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Ten Questions to Bertell Ollman

by Adam David Morton on June 1, 2016

As part of my teaching duties this year, I have had the pleasure of designing and delivering a unit of study tailored to the Political Economy Honours students. My contribution to ECOP4001 has entailed teaching this unit, which I have called ‘Analytic Foundations of Historical Materialism’.

Principally the philosophy of internal relations is introduced to the unit as a hallmark of historical materialist analysis. In so doing, students are introduced to the contested foundations of historical materialism as a way of building knowledge about their own theories and concepts. As a result, issues of ontology, epistemology and methodology are addressed so that students are able to deploy and develop these terms in their own research projects.

OllmanThe philosophy of internal relations has become a central feature of Bertell Ollman’s work. He addresses a processual approach to concepts as the first step in understanding their internal relation. Rather than positing the external interaction of entities (e.g. states vs. markets or state vs. civil society or forces and relations of production), historical materialism understands the world as a complex of internal relations. This is a dialectical ontology that avoids fetishising concepts or abstracting them from their alienated forms of appearance.

It is this internal relations perspective that Derek Sayer also develops in The Violence of Abstraction: The Analytical Foundations of Historical Materialism to avoid what he refers to as the violence of abstraction. One can see this philosophy of internal relations perspective across inter alia the political economy analyses of figures such as Antonio Gramsci, Henri Lefebvre, Nicos Poulantzas, E.P. Thompson, Ellen Meiksins Wood, David Harvey, or David McNally.

In finishing the unit, Bertell Ollman was very generous with his time, enthusiasm and energy to respond to these ten questions, which were formulated by the students themselves, which included Katie Dickson, Isla Pawson; Holly McMath; Jarrod Avila; Hugh Sturgess; Ilya Bonch-Osmolovskiy; Joel Griggs; Tom Irvine; Andrei Bilic; Llewellyn Williams-Brooks; John Di Ciaccio; and Aron Fernandez. In the Skype interview we covered all ten questions and more. Unfortunately, on this occasion, the screen capture software failed us (!). But there are plans in the future to repeat the format with a different theorist of internal relations.

For now, here are the ten questions we enjoyed putting to Bertell Ollman:

  1. Besides Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, of course, what register of classical historical materialist thinkers would you consider to be philosophers of internal relations?
  1. With a view to contemporary thinkers, who else—besides yourself—is accomplished in dancing the dialectic of the philosophy of internal relations?
  1. Assuming you are familiar with Philip McMichael’s methodological arguments, to what extent do you consider his method of incorporated comparison a further development of the philosophy of internal relations?
  1. In Alienation you indicate that there are many vantage points from which to work out the intricacies of capitalism (e.g. capital, labour, value). What vantage point is the best place to jump off from in grasping the essential connections of capitalism?
  1. In your recent Capital & Class article you identify five levels of abstractions of generality within Marx’s work: 1) unique historic events; 2) the current stage of modern capitalism in a particular country; 3) capitalism in general; 4) class society; and 5) the human condition. Within the philosophy of internal relations, is it possible to abstract on a greater number of levels without committing to a philosophy of external relations? That is, does abstraction of generality have fixed levels?
  1. What is the place of critical realism with regard to the dichotomy of the philosophy of internal and external relations? Would you consider the philosophy of internal relations as the hallmark of historical materialism to be a closed- or open-system ontology?
  1. For David McNally, the social relations of race, gender, and sexuality are internally constitutive of class, rather than external to it. The further claim is that this moves beyond intersectionality and its tendency to present different forms of social oppression as separate and autonomous social relations. What are the potential pitfalls of this view on the co-constitution of the social relations of class, race, sexuality and gender?
  1. How far is the dispute over productive forces constituting capitalism (G. A. Cohen), on one hand, and class struggle over the relations of production (Ellen Meiksins Wood), on the other hand, largely a difference of vantage point?
  1. A “common-sense view” contends that things cannot be perpetually reduced to internal relations, while abstracting is the necessary work of the human mind sensing the distinct qualities that make up the whole. Considering these extremes and with Derek Sayer’s The Violence of Abstraction in our thinking, can abstracting or individuating from the “formless multiplicity” of social relations avoid violent abstraction?
  1. Returning to one of your own questions in Dance of the Dialectic, does a philosophy of internal relations offer no possibility to decide on where a relation begins or ends, with the analysis in danger of continuing indefinitely?
Adam David Morton
Adam David Morton is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.
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