The Writings of Bertell Ollman
to the Editor
Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx's Method
Reviews of Ollman's Books
Featured article -
America Beyond Capitalism: A Socialist Stew Prepared for Liberals and Conservatives
Featured speech -
McCoy Award Acceptance Speech
Video: Marxism and Progress
Marxism (the cartoon version)
From Theory to Practice
Recommended Web Sites
NYU Course Bibliographies
Not To Dare
Kiki & Bubu explain the neoliberal shift in labor relations
On Teaching Marxism
At many American universities, Marxism G2010 or Communist Theory V1106 or Socialist Thought A2242 are no longer "know your enemy" kinds of exercises, and the number of serious courses on these subjects is constantly increasing. Unfortunately, the opportunity they offer for promoting a true understanding of Marxism is frequently lost, either wholly or partially, under the weight of problems inherent in the university context.
Having taught both undergraduate and graduate courses on Marxism for almost a decademainly at New York University, but also at Columbia University, Union College, and the old Free University of New YorkI would like to share with other Marxist teachers my experiences in dealing with these problems.
There are three main problems facing any university teacher of Marxism: the bourgeois ideology of most students, the social and ideological restraints that are part of the university setting, and the absence of a vital socialist movement. To be sure, the same difficulties confront any radical teacher no matter what the subject matter, but the forms in which they are expressed and their disorienting effect vary considerably, and so too must the strategies for dealing with them.
The absence of a vital socialist movement makes most students approach Marxism too much in the spirit of another academic exercise, just as it confirms them in the beliefbefore study beginsthat Marx's analysis cannot be correct. The classroom situation, whatever one does to humanize social relations, remains locked inside a university structure that is itself forced to play a certain preparatory role within society at large. Students take Marxism for four credits; for some it counts toward their "major"; for all it is a step toward their degree. Given a society with restricted privileges, some kind of grading is necessary at each stage of the education process, as in life generally. All of this affects how students prepare for a course, any course, so that all but the most committed treat the acquisition of knowledge (and often understand it) as the means to a good grade.
There are also ideological elements in the classroom situation, which continually gnaw away at the foundations of a Marxist analysis. The very presence of a Marxist teacher who is allowed to teach Marxism is conclusive evidence to some that bourgeois freedom worksjust as students from modest backgrounds often take their own presence in class and in the university as proof that extensive social mobility and equality of opportunity really exist under capitalism. Even the fact that the course is offered by a particular department reinforces the alienated notion of the division of knowledge into disciplines and predisposes students to view Marx as essentially an economic or political or a philosophical thinker.
But undoubtedly the major hurdle in presenting Marxism to American students is the bourgeois ideology, the systematic biases and blind spots, which even the most radical bring with them. This ideology reflects their own class background, whatever that may be, but also their position in capitalism as young people and students. There is nothing in bourgeois ideas and ways of thinking that doesn't interfere with the reception of Marx's message, but the scrambling effect of some ideas is clearly greater than that of others. In my experience, the most troublesome notions have been students' egotistical and ahistorical conception of human nature; their conception of society as the sum of separate individuals, and with this the tendency to reduce social problems to problems of individual psychology (the whole "blaming the victim" syndrome); their identification of Marxism with Soviet and Chinese practice; and of course the ultimate rationale that radical change is impossible in any case. Much less destructive and also easier to dislodge are the intrinsically feeble notions that we are all middle class, that there is a harmony of interests under capitalism, that the government belongs to and represents everybody equally, and that history is the product of the interaction of great people and ideas. Underpinning and providing a framework for all these viewswhether in the form of conclusions or assumptions, and whether held consciously or unconsciouslyis an undialectical, factorial mode of thinking that separates events from their conditions, people from their real alternatives and human potential, social problems from one another, and the present from the past and the future. The organizing and predisposing power of this mode of thought is such that any attempt to teach Marxism, or indeed to present a Marxist analysis of any event, is doomed to distortion and failure unless accompanied by an equally strenuous effort to impart the dialectical mode of reasoning.
I originally thought that students who chose to take my course on Marxismthe department doesn't exist where this is a required coursewould be relatively free of the worst effects of bourgeois ideology, and it just may be that a survey of the whole university would show a tilt in critical consciousness in their favor. I certainly attract most of the self-consciously radical students, but it has become clear that the great majority of my studentswhatever the sense of adventure or morbid curiosity that bring them to classsuffer from most of the distortions mentioned above. And even the radical students, as I have indicated, have not escaped the ideological effects of their bourgeois conditioning and education.
The problem one faces in teaching Marxism that come from the absence of a socialist movement, the university context, and the students' own bourgeois ideology permit neither easy nor complete solutions. Still, how one approaches and organizes the subject matter, where one begins and concludes, the kind of examples used, and especially what one emphasizes have considerable influence on the degree of success (or failure). My own courses on Marxism on both the undergraduate and graduate levels lay heaviest stress on the dialectic, the theory of class struggle, and Marx's critique of bourgeois ideology. These three theories are explained, illustrated, questioned, and elaborated in a variety of contexts throughout the term.
The dialectic is the only adequate means of thinking (and therefore, too, of examining and presenting) the changes and interactions that make up so large a part of the real world. Incorporating the dialectic, Marxism is essentially the attempt to exhibit the complexities of capitalist processes, their origins, and the possibilities for their transcendence (all of which is conceived of in terms of relations, where the conditions of existence of any processlike its potential for developmentare taken to be part of what it is). Unlike bourgeois social scientists, who try to relate and put into motion what they conceive of as logically independent and essentially static factors, Marx assumes movement and interconnectedness and sets out to examine why some social forms appear to be fixed and independent. The problem of bourgeois social science is similar to that of Humpty Dumpty after the fall, when all the king's horses and all the king's men could not put Humpty Dumpty together again. Once reality is broken up epistemologically into externally related objects, all ties between themjust as their own changes of form and functionbecome artificial and of secondary importance in determining their essential character. In fixing them in time and space, the ever changing boundaries between things in the real world are systematically wrenched out of shape. My emphasis on the dialectic, therefore, can be seen as recognition of the fact that one must understand the sense of "interconnection," reciprocal effect, "movement," and "transformation" in order to grasp correctly whatever it is to which Marx applies these expressions.
Aside from its obvious importance in Marxism, the need I feel to give special emphasis to Marx's theory of class struggle derives from the absolute inability of most students to think in these terms. Like most Americans, they slide in their thinking from the individual to 'everybody' without passing through the mediation of particular groups. Thus, for example, when responsibility for an act goes beyond its actual perpetrator, everyone is said to be guilty. This is the logic (if not the politics) behind Billy Graham's request that we all pray to be forgiven for the sins of My Lai and Watergate, a request that most people can deny only by upholding the equally absurd position that Calley and Nixon are solely responsible. The middle terms are missing. Marxism is an analysis of capitalism that is organized around such middle terms (groups), the most important of which is class. Without a notion of class, which enables us to consider human interaction on the basis of interests that come out of people's differing relations to the prevailing mode of production, none of Marx's theories can be understood.
The theory of class struggle also contains the apparently contradictory ideas that individuals have been made what they are (that along with their class they can transform existing social relations.) Paradoxically, it is when one understands the degree to which an individual is a social product, and how and why this has occurred, that he or she can transcend the conditions and become the potential creator of a new and better future. To set this dialectic of necessity and freedom into motion is another reason I emphasize the theory of class struggle.
Capitalism differs from all other oppressive systems in the amount and insidious character of its mystification, in the thoroughness with which this mystification is integrated into all its life processes, and in the degree to which it requires mystification in order to survive (all other oppressive systems relying far more on direct force). The importance of bourgeois ideology is reflected in the space given it in Marx's writings, which are throughout critiques of capitalist practices and of the ways these practices are ordinarily understood. Our own accounts of Marxism, therefore, must at every point combine a description of how capitalism works with a description of how these workings are dissembled on both common sense and "learned discourse." In universities, where bourgeois ideology is dispensed in every classroom, the need for such a two-level critique is greater than it would be in other settingsin factories or neighborhood centers, for example. Furthermore, the longer exposure of graduate students to the more refined forms of bourgeois ideology calls for a correspondingly greater stress on the criticisms of such ideas in graduate courses.
In preparing my own critique, I start from an awareness that bourgeois ideology is both an expression of the real situation and a product of conscious efforts to manipulate people's understanding, for the same conditions that are reflected in bourgeois ideology give risehowever confusingly and haltinglyto a correct understanding of capitalist processes. The fact is that while bourgeois ideology is systematic, it is also unfinished, inconsistent, contradictory, and constantly fighting for its life against a science of society whose most complete expression is Marxism. In class, my main contribution to this ongoing struggle is to insist at every turn that bourgeois ideology is made up of partial truthsideas that are not so much false as severely limited by conditions of which the speaker or writer is unawareand that these partial truths serve the interests of the capitalist class. In this manner, bourgeois ideology is transcended rather than denied outright. Focusing on immediate appearances, most bourgeois accounts of capitalism succeed in reversing the actual dynamics of what is taking place. Marx summarizes the net effect of such practices when, referring to Luther's description of the Roman mythological figure Cacus, who steals oxen by dragging them backward into his den to make it appear they have gone out, he comments, "An excellent picture, it fits the capitalist in general, who pretends that what he has taken from others and brought into his den emanates from him, and causing it to go backwards he gives it a semblance of having come from his den."1 My critique of bourgeois ideology, like Marx's, has the double goal of unmasking it as a defense of capitalist interests and reappropriating the evidence of immediate appearances into an account that captures the true dynamics of capitalist society.
The actual division of Marxism into Lecture topics, and the ordering of these topics, is determined by the requirements of effective exposition, given the peculiar problems mentioned above. I begin with a discussion of the current crisis in our society, illustrated with stories and statistics from the capitalist press, in an effort to reach general agreement on what needs to be explained. Then, I devote at least one session to each of the following: an overview of Marx's analysis to clarify its systemic character and to provide a rough map of the areas into which the course will take us; the dialectic; Marx's treatment of the fact/value distinction; his conception of human nature and theory of alienation; the labor theory of value; the materialist conception of history; the theory of the state; the critique of bourgeois ideology; Marx's vision of communism; his theories of class consciousness and revolution; and familyif time allowshis method, with special emphasis on its utility for our own research. I cannot hope to repeat my Lectures in this space, or even to mention all the subjects that come up, but it may be useful to go through these topics one at a time to provide concrete illustrations of my pedagogical strategy. Readers of the following should keep in mind that my intention is not the ordinary one of using a scaffolding to construct a building but of using the building a display its scaffolding.
Lecture I. I begin the first class by asking students to take out a piece of paper and write for fifteen minutes on why they are or are not Marxists. Rather than collecting these papers, I ask students to keep them until the end of term when I want them to answer the same question (either as part of a take-home final or as an addendum to their term papers), in light of their work in the course and what they have said at the start. My aim is to involve students personally in the subject, to jolt them into a recognition that Marxism belongs to their lives as well as to the curriculum and consequently that they are as much a part of the subject as they are people studying it. I also want to make them conscious as soon as possible of their main objections to Marxism, so they can reflect on them and test them in their readings and in our discussions. Finally, I want to provide them and myself with a benchmark by which to judge some of the effects of the course.
The substantive part of this first session is devoted to parading, with the aid of appropriate newspaper stores, the worst problems of our societypoverty, unemployment, malnutrition, social and economic inequality, racism, sexism, etc. The message is that there is a lot that is wrong, but that we have to understand it better before we can hope to change it. Paradoxes are used to highlight the apparent absurdity of poverty in the midst of so much wealth and to indicate the presence of underlying contradictions. If contradictions are incompatible trends rooted in the structure and organization of society, paradoxes are the flotsam and jetsam that float on the surface of these trends, and as such they offer good clues of the existence of contradictions. My favorite paradox is found in the exchange between former Secretary of Agriculture Butz and a reporter who asked him if he thought it would help resolve the world's food shortage if we all ate one hamburger a week less. Butz responded that he intended to eat one hamburger a week more to help deal with the more serious problem of low cattle prices.
Students, particularly beginning students, need to hear in clear, simple language exactly how Marxism differs from what they already know and believe. Toward this end I distinguish between liberals, radicals and Marxists in the following manner: liberalswhich I say included most students presentview capitalism's problems one at a time. Each problem has an independent existence and can be understood and even solved in a way that does not bring in other problems, or does so only incidentally. Thus the slogans, "one thing at a time," "first things first," etc. Radicals, on the other hand, recognize a pattern in these problems. For them, these problems are linked together as part of the necessary life processes of the capitalist system. They are correct in holding capitalism responsible, but if they are only radicals, and not yet Marxists, they don't really understand how this system gives rise to these problems: the mediations between the parts and the whole are missing. Marxists analyze the workings of capitalism to make sense of the patterns that radicals only see and liberals still have to learn about (Marxism is obviously much more than this, but for present purposes this will do). At the end of the session I try to make explicitwith the help of studentssome of the patterns that emerge from the problems listed earlier. These patterns generally have to do with the power of money in capitalist society, the fact that people are willing to do almost anything for money, the great gap between the rich, the poor, the tie between being rich and powerful and being poor and powerless, and the class-biased character of our laws and their administration.
An attempt is made here, as in all later sessions, to involve students in discussion, and questions and comments are taken at any time, but I am very careful not to let the discussion overflow in all directions. The organic ties between all the elements of Marxism and the different levels of difficulty involved require a more ordered presentation. There are many ways to present Marxism, but following wherever the free association of students leads is not one of them. When necessaryand it happens quite oftenI explain why I can't go into a particular topic at the moment it is raised and tell students in what session it will be dealt with.
It is also during this first class that I make it clear that I am a Marxist and that this will affect my choice of materials, the emphasis I give them, and, of course, my interpretation, but that it will not affect my honest examination of the facts or my willingness to hear other opinions. Every social science professor has a point of view. The fact that I announce mine and other teachers do not is possibly a more important difference between us than the fact that I am a Marxist and they are not. I have been open and have warned students what to expect, while they have hidden behind a specious neutrality (misnamed objectivity) from which they sally forth to surprise students at every opportunity. After this admission, I am often asked why the university allows a Marxist to teach. If a radical student asks the question, he or she is usually saying, "What kind of a Marxist can you be?" I defend myself from this implied criticism by explaining how unusual personally and politically difficult, and historically overdue this event is. The nonradical student uses this same question to proclaim his or her belief that academic freedom and complete freedom of speech really exist in America. I answer that the opportunity for such courses emerges from the contradictions in the university's functions (preparatory, humanist, and scholarly), and its need for legitimation in a world where Marxism is taken ever more seriously.
Lecture 2. The second session is devoted to trying to give students some sense of the systemic character of Marx's analysis, i.e., what it means to have capitalism as the object of study, as a reflection of the complex interdependence and developments found there. It may be that in Marx's days, or even in Europe today, one would not have to insist on this point; but most Americans don't know what it is to have a total view of any epoch, in part because they don't have a total or systematic view of anything, and in part because they don't know what constitutes an epoch. Grasping the relevant time framework is especially difficult for people who oscillate in their thinking between this minute and forever as easily and automatically as they move between the individual and everybody. Before offering the specifics of Marx's analysis, I think it is important to make students aware that its holistic quality derives in large part from the choice of a spatial and temporal object that is different from any they have ever contemplated.
To claim that Marxism is systemic, that it is a complex, organic whole whose parts cannot be grasped separately, is not to say that it is a closed and finished system with definite answers to the problems of the past, present, or future. It was such a misinterpretation of his views by some French followers that led a frustrated Marx to proclaim, "All I know is that I am not a Marxist."2 Marxism is unfinished and, like reality itself, is open to all the revisions and corrections made necessary by new empirical research. But if Marxism is not a closed system, it remains a system of such interlocking parts that a full study of any single part implies a study of them all.
In providing an overview of Marxism I make use of the techniques described in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell.3 I ask five or six students to take the part of workers, I play the capitalist, and we reenact the primal exploitation scene that goes on daily in ever capitalist factory (my only revision is that where Tressell uses bread, I use scraps of paper). In depicting the relations between workers and capitalists, I find it usefulhere as laterto compare them both objectively and in the consciousness of the participants with the relations of oppression in other systems, particularly in feudal and slave societies. The charade goes on to show how surplus value get distributed and does so in a way which makes very clear the ties of function and interest that link the different sectors of capitalist life. I avoid using Marxian concepts until the broad outlines of the situations to which they apply have been established. When the terms "exploitation," "class struggle," "value," and "surplus value" are finally used, I take special care to point out that they refer to complex sets of relations and not to things. Students are prepared in this way for what will be a major topic in the next classthe dialectic.
I consider this game from The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, which I've used in dozens of classes, the most successful teaching device I have ever used. It really gives students a sense of the broad scope and systemic character of Marx's analysis, its central concern, and the way important theories are connectedall in a painless and even amusing manner. It is crude, over simplified, and leaves out some essential elements of social lifeall this I readily admitbut it does help to bring Marxist theory and the objects it studies into focus. In the future, particularly in undergraduate courses, I intend to use my board game, "Class Struggle," to achieve many of these same ends.
In this session I also discuss why so much of the debate over Marx's ideas goes on at cross-purposes. Marxists believe that most bourgeois social scientists assume precisely that which needs to be explained, chiefly the unequal distribution of wealth and power and the character of social relations which result from this, and then set out this great fanfare to explain what may justifiably be assumed, the lowest common denominator features that characterize any social grouping. Social scientists, on the other hand, often criticize Marx and Marxists for drawing conclusions about the relationship between economic and non-economic factors in history on the basis of too little evidence, and for not taking account of the exceptions. Marx's hypotheses, they claim, have yet to be proven. But Marx was not concerned with collecting evidence to prove a set of hypotheses that apply to all societies. He is faulted for what he did not do, did not think could be done, or could be done with only trivial results. His project was to reconstruct the workings of an historically specific social systemcapitalismwhose workings are taken for granted and treated as natural and unchanging by most social scientists engaged in the building and testing of a historical hypotheses.
Finally, it is in this session that I deal with such preliminary matters as problems in translating Marx, the recent availability of certain key works, and the role of Engels in Marxism. With minor qualifications, I regard Engels as coequal spokesman with Marx on the doctrines of Marxism and treat him as such for the remainder of the course.
Lecture 3. The dialectic (though it has been operating all along) is introduced under its proper name only when students begin to feel the need for it. How does one come to understand a social system composed of a multitude of constantly changing and interacting parts that has a real history and a limited number of possible futures? How does one study it to capture both its essential character, the way of working which makes it different from other social systems, and that dynamic which has brought it to its present state and will carry it to whatever future awaits it? How does one think of the results of such a study and through what steps and forms does one proceed in presenting these results to others? The dialectic is the only adequate means for thinking and dealing with such a subject matter.
My account of the dialectic stresses its roots in the philosophy of internal relations, which holds that the irreducible unit of reality is the relation and not the thing. The relations that people ordinarily assume to exist between things are viewed, here as existing within (as a necessary part of) each thing in turn, now conceived of as a Relation (likewise, the changes which any "thing" undergoes). This peculiar notion of relation is the key to understanding the entire dialectic, and is used to unlock the otherwise mysterious notions of totality, abstraction, identity, law, and contradiction. In the interests of clarity, these notions are examined in Hegel as well as Marx and contrasted with their equivalents in Aristotelian logic and its watered-down versioncommon sense.
The philosophy of internal relations also accounts from Marx's understanding of language as a social relation, his use of what appear to be elastic meanings, and the total lack of definitions in his works. On the basis of this conception, words are taken to mean what they describe, with the result that Marx's major concepts meanat their limitthe analysis made with them. Marx seldom uses a concept in this full sense, but neither does he stick to the core notion meanings that are carried by tradition and clearly understood by non-Marxists. What he does ranges between the two, with actual usage depending on the context. This practice makes it very difficult to know what Marx is saying on any occasion without an understanding of the dialectic (which supplies the framework and the possibilities), his analysis (which supplies the actual content), and the context (which determines how much of this content is relevant). Students are warned that they can have only a superficial understanding of Marx's theories until they learn the fuller meanings of his concepts, which in turn hinges on their progress in understanding his theories. In the sessions to follow, I explain, I will be concerned with developing both Marx's analysis of capitalism and beginning with core notion meanings, the fuller definitions of the major concepts with which he makes this analysis.
In the philosophy of internal relations, truth is linked to the notion of system: statements are more or less true depending on how much they reflect in extent and detail the actual complexity of the real world. The criteria for judging whether Marxism is true, therefore, go beyond its correspondence to capitalist reality to its completeness and coherence as a total interpretation. Hence the irrelevance and/or insignificance of those rebuttals of Marx which focus on the odd exception. Marxists, as is well known, generally stress practice as the test of the truth of Marxism, and there is a sense (which I cannot develop here) in which this is so. Unfortunately, for non-Marxistswhich means for most of my studentsthe "test of practice" can only be understood as the fact that revolutions occurred in Russia and China, the policies currently followed by these regimes, or the feeble efforts by workers and working-class parties to make a revolution in the West. As practices go, none of these do very much to convince people that Marx's analysis of capitalism is correct. On the other hand, people do begin to gravitate to Marxism insofar as it provides a more complete and coherent understanding of their lives and their society than they had before. I urge students to use these criteria in judging Marx's theories.
If I begin to discuss the dialectic by opposing it to common sense in order to establish its distinctive character, in my conclusion I try to point out that common sense also contains elements of the dialectic. Children, and less educated people in general, often operate with a rough, unconscious dialectic, which those who have benefited from an education that is constantly breaking down processes and wholes without putting them together again do so much less or not at all. It is important that students see that formal education in America is in large part training in how to think undialectically.4
What of Marx's materialism? In most treatments of Marx's philosophy, his dialectic and his materialism are coupled. I believe this practice has led to a serious confusion over the various senses in which Marx can be said to be a materialist, becauseunlike the dialectichis materialism cannot be abstracted very easily from its real content. Marx's materialism is the particular relations he sees between people, nature, and society, including ideas. (I treat Marx's conception of human nature in the fifth Lecture, and his materialist conception of history again in the seventh Lecture). When this content is abstracted, all that remains of Marx's materialism is his opposition to various idealist positions which view the world as the effect and/or expression of disembodied ideas, and the methodological imperative (one, however, which admits exceptions) that we should begin our analysis of problems with their material aspects. What is to be avoided at all costs is the presentation of Marx's materialism as the belief that only matter is real, or that matter comes before ideas (since the concept "matter" is already an idea), or that ideas never affect matter, or that one should never begin an analysis from the vantage point of ideas. In every instance, such claims are undialectical, and the last two prejudgeincorrectly, as it turns outthe results of empirical research. Since the prevailing ethos is no longer idealist in the sense mentioned above, and given the dangers of misinterpretation at this early stage, my own presentation of Marx integrates his materialist philosophy with its real content, except in the treatment of method at the very end of the course, where materialism reemerges as a methodological principle regarding priorities.
Lecture 4. A major constituent of bourgeois ideology is the belief that the facts we know are logically independent of the values we hold. It is what permits people who disagree on facts, if these are viewed broadly, to treat their disagreement as one of values, which holding that the latter are beyond rational examination, i.e., one that takes account of the conditions and interests in which values emerge and flourish. To maintain that Marx himself subscribed to this logical distinction makes it possible to agree with him on his description of capitalism while disagreeing with his socialist solution simply because one believes in other values. It also makes whatever is labeled Marx's values appear as arbitrary and as ultimately unconvincing as the values of anyone else.
Marx does not accept a logical separation between facts and values, and, on the basis of his philosophy of internal relations, could not. On this conception, judgments cannot be severed from the people who make them and the conditions (including real alternatives) in which they are pronounced. In this session I work out the meaning of the dialectic for the entire sphere of ethics, other people's ethics and what are said to be Marx's. It should be clear that what is at stake here is the status of Marx's whole critique and with it the grounds on which one can reasonably accept or reject it. Marx does not condemn capitalism on moral grounds but analyzes it (and the views of those who praise or condemn it) in a way that confronts present conditions with their real alternatives. Rather than an external ideal, communismor what is usually taken to be the basis of Marx's value judgmentsis the extension of patterns and trends found in the present that Marx has projected into the future, given the new priorities that would be established by a socialist government. The content of this projection is treated in the session on Marx's vision of communism, but its logical status as part of the world of fact is clarified at this time. The great majority of students operate with the fact/value distinction, however, and it is a very difficult task to get them to see how Marx could have done otherwise.
Finally, to help bring out the ideological dimensions of the fact / value distinction, I make a special effort to recount its history from the time of Hume, along with its use and ramifications in modern social science.
Lecture 5. From Marx's philosophy I proceed to his theory of alienation rather than to any of his other theories, I do this in order to force an early confrontation of Marx's conception of human nature with the individualistic conception held by most students, and also because of the connections this enables me to make between Marx's analysis and the student's own life situation. As Marx's conception of human beings in capitalist society, the theory of alienations is a cross between Marx's conception of human nature in general and the special conditions of capitalism. In explaining such concepts as "powers" "needs," "appropriation," "activity," "natural," "social," "species," and "freedom," with which Marx integrates both society and nature into humanity, as part of his conception of human nature, I am careful to stress the reliance of this conception on his dialectic. Later I show how the theory of alienation, which focuses on the separation and dissembling of these elements, cannot be conceived of outside of the foregoing conception of human nature and its underlying dialectic. The language of separation in which so much of the discussion of alienation is couched only makes sense in a context where a unified whole of some sort is already assumed to exist.
In displaying the four basic relations of alienationbetween the individual and his or her activity, product, other people, and the speciesI make the point that most students will soon be workers and that whatever their status and material rewards the relations Marx describes will apply to them. Studying, I remind them, is usually but a temporary respite in the life of a worker. We then examine what forms these four basic relations of alienation take in politics, religion, and finallywith special emphasisin education. Applying this framework to general feelings of student malaise invariably strikes a responsive chord. It is here, too, that the limitations on learning anything, especially a radical critique of society, within the alienated context of a capitalist university receives the attention it deserves.
In discussing Marx's conception of human nature and his theory of alienation, it becomes clear that he is concerned with the typical rather than with the unique individual, or with the unique individual insofar as he is typical. The social types of greatest interest to him are classes, which are presented both as products of alienated social relations, and as co-instigators of the dynamic that gives rise to these relations. Classes in struggle over their interests are the human subjects of Marx's analysis. Given his conception of human nature, no other subdivision of mankind carries the same influence. Given his broader subject matterthe real history of capitalist mode of productionno other subdivision of the human species is as relevant. It is important that American students, for whom this mode of thinking is so foreign, see the necessity as well as the advantages and limitations in Marx's choice of class as his human subject. As for limitations, I point out that interests do not translate easily into motives, a quality possessed by unique individuals, and that the attempt to reduce one to the other has led to some of the more serious, vulgar distortions of Marx's analysis.
Lecture 6. There is still another advantage in treating Marx's theory of alienation before the labor theory of value. This is that it enables me to bring out better the social relations inherent in the latter theory, because the labor Marx has in mind in discussing value is alienated labor, with all that entails in the way of relations between the producer and his or her activity, product, fellow human beings, and the species. Likewise, value can now be seen as that which happens to and can be done with the products of alienated labor just because of its alienation, or, alternatively, as the form this alienation takes when viewed from the vantage point of its products. Both use- and exchange-value exhibit these effects. After clarifying the social content of labor and value, most of this session is devoted to the metamorphosis of value, the fetishism of commodities, and the theory of crises, understood not only as a crisis in accumulation and consumption but also as a social crisis. Facts from our present crisis are used as illustrations. At a time when the standard of living of the working class throughout the capitalist world is going down, Marxists bear a heavy responsibility to present clearlyand frequentlythe only explanation of this social disaster that makes any sense.
Lenin said that it is necessary to read Hegel's Logic before one can truly understand Capital, and I am very much in sympathy with this view. But it is not a recipe for how to each the labor theory of value to beginners. Hegel is even more difficult to understand that Marx, and it seems perverse to prepare students for Marxism with something that is even more difficult, even easier to distort. In this course, Hegel is dealt with directly only in the session on the dialectic, but his presence is felt throughout. The central position accorded the philosophy of internal relations in the dialectic, and the use of internal relations as the framework in which to set Marx's other theories, gives my interpretation of Marx a very Hegelian cast. This is never more evident than in my presentation of the labor theory of value.
At the very start, I try to get students to see that Marx's labor theory of value is not an economic theory, narrowly understood, but a theory about the workings of capitalism viewed from the vantage point of the production and exchange of commodities. The question to which Marx addresses himself in the first volume of Capital is, "Why is labor represented by the value of its product and labor-time by the magnitude of that value?"5 This is not a question about how much things cost or even why they cost what they do. Following Smith and Ricardo, Marx can assume that labor is responsible for the bulk of these costs. What he sets out to study are the historical conditions in which prices come about in the first place, in which all the things that people produce are available for exchangeindeed, are produced with such exchange in mind. In unraveling the social conditions which make this process both possible and necessary, Marx also shows how, in the very act of reproducing these conditions, contradictions emerge that point to the demise of the system. The main tendencies that lie at the core of these contradictionsthe concentration of capital in fewer economic units, the expansion of capital throughout the globe, the falling rate of profit, the disappearance of the middle class, and the pauperization of the working classare sometimes called Marx's predictive economic theories. It is the failure of these predictions to come unambiguously and permanently true that is all that many know (or care to know) about Marxism. It is important to make clear to students that these predictions are really projections of tendencies Marx found in his research, and since they are often countered by other tendencies (the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, for example, by the tendency of capital to expand), what actually transpires and when requires continual study.
The widespread acceptance of the economistic interpretation of Marx's labor theory of value shows how essential it is to recover Marx's actual questions, which make all his theories (his answers to these questions) accounts of the workings of an entire social system. These theories differ in the sector and problems from which they take off, and each is organized around a distinctive set of concepts, but the system pretension of each theory is the same. The labor theory of value, the theory of alienation, the materialist conception of history, the theory of class struggle, the theory of the state, and the theory of ideology do not, in the final analysis, deal with different subjects, but with the same subject differently. Rather than a series of externally related sectoral analyses, Marx offers overlapping analysessome more, some less worked outof the same capitalist reality. In presenting each of these theories I try to bring out the special contribution to our understanding that comes from approaching capitalism form this vantage point (chiefly the privileged access it gives us to certain kinds of information and the insights that come from ordering reality in this manner), and the ways it sustains and qualifies the analyses undertaken from other vantage points.
By this point in the course most students are able to grasp the uniqueness of Marx's project and something of the manner in which he sets out to achieve it, but as yet only a few really understand or accept his analysis. Taking the theory of exploitation found in the labor theory of value, it is useful to address this hiatus directly and, in the process, to examine our own class positions in the light of Lukacs' observation that of all classes the proletariat is best placed to grasp the Marxian totality.
Lecture 7. Unlike most Marxists, I take the materialist conception of history to be mainly a theory about capitalism, where the history referred to is the origins of capitalism, and not a theory about history in general, where capitalism is but the major illustration. Consequently, most of this session is devoted to an account of the real history of the capitalist mode of production and especially to the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Western Europe. The story revolves around contradictions that arose in the reproduction of the conditions of capitalist existence, now the reproduction of the conditions of capitalist existence, now under new forms, have given rise to its own peculiar contradictions. Coming after discussions of alienation, class struggle, and value, an effort is made to discuss the unfolding of these contradictions on these different levels. From the facts of this historically specific evolution it is possible to draw (and Marx does draw) certain conclusions regarding the role and influence generally, and class struggle that have a wider applicability. In every case, however, these conclusions admit the kind of exceptions that Marx himself often introduces when examining specific social formations.
Most students come into the course holding a caricature of the materialist conception of history in which "economics" is supposed to be the cause of everything people do and think and of all that happens in history. To counter this crude economic determinism, it is important to distinguish the determinism expressed in special conditioning and limited alternatives from the metaphysical determinism that denies choice altogether, and to illustrate this difference in Marx's treatment of real historical personalities. The influence Marx often attributesbecause this is what his studies revealto political, scientific, cultural, religious, geographical, and still other factors must also be brought out.
In combating economic determinism, however, there is a serious dangerand one that I myself have often succumbed toof overreaction, in which case students are left with a picture of Marx as an eclectic thinker not that different from other eclectic thinkers they know. We are operating in an academic environment where people readily admit that, along with everything else, "economics" is important (hence, the absurd claim that "we are all Marxists now"). For most, however, such eclecticism is merely an excuse for not studying any area in depth, so it is not surprising that the organic connections between areas are likewise neglected. Marx made these connections his subject matter, but his explanation accords a special role to the mode and must try to capture. If most students caricature Marxism as economic determinism, they also have little understanding of economic processes or their importance, and I have come to believe that in explaining the materialist conception of history the latter is our immediate problem. Consequently, I now begin my presentation with a heavy stress on economic processes and gradually qualify it in the manner and direction suggested above. The opposite distortions of economic determinism and eclecticism are avoided by leaning first in one direction and then in the other. This holds both for the account of the real history of capitalism and the conclusions Marx draws from this account for the rest of history (really history organized in other ways).
Lecture 8. The state has already come into earlier discussions of alienation, class struggle, the labor theory of value, and especially the materialist conception of history, although the picture we got of the state's function and history differed somewhat with each theory. Approaching the state directly permits a fuller grasp of this character and a more adequate estimate of its influence, just as it casts a new political light on alienation, classes, value, and the mode and relations of production. But just as the state, conceived of as a Relation, serves as another dimension for the examination of capitalist society, the various aspects of the state, also conceived of as Relations, serve as complementary dimensions for the examination of the state. The institutions of government, the dominant role of the ruling economic class, the objective structures which maintain the cohesion and equilibrium of the social system, political parties, political socializations, the state's function in the reproduction of value, the illusory community (the alienated social–power) and the hegemonic political ideology are all aspects of the state, and interpretations which focus only on one or a couple of these aspectsas so many Marxist accounts doare necessarily lopsided and distorting. For example, in the recent New Left Review debate between Ralf Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas, the real issue is not, or rather should not be, whether the state is the executive committee of the ruling class or a set of structures which maintain the cohesion and equilibrium of the social system, but how it can be both and what it means for it to be both. Without a firm grasp of the dialectic, and in particular its foundations in the philosophy of internal relations, Marxist scholars are no more immune to one-sided, ideological interpretations of Marxism than their bourgeois counterparts. Marx himself dealt relatively little with the state. He planned to do a systematic study of it but like so many of his other projects his was sacrificed to the demands of his political economy. For this reasonand also because of the important ways the capitalist state has changed in our century (particularly, in its economic role and with regard to socializing people to the status quo)there is a great need for serious Marxist studies in this area.
In my interpretation of the Marxist theory of the state, each aspect of the state Relation is itself treated as a Relation within which to unfold the workings of the state as a dimension of capitalism. I have found this to be one of the most successful illustrations of Marx's dialectical approach, which discovers change and interaction within the very units –Relationsthat undergo it, and seek to understand and explain these processes through frequent changes of perspective. It is in discussing the stat, too, that the class biases in capitalist institutions and practices become clear to everyone, and that the many radical but hitherto disconnected facts and intuitions that most students have begin to connect up and make Marxist sense. Also along I have told students that there is a big difference between patches of critical knowledge occasional insights, which anyone can have and which lead to nothing in particular, and a critical analysis, which integrates such facts and insights into a systemic whole. Lincoln, after all, recognized that labor produces all value, Woodrow Wilson saw that our nation's law serves the interests of the capitalist class; and even Eisenhower could warn us of the growing influence of a military-industrial complex. But by themselves, outside of a comprehensive analysis, such insights remained barren of further understanding and politically led nowhere at all.
Lecture 9. In this session I sum up the Marxist critique of bourgeois ideology, a critique which has already appeared as aspects of other theories throughout the course. The main emphasis now is on how bourgeois ideology in it s various forms functions to serve capitalist interests. Starting with pro-capitalist solutions to common problems, we examine in turn how capitalism is treated as the natural form of society, the mystification of concepts that don't allow an adequate comprehension of their subject matter for those that do (or could), the division of knowledge into separate and competing disciplines, the use of the abstract individual or the sum of such abstract individuals as the human subject of study, and finally the defining of fact/value, cause/effect, freedom/necessity, nature/society, and reason/feeling as absolute opposites (so that any "thing" must be one or the other). Bourgeois ideology is present in the forms that promote divisive, static and unsystematic (i.e. undialectical thought, as well as in its not too surprising conservative content. Throughout, I stress that bourgeois ideology not only serves capitalist interests openly, but also when it confuses people, or makes them pessimistic and resigned, or makes it difficult for them to formulate criticisms or to imagine alternative systems.
Marx's critique of bourgeois ideology is as concerned with how these ideas and concepts arise (as a result of what activities, at what juncture in the class struggle, within which groups, in connection to what other ideas and events, etc.) as it is with their role in reproducing existing conditions. Since the origin of bourgeois ideology has received most of the attention up to this pointparticularly in the session on the theory of alienation, the labor theory of value, and the materialist conception of historyit is primarily the role of ideology in society that concerns me here. My main effort is to get students to see bourgeois ideology as a piece, and the great variety of positions in practical politics, social science, and common sense as just so many versions of the same thing. Again, I stress that what these positions have in common is not that they are completely false, but that they are partial (though not recognized as such), that they are generally limited to appearances (hence, for Marx, unscientific), that they disregard the real history and actual unscientific), that they disregard the real history and actual potential of their subject, that they confuse the real relations between their elements, and that as a function of possessing just such qualities they are biased in favor of the capitalist class.
Lecture 10. From the first day of the course, students ask, "How would a 'Marxist society' be different?" Many, if not most, believe that such societies already exist in the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba, and that it should be easy for me to respond. My answer, which I generally have to repeat again and again, is that this is a very difficult question and that I cannot approach it without some preparation. First, it is absolutely essential to grasp that, for Marx, communism was to succeed capitalism and that the seeds of communism are already present within capitalist society. It is necessary; therefore, to examine Marx's analysis of capitalism to see what he found that led him to believe in the possibility of communism. Second, the elements in Marx's vision of communism are interdependent (non of them can exist or even be conceived of correctly without the others), so that only a systematic account that ties these elements together can avoid serious distortions.
Putting off students' requests for information on communism does not mean I consider the subject unimportant. On the contrary, it is of such importance, particularly today, that great care must be taken to circumvent the many ideological traps that await its telling. As is well known, Marx never devoted an entire work to communism, but the raw materials for it are scattered throughout his writings. Among his reasons for not doing so undoubtedly, was a fear that it would appear too much like science fiction and that many people would confuse him with the Utopian socialists for whom such accounts were the main stock in trade. Another objection Marx must have had to addressing communism directly and systematically is that it is not a very effective wayas compared to analyzing exploitation, for exampleof raising workers' class-consciousness. Today, however, no one is likely to confuse Marxism with other socialist schools whose very names are difficult to recall. Furthermore, given the success of bourgeois ideology in getting people to accept the Soviet and Chinese models as "ideal" Marxist societies, a return to Marx's vision of communism may be a necessary complement to the analysis of exploitation in raising the consciousness of any oppressed group in modern capitalism.
My account of Marx's vision of communism begins by making clear that we are really talking about two different societies, a first stage, socialism, also called the "dictatorship of the proletariat," which is essentially a transition period of indefinite duration, and a second stage of full communism. Most of the session is devoted to the first stage and, in particular, to showing how practical, rational, and democratic are the reforms Marx foresees. Whatever possible I try to locate these changes within the technological and organizational possibilities of modern capitalism, given the priorities what would be adopted by a new socialist government. It is here, and not before, that meaningful comparisons can be made between Marx's vision of world socialism and those isolated societies that have tried to build socialism under such trying conditions. In reconstructing the sketchy picture Marx paints of full communism, I again emphasize its logical status as part of the present grasped as a process, and clarify its role as the point of ultimate reference within the theory of alienation and as the probably future of humankind within the materialist conception of history.
Lecture 11. I present Marx's ideas on class-consciousness and revolution after presenting his vision of communism, because I want once again to make the point that the latteras a projection of existing patterns and trendsbelongs to his analysis of capitalism. As such, Marx's vision of communism isis least in broad outlinepart of what class conscious workers understand and part of the reason that socialist revolution is desirable. To study revolution without paying attention to its real causes and attainable goals (such as occurs in most bourgeois courses on revolution) is to get lost in a maze of practical politics, where there is no more reason to favor one side than the other.
Marx had no specific theory or revolution, of the steps and mechanisms by which capitalist society is to be overturned, unless we choose to view the whole of Marxism in this light. He was not committed, in other words, to any one strategy or form of organization as the means to make the revolution. Both his comments and his practical political activities show an enormous flexibility in response to the specific conditions of time and place. Despite what bourgeois scholars would have us believe, Marxlike every other socialist revolutionarywas opposed to violence, but he objected far more to the violence done daily to the working-class majority by a minuscule capitalist minority than to the violence that might be required to right this situation. According to Marx, the actual degree of violence in a revolution is, in any case, determined by the way of supporters of the status quo choose to defend it. Where revolutions have led to blood-baths, this was generally the work of the counterrevolutionFrance in 1848 and 1871(in our century, China in 1927, Germany after 1933, Spain after 1939, Indonesia in 1965, and Chile in 1972). Given the position that so many students take of being against violence in the abstract, it is important that they realize that greater violence is done by capitalists and, indirectly, by those, like themselves, who permit the capitalists to continue their oppression.
The one constant in Marx's approach to revolution is the belief he had that in one crisis or another the working class would come to see its class interests and would act upon them in a massive, organized, and effective waywhich brings us to the theory of class consciousness. Marx always focused on the conditions in which this consciousness would emergeindeed was already emergingand hardly at all on the character of the people who were being called upon to respond. His masterly analysis of alienation was never integrated into his theory of class consciousness, so that the continued refusal of the mass of workers to become class conscious in conditions which should have made this possible remained a mystery that only drove him back (as it has most of his followers) to reexamine underlying conditions. It is in this area that I feel Marxism is in most need of revision. My own contribution here is an attempt to expand Marx's theory of alienation to include some of the findings of modern psychology (particularly the early work of Wilhelm Reich) and to integrate this expanded conception of alienation with the theory of class-consciousness. As part of this revision, I also argue that Marxists must pay greater attention to the "politics of everyday life," both in our analyses of how capitalism works and in our strategies for changing it.
In this session I also introduce for the first time some of the Marxist political parties, their strategies and political activities, and briefly analyze why they have been so unsuccessful (the relative material well-being of American workers, the greater social mobility in the United States as compared to other capitalist countries, political repression, racism, the Cold War, etc). I am neither very favorable toward, nor particularly critical of, these parties. Not having a comprehensive strategy for achieving socialism, I urge interested students to explore the various alternatives for themselves.
Delaying the discussion of revolution to the end of the course means that students do not have to come to a decision on whether a revolution is possible untilwith the aid of Marx's analysisthey understand the forces which make it both likely and desirable. Approaching the subject of what workers are or want or are capable of directly, as happens in so many discussions or revolution, usually leads to pessimism and its concomitant, political apathy ("Why bother?"), and undermines whatever interest exists in learning Marx's analysis. Studying Marx's analysis first, approaching workers' class-consciousness as a problem within this analysis, permits a view of the possibilities and limitations inherent in our situation that is at once realistic and challenging. Understanding how capitalism works permits people to contribute more effectively to the struggle for socialism, knowing all the while that to do any less is to aid the other side.
Lecture 12. In graduate courses I try to leave a session at the end to summarize my remarks on Marx's methodto do for the dialectic, in other words, what Lecture 9 does for Marx's critique of bourgeois ideology. If the theory of alienation, the labor theory of value (particularly the discussion of exploitation), and the materialist conception of history are the most interest and have the greatest impact on undergraduates, it is Marx's philosophy, the critique of bourgeois ideology, the theory of the state, and his method that graduate students seem to find most relevant to their special concerns. Already committed to teaching and/or to some kind of serious research, they want to know how Marxism can help them in these tasks. It is very difficult for themas it was for most of usto make the necessary transition between the subjects treated early in the course and their practice as teachers and scholars. I consider this transition of such importance that it is the subject of a term-long seminar; in my Lecture course on Marxism it occupies only the final session.
I divide Marx's method into four interlocking phases or moments: 1) philosophy, which can also be divided into ontology and epistemology (stressing the process of abstraction by which Marx establishes the units of reality); 2) inquiry, or how Marx proceeds from doubting everything (the skeptical stance he takes before the world of appearances) to studying it in just these units, whose changes and interactions as parts (expressions) of the capitalist system are his real subject; 3) intellectual reconstruction, or how Marx pieces together and clarifies for himself the results of this inquiry; and 4) exposition, or how he presents this understanding to others. Viewing the forces that produce change and the possible changes produced as a part of what anything is, the dialectic encourages us to expect change and to look for it, just as it helps us eventually to find it. It is this, which makes the dialectic "in its essence critical and revolutionary," and underlies my course-long concern to have students think dialectically.6 Most discussions of Marx's method focus on his philosophy or on his exposition, especially in Capital. I try to rectify this imbalance and particularly the neglect of the moment of inquiry, which is the aspect of method that is most discussed in non-Marxist works on method. In treating this moment, I consider it very important that students see both the possibilities in and the limitations of standard social science techniques in gathering information for a Marxist analysis.
Exposition is a social relation between a writer (or speaker) and a chosen audience, whose mode of thought, interests, knowledge, and biases must be carefully considered before determining the order and form of presentation. I illustrate this point with Marx's occasional essays as well as with Capital andif time permitswith my own presentation of Marxism in this course. Ideally, the session and the course then concludes with student criticism of the strategy I used in teaching them Marxism.
On re-reading what I have written I am forced to admit that this outline includes not only what I have done, but what I have tried to do and what, on reflection, I believe I should have done and will try to do in future courses. Readers will also have noticed that some major aspects of our subjectsuch as the origins of Marxism, nineteenth-century social and political history, Marx's own life, the various schools of Marxist interpretation, and the standard criticisms of Marxismare not treated in separate sessions. To some extent, they are integrated into discussions throughout the coursewith undergraduates a greater variety of interpretations and criticismsbut it is also true that I have chosen to underplay these topics. My main goal is to have students understand Marxism not as intellectual history, political biography, or partisan rhetoric, but as the only adequate analysis of capitalism today; and given this endand the limitations on timeit is simply that other topics have been given a higher priority.
What are the practical results of my course of Marxism? How can one judge them? Most students who answer the question, "Why are you or aren't you a Marxist?" indicate at the end of the course that they now accept Marx's analysis, though the majority are still wary of the label "Marxist." Where this happens, these students know better than most comrades with whom I have talked when and how they adopted a Marxist outlook. I have always been amazed at how little socialists, who are forever trying to effect a change of consciousness in others, have reflected on the circumstances surrounding their own change of consciousness. For most, the break with bourgeois ideology seems to have taken place behind their backs, so that at one moment they considered themselves liberals (or worse) and then a little laterwithout quite noticing the transitionthey considered themselves socialists.
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 viewa view that denies the fact/value distinctiona correct understanding of Marxism (or any body of scientific truths) leads automatically to its acceptance. I hasten to add that this is not reflected in my grading practices where non-Marxist students (i.e., students who don't 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 give 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 more interested in convincing students of the correctness of my interpretations than they are of theirs. In 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.
Along with a growing number of socialist teachers, however, I have become very concerned with pedagogy because we have learned (usually the hard way) that truth does not always win out in the struggle with half-truths and lies, that it doesn't always forge its own means of expression, and that the very complexity of a Marxist analysis invites confusion and easy caricaturing. In addition, our own personalities and shortcoming often come between what we have to say and our audiences, while these audiences have undergone an ideological preparation that all but immunizes them against our message. The need so many socialist teachers feel to work out ways of presenting Marxism effectively implies, of course, an equal interest in the process by which students learn and understand Marxism, which is but the other side of the coin. And given the identity that I and most Marxists see between understanding Marxism and accepting it, this means, too, a concern with the process by which one becomes a socialist.
Becoming a socialist is obviously a process that varies with each person, but judging from my own frequent but highly informal inquiries there are certain experiences and insights that have a disproportionate influence in triggering or speeding up this transformation. Among these experiences are the following: undergoing a particularly brutal example of capitalist exploitation (or seeing it happen to one's parents or other loved one); becoming involved in radical political activity, even of a minor sort, and being treated as a socialist by others (it is surprising how many comrades told me that they only knew they were socialists or were becoming socialists when people who disagreed with them said as much); living socialist relationships and finding them humanly more satisfying; having socialist friends and coming to take their assumptions for granted; knowing a socialist whose wisdom or kindness or courage one admires. Among the intellectual events that constitute major breakthroughs in the process of becoming a socialist there are the realizations that one has been consistently lied to; that the personal oppression from which one suffers is shared by others and is socially determined; that the path on which society is traveling leads to economic and social disaster; that the problems of capitalism are inter-related and cannot be solved individually; that classes exist and the class struggle is real; and that the socialist ideal represents a morally superior way of life. This last shows that even though ethics has no place in Marxism (see Lecture 4), people may come to Marxism by an ethical route.
A course on Marxism, such as the one I have outlined, provides the occasion for many of these insights but for only a few, if any, of these experiences. Nowhere else do Marxists have so much freedom and time to present their case to non-Marxists. Still, I have come to believe that unless a course on Marxism is coupled with experiences at work or in some kind of political struggle, benefiting from the emotional jolt that such experiences bring, its effect on most students is likely to be minimal and probably short-term. But the fact is that the daily life of most people. Including my students contains many examples of oppression and struggle, and occasionally of cooperation. For them, it is the opportunity to study Marx's analysis of capitalism that has until now been missing. Where the most painful of these experiences are still to be lived, however, as is the case with students who have never looked for or held a job or raised a family, Marx's analysis may take years to bear political fruit. With such people, it is through experiences to come that the Marxism they study now will have its full impact, an impact that these experiences alone would probably not produce. This delayed-action effect makes it impossible to estimate with any accuracy the influence of socialist teachers, and has led many, among both friends and foes, to seriously underestimate it.
Still another impediment to acquiring a socialist consciousness in the classroom is the irrational tie that exists between the ideology of most people and whatever emotional equilibrium they have attained, so that an attack on one is felt as a threat to the other. The struggle to make sense of the world within bourgeois categories is experienced by them as a need as well as a choice. One of the reasons they cling to their ideology, therefore, is because it is "comfortable," and when studying Marxism makes what they believe increasingly untenable, many students experience real anxiety. For even, as its rationalization begins to falter, bourgeois ideology offers its adherents the acceptance and respect of their own families and of society's leaders, and perhaps more important, the emotional security of having been right all along. No one finds it easy to admit that what he or she has been thinking and doing for many years is mistaken (this becomes harder with age, as there is more to justify and less time to make amends). Against this, what do we have to offer? In the absence of a socialist movement and without a circle of socialist friends, the transition to adopting a Marxist outlookfor all its intellectual excitementcan be cold and lonely affair. To be sure students differ in how much they need comradely support in making this transition and in how much support they are already getting. And if time permitted, the need itself could be analyzed within the framework of Marx's theory of alienation, expanded to include Reich's theory of character structure. The point remains, however, that the classroom in which their bourgeois ideology is being dismantled does not provide the continuity of contact and emotional security that many students need to extend their critical thinking to its logical conclusions and embrace Marxism. In the years to come, a change in their personal situations or in the political climate might produce different results.
Consequently, though many students write at the end of my course that they are now Marxists, I considerfor the reasons giventhat the real effect of the course both on them and on their more resistant peers will not be known for some time.
|Copyright © Bertell Ollman 2004-2019. All rights reserved.|