Commentary on Mike Rooke review

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Autor(es): Wright, Chris

Wright, Chris.


The Limitations of "Open Marxism"

Reviewed by Mike Rooke

John Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power, Pluto, 2002.

JOHN HOLLOWAY has written an important book. It is a sustained critique of orthodox (ie. Leninist) Marxism from the standpoint of the Open Marxism of which Holloway is an exponent (along with others  such as Richard Gunn, Werner Bonefeld and Kosmas Psychopedis).

This may seem trivial, but it is not simply a critique of Leninist Marxism. Holloway critiques all kinds of Engelsian Marxism, the Hegelian Marxists from early Lukacs to the Frankfurt School to the structuralist/post-structuralist Marxism of the Deleuze-Guattari-Foucault influenced strands of Autonomia via Negri.

The central argument is that the strategic orientation of the (principally) Leninist tradition has focused on the capture and wielding of state power, and the conception of socialism characteristic of this tradition has been marked by a subordination to this goal (the state illusion). More specifically he targets the scientific- Marxist partyism of this orthodox tradition (p.84), which he rejects for its pretensions to be an all-encompassing theory of reality (a scientific epistemology). The greater part of the post- Marx Marxist tradition, therefore, has become a reified theory and practice, reflecting an accommodation to the structures and thought of bourgeois society. Its fetishisation of state power (its capture) has led to the consistent betrayal of revolutionary aspirations, and the reproduction, rather than the abolition, of oppressive power relations. While such criticisms of Lenin and Third International Marxism are not new, a large part of the uniqueness of Holloways book derives from his use of fetishism as a critical category with which to construct a conception of revolution as the dissolution of power (as anti-power).

 He begins from the scream, a starting point that is ontologically prior to doing.

John"s approach is NOT ontological. John is opposing all ontological starting points because he rejects starting from "being". Anti-ontology forms a central theme of the book, even if that is not always apparent. Screaming and doing do not form separate moments for John. Hell, just look at the verb: screaming. Its from the verb "to scream", which is an action verb, not a being verb. This does not bode well.

In contradistinction to metaphysical materialism (which begins from the primacy of the material world) Holloways conception of doing is that of practical negation. But human doing is broken when the powerful separate the done from the doers and appropriate it for themselves, bringing about a destruction of subjectivity./p>

There are no meaningful prior "powerful". Mike here inadvertantly creates a teleology where "the powerful" set about separating the done from the doers. What does this mean historically, genetically? The people who separated the doers from the done had a long way to go which involved the flight of some Feudal lords from the immobility and insubordination of serfs, and that is only in some cases, in Western Europe, in a handful of countries (Englands, The Netherlands, France, mostly). The process involved the recreation of pre-capitalist social relations of labor, in slavery, which combined with enclosures, and political struggles between mutually intertwined propertied classes, etc.

Positing "the powerful" prior to the doers already causes historical chaos and also misses John"s point that the doers, often in the process of fleeing the land (manor, demnse, etc.) helped to produce their own separation because it was often, in the beginning, a means of gaining freedom. That this changed should not surprise us, and that capital would eventually spread not from the flight of pre-capitalist propertied classes from their being bound to serfs, but from capital fleeing the insurgency of the new proletariat.

Also, subjectivity is not destroyed. This is wrong. Our subjectivity still exists, but in alienated, fetishized form (in the mode of being denied). If our subjectivity ceased to exist, capital would not get value from our labor. In fact, as George Caffentzis points out in his article on machines and value in a book on high tech, labor is only value creating because it has a negating element within it which is hostile to the process. Our ability to struggle is exactly why we are capable of creating exchange value while machines cannot.

This results in the struggle of the scream to liberate power-to from power-over, to liberate subjectivity from its objectification. Holloway argues that his notion of power-to is not captured by traditional revolutionary concepts of power (which seek to establish a counter-power rather than an anti-power).

But it does have precedence in Autonomia and the notions of potestas and potentia.

In his discourse of the rupture of doing and done, Holloway relies on Marxs category of alienated labour. The attempt to develop Marxs category is based on a critique of orthodox Marxisms way of conceptualising the working class and capital. The problem, now well elaborated in the texts of Open Marxism, is that in orthodox Marxism the working class is understood as standing in an external relation to capital, where the antagonism is one of separately constituted entities.

Yes and no. In orthodox Marxism, labor is understood as a function of capital, not the other way around. Orthodox Marxism relegates class struggle to a merely mediatory position in a larger capital logic, typified by the base-superstructure metaphor.

Some elements in autonomist Marxism actually put forward the idea of capital and labor standing externally to each other as two opposed subjects, two armies at war. Open Marxism was always at pains to show that capital was nothing but our alienated subjectivity and that there is no actual "us" and "them", but us against ourselves.

Holloway argues that rather than seeing the working class as labour (it actually constitutes capital in its acceptance of the wage relation), it should be seen as the struggle against labour, and therefore against capital. In a clear reference to the failed revolutions of the 20th century, Holloway argues that conceptualising the labour- capital relation as an external one is responsible for a view of struggle which leaves both sides essentially unchanged, and merely reproduces the old power-over relation after any seizure of state power.

This is a place where a critique of John might be levelled in posing class as the struggle against labor. This has come up on the list before (anti-work), and I think that we all need to be clear that labor is not a simply unified category. There is labor as the metabolic relation between human beings and nature and alienated labor in the form of capitalist labor. We oppose the latter, but not the former. John may not always be sufficiently clear on this or prefer a good turn of phrase to cautious formulation. But his intent is clear enough.

How then can such a fetishised view of struggle and power be overcome? The first step is to see categories as the manifestation of forms of struggle ie. as open and therefore contested: we exist against-and- in-Capital (p.90). A scientific (Marxist) approach involves dissolving the categories of thought in this way, in Marxs words to grasp the absolute movement of becoming. In parallel with this is the flow of doing, the struggle for self-determination which constitutes the actual struggle against fetishisation in daily life.

Parallel gives the image of separation again. Doing and doing"s alienated form are not separate. Alienated doing is the way in which doing takes place in capitalist society. Appearance is the mode of existence of essence. There is no separation (Plato, Kant) nor a collapse of them into simply appearance (Hume, Nietzsche) or Being (Heidegger)

In developing this argument Holloway draws on both Marx and Lukcs, but employs his own distinctive categories: doing and done; power-to and power-over; and anti-power. I wondered throughout whether Holloways discourse of doing and done adds anything qualitatively new to Marxs labour- capital antagonism.

These are not exactly new categories. I think that John attempts to get away from terms which have been damaged by popular use and also as a pedagogical tool for explaining the real content of Marx"s notion of production and practice.

In his insistence that the separation of the worker from the means of production must be seen as only part of a more general separation of subject and object, of people from their activity, Holloway draws the conclusion that value production cannot be the starting point of the analysis of class struggle (p.148).

Labour here means capitalist labor, which cannot be the starting point because it is already embedded in the capital-labor relation. The struggle Mike discusses below, as well as the anti-colonial struggles, stemmed from pre-capitalist labor's attempt to reject the specific form of alienation that came with capital, as expropriation and enclosure.

Holloway has in mind those struggles (such as the peasants of the Chiapas) not directly rooted in capitalist production. We cannot just start from labour, he declares. This, no doubt, explains his inclination throughout the book to collapse the category of (alienated) labour into the more general category of alienated doing, and thus to straddle (in my view, not too successfully) Marxs historically specific dialectic of labour and a more general ontology of doing.

Again with this ontology. If ontology is about being, we can hardly site John for an "ontology of doing", which is an oxymoron. According to the online Philosophical Dictionary, Ontology is the "Branch of metaphysics concerned with identifying, in the most general terms, the kinds of things that actually exist. Thus, the "ontological commitments" of a philosophical position include both its explicit assertions and its implicit presuppositions about the existence of entities, substances, or beings of particular kinds."

As such, I suspect that Mike Rooke does not simply understand what is going on. John is attempting to return to the content of Marx"s notion of human practice and labor in the sense of the meabolic relation with nature I mentioned earlier. As such, the point is that there are two kinds of labor: alienated (in specific ways, such as the capital-labor relation) or non-alienated, also in specific ways.

This is directly contrary to the approach of Marx, who between the 1844 Manuscripts and the Grundrisse and Das Kapital progressively concretised the category of labour (and its dialectic), precisely in order to specify the central dynamic of the capitalist mode of production. Marx was not oblivious or indifferent to struggles originating outside this property relation, only insisting on the primacy of the wage-capital relation because it was the dominant means of pumping the surplus out of the direct producers.

Now "wage-capital" relation is certainly a new formulation. The wage is certainly a form of labor as capital, so its a bit like saying the capital-capital relation. Also, while wage-labor may appear to be the dominant means of pumping surplus value out of the direct producers, this limited view has been critiqued by autonomists like Leopoldina Fortunadi as failing to grasp the production of surplus value in housework, ie predominantly by women outside the wage-labor environment. Others have critiqued the relation of slavery to capital formation and the struggles against the imposition of the capital-labor relation which formed the basis of many struggles since 1883. Even so, Marx also recognized the possible importance of the latter types of struggles when he began his research on Russia and the struggle against the imposition of capital in the form of the peasant collectives.

The capital-labore relation is also not simply constituted at the level of production, but also at the level of exchange and circulation, prerequisites for the realization of that funny thing called exchange value. As such, what John does try to do is to grapple with the capital-labor relation as a total social relation. As such, John is not trying to focus on the areas outside of the capital-labor relation, which includes its imposition and its non-waged forms (housework, sex work, students [as reproduction of labor power and replacement for apprenticing], not simply the wage-labor form. Marx, in critiquing political economy might be forgiven for focussing on this aspect, but to put forward the idea that this is a sufficient critique perpetuates the idea that predominantly white, male waged-labor constitutes the "real" working class. It ignores all of the important matters raised by autonomist Marxism, the Situationists, feminism, the anti-colonial, student, and Black Liberation movements.

If we do not start from labour, as Marx did, then we lose sight of the specific character of the exploitation of human labour under capitalism, and the property relation that dominates all others. If this is lost sight of, then we fail to ask the very question that Marx criticised the classical political economists for not asking: what sort of labour is it that produces value? The upshot of this is that Holloway not only de- historicises the category of labour, but also the category of fetishism. This is a pity, since it is one of the noticeable failings of the mainstream Marxist tradition (with the exception of Lukcs, Rubin and Debord) to have underestimated (or simply ignored) the centrality of fetishism for an understanding of capitalism and its overthrow.

And yet Holloway does not lose the specificity of Marx"s inquisition nor of the points made by Rubin, Lukacs and Debord. He rather attempts to integrate their critique into a world in which struggles at the point of >waged-labor production are not the only struggles against capitalist labor in its specific form. John could just as easily discuss the separation of the producers from the means of producing, but it has all of the economistic terminological hangovers, and so he chose to formulate the problem in a new way. In so doing, he does not fail to specify that the kind of separation committed by capital is qualitatively different from that under feudalism and that is has different ramifications.

In Marx we see commodity fetishism as a necessary form of existence of alienated labour. Fetishism consists in the way in which the participants of value production experience the (de facto social) connections between themselves as relations between things. Lukcss notion of reification was an elaboration on this, drawing attention to the way in which the atomisation and fragmentation of social life had penetrated deeply into, and shaped, social consciousness. It is a category, however, that is indissolubly related to the value form of production, and one that loses its explanatory force when generalised beyond (abstracted from) that context. Unfortunately, Holloways commentary does precisely this. It follows from the specific meaning that Marx attaches to commodity fetishism, that the struggle to dissolve it is inseparable from the task of dissolving commodity production: the de-commodification of social labour. This is the principal reason why Marx privileged the proletarian struggle above others.

 Holloways tendency to understate the historical specificity of (wage) labour and fetishism finds a further expression in the absence of a conception of history as necessary development. Marxs idea that there is a logic to the historical process has become distinctly unfashionable in these days of the celebration of contingency and indeterminacy.

What we have here is a complaint about the abscence of a "historical materialism", a theory of how history develops from one stage to another.

Well, it"s Marx"s weakest point, as Richard Gunn explains in Open Marxism Vol. 2 and as Cyril Smith explains in an article he wrote critiquing "histo-mat", ironically enough, for the journal Historical Materialism. In fact, the moments where Marx elicits a theory of historical development, it is not one of necessity, not a teleology, but one of class struggle. To say that all previous history has been a history of class struggles imputes no teleology, not necessary progressions from one "stage" to another.

John does fail to engage with the idea of history as a history of class struggles and therefore does fail to grapple with historical movement adequately. Cyril Smith, ih his review for The Commoner makes the same point. But I don"t think that John misses that because his notion of fetishism is not grounded in commodity production and as commodity fetishism.

Not only is fetishism about how we "experience the (de facto social) connections between themselves as relations between things" but also about how they constitute themselves. Defetishization is not simply an ideological process, but a material process of undoing the capital-labor relation. Defetishization means the struggle against the material constitution of alienated labor in social practice, as well as our >experience of alienated social relations. That is why John insists on the notions of fetishization and detishization, as active practices, processes, >struggles. And he never has them separate from the specific form of alienated labor which he speaks about. The separation of the producers from the means of producing is unique, qualitatively, to capital as a social form which relies on the constant process of primitive accumulation (The Commoner 2 and 3, articles by Werner Bonefeld, Sylvia Federici, Midnight Notes and Massimo de Angelis). Nowhere else is labor free from the means of laboring so completely and also free from from personal bondage (patriarchy) to the exploiting class. John is certainly all over this aspect of labor which is specifically capitalist and which constitutes fetishism in its specific form. (pp. 179-187 where John discusses its historical development and specificity to capital.)

But beginning with The German Ideology, and continued at length in the Grundrisse, the notion that the development of the division and productivity of labour through various forms of property gives rise to the material pre-requisites of communism, was, for Marx, central.

This is mixing issues. First, Marx certainly saw material prerequisites for communism as necessary. Communism, contrary to some anarchism, was not always a leap of consciousness away, but had become possible on the basis of certain types of social relations creating both the social and material preconditions for communism. Secondly, there is this idea that history represented a series of necessary stages from Slavery to Feudalism to Capitalism. Slavery did NOT have to give rise to feudalism. There was not logical progression from other pre-capitalist social relations to capitalism either. The necessity of this progression is read backwards into history, in part by Marx who wanted to equate the bourgeois revolutions with the proletarian revolutions, a rather dubious idea on at least two separate accounts, and which was NOT central to Marx"s critique of capital and the possibility for communism.

Capital itself, however we got here, provided a sufficient basis for communism. That we got here by class struggle does not tell us that WE had to get HERE. It has no teleological component and to the degree that Marx attempts to impose one, he creates and a prioristic theory of history which contradicts the core of his work.

Since Holloway claims to be continuing the scientific inquiry begun by Marx (expressing the dialectic of negativity), it is incumbent on him to confront the question as to why the practical, daily struggle against fetishism should lead to the liberation of humanity to communism (for Holloway talks of the endlessness of the struggle for communism [p.152]).

Maybe I am being obtuse, but on the next page, John takes up exactly the dual nature of labor as capitalist labor but also as doing, creativity, practice. Defetishization leads to communism because defetishization involves the material transformation (which Mike Rooke misses in only focussing on "experience") of social life. Labor is our self-activity divided against us, which is John"s whole point and the point of take off for communism. I think that Rooke misses the point of the dualism of labor and the content of free labor which John goes into in detail as key. He is VERY historically specific in this whole discussion.

It may be the case that Holloway fights shy of any commitment in this direction due to his (justified) antipathy towards the Engelsian dialectic as an objective movement of nature and society independent of the subject (the positivistic brand of Marxism). Whilst his critique of this tendency is suitably incisive, the bending of the stick in the direction of treating everything as struggle becomes a too one-sided de-historicising of categories.

And here"s the rub. "everything as struggle becomes... too one-sided". Indeed, who now departs from Marx? If not struggle, then what exactly does give rise to the existing relations? Metaphysical structures? "Categories"? What categroies exist in abstensia from struggle? Rooke opens the critique but does not finish with his alternative.

Although, as with Marx, Holloway identifies communism with the absence of fetishism, a slippage into the abstraction of power in general is a constant throughout this book. Just as the eternal separation of doing and done is not Marxs starting point, neither is  communism simply reducible to the absence of power-over. Marx never abstracted communism from the material preconditions brought into being by capital.

This is really stretching things, as if John had not discussed this elsewhere. At the same time, I agree with him that the refusal to talk about the content of communism, and not its form, which is largely indeterminate outside of struggle, is a huge hole in the work. I just don"t think that it stems from his discussion of ideas like power-over/power-to and doing/done. It has a rather more material source which my review picks up.

We see this abstracting tendency at work when Holloway deals with value analysis. In contradistinction to the mainstream Marxist tradition, which has never fully appreciated the centrality of fetishism, Holloway makes it central to his account, which is informed throughout by the focus on the struggle against-and-beyond capital. But again he reverts to thinking in terms of doing and done, and power in general, leaving the discussion without sufficient historical specificity. Nowhere in Marx will you find a posing of labour, exploitation, domination, in general. There is no doing and done in general, only historically specific forms of labour associated with similarly specific modes of surplus extraction.

It would be intersting to see Rooke explain where John talks about "power in general". He does not go over all of the categories of capital in depth, such as use-value versus exchange-value, but he does talk about his understanding of Capital as Marx starting from alienated labor and fetishism and moving to ever more concrete and therefore ever more mediated forms of the capital-labor relation. He spends quite a bit of time on value, in fact, but without the intent of recapitulating Capital.

Why should he in a book which is not about the critique of political economy but about conceptualizing revolution and fundamental categories in Marx for the 21st century?

The Zapatista rebellion is a constant reference point for Holloway, an exemplar of the practical negation of the fetishisation of daily life.

And also an example which he treats as very specific and not a "model".

 The discussion of popular struggle in this book (the material reality of anti-power as Holloway refers to it) is cast in terms of the re-appropriation of the means of doing. In order to be truly emancipatory, movements of the oppressed must rely on a fluidity of organisational forms, leadership (all must become leaders) and political programmes. Clearly, the orthodox Marxist models of party and programme, not to mention the idea of a proletarian state, have the effect of reproducing the power- over that it is the aim of  revolution to abolish. Holloway rejects the politics of organisation in favour of an anti- politics of events (p.214). The aim is not to reproduce and expand the caste of militants (the organisation), but to blast open the continuum of history (p.214).

 Much of this is a necessary critique of some of the truly fetishistic organisational forms and practices of the Third and Fourth International traditions (and is reminiscent of the approach of the Socialism or Barbarism/Solidarity current of the 60s and 70s). But it conceals a serious lack. In his important attempt to re-cast Marxism as a truly radical theory of anti-power the dissolving of all externality (p.176) Holloway has avoided any concrete investigation of the relation between party and class and the organisational forms which these take. He poses the question of re-appropriation of the means of doing repeatedly throughout the book, with, it has to be said, originality and power. But there, at a fairly high level of abstraction, Holloway leaves it, taking refuge in warnings of fetishised thinking: To think in terms of property [expropriation of M.R.] is, however, still to pose the problem in fetishised terms.

 But the question of organisation of unions, of factory committees, of neighbourhood committees, of soviets/ workers councils and the relation of these to the organisation of revolutionaries, remains central to revolutionary tactics and strategy in situations of dual power and transition. It is the site of the practical testing out of the relation of theory to practice. Struggle, of course is always a shifting interrelation of leaders, programmes and mass action, and will never exist in an unfetishised form the Zapatistas included. It is interesting that the historical examples that Holloway mentions approvingly as examples of leaderless, protean, struggle May 1968 in France, the Stalinist collapse in Eastern Europe, the Zapatista rebellion, and the anti- globalisation movement while certainly being event centred, are perfect examples of movements characterised by a lack of organisational focus and strategic coordination, and which stop short of challenging the social order in a fundamental way. In this Holloway bows unnecessarily before spontaneity in celebrating the abstraction of pure, elemental, unfetishised rebellion.

Some of this is indeed true enough. In fact, John fails to grapple with the content. Rooke here seems a bit fixated on the forms, which are not so simple to gauge and not necessarily predictable. But the content of different types of organization should have been dealt with. John bends the stick not so much, IMO, because of theoretical weaknesses, but for other reasons.

Within the limits set by his own categories, Holloway has drawn out in a consciously dialectical fashion the opposing poles of fetishised power (manifested in party and state) and anti-power. His discursive method involves a continuous interrogation of categories, attacking all fixity, and drawing out the negative content. The book therefore becomes a dialogue between closed and open ways of apprehending the fetishised results of human practice. The result is an incisive and original demolition of the reified categories of much mainstream Marxist theorising. And theorising it is, since the retreat of Marxism  into the academy has reduced it to the status of a classic school of social science. But in a strange paradox, Holloway has ended up almost fetishising struggle itself, identifying it as an absolute negation of creativity, rather than seeing it also as that which makes struggle possible.

This last sentence is hyperbole. It simply does not hold up in a close textual reading, IMO.

For Marx there was no struggle without organisation, and his entire lifes work was inextricably bound up with the task of moulding revolutionaries into organisations capable of connecting with workers struggles. What is missing from Holloways book is a consideration of the dialectic of consciousness and organisational form at different stages of class struggle. Holloways dialectical presentation remains too abstract, missing the more concrete dialectic that exists between these two. This perhaps explains why there is no substantial engagement in the book with the actual experience of the Russian revolution and the degeneration of the Soviet state, and why the critique of Stalinism in this book is too abstract.

Why not the Spanish Civil war? The critique of Leninism IS a critique of Stalinism. "The Bolsheviks and Workers" Control" by Brinton showed that Stalinism represented very little break with Bolshevism. The "degeneration of the Soviet State" is a typical sort of Troskyist phrasing that sounds like a leftover from an ill-digested self-critique. John"s whole point was that the creation of a "Soviet state" indicated the murder of the revolution. Paresh Chattopdhyay"s work, among others, confirms this. Should John have spent a hundred pages on... that?

In the political work of the Left Opposition (Trotsky, Serge, Rakovsky), and the Left-Communist/Council Communist tradition (Pannekoek, Gorter, Ruhle, Korsch, Mattick), we have an invaluable record of how revolutionaries grappled with all the unavoidable problems of counter-power in the circumstances of transition beyond the rule of capital. Given the focus of Holloways book the exploration of a future beyond the fetishised structures of the present this surely deserved more attention.

Yes, but in content, not in form, a task which would require a much larger and very different book. This is asking the impossible in the way it is phrased. And again the focus on the Left Opposition, but never the Workers" Opposition or the Left Communists in 1918. Or Voline, Makhno and other anarchists. Half-steps, always half-steps.

There is therefore a major lacuna at the end of this book. On the vital and immediate question of how revolutionaries should organise themselves in relation to class struggles, Holloway has no practical perspective to offer. He makes the following admission: How then do we change the world without taking power? At the end of the book, as at the beginning, we do not know. The Leninists know, or used to know. We do not (p.215). This really is taking the humility of Marxist theorising too far!

No, it it as much the admission that no one can claim to have answered that question. It is a demand to listen to the struggles around us, to think through them and try to grapple with what they raise, not simply try to impose our preconceived forms upon them. But to have made this argument effectively, John would have had to raise the question of oganization in a very different way. In so far as I was also dissatisfied with this aspect, I concur with Rooke that there is a critique to be made. But Rooke does not make it from the right end.

After the collapse of Stalinism and the Communist parties, and with an increase in the variety and tempo of anti-capitalist struggles, the relevance of Marxism for the struggle for communism has never been greater. Holloways book is in this context a valuable contribution to the discussion about how regenerate Marxism. It deserves to be widely read and debated.

Something I have noticed in the couple of reviews I have seen is that no one has captured the importance of John"s book as a critique on the real competitor for self-understanding in the misnamed anti-globalization movement: the various post-alities of Deleuze, Guattari, Foucault, Althusser, etc. all re-read through Negri. Leninism is less appealing to many of the people now participating, but also, through Althusser we should remember that Leninism and (post-)structuralism do not have to be at odds and that it can resurface in various ways, as in Negri"s apologias for Leninism and Zizek"s love of Lenin"s desire to "take power without changing the world", a reactionary perspective indeed. I have even had Marxist-Humanists tell me grinningly of Zizek"s love of Lenin's ruthlessness. Such lust will hardly win adherents, but it comes covered in different trappings.

John"s book is an antidote to this too.