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«Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Method «: Bertell Ollman

Reviews of Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Method

Perspectives on Political Science
James C. Foster, Oregon State University-Cascades

Bertell Ollman is a professor of politics at New York University. He gained his fifteen minutes of fame by creating the Marxist board game Class Struggle (See Class Struggle is the Name of the Game: Confessions of a Marxist Businessman). Ollman also is one of the more distinguished Marxist scholars of his generation. His Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society stands as a classic in the literature of Marxist scholarship because it renders accessible and develops further the philosophical aspects of Marx’s method.

Marx’s method, Ollman argues, is «internal relations.» It «tells a tale of two cities» focused on interconnections: «[The tale] is not capitalism, it is not communism, it is not history. Rather it is the internal relations between all of them» (1). Marx and Ollman collaboratively work out the social implications of the epigraph to E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End—»Only connect.» Illuminating connections between social formations that appear on the surface to be incommensurate opens Marx to charges that he is inconsistent and contradictory. As Vilfredo Pareto observed: «Marx’s words are like bats. One can see in them both birds and mice» (4). For Ollman, the answer to Pareto’s paradox is that Marx’s method was his message: «By allowing Marx to focus on the interconnections that constitute the key patterns in capitalism, the dialectic brings the capitalist system itself, as a pattern of patterns, into ‘sight’ and makes it something real that requires its own explanation» (4).

Dance of the Dialectic continues Ollman’s important career-long project of elucidating Marx’s method. It consists of previously published, albeit «considerably revised» (6), chapters and articles collected in twelve chapters and divided into five steps. Four of the twelve essays—the first, fifth, eighth, and ninth—are especially illuminating. Chapter 1 offers an overview of the meaning of dialectics. Dialectical research replaces the commonsense understanding of society as a «thing» with notions of process and relations (13). Such research «is primarily directed to finding and tracing four kinds of relations: identity/difference, interpenetrations of opposites, quantity/quality, and contradiction» (15). Chapter 5 is a primer of sorts, walking the reader through «putting Dialectics to work,» keying on the process of abstraction via «extension» (73-86), «level of generality» (86-99), and «vantage point» (99-111). In chapters 8 and 9, Ollman lays out «most of the scaffolding with which Marx constructed his tale of two cities» (6). Drawing on an anonymous fifteenth-century saying, Ollman offers a clever summary of the fundamental distinction between Marx’s method and conventional social science: the latter studies «the people who steal the goose from off the commons,» and the former studies «those who steal the commons from under the goose» (155).

Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Method would fill a significant gap in any upper-division or graduate social science methodology class. For instance, in my political science subfield, judicial politics, methodological debates are dominated by attitudinal, rational choice, and (new) institutional models of inquiry. Offering Ollman’s incisive explication of Marx’s method a place at the table certainly would enrich the conversation. Doing so might even yield stunning insights.


From Bertell Ollman’s Homepage:



Bertell Ollman Interview: «Dialectics, Abstraction, Internal Relations» by Kapitalism101

This is an hour-long interview with dialectical scholar and Marxist philosopher Bertell Ollman. Ollman is a professor of politics at New York University and author of “Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Method” and “Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society”. Both books are great reads (and available for free download at the above links), very accessible, and quite helpful in getting one’s head wrapped around the dialectical method. Fans of left trivia might also recognize Ollman as the creator of the board game “Class Struggle”.

The topic of Abstraction (also the topic of my next video in the Law of Value series) is an easy one for Ollman to talk about as he has devoted a lot of his intellectual activity to an understanding of what it means to make abstractions. I barely had to ask him any questions over the course of the interview in which he explains many of the key concepts in his book Dance of the Dialectic.

Political Affairs Magazine (, Dec. 21, 2005
Vicki I. Linton

Bertell Ollman’s recent book Dance of the Dialectic is a magnificent manual on the Marxist method for understanding the nature of class society, capitalism and social relations. If the accomplishments of this book could be summarized in a single statement, it would be that Ollman successfully presents Marx’s thought as a coherent unity by systematically explaining the apparent difficulties, contradictions, and various emphases in his work that have long puzzled, perplexed and even divided Marxist thinkers.

For example, Marxists have long fought (often bitterly) over the influence of Hegelian philosophy in Marx’s work. Some say that Hegel is a dominant influence and the source responsible for the best elements in Marx’s thought. Others deny this and insist that Marx ultimately rejected Hegelian dialectics and idealism, consequently discarding apparently abstract concepts such as historicism, humanism and alienation in favor of rigorous «science.» Ollman notes that this debate among «structuralists» and humanists, who have both made equally valuable contributions to an understanding of Marx, resulted from different «vantage points,» «levels of abstraction» and «generalities.»

Ollman’s major point is that Marxist thinkers who do engage in these kinds of debate usually ignore an important feature of Marx’s work: his movement from different levels of abstraction and generality, depending on the particular investigation or focus of emphasis he is engaged in. Ollman’s book painstakingly (hence the subtitle) elaborates on and describes the various critical and analytical tools Marx employs at different points in his investigations.

Ollman charts a systematized Marxism that is capable of encompassing the different points of view, emphasis of thought, and analytical tools of the descendants of Marx, who appear to be at odds with each other or even with Marx himself. All that is missing in Ollman’s book is an easy-to-use diagram with a visual representation of this system.

The following example illustrates Ollman’s approach. There are four aspects of dialectics that Marx uses: identity, contradiction, quantity/quality, and interpenetration of opposites. On the surface, the basic meanings of these terms are different, even contradictory. Yet all are claimed to be essential in the framework of Marx’s critical method.

If a Marxist thinker employs one set of terms (at the expense of the others) to explain a particular social (or natural) phenomenon, the results may appear to differ from or even contradict the results of another thinker who employs a separate aspect of dialectics to explain that same phenomenon. This leads to debilitating in-fighting, sharp-tongued accusations that so-and-so «isn’t a true Marxist» or such-and-such a trend of thought is «revisionist,» and precludes bridge-building and serious engagement. In the end, we often talk past one another without sympathetically addressing our differences, using agreed upon terminology, or making an effort to understand the particular emphasis or focus the other side is attempting.

For example, famous debates over the role of the state in Marxist theory have contributed to key but apparently competing ideas: the state as a tool of the ruling class and the state as an autonomous regulatory mechanism for capitalism. In Ollman’s view, both theories have correct features, but each depends on the viewpoint of its proponents and the specific features of capitalism that have been used to form the theory.

Another important controversy has emerged over the question of determinism, such as the role of the economic aspects of life in determining the superstructure (ideas, laws, religion, etc.), as compared to the role of human agency in history. Here, too, both perspectives are important for an understanding of the nature of capitalism and class struggle, but they are formulated according to separate sets of analytical criteria.

Likewise, to touch on one last example, is it the falling rate of profit or the difficulties in realizing value that spark economic crisis? Both perspectives have validity, but both require different conceptual tools and vantage points found in Marxist thought.

In each of these examples, the levels of abstraction, generalities and vantage points «are complementary and all are required,» says Ollman, «in order to ‘reflect’ the double movement [history and process] of the capitalist mode of production.»

Bourgeois ideology, warns Ollman, distorts the ability to provide a full picture of capitalism by emphasizing narrow views of human experience. It effectively presents social life under capitalism as natural and ahistorical. It mystifies experience by allowing us to grasp only a small slice of reality at a time. Rarely, indeed, does it ever lie outright; in fact, ideology often «feels» true. Sometimes it is created by the willful effort of the capitalist class; at other times it emerges as a result of alienated life under capitalist society. But, to be sure, Marxists have a special responsibility not to play into it by following its lead and limiting their representations of reality to partialities.

The Communist movement should benefit from this book, because Ollman presents the possibility of developing a rigorously comprehensive and coherent Marxism that encompasses different levels of thinking about human experience. Ollman is asking us not to narrowly reject different conclusions arrived at by means we do not advocate, but to expand the horizon of our thinking. Ollman’s instructions may be regarded as a corrective for sectarianism and an incentive to work out a fuller theoretical basis for practical action. Such an approach might encourage people who are confused by bourgeois ideology or just by limited thinking, to take better, more advanced, and even revolutionary positions.

Ollman offers the example of Critical Realism, a recent philosophical standpoint—with no relation to the literary trend of the mid-20th century—that combines the best parts of postmodern theory and positivism (both generally regarded by Marxist to be ideological) with a dialectical method, to fashion a critical tool that, while its proponents insist that it is non-Marxist, operates in a manner close to it. Ollman isn’t afraid to examine Critical Realism sympathetically, extracting what he sees as beneficial and highlighting key similarities between Marxist thought and Critical Realist thought. It is a confident, non-sectarian gesture that Marxism, recovering from serious setbacks in recent years, is strong enough to make.

In conclusion, this book will sharpen and deepen one’s understanding of the method Marx used to analyze capitalism, how it works, and where it is heading.

Socialist Standard (U.K.), Mar. 2004, L.E.W.

For Socrates it was teasing out the threads of an argument by asking questions. In Hegel’s philosophy it was the development of the idea through history. With Marx and Engels, however, there is some dispute as to what their version of the dialectic means, or even if they were both talking about the same thing. This apparent confusion is compounded by Plekhanov’s term «dialectical materialism,» a phrase not used by Marx or Engels, yet this was designated the official philosophy of state capitalist Russia in the years after the Bolshevik revolution.

Ollman is in no doubt that Marx and Engels were talking about different aspects of the same thing. For Ollman, their dialectic has two main features. Firstly, it is a philosophy of internal relations. Capitalism is a system constituted by its social relations of production, and a change to one relationship will have consequences for the whole system. This philosophical viewpoint tries to understand that process. Secondly, it is a method of abstraction. The key social relationships of capitalism (e.g. value, commodity, class) depend upon, but are not reducible to, material objects. They can only be comprehended as abstractions but they are nonetheless real and can affect our lives profoundly when they mean that profit-making takes priority over human needs. To some it may seem that this explanation is very different from how the dialectic is often understood. According to Ollman:

Dialectics is not a rock-ribbed triad of thesis-antithesis-synthesis that serves as an all-purpose explanation; nor does it provide a formula that enables us to prove or predict anything; nor is it the motor force of history. The dialectic, as such, explains nothing, proves nothing, and causes nothing to happen. Rather, dialectics is a way of thinking that brings into focus the full range of changes and interactions that occur in the world.

Ollman goes into considerable detail in what is likely to be the standard work on this subject for many years to come.

Choice, April 2004 B.J. Macdonald, Colorado State University

Since Marx’s death, there has been avid debate within the Marxist tradition as to the nature of Marx’s method. Some have claimed that Marx is the scientist par excellence. Others, particularly those who would become part of the Western Marxist tradition, have argued that what truly defines Marx’s method is not science per se, but critique. Irrespective of whether one sees a «scientific Marx» or a «critical Marx,» all members of this dispute recognize his reliance on the dialectical method in his analysis. In a wonderfully clear and insightful work, Ollman (New York Univ.) excavates Marx’s dialectical method, in the process dispelling earlier simplistic renderings of this methodology. While we are usually taught the schematic thesis-antithesis-synthesis characterization of the dialectics, such a rendering ignores, even obfuscates, the more interesting aspects associated with this method. For Ollman, Marx’s position is defined by two interrelated discourses: a philosophy of internal relations and the process of abstraction. In spending needed time explaining these discourses and their interconnections, Ollman is able to show provocatively how the dialectical method allows an explanation of the seeming contradictions associated with Marx’s arguments, which have bedeviled many scholars. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Undergraduates, graduates, and faculty.

Dissecting dialectics
People’s Weekly World, New York, NY—March 27, 2004
Tony Pecinovsky
The author can be reached at

«One step forward, two steps back,» the old saying goes. While many—if not most—people understand the logic behind this old saying, very few of us understand the steps in Marx’s dialectic method. In fact, Marx’s dialectics method of inquiry, understanding, abstraction, generality, and vantage point has seldom been systematically broken down and explained in a concise and easily understood way.

Bertell Ollman, in his most recent book, Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Method, does just that. Ollman, a professor of politics at New York University, does an excellent job of engaging readers familiar with Marx, and those not so familiar.

Unlike other scholars, Ollman’s writing style is short and to the point. And his grasp of Marxism is impressive. In «Step 1,» Ollman explains the meaning of dialectics. According to Ollman, dialectics «restructures our thinking about reality by replacing our commonsense notion of ‘thing’… with notions of ‘process’… and ‘relation.'»

Dialectics, unlike other ways of viewing and understanding society and social development, starts from the premise that everything is in a constant state of motion and change, interconnected and related to other social phenomenon, never in isolation.

Where others incorrectly begin their process of inquiry «with some small part and through establishing its connections to other such parts tries to reconstruct the larger whole, dialectical research begins with the whole, the system, or as much of it one understands, and then proceeds to an examination of the part… leading eventually to an understanding of the whole from which one has begun.»

In «Step 3,» the process of abstraction is discussed. Abstract comes from the Latin word abstrahere, which means «to pull from.» Ollman writes, «In one sense, the role Marx gives to abstraction is simple recognition of the fact that all thinking about reality begins by breaking it down into manageable parts.»

Marx, in his method of abstraction, only focuses on some qualities and relations. He sets up boundaries, incorporating into his method change, interaction, and internal relationships that get into the heart of capitalism.

He also projects, based on his studies of how society has actually developed, in the past and present, how society may change in its process of becoming.

For example, capital «is not simply the material means of production used to produce wealth, which is how it is abstracted in the works of most economists.»

«Rather it includes… ‘Primitive Accumulation’… whatever has made it possible for it to produce the kind of wealth it does in just the way that it does. … Furthermore, as part of its becoming capital… [includes] concentration and centralization and the effect of this tendency on… a world market and [it also includes the] eventual transition to socialism,» writes Ollman.

Ollman also explains Marx’s vantage point, «or place from which to view the elements of any particular Relation and… the larger system to which this Relation belongs.»

For example, workers who try to make sense of their society «are likely to include ‘labor,’ ‘factory,’ and ‘machine’—especially ‘labor,’ which puts the activity that is chiefly responsible for social change—at the front and center of their thinking.»

According to Ollman, «for capitalists, just the opposite is the case. Their lives and work incline them to start making sense of their situation with the aid of ‘price,’ ‘competition,’ ‘profit,’ and other abstractions drawn from the marketplace.»

Dance of the Dialectic consists of 12 chapters, broken down into five steps. While most of the chapters were first published as essays in scholarly journals or other books over the years, their subject matter, dialectics, remains as timely as ever. Anybody interested in a better understanding of Marx’s dialectical method should read Dance of the Dialectic.

Fetishism is Real
Radical Philosophy: March/April 2004
Chris Arthur

Bertell Ollman has been a lively presence in the field of Marxian studies for over thirty years. His most distinctive contribution lies in his elucidation of Marx’s method, specifically dialectics. Here he gives us ‘the best of my life’s work on dialectics.’ The various chapters are (lightly revised) reproductions of earlier published material: four chapters from his first (and best, I think) book Alienation (1971), three from his Dialectical Investigations (1993), plus five more occasional pieces. The whole forms an ideal introduction to his thought for newcomers, and a useful compendium for those renewing their acquaintance with it.

Ollman’s book has two major themes: the philosophy of internal relations (first expounded in Alienation) and the method of multi-variant abstraction (the central chapter of Dialectical Investigations). These I will summarize in a moment; but first let us attend to what Ollman thinks about dialectic in general. One is struck by its epistemological and methodological characterization:

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 other people.

Dialectics is a method one ‘puts to work,’ not the way reality works, although to be sure it is useful because of the prevalence of ‘changes’ and ‘interactions’ in the world. Only in a late chapter does Ollman become self-conscious about this peculiar modality of his dialectic, and make a gesture towards ontology. But much more could be said.

Of course ‘change and interaction’ is a banal phrase on its own. What makes Ollman’s work interesting is when he insists that these features determine what a thing is. Strictly speaking there are no things, only processes and relations; interactions are ‘inneractions.’ So he gives us a full-blown philosophy of internal relations. He introduces this idea with an acute observation on Marx’s writing regarding the impossibility of finding in it neat definitions, because the meaning of a term shifts with its context. Here is Ollman’s explanation:

The philosophy of internal relations… 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. 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.

This approach certainly clarifies much that is obscure in Marx’s discourse. (However, Ollman makes an exegetical slip in citing a poem of the nineteen-year-old Marx containing the line ‘I but seek to grasp profound and true that which in the street I find’ as evidence for Marx’s realism, missing the layers of irony—beginning with the scatological implication of what is found ‘in the street.’ This is one of a set of poems written by a Hegelian persona forced to speak against himself. This prior not only to Marx’s materialism, but to his conversation to Hegel later the same year, cited by Ollman.)

For Ollman, it appears, all relations are internal relations. This view is implausible; a mind, a society, a solar system, are different realms of being with the ‘parts’ having differing status in relation to the whole. With an all-embracing philosophy of Ollman’s kind there is a double danger: first, of ‘thinning’ out the concept of internal relation such that it can indeed cover ‘everything,’ at the cost of being uninformative; second, of overextending the range of a ‘thick’ concept to cases where it does not really apply, at the cost of mysticism. I do not doubt that much of Marx’s work, especially Capital, treats with great sophistication totalities characterized by internal relations. But in my opinion this derives not from a general philosophical position, but from the peculiar character of his object. At all events, given that ‘everything’ forms a totality, discrimination of parts necessarily involves ‘abstraction’ in a strong sense (a whole constituted by external relations must also be studied through abstracting parts, but in this case one simply reads off the relevant unique distinctions from the reality). Ollman considers the chapter on abstraction to be ‘the most important chapter’ of his book. To think ‘change and interaction’ in an adequate way requires ‘the process of abstraction.’ Thought must abstract from the whole categories identifying the key relations and these must be capable of prioritizing movement over stability and interaction over isolation. (In an otherwise unexceptional passage on Marx’s interest in change, Ollman mistakenly cites as evidence the frequency of the term ‘moment.’ However, this is not a temporal moment (der Moment) but a mechanical one (das Moment). Marx follows Hegel in using this metaphor. Thus when he says circulation is a moment of production he does not refer to a temporal phase but to the leverage it exerts on production. The ubiquity of the term is relevant less to the temporal than to the systematic relations of capital.)

The two aspects of Ollman’s philosophy are connected in so far as It is the philosophy of internal relations that gives Marx both license and opportunity to abstract as freely as he does, to decide how far into its internal relations any particular will extend… Since boundaries are never given and when established never absolute it also allows and even encourages reabstraction, makes a variety of abstractions possible, and helps to develop his mental skills and flexibility in making abstractions.

Ollman distinguishes these conjoint aspects to abstraction: ‘extension, level of generality, and vantage point.’ The first refers to the temporal or spatial range covered by the abstraction. The second brings into focus a specific level of generality for treating the material thus designated. The third aspect refers to the perspective on it flowing from the research agenda.

Ollman’s discussion of abstraction in general and of these three aspects is very useful. It should be taken into consideration by all social scientists aiming to achieve clarity about the salience of their study. Ollman is also certainly correct in pointing to the flexibility and fertility of Marx’s use of abstraction. But in so far as Ollman’s concentration is on the methodological process of abstraction in theory, this means the ontological issue of abstraction is relatively neglected. He briefly notes that Marx recognized that there is something strange about capitalism in this respect:

Abstractions… exist in the world. In the abstraction, certain spatial and temporal boundaries and connections stand out, just as others are obscure and even invisible, making what is in practice inseparable appear separately and the historically specific features of things disappear behind their more general form… Marx labels these objective results of capitalist functioning ‘real abstractions,’ and it is chiefly real abstractions that incline the people who have contact with them to construct ideological abstractions. It is also real abstractions to which he is referring when he says that in capitalist society ‘people are governed by abstractions.’

Even here, once again Ollman stresses the epistemological consequences and fails to follow up the significant remark by Marx that ‘individuals are now rules by abstractions.’ It is around this issue that the differences between Ollman’s approach and my own turn. Ollman devotes a chapter to ‘a critique of systematic dialectics,’ a view attributed to ‘Tom Sekine, Robert Albritton, Christopher Arthur, and Tony Smith.’ He characterizes this interpretation of Marx’s method as follows:

(1) that Marx’s dialectical method refers exclusively to the strategy Marx used in presenting his understanding of capitalist political economy; (2) that the main and possibly only place he uses this strategy is in Capital I; and (3) that the strategy itself involves constructing a conceptual logic that Marx took over in all its essentials from Hegel.

Ollman does not deny that this interpretation offers important insights into Marx’s expositional strategy, but he wishes to take ‘Systematic Dialectic’ to task for the following reasons: (1) Marx had other aims in Capitalbeside the presentation of a categorical dialectic; (2) Marx employs many other strategies of exposition, especially in other parts of his corpus; (3) it is wrong to restrict Marx’s dialectical method to that of presentation instead of combining ontology, epistemology, inquiry, intellectual reconstruction, exposition and praxis.

Speaking for myself, the short reply to these criticisms is that I have never doubted any of these points. Systematic dialectic addresses itself to a very specific problem: the exposition of a system of categories dialectically articulated. I never said this was all Marx did, or needed to do. However, a longer answer is required to point (3), which in turn refers back to the reasons why exposition is so important, why—apart from the obvious—the focus of research is on Capital, and why Hegel’s logic is so relevant. It is simply incorrect to state that ontology has been ignored in Systematic Dialectic. Indeed, the guiding principle is the need to identify the logic proper to the peculiar character of the specific object, as Marx himself recommended in his 1843 notes on Hegel. There is no universal method guaranteed to unlock all secrets.

Capital is characterized by an ontology peculiar to itself in so far as it moves through abstraction. Theory must follow this real process of abstraction, and elucidate what is negated in it. I argue for the relevance of Hegel’s logic because capital grounds itself in a process of real abstraction in exchange in much the same way as Hegel’s dissolution and reconstruction of reality are predicated on the abstractive power of thought. The task of the exposition is to trace capital’s imposition of abstraction on the real world. Once this has been done it is perfectly possible to change the vantage point and present it as a system of alienation, reification and fetishism. But, once again, fetishism is real, not just how things are ‘viewed.’

Ollman has a distinctive position worthy of attention. Much that he says about the relevance of the philosophy of internal relations to Marx’s work is certainly illuminating, and much of the methodological advice about the handling of abstraction is to be taken on board. But there is also a certain one-sidedness; the pertinence of internal relations is overgeneralized, and the discussion of abstraction is primarily from the vantage point of method, whereas Marx’s ontological insight about the rule of abstractions leads us into a dialectic of capital itself.

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