Some comments by Ollman on Marxism & Political Science


One neglected aspect of this blog is to develop and/or encourage theoretical discussion.  I’m hoping to build up that aspect over 2014.

One thing I often do is write up excerpts from books I’m reading, and then add some of my own comments to them.  I usually use a notebook for that, but it occurred to me that having them online, on the blog, serves as a sort of ‘cloud’ storage system, and could encourage some useful discussion, further informing my own thoughts.

So, here’s some excepts from the work of the Marxist dialectician Bertrell Ollman:

Dr Ollman is a professor of politics at NYU, with a particular background in Marxist dialectics.

Dr Ollman is a professor of politics at NYU, with a particular background in Marxist dialectics.

The reasons why a Marxist school of political scientists has not yet emerged, despite what appear to be favourable conditions, are rooted chiefly in the historical peculiarities of both Marxism and political science.  Marx concentrated most of his mature efforts on the capitalist economy, but even aside from essays on French and English politics and the early critique of Hegel there is a lot more on the state in his writings than is generally recognised.  In particular, Capital contains a theory of the state that, unlike Marx’s related economic theories, is never fully worked out.  This is a subject Marx hoped to develop if and when his work in economics permitted.  An outline of his overall project gives the state a much more important role in his explanation of capitalism than would appear to be the case from a glance at what he completed.

After Marx died, most of his followers erroneously attributed an influence to the different social spheres in proportion to the treatment accorded them in his published writings.  This error was facilitated by the standard interpretation of Marx’s well-known claims on the relationship between the economic base and the social-political-cultural superstructure.  If the economic life of society is wholly responsible for the character and development of other spheres, the activities that go on in the latter can be safely ignored or, if need be, deduced.  Engels’s end-of-life correspondence is full of warnings against this interpretation, but they seem to have had little effect.  Among Marx’s more prominent early followers, only Lukacs, Korsch and Gramsci wholly reject such economic determinism as the framework in which to understand the state.

Given the minor role of the state in Marxism, as interpreted by most Marxists, it is little wonder that academics who chose to study politics were not attracted to this theory.  The history of political science as a distinct discipline, however, has also contributed to this disinterest.  Unlike economics and sociology, which began as attempts to understand whole societies, the origins of political science lay in jurisprudence and statecraft.  Instead of investigating the workings of the political process in its connection with other social processes, political science has seldom strayed beyond the borders of the political process as such.  Aims have generally revolved around making existing political institutions more efficient.  There is no radical tradition, no group of major radical thinkers, and no body of consistent radical thought in political science such as one finds – at least to some degree – in sociology, economics, and history.  From Machiavelli to Kissinger, political science has been the domain of those who – believing they understood the realities of power – have sought their reforms and advancement within the system, and it has attracted equally practically minded students.

The above is excerpts from Ollman, B. (2003) Dance of the Dialectic – Steps in Marx’s Method.  University of Illinois Press, USA.


*These notes are not supposed to be earth-shattering.  They’re just my initial thoughts on reading the excepts above.*

A key anthology in laying the foundation of my ideological perspectives.

A key anthology in laying the foundation of my ideological perspectives.

This reminds me of thumbing through the big red book of the ‘Marx & Engels Reader’, which, during my undergraduate years at Trent, was almost a bible for me, reading it religiously and thoroughly, providing the foundation for my subsequent understanding and application.  The collected letters, especially the letters where Marx or Engles sought to clarify against vulgar interpretations of base and superstructure, the emphasis on the dialectical interactions between them, this was instilled in my from the start of my studies of Marxism, in as much as the letters were a ‘low hanging fruit’ – a more manageable chunk of text to read and digest, even before I read the Communist Manifesto.

A whole generation of professed Marxists appear to have had a distorted view of the Marxist method, or, rather, of Marxism itself.  To a degree this distortion no doubt contributed to the errors of what became ‘actually existing socialism’, of 20th Century socialism, the authoritarian regimes best represented by the Stalinist Soviet Union.  A vulgar Marxism led to a vulgar and nightmarish caricature of what socialism meant to be.  Too much emphasis on industry to the detriment of other aspects.

A whole generation for whom dialectics was vulgarised and corrupted, with those who grasped the dialectics properly were marginalised and at times purged.  Leading to distortions within both ‘actually existing socialism’ and those outside, be it in the national liberation movements of the imperial periphery, or the prospects of the left in the ‘West’.

Although in the resurgent Marxism of the 1970s the role of the State became the subject of fierce debate amongst Marxists (see Milliband, Poulantzas, for example), it was ignored from ‘political science’ proper.  Political science became a tool of hegemony for capitalism and empire, in all its forms.  This continues today, with the dominance of political mercenaries, the spin doctors and the advertising specialists that dominate formal politics today.

Machiavelli though, it is questionable whether he was writing a manual for the rules on how to sustain power, or if he was making clear to the people how such rule was maintained, providing by subtext a revolutionary alternative?  See, for example, Gramsci’s interpretation, and the role of the ‘Modern Prince’ – the modern Marxist and revolutionary movement?


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