DIALECTICAL MARXISM
The Writings of Bertell Ollman
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Letters to Editors < DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman
Letters to Editors
By Bertell Ollman

A Marxist Satire?
P.S. Political Science (summer/2000)

Praise, Not Criticism
N.Y.U Washington Square Journal (April 16, 1997)

Should Downsizing Lead to a New System?
The New York Times (March 9, 1996)

Workfare - Why Stop There?
The New York Times (November 30, 1995) unpublished

In defense of Marxism
Z Magazine (May 1989)

Rich Man's Graffiti
NYU - Courier (February 8, 1989)

Auctioning Off America
The New York Times (1986) unpublished

Marx and Freedom
The New York Review of Books (March 15, 1984)

Small Business Myths
The New York Times (February 19, 1984) Op-ed

Invade Us, Please
Published in half a dozen Canadian papers after the U.S. invasion of Granada (November, 1983)

The 'National Interests'? If We Only Knew What That Is
The New York Times (May 19, 1983)

Questions to Ask About the Board of Trustees
N.Y.U. Washington Square Journal (October 4, 1983)

With What Can We Compare Existing Society?
The New York Times Book Review (October 18, 1983) unpublished

Lessons from the Strike
N.Y.U. Washington Square Journal (February 3, 1981)

Can One Be Anti-Zionist Without Being Anti-Semitic?
Village Voice (July 1981) unpublished

Why Is the President Laughing So Much?
The New York Times (September 5, 1981)

Of Marxism and Universities
The New York Times (c. 1980) Op-ed

On Conjugating the Verb "to participate"
The NYU-Washington Square Journal (December 1, 1980)

What Makes Us 'Advanced'?
The New York Times (July 1, 1979) unpublished

Marxist Capitalist Finds Bottom Line Too Low
The New York Times (March 24, 1979) Op-ed

A Marxist without Devil's Horns
Washington Post (May 8, 1978)


More letters coming soon.

A Marxist Satire?

To The Editor, [P.S. Political Science, summer/2000]

Allow me to compliment you on your editorial creativity for beginning the special issue on "The Public Value of Political Science Research" with a brilliant Marxist satire on the commodification of our discipline ("Evaluating Political Science Research: Information for Buyers and Sellers" by Arthur Lupia). What an imaginative dystopia he paints for us: political science abandoning the search for truth and the promotion of social Justice and going where the money is. I have but one minor quibble and a question.

In his satire, Professor Lupia pretends that he would have political science direct even more of its research product to what society wants and is willing to pay for. But, as I'm sure he knows, society doesn't want anything. Certain groups and individuals do, and some can pay for what they want and others can't. Economists refer to this as "effective demand." The Swiftian edges of Professor Lupia's satire would have cut even deeper had he openly declared that a political science of this type could only serve the rich and the powerful. And if welfare mothers, he might have followed up, want a political science study of their own, let them find a way to pay for it.

Sincerely Yours,

Prof. Bertell Ollman, Dept. of Politics, NYU


Praise, Not Criticism

N.Y.U Washington Square Journal [April 16, 1997]

Did I hear you right? In your editorial of April 9, you criticize a group of students for carrying on a silent protest on behalf of our clerical workers at a ceremony during which President Oliva handed out awards to students for community service. Aren't the workers who make it possible for NYU to function a part of our community? And isn't helping them to secure a living wage and job security an important community service? Rather than criticizing the student protesters, you might want to consider what you could learn from them about standing up for important principles. As for President Oliva, if he is truly interested in honoring students for their service to the community (especially when it takes real courage to do so), he should have presented the biggest award of all to these student protesters.

Prof. Bertell Ollman
Department of Politics


Should Downsizing Lead to a New System?

To the Editor [The New York Times, 3/9/96]:

Re your series "The Downsizing of America" (March 3-9): What I found most surprising was a table showing that of the people already hard hit by a layoff, more (60 percent) blamed "the economic system in this country" than any other factor.

This would seem to require that we at least raise the question of an alternative economic system, of whether we can reorder the factors of production available—machines, raw materials and skilled workers—to attain full employment and a decent living standard for everyone.

After all, ours is not a problem of how to make more of too little (as is the case in Bangladesh and was the case in Russia in 1917), but of how fairly and democratically to allocate too much. We are drowning in our own surpluses. If capitalism can no longer resolve problems like worsening unemployment, isn't it time to start asking whether something else can?

Bertell Ollman
Prof., Dept. of Politics, New York U.



Workfare - Why Stop There?

To the Editor [The New York Times, 11/30/95, Unpublished]:

In your generally approving editorial (Nov. 30) on Mayor Giuliani's proposal to use welfare recipients as hall monitors in schools, you question whether these people have the kind of abilities needed to perform such work. You seem to forget that with our growing unemployment the number of people on welfare will not only increase but so too will the average level of their education and skills. If we are really serious about reducing taxes, therefore, there is no good reason not to introduce workfare throughout the public sector, and that includes teaching, when teachers, who lose their jobs and run out of unemployment benefits, become available.

On this matter, the arbitrary line between public and private also makes no sense. Imagine how much profits could expand if businesspeople were allowed to replace most of their workers with welfare recipients, who will soon include people with all sorts of skills. Naturally, the owners of our factories, stores and offices would pay a modest fee to the government for this privilege, which would make it possible to reduce general taxes even further. It wouldn't be too long before the highly paid journalists who wrote the NYT editorial on this subject would be replaced by equally talented writers from the welfare pool (which is something I'm sure you will applaud, or rather your replacements will).

Where would all this stop? It makes such good economic sense that there is no reason for it to stop anywhere. Even Congressmen (and women) could be replaced by equally well educated and civic minded recipients at a pittance of what we now pay these officials. Then, with poor people in Congress, we might even get some decent laws.

Bertell Ollman
Prof., Dept. of Politics, New York U.


Rich Man's Graffiti

Dear [NYU - ]Courier [2/8/89],

I would like to submit the following for your NYU Follies award:

Whereas kids and poor folk are reduced to writing their names on bathroom walls and subway cars, rich people can pay to have it plastered on the front of a building. This RICH MAN'S GRAFFITI, to give it its proper name, has been developed to new heights by our NYU Administration, which has succeeded in selling the names of buildings for more than the buildings are worth. What will they sell next? Well, don't be surprised if by the time you get your degree from this place, the diploma reads "TISCH U."

In case you're wondering, I'm planning to save the $19.95 I win in your contest until I have enough money to buy a plaque with my name on it for the chair I've been sitting in for the last 20 years. Not quite a hospital, but then I'm getting too old for bathroom walls and subway cars.

Sincerely,

Prof. Bertell Ollman
Dept. of Politics


Auctioning Off America

To the Editor [New York Times, 1986, Unpublished]:

How wonderfully refreshing is the idea that the right to immigrate to America should be auctioned off to the highest bidders. (Op-Ed, Jan. 28) But why stop there? The obvious next step is to auction the right to stay in America for those who slipped in under the wire, that is in the last 200 years before this admirable new policy could be put into effect. I think all of us know who will be able to pay and who won't. After that, we can start auctioning off political offices, including the presidency. The effect on the nation's politics will be minimum, since the same people win, the only difference being that the huge sums spent on elections will go to the Treasury instead of to public relations firms. Once we completely remove the shackles placed on the market by our democratic/humanist/Judeo/Christian tradition, all problems will be solved easily…and with little cost to those of us who are left.

Sincerely,

Prof. Bertell Ollman
Dept. of Politics, N.Y.U.


Marx and Freedom

To the Editors [The New York Review of Books, 3/15/1984]:

In the concluding section of his often excellent article ["Marx and Freedom," NYR, November 24, 1983], Andrzej Walicki rushes beyond the evidence to attribute to Marx several cold war positions on life and freedom under socialism. When Marx says, for example, that "the appropriation of a totality of instruments of production is...the development of a totality of capacities in the individuals themselves," this is not—as Walicki believes—a comment on the "miraculous power" of nationalization to reunify the capacity of the individual with the capacities of the species. Nor is Marx saying that "after the means of production have been socialized, the new, superior race of men will appear of its own accord."

Rather, as part of the organic development of a socialist society, the socialization of industry corresponds to changes that are already occurring in the evolution of individuals and the species. The relationship between these two developments is not a causal one, but one of mutual dependence and reciprocal effect. Consequently, the character and quality of the socialization and of the conditions in which it takes place cannot be dismissed, and the human element involved cannot be viewed as mere effect. Not every act of nationalization, in short, counts as social nationalization for Marx. A little dialectic would help.

A similar error occurs when Walicki claims, Marx "did not foresee the possibility that, even in a socialist welfare state, men might still be dominated by a bourgeois scale of values, that their needs and aims might remain just as mean and egoistic, just as 'inhuman' (by his standards) as under capitalism." But Marx did foresee this, and that's why he recommends that the Government which comes to power in a socialist society begin with relatively mild reforms, such as a progressive income tax, the nationalization of a few major industries, and the abolition of the right of inheritance (as distinct from wealth), to mention but a few obvious examples (Communist Manifesto). In each case, this assumes that there are still many people, perhaps a majority, who feel the need to earn more than others and even become entrepreneurs if they are to do their best work. These attitudes do not change overnight. Nor are they taken as unalterable facts of nature. As part of a long evolution in people's material and social conditions, and in the organization of life, Marx believes these human qualities will also change.

What is completely missing in Walicki's account of Marx's vision of the future is the essential distinction between socialism, understood as a period of transition of indeterminate length, and communism, the qualitatively new society which is built on the foundations laid down during socialism. To ignore or even play down the precursor role of socialism makes it impossible either to grasp or to evaluate what Marx says about the end of alienation and the attainment of human freedom in communism. Likewise, to treat Marx's views on socialism without making it perfectly clear that he was talking about a post-capitalist social formation (with all this implies for industry, wealth, democracy and freedom) is to compound this confusion by altering the initial equation with a set of conditions and problems that were foreign to Marx's thinking on this subject. When, in the absence of these distinctions, Walicki falls back on talk of what "experience has shown," he is at best irrelevant and at worst seriously distorting of Marx's views.

There is, for example, nothing in Marx's writings that suggests—contra Walicki—that Marx is "ready to sacrifice the present generation for the sake of the future" (this is what capitalism does to workers), or that he would countenance "forcible indoctrination…and other coercive means" to win support for socialism. Surely, Walicki knows that Marx argued against centralization and control of education by the socialist state (Gotha Critique). Peasants, whom Marx calls above all "men of reckoning," were to be won over by showering them with material and cultural benefits (something only possible in a rich, post-capitalist society). Marx's only reference to coercion in socialism is the penalty he urges the new socialist Government to adopt against emigrants and rebels (not those who speak against socialism, but those who take up arms against it). The penalty? Confiscation of property—not death, not even a prison sentence. Where is the authoritarian/totalitarian Marx in all this?

Most western Marxists have come to understand that there is little to learn about socialism (understood as a form of society that can be built in our countries) from the experiences of the "socialist" world. Unfortunately, and with a few outstanding exceptions, these same distorting experiences have meant that there is little to learn about Marxist theory (especially as it applies to the unfolding potential of capitalism, its/our possible future) in the works, which come out of these countries, whether communist or anti-communist. No, if Marxism is to serve as a critical arm in a socialist transformation of capitalism, this is an arm we shall have to fashion for ourselves.

Bertell Ollman
New York University
New York City


Small Business Myths

To the Editor [New York Times, 2/19/1984, Op-ed]:

The typical newspaper or magazine article on urban small business catalogues the fear and failures generated by dope addicts, shoplifters and other little fry who abound in poorer neighborhoods. But hardly a complaint is heard about the big banks, big landlords, big producers, big distributors and occasionally big customers—in short the big fish—whose collective behavior toward small-business people is the cause of most of what ails them.

Ask florists, barbers or restaurant owners what influence they have over the interest they pay on loans (or whether they can get a loan in the first place), over the rent they pay, over the cost of their equipment, etc. The obvious answer is that they have none. Small-business people are caught in an ever-tightening vise that is operated by and for big business.

Yet, I do not doubt that most of the small-business people who are interviewed for these media stories display the respect that big business has come to take for granted from its junior namesake. Why? Chiefly, it's because of the powerful mythology of self-reliance and individual responsibility that discourages people from blaming their troubles on forces they cannot control.

According to the American dream, if you have a good idea, invest your whole kitty in it and work like a demon, you too can get rich. Hardly a day goes by without the National Enquirer or the Star telling us about the man who made a million dollars selling baseball hats with horns, prospecting in sewers for silver or finding still another way to serve hamburgers.

Most small-business people—and the even more numerous workers who hope to one day start a small business—refrain from attacking big business because they believe their turn is next. Horatio Alger lives on in their consciousness as a final and desperate hope, the only way of moving up in a society that insists we march through life in single file.

The mythology in which small business is swathed carries over to explanations of why small businesses fail. According to a Dun & Bradstreet survey of financial "experts," most small-business failures are due to a "lack of business-management knowledge." But this is like saying that people on the Titanic drowned because they couldn't swim. With nine out of 10 small businesses failing within 10 years of getting started, the odds of a small business succeeding are very small even in good times. And right now things couldn't be worse, with small businesses going bankrupt at a faster rate than at any time since the Great Depression of the 1930's.

From the statistics on business failures, it also appears that few in business remain business people all their lives. Rather than a first-step into big business, small business usually functions as a revolving door back into the working class from which most failed entrepreneurs have started out, generally worse off than when they began.

At the same time that capitalists are plowing under an ever greater number of small-business people through monopolistic pricing, heavy-handed competition and mergers, their dependence on small business-people has never been more complete. Politically, entrepreneurs do the brunt of the fighting (organizing, propagandizing, voting) for business, while the big capitalists, the corporate 500, like any general staff in time of war, stay safely out of the line of fire.

Ideologically, small business—even more than the existence of "free land" in the 19th century and the relatively easy access to higher education today—puts flesh on the idea of equality of opportunity, the core rationale on which democratic capitalism stands or falls. It is only because people believe that they really have a chance to become rich, respected and influential (the three tend to merge in our culture), that they can view their present setbacks as temporary and due to some personal failing or bad luck. No wonder most American workers cannot admit that they belong to the working class, whether white- or blue-collar, and that they have settled there for good.

What equality of opportunity actually amounts to today emerges more clearly—and truthfully—from the story of a young reporter who asked a leading capitalist how he made his fortune: "It was really quite simple," the capitalist answered. "I bought an apple for five cents, spent the evening polishing it, and sold it the next day for 10 cents. With this I bought two apples, spent the evening polishing them, and sold them for 20 cents. And so it went until I had amassed $1.60. It was then that my wife's father died and left us a million dollars."

Sincerely,

Prof. Bertell Ollman
Dept. of Politics, N.Y.U.


Invade Us, Please

To the Editor [Published in half a dozen Canadian papers after the U.S. invasion of Granada, November, 1983]:

I am writing in your capacity as a leading cultural representative of our "big neighbor to the north" to respectfully "request armed intervention to rescue the [American] people from the small gang of [capitalist] thugs who have seized power [in Washington], and to restore democracy to our troubled land." Trampling on both U.S. and international law, "they are actively engaged in exporting terrorism" to El Salvador, Nicaragua and most recently to Granada. The evidence suggests even worse is to come. "Thousands of warehouses throughout the country are stacked to the ceiling with arms—chiefly offensive weapons"—far more than is necessary to defend ourselves from attack. Twelve million university students are in imminent danger of being drafted into death squads and held hostage until they agree to use these weapons on the rest of the world. Our once free press has been effectively muzzled by military censorship, Congress—including what used to be the opposition—has been reduced to a rubber stamp, and most Americans have been tele-drugged by the ideologically crazed hoodlums in Washington into babbling irrelevant patriotic inanities. I think I can guess some of the reasons which may make you hesitate to accede to my request, but if there has ever been a good case for armed intervention—this is it.

Prof. Bertell Ollman
Professor of Political Science
New York University


The 'National Interests'? If We Only Knew What That Is

To the Editor [The New York Times, 5/1/83]:

Excuse me, but I must have missed something. Why do all the participants in your Op-Ed and Letters discussion (most recently, Representative Ackerman, letter May 11) simply assume that Marxist—really some kind of socialist—governments for Nicaragua and El Salvador would be a bad thing?

The whole debate from President Reagan on down focuses on how best to keep this from happening or, in the case of Nicaragua, to reverse what has already happened. This is required, we are told, because of "America's national interests," but what exactly they are is never made clear.

In what ways would Americans suffer if El Salvador and Nicaragua had socialist or even Communist governments? Trade? Don't we have extensive trade with the Soviet Union, our chief antagonists? Investment? Aren't American firms investing in China, and other Communist country? Loans? Don't our banks lend money to Poland and to every other Eastern European country? And couldn't we do all of this in/with Cuba if we wanted to?

Is it a military threat we fear—an overland invasion (through Mexico) by their tiny, ill equipped armies? Or perhaps, in an era in which the Russians can already destroy 100 times over, we fear their setting up missile bases a jot closer than the ones they already have?

As for the Domino Theory, what has happened to Thailand and Malaysia since the end of the Vietnam War? Let no one suggest that Washington is really concerned with promoting freedom and democracy, since most of "our" best friends, particularly Latin America, have neither.

What does this leave as possible explanations of our Government's expanding support for corrupt, exploitative elites—one in power (El Salvador), one out of power (Nicaragua)—all in the name of "America's national interests"?

Instead of debating what is the best strategy to keep radical popular movements from coming to power, we should be asking whether it's true that America's national interests (which should mean the interests of most Americans) coincide so neatly with the interests of the wealthy classes of Latin America. If not, what special interests are served by perpetuating this confusion, and what can the rest of us do about it?

Now, holding a debate on these questions would truly be in America's national interests.

Prof. Bertell Ollman
Professor of Political Science
New York University


Questions to Ask About the Board of Trustees

Dear Editor [N.Y.U.—Washington Square Journal, October 4, 1983]:

Thanks a million for your article on the nine members of N.Y.U.'s Board of Trustees who made Fortune's list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. I am so proud to be a part of a university ruled by the super rich (as distinct from the average rich). Of course, it raises a few questions to which it's worth giving a little thought, like—

Why are such important people interested in being on N.Y.U.'s Board of Trustees? (What do they get out of it?)

Why are these people chosen for our Board of Trustees in the first place? (Are they—and their co-Board members—more intelligent, more knowledgeable and more interested in higher education than, let's say, teachers of garbagemen? After reading Leonard Stern's—the richest of our trustees—prescription for success, it is impossible to believe that honesty or morality have anything to do with it. Stern said, you'll recall, "A salesman should be able to sell horse apples. You just have to con the son-of-a-bitch".)

Finally, how is the kind of education we give and receive here at N.Y.U. affected by the fact that such people, with their particular background and interests, make all the key decisions? (After all, if we were studying universities in a Latin American dictatorship where a majority of the Boards of Trustees were army generals, no one would doubt the effect of their stewardship on the character of higher education. How different is it here at N.Y.U., and in the U.S., where an equally tiny and intellectually undistinguished section of the population, Big Capitalists, make all the basic choices?)

Anyone who seriously tries to answer these questions will get a better education into how America really works than they are getting in most of their courses. But that's another question. Or is it?

Sincerely,
Prof. Bertell Ollman
Dept. of Politics, NYU



With What Can We Compare Existing Society?

To the Editor [The New York Times Book Review, October 18, 1983, unpublished]:

In his review of Michael Harrington's book, The Politics at God's Funeral (Oct. 9), Peter Berger refers to Harrington's comparison of existing capitalist society with a "possible" socialist one as taking off "into a utopian fog." Hardheaded realists, it is suggested, only compare what is with what exists elsewhere, or with what has existed here or elsewhere. But it is just these comparisons, which are "utopian," in the sense of impossible to achieve and therefore irrelevant, because given America's unique conditions and history we could never make ourselves over in the image of another place and time. (Writers who wish us to become like Japan or fear that we may become like Russia continue to make a living by ignoring truism.) We can, however, realize one of the few possibilities which are inherent in what we already are, and an analysis of our present reality indicates that one of these possibilities is democratic socialism, the other main ones being nuclear holocaust and some form of "friendly fascism." Hence, it is only good common sense to criticize present shortcomings from this more humane perspective.

Sincerely,
Prof. Bertell Ollman,
Dept. of Politics, NYU



Lessons from the Strike

To the Editor [N.Y.U. Washington Square Journal, February 3, 1981]:

What lessons can we draw from the clerical workers' strike that almost occurred? As co-members of a learning community, it is our responsibility to learn what we can from this experience. In the interest of dialogue, I would like to share three things that the "strike" has taught me:

  1. N.Y.U. is even less concerned with its workers than I feared. Because it is in the business of selling education, there is a tendency to think that N.Y.U. is somehow different from other businesses. It isn't.
  2. In the midst of an economic downturn and with the rules of the game so rigged against workers, the strike—and the threat of a strike—has lost so much of its effectiveness. It is time that unions gave serious study to other means, such as working to rule, for putting pressure on their employers.
  3. John Brademas does not exist. A president of N.Y.U., who is said to have been a friend of labor, would certainly have played a role in this crisis. Since he didn't, we can only assume that he is something dreamed up, probably for public relations purposes, by the Board of Trustees. This is something I suspected earlier, since neither I nor anyone I know has ever seen him.

Sincerely,
Prof. Bertell Ollman
Dept. of Politics, NYU



Can One Be Anti-Zionist Without Being Anti-Semitic?

To the Editor [Village Voice, July 1981 unpublished]:

Have your columnist Jack Newfield and others who equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism considered what would happen if the audience they are addressing actually accepted their logic? According to this logic, one must be both anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic, or neither. They believe, of course, that faced with this choice all honest critics of Zionism will simply pack up their tents and go home. But, given Zionism's worsening record in the holy land and one more cloying plea for Jewish exceptionalism, the change could go the other way. That is, some opponents of Zionism, who are convinced by Newfield's logic and nothing else, might now add anti-Semitism to their bag of beliefs. Rather than making fewer anti-Zionists, Newfield may be making more anti-Semites. Think on it. Newfield must allow for the possibility that someone could view Jews as full, voting members of the species and still oppose Zionism in all its forms. Otherwise, he may be sowing some of the very dragon teeth that he has been trying to uproot.

Sincerely,
Prof. Bertell Ollman
Department of Politics, NYU



Why Is the President Laughing So Much?

To the Editor [The New York Times, 9/5/81]:

Why is Reagan laughing so much? One can't pick up The Times these days without seeing a picture, usually on the front page, of our President beside himself with merriment.

I can't recall ever seeing any other chief executive, or politician for that matter, laugh so much. It has begun to depress me. What is the joke? What have I been missing that is so funny? I too, could use a good laugh.

Now, on Aug. 21, The Times has provided what I think is the answer. It seems that in 1980 our average income went down 5.5 percent, more than any other year since 1947, when such records began to be kept.

Throughout this economic and human disaster, Reagan has maintained his high popularity with the American people. With a little saber rattling in the direction of the Russians, a Libyan plane or two shot down to show a country of two million people who's boss and a lot of flag-waving on the steps of the Pentagon, Reagan has been able to stupefy a once proud people. The joke, I'm afraid, is on us.

I try to remind myself that he who laughs last laughs best, but until more people recognize patriotism for what it is—in Samuel Johnson's words, "the last refuge of a scoundrel"—we are in for even greater economic suffering and a lot more photos of a beaming President Reagan.

Prof. Bertell Ollman
Professor of Political Science
New York University


On Conjugating the Verb "to participate"

To the Editor [The NYU-Washington Square Journal, 12/1/80]:

The search for a new president for NYU has begun in earnest. Emphasizing the need for broad participation, the Board of Trustees has set up various advisory committees and has asked all members of the university community to suggest nominees. The democratic euphoria is such that—much to my surprise—even I have been asked if I wish to be considered as a candidate for president (in a form letter sent by the Presidential Search Internal Advisory Committee). However, I prefer to make my contribution to the search process by continuing my work as a teacher. For example, it might save people a lot of valuable time if we all earned how to conjugate the verb "to participate." Now, repeat after me—

I participate
You participate
He/she participates
We participate
You participate
They decide
Sincerely,
Prof. Bertell Ollman
Dept. of Politics


What Makes Us 'Advanced'?

To the Editor [The New York Times—unpublished, 7/1/79]:

Question: what is the difference between the most advanced country in the world (ours) and a Third World country? Answer: while governments in the Third World try to build more hospitals, our leaders close down the ones we have. ("We can't afford them") This is why our country is called "advanced."

I have just learned from an informed source in City Hall that as the next step on this ladder of advancement, Mayor Koch will reintroduce the "potlatch," the practice of burning large quantities of whatever one owns to celebrate a marriage. With people, especially New Yorkers, getting married so many times, the potlatch should go a long way to solve capitalism's problem of overproduction. If after this, we (sic) still cannot afford our wealth, there may be no alternative but to start burying people's worldly goods with them when they die. Though such an advance in civilization might require tidying up some religious doctrines, my source informs me that Mayor Koch and the business groups he represents are very impressed by what it would do to the market for cars and houses, not to mention pyramids.

And if, through all this, anybody protests they don't have enough, it simply shows their ignorance of capitalist economics.

Sincerely,
Prof. Bertell Ollman
NYU, Department of Politics


Marxist Capitalist Finds Bottom Line Too Low

New York Times - Op Ed, Mar. 24, 1979

Tote that barge, lift that bale, secure better finances, or lose that sale.

Old Man River is not what it used to be, and neither is sleep, food, health, fun, friendship or conversation. For I am now a businessman, a leaser if not yet owner of means of production, an employer of labor, a seller of commodities.

It was a year ago that a half dozen other socialist professors and I started a corporation to produce and market my Marxist board game, Class Struggle. What began as a chance to mix politics with fun and add to our pedagogical bag of tricks soon became a serious business and I, with it, a serious—if not too effective—businessman.

In the game business, four large companies determine pretty much what gets produced, distributed, advertised and, consequently, played with by the American people. Afraid of alienating conservative customers, the big four would not even consider our game. Our efforts to find an independent producer were a nightmare that only ended with our paying about twice what any large company would pay for a similar product. Bankers were endlessly amused when I offered them a chance to hedge their bets by financing a Marxist board game, but—with one small exception—they stuck to their rule of lending money only to businesses that can prove they don't really need it.

All this to arrive on the desk of store buyers who, as often as not, were more concerned with the color of the box (black is out) and the amount of shelf-space it would occupy than with the intrinsic qualities of the game. Outside New York, there was some rumbling about the game's "ideological character"—as if Monopoly were neutral—but with the help of over 150 media stores, the game was selling and selling out practically everywhere. How surprised everyone seemed to be that a Marxist could be funny! Some papers have reported that we have already made millions, but the truth is that after selling 30,000 games we are still in debt.

Events soon taught me that success in business could be won only if I acted in a business-like manner: excessively friendly when I needed something or someone and curt and exacting when it was the other way around. I developed painful physical symptoms, slept less, continued scheming into my dreams, started noticing when my workers (all close friends) arrived late for work, worried about corporate taxes and became a crashing bore at parties, where all I wanted to talk about was my game. Activities I normally enjoyed began to pale in comparison to the newly discovered thrill of making a big sale, and I found myself thinking of humanity more and more in terms of customers and potential customers.

Unlike the overnight metamorphosis of the salesman in Kafka's story into a cockroach, my own frighteningly similar change took place slowly, and I hope it is still not complete. At first, I was bemused by the strange feelings that began to disrupt my professorial calm, certain that I remained in control.

I should have known better, for Marx had already warned how functions get hold of people and drive them against their will to become something they are not. The process is one of "embodiment." The capitalist, for Marx, is not a real individual as much as the socioeconomic functions of owning means of production and exploiting workers and consumers in search of profits. These functions—summed up in "capital" (or wealth used with the sole aim of creating more wealth)—belong to the capitalist system and pre-date the individual capitalist, who comes to embody them. It is the pressure of these functions, of what is required to perform them effectively, that subtly and insidiously transforms the real individual into someone who only sees other people as a means to make money.

Caught in a whirlwind that is not of their own making, capitalists too—though most will not recognize it—are but victims of an inhuman system. If I have long known that socialism would be good for workers, I now understand just how much capitalists, as human beings, have to gain from a system that serves social needs instead of private profits. Socialism humanizes. I intend to carry this message of hope to the next meeting of my Chamber of Commerce.

Postscript (two years later): The New York Chamber of Commerce did not react very favorably to my message of hope, but Warner Brothers did to the extent of purchasing my life story to do a film on the Class Struggle game. After preparing a disastrous anti-socialist script, the idea was dropped, and I learned another painful lesson about the world of business.




A Marxist without Devil's Horns

To the Editor: [Washington Post, May 8, 1978]

With all the favorable newspaper comment on my appointment as chairman of the department of government and politics at the University of Maryland, I was in danger of being viewed by the public as a Marxist with the wings of an angel. Now that Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, in their op-ed column of May 4 ("The Marxist Professor's Intentions"), have presented me with a pair of devil's horns, there is some chance that a truer, more balanced view of who I am may yet be reached.

In this space I can only comment on the central theme of their column. After reporting my observation that most students who conclude my course (incidentally, a graduate course on Marxism) adopt a Marxist outlook, Evans and Novak say, "Ollman concedes that will be seen 'as an admission that the purpose of my course is to convert students to socialism,' " and then add, "that bothers him not at all..."

That simply is not true. It bothers me a great deal, because that is not the purpose of my course. What follows is what I actually said. (The bracketed material appeared in the original article, "On Teaching Marxism," Insurgent Sociologist, Summer 1976, and should have been included in the piece excerpted in New Political Science, which was used by Evans and Novak.)

"If non-Marxists see my concern with such questions as an admission that the purpose of my course is to convert students to Socialism, I can only answer that in my view—a view which denies the fact/value distinction—a correct understanding of Marxism (as indeed of any body of scientific truths) leads automatically to its acceptance. I hasten to add that this is not reflected in my grading practices; non-Marxist students (i.e. students who do not yet understand Marxism) do at least as well as the rest of the class. [(Would that so much could be said of Marxist students in classes given by bourgeois professors.)] Furthermore, I do not consider that I introduce more 'politics' into my course than do other social-science professors, or that I am any more interested than they are in convincing students of the correctness of my interpretation. [If my concern with a teaching strategy suggests manipulation (whereas, supposedly, their concern with pedagogy is morally neutral), I can only reply that, the truth being what it is, I have no interest in lying, or in hiding any facts, or in misleading students in any way.]"

There is much more in the article that is in that vein.

But before we all start acting like Talmudic scholars, let me suggest that the real test of what a teacher does in class is not what he says about what he does (for that allows various interpretations) but what he actually does in class. Is that really such an outrageous thought? And here all the evidence gathered from my students and colleagues by several Washington and Baltimore reporters makes it abundantly clear that my courses are open, critical and fair, that they do not "indoctrinate," and do not have as their purpose "to convert students to socialism."

If I sometimes write about teaching as if it were a political act, it is because as a Marxist I believe that all activities that involve groups of people are political, in the broad sense of this term. Conscious of that, I admit to speaking about teaching in ways that might make some non-Marxist colleagues uncomfortable. Good. Now, let's discuss it—let's talk about how a teacher's views affect not only his interpretations of the facts but also what he chooses to emphasize among them. And let's talk about it not only in my teaching but in the teaching of other professors as well. In my case, I tell students at the start of each term what my biases are and urge them to be critical of me. How many non-Marxist teachers and other molders of public opinion can say as much? Can Evans and Novak say as much?

Bertell Ollman
New York
(The writer is professor of political science at New York University.)


More letters coming soon.