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A Critique of Ollman’s Dialectical Logic

(Bu makalenin türkçesi Devrimci Marksizm Dergisi, kış-bahar 41-42. 2020 sayısında yayınlanmıştır.?


The concepts and categories of positivism cannot move beyond abstract generalizations that solely belong to consciousness. Furthermore, positivism turns these concepts and categories into abstract notions, and measures their reality with metaphysical coherence and non-contradiction. The metaphysician finds the determinations of concepts within things when it looks at the objective aspect of the concept while finding them outside the objects when it looks the subjective side. The former approach creates a materially bonded ahistorical concept whereas the second approach gets lost in subjective determinations of consciousness. Dialectical materialism, on the other hand, breaks out this framework drawn by positivist metaphysics. Concepts of dialectics incorporate contradiction in its reality. They are as abstract as they are concrete; they not only belong to consciousness but also exist as a special kind of objectivity outside consciousness. Categories that we passively perceive and that we think we understand exist as “forms of consciousness” of our social existence. Ollman’s dialectical materialism fails to propose a criticism of the concepts and categories of metaphysical positivism. Instead, with his non-dialectical approach, he gets lost in them. The only solution that he could suggest is nothing but proposing a subjective metaphysical conception as if it is Marxism.

Keywords: forms of consciousness, categories, dialectical method, dialectical concept, Bertell Ollman


The concepts of political economy, such as capital, class, value etc should be regarded as ‘general’ or ‘universal’ categories of dialectics rather than abstract notions. This signifies an important debate on these concepts as explained in two different frameworks. First approach has a corporeal and technical account for the concepts and categories of political economy, which finds the determinations of the general within objects. Accordingly, concepts become constructs able to move independent from historical processes and social changes. Second approach, on the other hand, takes a formal view of the concepts and categories of political economy, defining the determinations of the general or the universal within relations, outside the objects. The concepts and categories therefore can be shaped in and with social relations. It is evident that the second approach gives an impression closer to a historical materialist account. For this impression to turn into a full conformity, how social relations are formed as a special kind of objectivity and find their reflexes in objects should be discussed within the category of the general of dialectics.

This paper first discusses basic differences between metaphysics and dialectics in their approaches to concepts, differences arising from the metaphysical account taking concepts as belonging to pure thought, being abstract generalizations free from contradictions, and the dialectical account of concepts as containing contradictions, being abstract as well as concrete, having a special kind of objectivity outside reason.

It further discusses the determinations of the concepts as defined formally on the basis of historical and social relations. Here I argue that a formal and relational definition of concepts developed against, but using the same methods with, a mechanical materialist, solid and technical definition cannot avoid drifting into a non-materialistic subjectivism. Then I try to explain that the concepts are products of the general, of historical and social relations, with the help of ‘forms of consciousness’ or the categories of dialectics. The entire paper is based on, therefore limited to, my critique of Ollman’s dialectical logic.

Differences of concepts

Marx’s concepts are different from today’s positivist conception. In actual fact, such difference does not only apply to Marx’s concepts but also to the concepts of all scholars using a dialectical method (like scholars of objective idealism). It is not simply a formal difference but a fundamental distinction based on how the relation of thought or consciousness to the matter is comprehended. As Hegel puts it, “When we are discussing thinking we must distinguish finite thinking, the thinking of the mere understanding, from the infinite thinking of reason” (Hegel 1991: 66). Arising from the ways in which the relation between matter and consciousness is explained, this difference is also where one can see the differentiation between the concept of the finite understanding which consciousness that merely understands reaches, and the universal concept of reason which consciousness that operates through dialectical processes attains.

Ollman’s “own encounter with dialectics” starts when he saw the distinctness of Marx’s concepts: “Despite the absence of definitions … it was not hard to know what he [Marx] was talking about, but whenever I pressed a point the precision and clarity I had been trained to look for eluded me. And when I sought to construct my own definitions … I was shocked to discover that their apparent meanings varied with the context, often considerably. I was not the first, of course, to note or to be bothered by the elastic quality of Marx’s meanings. Vilfredo Pareto, the Italian sociologist, provided the classic statement of this problem long ago when he said, ‘Marx’s words are like bats. One can see in them both birds and mice’” (Ollman 2003: 4). Looking for the ways of making sense of such contradictoriness in Marx’s concepts, Ollman first tries to overcome the contradiction, then ends up with that the problem is not of a formal kind because “while it is possible to single out one main meaning for some of …[Marx’s] concepts, this left too many other meanings unaccounted for” (Ollman 2003: 5).

Let’s try to frame this non-formal problem. When we talk about a consciousness that stands in opposition to the world of objects and understands these objects in a merely passive way, this means that we are in the concept of the understanding. Such consciousness thinks that it arrives at concepts by making abstract generalizations through which it classifies the external objects on the basis of their certain identities. In Hegel’s words, “with regard to cognition, it begins by apprehending given objects in their determinate distinctions. … in the consideration of nature, for example, distinctions are drawn between matters, forces, kinds, etc., and they are marked off, each on its own account, in solation one from another. In doing all this, thinking functions as understanding, and its principle here is identity” (Hegel 1991: 126). The dualist consciousness here perceives the object at the level of the understanding, and thinks that it senses the object in its entire immediacy. Its next step will be distinguishing these objects as ‘appearances’, determining the essence present inside this shell of appearance by identity, and then knowing things in their mediations. But remaining at the level of the understanding, it performs nothing but a repetition of the delusion created by dualism as long as it tries to reach out at essential knowledge of things as a non-contradictory concept. Hegel also draws attention to the lack of solution at this moment, “The absence of thought in sense-knowledge, which takes everything limited and finite for something that [simply] is, passes over into the stubbornness of the understanding, which grasps everything finite as something-identical-with-itself, [and] not inwardly contradicting itself” (Hegel 1991: 178). By remaining at the level of the conceptualization of the understanding, it is not possible to avoid the concept’s inclusion of contradiction. Nor does it help us comprehend and explain the contradiction itself. To cite Hegel once again, this brings us to “the valid point that the understanding cannot have the last word. On the contrary, it is finite, and, more precisely, it is such that when it is pushed to an extreme it overturns into its opposite” (Hegel 1991: 128). The concept that includes contradiction can only find its explanation by advancing to the level of reason rather than formal changes.

Let’s use ‘capital’ as a concept or category of political economy, as Ollman does, to give an example. At the level of the understanding, capital can be seen as a ‘thing’ or a generalized abstraction of ‘things’. Once capital is regarded and examined as an abstract generalization of ‘things’, then the concept of capital is not a ‘thing’ anymore, instead it appears to be an objective social ‘relation’ liberated from ‘things’. This is an unacceptable contradiction for the metaphysician who, within the scope of the understanding, desires one single answer that capital is either a thing or a relation. Hegel’s criticism of dogmatist thinking that remains within the limits of the understanding is illuminating in this regard: “in the narrower sense dogmatism consists in adhering to one-sided determinations of the understanding whilst excluding their opposites. This is just the strict ‘either-or,’ according to which (for instance) the world is either finite or infinite, but not both. On the contrary, what is genuine and speculative is precisely what does not have any such one-sided determination in it, and is therefore not exhausted by it; on the contrary, being a totality, it contains the determinations … united within itself” (Hegel 1991: 70). For Hegel and other scholars of dialectics, what is genuine will find its place as a concept of reason in consciousness. Such rational concept relies upon the concrete reality in which capital is both a ‘thing’ and a ‘relation’. To arrive at the rational concept, in Hegel’s words, “it is above all necessary not to cling to the abstract determinations of the understanding as if they were ultimate –as if each of the two terms of an antithesis could stand on its own, and were to be considered as something substantial and genuine in its isolation” (Hegel 1991: 72). The rational phase of thinking consists in the inclusion of each distinct determinations of a thing within their contradictions, and their comprehension in the motion of things. As Hegel puts “this rational [result], although it is something-thought and something-abstract, is at the same time something-concrete, because it is not simple, formal unity, but a unity of distinct determinations” (Hegel 1991: 131).

For today’s positivist conception, it is impossible to appreciate the contradictory content of a concept. But such thinking is not new. Marx depicts how his contemporary vulgar economists who dealt with ‘capital’ fell into such an odd situation: “This [illusion] emerges clearly in their confession of naive astonishment when the phenomenon that they have just ponderously described as a thing reappears as a social relation and, a moment later, having been defined as a social relation, teases them once more as a thing” (Marx 1977a: 276). It is one of our old habits to take the concept of the understanding more rational while finding the concept of reason not so self-evident. As Engels puts it, “To the metaphysician, things and their mental reflexes, ideas, are isolated, are to be considered one after the other and apart from each other, are objects of investigation fixed, rigid, given once for all. He thinks in absolutely irreconcilable antitheses. ‘His communication is ‘yea, yea; nay, nay’; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.’ For him a thing either exists or does not exist; a thing cannot at the same time be itself and something else. Positive and negative absolutely exclude one another; cause and effect stand in a rigid antithesis one to the other. At first sight this mode of thinking seems to us very luminous, because it is that of so-called sound common sense” (Engels 1977a: 22). By referring to Ollman’s quote from Pareto, we can now say that Pareto remains within the metaphysical thinking, within what Engels calls a narrow mode of thought “peculiar to the preceding centuries” (1977a: 22). Pareto demands metaphysical consistency from concepts. Relying upon his “common sense,” he believes, he has right to demand such consistency free from contradiction when he faces a concept which appears to be a mouse when he looks for a bird and a bird when he looks for a mouse. Pareto fails to move from the concept of understanding into that of reason. The concepts of Marx therefore seem to be incomprehensible and contradictory to him and any minds alike.

In explaining Marx’s concepts Ollman stands against Pareto and says “With relations rather than things as the fundamental building blocks of reality, a concept may vary somewhat in its meaning depending on how much of a particular relation it is intended to convey” (Ollman 2003:5). In what Ollman tells about the meanings and the contents of concepts, one might see that concepts are defined as constructs that belong to and determined merely by consciousness along with their content and limits. But in actual fact, concepts, on the one hand, appear to be abstract images formed solely in consciousness, and on the other hand, we encounter them as objectivity external to consciousness. The concepts of political economy, such as capital, class and value, are abstractions in consciousness as well as they are defined objectivities outside consciousness. These objectivities obviously are of a special kind that cannot be touched by hands. Matter external to consciousness can sustain its existence without consciousness while the categories of political economy cannot exist in the absence of consciousness. This does not mean, however, that these special objectivities, concepts and categories are abstractions and determinations of consciousness. On the contrary, when these reified special objectivities appear to us as concepts and categories of our conscious perception or consciousness we should see them with their concreteness, too. Marx frequently mentions capital, class and value as objective beings, as shown in a quote I will later make from him telling that even Ricardo was able to see capital as objectivity.

For Ollman, categories and concepts as designed in consciousness and therefore merely belonging to it does not contain contradiction. Regarding Marx’s categories containing contradictions, he suggests to solve the problem by determining categories as ‘indications’: “Unable to provide adequate definitions for the complex categories or for the simple categories that will soon grow into complex ones, Marx can only provide ‘indications’ (or one-sided descriptions) and images” (Ollman 2003: 153). According to Ollman, replacement of categories undefined by Marx with indications will protect him from criticisms that his statements are contradictory. Evidently, the contradictions contained in Marx’s rational concepts defied by Pareto are not meant to be for Ollman, too.

For a solution, Ollman explains his suggestion that replaces concepts or categories with indications as such: “Treating what I’ve called indications as full definitions is a serious error, since the introduction of new indications will often appear to contradict what was said earlier”, and he gives capital as example, “Does ‘capital’ … mean [a] kind of property .., the means of production, or the objective conditions of labor..?” And Ollman answers his own question in such a way that “the full meaning of ‘capital’ incorporates all of these indications” (2003: 153). He abstains from taking the concept of capital as being both means of production and a property relation. He does not define a contradictory unity. Instead, he talks about a unity which eclectically combines distinct indications in itself, and therefore whose contradiction is externalized. To Ollman, like metaphysicians, the contradictory expression of the concept of capital in which capital is both a ‘thing’ and a ‘relation’ is a problem that needs to be solved. He tries to produce a solution to this problem by defining capital, a concept of political economy, as an indication while warning us about strict definitions: “In such cases, striving for closure too soon can only be self-defeating” (2003: 153). Ollman believes that the non-contradictory concepts and categories desired by metaphysics should be provided. In his account, one cannot see that capital is both a thing and a relation; rather, it is a determination that appears sometimes as a thing and sometimes as a relation. For Ollman, the scope of the dialectical position as opposed to metaphysical non-contradiction cannot move beyond this framework. His explanations with regard to the philosophy of internal relations also remain within this framework: “Marx goes a step further in interiorizing this interdependence within each element, so that the conditions of its existence are taken to be part of what it is.Capital, for example, is not simply the physical means of production but includes the whole pattern of social and economic relations that enables these means to appear and function as they do” (Ollman 2003: 139). Such inclusion here represents an eclectic one that incorporates thing and relation. I will later come back to how Ollman wipes off this contradictory unity by dividing it into determinations that belong to two distinct vantage points or two separate temporalities although he seems to recognize the existence of contradiction as one of the most important dialectical processes.

“Internally related”: a solution?

Ollman opens up the philosophy of internal relations in such a way that it “treats the relations in which anything stands as essential parts of what it is, so that a significant change in any of these relations registers as a qualitative change in the system of which it is a part.” (2003: 5) The conceptual content of reality also sees a ‘relation’ crystallized and materialized in the objective existence of a ‘thing’ while our rational concepts see, in the perception and conception of things, the materialized traces of social existence in which the thing exists. This is where the problem arises and needs an explanation. How come the social existence of humans and their relationships are objectified in the thing as material categories that enable us perceive and understand it? I believe Ollman follows the right track by arguing that the concept of a thing is a product of the relations in which it exists, which he narrates as an internal relation. However, in explaining such relation, he becomes driven away towards wrong paths since he does not see categories as the forms of consciousness.

Ollman rarely mentions about categories, and when he does, he views them as definitions of human consciousness. Categories are temporal, he thinks, because consciousness shows changes in accordance with the time it is passing through. He describes categories as “society’s understanding of itself” (1979:109).[1] Being the universal forms of objective activity of society as it produces and reproduces itself at the historical period in which it exists, categories, however, are products of history and society. Categories change as this historical and social human’s objective activity changes. Marx sees categories in the mode of a society’s ‘production of its existence’ while Ollman views them in the mode of a society’s ‘understanding of its existence’. This important difference is certainly not enough to keep Ollman from saying that categories are products of society and transform with social change. But it should be kept in mind that he sees the source of change lying within consciousness, as the change of consciousness itself. According to him categories are mind’s tools depending upon the thinker’s own choice. Such choice can be easily seen in his suggestion for those who choose ‘traditional categories’ in order to look into reality, instead, he proposes to look through ‘naming’ new categories. For Ollman, it is possible to approach reality with a new abstraction, to understand, to transfer and to remember it by conceptualizing the products of this abstraction, in other words, by giving them ‘a linguistic form’.

Ollman believes that Marx follows the same path: “Marx’s own achievement is sometimes characterized in terms of the fuller understanding made possible through the introduction of new concepts, such as ‘surplus-value’” (2003: 143). According to him, we do not encounter with categories as ‘forms of consciousness’ with their objectivities. They are rather our naming of objects as a result of our choice and understanding, linguistic and intellectual fictions formed by consciousness in face of the object –a definition reminiscent of positivism. He believes that this is also how Marx approaches to categories: “Marx’s own judgments and efforts as a revolutionary are likewise part of how he understands capitalism, an understanding also reflected in the categories that he uses” (2003: 144). In Ollman’s account, given that concepts and categories are seen as tools designed and named inside consciousness for understanding the reality, the explanation of the phenomenon that the concept of a ‘thing’ includes a social relation becomes simply formal.

Applying the formal rules

To Ollman, it is possible to reach the reality by applying the formal rules of philosophy. Any philosophy, or, specifically dialectical philosophy is merely a mode of thinking, simply a formal tool: “the philosophy of internal relations, after all, is only a philosophy. It underlies and makes possible a certain method for inquiring into the world and organizing and expounding what one finds, but an adequate grasp of this method requires that equal attention be paid to other elements of the dialectic, and especially to the ‘process of abstraction’” (2003: 5). His account of dialectics does not offer a big difference as well: “Rather, dialectics is a way of thinking that brings into focus the full range of changes and interactions that occur in the world. As part of this, it includes how to organize a reality viewed in this manner for purposes of study and how to present the results of what one finds to others, most of whom do not think dialectically” (2003: 12). Clearly, what Ollman understands by dialectics and philosophy has a significant difference from Engels’ account in writing Dialectics of Nature. Unlike Engels who argues that not only thought but also objective world too operates through the laws of dialectics, Ollman speaks of dialectical laws as certain rules of thought of human beings who understand the objective world. Only by approaching things through formal dialectical rules, it is possible to explain how things include the relations they are in as parts of their reality: “Dialectics restructures our thinking about reality by replacing the commonsense notion of ‘thing’ (as something that has a history and has external connections with other things) with notions of ‘process’ (which contains its history and possible futures) and ‘relation’ (which contains as part of what it is its ties with other relations)” (Ollman 2003: 13). In conception of ‘thing’, he suggests the notions of dialectics as formal rules of reasoning, believing that relations as part of what thing is, emerging as a result of formal enforcements of dialectical rules in thinking, are true conceptions of the reality.

Ollman suggests abstraction as another way for describing the source of materialized social relations in the determinations of the thing: “Rather, it is a matter of where and how one draws boundaries and establishes units (the dialectical term is ‘abstracts’) in which to think about the world” (2003: 13). The effect of ‘relation’ upon what thing is now appears in applying the abstraction that divides the thing. Ollman does not have an argument on where to find this bunch of rules he sees as notions of dialectics. Nor does he discuss from where he extracts categories that dialectics uses for abstraction. These are taken in his account as the undebated and unaccounted rules of human reason that merely understands or voluntary projections of consciousness. In reality of things, when he questions the origins of these rules which he thinks enable social relations be determining, he stays within the limits of subjective and voluntary determinations such as personal understanding, culture, etc.

According to Ollman who views the categories of dialectics as mere applications of rules of reason, which one to be selected from this bunch of rules depends on choice. To give an example, such freedom of choice is apparent in the following: “Serious work on Marx’s dialectical method can usually be distinguished on the basis of which of the categories belonging to the vocabulary of dialectics is treated as pivotal” (Ollman 2003: 62-63). And he continues to provide an array of the category choices that he thinks many scholars from Lukacs to Mao have so far selected from this vocabulary of ready-made categories. But he never questions how these categories have ended up within this vocabulary. He does not mind borrowing these categories from ontology or metaphysics without questioning. Categories that do not exist but are makings of human consciousness are being formed and designed as products of subjective and voluntary processes.

And, here before us lies a case that an objective concept of political economy contains the social relations in which it exists as part of its own reality, as its own material category. This is exemplified by Ollman with the concept of capital: “to know capital as a historical event, as something that emerged as a result of specific conditions in the lifetime of real people and that will disappear when these conditions do. Viewing such connections as external to what capital is –which, for them, is simply the material means of production or money used to buy such– the economists fall into treating capital as an ahistorical variable” (2003: 69). Unless this determination represents an eclectic unity, it means that there are material traces of social processes in the objectivity of capital as a reality. Indeed, these social relations should encounter us in our perception of capital as a reality. The error into which ‘the economists’ unable to see this fall will make capital “something that has always been and will always be” (Ollman 2003: 69).

Upon these true determinations, an explanation of historical feature of capital becomes necessary. Ollman attempts to explain the cause of this historical and social aspect in the reality of the thing with the help of abstraction. For him, what enables us to understand capital which we tear apart from the totality by means of abstraction is the way we abstract. Social processes or material elements incorporated by capital become apparent with the modes of abstractions that we make with various contents. In its encounter with reality as a totality, consciousness will divide it into pieces that it can perceive and give a meaning. For Ollman, the definition of the distinctions, both the process of itself and the instrument of the process, dividing it into pieces, will rely upon the subjective aspects of the perceiving and understanding consciousness. Perception and understanding, he argues, will be determined by subjective distinctions of the perceiving and understanding consciousness, such as who it is and which philosophical tradition it comes from. Subjective differences in perception and understanding does not appear to Ollman as stumbling blocks on the way to objective reality, rather, he sees them as natural consequences of subjectivity. He does not mind leaving the determinations he has to use in drawing the limits of abstraction as well as their sources into the subjective realm. It is not possible to see in Ollman’s account that these are objective categories and explained as such.

At this point, let’s see Marx’s position in the debate whether concepts and categories are merely rational determinations. Our example, the concept of capital is an abstract category of political economy that belongs to reason while it exists as a real concrete objectivity of our real world. It is not only Marxists who conceive this objectivity, it does not escape even Ricardo’s notice, as Marx puts it: “‘… capital in general, as distinct from the particular real capitals, is itself a real existence. This is recognized by ordinary economics, even if it is not understood, and forms a very important moment of its doctrine of equilibrations, etc. For example, capital in this general form, although belonging to individual capitalists, in its elemental form as capital, forms the capital which accumulates in the banks or is distributed through them, and, as Ricardo says, so admirably distributes itself in accordance with the needs of production. … While the general is therefore on the one hand only a mental (gedachte) mark of distinction (differentia specifica), it is at the same time a particular real form alongside the form of the particular and individual”(Marx 1993: 449-450).

What we perform in studying capital by means of abstraction is not what Ollman does, which is extracting a piece from a total reality as a result of a voluntary decision, and naming it ‘capital’ to study. To abstract capital is to distinguish capital, already an objective being as well as a category of political economy, from all the processes it is in relation with. Capital in its abstract form is the capital as being examined with its ties with profit, rent, interest etc. cut off. This does not mean, however, that capital is purely abstract, and that a general category of capital, apart from particular capitals, does not have an objective and particular existence. The abstraction of capital means that capital, having been seen as an objectivity of a special kind, becomes abstract to the extent that it is studied as cleared of its relations. The abstract determinations of our study such as capital, value, class, etc. are but concrete objectivities of a special kind that do exist but without space; they are not abstract determinations of our pure reason. The illusion that we distinguish and study capital or class through demarcations drawn by our reason turns all the processes of political economy into games of logic. It is enough here to remember Marx’s critique of Proudhon’s point where he comes to see the categories of political economy as the logical categories in pure thinking.

On the perception and concept in Marx

Marx saves our perception from being defined, at the first step, as passive collection of data by physiological organs. His explanation starts with marking the distinctiveness of our five senses, basically the same physiological organs with all other non-conscious beings: “It is obvious that the human eye enjoys things in a way different from the crude, non-human eye; the human ear different from the crude ear, etc.” (Marx 1977b: 301). And he explains the development into this human condition as follows: “The eye has become a human eye, just as its object has become a social, human object—an object made by man for man. The senses have therefore become directly in their practice theoreticians” (1977b: 300). The process through which the senses of the conscious being differ from those of others arises from the fact that the conscious beings produce their own lives. The living sustains its life activity by the operations of instincts and codes in its biological body. As it moves beyond its biological base including direct existential activities and starts to produce its existence socially and not limited to its biological codes, it comes to be characterized as conscious being. The object and formation of the perception of the conscious being takes on a new dimension when it gets to produce its own life activity on the biological ground but in a social manner. The object of human perception as a conscious being now consists in the objects that he produces as a result of his own objective activity as well as the environment transformed by such objective practical activity. It should not be considered in a narrow sense as a conscious being that only perceives the objects he transforms. It is essential to keep in mind that the scope of the perception now becomes nature as a whole in which the conscious being produces its existence socially, in which he himself changes, and which he changes.

Social production of human is about objective world. “It is just in his work upon the objective world, therefore, that man really proves himself to be a species-being. This production is his active species-life. Through this production, nature appears as his work and his reality” (Marx 1977b: 277). Nature as a whole that human produces and meanwhile in which he produces himself is the object and the ground of his perception and consciousness: “…human sense, the human nature of the senses, comes to be by virtue of its object, by virtue of humanised nature. The forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present” (Marx 1977b: 302). What makes our perceptions and five senses different from mere data provided by physiological organs is that what we sense are objective categories crystallized as material categories of social production in the objects. All ‘forms of consciousness’ within in the object that the conscious perception senses are hidden as categories in the conscious being’s activity of production of its life. Concepts and categories are both the active cause and the effect of the social human’s objective activity of production of his life.

That concepts and categories can assume such logical form is only possible with the long-lasting repetitions of human activity, i.e. his production of life, as a result of processes of ‘producing’ life socially again and again, rather than learning or thinking it. As Lenin comments on Hegel, following these concepts and categories is like tracing back the social production of human being from ancient times: “the practical activity of man had to lead his consciousness to the repetition of the various logical figures thousands of millions of times in order that these figures could obtain the significance of axioms” (Lenin 1976: 190).

Hegel who indeed gets really close to such conclusion through the dialectical process of his thought leaves this path behind with his idealistic deviation. Among a bunch of religious statements, we still read out the following words: “Animals find what they need for the satisfaction of their wants immediately before them; human beings, by contrast, relate to the means for the satisfaction of their wants as something that they themselves bring forth and shape. Thus, even in what is here external, man is related to himself” (Hegel 1991: 62). The relation Hegel talks about is surely not a relation of an objective practical activity that belongs to the existence of humanity, formed in ‘the social production of human existence.’ It is rather a relation of move from one form of consciousness to another. But Hegel’s idea here is still more progressive than all appreciations of a passive perception that merely looks at the external world and senses the properties only peculiar to the objects.

Ollman fails to see that perception is not a passive process but a product of an active practical activity of existence. And he subjectifies perception to the utmost: “In actual fact, we always perceive somewhat more (or less) and differently from what is seen or heard directly, having to do with our knowledge, experience, mood, the problem at hand, et cetera”(Ollman 2003: 141). According to him, a sense goes through a change with the effect of experience or knowledge in consciousness, and then forms our perception by becoming subjective in line with personal differences of such experience and knowledge. In this context, ‘seeing’ is simply a natural technical process. Perceiving what is seen, on the other hand, is an operation which advances as the technical datum is processed within consciousness, –an operation that each operator compels to a subjective change in accordance with his own assets of consciousness and philosophical approach of himself. To Ollman, the way human eye and non-human eye see does not change, but human eye differentiates itself by processing or choosing these data with knowledge, experience and mood. The unity of perceptions, in Marx’s account, which becomes conscious perception during the objective activity of social human existence, and with this objectivity, contains the same categorical determinations for the entire society, does not apply in Ollman’s account. He rather provides an account in which perception can become subjective by means of different personal experiences and approaches, representing a metaphysical subjective view.

We better discuss briefly whether perception can ever have subjective aspects or not. Perception can be affected by the lack of basic requirements of life that a biological organism needs. However, considering what we talk about here is ‘the perception of reality’, such deprivation mentioned below represents an anomaly. As Marx puts it, “The sense caught up in crude practical need has only a restricted sense. For the starving man, it is not the human form of food that exists, but only its abstract existence as food. It could just as well be there in its crudest form, and it would be impossible to say wherein this feeding activity differs from that of animals”, after providing a number of example he continues “Thus, the objectification of the human essence, both in its theoretical and practical aspects, is required to make man’s sense human, as well as to create the human sense corresponding to the entire wealth of human and natural substance” (1977b: 302). For Marx, the social production process of human existence is also the process of social formation of human perception and theoretical conception of the objects. The anomalistic conditions in the example where perception ceases to be human perception, returning to its biological origins, do not justify the conditions of subjective perception in Ollman’s case. Marx, on the contrary, identifies the common ground for active perception that cannot change in accordance with “our knowledge, experience, mood, the problem at hand, et cetera” as human sense.

Apart from the sensation of external objectivity, the determination of distinctions that is needed in the demarcations of the concept of such objectivity is also left to subjective choice in Ollman’s account: “the conceptual distinctions that tell us where one thing ends and the next one begins both in space and across time are social and mental constructs. However great the influence of what the world is on how we draw these boundaries, it is ultimately we who draw the boundaries, and people coming from different cultures and from different philosophical traditions can and do draw them differently” (Ollman 2003: 13-14). Categories or forms of consciousness, or, in Ollman’s words, ‘conceptual distinctions’ are, in the final analysis, subjective constructs that belong to human consciousness. Categories determine our perceptions as the conscious perception, and are conditions under which the forms of our thoughts cease to be mere constructs of consciousness and become objective necessities; when categories as such are seen as constructs resulting from the object itself or from our reason being embarked upon the object, they are unable to explain the reality because of such one-sidedness. “The forms…, if one regards them as forms, ‘distinct from the substance and merely attached to it’ … are incapable of embracing truth” (Lenin 1976: 93). Categories as mentioned above in the perception of objectivity are at the same time the logical structures that are determinant  in the conceptual formation of such objectivity and its transfer. These logical structures, however, are not determinations that only belong to human consciousness, “the categories of thought are not an auxiliary tool of man, but an expression of laws both of nature and of man” (Lenin 1976: 91). The idea that categories are conceptual constructs that only belong to thought is what Marx criticizes in Proudhon’s viewpoint: “the moment we cease to pursue the historical movement of production relations, of which the categories are but the theoretical expression, the moment we want to see in these categories no more than ideas, spontaneous thoughts, independent of real relations, we are forced to attribute the origin of these thoughts to the movement of pure reason” (Marx 1977c: 162).

The production of categories should not be considered as an external idealistic relation, as an acting human developing a thought in conformity with his action. It is important to bear in mind that, in the production of their social existence, humans produce not only products but also categories as forms of consciousness crystalized in and reflected on the products. This is clearly explained by Ilyenkov as follows: “Marx and Engels established above all that the external world was not given to the individual as it was in itself simply and directly in his contemplation, but only in the course of its being altered by man: and that both the contemplating man himself and the world contemplated were products of history. The forms of thought, too, the categories, were accordingly understood not as simple abstractions from unhistorically understood sensuousness, but primarily as universal forms of social man’s sensuously objective activity reflected in consciousness. The real objective equivalent of logical forms was seen not simply in the abstract, general contours of the object contemplated by the individual but in the forms of man’s real activity transforming nature in accordance with his own ends” (Ilyenkov 1977: 92-93). This is an adequate approach which significantly differs from Ollman’s construction of conceptual distinctions by thought.

“Man’s consciousness not only reflects the objective world, but creates it” (Lenin 1976: 212). Lenin suggests keeping in mind that human beings do not only understand nature but also change it. But to consider these two acts, understanding nature and changing nature, as separate deeds makes it impossible to understand the categories of consciousness. Distinct from other living creatures, human beings do not produce themselves as immediate parts of nature, but move beyond and further the life activity provided by his existential, genetic and natural codes. In ‘the social production of his existence’ human stands against nature that is the object and product of his own change. This object confronting him incorporates the traces and determinations of this process of change, a process that is the product of human’s labor and through which he himself passes. Categories distinguished in the object, therefore, are not only objective determinations qualifying it but also forms of the element of consciousness in the action of the subject. In this way, categories also constitute the principles of the relationship between the object and the image of object in consciousness. “It is self-evident that the explanation of the nature of consciousness lies in the peculiar features of human activity that create the need for it – in activity’s objective, productive character. Labour activity is imprinted, perpetuated in its product. There takes place, in the words of Marx, a transition of activity into a static property. This transition is the process of the material embodiment of the objective content of activity, which now presents itself to the subject, that is to say, arises before him in the form of an image of the object perceived” (Leontyev 2009: 10). For Leontyev, the social origin of the reality of a thing, the origin of the connection between the concept of thing and the social relation, should be explored in ‘the social production of human existence.’ Ollman, on the other hand, tries to ensure this inner connection by applying the formal rules of one’s own favorite philosophy, within consciousness.

The process described here, Leontyev warns, should not be considered as such that the objects which are products of reason are being seen as things to be understood by reason again: “the representation controlling activity, when embodied in an object, acquires its second, ‘objectivised’ existence, which can be sensuously perceived; as a result the subject, as it were, sees his own representation in the external world. When it has thus been duplicated, it is consciously understood. This pattern is not valid, however. It takes us back to the previous subjectively-empirical, essentially idealistic point of view” (Leontyev 2009: 10). Likewise the relation between consciousness and practice deserves the same attention. The objective activity of social human, as an activity, includes both action and consciousness together. It is not divided into ‘first thinking then acting’ or ‘first acting then being conscious of.’

“In other words, thought and the thought-form did not appear at first to the thinking being as forms of his own activity at all … creating a certain product, but as forms of the product itself” (Ilyenkov 1977: 59). Illusions arise from the confinement to this appearance. We are in the right path again once we move beyond this appearance, and once we understand categories as the ‘forms’ of the element of consciousness in the objective human activity within the objects that are but products. Activity occurs in the present historical period and under the objective conditions of such period; therefore categories, being forms of the thinking element of the activity, are historical too. Categories are the forms of consciousness materialized and crystalized on the object. As forms of consciousness, they include the objective and practical activity aspect of the object’s being as the product of labor while containing subjective forms of consciousness inseparable from such activity. Categories as such are as abstract as they are concrete. Consciousness no longer stands against objects and understands them in a passive manner. It is important to understand “consciousness as a subjective product, as a manifestation in different form of the essentially social relations that are materialized by man’s activity in the objective world” (Leontyev 2009: 10).

A critical overlook into Ollman’s account

Ollman leaves categories that constitute the demarcations in his abstraction activity in understanding objectivity and reality to the choices of subjectivity. In the philosophy of internal relations, in abstraction and perception, he does not mind using relentlessly and recklessly the categories such as quality, quantity, whole, part, distinction, identity, time, space, finite and infinite. He just uses them without even asking for once where they all come from, failing to realize that such use is either inherited from metaphysics or mere use of categories as formal tools.

In Ollman’s approach, human knowledge of the object is considered to be formed by a merely understanding mind that stands opposite to knowledge of the external world. The dialectical logic here does not offer the true knowledge of the objectivity, rather it could only “take an adequate account of” what this objectivity “really is” (Ollman 2003: 187). Interestingly, that this ‘adequate account’ is not the reality itself but only a level of reality is the fundamental ontological argument of metaphysics.

Ollman seems not to deny the contradictory unity of the rational concept, unlike those of ‘the commonsense view’ looking with the eyes of metaphysics. But he tries to avoid contradiction by sending it either to different levels or different times. In appearance, he is not on the misleading track of the commonsense view that gives one single answer to the question of ‘either object or relation’, his answer is both. But both as such is addressed to different times or levels so that he could get rid of the contradiction of the rational concept that disturbs the metaphysician, too. Ollman aims to reach metaphysical non-contradiction by translating the contradictory unities into differences of vantage points. In doing so, he still thinks that he includes contradiction. A contradictory unity suddenly turns into two different analyses of two separate vantage points: “Sticking with one vantage point will restrict understanding any relation to its identical or different aspects when, in fact, it contains both.” (Ollman 2003: 105). For Ollman, just like for the metaphysician, the object cannot contain identical and different qualities at the same vantage point and in the same conceptuality, something only possible if two views from two different vantage points join each other. He then suggest being able to look from different vantage points in order to see these distinct aspects. The failure of the metaphysician, Ollman formulates, is not the denial of the contradictory whole, but his inability to look from two different vantage points but sticking with one. The way Marx analyzes the unity of the objective and subjective aspects takes on a different direction in Ollman: “In Marx’s division of reality into objective and subjective conditions, it is by abstracting a vantage point first in one and then in the other that he uncovers the more objective aspects of what is ordinarily taken to be subjective … and vice-versa. Together with the aforementioned theory of identity, changes in the abstraction of vantage point enable Marx to actually see objective and subjective conditions as ‘two distinct forms of the same conditions’” (Ollman 2003: 105-106). These words seem to the most delicate approval of the metaphysical thesis that the reality cannot be both objective and subjective at the same time.

Ollman voluntarily picks from logic which category to be used in approaching the reality. We can only understand Ollman’s appreciation of Marx when he voluntarily proposes the choices that he thinks Marx makes. Marxism, therefore, ceases to be a science and simply becomes a logical execution that even Proudhon could never imagine.

In Ollman’s account, abstraction is but parts deprived from the whole by means of our determinations, and their demarcations are also determined by voluntary choices. Then the part becomes entirely subjective and can be changed in accordance with new choices of abstraction. For example, the definition of ‘class’ signifies an abstraction enclosed by your own boundaries, rather than an objective being. Class is always an abstract concept for Ollman since the categories introducing its objectivity and necessity remain undebated and out of his sight. This abstract concept of class can further assume new dimensions and/or new definitions through new subjective choices. For Ollman, any changes possible in the concept of class do not rely upon the movement of the object but your subjective choices of abstraction: “What class any person belongs to and even the number of classes in society are also affected by where exactly Marx draws his boundaries”, he further ensures that his suggestion is “not to deny that one such classification … enjoys a larger role in … [Marx’s]  work or that one criterion for determining class (a group’s relationship to the prevailing mode of production) is more important,” but he immediately adds: “for the evidence of … [Marx’s] flexibility in abstracting class is clear and unambiguous… the relevant question is: ‘Do we know on any given occasion when Marx uses ‘class,’ or the label associated with any particular class, who he is referring to and why he refers to them in this way?’” (Ollman 2003: 81-82). Ollman’s intention here can be chasing the traces of changes in the concept of class in history. The problem is not whether the content of the concept of class has changed or not, or whether Marx’s concept of class represents truth or not. It is about Ollman’s view of the concept of class as an empirical abstraction similar to that of a typical metaphysician. Even greater problem is that he describes empirical determinations used for abstractions through subjective processes. For Ollman, class is an abstract generalization extracted from objective totality before him, whose boundaries are drawn by means of who knows which determinations of abstraction, and to what extent of flexibility. That class is a category of political economy, that categories are subjective as much as objective necessities, and that social human activity has forms of consciousness, there are meaningless for him. Class, as he grasps, is a product of an abstraction made within the framework of subjective choices as well as a generalization that can be re-abstracted with the changes in the subjective choices. Ollman’s claim to be a Marxist cannot go beyond his suggestion of the mode of abstraction that he thinks Marx suggests.

The ‘process’ through which Ollman makes abstraction appears in three modes or has three aspects: “the boundary setting and bringing into focus that lies at the core of this process occurs simultaneously in three different, though closely related, senses. These senses have to do with extension, level of generality, and vantage point” (2003: 74). Categories necessary to make abstraction cannot step in Ollman’s sight, he, therefore, becomes obliged to offer abstract ‘arbitrary’ and ‘artificial’ processes. He has to produce these subjective and abstract processes when determining the objective distinctions because the categories that he needs for the abstraction process, i.e. materialized determinations, has no objective existence. As a matter of fact he seems to be aware of the situation himself, as seen in the following lines where he argues possible criticisms raised against the philosophy of internal relations and tries to produce responds to them: “The philosophy of internal relations also does not mean –as some of its critics have charged– that investigating any problem can go on forever (to say that boundaries are artificial is not to deny them an existence…); or that the boundaries that are established are arbitrary (what actually influences the character of Marx’s or anyone else’s abstractions is another question); or that we cannot mark or work with some of the important objective distinctions found in reality…” (Ollman 2003: 72). Ollman will not be able to escape from the fair criticisms of ‘arbitrariness’ and ‘artificiality’ unless he explains how abstraction relies upon objective and material categories, and how these categories are formed outside human will and choices. Unable to provide a satisfactory answer to these criticisms, Ollman’s words above are an exposition of the subjective metaphysical dead-ends resulted from the method he suggests. But this exposition is not enough for him to question the subjective process here. On the contrary, attracted by this subjective process, he is drifted into another illusion; the assumption that categories can be chosen voluntarily, he comes to think, will be able to provide a solution for all arguments. He also comes to believe that he can offer solutions for all debates within Marxism in their modes of abstraction. The problem of change, a discussion in Marxism, appears to Ollman to be resolved in the level of generality which is a mode of abstraction. The solution here is not offered in such a way of holding one’s side in the debate or proposing something outside of sides. Ollman rather says that both sides are right, and they only appear to be in conflict because they cannot see the difference in their levels of generality. Likewise, in the debate between Miliband and Poulantzas on the character of the capitalist state, Ollman finds them both right, arguing that they disagree with each other simply because they enjoy two different vantage points of abstraction. Similarly the debates between Mattick and Baran-Sweezy, Brenner and Wallerstein, Mepham and Marcuse, or discussions of Althusser, they all result from the differences of ‘extension,’ ‘level of generality’ and ‘vantage point’ of abstraction, debates in which everyone is right. They just look into the reality with different ‘extensions,’ at different ‘levels of generality’ and from different ‘vantage points.’ Ollman invites everyone to the table of such subjectivity so that he does not want to pay alone the price for his subjectivity that he arrives at the end of his journey which he has departed for dialectics.

Ollman’s ‘perspectival element’ which, according to him, plays an important role in dialectics also divides objective reality into subjective pieces, just like three aspects mentioned above that turns such reality into an arbitrary perception of a subjective view-point. Divided as such, reality ceases to be itself: “The perspectival element –recognizing that things appear very different depending on who is looking at them– plays a very important role in dialectical thought. This doesn’t mean that the truths that emerge from viewing reality from different vantage points are of equal value. Involved as they are in the work of transforming nature, workers enjoy a privileged position from which to view and make sense out of the developmental character of the system, and with his interest in the evolution of capitalism this is the vantage point that Marx most often adopts for himself” (Ollman 2003: 16). That things are perceived as different from each other depending on one’s vantage point, choice, and areas of interest is the ultimate subjective point. Furthermore, it is impossible to tell which reality is true or not among these multiple realities attained by viewing things from different vantage points. What Ollman can only do is to make a personal choice of which reality is better; and he thinks that he shows which side he is on by making his choice of reality in favor of the realities as seen by the working class. Viewing that reality can vary depending on the vantage point of anyone who looks at it should be Ollman’s dance with the dialectic.

It is possible to keep on Ollman’s account and multiply the examples similar to those mentioned above, but there is no such need. The road Ollman hits to explain the dialectical method of Marxism at the first place unfortunately goes through a shy metaphysics and infinite subjectivism.


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[1] The Turkish text (Diyalektiğin Dansı, translated by Cenk Saraçoğlu,4th edition, Istanbul: Yordam Kitap) I’ve read includes a part which first appears in the article “Marxism and Political Science: A Prolegomenon to a Debate on Marx’s Method” originally written in 1973 but is excluded from the article with the same title in the 2003 English edition of The Dance of Dialectic. The quote here (“society’s understanding of itself) and the next (“traditional categories”) belong to this part.

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