Dissecting dialectics

“One step forward, two steps back,” the old saying goes. While many – if not most – people understand the logic behind this old saying, very few of us understand the steps in Marx’s dialectic method. In fact, Marx’s dialectics method of inquiry, understanding, abstraction, generality, and vantage point has seldom been systematically broken down and explained in a concise and easily understood way.

Bertell Ollman, in his most recent book, “Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Method,” does just that. Ollman, a professor of politics at New York University, does an excellent job of engaging readers familiar with Marx, and those not so familiar.

Unlike other scholars, Ollman’s writing style is short and to the point. And his grasp of Marxism is impressive. In “Step 1,” Ollman explains the meaning of dialectics. According to Ollman, dialectics “restructures our thinking about reality by replacing our commonsense notion of ‘thing’ ... with notions of ‘process’ ... and ‘relation.’”

Dialectics, unlike other ways of viewing and understanding society and social development, starts from the premise that everything is in a constant state of motion and change, interconnected and related to other social phenomenon, never in isolation.

Where others incorrectly begin their process of inquiry “with some small part and through establishing its connections to other such parts tries to reconstruct the larger whole, dialectical research begins with the whole, the system, or as much of it one understands, and then proceeds to an examination of the part ... leading eventually to an understanding of the whole from which one has begun.”

In “Step 3,” the process of abstraction is discussed. Abstract comes from the Latin word abstrahere, which means “to pull from.” Ollman writes, “In one sense, the role Marx gives to abstraction is simple recognition of the fact that all thinking about reality begins by breaking it down into manageable parts.”

Marx, in his method of abstraction, only focuses on some qualities and relations. He sets up boundaries, incorporating into his method change, interaction, and internal relationships that get to the heart of capitalism.

He also projects, based on his studies of how society has actually developed, in the past and present, how society may change in its process of becoming.

For example, capital “is not simply the material means of production used to produce wealth, which is how it is abstracted in the works of most economists.

“Rather it includes ... ‘Primitive Accumulation’ ... whatever has made it possible for it to produce the kind of wealth it does in just the way that it does. ... Furthermore, as part of its becoming capital … [includes] concentration and centralization and the effect of this tendency on ... a world market and [it also includes the] eventual transition to socialism,” writes Ollman.

Ollman also explains Marx’s vantage point, “or place from which to view the elements of any particular Relation and ... the larger system to which this Relation belongs.”

For example, workers who try to make sense of their society “are likely to include ‘labor,’ ‘factory,’ and ‘machine’ – especially ‘labor,’ which puts the activity that is chiefly responsible for social change – at the front and center of their thinking.”

According to Ollman, “for capitalists, just the opposite is the case. Their lives and work incline them to start making sense of their situation with the aid of ‘price,’ ‘competition,’ ‘profit,’ and other abstractions drawn from the marketplace.”

“Dance of the Dialectic” consists of 12 chapters, broken down into five steps. While most of the chapters were first published as essays in scholarly journals or other books over the years, their subject matter, dialectics, remains as timely as ever. Anybody interested in a better understanding of Marx’s dialectical method should read “Dance of the Dialectic.”

The author can be reached at tonypec@pww.org