Part 3: History as a hall of mirrors
What I find really interesting about Holloway is his determination to carry his argument to its final conclusion, no matter how it appears to conflict with decades of accumulated Marxist dogmas and even his own poor grasp of the basics of labor theory. His attitude can be best summed up by his scathing response to a critique of his book by Daniel Bensaid:
“Spit on history. History is the history of oppression told by the oppressors, a history from which oppression conveniently disappears, a history of Heroes, of Great Men.
Spit on history. History, even our history, is a history in which the struggle against oppression is invaded by the categories of the oppressors, so that it too becomes the history of Heroes, of Great Men, of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao.
Spit on history, because it is the great alibi of the Left, the great excuse for not thinking. Make any theoretical or political argument about revolution and the response of the Revolutionary Left is to bring you back to 1902, to 1905, to 1917, to 1921. History becomes a whirlpool, sucking you into the details of lives long dead. Present political differences become translated into disputes about the details of what happened in Kronstadt over eighty years ago. Anything to avoid thinking about the present, anything to avoid assuming the terrible responsibility that the future of the world depends on us and not on Lenin or Trotsky.”
Not to be misunderstood by his critic, Holloway adds this gem:
“Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead. Yes. First your cart: show disrespect for the dead, for they have bequeathed us a world unworthy of humanity, a world of exploitation and of mass murder in the name of democracy.
And then your plough: plough the bones of the dead into the soil of revolt. Plough their legacy of struggle into the ground to make it fertile. Honour the dead by showing them disrespect.
Do not build mausoleums, or monuments, or even put gravestones for the dead, just use their bones directly as fertiliser. The disappeared are the great heroes of communism: not just those who have been disappeared by state repression, but all of those unseen, unheard people who struggled to live with dignity in a world which negates dignity, the knitters of humanity. The history we need is not so much that of the great revolutionaries, but of those who did their washing and played with their children.”
If History for post-war Marxism has become a hall of mirrors in which we are continually trying to separate the real and reflected images of history, Holloway set out deliberately to smash all the mirrors in this great hall of mirrors.
Part 2: Throwing Marx and Engels under the bus
In the first part of this series, I noted that one of the peculiar difficulties of Holloway encounters in his main thesis is that almost all of the criticisms he directs at post-war Marxism seem to equally apply to Marx’s and Engels’ own advice to the working class to fight for and within bourgeois democracy. In his attempt to show why Marxism has failed, Holloway throws Marx and Engels under the bus as well.
What I meant by this is two-fold:
First, the advice directly contradicts Marx’s and Engels’ own outline of the communist movement of society in that this movement is explicitly presented by them as an empirical event, not a political one. In the argument Marx and Engels made in the German Ideology, there is no mention of a political revolution. Moreover, Marx and Engels implicitly argue the proletariat is incapable of political action because it has no class interest to assert against the ruling (bourgeois) class. Without a class interest to assert, the real interests of individuals composing this class cannot have a political expression. Finally, this class is not an alien class within bourgeois society, it is a direct product of bourgeois social relation themselves. Thus, as far as this class is concerned, the politics of bourgeois society — the clash of property interests — does not exist.
Second, their advice appears to contradict their own analysis of both capital and the state. It is just as true of Marx’s and Engels’ advice as it is of post-war Marxist praxis that each abstract, “the state from the social relations of which it is part.” This is necessarily true given the above. Thus Marx’s and Engels’ advice appears to conceptually cut the state out from the clutter of social relations that surround it and make it stand up with all the appearance of being an autonomous actor, not because labor theory describes it this way, but because it can only appear this way to the proletariat. This is a risk we run any time we go from merely critiquing existing society to actually engaging that society through revolutionary activity: politics necessarily appear as something distinct from capitalist relations themselves.
Why didn’t Holloway’s critics defend Engels?
These assumptions form the core of labor theory analysis of capitalism and should come as no surprise to anyone reading Holloway’s book. Which is why I find it really fucking interesting that not a single fucking one of Holloway’s critics raises this objection to his argument. If Holloway’s criticism regarding post-war Marxism is correct, this criticism must also appear to apply to Marx and Engels since they advise the working class to fight for and within bourgeois democracy — a fetish form. In fact, Holloway makes this very charge against Engels directly and against Marx more or less indirectly. In chapter 7 of his book, Holloway ascribes this defect to Engels in particular and labor theory in general:
“For Marx, science is negative. The truth of science is the negation of the untruth of false appearances. In the post-Marx Marxist tradition, however, the concept of science is turned from a negative into a positive concept. The category of fetishism, so central for Marx, is almost entirely forgotten by the mainstream Marxist tradition. From being the struggle against the untruth of fetishism, science comes to be understood as knowledge of reality. With the positivisation of science, power-over penetrates into revolutionary theory and undermines it far more effectively than any government undercover agents infiltrating a revolutionary organisation.”
Holloway is basically stating that after the death of Marx, Engels hijacked the revolution and crippled it. He states further that Engels’ crime was aided and abetted by instance of inconsistency within Marx’s own works. Although his argument is pretty much idiotic, it does contain an element of truth as I explained above. Marx’s and Engels’ advice does contradict their fundamental assumptions found in the German Ideology. The assumption in the German Ideology are that the communist movement of society results from an empirical event. Much of the work Marx and Engels actually engaged in after the German Ideology focused on a non-empirical, political, event. The assumption in the German Ideology was that the proletariat was incapable of political action because it lacked a class interest. Much of the work Marx and Engels pursued after the German Ideology was concerned with the spread of a theoretical understanding of society to fill in for this lack of a class interest. In other words, much of Marx’s and Engels’ life work stood in direct contradiction to the fundamental assumptions of the German Ideology.
So what of it?
Holloway’s objection to this rests on the argument that this effort, which composed Marx’s and Engels’ lifelong pursuit, turned labor theory from a negative critique of existing society into a positive one that reinforced a false consciousness of capitalist stability. He also blames it for setting in motion the gradual emergence of a view that turned theory into a necessary precondition for practical critical revolutionary activity. As a result of the mistakes of Marx and Engels, we end up with gulags and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. (This, of course, is a needlessly provocative way of putting Holloway’s argument, but I can’t help myself. I am an asshole and Holloway ends up doing to Marx and Engels exactly what the bourgeois apologists do: blaming them for the failures of 20th century Marxism.)
Is a political revolution necessary?
What Holloway is really stating is this: Capitalism will not collapse by anything other than a political revolution. Since the working class has no class interest it must rely on comprehension of its objective situation (theory) to assert itself in a political form. Since capitalism will not collapse on its own, it requires this political form — a political revolution. The ability of the working class to bring about an end to capitalism would seem to rest on the consciousness of the proletariat.
Holloway has essentially outlined the post-war Marxist argument in its present form. And he tries to show why this post-war Marxist argument is fundamentally flawed and counterproductive. However, Holloway assumes, like post-war Marxists generally, that capitalism can fall by no other means than a political revolution. He must therefore assume a condition that fundamentally violates labor theory: the working class has a political (class) consciousness. On the assumption that the working class has this consciousness, the attempt by a vanguard to impose its leadership on the working class is actually a suppression of the working class’ own spontaneous class consciousness and therefore counterproductive.
The argument Holloway develops here makes perfect sense, except, as I explained, the working class has no class consciousness. It is not a political class and is incapable of acting politically, i.e., as a class. Marx and Engels are very clear about this in the German Ideology: It is as individuals that these individuals act. All other classes in society act as a class, but not the working class — they act as individuals and in conscious association. If their association is not conscious, they cannot act together. The precondition, therefore, for acting together is their conscious apprehension of that necessity and of their objective position in society.
So Holloway must run into a brick wall at this point in his argument because there is no way he can get around the need for a vanguard so long as he assumes capitalism will not fall on its own. This vanguard, it should be noted, does not have to exist in the form of a separate organization: it can simply be other workers who have a more advanced theoretical understanding of the long view of things. Marx and Engels were extremely hostile to communists setting themselves up in separate organizations precisely because of what Holloway notes is the common practice of sects like the Socialist Workers Party in Britain. These people, Marx wrote, want to subordinate the workers’ own movement to their sectarian interests. So Marx and Engels were fully aware, based on one irritating experience after another, of the dangers posed by sects. This is just another example of how the criticism Holloway directs at post-war Marxism appears applicable to Marx and Engels themselves.
This is a lot of shit to blame on Marx and Engels and should cause us to ask why they knowingly placed Marxists on the path that ultimately leads to Stalin and the other failed attempts of the 20th century. And they do it knowing the risks, because they clearly did not believe the communist movement of society was a political movement. They said it right out of their fucking mouths:
“Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”
The communist movement of society is an empirical event that must already have in place certain definite material preconditions, not one of of these conditions include the theoretical consciousness of the working class.
So if this is true, why do Marx and Engels devote their lives to the notion of a political revolution? Holloway never addresses this question because he only senses vaguely that theory is unnecessary in the social revolution. He can get no further than the idea that a theoretical vanguard is unnecessary — that theory cannot be a precondition for emancipation. But since in his argument capitalism only falls because of a political revolution, he must somehow import the class struggle into the capitalist relationship. Rather than the core of the capitalist relation being the absolute subservience of labor to capital, Holloway wants to substitute “class struggle”. Says Holloway,
“The separation of class struggle from the laws of motion of capitalism leads to a separation between revolution and the reproduction of capitalist society.”
The class struggle does not bring about the demise of capitalism
What Holloway is doing here is trying to combine two separate and distinct things into one — the reproduction of capital and the class struggle. However there cannot be a class struggle internal to capital, because the working class is a product of bourgeois relations of production and has no interest to assert against bourgeois rule. Since there is no class struggle in Marx’s and Engels’ communist movement of society, the reproduction of capitalist relations of production must itself account for the demise of capital, not the class struggle — this is a point I will return to later.
Instead of attacking the notion of an endlessly reproducing capitalism, Holloway accepts this notion and tries to fix the problem by inserting class struggle into the capitalist relation. It is a very good attempt on his part, because it at least cuts out the necessity for all these useless fucking sects running around claiming to ‘represent the interest of the working class’. Social emancipation is reconceived at least so far as it no longer includes the necessity of annoying vanguardist groupuscles. The effort and energy of young activists is no longer necessarily subordinated to motherfuckers who tell them to get on their knees and orally express their submission to the authority of the central committee.
But it still does not address the main question: Why the fuck did Marx and Engels, knowing the class struggle would not bring down capitalism, devote their lives to advancing this class struggle? The reason, I think, is simple: the capital relation is itself a revolutionary relation involving two (not one, as is generally assumed) revolutionary classes. The level of antagonism between the two classes influences the revolutionary antagonism of the relation against existing relations. I think autonomism captures this idea in the discussion of capital’s attempt to escape labor. Which of the two is determinant — the class struggle or the relation itself — is determined not by the visibility of one versus the other. Clearly the class struggle is the more visible manifestation of the two.
What is important to note is that no matter how often the class struggle ends in the defeat of the working class, the result is always the same: the proletariat increases in mass, and the number of capitalists is reduced. In other words, the more the proletariat struggles against capitalist oppression and exploitation, the more its numbers increase and the wider this relation spreads within the world market — no matter how the conflict ends. The class struggle can accelerate the reproduction of the capitalist relation and thus accelerate the very forces that drive capitalism toward its own demise.
The mediating role of the class struggle
The class struggle no more brings down capitalism than does the falling rate of profit, but, like the latter, it drives capitalism toward its demise. The rising organic composition of capital is mediated not just by competition between capitalists but also by competition between the capitalist class as a whole and the working class. And this latter class struggle is determined by the degree of competition within the class of proletarians. The defect of Holloway’s book is that he mentions competition between capitals but never once mentions competition among the working class. Since the working class has no ‘native’ class consciousness and only act as individuals, it can only acquire an understanding of the necessity for union as a matter of its conscious self-development. And since these individuals act only as individuals (not as a class) they must each acquire this consciousness. Their association is, therefore, necessarily both conscious and freely entered into.
It cannot be otherwise — no party or sect can realize this necessity on their behalf and impose it on them. This, as can be imagined, is very difficult and cannot happen apart from the real life experiences of each individual proletarian. Holloway is looking for a relationship between objective and subjective forces in labor theory but completely ignores the relation between the class struggle, which can only involve a conscious apprehension by the working class of its own position in society, and the capitalist relation itself. He wants to import this class struggle as a category into the capitalist relation itself, because he assumes, along with post-war Marxism, that it is the class struggle (not labor’s complete subordination to capital) that brings about the demise of capital. He is, therefore, hostile to the idea essential to labor theory that the capitalist relation itself involves the absolute subordination of labor to capital.
I personally think the attempt by Holloway is impressive since he is trying to escape the false idea that the revolution depends on the theoretical development of the working class and, therefore, on a vanguard party. Within the limits of 20th century Marxism some way has to be found to bridge the gap between what is assumed to be an autonomous endlessly self-reproducing capitalist relation and the class struggle of the working class — the object and the subject. Holloway tries to resolve this by assuming the class struggle is internal to the capitalist relation.
The problem with this solution, however, presents itself immediately when the question turns from laying out his theoretical proposition to actually employing this proposition as a means of telling us what comes next. Theory, Marxists hold, is a guide to action, but, as we shall see next, Holloway’s theory provides no guide at all, because he is looking in wrong place for the cause of capitalism’s demise.
A decades ago John Holloway shook up the Marxist academy with the publication of his book, Change The World Without Taking Power”. Holloway’s argument was that the Marxist preoccupation with taking power was not only obsolete, it was counterproductive, serving only to divert energy and time to a quixotic effort that leaves Marxists banging their heads bloody against the brick wall of capitalist relations of production. Said Holloway:
The world cannot be changed through the state. Both theoretical reflection and a whole century of bad experience tell us so. ‘We told you so’, say the satisfied ones, ‘We said so all along. We said it was absurd. We told you that you couldn’t go against human nature. Give up the dream, give up!’
A decade after it was published, I think it an examination is called for, the purpose of which is to see how Holloway’s critique of post-war Marxism stands up to time.