In perspective: John Holloway

Issue: 136
Posted: 8 October 12

Paul Blackledge

John Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power (2002), like that other key text of autonomist post-Marxism, Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s Empire (2000), cut with the grain of the global anti-capitalist mood at the beginning of the millennium.1 More than this, Holloway’s book was the focus for important debates on the international left2 and deserves praise both for emphasising the link between socialism and human self-activity and for criticising the idea that the capitalist state can be used to bring about socialist change.

Nevertheless, Change the World Without Taking Power was also a very flawed book. This is perhaps most evident in its central idea of the “scream”. This concept is much more problematic than Holloway initially allowed. He argued that screams are the elemental way we react to capitalism-a system we create but which we experience as an alien and oppressive power over us.3 If this approach allowed him to focus on the self-activity of ordinary people, this strength was undermined by his reluctance, at least in the first edition of his book, to differentiate between various forms of scream. It might be true, for example, that the student riots at Millbank in 2010 expressed screams of anger against the system, but so too does the demand for “British jobs for British workers”. More generally, as Michael Löwy argues, screams can often take a destructive form: he points out that it’s hard to imagine how screams taking the form of “suicide, going mad, terrorism, and other sorts of anti-human responses to the system” could act as the “starting point for emancipation”.4 This simple yet profound point suggests that we need some positive standpoint by which we might judge individual acts. Unfortunately, though Holloway has come to accept the claim that screams can take reactionary forms and that this creates a problem for any approach that starts from the scream, he has little to say about the concrete mechanisms by which this problem might be overcome beyond writing that “an anti-authoritarian form of articulation will tend to filter out authoritarian expressions of the scream”.5

If this claim is palpably inadequate in the face, for instance, of the struggle against fascism, this weakness reflects Holloway’s general refusal of any positive criterion for emancipation. Indeed, he goes beyond a denial of any such criterion to suggest that those who argue otherwise reproduce the kind of hierarchical institutional forms against which the anti-capitalist movement should be fighting. It is on the basis of this claim that he makes a distinction between what he calls “traditional Marxism” and his own interpretation of Marxism which he roots in Marx’s suggestion that communism is not an ideal but rather “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things”.6

Holloway argues that the logic of Marx’s position is that “we do not know” how to change the world.7 At one level this is a perfectly reasonable claim-clearly there is no idiot’s guide to revolution that can lead us to the Promised Land. The problem is that Holloway means much more than that the left must feel its way out of the political ghetto. For him, not knowing has become something of a shibboleth by which he delineates his interpretation of Marxism from “traditional Marxism”. However, Holloway’s category of “traditional Marxism” involves a caricatured presentation of, especially, Lenin’s thought as an ideology of “knowers” who seek to impart revolutionary consciousness into the working class from without.8 What is more, he performs a contradiction of his own by playing down the way his interpretation of Marxism depends upon him “knowing” the truth of a whole series of propositions, for instance about the nature of alienation, the state and traditional Marxism, which are, to say the least, highly contentious.

These problems are evident in his latest book, Crack Capitalism-a work best understood as an attempt to complement and go beyond the limits of Change the World Without Taking Power. Crack Capitalism opens with an analogy. Though capitalism appears to be a closed room with no doors or windows through which we might escape, the room is in fact riddled with a myriad of tiny “cracks”. These cracks reflect the multiple ways in which people resist the alienation of modern life. The examples he cites are eclectic, but far from exhaustive. They include gardening, composing, reading, striking, occupying, spending time with children, etc. If the list could be endless because there are endless ways that we say no to the system, Holloway’s enticing answer to the question “What can we do?” involves trying to “expand and multiply” these cracks to break capitalism.9 This argument follows directly from the thesis of Change the World Without Taking Power-Holloway believes that each of these cracks is a concrete manifestation of practices based upon particular examples of the scream, and that they all, in their various ways, begin to prefigure alternative ways of life that point beyond our alienated existence.10

At one level Holloway’s cracks point to something real in our lives. When I play with my children, for instance, we experience a joy that suggests an escape from the instrumentalism of modern life. However, it takes only a moment’s consideration to recognise that although my play might be one example among many of the ways in which people cannot be reduced to the neoliberal fantasy of homo economicus,11 it is also the case that this behaviour poses no threat to the system. On the contrary, as a father I can easily be addressed as a consumer either to buy toys for my children or to buy a house in the catchment area of the “best” school, and I certainly feel the pressure of “pester power” by which advertisers aim to commodify all aspects of leisure time. It is because similar pressures are brought to bear on gardeners, readers and composers, etc that we should be very cautious about placing too much faith in many of the practices listed by Holloway as pointing beyond our alienated existence: each of these is, in one way or another, an aspect of the system of alienation. One need only think, for instance, of the way that even playing with children tends increasingly to be justified in instrumental terms: “It’s good for their education, which will be good for their career etc.”

This issue points to a fundamental weakness with the way Holloway makes use of Marx’s concept of alienation. The great strength of his book lies in its reiteration of the claim that Marx’s concept of “abstract labour” marks the deepening in Capital (1867) of the term alienation used most readily in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844).12 By alienation Marx meant something very different from the way this word is used in ordinary language. Typically, alienation is used in ordinary language to describe a vague feeling of angst or meaninglessness. For Marx, by contrast, alienation refers to something much more precise.13 He argued that humans are essentially social animals who meet their needs by working together on nature. Our nature is thus simultaneously determined, we have a variety of biological and historical needs for food and warmth, etc, and free, we can choose among different strategies to meet these needs. Capitalism robs us of this freedom because production aimed at the market ensures that everyone loses control over (is alienated from) both what is produced and how we produce it. Moreover, though capitalism is an integrated social form of production, individual appropriation means that we are alienated from the social aspect of our nature: markets are unable to register anything but individual desires. Finally, we have an alienated relationship to nature: rather than feeling ourselves to be part of nature, consumers confront nature merely as a means of meeting individual needs.14

Marx’s concept of alienation is thus a model of how we are dehumanised by capitalism, and by linking this idea with a central concept within Capital Holloway helps to remind us that Marx never dropped his youthful humanistic critique of capitalism in his more mature works. This is important because the concept of abstract labour sits at the core of Marx’s mature critique of political economy. Indeed, it is by means of this concept that Marx overcame fundamental problems with the ways Adam Smith and David Ricardo conceived the labour theory of value.15 Whereas neither Smith nor Ricardo fully grasped how distinct and very different types of labour could be compared, Marx was able to solve this problem through the argument that labour had a dual character: it was both “concrete labour”-the specific act of working to produce useful things-and “abstract labour”-the process of value creation through the equalisation of concrete acts of labour under the discipline of competition.16 Because abstract labour is value realised in the marketplace, and because the production of things for sale as commodities in the marketplace creates a world that takes the form of an alien power over us, abstract labour is best understood as alienated labour.

Unfortunately, despite reiterating this important point, in his concrete analysis of capitalism Holloway simultaneously over- and underestimates the reality of alienation. The kernel of truth in his critique of “traditional Marxism” is that many 20th century Marxists downplayed the significance of the concept of abstract labour. Starting from weaknesses with Engels’s popularisation of Marx’s ideas, these writers tended to skirt over the discussion of value in the first chapter of Capital. This led many of them to conflate Marx’s theory of value with Ricardo’s, effectively reducing the concept of abstract labour to (an agglomeration of simplified acts of) concrete labour. This approach not only obscured the specifically capitalist character of value, it also opened the door to criticisms of the labour theory deployed by neo-Ricardians in the 1970s. By rejecting the labour theory of value, these critics tended to reduce socialism to a moral critique of exploitation.

This movement tended to reverse Marx’s political evolution. Marx’s comment about socialism being the “real movement of things” was intended to help move the left beyond the limitations of moralistic conceptions of politics. Whereas moralists imagined universal moral truths, for Marx capitalism was a historically specific system of alienation (unfreedom) and the concrete form taken by human freedom in the modern world was through those specific forms of solidarity by which workers struggled for real democracy against the reduction of their conditions of life to forms of abstract labour. In the 1970s those theorists-including Holloway and writers associated with this journal17-who sought to defend Marx from the criticisms made by the neo-Ricardians looked for inspiration to writers beyond the mainstream tradition of Marxist political economy. The most important writer they looked to was the Russian economist (and victim of Stalinism) Isaac Ilyich Rubin. In contrast to the dominant voices of 20th century Marxism, Rubin’s articulation of the labour theory of value focused on the first chapter of Capital generally and Marx’s concept of abstract labour more specifically.

Unfortunately, though Rubin’s interpretation of Marx provided socialists with powerful ammunition to counter the neo-Ricardian critique of value theory, it had weaknesses of its own. Because the commodity (rather than capitalism) is the focus of the first chapter of Capital, analysts who focus one-sidedly on this part of Marx’s work have tended to invert rather than correct the errors associated with the traditional interpretation of the labour theory of value. Thus, as opposed to the dominant tendency to reduce abstract labour to concrete labour, theorists associated with the Rubin tradition have, by focusing on the realisation of the value of commodities in the process of exchange, tended to disassociate concrete and abstract labour.18 This, in effect, is Holloway’s position. He transforms Marx’s analytical distinction between abstract and concrete labour into a division between non-alienated “doing” and alienated production for the market.19 He argues that acts of concrete labour can be understood as acts of doing and that the cracks within capitalism reflect contradictions between doing and alienation: the focus of his book is therefore on “the conflict between concrete doing and abstract labour, on the struggle of doing against labour”.20

But this distinction isn’t tenable. Under capitalism labour is simultaneously abstract and concrete.21 When I teach, for instance, while I can make an analytical distinction between the concrete way I teach and the way that my teaching is abstractly compared with other forms of labour in the marketplace, in practice I cannot separate out the concrete act of teaching from the way it exists within alienated relations. I might be able to imagine teaching in a way that isn’t structured around tests and marks for reified chunks of knowledge, but the reality of my actual teaching is determined by the demands of the job: it is saturated by alienated relations. This is true of all forms of concrete labour within a capitalist economy-even those not oriented to the market. Thus even outside work, when we read, cook, decorate or whatever, the very fact that we live our lives around objectively determined and alienated divisions between work time and leisure time means that all our actions are overdetermined by alienated relations: one needs only think of the experiences either of vegetating exhaustedly in front of a TV after a day at work or “playing” a sport that is increasingly regimented along lines reminiscent of factory production to recognise that it would be a grave mistake to posit a simple distinction between work and leisure22-and this is before we take into consideration the ways new technologies help work colonise our leisure time. More generally it is impossible to be powerless before an alien world at work, and then magically to become autonomous self-determining agents when we read, play, socialise or have sex. Even more, it is wishful thinking to believe that somehow concrete acts of labour at work can prefigure non-alienated relations of the future: market relations do not just compare abstract labour-they shape the concrete ways we actually labour.

Holloway underestimates the consequence of this process because he one-sidedly focuses on the way that capitalism, by forcing us to compare concrete acts of labour in the marketplace so that we can sell our products for money to buy things we need to live, robs labour of its intrinsic value and replaces it with an instrumental logic. He gives the example of cake baking: a talent, he suggests, that might have emerged because someone enjoys baking, eating and sharing cakes, but which if expanded into market production becomes a mere means to the end of making money.23 Unfortunately this example is very misleading, for though it illuminates the process by which market exchange forces production to become ever more efficient in ways that deprive it of any intrinsic value, it misses a deeper interrelationship between use values and exchange values under capitalism. Specifically, capitalism determines not only how we produce24 but also what it is useful to produce in the first place. Tanks have the use value of being able to kill, nuclear power stations are useful for making nuclear bombs, bakers play a role in reproducing the labour force as cheaply as possible, and among the uses of teachers is an ability to fail an awful lot of people in ways that help justify the existing division of labour. As these examples suggest, doing is not only made more instrumental by commodity exchange, but is profoundly shaped by this process. Indeed, under capitalism the only use values that will be produced for the market are those that have an exchange value, and the “doings” that produce many of these things will have no place in a socialist society.

So while it is true, as Holloway points out, that “concrete labour exists…in any society”,25 it is far from the case that the forms of concrete labour as they exist in capitalist society can prefigure a non-alienated future. A massive amount of them will not exist, and those that continue to exist-house building and food production, for instance-will be transformed fundamentally.

This is not to say that alienation is absolute. It would be foolish to imagine capitalist society simply as a form of social atomisation, for, alongside tendencies to reduce human interaction to a space of clashing individual wills, modern society is simultaneously characterised by forms of solidarity by which people rebel against alienation. These processes help maintain forms of sociality against the pressures of egoism and this helps explain how we are able to imagine types of sex or parenting, for instance, that are either more or less instrumental or through which we are more or less able to realise our social individuality. Nevertheless, because alienation is a social phenomenon-we are social beings who have lost control of the way that we socially interact with nature to meet our needs-it cannot be solved individually or even locally, and any solution will be a lot more complex than merely freeing doing from the rule of abstract labour.

One reason Holloway shies away from this obvious corollary of Marx’s conception of alienation is that he imagines it permits no room from which to imagine an alternative to capitalism. Indeed, he believes that the alternative to his vision of doing against abstract labour involves choosing between either Theodor Adorno’s extreme pessimism or Lenin’s supposed elitism.26 But this is a false dichotomy.

Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, on which Holloway draws,27 opens with a famous critique of the Hegelian notion of the “negation of the negation”.28 The aim of this criticism was not simply theoretical-to deny the positive content of the dialectic; more importantly it was practical-to deny that workers’ solidarity was able to point beyond our alienated existence. Conversely, when Marx rescued this concept from its metaphysical baggage he deployed it (at least in one of his uses) to make sense of the way that capitalism not only dehumanises people (the negation) but also of how, in rebelling against this condition, these dehumanised people create networks of solidarity that point towards a positive alternative to capitalism (the negation of the negation).29 How can we adjudicate this debate? The key point is to grasp, first, that recognising the importance of the concept of abstract labour does not entail dismissing labour movement struggles30 and, second, that beneath the philosophical language there are competing interpretations of the nature of the workers’ movement within capitalism. Whereas Marx thought that this movement pointed towards the possibility of socialism, Adorno believed that these struggles were trapped within alienated relations. The key weakness in Adorno’s argument, according to Raya Dunayevskaya, was a failure to “listen to the voices from below”. Adorno, she argues, overlooked the ways in which real workers developed forms of organisation that pointed beyond the struggle within capitalism towards a struggle against it.31

Insofar as Holloway justifies his own version of Adorno’s critique of the labour movement he does so through reference to arguments put forward by Moshe Postone in his Time, Labour, and Social Domination (1996).32 But just as Dunayevskaya criticised Adorno, Peter Hudis and David McNally have pointed to the fundamental weaknesses with Postone’s reduction of the labour movement to the movement of abstract labour. Thus, in a critique of Postone that is directly relevant to Holloway’s work, Hudis argues that “the struggle of the proletariat does not simply involve a struggle over the distribution of value. It involves a struggle over the very existence of value”.33

If Holloway accepts Adorno’s one-sided critique of the labour movement, he simultaneously assumes that a variant of this position was shared by Lenin. Indeed, he repeats a variant of what Lars Lih calls the “textbook interpretation” of Leninism.34 According to this model, Lenin had a condescending attitude to workers who, he believed, were only able to attain “trade union consciousness”. Socialist consciousness was therefore to be introduced by an elite of Marxists to the working class from without. These Marxists would use the workers as their stage army through which they would aim at winning state power. Once in power, their combined elitism and statism would, despite their best intentions, reproduce exactly the kind of alienated hierarchical relations against which they were supposed to be fighting.35

Unfortunately, because something like this interpretation of Russian history became a commonplace on both sides of the Cold War (in a neat symbiosis the idea that Lenin led to Stalin helped justify not only Stalinism in the East but also the liberal critique of Marxism in the West) and because it has become a lazy commonsense in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, casual readers of Change the World Without Taking Power have tended not to question Holloway’s criticisms of Lenin. This is unfortunate, because these are among the weakest arguments in Holloway’s books.

According to Holloway, one problem with “traditional Marxism” is its failure to see that because abstract labour is alienated labour, movements which start from abstract labour will remain trapped in alienated relations. From this perspective, the labour movement, and traditional Marxists who orient towards it, are doomed to remain trapped within alienated relations because labour movement struggles fundamentally concern the conditions of sale of labour power. The struggle for better terms and conditions at work may be justifiable in its own terms, but these struggles cannot point beyond capitalism: Holloway insists that “to take wage labour (or simply labour) as the basis of the anti-capitalist movement is quite simply to entrap that movement within capital”.36 His rejection of Leninism is therefore predicated upon his agreement with what he understands to be Lenin’s (and Adorno’s) critique of the limitations of working class consciousness!

It might seem strange that Holloway has come to this conclusion given the parallels between his work and Italian autonomism, for autonomism emerged as a political expression of the way that working class struggles in post-war Italy tended to push beyond the limits both of the Stalinist Communist Party and trade unionism.37 Unfortunately, Holloway’s political conclusions are less idiosyncratic than they at first appear. For one of the key problems with Italian autonomism was that its most important theorists reacted to the defeats suffered by the workers’ movement in the 1970s by twisting the definition of the working class in a way that allowed them to dismiss organised workers as a new form of labour aristocracy while shifting their orientation towards the struggles of students and the unemployed.38 While it was undoubtedly right to relate to these movements, autonomist criticisms of organised labour acted as a barrier to the kind of sober assessment of the defeats suffered by the labour movement which would have allowed them to maintain an orientation to the working class when the struggle was on the downturn.39

One problem with Holloway’s caricatured critique of Leninism is that it obscures the parallels between Lenin’s Marxism and the original insights of Italian autonomism. For instance, Lih shows that Lenin’s entire orientation to the workers’ movement was predicated on the fact that workers’ struggles and workers’ consciousness tend to spill over from the limits of mere trade unionism.40 It is because Holloway, not Lenin, dismisses the socialist potential of the workers’ movement that he is unable to conceive of revolutionary parties other than as elites that hand down commands to the working class from above. This is even true when he has insight enough to recognise that the “existence of what is sometimes called a ‘vanguard’ probably cannot be avoided”.41 Holloway is right about this: it is precisely because movements from below are fragmentary, sectional and uneven that they will generate leaders (vanguards) at any particular juncture. He is also right that left activists should not waste their time debating whether vanguards should or should not exist-they are simply a fact of struggle-but should instead discuss the nature of socialist leadership.

Unfortunately, his reification of labour movement struggles as struggles trapped within alienated relations means he is unable to see beyond the caricatured view of Leninists as those who insist on making the revolution for the working class.42 Lenin, by contrast, was sharply critical of the model of socialist leadership that Holloway ascribes to him. Indeed, he argued that a revolutionary party must aim at organising the real leadership of the movement from below. Thus, in a comment on the British left in 1920, he said that “we categorically insist on the British communists serving as a link between the party-that is, the minority of the working class-and the rest of the workers. If the minority is unable to lead the masses and establish close links with them, then it is not a party and is worthless in general”.43 Ironically, because Lenin understood vanguards as the organised leadership of real movements from below, many of the practical implications of his conception of leadership are not a million miles away from Holloway’s claim that revolutionary theory involves “feeling the way forward”.44

It is not that Holloway’s criticisms of the labour movement are without insight-it is clear that much of the leadership of the British labour movement has done its damndest to sabotage the recent pensions struggle, for instance. It is rather that his approach is one-dimensional.45 The strength of Holloway’s position comes from his understanding of how reformism, which is best understood as a strategy aimed at improving the condition of workers and other exploited and oppressed groups within the system of abstract labour (capitalism), has its highest expression at the level of the state. If real reforms have been won at this level the great weakness of reformism is that it tends to view the state as a neutral arbiter between conflicting interests within civil society. This is mistaken: states are “structurally interdependent” with capital, and, as we shall see below, their apparent neutrality merely reflects the specific form in which capital exploits wage labour.46 Because of this, Holloway is right to say that any social movement that aims to win state power will remain trapped within a broader capitalist framework, and this will limit possible reforms to those compatible with the demands of capital accumulation.

What Holloway’s account of abstract labour misses is that labour movement struggles cannot be reduced to this limit. Whereas the hegemony of reformism within the workers’ movement has roots both in the structural bargain over the price of labour power and reformism’s historical ability to deliver real reforms in periods of economic expansion, there is always a tension between reformism and workers’ self-activity and this tension tends to deepen as boom turns to bust. In such periods reformists tend to justify austerity as the only way to get capitalism back into good health. This approach exacerbates differences between ordinary workers and their leaders, and these differences become especially acute if and when workers begin to fight to maintain their standard of living. In situations such as these, because the real movement of workers effectively challenges the (capitalist) parameters of what reformists believe is possible, they create a space for revolutionaries to challenge the hegemony of reformism within the working class. Insofar as this approach is rooted in an orientation to forms of solidarity that prefigure socialism within capitalism, there is an overlap with Holloway’s claim that each step of socialist activity should “prefigure” the goal of socialism itself.47

However, because this struggle involves both a conflict between classes and a conflict for hegemony between reformists and revolutionaries within the working class it cannot simply prefigure socialism. Though workers’ solidarity is the basis for Marxism’s wager on the possibility of socialism, because the victory of socialism is merely one possibility among many, it is incumbent upon socialists to struggle to win the leadership of the movement from below. While this struggle does not prefigure socialism, neither is it a hierarchical imposition on the workers’ movement. Rather it involves attempts both to make workers self-conscious of the anti-capitalist implications of their own actions and to win them over from the reformist claim that these implications are impractical. To dismiss the socialist potential of labour movement struggles is therefore not merely mistaken; it effectively means surrendering leadership of these movements to those reformists who would sacrifice them to the goal of capital accumulation.

It was Marx’s great insight about the working class, made on the basis of involvement with socialist circles in Paris and through the experience of the Silesian weavers’ revolt,48 that the movement of this “new-fangled” class developed solidarities that tended to overflow the confines of alienation and point towards a new form of democracy. In contrast not simply to aristocratic rule but also to the limited political forms of bourgeois democracy, because workers’ struggles tend to overcome the division between politics and economics they point to a deepening of the concept of freedom as real democracy. This linkage between workers’ struggles and the idea of democracy is fundamentally important to Marx because it points to a real alternative to capitalism immanent within struggles against it.49 Whereas bourgeois democracy reflects the capitalist separation between politics and economics, there is historical evidence aplenty that struggles rooted in the workplace tend towards a new form of democracy that overcomes this separation.50 It is because this conception of democracy sits at the core of Marxism’s positive alternative to capitalism that Holloway’s division between “traditional Marxism” and Marx’s conception of socialism as the “real movement of things” is unsustainable. Traditional Marxism, or at least the classical tradition from Marx and Engels through Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, Gramsci and others,51 is best understood as a developing tradition rooted in lessons drawn from the real movement of ordinary workers.

Far from being an invention of a vanguard, this positive alternative to capitalism is a real tendency within workers’ struggles. And far from the vanguard acting as an “external force”52 imposing its ideas on the movement, it is best understood as the most advanced sections of the movement for democracy. Interestingly, whereas the concept of democracy is immanent to Marx’s model of workers’ struggles, it is much less central to Holloway’s work. This is not to say that he has nothing to say about democracy. Far from it: when he was pushed by Michael Löwy to explain the relative absence of the concept of democracy from Change the World Without Taking Power, he replied with a defence of workers’ councils as the basis for real democracy that (mistaken comments on the nature of Leninism to one side) could easily have come from the pages of International Socialism.53

However, whereas our conception of workers’ democracy is rooted in the way that the real movement of workers against capitalism tends to overcome the division between politics and economics, Holloway’s comments on this topic appear as a disjointed add-on to the rest of his work. This is unsurprising once we recognise that the cracks Holloway notices within capitalism originate in a myriad of “screams” based on a myriad of “doings”. It is merely wishful thinking to suppose that these practices can come together in a democratic alternative to capitalism-and reference to the Zapatista slogan of a “world of many worlds” merely serves to rephrase the problem.54 Conversely, because the workers’ movement can only triumph on the basis of its unity, real democracy is immanent in the solidarities that must be forged by workers in their struggles to resist capitalism. Indeed, it is because these forms of solidarity challenge the idea of egoistic individualism that this movement within capitalism is also the basis of the movement against capitalism.

One key difference between this movement and Holloway’s conception of a movement of a myriad of cracks is that whereas the former creates the basis for a systemic alternative to capitalism,55 it is difficult to imagine the latter except, at best, as a variety of forms of resistance to capitalism. This explains a superficially curious characteristic of his work. Despite his ultra-radical rhetoric, his practical suggestions are very close to the self-consciously statist reformism of writers such as Hilary Wainwright.56 For instance, in a discussion of the relationship of social centres to local councils, Holloway dismisses the idea of a “golden rule” by which any contact with the state is forbidden.57 The problem with this argument is not that it is wrong-in a slightly different context I’ve worked alongside socialist councillors in Leeds who have helped facilitate anti-cuts groups in opposition to their own local and national party leadership-but rather that Holloway fails to raise theory to the level of practice. Instead his comments merely operate as an ad hoc justification for work alongside more openly reformist elements. If this reflects an admirable lack of sectarianism on his part, it sits alongside a dogmatic refusal seriously to engage with Marx’s arguments about the fundamental importance of a workers’ state in the revolutionary process.58

According to Marx, the idea of a workers’ state flows from the needs of this movement. This is what he argued in a famous letter to Joseph Weydemeyer:

And now as to myself, no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economists the economic anatomy of the classes. What I did that was new was to prove: (1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular phases in the development of production, (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, (3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.59

Far from having a statist perspective, Marx explicitly distanced his position from state socialism by arguing that “freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed on society into one thoroughly subordinated to it”.60 This is why Engels was able to equate the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat with real democracy: “Our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form of the dictatorship of the proletariat”.61

By contrast with Marx and Engels, Holloway professes an inability even to comprehend the idea of a workers’ state. Thus he rejects Alex Callinicos’s discussion of how the workers’ state idea emerges out of the needs of the movement from below with the claim that the concept of a workers’ state is “absolutely absurd”.62 This proposition explains Holloway’s insistence that Lenin was a state socialist despite the latter’s claim that socialism could only be won on the basis of “smashing” the existing state.63 By dismissing the concept of a workers’ state as an oxymoron, Holloway sidesteps any serious discussion of Lenin’s contribution to thinking through how, because revolutions
involve working class people collectively taking control of their own destiny in a context still inherently marked by the defects of the old regime, their rule will involve state-like practices. Thus he nowhere engages with how democratic structures based upon workers’ councils must decree, legislate, judge, punish and reward, distribute, organise, and take up arms against counter-revolution.64 Moreover, this gap in his thought is no mere personal idiosyncrasy: it reflects real limitations with his theory of the state.

Holloway’s approach to the problem of the state was framed by debates on the left in the 1960s and 1970s. He was one of a number of theorists associated with the journal Capital & Class who sought to move beyond the limitations of the debate between Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas about Marx’s theory of the state. Despite their different approaches, both Miliband and Poulantzas theorised state autonomy in ways that opened the door to reformist reformulations of Marxism.65 It was to help escape these limitations that Holloway and his co-thinkers looked to the German “state derivation” debate for answers.66 The core insight Holloway took from these theorists was that the apparent autonomy of the state in capitalist societies was in fact a fetishised reflection of the way that capitalist relations of production assume separate economic and political forms. This mistake, made in different ways by both Miliband and Poulantzas, meant that their analyses became entrapped in the fetishised appearance of states in ways that obscured their capitalist essence.67

While this perspective marked a step forward beyond the Miliband-Poulantzas debate, Colin Barker pointed to a fundamental weakness with Holloway’s approach. Because Holloway reduced capitalist relations of production to direct relations of exploitation his analysis of the relationship between state and capital operated at an inappropriate level of abstraction. Specifically, both the German debate and the exploration of this debate in the pages of Capital & Class failed to locate individual states within a system of states. Barker argued that this gap in the theory informed a misunderstanding of the state’s role vis-à-vis competition with other states and thus a misunderstanding of the way that as capitalism aged there emerged a tendency for states to intervene in the production process itself to foster national competitiveness. As a consequence, Holloway and his co-thinkers misconstrued the scale and nature of state intervention within both Eastern and Western economies in the 20th century.68

Holloway’s criticism of the concept of a workers’ state is best understood in relation to this weakness. Just as his understanding of capitalism blinded him to important aspects of the specific social content of modern states, his tendency to move too quickly from an analysis of the value form to conclusions about the state form underpins his rejection of the concept of a workers’ state.69 Specifically, his inability to conceive of workers’ states as forms of power distinct from capitalism is a consequence of this tendency to reduce all states to fetishistic expressions of capitalist relations of production.

Somewhat ironically, Holloway combines his rejection of Marx’s concept of a workers’ state with praise for the one institution that Marx and Engels associated with this concept: the Paris Commune.70 Engels wrote:

Of late, the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.71

By dismissing this argument, Holloway is able to conflate Lenin’s revolutionary politics with reformism through the less than illuminating claim that they both aim at winning “state power”.72 Moreover, he combines this criticism of Lenin with the equally trite suggestion that “the council…is quite different from the party”.73 Of course it is, but this does not mean that it makes sense to posit party and council as alternatives.74 It is far better to see the party as that section of the workers’ movement that is most conscious of, and the best fighters for, the democratic goals immanent to the workers’ movement.75

These weaknesses with Holloway’s argument are not merely of academic interest; they undermine his pretensions to offer a theory of revolution. Indeed, he repeats the type of anarchistic criticisms both of revolutionary parties and the distinction between workers’ and capitalist states that led Marx to write of Bakunin that “he understands absolutely nothing about the social revolution, only its political phrases”.76 Unfortunately, this seems an apt response to Holloway’s comments on the problem of what to do when revolutionary movements are confronted with the institutions of the state. Caught between the practical necessities of the movement from below-one need only think of contemporary movements in Egypt and Syria, for example-and a theoretical model that acts as a barrier to him engaging adequately with this problem, Holloway is left paralysed: on the one hand he writes that “it is probably a mistake to think of arms as being key to self-defence”, while on the other he admits, “I hum and I haw and I have no answer”.77 Though it would be foolhardy to counter this posture with the claim that classical Marxism has all the answers, it is nevertheless true that the history of the workers’ movement does provide us with lessons that are relevant today.

Holloway’s discussion of the link between abstract labour and alienation and his focus on human agency within the anti-capitalist movement are important counters to some of the more anti-humanistic voices within the movement. However, most evidently over the issue of state power, his theory falls short of the needs of the movement. To raise the level of his theory to the needs of revolutionary practice it is necessary that he moves beyond his one-sided conception of negativity, his overly abstract model of the state, his misunderstanding of the nature of alienation, and his caricatured interpretations of both the labour movement and classical Marxism. As it stands, his focus on “doing” against abstract labour means his politics remain unwittingly enmeshed within alienated relations that provide neither a basis for an adequate critique of capitalism nor a movement against it. In fact, insofar as he theorises a movement within capitalism that does not point beyond it, his approach resembles a variant of reformism.78


1: Bensaïd, 2005, p170.

2: See, for instance, the symposia in Capital & Class 85, 2005, Historical Materialism 13.4, 2005, and the essays collected at See also Gonzalez, 2003; Callinicos, 2003; Callinicos, 2004; and Harman, 2004

3: Holloway, 2010a, p1.

4: Löwy, 2005, p24.

5: Holloway, 2010a, pp227-228.

6: Holloway, 2010a, p219; see Marx and Engels, 1976, p49.

7: Holloway, 2010a, p215.

8: Holloway, 2010a, p225.

9: Holloway, 2010b, pp4-5; 11.

10: Holloway, 2010a, p221; 2010b, p29; 2012.

11: For an excellent critique of fantasies about human nature that populate economics textbooks see Keen, 2011, pp38-73.

12: Holloway, 2010b, p93.

13: Sayers, 2011, px.

14: Marx, 1975, pp322-334.

15: Rubin, 1979, pp248-255.

16: Saad-Filho, 2002, pp26-29; Rubin, 1973, pp131-158; Colletti, 1972, pp82-92.

17: Green 1978; 1979.

18: This is a very condensed version of an argument made by Alfredo Saad-Filho (Saad-Filho 1997; see also Saad-Filho, 2002, pp21-34; and Weeks, 1981; 1990).

19: Holloway, 2010b, p89.

20: Holloway, 2010b, p156.

21: Saad-Filho, 1997, p465.

22: Braverman, 1974, p278; Brohm, 1978.

23: Holloway, 2010b, p92.

24: Holloway, 2010b, pp94, 98.

25: Holloway, 2010b, p92.

26: Holloway, 2010b, pp213, 217.

27: Holloway, 2009a; 2009b.

28: Adorno, 1973, pxix.

29: Marx, 1976, p929.

30: See Green, 1978.

31: Dunayevskaya, 2002, p187.

32: Holloway, 2010b, pp172, 187.

33: Hudis, 2004, p155; McNally, 2004.

34: Lih, 2006.

35: Holloway, 2010b, p59.

36: Holloway, 2010b, pp104, 159.

37: On Holloway’s relationship to autonomism see Holloway, 2010a, pp160-175; 2010b, p190. For a friendly overview of the emergence of autonomism see Cleaver, 2000, pp58-77, and for a more critical note see Fuller, 1980.

38: Callinicos, 2001, p38; more generally, see Wright, 2002.

39: Compare this approach with Cliff, 1979, and Harman, 1979. A similar tendency is apparent today among those who dismiss organised workers and fetishise the so-called precariat as a revolutionary alternative.

40: Lih, 2006; Blackledge, 2006.

41: Holloway, 2010a, p230.

42: Holloway, 2010a, pp230-231.

43: Lenin, 1991, p170.

44: Holloway, 2010a, p220.

45: Indeed, it involves a retreat from his earlier formulations about the nature of labour movement struggles-Holloway, 1995b, p178.

46: Harman, 1991, p13.

47: Holloway, 2010a, p221.

48: Perkins, 1993, pp15-45.

49: Blackledge, 2008, p135; 2010a, pp114-117; 2012, pp56-59.

50: See the essays collected in Ness and Azzellini, 2011.

51: Molyneux, 1985.

52: Holloway, 2009b, p95.

53: Holloway, 2011; 2010b, p40.

54: Holloway, 2010b, p210.

55: Blackledge, 2011.

56: Wainwright 2003; Wainwright and Holloway, 2011.

57: Holloway, 2010a, pp235, 262. The overlaps between Holloway’s politics and left reformism go back a long way. See, for instance, the tension expressed in a book written by a group including Holloway and left reformists-CSE State Apparatus and Expenditure Group, 1979, p129.

58: Holloway, 2010a, p217.

59: Marx, 1983, pp62-65.

60: Marx, 1974, p354.

61: Engels, 1990b, p227.

62: Callinicos and Holloway, 2005, p122.

63: Holloway, 2010a, p11; 2010b, p83; Lenin, 1968.

64: Thanks to Colin Barker for this point.

65: Harman, 1991, p4.

66: On the German debate, see Nachtwey and ten Brink, 2008.

67: Holloway and Picciotto, 1991, pp112-117; 1978, p19.

68: Barker, 1978; 1991, p206. This continues to be the case even in the wake of Holloway’s partial acceptance of Barker’s arguments-see Holloway, 1995a, p137.

69: Bob Jessop rightly argues that Holloway’s essentialist model of the relationship between state and capital informs a reductionism which obscures the specificity of the state form-Jessop, 1982, pp133-135. See also Bieler and Morton, 2003, p474.

70: Holloway, 2010b, p40.

71: Engels, 1990a, p191.

72: Holloway, 2010b, p83.

73: Holloway, 2010b, p40.

74: Holloway, 2010b, p60.

75: Harman, 2004, pp30-33, 39-44.

76: Marx, 1974, p334. See also Blackledge, 2010a; 2011.

77: Holloway, 2010b, p56; 2010a, p237.

78: See Callinicos, 2004; Harman, 2004.


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