Mike Gonzalez Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Mike Gonzalez

Crying out for revolution

(Summer 2003)

From International Socialism 2:99, Summer 2003.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

John Holloway
Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today
Pluto 2002, £15.99

For the anti-capitalist movement across the world, the Zapatista rising in Mexico in January 1994 was a kind of symbolic awakening. Although the movement would really reach a point of generalisation with the Seattle demonstrations against the WTO five years later, it looked back into a prehistory that seemed to begin with that indigenous rising in Chiapas. Its scream of defiance – Ya Basta! – became a watchword picked up and relayed by a new generation of rebels and resisters.

In some senses, the Zapatistas’ symbolic capital arose from the apparent simplicity of their act of resistance. Their wooden rifles and simple dress became iconic – representative of a kind of innocence, a purity of motive that appealed to a generation that wore Che Guevara

T-shirts and found its heroes among the uncorrupted voices of the oppressed like Malcolm X and Che. There was a strong moral impulse at the heart of this new kind of politics. And that was, without question, a reaction against a history of Stalinism which had brought Marxism into deep disrepute and through which the revolutionary ideal had been tainted with the recent memory of the Ceausescus and the Brezhnevs and the Hoxhas. They had each employed a grotesque parody of socialist ideas to legitimate their tyrannies.

Yet this new anti-capitalist movement seemed proud to describe itself as revolutionary, as an enemy of a global capitalist system of exploitation and oppression. Today, that movement has swollen and deepened, and added to its vocabulary of denunciation a concept of imperialism it has rediscovered for itself in the developing resistance to the military assault on Iraq.

The scream, to use John Holloway’s term, has become deafening.

As it has grown louder, the debate within the movement has begun to move from denunciation and critique to questions of revolution and the construction of a different society. What kind of world is this ‘better place’, this ‘possible place’ announced at successive world and European forums? And what are the obstacles that stand in the way of its creation? In the course of that discussion across the global movement, a number of distinct positions are beginning to emerge. [1]

We have dealt extensively in previous editions of this journal and other publications with the view that the existing nation-state can come to reflect and defend the demands for reform. In Europe, this hope is expressed in the campaigns around the Tobin tax – a limited redistributive measure through which some of global capitalism’s excesses might be attenuated by a small reduction of corporate profits. In recent months, this aspiration to reform and renegotiate the relative rules of participation in the world system found new reason for optimism with the emergence of what Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan president, wittily described as ‘the axis of good’. The combination of his own regime with the new Brazilian government of Lula and the recently elected Ecuadorean president Lucio Gutiérrez was seen by some commentators as representing a new space for democracy and reform, strong enough to challenge the prevailing norms in international trade. A very few months after Lula’s accession to power, however, he is confronting both the left within his own party and large sections of his working class base as he seeks to justify new conditions of austerity imposed by the international financial system. [2]

Large sections of the anti-capitalist movement are rightly sceptical of such views, of course. It does not take much searching through the annals of history to find examples of promises of renovation and reform that have been turned on their head in hours or days. In Britain, France and Spain, for example, social democratic parties promising profound transformations have built alliances with sections of the bourgeoisie against the working class and have enthusiastically assumed the priorities of global capital. The capitalist state is fast proving to a new generation its role in organising and maintaining capitalism itself.

For those without illusions in the capacity of the nation-state to reform itself, who are often among the most resolute fighters against it, a different body of ideas has been offered as a practice and a solution. The hugely successful (and often impenetrable) Empire, by Toni Negri and Michael Hardt, has found a keen audience among them. August Nimtz has offered a thorough (and in my view devastating) critique of their views in a recent edition of this journal. [3] But it is interesting to note Holloway’s own critique of Hardt and Negri, and in particular of their central concept of the ‘unrooted and amorphous “multitude” that has replaced the industrial proletariat’ (as Nimtz puts it). [4] Holloway appears in many ways to agree, in his critique:

Worst of all, perhaps, is the total eclipsing of the centrality of doing in the development of the concept of ‘multitude’. The concept of ‘working class’, for all its problems, for all its fetishised deformations, has at least the great merit of taking us to the centrality of human purposive activity, social doing. In the concept of multitude, this is lost completely. If doing is not at the centre of our thought, all that is left is opposition, not hope. [5]

In his rejection of Hardt and Negri, however, Holloway exposes some of the contradictions in his own thinking as well as setting out the problems of language that sometimes serve to obscure them.

Holloway employs a characteristic and highly idiosyncratic language to express his ideas. A couple of examples:

The crystallisation of that-which-has-been-done into a ‘thing’ shatters the flow of doing into a million fragments. Thing-ness denies the primacy of doing (and hence of humanity). [6]


Identity makes life bearable. Identity kills pain. Identity dulls feeling ... identity, that fragmentation that enables us to erect private morality into a wall to keep out the pain of the world. The scream is the recognition and confrontation of social pain. [7]

There is kind of democratic impulse behind this language – and a poetry that clearly borrows from the lyrical and intensely metaphorical writings of Subcomandante Marcos, the leader of the Zapatistas. [8] But it also bears an embedded critique of the language of scientific interpretation, and a concentration on the subjective as the terrain of revolution.

’It is from rage that thought is born, not from the pose of reason ...’ [9] That rage becomes ‘the scream’, which he defines as the negation, an opposition born from instinct or from a sense of other possibilities within us. ‘It is not only groups of people that are oppressed’, he says, ‘but particular aspects of our personality’. The scream comes from those suppressed areas of the self, and is evidence of what other potentialities lie within us all. And the imagined life in which those other parts may find expression is defined by (a term he borrows from Marcos) ‘dignity’ – the rediscovery of our full humanity.

Where Negri and Hardt suggest that that can be done by an act of physical and social withdrawal from the social relations of production, the creation of other ‘free’ spaces, Holloway remains too rooted in a Marxist understanding of capitalist production to buy the idea.

Indeed, the new language actually conceals understandings which may be found, often in equally poetic language, in the works of Marx himself. Commodity fetishism, on which Holloway rests so much of his case, was a concept which allowed Marx to address the way in which the world of objects, produced by human labour, then presents itself as a world of things outside, and indeed alien to the producer. ‘Identity’, in Holloway’s usage of the term, thus becomes a way of describing our equally fixed positions in relation to that world of things – our ‘power-to’, as he puts it, is subordinated to the ‘power-over’. ‘Criticism’, then, ‘is an assault on identity’. [10]

What follows is a kind of caricature of Marx and Marxism on which Holloway’s critique largely rests. He describes that relationship with a world of things as a kind of imprisonment from which only a self appointed elite may exclude themselves. That cartoon version of dialectical thought leads then to the critique of the revolutionary party as the substitute for the class. We may all be able to lay hold of examples of such distortions of the revolutionary tradition – the history of Stalinism and at times of Trotskyism offers a plethora of them. But all were predicated on the marginalisation of the working class from the revolutionary process. Yet in the tradition in which we stand, revolution is the self emancipation of the working class.

In among Holloway’s often imprecise and muddy metaphors it is easy to become confused as to why this is not his purpose too, especially since he frequently makes reference to the centrality of that idea. Yet at the same time he departs from it with an argument at once sophisticated and demobilising. Class, he argues, is the product of capitalist relations of production; we are working class because our labour is alienated. Clearly, the proletariat as a class will disappear, and become the universal class, when alienated production is obliterated. It is not John Holloway who invented the image of human beings overcoming alienation.

But the ‘negation’ of that alienated self is neither an act of will nor an act of consciousness alone, but a conscious transformation of the material conditions of production. What is lacking in Holloway is the sense of the dialectic, the way in which we are locked into production in conditions which lead to an inescapable contradiction. We are addressed as individuals, yet we are inescapably social; we are shapers of the world who are constantly told that the world is shaped by other forces; we are equals in our common alienation or our shared labour who are relentlessly persuaded of our difference. Far from dissolving the social relations of production into mere economic categories, Marx and Marxism affirm the opposite – that ‘economic categories are only the abstractions of the social relations of production’. [11]

In his difficult discussion of ‘identity’ Holloway argues that the concept of working class (which as we saw earlier he finds meaningful when contrasted with Hardt and Negri’s ‘multitude’) is fetishised. That class identity encloses us and locks us into a kind of dependency on capitalism – the very capitalism we reject – because we cannot see ourselves as other than workers. Again the problem is a wilful refusal to recognise the decades of Marxist debate in which the working class is the subject of revolution as well as its object.

This leads Holloway into a trap whereby negation becomes an act of will, of psychological redefinition rather than material transformation. We can only engage socially in that ‘purposive doing’ whose highest expression is revolution. A world without private ownership of the means of production is the vision of a propertyless class. Its achievement, however, is not merely an act of affirmation but the culmination of class struggle. How is freedom to be achieved, other than by wresting power from those who impose unfreedom, who have ‘power-over’?

Holloway is scathing in his critique of Empire of the notion that alternative spaces can be created – be they nations or communities. Yet his alternative to ‘power-over’, his unfetishised space, is a metaphorical space. This place of ‘constant becoming’, located somewhere outside history, is designed, I imagine, to avoid the difficult question of what to do about the capitalist class and its machinery of domination and control. Fetishism, he says, is ‘in antagonism to the opposing movement of anti-fetishisation, the struggle to reunite subject and object, to recompose doing and done’. [12]

Yet the struggle for that freedom is in the first instance a material battle to wrest control of the means of production from the controlling class. It is true that labour is alienated under conditions of capitalist production; but it is also true that that powerlessness is also a power. Without labour there can be no production. That is the contradiction from which the development of class consciousness emerges and on which the power of workers rests.

Hal Draper contrasts two visions of freedom. The first (the anarchist) depends on the ‘total impermissibility of any imposition of any authority upon the unconditional autonomy of the sovereign Ego’. The second, Marx’s view, ‘depends upon the relation of the individual to his (or her) membership in the human species which is historically organised in a society ... It is a shorthand term for democratic freedom in society’. [13]

I began this review with a mention of the Zapatistas. In some senses, the material reality of their situation is the living expression of the limitations of the autonomist position that Holloway argues. The symbolic authority of Chiapas is boundless, the internal life of the communities driven by the highest and most noble ideals of authentic co-operation and community, the language of political life grounded in multiplicity and the popular imagination. Yet consider their conditions of life – besieged by a ruthless global capital, the very stuff of life (water, electricity, medicines) repeatedly taken from them, the state machine squeezing them in a menacing vice. Beyond the steel cordon lie their allies and supporters, reproducing the power of capital. The Zapatistas gave the anti-capitalist movement a dream of freedom and a language of liberation; yet the power to realise the project, to seize the state and make the revolution, still lies elsewhere.


1. See A. Callinicos, State of Discontent, in Socialist Review 272, March 2003, pp. 11–13.

2. See M. Gonzalez, Brazil in the Eye of the Storm, in International Socialism 98 (Spring 2003), pp. 57–76.

3. A. Nimtz, Class struggle Under “Empire”: In Defence of Marx and Engels, in International Socialism 96 (Autumn 2002), pp. 47–70.

4. Ibid., p. 49.

5. J. Holloway, Time to Revolt: Reflections on Empire, October 2002, published on The Commoner website at www.commoner.org.uk. [Note by ETOL: This link has not been checked.]

6. J. Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power (London 2002), p. 33.

7. Ibid., p. 103.

8. See J. Holloway and E. Peláez (eds.), Zapatista! (London 1998), and in particular the editors’ introduction, Reinventing Revolution.

9. J. Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power, op. cit., p. 1.

10. Ibid., p. 106.

11. A. Callinicos, The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx (London 1987), p. 75.

12. J. Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power, op. cit., p. 89.

13. H. Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. 4 (New York 1990), pp. 174–175.

Mike Gonzalez Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 1.7.2012