DIALECTICAL MARXISM
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In defense of Marxism < DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman
In defense of Marxism
Z Magazine
(May 1989)

Dear ZETA,

"Reduces everything to an economic cause?" Marxism? (Spleen, Z, March) Overemphasizes, misunderstands, distorts economics—maybe. This we can argue over. But "reduces everything...", well, that's simply kid stuff. While the claim that we can find in Marxist logic the various "statist, economic, sexual, cultural and social ills" of the socialist bloc is pure rehash of the French "New Philosophers," anti-socialist all, and unworthy of a radical publication.

So why is comrade Mike Albert saying these god-awful things, even while throwing the occasional bouquet to those—like this writer—who continue to work with the Marxist tradition? James O'Connor did and admirable job (April Z) in responding to Albert's (and Murray Bookchin's—April, Z) charges in the field of ecology, but the distortions of Marxism that underlay these charges deserves a more extended treatment.

First, and most important, Albert and Bookchin seriously misconstrue the nature of Marx's subject, what he was studying, and consequently what most of his theories are about. According to Albert and Bookchin (and, of course, they aren't alone in this), Marxism is about society, each and every society and the rules that govern them. Viewed in this manner, capitalism is but Marx's most important illustration for the working out of these rules. The truth, however, is the other way around. Marx's major theories deal essentially with capitalism, with how it works, for whom it works better and for whom it works worse, where it has come from and where it seems to be heading. Certain generalizations can be lifted from this effort, to which Marx devoted the greater part of his writings, and used to help us understand non-capitalist societies and non-social phenomena, but we should not wonder at the incomplete character of such accounts. Marx's theories, for example, cannot adequately explain the origins of patriarchy or the function of religion, nationalism, racism, sexism and the workings of the economy in non-capitalist class societies, or the carry over of these functions and some of their effects into the capitalist period—nor should we expect them to. (Marx's dialectical method, on the other hand, can prove very helpful in extending our understanding to these areas).

Secondly, as regards capitalism, Marx's theories are chiefly concerned with mapping an evolving context that establishes both the broad limits and variety of possibilities (stressing what is most likely) for what can go on in it. This analysis is constructed for the most part out of two overlapping accounts, that of capital accumulation (the growth and development of the means by which wealth is produced in our era) and that of class struggle (the history of the accompanying social relations). The emphasis on economic conditions is due to the fact that what is most distinctive about this context is of an economic nature, though this must be understood in a very broad sense. (This is what Albert caricatures as Marx's "productivist bias").

Third, as a dialectical thinker, Marx cannot offer any factor, no matter how important, as a first or only cause. Whatever is treated as having a major or special effect, and these are usually—though not always—economic conditions and events, they themselves are never wholly isolated from the broader conditions out of what they arose and which continue to act and interact alongside them. (This is what Albert caricatures as "reductivism"). The trick, of course, is to sacrifice neither that multiplicity of causes for whatever deserves greater or special emphasis (as vulgar economic determinists often do) or the latter for the former (as like Albert and some other social movement theorists do).

Fourth, the various non-class dominations of special concern to social movements people have both capitalist and non-capitalist components. Marxist inspired revolutions, therefore, cannot be expected to completely eradicate any of them, at least in the short run. So why should people involved in the social movements be interested in Marxism?

Well—because most of them/us are also workers (white collar as well as blue collar), and Marxism is invaluable in helping to develop a strategy that serves their/our interests as workers. Because the other forms of domination from which they/we suffer all have a capitalist component, and Marxism best explains it. Because even those parts of these oppressions that are older than capitalism have acquired a capitalist form and function, so that a Marxist analysis of capitalism is required to distinguish what is historically specific in their operation from what is not. And, lastly, because overturning capitalism is the necessary (though not sufficient) condition for doing away with all forms of domination, including domination over nature, and only a class conscious working class has the numbers (still), the power (potentially), and the interests (always) to bring about a change of this magnitude. Hence, the priority Marxists give to class analysis and class based politics (which does not rule out organizing around other oppressions at specific times for specific purposes). The priority given to class here (not to "the workers" but to "us as workers") has nothing to do with who is hurting more or which form of oppression is more immoral or which dominated group happens to be in motion, and everything to do with what is the adequate framework and vantage point for grasping the specific manner in which all these oppressions are interacting now and how best to get rid of them all. (And this is what Albert caricatures as a "master discourse").

I do not expect that simply making these claims has convinced anyone that they are right, but I hope they help clarify where the real disagreements between Marxist and social movement theorists lie, and, hence, what is worth discussing if we are ever to construct the united movement that is needed to achieve our—yes!—common goals.



Bertell Ollman