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Reply to Stolzman's Critique of "On Teaching Marxism" < DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman
Reply to Stolzman's Critique of "On Teaching Marxism"
By Bertell Ollman

How can any Marxist help but favor teaching students the history of the socialist movement? Unfortunately, in the case at hand, there is also the question of priorities, and if I wish to present a detailed account of Marx's theories I have to forego an exploration of subsequent socialist practice (as well as much else, I might add, which is relevant to a fuller appreciation of these ideas). In a theory-deprived culture such as ours—and I'm referring to the movement as much as to American society in general—there is a place for a course which permits students to concentrate on Marx's texts. This is the easy answer.

But Stolzman is also making a number of related criticisms: 1) that explaining Marxism apart from its subsequent history in the practice of the socialist movement is necessarily distorting; 2) that this approach gives up the pedagogical advantage which comes from using instances of 20th-century communist practice to illustrate Marxist theories; and 3) that the practical political effect of my one-sidedness is to bias students against the Leninist answer to the question "What is to be done?"

Must an account of Marxism be seriously distorted if it is not accompanied by a history of the socialist movement? I think not. Marx devotes the bulk of his writings to an analysis of the capitalist mode of production, and on the level of generalization to which most of it is directed most of this analysis still holds. To be sure, knowledge of what happened in the hundred years since Marx wrote, including the history of the socialist movement, enables us to revise and update this analysis. But the events of these years, and none more so than those associated with the struggle for socialism, have given rise to many contradictory interpretations, and it is only knowledge of Marx's theories which permits us to avoid the worst distortions. Thus, rather than—as Stoltzman argues—this history of the socialist movement helping us to understand Marxism correctly, it is most likely (and more often) the other way around. I have been more bothered, for example, by comrades' confused interpretations of the Soviet or Chinese revolutions because of their weak understanding of Marxism, than by its converse. Admittedly, this is not a matter of either / or (or even of before and after) but of where one puts the emphasis in an interaction, and Stolzman and I simply disagree on which—Marxism or the history of the socialist movement—is more important for understanding the other.

To the criticism that my approach makes it impossible to illustrate Marx's ideas with the practice of different communist parties and regimes, I plead guilty, but is this a fault or a virtue? It's one thing to know that the Chinese, the Vietnamese, etc. have something to teach us about Marxism; it is quite another to know, without a careful analysis of our different conditions and histories, just what that is—and such an analysis is too much to attempt in a course on Marxist theory. Furthermore, given the bourgeois ideology of most students, for every useful illustration one finds in communist practice one invariably raises a half-dozen negative ideas that cannot easily be put right without again devoting considerable attention to the overall context. From the pedagogical point of view, therefore, the sparing use of such materials may be worse than no use at all. Finally, though the example of socialist countries has influenced many people to adopt socialist ideas (and I was wrong not to mention it in the article), it is my impression that the commitment of such comrades fades rather quickly when their version of events in the "socialist homeland" is upturned in the latest purge of Trotskyists, Titoists, Stalinists, or Maoists. The "high road" to becoming a socialist and remaining one is learning—with the aid of whatever working class experience is available—Marx's analysis of our conditions and the potential inherent in them.

The third and probably most damning criticism Stolzman levels at me concerns the kind of socialists, which come out of a course such as mine. Without the object lessons provided by the history of the socialist movement, will those students won over by Marx's analysis simply wait for the "objective laws of capitalist development to work themselves out?" I certainly hope not. In the course, I often stress that history is made by people and that socialism will only come about through the conscious effort of the majority of workers and other oppressed people—which brings us to those perennial questions: how are the workers going to acquire such consciousness and what strategy should they use to capture state power? It is interesting to note that whereas Marx devoted most of his scholarly and political life to dealing with the first question, most of his followers have focused on the second. Marx clearly considered it more important to help promote to the success of any political strategy. In so far as he himself participated in or wrote about the seizure of state power, he can be found on the side of legal parties, illegal parties, loosely and tightly organized parties, elections, general strikes, and armed struggle, depending on the particular place and its conditions. In discussing Marx's political strategy, therefore, the beginning of wisdom would seem to be avoid all dogmatism (i.e. formulae argued from principles rather than from conditions), whether Leninist or anti-Leninist.

If Marx had little use for the kind of political debates which, unfortunately, distinguish so many of his followers, it was not because all strategies are equally good, but because in the absence of widespread class consciousness they are all equally bad. In the United States, with perhaps 1%-2% of the people holding socialist ideas of any sort, he would probably view intense discussion of what is the best way to capture state power as not only premature and irrelevant but counter productive as it convinces many who would otherwise by open to socialist arguments—but who are only too aware of the balance of forces in capitalist society—that socialists are foolish and irresponsible people. On the other hand, should there be a significant increase in the number of class conscious workers, it just may be the case that more than one political strategy might work. Thus, while Castro says the task of every revolutionary is to make the revolution, I think that at least for the United States Marx would disagree, insisting that our prior task is to make more revolutionaries. The revolution will only occur when there are enough of us and in a way conditions then allow—and I believe this way is at least as undecided now as it was in Marx's day, when he recognized the possibility of a democratic, though not necessarily peaceful, transition to socialism in Britain, Holland and the United States.

On this interpretation, the success of the socialist cause in the United States is to be judged not by the growth of this or that socialist party or tendency with its set views on how to capture state power, but by the growing number of people, particularly workers, in and out of formal groups who recognize the mechanisms of their oppression in Marx's analysis of capitalism and favor some kind of socialist solution. The time for coalescing around a single program and political strategy will come. In the meantime, all socialist groups and individuals who help to convey this understanding are participating in a common work, whether they know it or will admit it or not. All their efforts to educate and to deepen ongoing struggles, strikes and the like, are mainly valuable in so far as they promote the growth of class consciousness (which in turn permits an increase in the scale of struggle, which in turn makes more people into socialists... which, after a series of such dialectical interchanges—and with the "aid" of still another capitalist crisis—makes a socialist revolution possible). By this standard, one can see considerable value in the activities of most socialist groups, whatever their form of organization. It also offers us a clear basis for condemning those few groups (and occasions in the life of many others) which reserve most of their invective for fellow socialists, understand organizing as jockeying for position in the next American Soviet, or engage in actions that frighten and outrage workers while providing the state with an excuse to intensify its repression of the entire left.

By this standard too, the work of socialist teachers deserves to be seriously upgraded. Nowhere else in our society is so much time and attention given to presenting socialist arguments to future workers (and, unlike the situation in Europe, most of the nine million students in our universities and colleges are future if not actual workers). In my article, I dealt briefly with the processes by which consciousness gets changed. Here, I only want to affirm that radical professors themselves—too often laden with liberal guilt for all that they are not doing and suffering—are generally unaware of either the importance of the significant achievements of their own wing of the Movement. How many of the comrades reading this piece, for example, know that the last five or six years have witnessed the birth of over fifty socialist journals and newsletters throughout academia, and that radical caucuses are alive and well (and increasingly adopting Marxist approaches) in practically every discipline.* In political science—which always lags behind sociology, economics and history in such matters—we now have four widely used radical introductions to American government, where six years ago there were none. These are all new developments. In the late 1960s, there were many fewer radical materials available for classroom use and even fewer radical teachers to use them—I'm not including the liberals whose criticism of the system was limited to muckraking and marching in anti-Vietnam war demonstrations. Some of these liberals, of course, have become socialists, but more numerous, I think, are the former SDS members who are now socialist faculty. Consequently, it is my impression that despite the job cut-backs there are probably more socialists teaching in higher education today (whether full or part-time) than there were five and certainly ten years ago. Has anyone bothered to estimate the number of college students who have taken one or more courses from socialists? My guess is that we would all be pleasantly surprised. For the socialist teacher, recognition of such facts should lead to renewed dedication to make the most effective use of the classroom situation, in full consciousness of its possibilities (and dangers) and without apologies to anyone else in the Movement.

Earlier I maintained that Marxism can be adequately taught without introducing the history of the socialist movement, and that examples of communist practice in other lands and times are not effective in clarifying Marx's analysis of our own society. Stolzman's provocative and comradely criticism permits me to add still a third clarification—that presenting Marxism in this way, while leaving open the question of an ultimate strategy for attaining state power, both involves and promotes a political practice aimed at spreading class consciousness, which, as I've argued, was also Marx's preferred practice.


For a full biography of these and other socialist journals and newspapers, see the appendix in Ted Norton's and my Studies in Socialist Pedogogy, Monthly Review Press, N.Y. 1978.

Jim Stolzman's criticism appeared in The Insurgent Sociologist, Summer, 1977, which is also the issue in which this reply appeared.