Despite reading Marx (along with some Lukacs and Zizek) for some time now, I have never really felt like I’ve properly come to grips with dialectics. Reading “Dance of the Dialectic” by Bertell Ollman is an attempt to fill this gap. These are the batch of my notes covering steps one and two. As such, they’re a bit rough and ready, rather than a properly finished post.
Step 1 – The Meaning of Dialectics
Dialectics are a means of studying complexity (such as modern society) by focusing on process and change rather that static ‘things’. Marx uses this way of thinking to examine capitalism from the perspective of the whole rather than breaking it up into individual constituent parts. In other words Marx’s scope is the whole of capitalism as a coherent system rather than the separate individual elements which are assumed by standard scholarship. A system who’s parts have been treated as separate can never reestablished in its integrity.
Dialectical research is therefore primarily directed to finding and tracing four kinds of relations:
- interpenetration of opposites
All parts to be studied together as processes in relations of mutual dependence. Study starts with the whole. Abstraction is an important part of doing this in practice, allowing any one aspect to put under the spotlight at any one time.
Step 2 – Social Relations as Subject Matter
Analysis uses categories and concepts, each one of which is a component of society as a whole “an abstract one-sided relation of an already given concrete and living aggregate”. In a ‘common sense’ view, social factors are logically independent of but related to each other, and it is possible to think of one existing without the others.
To Marx all these factors are relations in themselves, and each a facet of the whole. And each is in continual motion – linked to both the past and the future.
“What emerges from this interpretation is that the problem Marx faces in his analysis is not how to link separate parts but how to individuate instrumental units in a social whole that finds expression everywhere”.
To me this, this is like taking a 3d polygon and turning it around and around depending on which face we want to analyse at any time. The polygon remains the same shape throughout, but different aspects come to the fore depending on which face we are looking at.
Step 2 – Philosophy of Internal Relations
A controversial approach which Ollman ascribes to Marx and other major thinkers such as Spinoza and Leibniz. In short it is a view that describes the relationships between ‘things’ as being internal to those things themselves. In other words in describing wage labour it is also possible to see within it capital, commodities, exchange, and all the other fundamental categories of capitalism. Capitalism is the totality of all these things (including both their past – how they developed, and their future – what they are developing into). We can isolate one aspect for detailed analysis, but the connections to the rest of capitalism and to it’s own past and future are integral relations within it and not separate and isolated.
The opening chapters of Capital dealing with commodities are a good example of Marx using this approach in practice.
Ollman invests quite some time in addressing a number of challenges to this approach, but it seems to me that as a philosophy it is a sensible approach, and explains Marx’s analysis well. Ollman characterises the alternative as a set of static ‘things’ with relationships as separated interconnections between them, and this doesn’t truly seem to reflect reality, or Marx’s approach to analysing and investigating it.