Ollman and Dialectics

SCIABRRC at acfcluster.nyu.edu SCIABRRC at acfcluster.nyu.edu
Fri Mar 31 10:10:56 MST 1995

I have read the recommendations on dialectics with great
interest, especially the dialogue of Hans Despain and Ralph
commenting, I should preface my comments here with a little
information:  I studied with Ollman in graduate school.  He
was my mentor and the thesis advisor for my dissertation on
Marx, Hayek, and Rothbard.  He always felt my libertarian
politics to be a bit bizarre, but it is from him that I
learned a great deal about dialectical method.  I don't think
that I have ever encountered another scholar from the left
who was so CLEAR in the exposition of dialectics.

I agree with Hans when he argues that "it is only with a well
developed ethic that we are able or capable of achieving some
sort of direction."  And Ralph is correct to note that Ollman
sees ethics as "internally related to everything else, hence
it would be as dualistic to banish such impulses from the
Marxist world-picture as it would be to set up ethics in a
separate metaphysical realm."  Actually, in his ALIENATION,
Ollman states that "all ethical systems . . . have a basis
for judgement which lies outside that which is to judged."
Yet, on this basis, he actually argues that "Marx did not
have an ethical theory."

But this should be clarified.  What Ollman is reacting
against, and what, he says, Marx reacts against, is the
impulse to reify principles as "universal" and "fixed" and to
deduce implications from such principles for the
establishment of an ideal system, much in the manner of the
utopian socialists.  Ollman argues that this is NOT what Marx
did, hence, he argues, Marx didn't have an ethic.

I used to suggest to Ollman that this characterization gave
too much credence to traditionalist notions of what ethics
is.  I believe that Ollman's own view of ethics is
naturalistic and secular, and that his own discussion of the
relationship of life to values, action, and context bears
some resemblance to the views of an unlikely source:  Ayn
Rand.  Rand presented a "trichotomy" of ethics, a distinction
between "intrinsic," "subjective," and genuinely "objective"
modes.  The "intrinsicist" morality is, roughly, the object
of Ollman's, and Marx's, derision.  It universalizes an
abstract moral code, and is the basis of the old absolutist,
dogmatic, classical "objectivist" view.  But Ollman also
rejects subjectivist codes that are purely relativistic.
(See chapter 4 of ALIENATION, "Is there a Marxian ethic?")
He suggests, like Rand, that the genuinely objective IS a
relation between the actor and his/her context, between
"soul" and "body," ideal and material, consciousness and
existence.  Likewise, Rand would have agreed with Ollman, who
says that in contemporary society, "The organic unity of
reality has been exchanged for distinct spheres of activity
whose interrelations in the social whole can no longer be
ascertained.  Removed from their real context, the
individual's relations with nature and society, taken one at
a time, appear other than they are."  While this is not the
place for an exhaustive comparative analysis of Ollman, Marx,
and Rand, I think, nevertheless, that it is useful to point
out.  For by eschewing mystical and metaphysical notions of
morality, both Rand and Marx embraced a secular and
humanistic perspective, one that ties ethics to the real
concrete totality which they constitute, and express.
Changing the ethical precepts of the social order then, is
very much dependent on transforming the totality.  It cannot
be achieved by piecemeal tinkering with the establishment.
This is why Marx saw the dialectical view as both "critical
and revolutionary."

Interestingly, Hans mentions that Ollman's view of dialectics
suggests that the method itself, reflects a reality that is
dialectical as well.  He is correct to argue that Ollman
"does not explicate, develop, or defend such a stance."  In
fact, I don't think Ollman ever commits himself to the
ontological moment.  He says in fact, that there are
different modes of sociological perception, of which internal
relations is one.  He criticizes external relations precisely
because it is an alternative, alienated mode (valid in some
contexts, and reflective no doubt, of the character of
"capitalism").  External relations, like capitalism,
conceives of things as disconnected, relegating "causality"
to a strictly mechanical and formal category.  The doctrine
of external relations posits a dualistic, atomistic view of
the world, Ollman would argue, but he stops short of
defending internal relations as an ontological doctrine.  In
any event, I think there is an underlying ontology here that
needs further exploration.

Yet, in my view, what saves Ollman's epistemic emphasis vis-
a-vis internal relations, is his insistence that we can never
know the whole except through the abstracted parts.  We do
not achieve a synoptic view of the whole.  We may be
implicitly committed to the view that the whole is organic,
but we do not claim to know, like rationalistic Hegelians,
the Absolute nature of the whole.  This is the problem with
strict organicity:  one can't examine a part (a "relation")
without exhausting all of its ties to EVERYTHING else in the
universe.  We run the risk of needing to know EVERYTHING
before we can say or analyze ANYTHING.  This is why Ollman's
discussion of abstraction is so crucially important.
Dialectics departs from strict organicity by viewing the
whole from a concrete CONTEXT, not from an abstract, a-
contextual, synoptic vantage point.  (And by the way, Ollman
would say that abstraction is merely a part of dialectical
method...  there are other aspects, or moments, of
dialectical inquiry, which Ollman is developing as part of
a broader project).

Hans states that the problem with Ollman's presentation is
that "it is impossible . . . to differentiate dialectics from
the method of say Max Weber, or Rousseau, among many other
thinkers who certainly think in all three modes of
abstraction . . ."  He suggests that it becomes difficult to
distinguish Marxian, Hegelian, Engelsian, Lukacsian... or
even Russian thinkers.  On this point, I would agree
wholeheartedly...  which is why, I argue, in my forthcoming
RUSSIAN RADICAL, (Penn State), that Hayek and Rand are
extremely dialectical thinkers, albeit non-Marxist.  Hans
suggests that Ollman's abstract development of dialectics is
"idealist"...  it may be.  But then again, internal relations
does not commit one to materialism OR idealism, even if one
has a quasi-cosmological view of what constitutes the
ultimate constituents of reality (which I do not believe
science has yet ascertained).  But there is a relationship
between form and content.  Dialectics, Ollman suggests, is
the form.  The content informs the method and vice versa.
For Marx, the content is material--which may be why Marxists
view their own perspective as "dialectical materialism."  The
material factors that Marx emphasizes at the beginning of his
social inquiry has a major impact on the character of his

                              - Chris

Dr. Chris M. Sciabarra
Visiting Scholar, N.Y.U. Department of Politics
INTERNET:  sciabrrc at acfcluster.nyu.edu
  BITNET:  sciabrrc at nyuacf

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