The Marxist understanding of the unity and struggle of opposites contradicts attempts to make antagonisms into absolutes or to interpret them as some kind of fatal, destructive principle in history. Antagonism is only a limited, transient form of relations between opposites. A false apology for antagonisms leads to the concept of opposites without unity, without common origins.

The law of the unity and struggle of opposites is not compatible with either subjectivism, which replaces concrete solutions of problems with biased and abstract delimitations, or objectivism, which does not penetrate the contradictory nature of objective processes. Fighters for communism see in the unity and struggle of opposites a philosophical principle of the communist ideal and a method for realizing it in history.


Rozental’, M. M. Dialektika “Kapitala” Marksa, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1967.
Istoriia marksistskoi dialektiki. Moscow, 1971.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.