1990s >> 1995 >> no-1089-may-1995

Book Review: ‘Dialectical Investigations’

Hopping on moving cars

‘Dialectical Investigations’ by Bertell Ollman (Routledge, 1993)

Bertell Ollman, an American Marxist theorist, whose earlier works on Marx’s theory of alienation, and the relationship between social and sexual liberation (as well as his invention of the fascinating board game “Class Struggle”) have marked him out as one of the finest radical scholars in North America, has written a book which makes the concept of dialectical thinking both accessible and inspiring. Consider this opening to chapter 1 on “The Meaning of Dialectics” as an illustration of both of these characteristics:

    “Have you ever tried to hop on a car while it was still moving? How different was it from entering a car that was stationary? Would you have been able to get into the moving car if you were blindfolded? Would you have been able to do it if you were not only blindfolded but didn’t know in which direction it was moving or even how fast it was moving?”

Society is just such a vehicle, says Ollman, and there is no point in trying to understand or change it without a method of thinking about where we are and where we’re going.

Much of the book is academically challenging and points here and there could be challenged, but first read the book. Chapter 9 on “How To Study Class Consciousness” is a worthwhile essay in itself.

Incidentally, Ollman’s use of dialectical thought is not a mere paper commitment. Some time ago the present writer attended a conference in Chicago at which the fad amongst left-wing theorists was the oxymoronic “market socialism”. The few of us who challenged this political absurdity (now the official credo of Blair’s Tory Reserve Team, of course) were dismissed as anachronistically “unreconstructed” Marxists. Speaking on a panel with Ollman it was good to see the latter make a far better job than the present writer of explaining with striking dialectical force the utter incompatibility between socialist freedom and the continuation of any form of the money relationship. Anyone put off for life from the term “dialectics” after reading some of those atrociously devious defences of the indefensible by old-time Leninist dialecticians (practitioners of what one old comrade called “diabolical materialism”) should read Ollman and restore their confidence in the historical highway code.

Steve Coleman

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