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International Socialist Review Issue 27, January–February 2003

The powerlessness of anti-power

Review of Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today, by John Holloway, Pluto Press 2002, 237 pages, $25

Review by Paul D'Amato

THIS BOOK has made a stir among the new left in Latin America. Its author, John Holloway, a Scottish professor who teaches at the Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences at Autonomous University of Puebla (Mexico), has been compared to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, authors of Empire, as having written a book that reflects the sensibilities of broad sections of the newly emerging left in Latin America, if not the concerns of global justice movement activists everywhere. The popular Spanish-language Web site Rebelion has a "left debate" page that has had numerous articles over the past year revolving around the ideas expressed in Holloway’s book. And no wonder. His philosophy of "anti-power" in many ways mirrors the anti-political tendencies in the struggles which exploded in Argentina in December 2001, known as the Argentinazo, best expressed by the popular slogan–¡Que se Vayan Todos!–they [the political leaders and their parties] should all go. But Holloway’s most important influence is the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico, whose 1994 rebellion was in many ways the political touchstone of many global justice activists. The significance of the Zapatistas, for Holloway, is that they aim to "make the world anew, to create a world of dignity, a world of humanity, but without taking power."

The widespread attention received by Holloway’s book prompts us to pay attention to it. However, it is a painfully abstract and difficult book to read, repetitive, tedious and full of jargon that seems to have been specially invented to package the author’s ideas–and to confuse the rest of us. Holloway is eager to use new terminology to convey what he considers to be new ideas and new insights. As we shall see, his "terminological acquisitions" are "far more numerous than his actual conceptual advances."1

Holloway presents himself as someone who is "sharpening the Marxist critique of capitalism." If so, it is a peculiar kind of sharpening. He rejects virtually every tenet of Marxism, from the materialist conception of history to the centrality of the working class in the struggle for socialism, to the very desirability, or even possibility, of revolution. He treats Marx like the good king surrounded by bad advisors whose brilliant insights (if you read him in just the right way) have been distorted by his closest associates.2

Holloway’s views are an eclectic mix. His opposition to all forms of "power" is reminiscent of classic anarchism. His rejection of our ability to have scientific knowledge of a fragmented reality, and that reality consists of a series of fragmented power relations, is reminiscent of the postmodernist theories of Michel Foucault and others. Holloway’s most important influence is a set of ideas advanced by Italian autonomists such as Antonio Negri, called "Open Marxism."

Holloway writes of Open Marxism: "Our main concern in this approach has been to understand capital as class struggle, or, in other words, to understand the categories of Capital as open categories, categories which conceptualize the unpredetermined process of class struggle." What he means by class struggle is, however, very different from what Marx meant. Harry Cleaver, author of Reading Capital Politically and an academic in the U.S. associated with this trend, provides us with a clear explanation of the autonomism that underpins Open Marxism. It is a rejection of a "limited understanding of what constituted ‘the working class.’" The growth of various social movements, "women, students and peasants," led to a "redefinition of the term." Moreover, they came to define class struggle not in "orthodox" terms of "the liberation of work from the domination of capital," but rather the "refusal" of work. This led, then, toward "positive forms of struggle" involving the creation of "alternatives" to capitalism, based upon "self-valorization" (a term used by Negri), "i.e. the autonomous elaboration of new ways of being." Or, in other words, utopian experiments "that elaborate alternative social relationships" that help workers to transcend their status as workers rather than reinforce their class consciousness.3

The philosophical underpinning of Holloway’s ideas is an idealism gleaned mostly from Foucault and from Theodor Adorno’s Negative Dialectics,4 that rejects all forms of positive definition as a process that both creates, and assumes, fixed relations of hierarchy and domination. Holloway’s is therefore a philosophy of pure "negation." The struggle is not a positive one for a different world, based on power, but merely to negate the world that exists through the struggle for the dissolution of power, without the possibility of any certainty as to what our actions will bring. "There is nothing fixed to which we can cling for reassurance," he tells us. "Not class, not Marx, not revolution, nothing but the moving negation of untruth."

Holloway’s argument

Holloway’s line of argument is as follows:

1. Human beings are trapped like flies in a web of unequal social relations–which, from our limited, partial vantage point, we struggle against. To change the world, however, we cannot do as past social movements based on Marxism have done, that is–seize power. The attempt to seize state power (by force or through elections) always ended in recreating the power relations the revolution was meant to abolish.

2. Traditional forms of organization, such as the political party, must also be rejected because they represent a "hierarchization of struggle" in which an elite seeks power on behalf of the masses. Our aim must be not "the taking of power," but the "dissolution of power."

3. Capitalism creates fetishized relations in which all of our activity is alienated activity, controlled by others and subordinated to the drive for profit. The traditional Marxist conception of alienation–the separation of workers from the means of production–is too narrow and limited. Alienation pervades everything, and therefore the struggle against capitalism involves a "multiplicity" of struggles and activities involving not just workers, but all classes of society–aimed at "negating" our alienation and creating different ways of relating to each other.

4. The "fetishism" in our society, where social relations between people appear as relations between things, creates a society in which social relations that trap us appear fixed and unchanging. Instead of a society where we both "are" and "are not," we have a society where we only "are." This rule of "identity" tells us things "are," and therefore can be nothing else. As part of this process of "identification," we participate in our own "subordination." We participate in our own alienation by identifying ourselves as workers, as Black, as indigenous, as capitalists, etc. Yet, this implies that we cannot break out of our alienation and change society, because we are too trapped within it to see beyond it. Marxism gets around this problem by calling for some outside force, a party or an enlightened elite, which liberates the working class from the outside. However, this proved to be no solution at all.

5. The only way around this is to see the way capitalism runs as something that is continually being contested, continually being challenged. Most discussions of alienation treat it as if it were "an accomplished fact," that capitalist social relations will continue so long as capitalism is not replaced by another social system. If we see capitalism not as "an accomplished fact, but as a process," then "the world begins to change." The struggle against capitalism is then not seen as some cataclysmic revolutionary event, or even as the struggle of workers against the bosses, but as our (virtually everyone’s) constant struggle against fetishism, a constant creation of "anti-power" inside of capitalism, and inside ourselves. Revolution therefore is not an "event," centered on the mass struggles of workers, but a series of acts of "refusal" in which we construct, in the "interstices" of capitalism, "new human beings and new human relations."

These are Holloway’s arguments in a nutshell.5 Let us now explore them in more detail. In doing so, we will be forced on occasion to introduce Holloway’s own terminology, which is far more obtuse than in the outline above. The reader is warned.

In the beginning was the scream

"In the beginning is the scream. We scream," we are told in the opening sentences. This scream is "the negation of what exists"–against the "mutilation of human lives by capitalism." Reality must "yield to our scream." "We are not man or woman or the Working Class," but rather "flies caught in a web of social relations beyond our control," from which "we can only try to free ourselves by hacking at the strands that imprison us." This humanist existentialism (mankind is alienated, trapped, and must try to free himself, however futile it might be) runs through the book.

What strikes us first is that Holloway’s starting point isn’t really a starting point at all, since the "scream" presupposes a set of social relations against which we scream. But where did these social relations of inequality come from? Whence this "web" that entraps us?

Holloway claims that this scream of negation is peculiar to human beings and not other animals: their scream implies "doing." Human doing is an act of negation that consciously alters the world around us, whereas the non-human animal "simply reproduces."

Notwithstanding these assertions, it is not the scream, nor doing in general, that distinguishes animals from humans. What distinguishes humans from other animals is that we consciously labor in order to survive. Many species of animals scream–and all animals "do." Therefore what Holloway emphasizes here is not what distinguishes humans from animals, but what they in fact have in common.

It would have been better to argue what Marx and Engels write in The German Ideology:

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their material life.6

Marxism does not therefore begin with the scream, but with real people in real social development: "Communism is for us," wrote Marx and Engels in The German Ideology, "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."7 Holloway argues the opposite, exactly as the early utopian socialists did: that a new society is possible not as something which emerges out of existing conditions, but as something to be simply counterposed to what exists. Thus he writes, "What is important in thought that takes identity as its basis is things as they are, not things as they might or as we wish they were." The future is predicated here on a denial of what "is," not the emergence of new possibilities out of what currently exists.

Those with guns and those who dig

The starting point of Change the World is power relations rather than class relations. Holloway distinguishes between two types of power: "power-to" (the power to do), and "power over," the power to control what others do. The "power-to-do" is common to all human beings, who are all engaged in the "social flow of doing." But this flow becomes fractured when "doing" becomes subordinated to "done."

Doing-as-projection-beyond is broken when some people arrogate to themselves the projection beyond (conception) of the doing and command others to execute what they have conceived.

The breaking of doing always involves the physical force or the threat of physical force. There is always the threat: "Work for us or you will die or suffer physical punishment."

According to Holloway, society becomes divided into the powerful and the powerless, between a ruling class and a laboring class, when some people decide to "arrogate" power and wield it over others–a tautology which does not answer the question as to what causes this division. We must assume that Holloway does not attribute "power-over" to some intrinsic human nature (biologically determined or otherwise), because then there would be no point in writing a book about changing the world: "power-over" would be a permanent feature of all human societies.

The origins of unequal power relations must still be explained. It is not explained by simply saying that it happened–its roots are in economic conditions. "Every socialist worker," Engels wrote in Anti-Duhring, "knows quite well that force only protects exploitation, but does not cause it."8 Historically, the appropriation of the labor of another, by force or by consent, was impossible so long as labor productivity was not sufficient to produce a surplus substantially above subsistence needs. Thus, in hunting and gathering societies, captives were either killed or absorbed into the tribe as equals, not exploited as slaves. Class divisions first arose because human productivity was insufficient to produce a surplus able to support more than a minority of the population–and this minority, which directed the labor of the majority, was the first ruling class. The state, an instrument of the power of the dominant class, comes into existence as a product of this first class division.

Contrary to Holloway’s idea that power determines everything in history, force cannot alter social conditions unless those conditions are materially ripe for change. It is this, for example, that explains why workers could make the revolution in Russia, but could not finish it successfully. Conditions of material privation, based on Russia’s historical backwardness, combined with the failure of the revolution to spread, led to the reconstitution of unequal class relations, not the revolutionary’s desire for power. Holloway reverses this. For him, social relations are first and foremost relations of force, not economic relations–and therefore "power-over" is (as it is for all anarchists, too) the principle evil in all its forms.

The whole history of "revolutionary movements inspired by Marxism," Holloway argues, is the history of failed struggles to achieve socialism by seizing state power–a process that always recreates the power relations the movement sought to overthrow. "The idea of changing society through the conquest of power," he writes, "ends up achieving the opposite of what it sets out to achieve."

Holloway acknowledges, but only in passing, that he is misrepresenting the Marxist tradition on the question of the state. "Lenin," he grants, "spoke not just of conquering state power but of smashing the old state and replacing it with a workers’ state." Then, without spending any more ink on this aside, he continues as if he had never written it: "But the fact remains that the capturing of the state has generally been seen as a particularly important element" in Marxism.

The idea of capturing the existing state is a distortion of Marxism introduced by Karl Kautsky and other social-democratic reformists, and later by the Stalinists. The last preface to the Communist Manifesto, written by Engels, concludes, "One thing especially was proved by the [Paris] Commune, viz., that the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machine and wield it for its own purposes."9

If the ruling class uses coercion–the state–to maintain its rule, then of course any revolutionary movement cannot avoid using force (power-over) if it wishes to overthrow it–that is in the nature of revolution. The state cannot be negated with anti-power, it has to be dismantled–and if the revolutionaries do not want to lose power, they must create an organized body, that is, a kind of state, to keep down the inevitable counterrevolution. Marx polemicized with the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin on these very questions. "If the proletariat becomes the ruling class," asked Bakunin, "over whom will it rule? It means that there will still remain another proletariat, which will be subject to this new domination, this new state."10

Marx answers in the following way:

It means that so long as the other classes, especially the capitalist class, still exist, so long as the proletariat struggles with it (for when it attains government power its enemies and the old organization of society have not yet vanished), it must employ forcible means, hence governmental means.11

If the working class refuses state power–i.e., the use of organized coercion to wrest control of society from the old ruling class–then it refuses revolution and accepts defeat. So when Holloway rails against power, he is in fact making an argument against the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.

The only logical conclusion one can reach from the rejection of seizing power is pacifism. Indeed, Holloway does draw this conclusion. "The problem with armed struggle," he writes toward the end of his book, "is that it accepts from the beginning that it is necessary to adopt the methods of the enemy in order to defeat the enemy.… And yet, how does one defend oneself from armed robbery (capital) without being armed?" Indeed, if a movement rejects "counter-power," that is, fails to counter the violence of its well-armed and murderous opponents, how can a revolutionary movement "defend itself." The truth is, it can’t. But this argument applies also to movements that explicitly reject "taking power." Take Holloway’s favorite movement–the Zapatistas. Does Holloway believe that when the Mexican state sends 15,000 troops to violently strangle the movement, the Zapatistas should reject the use of arms to defend themselves on the grounds that they are "mirroring" their enemies?12


The "centerpiece" of Holloway’s analysis is the concept of fetishism, "the term," according to Holloway, "that Marx uses to describe the rupture of doing," the "core of Marx’s discussion of power." He quotes the young Marx’s (not fully developed) conception of alienation or "estrangement" from his 1844 manuscripts:

The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him…as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him.

In his effort to free Marxism "from dogma," Holloway renders the same idea thus: "The sundering of doer from done is inevitably the sundering of the doer himself."

The reader has already encountered this strange terminology. "Capital is based…on the ownership of the done and, on that basis, of the repeated buying of people’s power-to-do," Holloway writes. However, it is simply not true that capitalism is based on the "ownership of the done," that is, of all past activity. Capitalists do not "own" my "power-to-do" things like eat, sleep or dance, though it clearly affects them. Capitalists own the instruments of production, including machinery, land and raw materials, and therefore command the labor of the majority, who must sell their "power-to-work," (not their "power-to-do,") to the capitalist in order to survive. It is not some generic "doing" (which can mean virtually any activity, like spitting or whistling), but labor in the process of production that creates surplus value.

Marx explains the fetishism of commodities by the fact that in a society based upon the market exchange, "social relations between men themselves…assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things."13 Value is a "social hieroglyphic" which encourages us to see it not as an expression of relations between human beings, but something inherent in the commodity, as much as the physical characteristics of the commodity. Social relations, in their fetishized form, take on the appearance of natural, and therefore eternal, relations external to us and beyond our control.

Whereas Marx defines alienation in purely class terms–as the "alienation of the worker from his product," Holloway’s "translation" drops class from the concept of fetishism altogether and turns it into a conception of the general alienated condition of all humanity (all "doing" is subordinated to the "done"). For Marx, the concepts of fetishism and alienation helped to explain the way in which under capitalism workers were separated from, and dominated by, their own products. In Holloway, they are transformed into an appeal for human beings (as "doers" rather than workers) to recover their true human selves.

Don’t label me

Here Holloway’s "anti-identitarian" philosophy borrowed from the Frankfurt School thinker Theodor Adorno comes into play. Identification turns things into a fetishized form, and positive identity accepts things "as they are," not "as they might be."

Definition fixes social relations in their static, fragmented, reified is-ness. A definitional world is a clean world, a world of clear divisions, a world of exclusion, a world in which the other is clearly separated as other. Definition constitutes otherness. If I define myself as English, then I am not Irish; if I define myself as white, then I am not black…. A whole world of horror is contained in the process of definition.

This is muddled thinking presented as profound insight. Holloway conflates "metaphysical" thinking and any form of identification at all. But as Engels points out, dialectical thinking involves more than just a one-sided negation:

To the metaphysician, things and their mental reflexes, ideas, are isolated, are to be considered one after the other and apart from each other, are objects of investigation fixed, rigid, given once for all….

The metaphysical mode of thought, justifiable and necessary as it is in a number of domains…sooner or later reaches a limit, beyond which it becomes one-sided, restricted, abstract, lost in insoluble contradictions. In the contemplation of individual things, it forgets the connection between them; in the contemplation of their existence, it forgets the beginning and end of that existence; of their repose, if forgets their motion.14

According to Holloway, "classes [classification] are always more or less arbitrary; any collection of identities can be thrown into a sack together." Certainly, any fool can invent arbitrary classifications. "If I include a shoe-brush in the unity mammals," wrote Engels, "this does not help it to get mammary glands."15 To say that all systems of classification are arbitrary is simply nonsense.

Holloway doesn’t like definition, because he thinks it is the cause of inequality and oppression: "The point is that at the basis of an immensely complex social structure lies a simple principle–identity," which is the "antithesis of mutual recognition, of community, of friendship and love."

Identification, definition, classification is the basis of the physical, spatial and temporal organization of armies, hospitals, schools and other institutions, the core of what Foucault refers to as discipline, the micro-analysis of power.

That some kind of "identification" is the basis of any practical human activity or organization seems to have escaped Holloway. A child born into any society must learn, over time, to "identify and classify" various things, in order to be able to use them and understand what they do and don’t do effectively. Such abilities are necessary, for example, so as to be able to distinguish between plants that are edible and plants that, if eaten, will make you sick or kill you. The most innocuous activities, from stamp collecting to putting on a high school play, require "identification, definition, classification." Without definition, all science, from biology to physics, would be impossible. But for Holloway, definition is the root of all evil. He thinks definitions in and of themselves create oppression and the state. Conversely, he thinks that if you just change the definitions of things you change things themselves.

This may seem to be a philosophical digression, but it has practical implications. The nation, for example, is a classification that has been used to subordinate workers’ interests to those of the ruling class in both oppressed and oppressor nations–through an appeal to national identity (we are all one nation with common national interests). The "scream of oppression," says Holloway, "has often been "diverted into assertion of national identity in national liberation movements which have done little more than reproduce the oppression against which the scream was directed." This is true–national liberation has not necessarily involved liberation from class oppression. Are we to conclude, then, that national liberation is irrelevant? If so, we turn our backs on the struggle against national oppression, and become, if unconsciously, supporters of the subordination of weaker nations by stronger ones. If identity politics can lead to the reinforcement of the divisions that separate the oppressed, the complete denial of identity can lead toward simply ignoring the oppression itself.

In his belief that identity is the cause of inequality, Holloway is like the "true socialists" criticized by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology:

It is difficult to see why these true socialists mention society at all if they believe with the philosophers that all real cleavages are caused by conceptual cleavage. On the basis of the philosophical belief in the power of concepts to make or destroy the world, they can likewise imagine that some individual "abolished the cleavage of life" by "abolishing" concepts in some way or other.16

The de-classification of class

The most important implication of Holloway’s "anti-identitarian" philosophy is his rejection of the centrality of the working class and of the class struggle.

By being defined, the working class is identified as a particular group of people.…

To argue for a hegemony of working-class struggle, understood empirically, or to argue that…non-class resistances must be subsumed under class struggle, would be an absurd violence.…

Do we who work in the universities ‘belong’ to the working class? Did Marx and Lenin? Are the rebels of Chiapas part of the working class? Are feminists part of the working class? Are those active in the gay movement part of the working class? And what about the police? In each case, there is a concept of a pre-defined working class to which these people do or do not belong.

Holloway’s answer is, however, not to reject the definition itself (there is no working class), but to expand the definition, to adopt "the broad concept of class struggle." The working class is simply redefined to consist of "those whose lives are overturned by accumulation (the indigenous of Chiapas, university teachers, coal miners, nearly everybody)." This is possible because "the suppression of creativity does not just take place in the process of production…but in the whole separating of doing and done that constitutes capitalist society." "Nearly everybody" is part of the working class because "nearly everybody" experiences alienation living under capitalism. Why, then, even use the category "class" at all?

The class struggle becomes "the struggle to classify and against being classified," the "unceasing daily antagonism…"between alienation and disalienation." This struggle is "consciously prefigurative," aiming "not to reproduce the structures and practices of that which is struggled against, but rather to create the sort of social relations which are desired." In the spirit of denial of identity, workers must not become conscious of their class position in order to organize themselves and fight back, but must become unclass conscious. "We do not struggle as working class, we struggle against being working class, against being classified."

Now it becomes fully clear what Holloway is doing: He is replacing the Marxist conception of class struggle with the idea of the struggle of all human beings against the labels that imprison us. DON’T LABEL ME! This analysis trivializes the real suffering in our society–by equating the alienation of the middle class with systematic exploitation and oppression of the working class and the poor. It trivializes the class struggle of workers (in the form of demonstrations, strikes, takeovers and so on) with middle class forms of individual and social revolt, such as eating vegetarian food and forming coops, or living in communal households.

Moreover, in blurring the definition of class, Holloway "throws together" a collection of disparate class identities with disparate social interests. Does Holloway really want us to equate workers and the oppressed with college professors, or worse, the police whose job it is to suppress the working class? Indeed, if "almost everyone" is alienated–then we don’t have class struggle, but rather an idealist appeal to human solidarity, the merging of social classes. Holloway has certainly "opened up" the body of Marxism–and removed every vital organ.

Holloway has the nerve to claim that this "absurd violence," his wholesale rejection of class and class struggle is "quite consistent with Marx’s approach. His understanding of capitalism was based not on the antagonism between two groups of people but on the way in which human social practice is organized."

Yet the whole of Marxism is dedicated to showing that "the way in which human social practice is organized" has created a society divided "between two groups of people," one which controls the surplus, the other which produces the surplus, that this antagonism is the driving force of history.

In an Open Letter to John Holloway, the German publishers of an online zine called Wildcat Zirkular, sympathetic to Holloway’s politics in many respects, captures what is wrong with his analysis:

If we reduce the concept of class to a general human contradiction present in every person between alienation and non-alienation, between creativity and its subordination to the market, between humanity and the negation of humanity, then the class concept loses all meaning. It then only has the value of a moral characterization which we can apply to all possible movements, without saying anything at all about them, their character and their importance for the worldwide revolutionary process.17

Holloway questions who is part of the working class as if limiting the definition means ignoring all those who fall outside it. A definition is always a limit–otherwise it is a useless definition. To determine who is part of the working class, we must first define class. Classes are determined by their place in the process of production. The ruling class appropriates and controls the surplus because they own and control the instruments of labor. The working class are all those who must sell their ability to work in exchange for a wage–that is, those whose work produces wealth and profit for the capitalist. Then there are groupings that fall somewhere in between, the petty bourgeoisie, the technical-managerial class, professionals and so on. These "classifications" are important because they tell us, broadly speaking, how to define different social interests and different social aims. Lumping different social classes together and calling them all working class is, in an inverted form, equivalent to the "post—Marxists" who deny the centrality or importance of the working class in favor of middle class-led social movements of various types.

Are gay activists part of the working class? A gay activist who works as an orderly in a hospital is part of the working class. A gay activist who owns a hospital is not. A university worker who mops floors or cooks the students meals is part of the working class. An assistant dean or a member of the board of trustees is not. Is this too difficult a concept for Holloway to grasp? The oppressed under capitalism–gays, women, Blacks, oppressed nationalities–are riven by social class and class interest. A wealthy woman doctor who can afford a maid will have a completely different conception of what constitutes women’s liberation than a women who cleans downtown offices. The doctor has no need for free child care, laundry services, health care and so on. She can afford them on her salary. For her, freedom means greater opportunities for career advancement. For the working-class women, freedom means greater access to health care, child care, free reproductive services, and so on–the socialization of family functions she is forced to bear the brunt of.

Holloway’s favorite social movement is the Zapatistas, whose struggle, he argues, "makes it clear that the capacity to disrupt capital accumulation does not depend necessarily on one’s immediate location in the process of production."

One would think that the example of the Zaptistas proves just the opposite. What the Zapatista movement has failed to do, in its eight years of existence, is challenge the Mexican state, except in a purely symbolic way. It has been unable to break out of its isolated encirclement, and has achieved as of yet only minimal reforms. The basis of an effective challenge to Mexican capital is the development of a genuine mass and militant nationwide labor movement that can link together all the struggles of the oppressed.

Such an analysis does not belittle in the least struggles of indigenous campesinos in Chiapas and elsewhere. "None so fitted to break the chains as they who wear them, none so well equipped to decide what is a fetter," wrote the Irish socialist James Connolly. "But whosoever carries the outworks of the citadel of oppression, the working class alone can raze it to the ground."18 Making class central, therefore, does not deny the importance of the fight against different oppressions. It merely points to the fact that the oppression fostered by capitalism cannot be destroyed so long as these struggles are not linked to the working-class struggle for socialism.

It is class that provides the only real unifying basis for fighting against all forms of oppression. Holloway rejects this. His idea of socialism has "ceased…to express the struggle of one class with another." He feels "conscious of having overcome" Marxism’s "one-sidedness," by "representing, not true requirements, but the requirements of truth; not the interests of the proletariat, but the interests of human nature, of man in general, who belongs to no class, has no reality, who exists only in the misty realm of philosophy."19

Anti-Marxist Marxist

As we have already seen, Holloway presents his ideas as true to the spirit of Marx, while rejecting "traditional" Marxism. He makes several claims:

1. Engels distorted Marxism, turning it into a "positivist" "science" that tries to ascertain objective truth. But fetishism–the existence of these false appearances, makes it "impossible to say ‘I have knowledge of reality.’"

2. Marxism in its Engelsian distortion–particularly in his pamphlet Socialism, Utopian and Scientific–posits, according to Holloway, "an objective movement of history which is independent of human volition." "The implication of Engels’ analysis," he writes, is that "the transition to communism would come about inevitably as a result of the conflict between the development of the forces and the relations of production."

3. The concept of Marxism as a science is based on the idea that the truth can be studied and understood by a chosen elite, "objectively with the exclusion of the subject."

In Lenin’s conception of the vanguard party, "Marxist practice then becomes the practice of bringing consciousness to the workers, of explaining to them, of telling them where their interests lie, of enlightening and educating them."

4. According to Holloway, and here his "anti-identitarian" views come into full play, traditional Marxism, as a "theory of society," creates a static, fixed view of capitalism which implies that it is "a closed system until–until the great moment of revolutionary change comes." Holloway therefore rejects the idea that capitalism has "laws of motion," because, "If we argue that capitalism can be understood completely through the analysis of the laws of motion, then we say at the same time that social relations are completely fetishized."

Before we can evaluate the merits of these arguments, we must first point out that most of these criticism attack a caricature of Marxism. The idea of a separation between workers who cannot perceive the truth and a socialist intellectual elite who can, or the idea of socialism being a product of the inevitable march of history, does not come from Engels or Lenin–but from social democrats and Stalinists, or from postwar academic Marxists such as Louis Althusser.

We cannot follow Holloway in his postmodernist rejection of our ability to have positive knowledge of reality. As Marx writes in Capital, "All science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided."20 But real knowledge of society cannot be learned passively. As Marx says in his Theses on Feuerbach (discovered in his papers after his death and published by the "determinist" Engels); "The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question."21 And the practical, in this instance, is the class struggle itself.

The idea of socialism resulting from an inexorable historical process independent of human will has nothing in common with the ideas of Marx or Engels. For Marx and Engels, history consisted in the actions and interactions of real human beings. But neither did Marx and Engels accept the idea that change was random, or based upon pure human will. "The more that human beings become removed from animals in the narrower sense of the word," Engels writes in the introduction to Dialectics of Nature, "the more they make their own history consciously." However, he added:

There still exists here a colossal disproportion between the proposed aims and the results arrived at, that unforeseen effects predominate, and that the uncontrolled forces are far more powerful than those set into motion according to plan.22

If Holloway were really consistent, he would have to reject the whole of Capital, which is full of infernal "laws" (law of value, law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, etc.). The fetishism of commodities is predicated on the existence of a mode of production in which the participants are dominated by economic processes over which they have no control. "In the midst of the accidental and ever-fluctuating exchange relations between the products," Marx writes (in a section of Capital entitled "The Fetishism of the Commodity and Its Secret," no less!), "the labor-time socially necessary to produce them asserts itself as a regulative law of nature. In the same way, the law of gravity asserts itself when a person’s house collapses on top of him."23

Holloway’s peculiar analysis tells him that he cannot accept these truths, because to accept them is to admit that capitalism "is," and therefore cannot become something else. One need not despair in the impossibility of revolution because social relations appear "fixed," or law-governed, any more than we should think that the existence of species precludes their evolution into new species. Holloway can rail against the existence of history as a law-governed process, but by railing at them he does not thereby alter it.

Periodic crisis reveals a central contradiction in capitalism between the fact that the forces of production have outgrown the relations of production, that the bourgeoisie has conjured up forces beyond its control. Crisis alone cannot destroy capitalism–only the working class can do that. To say that the conditions exist that make socialism possible is not the same as saying they are inevitable, that is, independent of human will–any more than saying social relations are fetishized means that the working class is unable to overcome these relations and assert its own will. "Both the productive forces created by the modern capitalist mode of production and the system of distribution of goods established by it have come into crying contradiction with that mode of production itself," writes Engels, "and in fact to such a degree that, if the whole of modern society is not to perish, a revolution in the mode of production and distribution must take place, a revolution which will put an end to all class distinctions."24

Capitalism is a system that is out of control, whose contradictions will lead humanity either to ruin, or to a higher form of social organization. This is hardly a description of socialism as something which follows mechanically or inevitably from the laws of capitalism. Moreover, far from relegating the class struggle to a secondary or non-existent role, or arguing that the workers must be handed science by a chosen elite, Engels placed working-class self-emancipation at the center of the revolutionary project.

For almost 40 years we have stressed the class struggle as the immediate driving force of history, and in particular the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat as the great lever of the modern social revolution; it is therefore impossible for us to cooperate with people who wish to expunge this class struggle from the movement. When the International was formed we expressly formulated the battle-cry: The emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself. We cannot therefore cooperate with people who say that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must first be freed from above by philanthropic bourgeois and petty bourgeois.25

Ironically, it is not Engels, but Holloway who wishes to expunge the working class (defined "empirically") from its central role in transforming capitalism.


Holloway asks: If we are all individual flies, each trapped in a web of social control, blinded by the reified conditions of our own lives, then how is change possible? But the fly-web analogy is flawed. Society does not consist of trapped flies, but of workers operating in the collective workplaces of capitalism, where they are both "trapped" by the social relations of capitalism and driven by those conditions to collective action to transform those relations.

It is this contradiction that drove Lenin’s conception of the party. For Lenin, the need for organized revolutionary leadership was a product of the uneven consciousness of the working class, an unevenness created by these contradictory conditions. The revolutionary party was not a group standing outside or above the class and its experiences, but an organization consisting of the most class-conscious workers engaged in day-to-day struggles with the class, in an effort to overcome the unevenness in consciousness and lead the class to victory. If workers were simply like trapped flies, then of course revolution would be impossible. If, on the other hand, workers are all spontaneously socialist, then revolution would have been guaranteed long ago.

Precisely because there are differences in degree of consciousness and degree of activity [among different workers], a distinction must be made in degree of proximity to the Party.26

If ‘every strike’ were not only a spontaneous expression of the powerful class instinct and of the class struggle which is leading inevitably to the social revolution, but a conscious expression of that process,…then our party would forthwith and at once embrace the whole working class, and, consequently, would at once put an end to bourgeois society as a whole. If it is to be a conscious spokesman in fact, the Party must be able to work out organization relations that will ensure a definite level consciousness and systematically raise that level.27

These ideas remain profoundly relevant, but only if Leninism is disentangled from its Stalinist distortions, which Holloway fails to do. His work contributes to the notion that there are only two political alternatives: a semi-anarchist rejection of power and of political organization or the Stalinist model of top-down political organization that uses the masses as a stage army. But both of these are dead ends. Revolutionaries today must argue for the need to build (not proclaim–but build in practice) organizations that can link together, in the day to day struggle, the constituent elements of a revolutionary party. Not a political party that seeks high office, but a party that can draw together the different strands of struggle and prepare the working class and other social forces allied to it for a struggle for power.


Holloway not only offers no way forward, he is positive about having written a book that, after making us struggle through 228 pages, in the end has no answers: "How then do we change the world without taking power? At the end of the book, as at the beginning, we do not know."

What, then, is the way forward? What are the practical conclusions from his philosophy? Holloway has the impudence to write off, in a few pages, the revolutionary movements of the last two centuries with a swift and facile dismissal–they all sought power. Worse, he equates great revolutionaries such as Rosa Luxemburg–who said that "Socialism will not and cannot be created by decrees; nor can it be established by any government, however socialistic. Socialism must be created by the masses, by every proletarian. Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there they must be broken"28–with her reformist opponents such as Eduard Bernstein, for whom socialism was the election of a socialist majority in parliament.

Yet, in his rejection of all power, Holloway falls more on the Bernstein side than on the Luxemburg side. If there is no revolutionary event, then how will we end capitalism? He simply goes around the problem: Don’t fight for the ends, simply prefigure the ends. We must not accept "that our own world can come into being only after the revolution." It can come into being now, if we are careful "not to engage with capital on capital’s own terms." He summarizes what he means by this in an article published in the Argentine journal Herramienta:

It has been said that the transition from capitalism to communism, as opposed to the transition from feudalism to capitalism, would not be able to develop in the interstices of the old society; that there was no way in which communism could grow inside the structure of capitalism. This idea was based on the concept of the revolution as a Great Event, and of course the idea of the revolutionary party as the Leader of the Great Event. This ignores the fact that the revolution is inconceivable unless what not yet exists already exists, and exists, in contradictory and antagonistic form, in the alternative sociability that is so deeply rooted in the routines of our lives, in the love, in the friendship, in the solidarity, in a million forms to of cooperation, in everything that we have learned of what the Zapatistas call Dignity. The elaboration of these embryonic forms of direct sociability constitutes the process of the revolution.29

The danger of Holloway’s thought is that he takes important concepts such as "revolution"–which has always meant (outside of the advertising world) a qualitative break between one form of society and another, whereby one class forcibly overthrows another and imposes new social forms–and inverts their meaning. That Holloway takes utopian experimentation and calls it "revolution" merely disguises the fact that he is making an argument that is profoundly anti-revolutionary. This creative method, whereby the definitions of things are changed so that they become their opposite, runs throughout the whole book.

No doubt it would be far more pleasant not to have to "deal with capital on capital’s own terms," but sadly, this is impossible. In the end, the capitalist system must be reckoned with by the working class collectively and as a whole, not by piecemeal experiments–in short, in a revolutionary "event." Though its outcome is still in question, the Argentinazo of December 2001 is precisely this kind of event.

Such an event doesn’t emerge out of nowhere, but comes as the culmination of a series of partial struggles in which workers develop the confidence and consciousness to pose an alternative to the social crises of the system. On the other hand, utopian experiments–such as "autonomous zones" or worker-owned cooperatives–are forced to "engage with capital on capital’s own terms," that is, are forced to reckon with the pressures of the market or disappear in failure.30 Capitalism is not in the least threatened by them. If workers seize one factory in Buenos Aires and decide to run it themselves, this is not necessarily a problem for the system as a whole. The workers will be forced, according to the pressures of the market, to adapt, to exploit themselves. But if there is a whole series of factory takeovers, and those factories link up and form an assembly of factory delegates–that is when capital begins to worry. The success or failure of this process can only be determined, in the end, by a revolutionary event, in which it is decided which class will run society as a whole.

Alienation is not the "sundering of the doing from the done," it is the product of a society where the majority are slaves to accumulation in the interests of a minority. The overcoming of alienation, therefore, does not come from individual acts of self-reflection, the formation of cooperatives, nor from people "opting out" of capitalism on its margins. It comes first from the process of collective struggle, through which workers develop a sense of their own power and how to wield it to transform their conditions–and in the course of attempting to change their conditions, change themselves. This requires conscious organization, not of some elite standing apart from struggle, but organization forged in struggle and bringing together those most revolutionary elements. Alienation can only be decisively overcome when a society is established by that collective action, a society where the "associated producers" organize the whole of production and distribution according to a conscious plan.

Workers must be at the center of this transformation quite simply because they are at the heart of the system–they produce its vast wealth. Being at the center of such a transformation implies that there are also struggles that develop in and around that center, but which are a necessary part of it–struggles against racial injustice, women’s oppression, gay oppression and struggles of indigenous people for self-"determination.

Holloway rightly applauds the creative spirit that emerges in any struggle. He says, for example, that we need "strikes that do not just withdraw labor but point to alternative ways of doing (by providing free transport, a different kind of healthcare)." "Alternative ways of doing," however, will fail if they are not linked to the question of power. In the final chapter, "Revolution?," (in a rare moment of lucidity) Holloway agrees along with Marx that the "expropriators must indeed be expropriated." This, whether Holloway likes it or not, requires power, that is, the power of the working class first to take over the factories, the hospitals, the mines and the schools and to break up the armed forces of reaction. Any rejection of this necessary organized, centralized power by the working class will result in the movement’s defeat. Was this not the lesson of the Spanish Civil War, in which the anarchists who had virtual control of Barcelona in 1936 ceded power to the old state because, as anarchists, they rejected all power?

Holloway’s theory of "anti-power" reflects the anti-political strain in the global justice movement, and in particular, of many participants in the Argentinazo.31 The failures of Stalinism, and the collapse of the traditional left, combined with the hatred of the traditional bourgeois parties, has contributed to this tendency. But Holloway has codified into a set of political views what is only a stage in the struggle. The movement in Argentina is already grappling with the question of how to move beyond "they should all go," whereas Holloway wants to "fix" the struggle at this stage. "They should all go" can be interpreted, ultimately, in many different ways. The question of what next will eventually be answered either by the reconstitution of order on the basis of the emergence of new reformist parties or leaders who will counter some degree of legitimacy to the political process, even if only temporarily; or by forcible restoration of order. Holloway’s book not only fails to answer the key questions of what do to next, but logically leads away from the right answers and toward a glorification of utopian lifestyle experiments that cannot offer a way forward.

1 Sebastiano Timpanaro, On Materialism (London: Verso, 1975), p. 193. Timpanaro is actually referring to the ideas of the French left academic Louis Althusser.

2 Here Holloway has company. A whole cottage industry has sprung up among academic Marxism (and anti-Marxists) in the post—Second World War period designed to prove that Engels–and all Marxists that followed–revised Marx’s ideas into a theory that sees socialism as an inevitable product of blind historic forces.

3 Harry Cleaver, "Preface," Reading Capital Politically, 2nd edition, (Oakland, California: AK Press, 2000), available online at"faculty/Cleaver/357krcp.html.

4 "Auschwitz confirms the philosopheme of pure identity as death," Adorno writes in the last chapter of Negative Dialectics, available online at

5 A synopsis of Holloway’s ideas presented in his book, and which I drew from for the preceding outline, can be found in John Holloway, "Twelve theses on Changing the World Without Taking Power," Commoner, May 2002, available online at

6 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, in Collected Works, Volume 5 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), p. 31. Emphasis in original.

7 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, Part 1: Feuerbach; Section A: Idealism and Materialism, available online at"archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01a.htm#a4. Emphasis in original. The quote appears in a section called "Development of the Productive Forces as a Material Premise of Communism." Ironically, Holloway cites this same passage in a footnote in the last chapter. But the sentence in his own text that he footnotes, "Communism is the movement of that which exists in the mode of being denied," shows that he does not understand what Marx and Engels are saying. "That which exists in the mode of being denied," is merely a negative way of saying, "an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself," that Marx and Engels explicitly criticize.

8 Frederick Engels, Anti-Duhring, Part II, "Political Economy," Section 1: "Subject Matter and Method," available at"marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch13.htm. In some instances I have provided citations from the Web version of Marx and Engels’ works, partly to encourage readers who do not possess the books to read them for him or herself.

9 1888 Preface to Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto (New York: International Publishers, 1995), p. 7.

10 Karl Marx, "Notes on Bakunin’s book," Statehood and Anarchy, Collected Works, Volume 23 (New York: International Publishers, 1989), p. 517.

11 Ibid.

12 Holloway also criticizes "traditional Marxism" for engaging in a "conceptual snipping of social relations at the frontiers of the state." "The mediation of social relations through money means a complete deterritorialization of those relations." It is one thing to say that the character of imperialism has changed (for example, the U.S. has built an informal empire rather than a colonial one), and another to say that there has been a "complete deterritorialization." If anything, the growing internationalization of capitalism has also increased the political instability and rivalry between nation-states. What is a "network of power" internationally if not the relation of forces between states? The division of the world between nation-states and the existence of an integrated world economy must both be taken into account as two sides of a real contradiction that plays itself out in the form of imperialist rivalry. At a moment when the U.S. is on the brink of a war, to assert its role as the world’s sole hegemon, Holloway’s argument is particularly dangerous.

13 Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1 (New York: Vintage, 1977), p. 165.

14 Frederick Engels, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, Chapter 2, "The Science of Dialectics," available online at

15 Frederick Engels, "World Schematism," Anti-Duhring, available online at

16 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, Collected Works, Volume 5 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), p. 467. Emphasis in original.

17 Available online at

18 James Connolly, "Woman," The Reconquest of Ireland (1915), available online at

19 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto.

20 Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 3, Part VII, Chapter 48, Section III, available at online at

21 Karl Marx, Thesis on Feuerbach (1945), avaliable at

22 Frederick Engels, Dialectics of Nature (1883), Introduction, available online at

23 Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1, p. 168.

24 Frederick Engels, Anti-Duhring, Part II: "Political Economy," Section 1’ "Subject Matter and Method." Emphasis in original.

25 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, "Circular Letter to August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Wiilhelm Bracke and others," Collected Works, Volume 24 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1989), p. 269.

26 Lenin, "One Step Forward, Two Steps Back," Collected Works, Volume 7 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), p. 258.

27 Ibid., p. 273.

28 1918 speech to the founding conference of the German Communist Party, Selected Political Writings (New York: Monthly Review, 1971), pp. 396—97.

29 John Holloway, "¡Que se Vayan Todos!" available online at My translation.

30 As Rosa Luxemburg writes in Reform or Revolution, "The workers forming a co-operative in the field of production are thus faced with the contradictory necessity of governing themselves with the utmost absolutism. They are obliged to take toward themselves the role of capitalist entrepreneur–a contradiction that accounts for the usual failure of production co-operatives which either become pure capitalist enterprises or, if the workers’ interests continue to predominate, end by dissolving."

31 Incidentally, the word "Argentinazo" does not appear in Holloway’s book.

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