Some comments by Ollman on Marxism & Political Science – Part Two

This continues shortly after the excerpts quoted in the previous post.

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.

Can political science open itself to Marxist studies despite all these handicaps?

I believe Marxism makes an essential contribution to our understanding of politics, but to grasp it we have to know something about the dialectical method with which Marx’s methods are developed.  Only then, too, will many of the dissatisfied political scientists referred above be able to see what else they could study and how else they might study it.

I believe it is necessary, therefore, that Marxists in political science today give priority to questions of method over questions of theory, insofar, of course, as the two can be distinguished.  For it is only upon grasping Marx’s assumptions and the means, forms, and techniques with which he constructs his explanations of capitalism that we can effectively use, develop and revise, where necessary, what he said.

And perhaps as important for Marxists teaching in universities, only making this method explicit can we communicate with non- (and not yet) Marxist colleagues and students whose shared language masks the real distance that separates our different approaches.

Whether dealing with politics or any other social sector, it must be stressed, Marx is concerned with all of capitalism – with its birth, development, and decay as a social system.  More specifically, he wants to understand (and explain) where the present state of affairs comes from, how it coheres, what are the main forces producing change, how all these facts are dissimulated, where the present is tending (including possible alternatives), and how we can affect this process.

Marx’s theory of the state seeks to answer these questions for the political sphere, but in such a way as to illuminate the character and development of capitalism as a whole (which is not different than what could be said of his theories about other areas of life).

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


One key problem for both Marxists and its opponents has been a misunderstanding of Marxist method.  The vulgar Marxism came to dominate, especially one based on economic determinism, one that favoured structure over agency, rather than recognising the interaction between the two.

Opponents misunderstood Marx as a result of neglecting his methodology (dialectics) and belittled his contributions accordingly.

Worse, self-professed Marxists misunderstood his methodology, with all too many grasping only the superficial aspects of his contributions which, as valuable as those were for their time and place, led to dogmatism in as much as the essence, the dialectic, was ignored.  And this was compounded by ‘actually existing’ 20th Century authoritarian socialism, with the Stalinist caricature of dialectics and ‘official’ Marxism.

Hence Lenin’s complaints of the lack of dialectical understanding amongst the revolutionaries of 1917, the adoption of a bureaucratic superficial dialectics, the limitations of Bukharin’s initial contributions (his Arabesques remain to be investigated), and the importance of Lenin’s own philosophical notebooks.

More importantly, Lukacs’s important note on ‘orthodox Marxism’:

“Orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations.  It is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book.  On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method.  It is the scientific conviction that dialectical materialism is the road to truth and that its methods can be developed, expanded and deepened only along the lines laid down by its founders.”

And so Marxism, properly conceived, can indeed greatly contribute to Political Science, and, at that, any investigation in as much as everything currently exists in a totality of capitalism, and can be interpreted as such.  Marxism, properly understood, offers a powerful tool to investigate different aspects of the capitalist system in its entirety.

To realise this, however, requires a ‘going back’ to the origins, of learning the methodology, the essence, of Marx’s contribution, not of his ‘finished products’, what dogmatic Marxists may consider ‘sacred books’, the superficial crystallisation of Marxist thought at a certain time and place.

Note that capitalism must be treated holistically.  One can zero in, that is, to focus, on this or that aspect, and in doing this one must appreciate that some things become blurry, out of focus, in the process, and that different relations apply at different degrees of focus, of attention.  But all must constantly be related from the particular aspect back to the general, to the holistic totality of capitalism, if one is to understood this or that aspect properly.

It is in doing this, recognising the scalar nature of research, along with an understanding of Marx’s dialectical method, that one can make Marxism a ‘living tool’ rather than a series of dogmatic and dead tools, which are limited in their usefulness, even if they still provide some viable pointers.

And the purpose remains that of his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Marx's Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach - as inscribed on his tombstone.

Marx’s Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach – as inscribed on his tombstone.

And thus relating to praxis, the union of theory and practical action, dialectically influencing each other as a guide to realising Marxism as a living tool to both understand and to change the world.


3 thoughts on “Some comments by Ollman on Marxism & Political Science – Part Two

  1. JS, I’ve read your comments by Ollman on Marxism & Political Science, parts 1-3 with great interest. You suggest the way forward may lie in putting greater focus on method over theory, as a way to avoid the errors of historical attempts to implement socialist regimes. To your mind, could a focus on method ever lead to the abandonment of socialism’s central principle, the substitution of public for private ownership?

  2. Hi Spring-Heeled Jack, sorry for the delay in responding – my week was somewhat busy as it turned out!

    I will read over the article you linked to, thank you.

    To answer your specific question above, whether a greater focus on method would ever lead to the abandonment of socialism’s central principle, the substitution of public for private ownership…

    Well, I should stress that there are various ‘socialisms’, be it various non-Marxist socialisms such as Marx and Engels called ‘utopian socialists’ at the time and others which, while influenced by Marxism, draw their central inspiration and understanding from other routes – particularly Jewish, Christian and Islamic Socialisms.

    However, under Marxism, the understanding of the labour theory of value, essentially that profit is surplus value produced by labourers for which they are not compensated for, with that instead being ‘stolen’ by the capitalists (it was this ‘scientific’ analysis of the source of inequalities under capitalism – and I’m generalising here for the sake of space – that led to Marx & Engels differentiating themselves from ‘Utopian’ socialists who based their socialism solely on moral foundations), means that in order to overcome the inequalities and exploitation built into the very system of production/distribution itself, private property needs to be socialised, to be held in common.

    I should clarify here, as this often gets confused. Private property and personal possession are two different things. Socialism isn’t saying, for example, that your toothbrush becomes common property, that we’d all use the same toothbrush.

    Anyway, at the risk of going off on a massive diversion and/or exposition of Marxist theory here, no, a commitment to the dialectical method that Marx used would not likely, imho, lead to abandonment of the idea that private property needs to become socialised property. It is more that a commitment to the dialectical method would help prevent dogmatism and rigid interpretations; that there is no sacred book of socialism, but that the method is what is sacred, if one wishes to use that term.

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