(OPE-L) Bertell Ollman's Critique of Systematic Dialectics

From: Gerald A. Levy (Gerald_A_Levy@MSN.COM)
Date: Fri Mar 12 2004 - 15:12:03 EST

   "Marx's Dialectical Method is More Than a Mode of Expression: 
A Critique of Systematic Dialectics" --  in Albritton, Robert and
Simoulidis, John (eds.) (2003) _New Dialectics and Political 
Economy_ (Palgrave Macmillan,  pp. 173-184) --  presents a 
brief critique of systematic (Marxist) dialectics.  Ollman claims
that he has a "generally favorable bias"  towards systematic 
dialectics which led him to present his critique in a "softening

   In this essay Ollman focuses on the writings of Sekine, Albritton, 
Arthur and T. Smith whom he believes are "the most important of
these thinkers." (*)  The central claim of the essay is captured
in the title of the contribution:  namely, that systematic dialectical
authors have _reduced_ Marx's dialectical method to a strategy
of presentation.  

   The author claims that systematic dialectics privileges 
epistemology over ontology, inquiry, "intellectual reconstruction", 
exposition and praxis.  Yet, Ollman himself recognizes that "my
own attempts to explain dialectics have also privileged one 
moment -- in this case epistemology -- over the others."  He
claims, though, that he (unlike systematic dialectics) has
"always tried to integrate it with the rest."  

   Many of the specific claims that Ollman makes about 
systematic dialectics are problematic.  E.g. he claims repeatedly
that the focus of  systematic dialectics is on the mode of
exposition employed by Marx in Volume One of _Capital_.  
Systematic dialectics thus fails to consider the "strategies of
presentation" in Marx's other writings, including the drafts for
what became Volumes Two and Three of _Capital_, according 
to Ollman.  This is an odd assertion.  _Which_ of the writers
in the systematic dialectical tradition(s) focused _only_ on  the
mode of exposition in Volume One?  The author does not tell us.  
This is simply a claim which will not bear close scrutiny.  There is 
an implication here that the "strategies of presentation" in Marx's 
other writings, including the other volumes of _Capital_, are 
different than that employed in Volume One.  Yet, aren't the 
"strategies of presentation" in _all_ of the volumes of _Capital_ 
and in  his _other_  major writings on political economy (with the 
possible exception of his writings on the history  of political 
economy, i.e. what became _Theories of Surplus Value_) 
essentially similar?

   Another central claim by Ollman is that many of  Marx's aims
are not recognized or revealed by systematic dialectics.  Since 
"these aims require strategies of presentation that have little to do
with Hegel's conceptual logic ... Volume I contains whole sections 
which, according to the proponents of Systematic Dialectics ...
simply do not belong here."  This also is not a very convincing claim.  
To begin with,  he is presuming that the systemic dialecticians believe
that the other "aims" have no merit.  This is an unwarranted presumption.
The question is  not whether Marx's aims -- such as "showing capitalism's 
origins in primitive accumulation and its potential for evolving into 
communism"  or "mapping the class struggle, and raising workers' class 
consciousness" --  have _a_ valid place within Marx's social theory
but rather _where_  and _what_ that place is within the context of
his critique of political economy.   Although Ollman claims that systematic 
dialecticians (such as Sekine) can't  grasp _why_  Marx -- among other 
topics -- pays "so much attention to the expansion of the working day" 
or why he wrote "the 100-plus pages at the end of _Capital_ devoted
 to primitive accumulation", it is Ollman himself  who fails to grasp 
all of Marx's aims since (as we discussed on OPE-L just the other day)
the length of _Capital_, Volume One,  was at least partially influenced 
by the imperative to make more money since the arrangement was that 
he would be paid by the sheet.  He therefore reads both too much and
too little into the reasons why these topics were presented at great
length in _Capital_.

   In the conclusion, Ollman repeats his claim that systematic 
dialectics errs in "exaggerating the role that conceptual logic plays
in Marx's dialectical method."   Yet,  he qualifies this by then adding
"... with the partial exception of Tony Smith."  Had Ollman gone
beyond just an examination of  hermeneutics and interrogated the
writings of systematic dialecticians on _other_ topics than just how
they interpret Volume One then his conclusion might have been
far more qualified and he might be less puzzled by the "partial
exception of Tony Smith."

   The sections of the essay which concern Marx's strategies of 
presentation, his dialectical method, and three kinds of abstraction
are certainly worthy of a close examination.   Yet, one is left 
pondering to what extent these sections actually form part of a
valid critique of systematic dialectics.   Furthermore, in reply to
his comment that "the problem in which all dialectics ... is addressed 
is: how to think adequately about all change, all kinds of change and
interaction, all kinds of interaction", one could observe that "Marx's 
Dialectical Method in _Capital_ is More and Less than an 
Examination of  Change."  While one can not argue with his claim
that Marx's aims in writing _Capital_ have to be placed in the context 
of the aims revealed in his other writings and praxis, one also
needs to recognize that he had _limited_ and _specific_ aims in 
writing _Capital_.  The issue then is not whether his other aims have
been ignored but rather where the place of those aims fit within the 
project of reconstructing in thought the essential nature of the 
bourgeois mode of production.

    Although Ollman has spared systematic dialectics a harsh polemic
with his "softening light", one is left wondering whether he shines the
light on the most relevant questions.  

In solidarity, Jerry

(*) Reuten and  M. Williams, among others, were not included 
among the listing of "most important."  One wonders why, 
especially since one of the contributors to this volume is Reuten.
I guess one would have to ask Ollman, but a couple of thoughts
come to mind:

    i) Ollman focuses in this essay on interpreting Marx's dialectical
        method, yet Reuten and Williams (1989)  is a work whose
        scope goes well _beyond_ interpreting Marx.  
    ii) Perhaps Ollman thought that a reference to Reuten and Williams 
        would make his critique more complex (and lengthy) since it
        might have to note the *differences* in method between Arthur
        and Smith on the one side (materialist dialectics) and Reuten 
        and  Williams (transcendental idealism) on another side. 

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