Category Archives: Marxism

Marx and Nationalism

Marx’s writings from the Neue Rheinische Zeitung at the time of the 1848 revolutions contain some controversial comments on nationality, and especially the Slav countries which at the time formed part of the Austro-Hungarian empire including modern Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Slovenia. A number of these articles are published in translation by Verso in the first volume of their collections of Marx’s political writings.

Lifting just a few quotes out of the articles on the “Magyar Struggle” or on ” Democratic Pan-Slavism” it is hard not to see an outrageous German chauvinism in these writings.

“The historical role of the South Slavs had thus come to an end for all time.” (Marx 2010, 218)

“Does a single one of these peoples… possess a national historical tradition…?” (Marx 2010, 221)

“… this national refuse is always the fanatical representative of the counter-revolution and remains so until it is completely exterminated or de-nationalised” (Marx 2010, 221)

“… the Austrian Germans… will gain their freedom and take a bloody revenge on the Slav barbarians.” (Marx 2010, 225)

“… the general war that will then break out will… annihilate all these small pigheaded nations even to their very names.” (Marx 2010, 225)

These articles are part of a series in which Marx is analysing the failures of 1848, and the forces mobilised by the Austrian and Prussian regimes to overcome the nascent revolution, and this context is significant. To put this in the context of the analysis of Marx’s mode of thinking outlined by Bertell Ollman, Marx is operating at a lower (and very particular) level of abstraction. In other words, Marx is not making a general point, but criticising the specific current conjuncture.

In fact what I think Marx is trying to do here is to criticise the shift towards pan-Slavism among the potentially revolutionary classes in Eastern and South Eastern Europe, and how this led political leaders who prioritised nationality to look to Russia for support and turn away from revolution. As the leader of the Holy Alliance Russia represented a primary threat to any hopes of revolution across Europe, a prop to the existing absolutist regimes. He is criticising nationalism as it is used to deflect from support for the revolution. As he states later on:

“Let us in any case have no illusions about this. With all pan-Slavists, nationality, ie. imaginary, general Slav nationality, comes before the revolution [Marx’s italics].” (Marx 2010, 244)

In other words this is Marx tackling one of the pitfalls facing the modern left. In the UK the UK Independence Party, in the US Donald Trump, and in France Marine Le Pen have all used appeals to nationalism with some success to pursue the support of the working class. In these articles Marx doesn’t find a strategy to tackle this beyond shrill denunciation. The modern left is similarly struggling to find an answer to the modern version of the same problem.

The articles in question are included in The Revolutions of 1848, Karl Marx, Verso London 2010.

Dance of the Dialectic notes #4

A fourth and final set of rough notes taken while reading “Dance of the Dialectic” by Bertell Ollman, following the first, second, and third chunks.

Step 5

Critical Realism in Light of Marx’s Process of Abstraction

Broadly a restatement of earlier parts of Ollman’s book, particularly the use of abstraction and a philosophy of internal relations, as it might be used to alter and enhance the work of “Critical Realism”, primarily the work of Roy Bhaskar.

Marx’s Dialectical Method is More Than a Mode of Exposition

This section takes issue with an analysis which considers dialectics to be solely Marx’s means of exposition, of expressing his analysis. Rather that dialectics used by Marx in a complex intellectual process – first using the process to analyse and gain insight, then  reconstruct that analysis in his own thought. Only then can Marx uses what is in fact a carefully calibrated subset to attempt to explain his analysis to others.

In fact, Marx’s internal analysis is more complex and nuanced than shown in his published works which were carefully written for a more general audience. Therefore the key works to understand what he “really thought” are the Paris Manuscripts and Grundisse.

Why Does the Emperor Need the Yakuza?

In the final chapter, Ollman uses some of this mechanism of analysis to assess the Japanese state as a practical demonstration.

Dance of the Dialectic notes #3

A third batch of rough notes while reading Bertell Ollman’s “Dance of the Dialectic” following on from the first and second installments.

Step 4

Studying History Backwards

For Marx, the best approach to studying how the past developed into the present is to work backwards from effect to cause – instead of more usual assessments of the influence of the “economic factor” in tracing causality forwards. This is rooted again the philosophy of internal relations. His approach is therefore rather “precondition and result”, the two things viewed dynamically. Investigating how something comes into being is done from results backwards through the necessary preconditions – ie. from the vantage point of what things turned into.

Ollman emphasises that this is not teleological – nothing is inevitable. Rather it is a question of what had to happen to make just this present possible. This is not to deny human agency – people could have chosen differently. Vantage point is the key. The alternative in writing history is to make choices about what to focus on based on criteria outside the historical process itself.

Marx’s interest in eg. feudalism is therefore not in explaining feudalism but looking for the things which were important in the rise of capitalism.

The section on the future is far less convincing. Marx projects current trends into the future to identify what communism might look like using the same tools, but this short segment is weak.

Dialectic as Inquiry and Exposition

As inquiry, the methods outlined (internal relations, abstraction, and the various dialectical tools) provide the means by which Marx investigates his subject. “The dialectic as inquiry is the search for internal relations within and between abstracted units”.

As exposition, the dialectic “is Marx’s means of expounding these relations to his readers”. The difficulty of making language explain the analysis explains why Marx continually reworked Capital for example. Main features include dealing with each subject from many vantage points, along with following each subject through the particular forms it assumes at different times and in different contexts.

Marx assumes or masks the larger part of what he identifies in a Relation in order to be able to express and explain the point he is trying to bring out. In other words we only see part of the meaning he sees or is trying to convey. He uses many different phrases to signal this, including ‘reflection’, ‘manifestation’, ‘in one of its aspects’.

The ‘identity’ of things which are seemingly different (“division of labour and private property are identical expressions”) causes confusion among critics. Critics also tend to look for causal relationships “setting apart horse and cart where Marx meant each conception to convey both”.

Marxism and Political Science

Marxism has not to date formed a significant part in political science. But he does have a theory of the state, albeit not one that is written clearly in a single place. Underneath these theories is Marx’s concern to locate relations within a system and depicting the effects of that system on the relational parts.

Ollman then restates Marx’s method, stating that it exists on 5 levels:

  1. Ontology: study of ‘being’. Marx asserts that reality exists outside us, but as a totality of internally related parts.
  2. Epistemology: how what is known is arranged in thought.
  3. Inquiry: what Marx is looking for and how he understands what he finds.
  4. Intellectual reconstruction.
  5. Exposition: how to explain capitalism as a system of structural interdependence relationally contained in each of it’s parts.

Ontology: the conception of ‘totality’ is the structured independence of its parts – interacting events, processes, and conditions – as viewed from any major part. This is contrasted to a structuralist conception which asserts the predominance of the parts over the whole.

Epistemology: four interlocking processes – perception; abstraction (how Marx separates what is perceived into distinct units); conceptualisation (the translation of what is abstracted into concepts with which to think and communicate); orientation (the effects abstractions have on his beliefs, judgements, and action). This last point is important. What any group believes and does is inextricably linked to the ways in which it grasps and defends both.

Inquiry: tracing out relations between units, frequently changing vantage point to see it from all angles.

Intellectual reconstruction: Marx’s ontology is the world as an internally related whole; he breaks this down into relational units with structured independence which through inquiry he traces the links between. Ollman suggests that Marx’s personal understanding is not the same as the analysis in his published work. The key difference in his work is not between the young or old Marx, but between the published and unpublished. The key texts to trace his personal understanding are the 1844 Manuscripts and the Grundisse.

His reconstruction is a success because a) having connected the main parts he is able to catch a glimpse of the overall system at work in each of them; b) the reconstruction is both ‘superstructure’ and ‘base’, the key contradiction being between social production and private appropriation.

“The decisive distinction between radicals and liberals is that the latter understand most social problems as relatively independent and haphazard happenings and try to solve them one at a time. Not aware of their shared identity as interrelated parts of the capitalist system, they cannot deal with these ills at the only level on which a successful solution is possible, on the level of the whole society, and are reduced in the last analysis to alternating between the extremes of condemnation and despair.”

Exposition: comprehension and explanation are distinct functions and involve different techniques. Marx attempts to explain capitalism from the perspective of each major social Relation. It seems that he was broadly dissatisfied though as he continually revised Capital for each new edition. As a book it is best approached as offering “successive approximations” looking at various different angles in turn.

“force the frozen circumstances to dance by singing to them their own melody.”

Why Dialectics, Why Now?

A recapitulation of the analysis that history should be studied “backwards”, using abstraction to bring out the patterns in which most change and interaction occur, and study in a way which never loses sight of how the whole is present in the part.

Four stages to this study:

  1. Look for relations between the main capitalist features of society;
  2. Find the necessary preconditions of just those relations;
  3. Project these into the future;
  4. Look backwards from the projected future to identify what in the present would form the preconditions for that future state.

We can differentiate between near and far futures, marking the need for a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.


The End of Liberalism

Slavoj Zizek has not had a good 2016 US election, arguing that Trump is just another centrist liberal and that given a vote he would vote for Trump.

There have been a number of explanations given in the regular media for Trump’s unexpected victory, but common among them is that racism is at the core of his success. Should we ascribe Trump’s win to intolerance? And what are the implications if we do? Is it the “whitelash” identified by some commentators?

Then I came across this passage in “Living in the End Times” from 2010, in which Zizek gives a typically eclectic take on “the coming apocalypse”, and I thought about the light it throws on the liberal media reaction:

“of course I am not against tolerance per se; what I oppose is the (contemporary and automatic) perception of racism as a problem of intolerance. Why are so many problems today perceived as problems of intolerance, rather than as problems of inequality, exploitation, or injustice? Why is the proposed remedy tolerance, rather than emancipation, political struggle, or even armed struggle? The source of this culturalisation is defeat, the failure of directly political solutions such as the social-democratic welfare state or various social projects…”

There can be no doubt that Trump ran an openly racist election campaign. It is also clear that race is an important influencing factor in US politics and society. Exit poll data suggests that 58% of white voters voted for Trump which at face value seems to suggest that Trump’s outward racism had a significant impact, that intolerance was at the heart of his success. But 57% of white voters chose Romney in 2012 so perhaps race isn’t the unique factor behind Trump’s success.

Similarly, 53% of voters with an income below $30,000 voted for Clinton which would seem to support the standard narrative. Poorer voters supported the Democratic candidate and therefore Trump’s victory was driven by angry white people, and economics had nothing to do with it.

And yet.

That 53% of voters in the under $30,000 income bracket voting for Clinton was 16 points down on Obama’s performance against Romney. 90% of voters who thought the country “generally on the right” track voted Hillary, but just 25% of those who thought it seriously off track. 63% of those who expected their children to have a worse life than today voted for Trump. Hillary was the continuity candidate, maintaining the existing economic settlement. The 53% from the lowest income bracket voting for Hillary masks the catastrophic shift to Trump. The economics is important.

In other words analysing Trump’s victory in terms of race (or gender, or sexuality) is an example of the left’s subordination to “identity politics”. By seeing politics through the lens of individual identities the left has lost sight of the economic system which colours voters’ willingness to support a continuation of the current state of affairs.

Although inflected by race and misogyny Trump’s pitch was aimed fundamentally at “the system”, a system which isn’t working for a large chunk of the population. His overt racism is part of the narrative he adopted to attracted voters disaffected voters.

The challenge for the left is therefore not to demand tolerance from a Trump administration but to lead social and economic change in a progressive direction. To change the system.

This leads to a final quote from Bertell Ollman’s “Dance of the Dialectic“.

“The decisive distinction between radicals and liberals is that the latter understand most social problems as relatively independent and haphazard happenings and try to solve them one at a time. Not aware of their shared identity as interrelated parts of the capitalist system, they cannot deal with these ills at the only level on which a successful solution is possible, on the level of the whole society, and are reduced in the last analysis to alternating between the extremes of condemnation and despair.”

The left in both the US and Western Europe has approached social and economic change as separated things which can be tackled individually. In the face of Trump we need to avoid both condemnation and despair and instead craft a genuinely progressive movement for change.

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.

Dance of the Dialectic notes #1

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:

  • identity/difference
  • interpenetration of opposites
  • quantity/quality
  • contradiction

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.

Accumulated Past Labour and Post Capitalism

Capitalism as a system is based on the continuous accumulation of wealth through the appropriation of surplus labour. One consequence of this is the steady growth in the stock of capital driving enormous changes in productivity. British steel, currently in the news, demonstrates this clearly. Output may have fallen by just over half in the last 40 years from 29m tonnes to 12.5m tonnes, but over the same period the number of people employed dropped by 90%, implying a dramatic increase in productivity over the same period.

This steady accumulation of the outputs of past labour, when held in private ownership, stands opposed to the living. It becomes something which both ensures the continuation of the owner-owned relationship and conditions what work means so that it becomes possible to talk about a half-mile long rolling mill controlled by a shift of 12 workers. In other words it has both a quantitative and a qualitative aspect.

The domination of the past over the present is a theme in Marx discussed in Fredric Jameson’s “Representing Capital”, a book which I reviewed a short while ago. As Jameson writes, it is not the structural relationship between the worker and their tools which is significant, but the sheer volume of capital set in motion. The human becomes an adjunct to the tools with the rhythm of work dictated by the needs of machinery.

“The quantities of the past have been rendered invisible by the production process outlined above, and yet they now surround the worker in a proportion hitherto unthinkable.”

(“Representing Capital”, Jameson, Verso London 2014, p. 102)

The past is therefore ever-present and “towers above” the worker dwarfing “even his collective presence” (ibid). When the means of (re)production are so massive their private ownership is an almost insurmountable barrier to change.

It is however this vast accumulation, and the productivity potential which it brings, that forms one of the key planks underpinning the strand of “post-capitalism” thinking on the left – exemplified in books by Paul Mason and Nick Srnicek & Alex Williams. Modern productive capacity has the potential to truly change the way society is organised, but the structure of existing social relations left unchanged seem likely to lead instead to rising inequality and unemployment as automation becomes more prevalent.

As Srnicek & Williams write:

“Today we see the occluded potential of this approach everywhere, in the fact that the technologies for achieving classic leftist goals (reduced work, increased abundance, greater democratic control) are more available than ever before. The problem is that they remain encased within social relations that obscure these potentials and render them impotent.”

(“Inventing the Future”, Srnicek & Williams, Verso London 2015, p. 150)

The challenge for the left then is how to build a movement which might break these social relations and create something else to take advantage of this potential. Both Srnicek & Williams and Mason have suggestions for how this might be achieved but it is still not clear how a movement which is both intellectually coherent and yet also an ‘organic’ mass movement of the people can be realised – something with Srnicek & Williams rightly identify as a key failing of “Occupy” and other modern protest movements.