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Review Article

The Limitations of "Open Marxism"

John Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power, Pluto, 2002. Paperback, 240pp, £15.99.

Reviewed by Mike Rooke

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). 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 Holloway’s 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". In contradistinction to metaphysical materialism (which begins from the primacy of the material world) Holloway’s 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. 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"). In his discourse of the rupture of doing and done, Holloway relies on Marx’s category of alienated labour. The attempt to develop Marx’s category is based on a critique of orthodox Marxism’s 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. 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.

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 Marx’s 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. In developing this argument Holloway draws on both Marx and Lukács, but employs his own distinctive categories: "doing" and "done"; "power-to" and "power-over"; and "anti-power". I wondered throughout whether Holloway’s discourse of doing and done adds anything qualitatively new to Marx’s labour-capital antagonism. 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). 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) Marx’s historically specific dialectic of labour and a more general ontology of "doing".

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. 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 Lukács, Rubin and Debord) to have underestimated (or simply ignored) the centrality of fetishism for an understanding of capitalism and its overthrow.

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. Lukács’s 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, Holloway’s 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.

Holloway’s 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. Marx’s idea that there is a logic to the historical process has become distinctly unfashionable in these days of the celebration of contingency and indeterminacy. 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. 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]). 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. 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 Marx’s 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.

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.

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

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. For Marx there was no struggle without organisation, and his entire life’s work was inextricably bound up with the task of moulding revolutionaries into organisations capable of connecting with workers struggles. What is missing from Holloway’s book is a consideration of the dialectic of consciousness and organisational form at different stages of class struggle. Holloway’s 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.

In the political work of the Left Opposition (Trotsky, Serge, Rakovsky), and the Left-Communist/Council Communist tradition (Pannekoek, Gorter, Rühle, 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 Holloway’s book – the exploration of a future beyond the fetishised structures of the present – this surely deserved more attention.

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!

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. Holloway’s book is in this context a valuable contribution to the discussion about how regenerate Marxism. It deserves to be widely read and debated.