Friday, March 17, 2006

Dialectical Futurism

Dialectical Materialism… what the hell is that?

If you’re like me, you have a rough idea (thesis/antithesis/synthesis) but a rough idea is pretty much all you have…

So it was with some pleasure that i read this essay by Bertell Ollman which was posted on the Autonomy and Solidarity website (and the Red Flags blog, where i actually spotted it first). Ollman is some kind of Marxist university professor, and his essay is an easy to read introduction to one aspect of the “dialectical approach”, that aspect concerned with understanding where we’re coming from and where we’re going, and using both to throw light on where we actually are.


Ollman observes that the defeat of most 20th century State socialist experiments has engendered a kind of “future shyness” amongst many on the left, an unwillingness to actually put forward bold visions of how the world could be a better place. Any yet he persuasively argues that without such future-visions even the most limited discussions of problems in the here and now end up getting short-circuited:

What does a critical analysis of capitalism without any accompanying conception of socialism look like? It describes how capitalism works, shows who gets ‘screwed’ and by how much, offers a moral condemnation of same, prescribes – faute de mieux – reformist solutions, and – because these no longer work – lapses into emotional despair and cynicism. Sound familiar?

Not only in terms of political strategy, but even just as a way of understanding the world in which we live, knowing about the past and imagining the future are both necessary:

When someone is completely lost in the past or the future, we have little difficulty recognizing this as a mental illness. Yet, the present completely walled off from either the past or the future (or both) can also serve as a prison for thinking…

According to Ollman, Marx has this whole technique of developing a picture of the future that was neither hedged in by the realities of the present (what science fiction writers call “nowism”) nor simply a fanciful imagining. (1) He would first concentrate on the present, on the main characteristics of the world right now. (2) He would then try and look at how these characteristics had developed this way, what factors led them to come about, and (3) he “then projects these interrelated processes, reformulated as contradictions, from the past, through the present, and into the future.”

Finally, in a mild mindfuck, Marx would take this future vision as a vantage point from which to consider the present; using “the socialist and communist stages of the future at which he has arrived as vantage points for reexamining the present extended back in time to include its own past, now viewed as the sum of the necessary preconditions for such a future.”

It puts science fiction in a whole new perspective.

Taken altogether, the future proves to be as important in understanding the present and past as they are in understanding the future. And always, the return to the present from the future instigates another series of steps from the present to the past to the future, using what has just been learned to broaden and deepen the analysis at every stage.

At first this may seem counterintuitive, but when you think about it, thinking about how the present will appear from the perspective of people in the future is really a very sensible way to think out what our priorities should be, what strategies we should use, what we should ignore and what we should pay attention to.

I encourage you all to check out this essay yourselves:

Why Dialectics? Why Now? By Bertell Ollman on Autonomy & Solidarity)
Why Dialectics? Why Now? By Bertell Ollman on Red Flags – worthy checking out for the lively discussion in the “comments” section)

Or as a PDF here.

Please note that Ollman’s essay, while a good explanation of why the future is such an important reference point for those of us who wish to understand (and change!) the present, is really very introductory, and just glosses over the actual mechanics of dialectics, which are concerned with actually understanding the different characteristics of each age and how they relate to each other:

A lot of the specialized vocabulary associated with dialectics—"contradiction", "quantity-quality change", "interpenetration of polar opposites", "negation of the negation", etc.—is concerned with this task [of teasing out the patterns in which most change and interaction occur – Sketchy Thoughts]. Reflecting actual patterns in the way things change and interact, these categories also serve as ways of organizing for purposes of thought and inquiry whatever it is they embrace. With their help, we can study the particular conditions, events and problems that concern us in a way that never loses sight of how the whole is present in the part, how it helps to structure the part, supplying it with a location, a sense and a direction. Later, what is learned about the part(s) is used to deepen our understanding of the whole, how it functions, how it has developed, and where it is tending. Both analysis and synthesis display this dialectical relation.

I’m interested in knowing if anyone can recommend any short texts on the above – it doesn’t have to be simple, but preferably something that someone like me with no background in philosophy can nevertheless wrap their brains around. So far i found this Dialectics for Kids site which seems to give a good overview (very simple!), but i’d be interested in any other recommendations – just put them in the comments section!

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  1. Why not have a look at Ollman's own book, Dialectical Investigations, which is a collection of essays about and using the dialectical method.

  2. also, from his website: