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Beyond the vaunted history of ideas

by Isla Pawson on August 8, 2016

This is the second in a series of posts for the Unconventional Wisdom section of the Progress in Political Economy blog, written by Honours students within the Department of Political Economy. It stems from the cohort of Honours students that took the unit coordinated by Adam Morton entitled ECOP4001 Analytic Foundations of Historical Materialism. Here we showcase the work that some of the students produced on that unit in order to reflect on the sorts of debates that undergraduates are currently engaging.


In Alienation, Bertell Ollman argues that Marx is best interpreted through a philosophy of internal relations. Ollman elucidates the genealogy of Marx’s ideas and concepts through a textual investigation of the philosophical tradition that influenced him. More importantly, Ollman demonstrates that interpreting Marx’s work in this way enriches our understanding of history and makes sense of a complex social world. Inspired by Ollman’s work, this blog post will explain the Hegelian origins of the philosophy of internal relations. It will then critique the ideational causation that acts as the essential causal mechanism within Hegel’s framework, before arguing that Marx conceptualises ideas as constituted by the wider social totality rather than as distinct explanatory variables. Finally, the post will look at the residual problem of abstraction and its application.

OllmanOllman argues that Hegel laid the foundations for the relational framework fundamental to Marx’s work. An essential feature of Hegel’s system is the way in which parts can only be identified through their relation to the whole. This context gives individual ‘things’ a function that outside of a wider system would appear absent. For instance, a single written page can only be properly understood when considered as a functioning component of a wider whole, and vice versa (in this case, a book). This thesis underpins the philosophy of internal relations, yet foreshadows a theoretical problem regularly acknowledged by Ollman. If ‘things’ are only identifiable as constituents of a whole, we need a defined process of abstraction to crystallise their characteristics as they appear to human agents, while at the same time paying heed to their internally related and constituted nature. Whether this merits an entirely new theoretical enterprise remains to be seen.

Ollman suggests that Marx departs from the idealism that operates as the key causal mechanism within the relational framework put forward by Hegel. Ideational understanding of social and political change is a pervasive and pragmatic approach to history, imbuing ideas with an immense capacity to bring about change, and overlooking the material conditions that both produce and allow these ideas to take hold. What Ollman fittingly calls the ‘vaunted history of ideas’ is visibly endorsed and promoted by a number of successful economists. While Milton Friedman argued that the response to economic crises is defined by the ‘ideas lying around at the time’, John Maynard Keynes proclaimed that the world is ruled by little else. Ollman argues that this theory of historical change is wrongly elevated out of social conditions and treated as an almost ethereal influential force. This is perfectly critiqued by Marx, who characterises the divorce of ideas from materiality as a theory of change driven by ‘self-coordinating, self-absorbed, and spontaneously operating thought’. By contrast, an endemic ‘ideational turn’ occurring across the broad landscape of the social sciences, from Mark Blyth to Andreas Gofas and Colin Hay, portrays the ideal and material as always and already separate and then combined.

Elsewhere, Ollman has made similar arguments against conceptualising ideas and the material as externally related phenomena. Ollman draws attention to Oscar Wilde’s polemic comment that ‘any map that doesn’t have utopia on it is not worth looking at’. This epitomises a vision of the future constructed through the hopes, wishes, and intuitions of human agents – or, to draw from Marx, ‘an imagined activity of imagined subjects’, as quoted by Derek Sayer in The Violence of Abstraction. Ollman articulates how moral and ideal sentiments are often attributed an unrealistic capacity to bring about envisaged conceptions of the future.

While Marx inherits Hegel’s relational framework, he focuses on the reciprocal relations between the parts of it that produce historical social processes. This enriches the somewhat dichotomous view of parts and totality, concomitantly produced yet lacking a substantive theory of how internal relations lead to real historical change. It is this enterprise which is ostensibly less concerned with the ‘totality’, Ollman argues, that deflects many from reading Marx as an internal relations thinker. Instead, Marx seeks to contextualise the role of ideas as internally related to and thus expressions of historical social processes, a fundamental component of the historical materialist method. The preoccupation with questions of ‘how’ certain ideas come to dominate is replaced with explanations of ‘why’ ideas emerge as dominant, when and where they do.

Ollman anticipates the charge levelled against him that the philosophy of internal relations surrenders explanatory power. The notion that all things are internally related in a complex and mutually constituted web does not tell us about how much they are related. Furthermore, this idea ignores the ways in which objects or entities exist as apparently meaningful in and of themselves, in addition to their status as ‘relations’. This problematises what makes up the internal relations between the parts and the point of totality, if the former are extensions of the latter.

Ollman is clearly aware of the problem. In an article for Capital & Class, he states a common criticism of an internal relations philosophy is that ‘there is no practical way of deciding where a relation begins or ends’. In Alienation, he calls this problem ‘a major stumbling block for any theory of internal relations’. If tomorrow is today extended, then what makes tomorrow different to today? It is not a contradiction to suggest that something differentiates tomorrow from today, but at the same time to accept their internally related and constituted nature. Yet we remain without tools capable of doing both. The question, then, is whether it is possible to acknowledge both that objects have a ‘meaningful appearance’ independent of their situation in a wider whole, but also to accept their internally related constitution. Overcoming this dichotomy is arguably the greatest challenge for Ollman and those assuming a dialectical and internal relations philosophy of the social world.

SayerThese issues, however, breed further problems when we consider the internal contradictions embodied by Ollman’s conception of ‘sense’. Although Ollman suggests that a ‘common-sense view’ contends that things cannot be perpetually reduced to internal relations, he conversely argues that abstracting is the work of the human mind, sensing the distinct qualities that make up the whole. While the first comment maligns the capacity of human cognition, the second implies that the human mind necessarily functions to delineate between the distinct parts of an internally related social totality. Considering these extremes, it is questionable whether individuating from the formless multiplicity of social relations can avoid creating what Sayer calls ‘a violence’, conceptualising things as meaningful while independent from their context. Explanations of abstraction as a fundamental component of human brain activity are largely tautological and must be fortified by the more capacious and substantiated theory that Ollman occasionally foreshadows.

In conclusion, Ollman demonstrates that Marx’s understanding of capitalism has fundamental roots in Hegelian philosophy. By highlighting the similarities between the relational framework central to Hegel’s work and the way in which Marx’s categories can only be conceived of as relationships between parts, Ollman solidifies his argument. Further, Ollman indicates that Marx departs from a Hegelian method in order to integrate ideas as structurally embedded within the wider social totality and as expressions of historical social processes.

While the process of abstraction remains a murky quagmire, yet to be properly navigated, Ollman’s treatise on internal relations enriches our reading of Marx and elucidates his contributions to historical materialism.

Isla Pawson
Isla Pawson is an Honours Student in Political Economy at the University of Sydney with a secondary major in History. Her current research interests are the political power of economic ideas and interests, the role of the state in economic change, and the history of housing in Australia and beyond.

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