Part Two: (Nick) Land, Capital and Labor (Theory)
Clever Monkey’s argument against the accelerationists seems to rest on a precise formulaic incantation repeated over and over: the only accelerationism possible is Nick Land’s accelerationism. Thus accelerationism itself is merely a virulent subform of neoliberalist ideology that advocates commodification of all human relations. Which is to say all talk of accelerationism must lead us to embrace anarcho-capitalism, the Thought of Murray Rothbard, and the good folks at the Mises Institute.
Part One: The Grammar of Left Fascism
Twice in the past couple of weeks I Have been accused of being infected with an ideology known as accelerationism. To be honest, I had no idea what accelerationism was and never heard of it until the accusation was made. Nevertheless, I do accept the argument that ignorance of an ideology is no proof of innocence — at least insofar as people will make the accusation based on their criteria, not mine.
It turns out accelerationism is the idea that capitalist development can be sped up and the entire epoch brought to a close more rapidly than it would otherwise by pursuing measures designed to the end. Intrigued by this idea, I spent a few days trying to understand the concept, poring over the criticisms of those who oppose it, and thinking about the relation of this ideology to anything remotely suggested by labor theory.
What follows is my first take on the notion of accelerationism through the argument of one of its fiercest critics, Benjamin Noys, an editor at the venal academic paywall, Historical Materialism.
Part One: “… the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution”
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx writes:
“Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views, and conception, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life?”
In this statement Marx is arguing changes in material existence and social relations must produce changes in consciousness.
Based on his argument, we can assume when, in the German Ideology, he and Engels wrote capitalism gives rise to,
“a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist consciousness”,
they were making the argument capitalism gives rise to changes in material existence, social relations and social life that produces a communist consciousness.
I ask this, because I certainly don’t want to be accused of “stringing quotes together”. I want to be sure these two concepts — one from the Communist Manifesto, the other From the German Ideology — actually are related. I want to be sure the two arguments form a discrete, coherent and continuous line of reasoning going through their life’s work. This is so when I ask dumb fucking vanguardist groupuscules (like, e.g., the SWP (UK)) why they exist, I am on solid ground. But. more important, I want to make sure I am on solid ground when I begin looking at the arguments of both Kautsky and Lenin on the issue of working class consciousness. I don’t want any silly mindless vanguardists to say I am taking Engels or Marx out of context when I rip Kautsky and Lenin new assholes.
Part 4: History as a continuous process
One of the real difficulties Holloway’s thesis on the crisis of capitalism poses to a critical analysis is that his very incisive critique of the failings of post-war Marxism is buried under his own terribly flawed grasp of labor theory. For instance, Holloway rightly criticizes the dominant Marxist view of capitalist crises as a potential trigger for a political revolution:
The orthodox understanding of crisis is to see crisis as an expression of the objective contradictions of capitalism: we are not alone because the objective contradictions are on our side, because the forces of production are on our side, because history is on our side. In this view, our struggle finds its support in the objective development of the contradictions of the capitalist economy. A crisis precipitated by these contradictions opens a door of opportunity for struggle, an opportunity to turn economic crisis into social crisis and a basis for the revolutionary seizure of power. The problem with this approach is that it tends to deify the economy (or history or the forces of production), to create a force outside human agency that will be our saviour. Moreover, this idea of the crisis as the expression of the objective contradictions of capitalism is the complement of a conception that sees revolution as the seizure of power instead of seeing in both crisis and revolution a disintegration of the relations of power.
The core of Holloways argument here is correct: post-war Marxists still expect the capitalist crisis to trigger a seizure of state power by the working class. This seizure of state power will then lay the basis for the construction of a communist society by the working class — a wholly fantastic delusion, with little realistic basis whatsoever in labor theory. However, Holloway then replaces this silly erroneous view with his own even more silly erroneous take on labor theory and crises:
The other way of understanding the ‘we are not alone’ is to see crisis as the expression of the strength of our opposition to capital. There are no ‘objective contradictions’: we and we alone are the contradiction of capitalism. History is not the history of the development of the laws of capitalist development but the history of class struggle (that is, the struggle to classify and against being classified). There are no gods of any sort, neither money nor capital, nor forces of production, nor history: we are the only creators, we are the only possible saviours, we are the only guilty ones. Crisis, then, is not to be understood as an opportunity presented to us by the objective development of the contradictions of capitalism but as the expression of our own strength, and this makes it possible to conceive of revolution not as the seizure of power but as the development of the anti-power which already exists as the substance of crisis.
To overcome the post-war Marxist model of capitalism as an objective, autonomist process that continues (only interrupted by the occasional crisis) until it is superseded by an outside force (the proletarian revolution) Holloway argues not that capitalism’s demise is premised on the process of accumulation itself (rather than a political revolution) but that there is no objective process! In contrast to post-war Marxism, Holloway denies there is an objective process underway in the capitalist mode of production, and he doubles down on this stupidity by agreeing with post-war Marxism that there are no forces at work within capitalism that must lead inevitably to its collapse.
In place of post-war Marxism’s assumption that the political revolution will be triggered by a capitalist crisis, Holloway imports the class struggle into capital and proposes, “we and we alone are the contradiction of capitalism”, “we are the crisis of capitalism”. The glaring defect of Holloway’s attempt to resolve the theoretical impasse of post-war Marxism model of social revolution can best be demonstrated by a single chart (below).
The chart is from ThinkProgress, and the writer, Pat Garofalo, states:
“According to an analysis of Current Population Survey data by Matt Bruenig, the number of workers exercising their right to strike has plummeted since the 1970s:
Forty years ago, ‘an average of 289 major work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers occurred annually in the United States. By the 1990s, that had fallen to about 35 per year. And in 2009, there were no more than five.’ Declining unionization certainly plays a role in this drop, but as Chris Rhomberg, associate professor of sociology at Fordham University, wrote, so too does labor law that gives employers all the advantages. ‘We have essentially gone back to a pre-New Deal era of workplace governance,’ he wrote.”
If the statement, “we are the crisis of capitalism” is taken to mean the workers’ class struggle produces capitalist crises, there is in fact no crisis at all according to the data supplied by the census department. Holloway needs to explain where he finds the “irruption of the insubordination of labour into the very definition of subordination” in this data. Frankly, when Matt Bruenig actually took the time to leave his progressive friends on Fantasy Island and do the research all he found was the very real and material subordination of the working class to the rule of the bourgeoisie — a class no longer even capable of fighting for its direct economic interests.
The so-called Great Moderation of the 1980s and 1990s was not just, nor even primarily, period of moderating inflation, but a cessation of the class struggle altogether. The collapse of the class struggle experienced over the last three decades, as shown empirically by Bruenig’s data, suggests that insofar as the demise of capitalism results from a subjective cause, it is not likely to happen. When Holloway argues against the classical view of capital as an objective process, he is actually arguing against the idea that the material requirements of the working class (the law of value) are an objective reality that must impose itself on the operation of the capitalist mode of production despite what takes place in the streets. He is arguing these material requirements can only make themselves felt through the class conscious (political) activity of the class. Without this political activity, therefore, a crisis of capitalism cannot be expressed. It becomes inexplicable then why the period of lowest rate of labor discontent is also the period of an incredible financial catastrophe and the collapse of fascist state management of capitalism.
Although the working class has followed the orders of capital to “‘Kneel, kneel, kneel!'”, the result is the collapse of the financial system along with the fascist state economic policy mechanism. The empirical data suggest the crisis that erupted in 2007-2008 resulted from an objective process that is in no way dependent on the political struggle of the working class — i.e., in no way dependent on the class struggle between wage labor and capital.
Wage laborers and labor
As I stated in the previous part of this series, what makes Holloway’s argument worth the time it takes to extract it from his flawed and wholly indefensible presentation of labor theory is that he does not simply import the class struggle into the definition of capital, and redefine the law of value as the “irruption of the insubordination of labour into the very definition of subordination” — both of which ideas are preposterous — Holloway inverts the class struggle so that it is now redefined not as a struggle of wage labor against capital, but as the struggle of wage labor against labor itself.
This inversion might seem like a theoretical ploy to overcome the impasse post-war Marxism encounters because it assumes capitalism will just endlessly loop through crisis after crisis until it is put out of its misery by a proletarian revolution — and to a large extent it is just this. But the real usefulness of Holloway’s theoretical gymnastics is that he can then re-conceive the social revolution in an entirely new way — as an anti-class struggle, a struggle that is both anti-political and anti-economic.
To say this another way, let’s suppose all the material requirements of communism already exist within the existing world market, what would we expect to see? As capitalism drew closer to its ultimate demise, and the working class approached its “final constitution” (Marx’s words to Bakunin), all the fetish forms of bourgeois society — politics, classes, democracy, the nation state, money, commodity, and capital itself — would appear to the working class precisely as that: meaningless fetishes lacking any substance whatsoever — as misery of a growing mass of unemployed workers, rampant speculation produced by a growing mass of superfluous capital, cronyism, empty political promises, accumulating debt, money that depreciates in your wallet, wages whose purchasing power declines from one day to the next and, most of all, labor that produces nothing of any value whatsoever. This would be expressed in a conscious antipathy not just toward this or that facet of present society, but a revulsion with social relations generally, and with the political relation founded on these social relations — a scream.
Holloway is, in effect, not describing an increasingly class conscious working class, but a mass of individuals bearing an emergent directly communist consciousness: a consciousness described in the German Ideology as requiring certain definite material preconditions and which emanates, not from bourgeois relations of production, but directly from the working class itself:
“In the development of productive forces there comes a stage when productive forces and means of intercourse are brought into being, which, under the existing relationships, only cause mischief, and are no longer productive but destructive forces (machinery and money); and connected with this a class is called forth, which has to bear all the burdens of society without enjoying its advantages, which, ousted from society, is forced into the most decided antagonism to all other classes; a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist consciousness, which may, of course, arise among the other classes too through the contemplation of the situation of this class.”
Proletarians and Communist consciousness
By inverting the class struggle and showing that this struggle must become a struggle not against capital, but against labor itself, Holloway maintains the working class cannot fight as a class, it can only fight against being a class. Essential to understanding why this is true we have to understand that every time the working class tries to fight as a class politically or economically, it is going to get its ass kicked as a class — it is going to lose. Over time, the response to this constant ass-kicking at the hands of the bourgeois class, naturally enough, is that the class stops fighting as a class, because it has more sense than fucking Marxists. Why would you continue to beat your head bloody against the same fucking wall time and again when you know you are going to lose?
By arguing the class struggle is the core of capital, Holloway does not throw light on capital as the penetration of insubordination into subordination as he believes; rather he shows why the absolute subordination of the working class must penetrate class (political) relations generally. This conclusion is certainly chilling, but simultaneously relieves us of the notions associated with post-war Marxism that some coming economic crisis will trigger a political revolution of the working class — a political confrontation between the classes that leads to socialism. Once we grasp this fact, the data of the last four decades makes sense; we now need not follow the failed post-war Marxist formula that Holloway so effectively critiques.
In addition to decades of empirical evidence the post-war Marxist formula does not work, we now have a theoretical proof derived not just from an argument against it, but an argument that also tries to introduce class struggle into the very definition of capitalist relations. Holloway carries the post-war Marxist argument to its extreme, most absurd, limits by trying to locate the class conflict at the core of capital. But the class struggle is, first and foremost, a political struggle, a struggle between wage labor and capital, bourgeois and proletarians. Holloway suggests there is no distinction to be made between political and economic relations: therefore, the class struggle must rest on the absolute subordination of the proletarians and it must reflect this subordination.
But this is only the beginning: Holloway’s argument also suggests there is no distinction to be made between capital and labor, reform and revolution, the old society and the new one, the revolution and everyday life, leaders and the masses, what exists and what is denied. To overcome these separations, Holloway argues, “actions must point-beyond in some way, assert alternative ways of doing:”
“The problem of struggle is to move on to a different dimension from capital, not to engage with capital on capital’s own terms, but to move forward in modes in [which] capital cannot even exist: to break identity, break the homogenisation of time. “
Holloway says this means the entire concept of revolution has to be rethought.
Reconceiving social emancipation
In chapter 11 — the final chapter of his book — Holloway must show how we get from a social process where the outcome is not determined by an objective process, to one that intensifies the disintegration of capitalism. Holloway thinks he has already pointed to a solution by redefining the social process “as being itself class struggle”. The crisis is the point at which “the mutual repulsion of capital and anti-labour (humanity) obliges capital to restructure its command or lose control.” The resolution of the crisis can either come through a restructuring of capital’s subordination of labor or a struggle to intensify the crisis.
On one side of this conflict is capital, trying to emancipate itself from labor, to literally make money from money itself through a growing mass of fictitious capital and insane speculative activity. On the other side is labor (or “anti-labor”, or “humanity” — or “what-the-fuck-ever”) whose drive is the refusal of dominance, the scream. Capital has to subordinate the working class once again to the production of surplus value, and this in turn depends on the fact the workers are propertyless. The enclosures of primitive accumulation is extended in entirely new areas (intellectual property), and in new regions (globalization)
Holloway argues the flight of labor (or “anti-labor”, or “humanity”, or “what-the-fuck-ever”) is hopeless until it becomes more than flight from capital, it must become “a reaffirmation of doing, an emancipation of power-to.” Okay, so how do we reaffirm our doing? One would think after ten chapters of criticism of Marxism Holloway would have some new ideas. One would be wrong, however. In the end all Holloway can come up with is this:
“But the recuperation of power-to or the reaffirmation of doing is still limited by capital’s monopoly of the means of doing. The means of doing must be re-appropriated.”
In English, Holloway is stating the proletarians must seize the means of production — put an end to property — that they must bring the forces of production under their control. It seems like pretty standard Marxist boilerplate — and it is — until Holloway says we must rethink this concept as well, a rethinking he then begins in what at first appears to be random thread of mindless gibberish:
“The problem is not that the means of production are the property of capitalists; or rather, to say that the means of production are the property of the capitalists is merely a euphemism which conceals the fact that capital actively breaks our doing every day, takes our done from us, breaks the social flow of doing which is the pre-condition of our doing. Our struggle, then, is not the struggle to make ours the property of the means of production, but to dissolve both property and means of production: to recover or, better, create the conscious and confident sociality of the flow of doing. Capital rules by fetishising, by alienating the done from the doing and the doer and saying ‘this done is a thing and it is mine’. Expropriating the expropriator cannot then be seen as a re-seizure of a thing, but rather as the dissolution of the thing-ness of the done, its (re)integration into the social flow of doing.”
The same is true of our conception of revolution itself: Holloway argues we must get rid of the idea that the social revolution is a means to an end:
“The orthodox Marxist tradition, most clearly the Leninist tradition, conceives of revolution instrumentally, as a means to an end. … Instrumentalism means engaging with capital on capital’s own terms, accepting that our own world can come into being only after the revolution. But capital’s terms are not simply a given, they are an active process of separating. It is absurd, for example, to think that the struggle against the separating of doing can lie through the state, since the very existence of the state as a form of social relations is an active separating of doing. To struggle through the state is to become involved in the active process of defeating yourself.”
Finally, Holloway argues we must rethink what capitalism and communism are all about:
“Capital is the denial of the social flow of doing, communism is the social movement of doing against its own denial. Under capitalism, doing exists in the mode of being denied. Doing exists as things done, as established forms of social relations, as capital, money, state, the nightmarish perversions of past doing. Dead labour rules over living doing and perverts it into the grotesque form of living labour. This is an explosive contradiction in terms: living implies openness, creativity, while labour implies closure, pre-definition. Communism is the movement of this contradiction, the movement of living against labour. Communism is the movement of that which exists in the mode of being denied.”
It probably is not too much to say, Holloway has no real idea how these three statements hang together as a roadmap for what must come next. And this is because, despite his attempt to break with post-war Marxism, he remains entirely under the thrall of its assumption of a political revolution. Since he has already rejected the idea of capitalism as an objective process whose operation is determined by the law of value, and replaced this objective process with the class struggle, Holloway is at a loss to explain the significance of his insights — he ends the book at the same impasse that can be found in any orthodox post-war Marxist treatment:
“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. Revolutionary change is more desperately urgent than ever, but we do not know any more what revolution means. Asked, we tend to cough and splutter and try to change the subject. In part, our not-knowing is the not-knowing of those who are historically lost: the knowing of the revolutionaries of the last century has been defeated. But it is more than that: our not-knowing is also the not knowing of those who understand that not-knowing is part of the revolutionary process. We have lost all certainty, but the openness of uncertainty is central to revolution. ‘Asking we walk’, say the zapatistas. We ask not only because we do not know the way (we do not), but also because asking the way is part of the revolutionary process itself.”
If the revolution is not the means to an end, it must be the end itself, a permanent feature of society. This leads us back to Holloways concept of communism as “the movement of that which exists in the mode of being denied.” This is an interesting idea, since it suggests communism is already present within existing society as labor theory indicates. Communism, therefore, is not something constructed “after the revolution”, but the actual mode of present society that is denied by capital.
The instrumentalism of post-war Marxism fails precisely because it does not recognize the existence of an already existing communism within present society. This essential blindness of post-war Marxism can be seen when Andrew Kliman stupidly criticized David Graeber for suggesting Occupy act as if the future society already existed. I wrote at the time: “Professor Kliman prefers to “foreshadow” the non-existent, and derides Graeber for asserting the thing foreshadowed in action already exists in embryo.” As a dyed-in-the-wool anarchist, Graeber was actually the real Marxist in the debate, since he acted as if (in Marx’s and Engels’ own words) the premises of communism are already in existence.
If, following Holloway, we act as if communism is already the present mode of society whose existence is being denied by capitalist relations, labor must be the active forms of this denial. Labor itself is activity that denies the existence of an already existing communism. This suggests our focus must be on labor itself, not the state, on putting an end to the active denial of communism. All of this shit is already present in Holloway’s argument. Why it never emerges in his book is completely fucking beyond me.
I think the core of Holloway’s critical argument then can be boiled down to three points:
- “To think in terms of property is, however, still to pose the problem in fetishised terms”;
- “Expropriating the expropriator cannot then be seen as a re-seizure of a thing, but rather as the dissolution of the thing-ness of the done, its (re)integration into the social flow of doing”; and,
- “What is important is the knitting or re-knitting or patch-working of the sociality of doing and the creation of social forms of articulating that doing.”
It is obvious the sociality of doing can only be established by the abolition of wage labor. Wage labor is precisely what alienates the directly social activity of the producers from them and establishes this social activity as a thing independent of them. And putting an end to wage labor puts and end both to the “thingness” of productive activity (commodity production) and the fetish of property (labor power). Everything, in other words, points toward the abolition of wage labor itself, to the end of the working class as a class. By making consumption dependent on wage labor, the actual abundance already present in society appears as scarcity. This scarcity is wholly an artifact of the limited quantity of dollars in your wallet; it is not real.
This is demonstrated by the growing unemployment, an ever increasing mass of speculative capital, and, above all, an ever increasing mass of debt being accumulated in every country at present. Debt cannot buy what doesn’t exist — it presupposes massive quantity of material abundance. In short the formula implied by debt is this: massive debt = massive abundance. The dependence of so-called “economic growth” on the constant accumulation of debt, in other words, implies that all the conditions for communism already exist, save one: abolition of wage labor.
The material conditions for a direct supercession of capitalism by communism already exists empirically in the form of growing unemployment, rampant speculative capital and an ever accumulating pile of public and private debt. The question for us is this: will this communism be imposed on society in a final and complete collapse capitalist relation, bringing capitalist production to a standstill and triggering a catastrophe. Or, will it be realized through the determined fight to progressively reduce hours of labor?
We don’t really have any other choices.
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.