Bertell Ollman’s Dialectical Investigations

Against the Current, No. 52, September/October 1994

Tony Smith

Dialectical Investigations
By Bertell Ollman
New York: Routledge, 1993, 191 pages, $14.95 paper.

BERTELL OLLMAN, CREATOR of the wonderful board game Class Struggle, is one of the leading defenders of the importance of dialectical method in Marxism. In the first half of his book Ollman attempts to establish that “dialectics is a way of thinking that brings into focus the full range of changes and interactions that occur in the world.” (10) In the second half a series of papers are collected illustrating dialectics in action.

For Ollman the world is made up of systems, each of whose parts is internally related to the others. These systems are in process; their nature is fixed by the past from which they came and the future towards which they are going.

Marx provides a paradigm case of a thinker who grasped these realities. He understood, for example, that capital is not an isolated thing, but a set of relations (to commodities, money, wage labor, and so forth). He also grasped that capital is not static. Capital has developed from the early stages of primitive accumulation to the ever-increasing socialization of capital today. In contrast, much non-Marxist thought conceives of the world as consisting of isolated and fixed entities.

For Ollman, comprehending a dynamic world of internal relations requires a special sort of thinking, dialectical thinking. The chief characteristics of dialectical thinking presented here have to do with the process of abstraction. The heart of the book consists of a typology of different modes of abstraction, and the claim that dialectical thought alone successfully navigates among and within these different modes.

Modes of Abstraction

The first mode of abstraction is extension. The objects we think about can be considered within a variety of temporal and spatial frameworks. No one can employ all possible temporal and spatial frameworks simultaneously. And so we must limit our thinking to a certain extension of space and time, and abstract from other extensions. We can consider what occurs at a particular place and a particular point in time, or we can consider the history of the cosmos as a whole.

How can we ensure that our abstractions of extension are neither too restricted nor too unrestricted? Dialectical thinkers are in the best position to avoid these dangers. They are concerned with processes in which qualitative distinctions arise out of quantitative changes, with metamorphoses in which an identical reality (e.g. value) takes on a number of different forms (profit, rent interest, etc.), and with the contradictions that arise within processes. As a result, dialectical thinkers tend to select abstractions that are extensive enough to allow the relevant internal relations and dynamic processes to be grasped, yet not so extensive that irrelevant considerations enter the picture.

The second mode of abstraction is that of generality. Phenomena in the world fall into a number of different levels of generality, and here too we cannot think about everything at the same time. We must select one level, or a combination of a few levels, and abstract from the rest. Without claiming to be comprehensive Ollman distinguishes seven levels, beginning with the level of the unique individual person and proceeding (in ascending order of generality) to the levels of modern capitalism, capitalism as such, class society, the human species, animal species, and, finally, material bodies.

For Ollman non-dialectical thinkers tend to assume that one or another level of generality provides a “natural” framework for their thought. Dialectical thinkers, on the other hand, reject this assumption. There is nothing natural about thinking on one or another level of generality. Only the nature of the object being investigated can determine which level of generality is appropriate.

The final mode of abstraction is that of vantage point. Phenomena can be studied from a variety of different perspectives, and different aspects of the phenomena are illuminated depending on the perspective taken. The same cut in social programs can be looked at from the perspective of its effects on the government deficit, its effects on demand in the economy, its effects on the nutrition of the poor, etc. Ollman holds that non-dialectical thinkers tend to examine phenomena from only one side, while dialectical thinkers tend to include a variety of different vantage points in their studies.

History and Class Consciousness

In the second half of the book Ollman collects a number of previously published essays on the topics of state theory, the U.S. Constitution, Perestroika, academic freedom, the study of history, and investigations of class consciousness.

Clearly these papers were not originally written to serve as illustrations of dialectical methodology. They do make use of various dialectical notions, and every time they do so Ollman refers back to the place in the first half of the book where those notions are discussed. It can be questioned whether adding dozens of new footnotes successfully establishes the unity of the book. This is, however, a secondary matter, given how interesting these articles are in their own right.

The articles on Perestroika and class consciousness are perhaps especially interesting. Ollman interprets the ruling strata in the old Soviet Union as a “regency of the proletariat.” In the same way that a regent holding effective power derived his legitimacy from the young king or queen in whose name he ruled, so effective power in the soviet state was in the hands of a party elite whose legitimacy rested on its relation to the working class. Ollman locates the root of this system’s crisis in the contradiction between the growing complexity of the economic plan, which demanded ever-increasing worker effort, and the ever-decreasing effort workers made as the regime lost its legitimacy.

Ollman argues persuasively that the conditions for a successful transition to capitalism are lacking in the nations that have replaced the Soviet Union. He holds further that the objective conditions for a transition to an authentic form of social<->ism are present, and that it is far too soon to rule out development of the subjective conditions necessary for this transition.

In his article on class consciousness Ollman continues a line of thought begun by Lukacs. He asserts that an objective working class consciousness can be derived from the structural position of the working class in society. This imputed class consciousness is of tremendous significance, even if members of this class do not have a subjective consciousness corresponding to it.

Ollman insists that class consciousness should be studied from the standpoint of a future moment where the objective and subjective sides of the class consciousness of the working class are united. This is the moment when it comes to the subjective awareness that it has an objective interest in the overthrow of capitalism. Even if the contingencies of history prevent this moment from ever occurring, it remains a real possibility, a possibility that gives the present its ultimate meaning.

Ollman forcefully reminds those who study class consciousness in the working class that their investigations can never be neutral. The sorts of questions they pose to their subjects, the facts they introduce in interviews, the comparisons they make between the working class and other classes, all either further or hinder the arrival of the moment when the objective and the subjective components of class consciousness coincide. The study of class consciousness changes class consciousness, and that places special responsibilities on researchers.

A Significant Contribution

Dialectical Investigations contains many insights on a wide range of topics, far too many to mention in a brief review. But there is no doubt that the typology of the different modes of abstraction is the central section of the book.

There are at least five ways in which Ollman makes a significant contribution to Marxian social theory here:

First, Ollman’s approach illuminates some of the most important ways Marx’s theory is distinct from its competitors. For example, much non-Marxist theory is based on a very narrow abstraction of extension, considering only the isolated individual. Marx’s abstractions of extension are much wider than this, incorporating the natural and social relations of individuals. To take another case, classical political economy was formulated on a very high level of generality, in which a theory of production was derived from the human condition. Marx, in contrast, insisted that propositions on this level of abstraction could not account for the historically specific features of capitalism.

Marxian and non-Marxian economic theories can also be distinguished in terms of the vantage point taken. The latter typically examine capital from the point of view of circulation, a vantage point suited to the bourgeoisie, while Marx believed that the decisive vantage point was that of production, a point of view characteristic of the working class.

Second, Ollman’s approach serves as a helpful reminder that our interpretations of Marx must exhibit some of the suppleness that characterized his thinking. Take, for instance, the concept of “working class.” In some passages in Marx this term refers to all those who work for a wage. In others it has to do with those who both engage in wage labor and produce surplus value. In yet others it is restricted to those who engage in wage labor, produce surplus value, and also possess class consciousness and political organization.

Should we conclude that Marx was thoroughly confused? No. Marx understood that if different abstractions of extension, generality, and vantage point are taken, different concepts are appropriate. Ollman’s book helps Marx’s interpreters to understand this as well.

Third, Ollman’s work holds out the hope that a number of disputes within Marxism are capable of resolution. Heated debates have raged for decades between those who see the state as an instrument of the ruling class and those who hold that it is a set of objective structures functioning to reproduce capital. The controversy between those who accept a falling rate of profit theory of crisis and those who emphasize underconsumption has been no less fierce, as has that between those who blame the dominance of capitalist ideology on capitalist control of the media and those who insist that this ideology arises out of the material conditions of capitalism.

In all these cases Ollman believes that if certain abstractions of extension, generality or vantage point are made, the former member of each alternative makes sense, while if other abstractions are made the latter appears more valid. As a result he believes that the different positions can be reconciled.

I am afraid this is too optimistic. The major theoretical disputes within Marxism are not about to dissipate immediately just because someone has pointed out that there are different sorts of abstraction. Still, we should applaud anything that increases our chances of avoiding needless polemics, and Ollman’s approach does this.

Fourth, Ollman’s book will be very instructive to researchers who wish to use dialectical method in their work. Discussions of “dialectics” are often vague if not vacuous. Ollman has collected a set of precepts that show how dialectical method can be “operationalized.”

Finally, most books on dialectics are unintelligible to the uninitiated. Ollman’s writing is so clear that this book can be recommended to interested readers who do not have a background in the topic.

While Ollman’s account of abstraction is of great interest, the thesis that abstraction lies at the heart of dialectical methodology can still be questioned.

Is the ability to distinguish various forms of abstraction, and to move from one to the other as the object of investigation demands, truly unique to dialectical thought? In the present work Ollman does not consider whether non-dialectical thinkers might also exhibit considerable flexibility and methodological self-consciousness in moving from one abstraction of extension to another, from one level of generality to another, from one vantage point to another.

Examples as diverse as Aquinas, Nietzsche, Weber and Foucault come to mind. None of these theorists is considered a dialectician, and yet all exhibit the flexibility and methodological self-consciousness that Ollman seems to imply uniquely characterizes “dialectical investigations.” If this is correct, then suppleness in abstraction by itself is not sufficient to distinguish dialectical methodology from non-dialectical approaches, however necessary it may be to dialectical thinking.

It must be stressed that the work under consideration is only the first volume of what is projected to be a four-volume series. The second volume will offer a comprehensive account of Marx’s dialectical method (followed by a popular manual on dialectics and a reader collecting important contributions to the understanding of dialectical methodology from both Marxists and non-Marxists). Prior to the publication of this second volume any attempt to assess Ollman’s views of dialectical methodology must be provisional.

I believe that the key to understanding dialectical methodology in Marx lies with the interplay between social agents and the objective social forms that structure their actions.

Marx derived systematic connections among these objective social forms, for instance the necessary connection between generalized commodity exchange and the money form, and between capital and the state form.

Marx also derived tendencies for certain social relations to arise when social agents are subsumed under these forms, for instance the inter-class antagonism between capital and labor, and the intra-class antagonism among the many units of capital. To understand how these derivations work is to understand Marx’s dialectical methodology. Flexibility in abstractions is surely an important part of this story. But it is by no means the complete story. But this is just another way of saying that I look forward to the next book in Ollman’s series.

ATC 52, September-October 1994