National Sections of the L5I:

John Holloway

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“It is not a question of real, nor even of political, interests, but of pure thoughts, which consequently must appear to Saint Bruno as a series of ‘thoughts’ that devour one another and are finally swallowed up in ‘self-consciousness’.” The German Ideology by Karl Marx (1845)

The importance of John Holloway’s writing is that it reflects and systematises a range of ideas that are influential within the anti-capitalist movement.

He stands within the postmodernist tradition but, as well as drawing on Michel Foucault, he also refers to a range of Western Marxian critics, starting with Lukacs and extending to Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse, and to Negri. Although fulsome in his praise for Marx himself, his only uncritical remarks are reserved for the Zapatistas.

Philosophically, he is an idealist. That is to say, he works with concepts and categories; “the state”, “power”, “work”, whose meaning and content appear to be the same in all circumstances and for all societies. This allows him to make generalisations and derive lessons from one historical period which he then applies to the present day. Not surprisingly, because they are not derived from today’s world, his political strategies, insofar as he has any, are completely vacuous and totally inoperable. In both his method and his conclusions, he expresses the point of view of the petit bourgeois who is obliged to recognise his own impotence but consoles himself with the thought that he can defend his own dignity through some petty insubordination.

Holloway’s critique of previous anticapitalist movements, whether reformist or revolutionary, is simple and unoriginal. They failed to liberate humanity because they were committed to achieving state power. The state, by its very nature, is oppressive, power can only mean power over someone else and, therefore, those movements were doomed from the start. His answer to the conundrum, “How can we remove the undoubtedly powerful capitalists without become equally powerful and oppressive ourselves?” is the invention of a new category, “anti-power”, presumably modelled on the concept of anti-matter which counterbalances matter in theoretical physics.

“Anti-power” is all that we can have to oppose the power of capital and Holloway sees it expressed not only in acts of militant insubordination, but more importantly (for him) in everyday acts of “non-subordination: for example, farting silently in the presence of superiors. The aim of the anti-power revolution is freedom but, beyond references to dignity and the establishment of loving relationships, this freedom cannot be defined and, consequently, there cannot be any positive political programme for its achievement.

In reality, of course, the opposite of power is powerlessness, and that never achieved anything.

As to who will make the anti-power revolution, here Holloway does draw on the vocabulary of the Marxist tradition, although in such a way as to divest it of all concrete meaning. A central concept is that of alienation, which Marx used to describe both the separation of the workers from the product of their labour and the resulting separation of the worker from her/his own essence as a productive human being. In Holloway’s hands, this becomes a less specific, more socially pervasive concept which, because capitalism dominates everyone within society, applies to everyone within society. Following the Italian autonomous Marxist tradition, he uses the term “social workers” to describe everyone. As he puts it “we [all] are/are not working class (whether we be university professors or car workers).” (p.144)

On this basis, he can also retain the idea of class struggle and even of the working class as a revolutionary class. However, unlike revolutionary Marxists, because “class” in his sense does not refer to any specific social relationship, there can be no identification of class interests, class goals or class-based methods of action. Equally, there can be no prioritisation within the “class struggle”: the silent fart, it seems, is as valid a rebellion as an armed insurrection.

Indeed, because the silent fart cannot possibly lead to the taking of power and the creation of a new power over others, it is a more valid form of rebellion. Significantly, Holloway breaks from Negri and Hardt precisely because their concept of “multitude” comes too dangerously close to defeating “Empire” for the professor’s comfort.

Naturally, there can also be no programme for revolution that identifies the concrete tasks involved in removing the power from the capitalists. For Holloway, all such tasks are simply explained away by abstraction. Private property? “Our struggle, then, is not the struggle to make ours the property of the means of production, but to dissolve both property and means of production...” (p. 210) What, if anything, does this actually mean? Concepts can very easily be dissolved but the means of production are the physically existing basis by which we survive.

Further on (p.213) when tackling the fundamental question of how to overthrow capital without using force, he asks, “And yet, how does one defend oneself from armed robbery (capital) without being armed?” and concludes that, “The problem of struggle is to move onto a different dimension from capital, not to engage with capital on capital’s own terms, but to move forward in modes in which capital cannot even exist...”. This is the idealist rationale that lay behind many of the stunts of People’s Global Action – Street Parties, Temporary Autonomous Zones – until capital proved rather adept at shutting down these novel modes of protest.

Of course we need to achieve a social situation in which capital, that is, the social power of those who own the means of production as private property, is superseded by a social form of ownership of those means of production and a social order in which no section of society can control production for its own benefit. That’s what everybody else calls socialism and if that is what Holloway means then fine, except the question remains, how do we get from here to there?

One reason why Holloway cannot answer this question is that his unchanging categories do not allow him to understand what took place in earlier revolutionary transitions in which one social and economic system replaced another. His account of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, for example, is completely inaccurate. He claims that both the lords and the serfs fled from the social relations of feudalism and became, as it were overnight, the capitalists and the workers of modern society. For him, the actual dynamics of the revolution are lost completely. In his account, the English civil war, the French revolution, the restorationist and Bonapartist counter-revolutions simply disappear, along with the guillotine, the reign of terror and the workhouses. Because there was a state before and after, and power was exercised before and after, and people worked before and after, and so on, really, not much changed. Except society, of course.

In one respect only does Holloway deserve any support or sympathy. He begins his book, “In the beginning is the scream. We scream.” What he means here is that capitalism will be finished by the actions of really existing people, no longer willing to tolerate the consequences of capitalism with its wars and divisions, its economic crises and its inequality. This assertion is aimed, justifiably, at the dull, lifeless economic determinism that dominated the thinking of the Stalinised Communist Parties and their academic hangers on for five decades. Insofar as Holloway attacks the notion of a revolutionary party as a monolithic institution with a constitutional right to lead the masses and lay down everything from the disposition of the economy to the content of poetry, he is on firm ground.

However, it has to be said that even here, where he is right, he is saying nothing that was not said better by the Marxists of the time who opposed, and died opposing, the imposition of that lifeless dogma. Where he is wrong, he is wrong for the same reasons as elsewhere: his method leads him to ignore the concrete circumstances and forces that resulted in the most radical revolution of all being usurped by a new social force which spoke in the language of revolution only to destroy revolution.

Because he cannot analyse the real conflict that took place between the Stalinists and the revolutionary Marxists, Holloway lazily accepts Stalinism’s presentation of itself as Marxism and concludes, inevitably, that, as a political strategy, communism proved itself incapable of liberating humanity.

Where he claims to go back to the classical Marxists, he blithely skips over their most important contributions, even where they are staring him in the face. Engels’ and Lenin’s concept of the workers’ semi-state that will wither away as classes are abolished; Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution; the method of the transitional programme... for every supposed gaping hole in Marxist theory and programme, there is a real gaping hole in Professor Holloway’s reading list.

Anti-capitalists who want to overthrow capitalism, not as a concept but as the economic system which actually rules the world, will learn very little from Holloway’s writings. 150 years ago, the young Karl Marx met similar writers to John Holloway, Max Stirner and Bruno Bauer. In the German Ideology Marx castigated their claims to be fighting a revolution against all the earthly powers that be, with nothing but their thoughts, mocking them as “Saints”. For all his learned reading of Marx, Saint John has more in common with Saint Bruno and Saint Max than he has with earthly revolutionaries.