Book Review from the March 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard
Dance of the Dialectic. By Bertell Ollman. University of Illinois Press, 2003
For Socrates it was teasing out the threads of an argument by asking questions. In Hegel's philosophy it was the development of the idea through history. With Marx and Engels, however, there is some dispute as to what their version of the dialectic means, or even if they were both talking about the same thing. This apparent confusion is compounded by Plekhanov's term “dialectical materialism”, a phrase not used by Marx or Engels, yet this was designated the official philosophy of state capitalist Russia in the years after the Bolshevik revolution.
Ollman is in no doubt that Marx and Engels were talking about different aspects of the same thing. For Ollman, their dialectic has two main features. Firstly, it is a philosophy of internal relations. Capitalism is a system constituted by its social relations of production, and a change to one relationship will have consequences for the whole system. This philosophical viewpoint tries to understand that process. Secondly, it is a method of abstraction. The key social relationships of capitalism (e.g. value, commodity, class) depend upon, but are not reducible to, material objects. They can only be comprehended as abstractions but they are nonetheless real and can affect our lives profoundly when they mean that profit-making takes priority over human needs. To some it may seem that this explanation is very different from how the dialectic is often understood. According to Ollman:
“Dialectics is not a rock-ribbed triad of thesis-antithesis-synthesis that serves as an all-purpose explanation; nor does it provide a formula that enables us to prove or predict anything; nor is it the motor force of history. The dialectic, as such, explains nothing, proves nothing, predicts nothing, and causes nothing to happen. Rather, dialectics is a way of thinking that brings into focus the full range of changes and interactions that occur in the world”.
Ollman goes into considerable detail in what is likely to be the standard work on this subject for many years to come.