Dance of the Dialectic notes #2

A second batch of notes from reading “Dance of the Dialectic” by Bertell Ollman, following on from the post covering the first 2 steps.

Step 3 – Putting Dialectics to Work: the Process of Abstraction in Marx’s Method

“How, in other words, can we think about change and interaction so as not to miss or distort the real changes and interactions that we know in a general way at least, are there (with all the implications this has for how to study them and to communicate what we find to others)? This is the key problem addressed by dialectics, this is what all dialectics is about, and it is in helping to resolve this problem that Marx turns to the process of abstraction.”

All philosophers use abstraction. Marx’s use of abstraction differs by incorporating both change and interaction in to the element abstracted. Rather than comparing two static snapshots, Marx includes both past and future. This approach is dramatically different from the ‘usual’ when where ‘things’ exist and undergo change as two logically distinct elements of thought.

This leads Ollman to a restatement of the earlier section on the Philosophy of Internal Relations – presumably because the book is in fact a collection of articles published elsewhere and fashioned into a book after the fact.

There are then three main aspects to abstraction “which are also it’s functions vis-a-vis the part abstracted, on the one hand, and the system to which the part belongs and that it in turn helps to shape, on the other hand”:

  • Extension;
  • Level of generality;
  • Vantage point.


Abstraction of extensions operates like different levels of magnification in a microscope. Marx criticises political economists for drawing abstractions that are too narrow in scope – for example commodity exchange is substituted for the whole process by which a product becomes a commodity and subsequently available for exchange.

As an example, an abstraction of extension underpins Marx’s claim that capital and labour are “expressions of the same relation, only seen from opposite poles”.

Abstraction of extension also impacts the classifications that Marx makes. It means that he does not define clean boundaries between different structures. Their extent depends on the abstraction in play. One can work solely at the level of appearances – what Marx calls ‘fetishism’. Class is particularly impacted with the statements “all history is the history of class struggle” and “class is the product of the bourgeoisie” which are seemingly contradictory dictated by the abstraction Marx is operating at.

Abstraction of extension also support capturing the movement which Marx wants to investigate. Ollman identifies a number of sub-movements:

  • Quantity/quality – historical change;
  • Metamorphosis – organic change;
  • Contradiction – a union of two or more processes which are simultaneously supporting and undermining each other.
    • mutual support;
    • mutual undermining;
    • immanent unfolding of processes, contradiction becomes bigger, sharper, more explosive;
    • change in overall form as a result of interactions with other processes in the larger system;
    • resolution (may not be permanent).

“Commodity, for example, is said to embody the contradiction between use and exchange value as well as the contradiction between private and social labour. To contain both contradictions, commodity must be given a large enough extension to include the interaction between the two aspects of value as well as teh interaction between the two aspects of labour, and both of them as they develop over time”.

Level of Generality

Ollman gives five levels which he states Marx uses, plus two extra to complete a set of seven:

  1. The unique, specific to each individual;
  2. What is general to people and their activities within modern capitalism;
  3. Capitalism as such;
  4. Class society, the period of human history where society is divided by class;
  5. Human history;
  6. The animal world;
  7. Nature itself.

All the associated qualities are equally real, but different elements will come into focus depending on the level we are operating on. Marx usually operates on level 3, but occasionally on levels 2 or 4. Bourgeois political economists normally operate on either level 1 or 5 – that is it either treats individuals as entirely unique or as all the same, part of human nature.

A good example of this in action is the Labour Theory of Value. Marx is seeking to explain only why products have a price at all, not the specific price of an individual product. He is operating at level 3. To explain the price of an product and the fluctuations of the market means “abstracting in” both levels 2 and 1. As such, the “transformation problem” of values into prices disappears once we acknowledge what level of abstraction Marx is operating at.

Marx’s approach to economic determinism in history is similarly often misunderstood through failing to see how it might operate at the different levels of generality. Moving down through the levels creates constraints to what is possible at a lower level.

Vantage Point

The same relation viewed from different angles creates apparent contradictions in Marx’s work. For example the state is treated as both an instrument of the ruling class and a set of objective structures that respond to the demands of the economy.

“A vantage point sets up a perspective that colours everything that falls into it, establishing order, hierarchy, and priorities, distributing values, meanings, and degrees of relevance, and asserting a distinctive coherence between the parts.” Viewing something from a particular vantage point is inherent to the concept of a Relation.

Capital and Labour can be seen as the same Relation viewed from opposite poles. Marx favours vantage points connected with production, for example viewing profit, rent, and interest from the vantage point of surplus value – the identity they have in common as portions of value produced by workers that is not returned to them. Vantage point constrains the visible identity of any individual – capitalists are seen as non-gendered representatives of capital for example. The metamorphosis of value can only be seen when the vantage point is ‘value’.

The Role of Abstractions in the Debates over Marxism

Differences in abstraction are at the root of many of the debates in Marxism. Things such as the role of economic determinism or human agency; or whether crises are caused by the falling rate of profit or the realization of value.

Each side is seeking a permanent boundary in Marx’s thought, when in fact Marx can pursue analysis across all the levels of generality and from various vantage points with differing extensions.


2 thoughts on “Dance of the Dialectic notes #2

  1. Pingback: Dance of the Dialectic notes #3 | A Very Marx Adventure

  2. Pingback: Dance of the Dialectic notes #4 | A Very Marx Adventure

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s