Through the Marxian Maze

I am indebted to many valuable suggestions from Hannah Arendt, Adolph Lowe, Edward Neil, and Sidney Morgenbesser, to whom the usual disclaimers and apologies are also due.

Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society

by Bertell Ollman
Cambridge University Press, 325 pp., $10.50

Alienation and Economics

by Walter Weiskopf
Dutton, 202 pp., $7.95

Karl Marx
Karl Marx; drawing by David Levine

Marx continues to brood over our intellectual life. In view of the immense impact that Marx has had on history, the fact would hardly be worth nothing were not his writing often so baffling. The famous historical essays and a few parts of Capital still have the effect of thunderbolts, but much of his earlier work, not to mention tedious chapters in the later volumes of Capital, are murky in a way that rouses both skepticism and impatience. That we nonetheless go on reading Marx, torturing ourselves by trying to penetrate the obdurate prose, can only be ascribed to a stubborn conviction that there is something of inestimable value beneath this opaque surface, if only we could discern exactly what it was.

At least in my own case, I now have a much clearer idea of that elusive Marxian contribution, thanks to a remarkable book, Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society, by Bertell Ollman, a young professor of political science at New York University. For Ollman catches the crux of the difficulty in his very opening paragraph:

The most formidable hurdle facing all readers of Marx is his “peculiar” use of words. Vilfredo Pareto provides us with the classic statement of this problem when he asserts that Marx’s words are like bats: one can see in them both birds and mice. No more profound observation has ever been offered on our subject. Thinkers through the years have noticed how hard it is to pin Marx down to particular meanings, and have generally treated their non-comprehension as criticism. Yet, without a firm knowledge of what Marx is trying to convey to us, one cannot properly grasp any of his theories.

Why is Marxian language so opaque and batlike? The standard answer given to the student brave enough to raise the question is the “dialectical” nature of Marxian thought. Should the student be intrepid enough, however, to inquire: “And what is dialectics?” he is generally shoved off into the still deeper opacities of Hegel or Engels with their negations of negations, or asked to ponder over the famous triadic formula of thesis-antithesis-synthesis.

Ollman also solves the puzzle of Marx’s language by explaining its dialectic purpose, but what sets his book apart is that he has found a way of doing so that avoids—or rather, prepares the ground for—these baffling phrases. For Ollman has discovered a kind of Ariadne’s thread through the maze of Marxian linguistic problems in an element of dialectical thought that is usually overlooked or handled in an apologetic fashion, since it is radically at variance with the commonsense way in which we usually begin our philosophical analyses.

This disconcerting element is a relational view of the world. Such a view is very different from the nonrelational, particularist jumping-off point of normal discourse. To the ordinary person, reared in the tradition of Western empiricism, physical objects usually…

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