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Why Dialectics? Why Now?
by Bertell Ollman
Part IThe law locks up the man or woman
Who steals a goose from off the common,
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from under the goose.
—15th century, English, Anonymous
The commons, of course, was the land owned by everyone in the village. By the late middle ages, feudal lords were claiming this land as their own private property. In universities today, we can discern two opposing kinds of scholarship, that which studies the people who steal a goose from off the commons (“Goose From Off the Commons Studies,” or G.F.O.C. for short) and that which studies those who steal the commons from under the goose (“Commons From Under the Goose Studies,” or C.F.U.G. for short). If the “mainstream” in practically every discipline consists almost entirely of the former, Marxism is our leading example of the latter.
But whereas seeing someone steal a goose from off the commons is a relatively simple matter—you only have to be there, to open your eyes, and to look—seeing someone steal the commons from under the goose is not, neither then nor now (Russia today is a possible exception). Here, the theft is accomplished only gradually; the person acting is often an agent for someone else; force is used, but so are laws and ideology. In short, to recognize a case of C.F.U.G., one has to grasp the bigger picture and the longer time that it takes for it to come together. It’s not easy, but there is nothing that we study that is more important. Hence—and no matter what happened in the Soviet Union and in China—Marxism will continue to be relevant until we reclaim the commons from those who stole it from us and who go on helping themselves to it with impunity right up to this moment.
Just how difficult it is to grasp the bigger picture was recently brought home to us when a group of astronomers announced that they had discovered what they called “The Great Attractor.” This is a huge structure composed of many galaxies that is exerting a strong attraction on our galaxy and therefore on our solar system and on the planet on which we live. When questioned as to why something so big was not discovered earlier, one of the astronomers replied that its very size was responsible for the delay. These scientists had focused so intently on its parts that they couldn’t see what they were parts of.
Capitalism … has a major effect on everything going on inside it, but it is so big and so omnipresent that few see it.
Capitalism is a huge structure very similar to the Great Attractor. It, too, has a major effect on everything going on inside it, but it is so big and so omnipresent that few see it. In capitalism, the system consists of a complex set of relations between all people, their activities (particularly material production) and products. But this interaction is also evolving, so the system includes the development of this interaction over time, stretching back to its origins and forward to whatever it is becoming. The problem people have in seeing capitalism, then—and recognizing instances of G.F.O.C. Studies when they occur—comes from the difficulty of grasping such a complex set of relations that are developing in this way and on this scale.
No one will deny, of course, that everything in society is related in some way and that the whole of this is changing, again in some way and at some pace. Yet, most people try to make sense of what is going on by viewing one part of society at a time, isolating and separating it from the rest, and treating it as static. The connections between such parts, like their real history and potential for further development, are considered external to what each one really is, and therefore not essential to a full or even adequate understanding of any of them. As a result, looking for these connections and their history becomes more difficult than it has to be. They are left for last or left out completely, and important aspects of them are missed, distorted, or trivialized. It’s what might be called the Humpty Dumpty problem. After the fall, it was not only extremely hard to put the pieces of poor Humpty together again, but even to see where they fit. This is what happens whenever the pieces of our everyday experience are taken as existing separate from their spatial and historical contexts, whenever the part is given an ontological status independent of the whole.
The alternative, the dialectical alternative, is to start by taking the whole as given, so that the interconnections and changes that make up the whole are viewed as inseparable from what anything is, internal to its being, and therefore essential to a full understanding of it. In the history of ideas, this has been called the “philosophy of internal relations.” No new facts have been introduced. We have just recognized the complex relations and changes that everyone admits to being in the world in a way that highlights rather than dismisses or minimizes them in investigating any problem. The world of independent and essentially dead “things” has been replaced in our thinking by a world of “processes in relations of mutual dependence.” This is the first step in thinking dialectically. But we still don’t know anything specific about these relations.
In order to draw closer to the subject of study, the next step is to abstract out the patterns in which most change and interaction occur. A lot of the specialized vocabulary associated with dialectics—“contradiction,” “quantity-quality change,” “interpenetration of polar opposites,” “negation of the negation,” etc.—is concerned with this task. Reflecting actual patterns in the way things change and interact, these categories also serve as ways of organizing for purposes of thought and inquiry whatever it is they embrace. With their help, we can study the particular conditions, events and problems that concern us in a way that never loses sight of how the whole is present in the part, how it helps to structure the part, supplying it with a location, a sense and a direction. Later, what is learned about the part(s) is used to deepen our understanding of the whole, how it functions, how it has developed, and where it is tending. Both analysis and synthesis display this dialectical relation.
… what is learned about the part(s) is used to deepen our understanding of the whole …
What’s called “dialectical method” might be broken down into six successive moments. There is an ontological one having to do with what the world really is (an infinite number of mutually dependent processes with no clear or fixed boundaries that coalesce to form a loosely structured whole or totality). There is the epistemological moment that deals with how to organize our thinking in order to understand such a world (as indicated, this involves opting for a philosophy of internal relations and abstracting out the chief patterns in which change and interaction occur as well as the main parts in and between which they are seen to occur). There is the moment of inquiry where, based on an assumption of internal relations between all parts, one uses the categories that convey these patterns along with a set of priorities derived from Marx’s theories as aids to investigation. There is the moment of intellectual reconstruction or self-clarification, where one puts together the results of such research for oneself. This is followed by the moment of exposition where, using a strategy that takes account of how others think as well as what they know, one tries to explain this dialectical grasp of the “facts” to a particular audience. And, finally, there is the moment of praxis where, based on whatever clarification has been reached, one consciously acts in the world, changing it and testing it and deepening one’s understanding of it all at the same time.
These six moments are not traversed once and for all, but again and again, as every attempt to understand and expound dialectical truths and to act upon them improves one’s ability to organize one’s thinking dialectically and to inquire further and deeper into the mutually dependent processes to which we also belong. In writing about dialectics, therefore, one must be very careful not to single out any one moment—as so many thinkers do—at the expense of the others. Only in their internal relations do these six moments constitute a workable and immensely valuable dialectical method.
Dialectics is necessary … to help us develop a political strategy to reclaim the commons.
So—Why Dialectics? Because that’s the only sensible way to study a world composed of mutually dependent processes in constant evolution, and also to interpret Marx, who is our leading investigator into this world. Dialectics is necessary just to see capitalism, given its vastness and complexity, and Marxism to help us understand it, to instruct us in how to do “Commons From Under the Goose Studies,” and to help us develop a political strategy to reclaim the commons. Capitalism is completely and always dialectical, so that Marxism will always be necessary to make sense of it, and dialectics to make correct sense of Marxism.
Why now? The current stage of capitalism is characterized by far greater complexity and much faster change and interaction than existed earlier. But if society has never been so imbued with dialectics, the efforts to keep us from grasping what is taking place have never been so systematic or so effective—all of which makes a dialectical understanding more indispensable now than ever before.
Socialism’s sudden loss of credibility as a viable alternative to capitalism, however, a loss largely due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, has given Marxists still another important reason to devote more attention to dialectics, for many socialists, even some who had always been critical of the Soviet Union, have reacted to this recent turn of history by questioning whether any form of socialism is possible. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one result has been a kind of “future shyness” that has afflicted the writings of many on the Left today. What does a critical analysis of capitalism without any accompanying conception of socialism look like? It describes how capitalism works, shows who gets “screwed” and by how much, offers a moral condemnation of same, prescribes —faute de mieux— reformist solutions, and—because these no longer work—lapses into emotional despair and cynicism. Sound familiar?
Marx would not have been pleased, for, despite the absence of any single work on socialism/communism, there are no writings of his, no matter how small, where we are not given some indication of what such a future would be like. If Hegel’s Owl of Minerva comes out and also goes back in at dusk, Marx’s Owl stays around to herald the new dawn. This imaginative reconstruction of the future has been sharply attacked not only by his opponents but by many of Marx’s followers, such as Edward Bernstein (Bernstein, 1961, 204–5, 209–11) and, more recently, Eric Wright (Wright, l995), who view it as a lapse into utopianism that contaminates his otherwise scientific enterprise. But do all discussions of the future have to be “utopian?” With Rosa Luxemburg (Luxemburg, 1966, 40) and others, I do not think it is utopian to believe that a qualitatively better society is possible or to hope that it comes about. What is utopian is to construct this society out of such hopes, to believe, in other words, that such a society is possible without any other reason or evidence but that you desire it.
As opposed to this utopian approach, Marx insisted that communism lies “concealed” inside capitalism, and that he was able to uncover it by means of his analysis (Marx, l973, l59). And elsewhere, he says, “we wish to find the new world through the critique of the old” (Marx, l967, 212). Rather than a moral condemnation, Marx’s “critique of the old” shows that capitalism is having increasing difficulty in reproducing the conditions necessary for its own existence, that it is becoming impossible while, at the same time—and through the same developments—creating the conditions for the new society that will follow. The new world exists within the old in the form of a vast and untapped potential. Marx analyzes capitalism in a way that makes this unfolding potential for turning into its opposite (communism) stand out. As part of this, he is not averse to describing, if only in a general way, what the realization of this potential would look like.
… capitalism is having increasing difficulty in reproducing the conditions necessary for its own existence …
The central place of potential in dialectical thinking has been noted by a variety of thinkers. C.L.R. James refered to the internal relation between actuality and potentiality as “the entire secret” of Hegel’s dialectics (meaning Marx’s as well) (James, 1992, 129). Marcuse claimed to find an insoluble bond between the present and the future in the very meanings of the concepts with which Marx analyzes the present (Marcuse, 1964, 295-6). Maximilien Rubel made a similar point when he suggested, half seriously, that Marx invented a new grammatical form, the “anticipative-indicative,” where every effort to point at something in front of him foreshadows something else that is not yet there (Rubel, 1987, 25). But this still doesn’t explain how Marx does it. Where exactly is the future concealed in the present? And how does Marx’s dialectical method help him to uncover it?
In brief: most of the evidence for the possibility of socialism/communism surrounds us on all sides, and can be seen by everyone. It lies in conditions that don’t seem to have anything particularly socialist about them, such as our developed industries, enormous material wealth, high levels of science, occupational skills, organizational structures, education, and culture; and also in conditions that already have a socialist edge to them, such as workers’ and consumers’ cooperatives, public education, municipal hospitals, political democracy and, in our day, nationalized enterprises. Evidence for socialism can also be found in some of capitalism’s worst problems, such as unemployment and worsening inequality. For Marx and his followers, it is clear that it is the capitalist context in which all these conditions are embedded that keeps them from fulfilling their potential and contributing to a truly human existence. Abstracting from this context, Marxists have no difficulty in looking at our enormous wealth and ability to produce more and seeing an end to material want, or looking at our limited and malfunctioning political democracy and seeing everyone democratically running all of society, or looking at rising unemployment and seeing the possibility of people sharing whatever work is to be done, working fewer hours and enjoying more free time, and so on. Unfortunately, most others who encounter the same evidence don’t see this potential, not even in the parts that have a socialist edge to them. And it is important to consider why they can’t.
… most of the evidence for the possibility of socialism/communism surrounds us on all sides, and can be seen by everyone.
Investigating potential is taking the longer view, not only forward to what something can develop into but also backward to how it has developed up to now. This longer view, however, must be preceded by taking a broader view, since nothing and no one changes on its or his own but only in close relationship with other people and things, that is as part of an interactive system. Hence, however limited the immediate object of interest, investigating its potential requires that we project the evolution of the complex and integrated whole to which it belongs. The notion of potential is mystified whenever it is applied to a part that is separated from its encompassing system or that system is separated from its origins. When that happens, “potential” can only refer to possibility in the sense of chance, for all the necessity derived from the relational and processual character of reality has been removed, and there is no more reason to expect one outcome rather than another.
The crux of the problem most people have in seeing evidence for socialism inside capitalism, then, is that they operate with a conception of the present that is effectively sealed off from the future, at least any notion of the future that grows organically out of the present. There is no sense of the present as a moment through which life, and the rest of reality as the conditions of life, passes from somewhere on its way to somewhere. When someone is completely lost in the past or the future, we have little difficulty recognizing this as a mental illness. Yet, the present completely walled off from either the past or the future (or both) can also serve as a prison for thinking, though “alienation” is a more accurate label for this condition than “neurosis.” Here, people simply take how something appears now for what it really is, what it is in full, and what it could only be. With the exception of the gadgetry found in science fiction, what they call the “future” is filled with social objects that are only slightly modified from how they appear and function in the present.
… the present completely walled off from either the past or the future (or both) can also serve as a prison for thinking …
With this mindset, there is no felt need to trace the relations any thing has with other things as part of a system—even while admitting that such a system exists—for, supposedly, there is nothing essential to be learned about it by doing so. Likewise, operating with narrow, independent parts that are also static, there is no difficulty in admitting that there was a past and will be a future while ignoring both when trying to understand anything in the present. If people can’t see the evidence for socialism that exists all around them, therefore, it is not mainly because of an inability to abstract elements from capitalism and imaginatively project how they might function elsewhere. Rather, and more fundamentally, the conditions they see about them do not seem to belong to any social system at all, so there is no system to take them out of and, equally, no system to insert them into. The systemic and historical characters of both capitalism and socialism that would allow for such projections are simply missing.
Author of the board game Class Struggle, Bertell Ollman is Professor of Politics at New York University and has written widely on Marxist theory: see http://www.dialecticalmarxism.com. He is president of the International Endowment for Democracy, which seeks help from the world’s people for saving US democracy: see http://www.iefd.org
This is the first 3 parts of a 9-part article. The complete article is at http://www.nyu.edu/projects/ollman/docs/why_dialectics.php
Bernstein, Edward. 1909. Evolutionary Socialism. Translated by Edith Harvey. London: Independent Labour Party.
James, C. L. R. 1992. The C.L.R. James Reader. Edited by Anna Grimshaw. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Luxemburg, Rosa. 1966. Reform and Revolution. Translated by Integer. Columbo, Ceylon: Young Socialist Publications.
Marcuse, Herbert. 1964. Reason and Revolution. Boston: Beacon.
Marx, Karl. 1967. Toward the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law. Introduction. Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Science. Edited and Translated by Lloyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat. Garden City, New York: Anchor.
Marx, Karl. 1973. Grundrisse, Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. Translated by Martin Nicolaus. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin.
Rubel, Maximilien. 1987. Non-Market Socialism in the 20th Century. Non-Market Socialism in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Edited by Rubel and John Crump. London: Macmillan.
Wright, Erik Olin. 1995. Class Analysis and Historical Materialism. Tape of talk at the New York Marxist School (Feb. 23).
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