Anti-power versus power

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Autor(es): Smith, Cyril

Smith, Cyril. Fue profesor titular de Estadística de la London School of Economics hasta su retiro en 1992. Militante del movimiento trotskista durante varias décadas, autor de Communist Society and Marxist Theory (Index Books. 1988) y Marx and the Millenum (Pluto Press, 1996), entre otros.


Change the World Without Taking Power:
The Meaning of Revolution Today

by John Holloway. Pluto, 2002.


Two of the chief characteristics of the world of the new millennium directly negate each other. On the one hand, in the wake of the collapse of the Russian Revolution, ‘everybody knows’ that ‘capitalism is here to stay’. No matter how anyone feels about it, the power of capital is part of the furniture of social life. At the same time, everybody feels totally at odds with the way they live. Nothing is as it should be. This is not how we should live.

This vitally important book seeks a way forward which sets off from the conflict between these two attitudes.

The starting point of theoretical reflection is opposition, negativity, struggle. It is from rage that thought is born, not from the pose of reason, not from the reasoned-sitting-back-and-reflecting-on-the-mysteries-of-existence that is the conventional image of the thinker. We start from negation, from dissonance. (p. 1)

Holloway goes on to analyse this negativity with some care. I believe such an examination is essential for the movement usually called ‘anti-globalisation’. This tendency’s lively opposition to ‘what is’ expresses what Holloway calls ‘the scream’, instinctive opposition to what exists. But - let’s be frank - the movement has not been very good at explaining itself to itself. Rejecting the formulas of the old ‘leftism’ – and this is its great strength – it has tended to cop out of the tedious chore of thinking through what it is doing. (If there are exceptions to this allegation, I haven’t encountered them.) What can take the place of the old, worn-out slogans and rigid ‘theories’? Nothing at all, many say. We are better off without any replacement ideas. Change the World… is just what we need: it should force us to take up the tasks of intellectual housekeeping.

Holloway restates in new and illuminating ways some of the fundamental ideas of Karl Marx, freed of the falsification known as ‘Marxism’. In his second chapter, ‘Beyond the State?’, he examines and firmly rejects the almost universal way that socialism used to be understood. We were all convinced that the way forward was to ‘take state power’, and then to use this power to do good things for everybody else, getting rid for ever of ‘the evils of capitalism’. Holloway kicks this notion to pieces and jumps heavily on its companion conception that what is needed is to ‘build a party’. ‘What is at issue’, says Holloway,

is not who exercises power, but how to create a world based on the mutual recognition of human dignity, on the formation of social relations which are not power relations. (pp. 17-18)

Apparently simple ideas like this are often just uttered as anarchistic, pious hopes for a better world. Holloway, however, takes them seriously, investigating just what we mean by power and why it is at the heart of the way we live. We have to see that power is not something given, not a thing but an activity, something people do. And ‘before the doing comes the scream. It is not materialism that comes first. It is negativity’. That is precisely what we mean by ‘changing the world’.

Next, we have to grasp that ‘doing’ is meaningless without the power to do. When some people have power over others, the victims have been deprived of the ‘capacity to do’. ‘Power-over’, which is the denial of ‘power-to’, ‘is never individual: it is always social’ (p.28). But this means that we have uncovered the way that

the power-to that exists in the form of power-over, in the form, therefore, of being denied, exists not only as revolt against its denial; it exists also as material substratum of denial. (p. 35)

Now come three chapters, 4, 5 and 6, in which Holloway elaborates and generalises Marx’s central concept of ‘fetishism’. It was only in the Second Edition of Capital, in 1873, that Marx set out his account of ‘The Fetish-character of Commodities’, in the final Section of Chapter 1. As Holloway says, this idea, central to Marx’s whole notion of capital, was largely ignored by ‘Marxism’, even by Engels. In Holloway’s language,

the force of the concept lies in that it refers to an unsustainable horror: the self-negation of doing…. The sundering of doer from done is inevitably the sundering of the doer himself. The production of an alien object is inevitably an active process of self-estrangement…. The rupture of the doer from the done is the negation of the doer’s power-to. The doer is turned into a victim…. Alienation is the production of humans who are damaged, maimed, deprived of their humanity. (p. 74)

Holloway is now led to what he calls ‘the tragic dilemma’: ‘the urgent impossibility of revolution’.

How can we live in a society based on dehumanisation? But how can we possibly change a society in which people are so dehumanised?

Rejecting both the hopelessness of postmodernism, and the Leninist party-state-power solution, Holloway is left with a third approach:

To try to understand and thereby to participate in the force of all that which exists in antagonism, in the form of being denied. (p. 77)

Fetishism and alienation are terms which the so-called ‘social sciences’ have tried to run off with. Of course, they take them to refer to ‘phenomena’, given, accomplished facts, topics for PhD theses. Holloway emphasises that they are, in fact processes, activities, which are continually being imposed on us and against which we struggle. Once capitalism is a going concern, fetishism means that struggle to get rid of it is futile, say the professors. But, says Holloway,

the movement of fetishisation can only be understood in terms of an anti-movement, a movement of anti-fetishisation. Fetishism is a process of fetishisation, a process of separating subject and object, doing and done, always in antagonism to the opposing movement of anti-fetishisation, the struggle to reunite subject and object, to recompose doing and done. (p. 89)

It is in this context that Holloway takes up the ideas of Lukacs. While appreciating some features of History and Class Consciousness, Lukacs’ inability to escape from the Party notion is shown to mean that

he failed in his attempt to provide a theoretical and political answer to the revolutionary dilemma, to the ‘urgent impossibility of revolution’. (p. 87)

Holloway’s short chapter 6 is very important. It deals with the meaning of criticism as ‘the theoretical voice of the scream’. (p. 114) Marx’s critiques of religion, of philosophy, of the state, of socialism and of political economy are aspects of anti-fetishism. Above all, Holloway shows that they counter the way that ‘theory’ usually views the world, as if from the outside, with a conception of critique as the realisation that we, the critics, are ourselves being criticised.

To criticise is to recognise that we are a divided self. To criticise society is to criticise our own complicity in the reproduction of that society. That realisation does not weaken our scream in any way. On the contrary, it intensifies it, makes it more urgent. (p. 117)

The concept of fetishism implies a negative concept of science. If relations between people exist as relations between things, then the attempt to understand social relations can proceed only negatively, by going against and beyond the form in which social relations appear (and really exist). Science is negative. … The truth of science is the negative of the untruth of false appearances. (p. 118)

But in the tradition of ‘scientific Marxism’, science is positive, its ‘objectivity’ excluding all ‘subjectivity’. Holloway takes up some standard texts of Engels, Kautsky and Lenin to show the theoretical and political consequences of this falsification of Marx. He is able to point to its effects even on Rosa Luxemburg’s work, and to show how Marx’s chief work, Capital, came to be read as a piece of economics. It was inevitable that ‘Marxists’ like this almost totally ignored Marx’s account of fetishism. (I would also mention their avoidance of all discussion of Section 3 of Chapter 1, the ‘Forms of Value’, as well.)

The great attraction of orthodox Marxism remains its simplicity. It provided an answer to the revolutionary dilemma: a wrong answer, but at least it was an answer. It guided the revolutionary movement to great conquests that, in the end, were not conquests at all, but dreadful defeats. (pp. 138-9)

Holloway has now set out the way of thinking which allows us to talk about changing the world. His Chapter 8, ‘The Critical-Revolutionary Subject’, asks who is going to change the world? In this context, he examines the problem of class.

Class struggle … is the struggle to classify and against being classified at the same time as it is, indistinguishably, the struggle between constituted classes. … We do not struggle as being working class, we struggle against being working class, against being classified. Our struggle is not the struggle of labour, it is the struggle against labour. (pp. 143-4)

That is the only way that revolution can be understood: as the self-emancipation of the working class. Chapter 9 can then discuss the ‘material reality of anti-power’, a reality which cannot be seen if we look for it with the concepts of positive science, that is, with the concepts of power. Holloway’s criticism of the ‘autonomist’ ideas of Antonio Negri turn on this aspect. (I personally find the form of these criticisms rather too polite for my taste, but this might reflect my own crudity.)

In Chapter 10, Holloway looks at the role of the crisis of capital. ‘Marxism’ used to see the problems of the economic system as background music which sets the tone for class relations. Holloway’s approach replaces this mechanical view with one founded on the fundamentally antagonistic nature of the social relation, capital.

We are the crisis, we-who-scream, in the streets, in the countryside, in the factories, in the offices, in our houses; we, the insubordinate and non-subordinate who say No!, we who say Enough!, enough of your stupid power games, enough of your stupid exploitation, enough of your idiotic playing at soldiers and bosses; we who do not want to exploit, we who do not have power and do not want to have power, we who still want to have lives that we consider human, we who are without face and without voice: we are the crisis of capitalism. The theory of crisis is not just a theory of fear but also a theory of hope. (p. 203)

That brings us to the final Chapter, ‘Revolution?’

If crisis expresses the extreme dis-articulation of social relations, then revolution must be understood, in the first place, as the intensification of crisis. (p. 204)

We are not talking about a single cataclysmic event, after which humanity can begin. Holloway’s understanding of revolution is as

the explicit unification of constitution and existence, the overcoming of the separation of is and is-not, the end of the domination of dead labour over living doing, the dissolution of identity. (p.215)

Holloway does not apologise for not giving us cut-and-dried definitions, a programme, a blue-print for a better world, nor does he need to. Such formulae would contradict what he sees as the problem. He ends the book without a conclusion and, engagingly, without a full-stop.

A few words of criticism: I feel that he leaves certain other aspects of Marx’s work in the hands of the ‘Marxists’, and this might lose some elements of great value. I think that he avoids setting his conceptions of revolution in a broader historical context. Maybe this is a reaction to the mechanical notions we ‘Marxists used to call ‘historical materialism’ (not Marx’s phrase, of course). But Marx does have a concept of human history as a continual struggle, first, in its most primitive shape, then inevitably caught up in the bonds of class struggle, and finally discovering the way to escape, the path to ‘universal human emancipation’. Maybe such notions are implied in this book, but I couldn’t see them.

Anyway, what Holloway has given us represent a huge advance and I hope that its stimulating lessons will find a response in living struggle.