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Capital & Closs

Marxism and the 2015, Vol. 3911)7-23

© The Author[s) 2015
Reprims and permissions;
philosophy of internal $,ulc/¡ouraalsPermisjions,nav
DOI; 10,1177/0309816814554128
relations; or, How to c&c.sogepub com

replace the mysterious
' paradox' with
'contradictions' that can
be studied and resolved

Bertell Ollman
New York University, USA

The problems mosf people have ín understanding Marx come not only from the
complexity of hís theories, but also from the frequent changes in the meanings
of his concepts* The present article attríbutes this unusual practice to Marx's
'philosophy of ¡nternal relations', which serves as the foundation for his dialéctica!
method, and his use of the process of abstraction (breaking up our ínternally
related worid into the 'parts' best suited to study it). The 'fexibility' found in
Marx's use of language ¡s the linguistic counterpart of the different abstractions
he believes necessary in order to capture the complex workings of capítalism,
Marx's dialectical categories, especially 'contradiction', are good examples of
this process at work.

Phiíosophy of internal relations, philosophy of external relations, process
of abstraction, abstraction of extensión, abstraction of level of generality,
abstraction of vantage point, published Marx vs, unpublished Marx, paradox
vs. contradiction

Corres pon d ing author:

Bertell Ollman, New York Universily
Emolí: ober1ell@nelscape.nel
8 Capital & Class 39( /)

One ofthe more profound tales in Greek mythology lias the Sphinx ask Oedipus, 'What
walks on four legs in the morning, on two legs in the aftcrnoon, and on three lcgs in the
evening?' With his life at stake, Oedipus comes up wirh the righc answer: 'Man, who
crawls on all fours when he is an infam* walks on two legs as an adult, and uses a cañe to
walk in his oíd age*. What makes chis piece ofwisdom as imriguing to us as it was to rhc
people of that time is that the answer is as obvious as the question to which it replies is
murky, Of course, man walks; huí as we all know - and as the question itsclf seems to
suggest - human beings difíer from other animáis in uslng only rwo legs when walking.
With this assumption, our attention is directed to the rest of the animal world, But this
assumption rcscs on another, which is chai people are essenrially what thcy appcar to be
at chis moment. How they got that way and what chey become as they gct older - the
stages each of usgoes through over a lifetimc - are omicted in determining who and what
we are {and* in this myth, how many legs we use for walking).
What happened berween che Sphinx s question and the answer it received is that the
real diffcrences between the way an individual gcts around in infancy, adulthood and oíd
age were treated hy Oedipus as internally rclated aspeccs of who and what we are and do
as human beings. That his answer Man’ is acccpted, not only by the Sphinx but by most
of us, suggescs that extending the notion of ‘Marf to include the different stages of his
life strikes most people as common sense, and that it is relatively easy to switch from
viewing the relations berween adjoining periods as external to what each one rcally (and
narrowly) is, to viewing them as interna]ly related aspeas of the same whole. But the
confusión, if only temporary, that most people feel on first hearing the question also sug-
gests that, while reframing rhe prohlem in this way is not particularly difficult, recognis-
ing when to do so is another matter.
h is my impression that a good deal of che wisdom found in myrhs, riddles and para-
doxcs of all kinds comes from the recognición that diere is an ’identity1 between clcments
that are first presented as not only different from but logically independenc of one
another. We have all heard the riddle, ‘What comes first, the chicken or the egg?’ If we
take the question as requiringa choice ofone or the other, and restricc our understanding
of chicken and egg1 to the way they appcar in the present, there is no answer, Knowing
that chickens come from eggs and eggs from chickens makes it easy to rcjcct both of the
choices on offer, but at the cost of Icaving the riddle as we found it. Viewing the chicken
as a later State of an egg and the egg as an earlier State of a chicken, however, we can see
that the correct answer to che question, 'Which carne first, rhe chicken or the cgg?\ is
The other*. What seemed like a question about two separare ‘things turns out to be a
question about two moments in the development of the same one.
For anyone living in capitalism, probably the most puzzling example of the misrake
on display herc are the paradoxes that surround us on all sides. A paradox' refers to rwo
or more things that seem to he incompatible, but manage to extst at che same time. We
have all bcen bothered by them long before we ever heard the word paradox’, a word
dear to op-ed columnists who hope to henefit from the air of mystery and profundity
that surrounds ir. Among the early socialisrs, Charles Fourier was the first to present
somc of che main problcms arising wirh capitalism as a series ofdisturbing paradoxes.
Ollman 9

How could [he production oí so much wealch occur alongsidc the mercase in poverey
Fourier s,iw a\ \ , i round him? He also observed rhat ihe rapid progress of inventions that
could make people s lives easier seems to be Associated with making work longcr and
liardcr, and wars much bloodier, than before. He also found it hard to reconcile rhe
uplifting sermons people hear in church every Sunday wirh the amount oí lying, cheat-
ingand stealíng rhat goes on In the world oí business during tile rest of the weck.
Fourier seemed to belíevc that most people were not only aware ofsuch paradoxes but
also bothered Ky them, and rhat ií they were presented with a detailed plan that did away
with rhcm, it would not he long before the en tire world adopted it. The rest oí his lite
was spent in elaborating and publicisiiig such a plan.
Capitalisis, howcver, have never really been bothered by these paradoxes - or ai least
not i i l the way diat Fourier cxpccted; and they and their lpaid hirelings' (Marxs term)
llave found orher ways oí dealing with rhem. Rather than trying to resol ve rhem, capital-
ists ha ve al ways done their uunost to hide, or disguise, or deny rhcm, or to treat rhem as
the inevitable costs oí progress", or as natural phenoniena (something that has al ways
been there, pan of the human condición, or of human na tu re, or oí God's plan for us all).
But their most effective srrategy has been to promote a way oí thinking that separates the
two bal ves oí a paradox írom one anoiher other» and both bal ves írom the larger social
and historical context in which they appcar. Withoui ibis larger pícturc, the increase oí
wealth that has accompanicd capitalism doesm seem to have any necessary connection
with the growth oí poverey that has takeii place during the same period. Ñor, hy ¡solating
tile pieces of the resulting pattern írom each oiher, would we cven not ice, let alone he
bothered hy, the taa that advanees in technology that could make peoples work-liíe
much easier ha ve actually liad the opposite effect on the lives of most workers. The larger
framework-cum-worldview that allows us to correa the particular distonion found in
these paradoxes (and in the myth and riddle given earlier) is rhe philosophy of internal

Part II
A philosopher is someone who bel i e ves that his or her discipline deais with the *basic
qucsiions, and is not ernharrassed to admit that there is lítele agreement on what these
are. I take filis as permission to bypass such tradicional favourites as material ism, ideal -
ism, linguistk analysis, positivism, existentialism, phenoincnology, pragmaiism, struc-
turalism and posi-modernism (in their difTerent versions), and to treat whciher we
organisc our thinking on the hasis of the philosophy of external relations or rhe philoso­
phy of Ínter nal relations as the most i m ponan t philosophical quesuon oi the day. To he
sure, whichever side we take - and most ofus have alrcady chosen, though we may not
be fully aware oí it, or cven that there was a choice to be niade - virtually all the subjeets
dealt with in che orher philosophical traditions are shaped hy the nature of rhe relations
on which 1 would have us ftx. The school of relations one prefers also weighs heavily on
how we interpret, criticise and use any philosophy as well as the various economic, políti­
ca!, social and psychological theories consiructed with its Help. That’s a loe; but then
everything rhat falls into these spheres involves relations oí one kind or anorher. AJI of
these relations are grasped as eirher externa!' or Interna! (to he cxplaincd shonly); and
10 Capital & Class 39(1)

the effecrs that rcsult from working with onc or the othcr oí [hese two approaches play a
crucial role — along» of course, with material conditions and class intereses (themseives
organised according to the philosophy of externa! relations or the philosophy of internal
reiarions) - in how people construci their world.
The philosophy of cxternal relations» which reigns in borh the common sense and
learncd discourse of our time» holds that there are both ‘things’ (the social Science jargon
for which is faccors’) and relations» but that thcy are logically independent of each other.
Thus» in principie, the relations between two or more things can undergo dramatic
changes and even disappear altogethcr wirhout aflfecting the qualiries by which we recoge
nise these things and with which we define the terms that refer to them* And the same
approach is taken to the various stages through which anything passes. As with relations,
change is viewed as externa! to the ching itself, something that happened (or will happen)
to it, so that its ncw form is treated as independent of what ic was earlier (as we saw in
the myth and riddle recounted above), rather rhan as an essential aspect or stage ofwhat
it is. With this way of organising rcality, both perception and conception tend to concén­
trate on small, relatively isolatcd and static things, with their many relations and changes
only receiving serious attention when they bump into us (or we into them). But changes
and relations are the basic building materials of the bigger picture' in every sphere of
reality, and reducing them to che role of bit players in a drama whose overall plot is of
little concern rcsulcs in the kind of partial, static and one-sided chinking characteristic of
most of bourgeois ideology.
In comrast, the philosophy of interna! relations holds that what others takc to be a
‘thing1 that may or may not undergo change and may or may not ha ve relations with
other things is itself both a procesé and a ‘relation (though somc of these may take time
and spccial cfForts or Instruments to un cover). What was a thing for the philosophy of
externa! relations becomes a relation evolving over time (or a process in constant interac-
tion with othcr processes), The qualiiies that followers of rhe philosophy of externa!
relations ascribe to a thing are noc denied but transformed into aspeets or moments that
can serve as vantage poinrs from which to view and study their relations (including indi-
rect relations) and changes, understood as essential aspeets of what they are.
This raises, of course, the question of how to understand the relation between any
such pare and the whoJc in which it is located. With the philosophy of exiernal relations,
the whole is simply the sum of its alrcady existing parts» and this holds even for those
structuralist and syscemic versions of this approach where some parts may be incernaily
related to others. The philosophy of internal relations goes further ín treating its rela­
ciona! pares, when extended to their funhest limits, as so many versions - albeit, one-
sided versions — of the whole. The one-sidedness is a produce of where one begins to
examine the interactions and changes that go on, and its role in establishing the order,
visibility and relacive importance of the rest that comes into view. This also means that
only by studying enough (a quantity that varíes from case to case) of the more impor­
tan t relations that make up any whole can we hope to have an adequate understanding
ofwhat it is, how if functions» where it is tending, and how we can affect it.
But while the whole acquires most of its distinctive characteristics from the interac­
tions and changes that takc place in its relacional parts, the whole also acquires, over time
and with its own growth as the pattern of its constituent patterns, some characteristics
Ollman 11

that appcnain tu it and ¡t alone. It is in tíiis way that the wholc can be said tu be greater
than the sum of its parts, and bccomes, again over time, a major influente on the pro-
cesses that lia ve uniil then bcen the main influencc on it.1

Port III
Docs Marx subscribe tu a philosophy oí internal relations, and what does it do for him?
The di verse senses in which Marx uses the concept capital' is a good place to begin, Mosr
economists and others in our society use the lerm 'capital' to refer to a thing (the material
means of producción used to produce goods) oí al most, two things {numey invested in
this and related aciiviiies wirh the aim of making a profit). These things are caught up in
many different relations; bul workingout of a philosophy oí external relations, capital is
vicwcd as existing apart from and logically independent oí all its relations.
Marx, on the other hand, describes capital’ in the following ways:

* a Jefinitc social priHÍucnon reíation. (Marx 1959: 794)

* the alienatiun of the condición of social production ... from the real producéis', (ihid: 259)

* valué that sucks up the value-creating power. (Marx 195X: 571)

* not only a sum of material producís; it is a sum of eominodiiies, of excitante-valúes, of

social magnitudes. (Marx/Engds, vol. I, 1951; 84)

He also refers to workers as Variable capital', and says that the capitalist himself is
contained in the concept oí “capital (Marx 1973: 412). Marx even claims that labor
and capital are Vxpressions of the same relar ion, only seen from opposite peles’ (Marx
1971: 491). All rhis, and more, of the relations that mosi others would treat as external
to capital are treated here as internally related pares of capital iiself.
Wliai I have jusr shown in regard to capital also applies to valué. Wc ha ve just seen
ahove that 'valué of a ccriain kínd. that which 'sucks up the valué creanng power , is also
a form of capital; huí commodíty, numey, profit, interese, rent and wages are also treated
as forms of valué, which rnakes Valué', as a social-eco no mic relation, co-cxtensive with
And the same could be said oí ‘labour'. We have just seen Marx refer to lahour as an
expression of the same relación' as capital only seen from opposite poles; but he also says
that valué is lahour' (Marx 1959a: 795, cmphasis added). So valué, too, is a form of
labour, and with it all the forms commodity, capital, money, profit, interese, rent, and
wages - that valué takes in h\ meta mor phosis* rhrough the exchange oí equivalents that
takes place between cconomic actors. Thus, capital, valué and labour to which we
could also add commodity, money and class, given their importance in Marxs analysis of
capí tal ism - are all relations that comain their interacción with each other as essential
aspeas of what chey are, the chief difFerence between them being the distinctivc pole\
or vantage point, that each offers for viewing and piecing together the larger pactern to
which they all helong,-
It is not my imention here to explain Marx's analysis of capitalism, but to clarify the
relational character of the cat ego ríes with which he made liis analysis. Wirhout an
12 Capital & Cla$$ 39( 1)

adequaie grasp of che conceptual 'tools' wirh which Marx achieved his rcsults, wc llave
lítele chance to make the most elTcctive use tmt of what he has to teach. Unfcrtunacely,
the philosophy of internal relations, which underlíes Marxs unusual linguistic practico,
has been widely criticised as not only false hut also impossíble*

Parí IV
Here, my own experience in arriving at the importance of the philosophy of internal
relations in Marxs thinking is of some relevance. It was while working on a doctoral dis-
sertarion on ‘Marxs conception of human nature‘ that I bocame increasingly concerned
with what 1 now cali the ‘Pareto problem*. The Italian sociologist, Vilfrcdo Pareto, had
written, 'Marxs words are íike bats. Vou can see in them borh birds and mice' (Pareto
1902: 332). Apparently, a great many people have been srruck by Marxs frequent use of
his main concepcs to mean anything from somewhat difierent to very differem chings. I
had been a witness to as well as a victim of this problem in my first serious attempt to
study Marxism: an MA thesis at the University of Wisconsin on 'The history of hostile
criticisms of Marxism in the English language from 1870 to 1940\ The explicit aim of
this work was to show the connection between the theory that attractcd the most critica!
attention in each of these decades and what was happening in the world at the rime (kind
of obvious, I know, bur it allowed me to familiarisc myself wirh the main attacks on
Marxism, both then - and hecause most of what I read has only been repackaged by oth-
crs since - and now). Having read little by Marx himself, however, l was in no position
to disagrec with these authors on the meanings of Marxs concepts, cspccialJy as thcy all
had one or more quotes from Marx himself to support their views. Yet there was wide-
spread disagreemene among them on what exactly that was. The effect on me was that I
became convinced that Marx was wrong about virtuaily everything, since these were my
main sources at the time; but also quite confused about what Marx actually meant by any
of his main concepta
Intel lectually, as some Marxist friends were quick to point out, this position was
untenable. When, a few years later, I began my D.Phih work on ‘Marxs conception of
human nature\ I was determined to get to the bottom of the Pareto problem. Being at
Oxford, with iis welbknown concern for clarity, precisión and stahle definitions - where
the question 'What do you mean by . ..?* is the first and often the second and third thing
you learn to ask about anything — only added fue! to a fire that was alrcady quite
advanced. My inicial approach was the simple one of dividing a nocebook into separare
sectíons for each of Marxs key concepts, with the aim of filling them with anything that
seemed like a definición, of which there were very few. I also included passages in which
Marx used one of these concepts in a way that made its meaning — I thought - fairly
clear. But much to my surprisc, the more comments 1 collected, the bigger and more
mysterious the problem I ser out to solve became, I am not referring to the popular dis-
tinction between early and late Marx, or between his writings on differem subjeets, or for
di verse audiences, but to imporcanc difFerences in wbat he means by capital', labour',
class\ etc., in the same work. While these differenccs are not as great as that between
black and white, they are significant and frequent enough to creare a major problem for
any serious rcader of Marx.
Ollman 13

Was Marx simply sloppy? Or indifferent? Or oven dishonest, meaning whatevcr he

íhoughi would win him the day* as sume oí his opponcnts have suggested? Most of
Marx's followers seem to have fixed on the sen se Marx usually gave to a concept, or rhc
se use thcy consider most importan' for his t beoríes, or rhc onc thar best serves rhc wrii-
cr's own interpretación of che thcory in question, This was not good enough; but for a
long time» I could find no orher explanación. As the evidence for Marx's use of el as tic
meanings (what I carne to cali whar 1 was seeing) pilcd up, I began to ask whether che
answcr lay in his 'world view'. Bui whac in a world víew could make elastic meanings oí
concepts possiblc ... and perhaps even necessary?
I carn recall when I first heard oí the philosophy oí internal relations, but it was only
aíter I was wcll imo jny dissertatíon that I began a serious study of it. My excítement was
quick ¡n coming; but when I told rny supervisor, ísaiah Berlín, what I was doing, his
inicial response was, The last English philosopher to show any interese in the philosophy
of internal relations was F. H. Bradley, who was notorious tor practicing pistol shoodng
on the roof oí Merton College. Do you really want your ñame to be connected to this
madman?' This was not the kind oí philosophical argument l was used to hearing from
Berlín, but those too followed, a long witli frequent warnings against comniitting aca-
demic suicide ií I persisted. As those familiar with Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man
in Capitaltsi Society (the book chat carne out of my dissertatíon) know, 1 did persist, and
the philosophy oí interna) relations has served as rhc indispensable framework íor a El rny
suhscqucnt writings on Marx.

Part V
lían empineal study of how Marx used his concepts provides the answer to whether he
ascribcd to a philosophy oí internal relations (as the only world view that can account for
his elastic meanings), this still Icaves the question oí whether anyonc can actually tbink
and function with such a philosophy. It may seem that 1 have turned these two questions
a round, but the first - as I hope to have shown - is easier to answer, and once it is admit-
ted that Marx (and Hcgel, Spinoza. Leibniz, Heraclítus, Whitchcad, Lukács, Maro use*
Bradley and others in this tradición* iticluding me in my analysis oí alienation) worked
with a philosophy oí internal relations to somc efTect, then it can not he argued that
doing so is impossible. The ’Bibliography on imernal relations' found at the end oí this
Special Issue offers ma ny more ex ampies. Still. at least one of the arguments íor the
impossibility of operar i ng with a philosophy of imernal relations deserves a fuller
response: íf cverything is viewed as internally related* it is said, títere is no practical way
of decid ing where a relación hegins or ends, and therc is nothing to stop a study oí any*
thing from going on indefinitely.
Títere are two main responses to this criticLsm* rcílecting two difieren' versions oí the
philosophy of imernal relations. The first and more common response is that rcality
cottcains not only rhc qualities by which we know anything, but also the boundaries that
atable us to distinguislt onc set of qualities from another. Whai is importanr itere is to
cojiceive of each of these sets' as a relation that can he (reared as an aspea oí other such
relations up to and induding the whole to which thcy all belong. In short, on this inter­
pretación, the part is not a prohlem, and knowing where one part ends and che itext one
14 Capital & C/ass 39(1)

bcgins - along, oí course, with the aim oí cach study and its effect on what is eonsidcred
relevant - makes ii relatively cas y to decide how íar to extend ones itiquiry into any
group of rdations. Ir also allows those who takc chis view to mi ni mise, if not to ignore,
che Pareto problem co which I drew special attention in the previous section,
While equally concerned with examining the internal rdations becwcen the parts to
the point of totaliry, the other versión oí the philosophy of internal rdations begins by
asking, 'Where do rhe parts come from?* For they are not given as distinct parts in cither
society or nature: ir is not material rcality that is in question here - both oí diese vcrsions
of the philosophy of interna! rdations are materialist* - bur the way in which ¡t is organ-
ised and the various shapes it takcs* lf ontology refers to the nature of rcality before
human beings learn about it, and epístemology to how we learn about it and what it
means to know it, then rhe claim is that both ontology and epistemology, in combina-
rion, contribute to our understanding oí the world. Knowing anything is not a matter oí
having a reflection oí it in our hcads, because learning about it - which is how we come
to know it - involves bringing somcthing less than all that is heíore us into focus and
viewing it from one of many possi ble vamage points* Through ibis, we not only hdp to
shape what s there' but also to separare it into different parts, and to organise those parts
into parteros of one kind or anothcr. The main influence un how peoplc divide up rcality
may be the nature oí rcality itself; but before our species makes its appearance, rhis cati
only be represented as a great number of material qualities undcrgoing constan r, if irreg­
ular, changc and inceraction with one another. Prescnr, too, oí course, are the many simi-
larities and differences that exist bctween thesc qualiries, which are destined to play an
esscntial role in hdping people construct the units with which to think about the world;
but for now, they exist only as the many possible ways (some more obvious than others,
because of the similarides and diííerences noted ahove) that nature, being what it is, can
be divided up irito the partículars by which people wíll later come to know it*
Aftcr human beings arrive on the scene, the forms and patcerns in which we think
about rcality acquire a shape and organisation thar come as much from us as from the
world we inhabit. Our most important contribucions to thís process come from the
character and limits oí our perccptual apparatus, the various needs and intereses we bring
to our interacción with nature (including each other as parts of nature), the different
kinds of socialisadon we receivc in our cultures (espccially in learning a language, which
does a lot oí the work of dividing rcality into parts for us), our lifc expericnccs (cspecially
those of a repetitive kind), and the purpose one has in looking into any subject. With so
many subjective’ íactors at work in creadng varicty, what is surprising is not the large
number oí ways in which different peoples (and often different individuáis) see the
world, but that there is as much consensus on these matters as there is*
Marx, as we know, was chicfly concerned with anaJysing capitalism: how it worked;
for whom it worked better and for whom worse; how it aróse and how it has devcloped
up to che present; where it seems co be heading; and what role the working class has to
play in bringing about this transición. All of this, including rhe relevam parts of che pase
and the likeiy íuture oí capitalism are contained in his definición of capitalism\
Sometí mes. For Marx can also use this concept to rcícr to but pare of its fuller meaning,
as we saw with capital5 earlier, and as happens with al! his important concepis. Marx
obviously believed that the subject matter he was invesrigating allowcd for such
Ollman 15

manipularon; and, furthcr, ihat treacing it in ibis way wa\ necessary to bring out the
main relations and chango» he found rhere. Dividing the world we perceive inco thc
particular units in which wc come to understand it is thc work of thc proccss oí

Part VI
There is a crucial difíerencc botwccn seeing everything that is in our linc of visión and
lookingat thc pan of ¡i thai is of special interese to us; bctwccn hearing all thc noises in
cióse proximity to us and lisiening to a particular sound or voicc; and so on through all
five of our senses. In pcrcciving anything, wc are usually focusing on (giving special
attention to, isolating, or siniply noticing, which is a weak form of focusing on) some-
ibing inside thc field thai a given sense (or a few of our senses working together) opeas
up to us, We all do this, which is to say cveryonc engages in thc proco* of abstracción,
and it plays an esseiuial role in how we learn and come to understand anything.
Something very similar happens with all our mental activities. Remembering, dreaming,
hoping, fearing, planning, conceptualising - indeed, thinking consciously or uncon-
sciously about anything - proceeds in parr by focusing on only some of what is already
in our mind that can be used in these ways. We usually remember only part of what
happcned, dream only part ofour fantasy, etc*
A major problem in understand ing abstracción is thai Marx uses thisconcept in four
diRercn t, alheit closcly rclatcd, ways. First and most impon a m is bis use of it to refer to
thc mental activity of focusing on some parí of che world, cither because something has
happcned - likc a noisc - that attracted our attention to it; or - if we consciously choose
to abstract - for thc purpose of thinking or acting upon it. Second, it is also used to refer
to rhat part of reality that has been separated out in this way. If abstracción* functions as
a verb in che first instance, it functions as a noun here, The rhird sense of abstracción is
a sulvset of the second, where thc pan separated out ineludes too lite le to allow for an
adequate comprehensión of its subjcci matter, given what it is rhat the person making
the abstracción hopes ro understand with it. A notion of frccdom that is restricted to thc
absence of restraint, or trecdom from, and docsn't inelude any of the conditions that
would enable people to do what they want, or freedom to, is an cxample of this. Most of
the distortions found in hourgeoís ideology come from such límited abstract i ons. The
fourth sense of abstracción, which Marx calis "real abstracción, differs from the first
thrcc in Corning from the frequent repetición ofan important social acrivity, like buying
and selling, chai instills a particular pattern in our thinking about jusr that activity.
Rather than replacing tile other uses of abstracción, this une simply underlines the
important role that the real world, and especially our repeated experiences in it, play in
fixingon both the ideológica! and non-ideológica! abstractions in which we think about
it as well as the mental process of abstracción hy which we shape them.
Even these four senses of abstracción would not have been cnough to keep prohing
Marxist scholars away from the process of abstraer ion if the very omnipresente of this
process in human life had not led most people to simply take it for granted as an essential
aspea of everything we do - what human activity doesm involve focusing on some­
thing? - wirhout ever separa ti ng it out (abstract ing the process of abstract ion from its
16 Capital & C/oss 39( 1)

many uses) as a distinctíve mental process deserví ng our special aitenrion. But omittíng
chis essential rnoment of Marxs rnethod has kept most of Manes readers from recognis-
ing what diere is in the very form of Marxs theories that makes them adequate for the
monumental task to which he applies them*
Aware of the role that human beings play in completing the world that presents itsclf
to us by shaping and organising it inco the parts and patterns in which we come to know
it, Marx took an exceptionaíly active role in abstracting and re-abscracting bis main sub-
ject matter in keeping with both bis scholarly and political purposes. The result is an
analysis, as much revelación as explanaron, presenting how the capitalist system looks as
well as works and moves, and why ibis has been so diífkult for most people to grasp* The
extreme complexity of Marxs task required the breaking up of this system in ways that
allowed him to examine it from difFerent angles and on difFerem time scales, with fre-
quent changes ofemphasis, whilc never losingsight of the past out of which it aróse and
the likely futurc toward which it was heading. It also required Marx to altor the size of his
main abstractions, whenever they included more or less of a given cluster of interconnec-
tions, in order to clarify how they appeared or funaioned at that juncture in his analysis.
Both Marxs theories and the concepts he used to formúlate them were affected by this
practice, which is why all of his theories have more than onc formulación, and the con-
cepts in which they are couched have elascic meanings\ Here, then, in the philosophy of
internal relattons and in Marxs use of the process of abstraction, is the solution to the
Pareto problem (‘Marxs words are like bats. You can seo in them both birds and mice') í
gave in Section IV as the challenge that redirected my entire thinking in this arca. Ifany-
onc has a hacer solution to this much neglecced problem, I have yei to hcar it*

Part Vil
Singling out the process of abstraction, as 1 have, also allows us to see that che boundaries
Marx draws around his objcct* of study are of chrec difFerent kinds, which take place on
three dífTerent plains of reality. These are abstraction of extensión, abstracción of level of
gen eral i ty, and abstraction of vantage point {my terms for them). Abstraction of exten­
sión has to do with how much of the interna! rclations between anything in space and/
or across time Marx wants to inelude in the same focus (so that rhey appear as aspeets of
the same thing‘) on any occasiom Most of the examplcs in my account of the process of
abstracción up till now have come from its modc of extensión.
Having established the size' of anything through his abstracción of extensión, che
abstraction of level of generality cnabled Marx to limit his focus wirhin this extensión ro
those of its qualities that sharc a particular degree of generality, on a seale ranging from
the uñique (where there is only one instance of it - IVc labeled rbis ‘level onc’) to the
most general (which, for Marx, usually meant the human condición, and all we have in
common as part of that - Ive labeled this level five). Marxs journalistic wricings on
Lord Palmerston or Napoleón 111 are examples of rhe former (level one), whilc Marxs
discussions of human needs and powers (found not only in the 1844 Manuscripts but
also in many of his later wricings as well) are examples of che laicer (level five).
But given Marxs well known intereses, the main levéis of generality brought into
focus in his work are cíass society (what is common to al! class socicties throughout
Ollmon 17

history, índuding capitalism— my level tour); capitalista in general (whar seis capitalism
apan from other class socienes or my 'level three1}; and rhc current stage of modero capi-
ralism, ihe last 20-50 years in a particular capitalist comury (possessing somc conditions
that dificr bnth quanutativcly and qualhatively from thc more general characteristics
dial apply to capitalism in general - my level two‘). The di Aferentes in thc dcgrcc of
general ¡ty are treated as belonging co difieren i levels’, beca use these are the five places
along che continuuni stretching from the unique to the most general where rhe interac-
tion berween the qualicies found there e reate a distinuive niovemenc in which everything
un it js caught up, lt is such a ’law of motion at che level of capitalism in general (level
ihree) that Marx says he wants to ¡ay haré in bis rnajnr work, Capital, and he gíve this
as his aim at the very heginning of the work, indicating just how importan! it is in his
ove rail undersianding of capitalism (Marx 1958: 10).
Rather than following one another over time, as onc might expeci from rhe fací that
the more general levéis have a longer history than the more particular ones, all five of
these levéis cocxist (overlap, interact, and ¡nterpcnccrate) in the present. This made it
necessary for LVlarx to abstraer each one separarely (to make them stand out as much as
possible from each other), at least provisionall y» in order co study i es distinctive law of
motion. A good deal of the confusión over the workings of capitalism in general (level
ihree), for example, comes from mixing elemems that come from other levéis (espccially
from levéis one, che unique, and five, che human condición, in the case of non-Marxists;
and from levels rwo, the currcnc stage of capitalism, and four, class society, in the case of
many Marxists). Only by treating these levels separately at the start is it possible to study
the cffeers of their disrinctive laws of motion, or par is choreo f on each other, and espe-
cially on capitalism in general and its effecc on them. For in rhe last analysis, nonc of
these overlapping dynamics can be adequately grasped or dealt with outside of this larger
whole, the final pattern oí patteros, to which thcy all belong.
Among the three modes of abstraction, it is probably the abstracción of levels of gen­
eral ity that has been least understood. If I had to single out one element in dialecrical
method that deserves a lot more attention by Marxisi scbolars, it is the abstracción of
levels of gen eral i t y.
Finalty, the third modo of abstracción that Marx uses to set up his subjcct of study is
abstracción of vantage point. Every inquiry - but also every account of its findings -
begins from somewhere, and where that ¡s establishes a perspcctive in which everything
that follows finds its place, order, size, limits, neighbours and, to a large degree, its sig-
nificance (or lack of), If abstraction of extensión takes place on a plain of quantifiablc
entines, of more and less of anything existing in space and time, and abstracción of level
o f general ity takes place on a plain marked by difierent degrees of generality ranging
from the unique to the most general, abstraction of vantage point takes place among a
large number of competing perspectives. Individuáis and groups of people have view-
poinrs based largely on their social class posición and the p roble ms that come with it,
and this is usually what leads them to abstraer certain vantage points for examining or
presenting anything. But it is the latter and ñor rhe former that establishes the perspec-
tive, and all perspectives oíTer a one-sided view of their subject matter. Knowing this,
Marx frcquetuly changes thc vantage point from which he examines as well as presents
the patterns, and especially the movements in them and berween them, and berween
18 Capital & Class 39( 1)

them and che versión of the whole — usually capiralism in general - that is his prime
object nf study.3

These rhrec modes of abstracción also play a kcy role in consimcting all of the more
genera) patterns found in Manes dialectical categories, such as quantity/quality change\
ídcntiiy and diffcrence\ contradicción', Torm\ ; appearance and essence', mediación ,
"interpenetración ofpolaropposites', Yneramorphosis, lprecondÍrion/result\ 'negation of
the negation, etc* Whilc both nature and society contain many examples of such rela­
cions, they only receive stable and visible forms through Marx's process of abstracción in
all thrce of its modes, which allows him to use these categories on all five levéis of gencr-
ality. They are all ways of bringing the more importanc patterns in the changes and/or
interactions that emerge into view on these differem levéis - and from the díflerent
vantage points available on each level - imo better locus. Organising reality with the help
of these categories has a srrong influente in how and with what patterns Marx not only
thinks about society, but also srudics it and comes to understand it.
But it is probably in allowing Marx to fix on ihc internal relacions between the past,
the present and the fucure that these dialectical categories, especially quamicy/qualicy
change*, contradicción, *precondition/result\ and 'negation of the negation, perform
their most importan: funaion. For, it is evident, neither the past ñor the futuro is opon
to the kind of direct perception through which we acquire most of our knowlcdgc about
the present. Undeterred by chis problem, Marx draws out the interna! relacions between
these rhrec temporal dimensions in five steps: First, he singles out the modc of produc-
tion, grasped as the combinación of producción, distribución, exchange and consump-
cion, for its predominan: role in the interacción that gocs on between all the sectors of
present society. Second, he projeets the main relacions he finds there back in time -
through their necessary prcconditions - to their origins in the past, asking, in effect,
what had to have happened in the past for our modo of producrion to appear and func-
tion as it docs, If this is economic determinism\ it is an a posteriori form of determinism
based on what actually occurrcd, and not an a priori onc based on what had to occur
because of prior conditions. This deductive move might be besi described as study ing
history backwards’.
Third, Marx then reverses the order of his inquiry, and retracmg the steps that brought
him from the present to its origins, he returns to the present - but it is now a present re-
abstracred to contain its own origins and early devciopmcnt as its internaily relatcd pares,
All of the important stopovers made in steps two and thrcc ahove serve as both precondí-
tion and result in the course of this rwo-stage inquiry. Henee the role of "prccondition/
resulri as a dialectical category that helps Marx bring into a single focus the opposite
processes involved, and allows us to see them as two sides of che same rclation (providing
two vantage points lor viewing the same history) that are equally important and muse be
treated together. 'Quantity/quality change' and cont radie tion (whose temporal aspeets
usually evo)ve through quantity/quality changcs leading up to its eventual resolución)
provide the same Service for Marxs more empirically based study of how che past (once it
has been established as the relevant past) has actually evolved into the present.
Ollman 19

Togethcr, t hese dialéctica! caí ego ríes make it nuich easier 10 think about che wholc of
capitalism while retaining its cmphasis on ihe modc of production, ín its becoming over
time, rnakíng its quality oí becoming a central feature ofwhai it is. But capitalism lias
not stopped becoming, and ihe same processes, organised with the aid of the same dia­
lea Leal caí ego ríes that broughí us from the past back to the presen r, are used in Marxs
fourch step to extend liis inquiry ¡tito the future, both under capitalism and to the kind
of society that is likely to succeed it. Wirh capitalistn abstracccd now to inelude its own
preconditions, Marx projeas the larger and thus easier to observe tendendes that emerge
from ihis longer period to where they seem to be heading. In a system evolving as rapidly
as capitalism, the cacegory of contradictiori, with its cmphasis on the increasing strain
hetween mutually dependan processes and iheir eventual resolution, occupies the cen­
tral position. According lo Marx, (he contrae!ictory socially determined fcatures of its
elemans is the predominan i characteristic oí the capitalist mode of development' (Marx
1973: 491), and in capitalism everything seems and in fact is comradictory* (Marx
1963: 218), For, once the rclational character of capitalism has been thoroughly inte­
gra ted with its processual character (the achievement of steps one through three above),
contradiaions can be found everywhere, induding in whar may have seemed like strictly
organic movements of 'identity/difference', “mediación*, and Ynetamorphosis’,
Capitalism coniains a number of other conditions that contribute to Marxs projecrion
of a communist finare, but diere is no space to go into them in depth ai chis point. One is
the sprouts of communism, or fcatures that arise in and for capitalism but also possess a
human potencial -such as the progress of Science and technology, tech ñiques of social plan-
ning, public educación, and a growing surplus of workers (with whom necessary work can
be shared, allowing everyone to enjoy more freo time) - that can only l>e fuliy realised after
the forms of capitalist rule have been replaced by communism. Here, too, che cacegory of
contradicción helps us grasp the opposing ways of growing these sprouts as a choice and a
struggle, whose resolurion lies up ahead, cspecially as the evidcncc of the communist alterna­
tivo becomes more and more apparem as a sidebar to capitalistas own development.
When enough of communism is outlined (and since this is an ongoing process, there
is never conipletely 'enough ), the fifth step Marx takes is to reverse himself again, and
use what he has partly and provisionally put togethcr as communism, taken as a residí*
of capitalism, to examine its necessary preconditions* in capitalism, just as he did carlier
with capitalism, when viewed as a ‘result of its preconditions. Once again, there has been
a major chango in vantage point. And just as che preconditions of capitalism acquire a
deeper meaning when rheir role in devclopingcapitalism is clarífied (making some rhings
in it, for example, stand out more sharply than they otherwise would), the same rhing
occurs with capitalism once its role as the major precondition of communism is clarífied.
The more detailed versión of capitalism that emerges from these ti ve steps, which now
includes a good deal of its real past and likely future, can then becomc the sian of
another and deeper analysis of che same kind,"

Parí IX
Havingcome this tar, many readers may be wondering what the Marx oI the “Communist
Manifestó* (1 848), t he‘Proface to Contri butioti ton Critique of Política! Economy (1839),
20 Capital & Class 39( J)

and Capital VoL I (1867) - works with which readers are probably familiar - has to do
wíth the Marx found in this arricie. And, given most popular interpretations of these
writings, this is a legitimare question. The answcr is that the parts of Marxism I have
been dealitlg with here are ontology, epistemology, inquiry or research, self-ciar¡fication
or making sense of the results of his research for hímself, and then - but only sligh dy -
exposirion, or how he formulaced that which lie had come to understand for his choscn
audience, based on what he believed they already knew, and rhe volume or level of dia-
lectics they wcre capable of absorbing. The final step in what, cogether, consritures
'Marxs dialectical method' is the interna! relation he posits, and then procceds to inte­
grare imo the rest of his life, betwcen rheory and pracrice, which has not been discussed
so lar but makes a brief appearance in our final sección.
Each of tbese steps afleas what happens and, largely, what can happen on the orhers,
The assumption of inrernal relations in Marxs ontology, for example, grcatly extends rhe
range of what can legitimately be treated on all rhese steps. The abstractions Marx makes
as part of his epistemology exerts an cnormous influencc on what he finds in his inquiry,
and on the larger patterns that come imo view during self-clarificarion. Jn rerurn, the
work of Marx's inquiry and self-darification affect each other as well as the ongoing
process of abstraerían that goes on in episremology, leading to new abstractions and the
re-shaping of oíd ones (with the effect on the meanings of their concepts that we saw
Breaking up, ahstracting, Marxs overall method into diese different steps also enables
us to sec that the writings destined for his readers, Le. the ones he carefully crafted for
publication, comain a number of importam differences from thosc intended for his own
self-clarification, The 1844 Manuscripts (an early work) and the 1858 Grundrisse (a reía-
tively late work), which fall into the latter group, (or example, make extensive use of
Marxs dialectical categories and comain a great deal on the theory of alienación. Ies clear
that he thought both of these essential in grasping the full complexity of the world he ser
out to study. While this belicf never altcrs, in the writings directed to his choscn audi­
ence, Marx is equally concerned with being understood and convincing, and - given the
posiiivist concepción of Science' held by most of the learned people of that time (and
ours) - taken seriously.
II - as an ancient Chinese sage is supposed to have said - every long journey begins
with the first step, Marx seems willing to compromise some of his positions in order to
make it easier for people to take the first step into his work. This leads him to tread
lightly on - that is, not dismiss, but underplay - both dialectics and alienación when
addressing a general rcadersbip, h also influences the kind of abstractions he makes: as a
group, they encompass less and change less often (compare the language of the
'Communist Manifestó' with that of the Grundrisse), The same conccrns affect where he
begins, what he emphasises, the kind of exampies he chooscs, and his wriring style,
which becomes simpler and more direct. It even allows him on occasion, where space is
limited, to present what he knows is a dialectical relation in what appears like a one-sided
way, if that helps less sophisticated readers fix on the more imporcam influencc in a
complex situación. Marxs brief summary of his intelleccual journey in the Trcfacc’ to his
Critique oj Political Economy, which offers che bese known example of chis, has - unfor-
tunately, chough not surprisingly — been misinterpreted by coundess critics and more
Ollman 21

than a few of his followcrs as an exprcssion of econoinic determinism', where economic

causes, narrowly tmderstood, appear to he responsible for everyrhing.*
While Marx may have arrived ai ihe correa balance, íor his day, in addrcssing thc
competing requiremems of inquiry and scif-darification on onc hand and cxpositton on
rhe ochen thc widesprcad misunderstanding (thc Para o Problem, economic determina
ism\ ele.) and misuse oí Marx's theories today has convinced me that a lot more must be
done to intégrate the full range of Marx's he liéis with what he wrote íor others: to inté­
grate tire unpuhlished Marx with the published Marx, For they are internally rclatcd, and
each is open to a variety of distortions when treated wholly apan from the other. As a
result, a good deal of my own wriiing on Marxism has heen devoted to introducing
material on Marxs dialeaical method and his theory oí alienación, in particular, from
the unpublished writings into discussions - like that over his labour theory oí valué -
chai are cypically hased almost entirely on materia! from his puhlished works/‘ Among
Marxists, it isa truism that good theory leadstogood praccice. Henee, usingevery means
and source (o help people understand Marx's cheories better than they aircady do should
also help us to develop more efícccive ( 71
"cal praaiec.

Part X: Conclusión
Marx's treatment of all the elemems that come into his analysis as internally rclated to
each other is carried over into the kind oí tic he sees between theory (which takes in alt
of his analysis} and practico - revolutionary practicc, in chis case. The hendí ts denved
from treating Marx’s well known coupling oí theory and practico as an example oí the
philosophy of internal relations stand out sharply in the diífereuce between the popular
no t ion oí paradox and Marx's use oí 'cont radia ion.
As we saw in Part l oí chis árdele, a paradox consista of two or more developments thar
sean incompatible, bnt are íotind togerher at che same time. So nmch could also he said
aboiii Marx's eontradictions. However. while the arms oí a paradox - like the coexisraicc
oí spreading poverty alongsidc oí thc growing wealth oí a ícw are wholly sepárate and
independen! of onc another, the arms oí a contradicción are internally related to onc
another and to the whole to which they both belong. And while paradoxes are usually
rhought of as static and unchanging, Marx's eontradictions unfold over time from their
origins, to their preseñe State, and then - aided by the potencial accurnulated under pre­
san conditions - to their likely resolución in the future, ln efíecc, contradiceíons make
use of elemems in both the past and the future, as wc saw, to help us understand the
present, more visible fonos of the interacción they bring into focus. Still a third major
diííerence between the two is that people generally view themselves as sranding outside
the paradoxes they observe, but have lítele difficulty in finding themselves, as well as thc
condi tions in which they live, whenever rhey peer into any importam contradicción.
In short, if the form of a paradox is well suiced to shocking people, it leaves them -
like deer transfixed by the lights oí an oncomingcar - teeling hclpless and unable lo do
anything about it. The form oí a contradicción, un the other hand - largely because we
are inside it - puts us in a position to understand the particular problem it brings into
focus, and huw we and the class to which we belong are affectcd both by how it Works
and how it is likely to lurn out. By studying che imernal relations between theopposing
22 Capital & Class 39( 1)

processes in a contradiction as thcy have untolded over time, we also learn how wliat we
do or don’t do (a form of ’doing’) will influence the eventual ourcome. Practice, here,
becomes an extensión of the contradiction itself as well as of the theory chai compre-
hends it, just as the theory, in so far as it becomes part of peoples consciousness, cnters
into their practice as a guiding forcé.
When we add to this Marxs observación that in capitalistn everyrhing scems and in
face is comradiccory’ (cited above), it is evídenc that much more needs to be done to help
people, who can only *see’ paradoxes, to see' contradictions, and to grasp in theory and
realise in practice what is required to resol ve them, It would not be much of an exaggera-
tion to say that, for most workers, the process of bccoming class conscious really gets
underway the moment they begin to view the major paradoxes in their lives as contradic-
tions,7 And for chis - as for che other areas of Marx’s teachings discussed above (to say
nothing about what is needed to interpret the myths and riddles discussed at the starc of
this article) - dialectics and its underlying philosophy of imernal relations, together with
the process of abstracción and the main dialectical categories through which it works,
have a leading role to play.

For a Fullcr discussion of Marx’s philosophy of internal rclations, see Ollman B (1975)
Alie na t ion: Marx's Conceptwn of Man in Capítalist Society, Cambridge: Cambridge Universíry
For more cxamples of Marx's xmusual Jinguistíc practice, see Ollman B (1975), Chap. 1; and
Ollman B (1978), Marx’s use of "class*”, in Social and Sexual Revolution, Boston; Soutb End
For a fuller discussion of Manes process of abstracción, sec Ollman B (2003) Dance of the
Dialectic: Steps in Marx's Method\ University of Illinois Press., Chap. 5.
For a fullcr discussion of Marx's approach to investigating the communist future inside che
capitalist presenc, see Ollman B (2003), Chap. 9, and Ollman B (2014) ‘Communism: The
utopian "Marxisr visión" vs. a dialéctica! Marxist approach', in Brincat S (2013) Communism
in the 2lst Century Vol. /., Santa Barbara, CA: Praegcr.
For a fullcr discussion of che rdation between ontology, epistemology, ¡nquiry, self-clarification,
and exposition in Marxs dialectical method, see Ollman B (2003), Chap. 8.

For my account of Marx’s thcory of valué using a mixture of material from rhe published
and unpublished Marx, in which his dialectical method and theory of alienation - neirher
of which gets much attention from economists of the right or the left - play key roles, see
Ollman B (1975), Chaps. 24-28.
For a fullcr discussion of dialectics in borh the study and dovdopment of class consciousness,
see Ollman B (1993) ‘How to study class consciousness ... and why we should*, Dialectical
Investigations. Routledge: New York.

Marx K (1904) A Contribution to the Critique of Poli tica l Economy, trans, Stone NI. Chicago:
Charles H. Kerr
Marx K (1958 [1867]) Capital Volunte /» trans. Moore Aveling E. Moscow: Foreign Languagcs
Publishing House*
Marx K (1959a [1863-1883]) Capital Volunte III. Engds F (ed.). Moscow: Foreign Language
Publishing Housc.

Marx K (1959b) Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts oj IR44. irans. M. Moscow:
Forcign Languages Publíshing Housc.
Marx K (1963 [1861]) Theories of Surplus Valué. Parí A irans. Burns K. Moscow: Progress
Marx K (1971 [1863]) /heories oj Surplus Valué, Part J, irans. Cohén J, Ryazanskaya SW.
Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Marx K (1973 [1858]) Crundrisse: Eoundations of the Critique ofPolitical Economy, irans. Nicolaus
M, Harnumdsworih: Penguin.
Marx K. Fngels F (1951a) Selected Works, Volume I. Moscow: Forcign Languages Publíshing
Ollman B (1976) Alienation; Marx) Conception of Man in Capitalist Society. Cambridge:
Cambridge Univcrsiry Press.
Ollman B (1978) Marxs use of ‘Class . Social and Sexual Revolurion: Essays on Marx and Reich.
Boston: South F.nd Press.
Ollman B (1993) How to studv class consciouxness ... And why we should. Dialectical
Investigations. Rourledge: New York.
Ollman B (2003) Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx) Method. Urbana, IL: Univcrsiry ol Illinois
Ollman B (2014) Communism: The utopian Marxist visión' vs. a dialectical Marxisi approach.
Communism in the 2P' Century, Volunte A In Brincar S (cd.). New York: Praeger Pub.
Párelo V (1902) Les Systeme socialista, vol. 2. París: V. Girad & F. Brierc.

Author biography
Be riel I Ollman is a professor in the department til politics at New York Univcrsiry. He is the
author oíAlienation: Marx s Conception ofMan ¡n Capitalist Society (1976), Dialectical Investigations
(1993) and Dance Of The Dialectic: Steps In Marx) Method (2003), as well as being author or edi­
tor of a other works in chis general arca. In 2002, he won the First Charles A. McCov distin-
guished carecí award firom the New Política] Science section oí the American Polirical Science
Association. For his writings, scc his websitc,