Tag Archives: Philosophy

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’.


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.

The Poverty of Theory

I wrote recently about some basic elements of the ‘structuralist’ Marxism of Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar. The historian EP Thompson wrote a superb polemic against this strand of thinking published with other essays in the book “The Poverty of Theory” published in 1978 (a title which references Marx’s polemic against Proudhon “The Poverty of Philosophy”). In this post I will try to capture some of the key points raised by Thompson.

What comes across most strongly from Thompson’s argument is that he is an empirical historian. For him Marx provides a set of analytical tools, a method to interrogate history. He therefore wholeheartedly rejects Althusser’s criticisms of both empiricism and historicism. For Althusser it seems Marxism is  a predefined set of structures to which history must be made to fit. This makes no sense to Thompson the professional historian, whose Marxism is part of his professional toolkit with which to interrogate the world.

In particular this imposition of a structured mode of production as the determining factor can only be brought from outside the human experience of history. In this sense, what the structuralist approach to Marxism has done is to create something that is idealist in nature. It depends on imposing a process developed entirely within thought to the analysis of history.

For Thompson the dominant or determining structure of Althusser is rigid and mechanical. Everything is made to fit within a pre-determined structure. A strait jacket or orrery which in practice operates as a limit on the analysis of actual historical events, and therefore a hindrance. Humans end up excluded from their own history which is determined in thought by the dominant structure  before it is acted or written.

It is here that Thompson makes a link to Stalinism, which also placed limits around what it was possible or permissible to think. While claiming to be high philosophy, Althusser’s approach is similarly dogmatic. Structuralist Marxism is a means for looking down at history from above and channeling thought, rather than for broad and open exploration.

Finally Althusser argues that Dialectical Materialism constitutes a new science, inaugurated by Marx. Thompson strongly refutes this. The dynamic human relationships which are so important to Marx’s thought cannot be reduced to the procedures of the physical sciences. There are forces whch drive human activity and thought, but agency and contingency remain important factors. Marx’s line from the “Eighteenth Brumaire of Louise Bonaparte” is entirely relevant:

“Men make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted.”

Human agency is important, we do make our own history. But we are not Robinson Crusoe. We operate within and are constrained by the society and economy of our times.

I do find that the structuralist approach to Marxism defined by Althusser and Balibar attractive. It works through in an extreme form the sort of thought process which does form a valid part of Marxism. But most of Thompson’s criticism is valid. Marxism is not a mechanical science, but a way of approaching analysis – something which becomes clear in Marx’s own work such as the Class Struggles in France and the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

The Communist Hypothesis

The Communist Hypothesis is a book by French philosopher Alain Badiou published in translation by Verso in 2010 (the French edition appearing in 2009).

It is a fascinating book which investigates strands of failure within radical and communist movements over the last 100 years or so from our modern perspective living with the aftermath of the 2007-9 financial crisis. The basic premise is that despite the visible failure of communism during the twentieth century we should continue to believe that that a more equal society is possible. That we should not “renounce the whole problem of emancipation”. In particular, that communism has and should continue to learn from it’s failures. As Badiou states in the Preamble:

“It will be argued here… that the apparent, and sometimes bloody, failures of events closely bound up with the communist hypothesis were and are stages in its history.”

Badiou identifies three specific failures. First where an open attempt at revolution where power has been seized if only briefly is crushed by counter-revolution. The second is where a broad movement, seeking change but not truly aiming for power, is forced to retreat as the old order reasserts itself. The third is the failure of a state which has already declared itself ‘socialist’ to truly transform itself into the sort of free association envisaged by Marx. Three examples are used to illustrate these categories. The Paris Commune for the first, May 1968 in France for the second, and the Cultural Revolution in China for the third.

In his assessment of May 1968 Badiou examines the growth of a spontaneous uprising eventually forced into retreat. He outlines how the traditional structures of the left – party, trade union – acted as a constraint, a barrier to the struggle of students and young workers. This new radicalism blossomed in some ways because of the lack of an internal hierarchy to restrain it. And yet having shaken the status quo, the insurgent movement found that without that hierarchy it was impossible to sustain the gains made. The old order reasserted itself and the result was two decades of ‘betrayal’ by the leadership of the ‘left’.

Badiou clearly admires the Cultural Revolution. which he portrays as Mao’s attempt to overcome the growing bureaucracy of the communist Chinese state. Once again the theme here is the mobilisation of the masses in opposition to the hierarchies of the organised left. The end result is violence and bloodshed, but the goal of developing alternative structures and ways of organising the mass of people is valid.

Finally Badiou approaches the Paris Commune, first as standard history, then through high philosophy. That the mass of anonymous workers can seize control in defiance of existing political leadership makes this unique. An ‘event’ visible throughout subsequent communist history, influencing all those revolutionaries following in it’s wake and as shocking now as it was at the time. This is the least accessible part of the book, but creates the communist ‘Idea’ developing the thread which connects it to both May 1968 and the Cultural Revolution.

Which leads us to Badiou’s conclusion. We should not lose sight of the communist idea despite a century of experiments with a communist state. After these experiences the ‘party’ is no longer relevant as the key organisation leading the revolution. Despite this the recent neoliberal reaction may in fact be coming to an end, in which case the focus for progressives of the left should be on finding new forms of organisation.

Revolutionaries are divided and only weakly organised, broad sectors of working class youth have fallen prey to nihilistic despair, the vast majority of intellectuals are servile… nonetheless more and more of us are involved in organising new types of political processes among the poor and working masses”

The book finishes with this call to arms, encouraging us to join intellectual activity with practical action to “usher in the third era of [the communist] Idea’s existence”. As a dialectical examination of 150 years of communist experiments and failure and how the experience could be used to influence current practice the book is an insightful contribution, although perhaps somewhat optimistic about the prospects for success.

Hegel and the dialectics of history

Reading “Absolute Recoil” by Slavoj Zizek has been a challenge. But within all the dense philosophical detail there are some passages which have really chimed with me. I wanted to capture this this particular passage about Hegel and a properly dialectical approach to historical change in full:

“…from the historicist standpoint, every historical figure has its moment of maturity which is then followed by the period of decay. Capitalism, say, was progressive up until the middle of the nineteenth century, when it had to be supported in its struggle against pre-modern forms of life; but with the aggravation of class struggle, capitalism became an obstacle to the further progress of humanity and will have to be overcome in its turn. For a proper dialectician, there is no moment of maturity when a system functions in a non-antagonistic way: paradoxical as it may sound, capitalism was at the same time “progressive” and antagonistic, in decay, and the threat of its decay is the very motor of its “progress” (capitalism has to revolutionize itself constantly to cope with its constitutive “obstacle”). The family and the state are thus not simply the two poles of the social Whole; it is rather that society has to split itself from itself in order to become One – it is this tearing apart of the social Whole, this division itself which “brings society itself into being in the first place by articulating its first great differentiations, that of warrior versus priest.”…

…every social articulation is by definition always “inorganic”, antagonistic. The lesson of this insight is that, whenever we read a description of how an original unity gets corrupted and splits, we should remember that we are dealing with a retroactive ideological fantasy that obfuscates the fact that this original unity never existed, that it is a retroactive projection generated by the process of splitting – there never was a harmonious state whose unity was split into warriors and priests.”

This passage smoothly outlines a point that is often missed. Capitalism was antagonistic from the start. Its very ‘progressiveness’ is driven by its need to overcome its contradictions to survive.