DIALECTICAL MARXISM
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Interview with Bertell Ollman: Marx, Markets and Meat Grinders <DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman
Marx, Markets and Meat Grinders
Interview with Bertell Ollman

Conducted by Political Affairs (March, 2004)


PA: What was your motivation for writing the book How to Take an Exam...and Remake the World?

BO: I am very much the teacher, which means that I'm always looking for new ways to present my ideas in a clear and convincing manner. Also, along with other radicals, I've long been bothered by the fact that too few people come looking for radical teachers or ideas. We need to do more to attract them. In this book, I give students a lot of tips that will help them on exams—hoping in this way to satisfy a strongly felt need—but I exact something in turn. That something is that they also listen to my simple explanation of what capitalism is, how it works, for whom it works better, for whom worse, how it originated and where it seems to be heading. The humor is there to make the whole thing more fun and therefore more attractive than such accounts usually are.


PA: How do you compare teachers and students on the left today to those of the past?

BO: I've lived through many different periods. My first political experiences were in the mid-fifties at the University of Wisconsin. There was little interest in socialist ideas at the time. That changed, and very quickly, in the 1960s. During most of the 1960s, however, I was out of the country—in England, Jamaica and France. When I came back in 1967, much to my delight, I found many thousands of radicals, of all sorts, throughout the academy. This bullish situation peaked by the early 1970s. Since then we have been through several dips and rises as a result of developments in the world beyond the university. Since the late 1990s, there has been a very sharp rise, so that today we find almost as much interest in radical ideas of one sort or another (though not—maybe I should say "not yet"—of our sort) as there was in the l960s. I'm speaking of students here, and not of faculty, who remain on the whole a pretty moderate if not conservative lot. Oddly enough, I've been in a position to track some of these changes through a course called "Socialist Theory" that I have been giving at NYU for the last 35 years. It's an elective, so students take the course because they want to learn more about socialism. The number who sign up for it has varied a lot but always in strict alignment with what is happening elsewhere, at other universities, in the country and in the world. Readers of this journal will be interested to learn, then, that in the last few years the enrollment in this course has been higher, far higher, than it was even in the late 1960s.


PA: In the late 1970s there was a controversy between you and the University of Maryland. The question of academic freedom came up in this battle, which you describe in your recently republished autobiography, Ballbuster. What was the reason for the fight and how did it get resolved?

BO: Ballbuster? (the question mark is an important part of the title) is mainly about what happened when this Marxist professor became a businessman to market his board game, Class Struggle, but, as you note, the book also deals with my own class struggle with the University of Maryland. The two events are intertwined in the book because they were intertwined in my life—both began in the Spring of 1978. None of the faculty in the Department of Government at Maryland at that time were Marxists, though a few of them were on the left. These radicals knew of my work, and they convinced a majority of their colleagues to offer me the job as chairman of the department. Surprisingly, particularly to me, the top administrators of the College Park campus of the university went along. There had never been a Marxist chairman of a major political science department in the country, so their offer was very tempting.

But as soon as I accepted, the roof fell in. When the word got out that a Marxist was going to become chair of a political science department in the Washington D.C. area, the press—with a few honorable exceptions—put all their worse prejudices on display. Ten nationally syndicated columnists wrote columns violently attacking me and the university for this unprecedented assault on American values. The governor of Maryland, at three different press conferences, denounced the university for giving me the job as did as did the university's own Board of Regents, led by Samuel Hoover, J. Edgar's younger brother. Several state legislators even threatened the university with budget cuts if something was not done immediately to bring this madness to a halt.

Maryland, like most universities at that time, had a few Marxist professors. So it wasn't just a matter of my being added to the teaching staff. What really bothered my opponents was that I would have a little bit of power over jobs and the kind of courses that were taught. Some of them, of course, went further. As one corporation president put it in a letter to the university president, "We can't let a Marxist get a hold of a department of government so close to the White House." I guess he had an image of me putting cannon on the roof of the political science building and aiming them down Pennsylvania Avenue at the White House, a mere twenty miles away. The pressure wasn't all one way—the students, most of the faculty, a few of the lower administrators, and even some of the press, including the New York Times in an editorial, were on my side. After a few months of noisy pushing and shoving, the president reversed the decision, but refused to tell anyone why he had done so. I sued, but "justice" being what it is in our courts, I lost.


PA: Related to this is the trend initiated by right-wing think tanks like Lynne Cheney's American Council of Trustees and Alumni of attacking college professors and pressuring administrators who don't support their views on the war or on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. What is your comment on this new trend?

BO: It isn't new; it's been going on over 100 years. It's the current form of an old trend. McCarthyism also wasn't new. That was also part of this trend, which—in the universities—goes back to the early years of the 20th century. Scott Nearing is probably the first American radical who lost his job because of his political views. That occurred in 1915 when he taught economics at the University of Pennsylvania and wrote an article criticizing the use of child labor in the mines. One of the coal barons was on the board of trustees of his university, and Nearing was forced out. He got another job at the University of Toledo but lost that in 1917 for opposing America's entry into World War I. So this has been going on for a long time.

What was new in the 1960s and 1970s is that a lot more radicals came into teaching positions. This created a special problem for those who ran the universities. They had good reasons, good "class" reasons, for not wanting radical ideas to gain a wider hearing. At the same time, they had to be concerned with the image of the university as a place where real learning goes on, and this means, among other things, where different explanations and visions—including Marxism—can contest over which is better. If people and particularly students don't think of the university in this way, that is once a college is viewed as a bible college, all it's efforts to pass the ruling ideology off as "truth" will meet with widespread skepticism. I think it is chiefly this contradiction that gives radical professors like me the little space we have in which to move and do our work.


PA: How do you compare the policies and goals of the Bush administration to past presidencies?

BO: It's the most conservative and indeed reactionary administration we've had, maybe ever. If this crowd were in power during the Cold War, we might have easily slipped over into a hot war with the Soviet Union. Why it's so reactionary is difficult to say. There are factions of the Republican Party that have never been as dominant—even under Reagan—as now. This includes the Christian majority, the neo-cons and also the right-wing Zionists. The latter cannot be left out, especially for all issues relating to the Middle East. They play a crucial role—how crucial is something we still don't know—in making this administration the unmitigated disaster that it is.


PA: In, Market Socialism, your critique centers around the ideology that rises from market relations. You argue that this ideology is totally at odds with socialist values and ways of thinking regardless of who controls the market mechanism, the tool or whatever we call it.

BO: It's important to see that I arrive at this conclusion by laying out what goes on in market exchanges of all sorts. Given how often those exchanges occur and how early they begin, I try to show that what we actually experience here leads to certain ideas about oneself, money, products, social relations, and the nature of the society. These ideas, which have to do with individualism, freedom to choose, the power of money, greed, competition, and mutual indifference form the core of bourgeois ideology. On the whole, radicals have given too much attention to what Marcuse called the "consciousness industry"—schools, media, church, etc.—where we passively imbibe these ideas, and too little to those activities, like buying and selling, where we can be said to live them and where these ideas get confirmed on a daily basis. These ideas as well as their accompanying emotions are the exact opposite of those—like cooperation, solidarity, and mutual concern—that are required by life in socialism, that is if such a society is to work.

There are some things, in other words, that mix and can be mixed easily. Salt and pepper are two; there is no problem mixing salt and pepper. But there are other things that don't mix—for example, fire and water. If you try to mix them, either the fire is going to cause the water to become steam or the water is going to put out the fire. I believe mixing the market, any kind of market, with socialist institutions is a mixture more like fire and water than it is like salt and pepper. They are simply not going to be able to maintain the durable equilibrium that market socialists want and believe possible.

You referred to it as a "tool or whatever we call it". It's terribly important what you call it, just because most people do think of the market as a tool. Tools generally function as they do because of who is holding them and how he or she chooses to use them. Basing themselves on this metaphor, many on the left think of the market as a kind of can opener. It's in our hands and we can use it to open cans if we want. However, if we change the metaphor from can opener to meat grinder and instead of seeing ourselves holding it we view ourselves as being inside it, all of a sudden the market appears to be doing something quite different. Rather than moving in ways we direct, it is us that gets moved about according to its rhythm, and it will eventually turn us into ground meat. This is a really the best metaphor with which to think of the market. The market is not an instrument in our hands like a can opener. It's more like a meat grinder and we're inside it.

It doesn't follow that we should try to abolish the market over night. I think we should make serious inroads on the market as soon as we have the chance to do so, expanding public ownership and creating a democratic central plan for producing and distributing our most important goods. That wouldn't include everything. It is terribly important, however, that we keep clearly in mind the ultimate goal of doing away with private ownership and market exchanges completely, that public education for it—particularly as the crucial step in overcoming alienation—never falters, and that the pace toward attaining this goal remains steady.


PA: What are the most pressing questions in Marxist theory?

BO: There are many, but here's my short list, and therefore two questions that I have tried and am still trying to address. First, state theory. Marx wanted to do a systematic study of the state, particularly of the capitalist state, but, as with so much else, didn't get around to it. There's a lot in his writings that gives us an idea of what he thought, but the systematic theory of the state—something comparable to what he gave us on value—is still to be done. My own work in this area has been mainly on the role of dialectics in constructing the changing boundaries of the state and the part played by alienation and ideology in state functioning. My main writings on these topics appear in Dialectical Investigations and, my most recent book, Dance of the Dialectic.

Another important set of questions relate to the communist future. Again, Marx didn't give us a detailed picture of what socialism and communism would be like, but there's not work of any size that doesn't offer some information on this subject. In my book, Social and Sexual Revolution, I try to bring most of Marx's comments on socialism and communism together to get an idea how full and detailed his views in this area were. I am currently working on a book on communism, the main aim of which is to lay out the elements of the dialectical method that Marx used to study the socialist and communist future inside the capitalist present. In spelling all this out, I not only want to show what Marx did and how he did it but to help us to do it— and to do it more often and more effectively— with the capitalism of our day.

Understandably perhaps, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, many on the left—including a lot of people who had always been critical of the USSR—have been struck with a kind a shyness when it comes to discussing to the kind of society that we want. Yet, criticisms of capitalism, no matter how apt, have never been enough. If people are to get involved in the terribly difficult work of overturning capitalism, they need to know, at least in a general way, what will replace it. And this is probably more true now than ever, when Margaret Thatcher's infamous mantra—"There is no alternative"—bombards us from all sides. And the chief place to look for the evidence and signs of this alternative society is in the unrealized potential (what Marx referred to as the "germs") of our own capitalist society, and not—as so many communists did earlier—in the model of socialism born in altogether different conditions on the other end of the planet. The whole debate on market socialism, whatever position one takes on it—and you've heard mine, is at least right on target in focusing on what we can build using what we've got here, in capitalism, rather than trying to draw on less than relevant experiences elsewhere.

Still another pressing question in Marxist theory has to do with class interests and their role in the development of class consciousness and in the kind of political activities people engage in. Again, despite its importance, this is a subject about which Marx said very little. People's motivation is obviously very complex, but, for the big questions and over the long and even the middle term, the pressures coming from our class interests determine what most of us want and do—for the price of ignoring them is a much lowered quality of life that can even threaten our survival both as individuals and as a class. It is not surprising, therefore, that in all class societies, the ruling economic class does its best to construct relations in every sphere of life that serves its class interests, whatever that happens to be. Better than anything else, this explains the past (at least in broad outline), our present (again, in broad outline—even taking account of all the differences between capitalist countries), and our likely future.

As regards the future, the question is often asked—would workers make the kind of changes in a socialist society that we Marxists expect them to? My answer is that the workers would act no differently than have earlier ruling classes, which is to say that they would do whatever is necessary to serve their class interests. And I think, in this period, their main interest as a class would be to do away with the conditions that underlay their common exploitation as workers. Besides taking over the means of production, this could only be done by developing democracy to the point where no group—even among the workers —would be in a position to establish a new form of exploitation. This move toward a thoroughgoing democracy would coincide with a rapidly growing equality, in large part because equality is necessary for democracy to work. Taken together—perfecting democracy and expanding equality because this is in the interest of the entire working classs—is the best answer to the criticism we often hear that a socialist society will only replace one form of exploitation with another.

Today, unfortunately, many otherwise committed Marxists do not give class interests the attention that it deserves. Partly, this is a result of accepting a overly narrow definition of "workers" that places most of the people who work for a living under other labels (rather than seeing that most Blacks, women, Moslems, gays, etc. are still—and also—workers); and partly it is a result of the real but explainable difficulties most workers in the advanced capitalist countries have had in becoming class conscious. Thus, for example, while some of the most creative work by Marxists in recent years has been in the area of ecology, most of these scholars seriously underplay the role of class interests, both in studying who suffers most from the destruction of the environment and in developing an effective political strategy to stop it. This neglect usually follows from prioritizing human interests over class interests. Clearly, capitalists and other non-workers are human beings and have the same human interests that workers do. But it is not human interests that are decisive in determining how most people act economically and politically, at least as regards to the most pressing questions in their lives. And in any clash between human interests and class interests, it is almost always class interests that win out. Just examine how the great majority of capitalists act whenever their class interests are at stake, no matter the cost to their human interests. And I think this is the case with workers as well, even though the gap between class and human interests is not as great here. But if this is so, then Marxists must put class interests back into the center of their analyses, and not just for the problems of the ecology.

Finally—and this is only on my short list—there is dialectics. The political disappointments of the last two decades have driven a small but growing number of Marxist scholars to reexamine dialectics not just as a worldview but as a method for doing research. In the mid-1980s, I co-edited a three volume work called Left Academy: Marxist Scholarship on American Campuses, in which Marxist professors in twenty three different disciplines reported on the Marxist work going on in their areas. While much of this work was extremely impressive, the understanding of dialectics in the American academy was shown to be very limited. But it is only with dialectics that one can achieve an adequate grasp of the complex interactions in society, as they have evolved, are even now evolving and are likely to evolve in the future. Therefore, only dialectics can consistently avoid the one-sided and static caricatures of reality that constitute such a large part of bourgeois ideology. I would go so far as to say that most of the shortcomings found in Marxist analyses today—a few of which I've noted above—can be traced to the neglect or misuse of dialectics. In short, a lot rides on getting dialectics right, but we must also be able to explain this difficult subject in ways that most people can understand, something that may be even harder to do than getting it right. Most of my theoretical writings, including Alienation, Dialectical Investigations, and —most recently—Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx's Method have been shaped by these dual aims.