The Commoner


How to Successfully Take Exams… and Partially Remake the World

Peter Waterman

(October 2001)



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

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 Michael:

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

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 ones.

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 2001:31).

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 consciousness'?

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.