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(en) The commoner #7 - How to Successfully Take Exams… and Partially Remake the World? Peter Waterman reviews Bertell Ollman's latest book.

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Mon, 21 Jul 2003 10:50:57 +0200 (CEST)

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E

Bertell Ollman's book is almost impossible to review, and this for at
least two reasons. The first is that it's a one-off, so there is no book
one can compare it with - though I suppose it could possibly be
compared with two? The second is that he has already reviewed it
himself, on page 180, rather favourably. The third is that he sent me a
free copy, enclosing a review from Z Magazine, thus combining a bribe
with yet another model interview (sub-species: favourable). The fourth
is that the back-page puffs, evidently from some more of his fans, say
it better, and more briefly, than I possibly could. A sample from Savas

A wonderful combination of Oxford scholarship and clarity, Marxist
insight, Jewish humour, and revolutionary pedagogy, i.e. Ollman at his

Beat that if you can. I can't. Finally, whilst I still have a continuing
engagement with the Marxism, I have long given up on taking exams.
For 10 years after my first degree (more like third), I had a recurring
nightmare of sitting a maths exam (I was a terrible examinee and still
cannot count) in Oxford's notorious Exam Schools. Now I have even
given up setting them.

My reasons for not reviewing seem to have expanded in the writing -
five and counting? But I do have a bone or two to pick with Bertell (we
are old friends and bone-pickers). And I have no problem in picking
these here instead of reviewing his book. Or, perhaps, in the spirit of
Bertell's own book, I should claim: I am doing a review of his book, and
the price to you is of putting up with a little bone-picking.

I had better nonetheless first make clear this matter of the two-in-one.
Ollman has combined a how-to-succeed book (for survival under
capitalism), with a primer on capitalism, socialism and Marxism (for
its inevitable overthrow). He does this in a quite shamefully
opportunist and explicit way (this is the in-your-face American bit that
Michael forgot): students want to pass exams; he wants to teach them
Marxism. He does this upfront - indeed on-cover - so no one can really
complain that, wanting to learn about overthrowing capitalism they
were tricked into finding out how to survive within it. The devious part
of the deal is that Bertell has divided his book not into easy-tear-out
halves but into successive paragraphs. Examinees of the World,
Beware! It is the indented paragraphs with the introductory symbols
that are for you. Do not read the intervening ones, however startling or
witty they might appear to be. Be aware that even his eminently
sensible exam-passing bits are salted with disdain for an exam-centred
educational system, and peppered with Marxist interpretation thereof.
Bertell Ollman has chutzpah. This is Yiddish for 'cheek' or 'brass
nerve', and Bertell has this (in another of his translated phrases) to the
13th degree.

There may be a logic running through both the Exam bits and the
Marxism bits but it does not spring to the eye of this reluctant
reviewer. What You See Is What You Get: a series of
one-paragraphers that reveal the wit and wisdom of Bertell Ollmann.
The Marx bits, or bites, take us on a series of short and memorable
marches through capitalism, alienation (estrangement from one's own
products, oneself, from society, from nature), reification (the
thingification of human or social beings and activities), fetishisation
(the projecting of human properties or capacities onto things),
commoditisation (terrible), money (worse), imperialism (hey! enough
already!). And then through the smiley-faced bits: Contradiction, the
Dialectic, the Mass Working-Class Party, Revolution, Socialism,
Communism. Communism?

In the country where the search for the Holy Grail has been long
replaced by the accumulation of the Grubby Buck, none of this can be
bad. Especially when communicated with wide learning, surprising
quotation, relevant and repeatable gags, brilliant cartoons (barely
visible to even the Marxist eye), paradox and the subversion of
authority. But if churlishness is inappropriate to table manners in polite
society, it is something of a requirement for the dismissive reviewer.
And - inspired by Bertell's arguments for questioning authority - I want
to be churlish about his Marxism.

What Bertell is offering us (meaning: should-be Revos, would-be
MBAs, you and me), is a Political-Economic Marxism - something
which may be necessary but which I suggest is not sufficient to
change the world. In the doctrine of political economy there is a
fundamental contradiction between the capitalist and working classes
(the latter somewhat expanded by Bertell so as to include anyone who
works for a wage or salary). Capitalism is actually dead or dying (121),
and it is the working class (organized in a mass party of such and
informed by Marxism/Marxists) that has the interest and the potential
power, in a cumulation of revolutionary acts, to overthrow it for the
good of all of us. We will then build Socialism through the
democratization of everything and finally arrive at Communism - the
overcoming of all the major destructive contradictions that have
plagued humankind throughout history. (On the dawn hereof we male
revolutionaries will - at last - fish in the morning, criticize Bertell in the
afternoon, and breastfeed the baby in the evening).

So far so traditional. But, as we know, attempts at socialist revolution
have only succeeded at the periphery of capitalism (and where that
post-capitalist periphery had hegemony over core capitalist countries,
as in parts of Central Europe). Where capitalism has been most
developed, revolution, socialism and - above all - communism, are even
less attractive to working people (rich, poor, old, new, overworked,
underemployed, unionized, unorganised) than they were 25 or 50 years
ago. Bertell makes effective use of some of Marx's most powerful
theoretical weapons (alienation, reification, fetishisation) to suggest
why a dead or dying capitalism might be able to make itself invisible to
those it exploits and oppresses. What he does not consider is whether
part of this invisibility might lie in the shortsightedness of the Marxist
thinkers or their socialist followers.

Marxism, according to our author, is already there, waiting for the
activists to adopt it and then spread it to working classes who have
not yet connected up their felt grievances with the necessary
understanding and an existing solution. As for Communist failings in
the peripheral capitalist world, Bertell actually qualifies his already
limited criticism by arguing that it improved the material conditions of
its citizens, 'something that the people of Eastern Europe are
increasingly willing to admit' (151). Well, when I was there, the
working classes of Eastern Europe were saying: 'Under capitalism you
have the exploitation of man by man; under socialism it's the other way
round'. Also: 'Communism is probably alright but they should have tried
it out on animals first'.

In dealing with the historical experience of Communism, Bertel moves
from chutzpah to special pleading - suggested by a series of negative
assertions (as in: it was not?). Having lived under Communism, as a
Communist, for a total of five years or so, first in the 1950s, then the
1960s, I would have thought that any sympathy contemporary East
Europeans might retain or regain for their 'socialisms of
underdevelopment' would rather represent a protest vote against the
brutal capitalism with which Communism was replaced. On the basis
of recent socialist analysis (Mandel 2000 for one), I would further
expect any such pro-Communism to be confined to the more backward
parts of the more backward states, and to be shortlived. My prediction,
open to historical and empirical correction, is that a move from global
capitalist reaction to global capitalist reform, would wipe out such
racist, nationalist, populist or neo-liberal Communist Parties as
currently have influence there. Or convert them into neo-Keynesian

The favourite dictum of Marx is said to have been 'doubt everything'.
This has to mean 'doubt Marxism' (a creed Marx was reluctant to be
identified with) and, 'doubt me'. This necessary skepticism toward
authority and doctrine is urged on his readers by Ollman, though not
with respect to Marx, Marxism or Marxists. Marx also said (following
a passage in which he explains the collapse of 'local communism' a half
century or more before anyone even tried to even construct such!):

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established,
an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call
communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of
things. (Arthur 1970: 56-7, original emphases. Quoted Waterman

Communism, in other words, is not a condition (or State?), nor an ideal
in the head of either Bertell or myself. It appears to be something more
like the contemporary international movement that is called, variously,
the 'global justice', 'anti-globalisation' or even 'anti-capitalist'
movement (currently attempting, courageously and imaginatively, to
add to itself the necessary world peace movement). This movement is
not something given notable space in Bertell's account - possibly
because it is a multi-class one, not much inspired by Marxism (though
Marxists, of unknown class composition and varied consciousnesses,
are present within it). A better-known quotation from Marx is 'all
things solid melt into air'. It comes from a paeon of praise to capitalism
in the Communist Manifesto. It is better known because it is also the
title of a brilliant book by Marshall Berman, who also asked: Does this
not also apply to the working class? To socialism? And to Marxism?
(Berman 1982:104-5).

In the title to this non-review (sub-species: churlish), I suggest that
although Bertell's book is wholly helpful in taking an exam, it only half
helps to remake the world. Classical political-economic Marxism, I
have suggested, is necessary but insufficient. It is, anyway, surely
co-responsible for its own failures. (Or does it, like various
fundamentalisms, have a self-issued licence of infallibility,
invulnerability and inevitability?). I could also have said that the book
only remakes half the world. 'Woman' gets no index entry, and there
are only two or three references to women or gender throughout (Rosa
Luxemburg gets in because she was a Marxist, not a woman). Bertell
is more generous with the environment, presumably because of its
obvious relationship to the economy - more obvious at least to political
economists. Bertell expounds political-economic Marxism as if it were
co-terminous with social science or sociology, as if it was sufficient
unto itself, and as if it therefore had no need to recognize, far less
enter into a dialogue with, environmentalism or feminism. Would these
be 'petty-bourgeois ideologies'? Or, if held to by workers, 'false

Capitalism is neither dead or dying - though its capacity for provoking
and imposing both is being demonstrated as I write (Bertell dispatched
his book to me around September 7, 2001. I received it around
September 12). One could consider this elsewhere little-noted death a
rhetorical figure of speech had he not elsewhere developed the
argument, presenting it to a conference of Chinese scholars, who may
have been somewhat surprised, if not disappointed, to hear of this
previously unannounced fatality (Ollman 1999). Capitalism can only
die to the extent that it is opposed and eventually surpassed (as a
dominant social form) by a 'real social movement' that, under
contemporary capitalist conditions, would surely have to articulate
(join and express) a wide range of discontents, interests and identities
in a radical-democratic alliance of movements (of which labour still
needs to become a major one) and ideologies (of which Marxism, in its
57 differing and mutually-kneecapping varieties, may be another).

There is Marxist licence for calling this new internationalist
movement, or elements within it, 'Communist', though, bearing in mind
the shit and blood with which Communism is historically covered, such
a name might guarantee its rejection by people (including workers)
who could otherwise be attracted by what it here refers to. Insisting on
this historical name would seem guaranteed to ensure the splendid
isolation of its proponents, and I sometimes wonder whether this is not
also the (un)conscious intention. Marxists also called themselves
Social Democrats, a name also historically discredited, here more by
its increasingly seamless articulation with neo-liberalism. I would have
thought that 'Radical Democracy' would do quite well, as an
alternative, especially if defined so as to include the earlier-identified
interests and identities that capitalism can no more (or less!) meet or
satisfy than it can those of workers. And if such radical democracy
demonstrated a capacity to criticize and renew itself, to abandon what
is historically outdated by capitalist development and adapt to, and
against, what is new. And, finally, if it learned to laugh at itself as well
as at its opponents. To paraphrase Emma Goldman: 'If I can't laugh at
it, I don't want to take part in your revolution'.

Many years ago, in Oxford, I was the political-economic,
class-determinist, Communist, and Bertell the unorthodox Marxist. I
was doing a first diploma course whilst he was writing his Ph.D. I
learnt from him as much as I know about alienation and its attendant
spirits. He was, in fact if not in name, my teacher (though the bugger
forgot to tell me how to take exams and thus avoid 10 years of
nightmares about them!). Somewhere along the road from 1961 to 2001
we must have occupied, at least briefly, a comparable position! Now
Bertell actually refers to himself as a Communist (59) whereas I refer
to myself as a Liberation Marxist (you know, trying to liberate
Marxism from the Marxists, from Marx, from me, from whomsoever
claims to embody it).

I nonetheless urge people, particularly teachers and students, to buy
and read this book. And more particularly Chapter 9 where Bertell, both
arguing for and demonstrating radical pedagogy, tells of a trap he lays
for students, to get them to think for themselves rather than relying on
authority (105-6). At the beginning of the course he gives them a
nonsense lecture on Political Theory (he has his Oxford experience to
draw on), after which they have to do a short paper. Ninety percent, he
tells us, plump for authority rather than what their own knowledge and
experience might tell them:

Later on, in correcting the work they do for the course, I am very
attentive to the slightest sign that a student is thinking for him/herself
even to the point of giving higher grades to those who disagree with my
arguments - assuming that they know them - than to those who simply
repeat what I said. (106).

This is Bertell the libertarian. Well, I have done my best to follow your
advice, Bertell. What grade do I get? And where do I stand on the
chutzpah scale?


Arthur, Chris (ed). 1970. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: The German
Ideology. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Berman, Marshall. 1982. All that is Solid Melts into Air: The
Experience of Modernity. New York: Simon and Schuster. 383 pp.

Mandel, David. 2000. 'Why is there No Revolt? The Russian Working
Class and Labour Movement', in Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (eds),
Socialist Register 2001: Working Classes,

Global Relaities. London: Merlin. Pp. 171-96.

Ollman, Bertel. 'The Question is Not "When Will Capitalism Die?" But
"When Did it Die, and What Should Our Reaction Be?"' (Talk at The
International Symposium on Socialism in the 21st Century in Wuhan,
China - Oct., l999). China and the World: Electronic Magazine.

Waterman, Peter. 2001. Globalisation, Social Movements and the New
Internationalisms (Paperback edition, new preface). London:
Continuum. 302 pp.

Peter Waterman (London 1936) is a researcher and publicist on
labour and other internationalisms, as well as on international
solidarity culture, communications and the media. He has three
publications on internationalism announced for 2001.

Bertell Ollman, How to Take an Exam?and Remake the World.
Montreal: Black Rose. 2001. 191 pp.

Peter Waterman




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