Doing the Locomotive: On Running Towards Disaster, Being the Disaster and Some Bad Screams in John Holloway's Contribution to Open Marxism 4 - Marcel Stoetzler

train stop

Marcel Stoetzler continues to critique John Holloway's latest work in Open Marxism Vol. 4, which can also be applied to Hope in Hopeless Times, the last book in Holloway's trilogy.

The work appears as part of The Political Thought of John Holloway: Struggle, Critique, Emancipation released in 2023.

Stoetzler has critiqued Holloway's other books in the trilogy: Change the World Without Taking Power (On How to Make Adorno Scream) and Crack Capitalism (On the possibility that the revolution that will end capitalism might fail to usher in communism).

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on October 9, 2023

John Holloway’s ‘The Train’, the concluding chapter of Open Marxism 4 (2020a), contains Holloway’s rejoinders to challenges thrown at him in the same book by some of those who co-edited the book with him. ‘The Train’, like most of the first part of Open Marxism 4 and some of the remainder, deals with one of the fundamental questions of critical theory, and indeed most forms of modern social theory: to what extent is our social world an oppressive, object-like ‘thing’, and to what extent is it merely the ephemeral effect, however reified, of the actions and relationships of the human beings who constitute society? Mainstream sociology knows this as the old ‘structure and agency’ problem, Marxists more elegantly refer to the dialectic of subject and object, usually putting the subjective-agentic part first as befits a theory that itches for practice. Holloway has always been a master juggler of these two dimensions of the dialectic, while evolving the high art of experimental theory bricolage as the Anansi spider among Marxist crisis theorists. Keeping these balls in the air, white hair flowing, vibrato cracking, no one performs the prophet like Holloway, channelling trusty old eighteenth-century vocabulary like ‘dignity’ and ‘recognition’ via Marx, Bloch and the Frankfurt School into what most contemporaries mistake for a post-Marxist era. Not least for these things, of all members of our small tribe of Adornoite autonomists (or whatever else it is that we are, or that in the state of being we are not-being) he is the one who is most successful in getting a hearing in social movement contexts. Success in academic publishing, as in political pamphleteering, presupposes a healthy dose of ambiguity, polyvalence and honest straightforward sloppiness which allow combined and uneven audiences to hear what they came to hear. The same thing that brings exoteric success brings therefore esoteric quarrelling: you cannot have the one without the other, and anyway we concept-sticklers would be out of a job if no one established a paradigm first by writing a bestseller for us to split hairs about. In ‘The Train’, Holloway has an easy time refuting-embracing his critics, but then again, not entirely. Like in Change the world without taking power and Crack capitalism, there is an undercurrent that undermines his own argument.1 On this occasion, it is manifest in the guiding metaphor itself, the train.

Allegory and metaphor only work when the relationships between the elements that make up the image are identical to the relationships between the elements of the reality which the image is meant to illuminate. If ‘the train is capital’, or the totality of society that ‘we live inside’, then the relationship between the train and the passengers should represent the relationship between individuals in capitalist society and the society that they constitute. The train metaphor does not transport this concept, though: it rather obscures and confuses Holloway’s argument. As many critics chiefly accuse him (and the Open Marxism ‘school’ in general) of ‘voluntarism’ and ‘subjectivism’, he may have chosen the train metaphor in an attempt to over-compensate for this crime and ends up reproducing, against himself, the rather rigid conceptual distinction between things and doings, structures and agency of which Open Marxists tend to accuse the structuralists: if Open Marxism stands for anything at all, it is the refusal, attempted and reaffirmed ever anew, to accept this dichotomy. Like raccoons do with sugar cubes, we obsessively wash these concepts in the waters of the dialectic, and even if we end up with nothing, we have no regrets and do it again. This defines our love for the infinite, the in-through-and-beyond of refusing finite-making, static-making and state-making. (It is also beyond the dichotomy of materialism and idealism.)

A train is a thing. It would be very perilous to assume otherwise. A train is of course a product of society (in the technical language used by Hegel and Marx, a Gegenstand) but when it rushes at you it is very much an Objekt, not to say a projectile. It is well out of your hands, even if you happen to have designed or built the train: when it hits you, the difference between Gegenstand and Objekt does not matter anymore. It is aufgehoben (and so are you). It is more complicated with social things, or less immediately tactile objects: they may, or may not be like the train that runs you over no matter what. Here Holloway’s signature catchphrase comes in: Stop making capitalism. We cannot ‘stop making’ the train in whose headlights we are caught, because we have made it—past perfect tense!—and now it exists. We cannot ‘stop making’ the train we sit in, either. But we can ‘stop making capitalism’: if all value-producers on the planet go on a general strike, capitalism objectively ends after a day or two. It is as simple as that. (A different and much more difficult question is, what would have to happen next in order to make the post-capitalist world a better place, rather than just the next instantiation of a recurring nightmare. The capitalist mode of production is not the temporary corruption of a benign natural order that we can simply revert to: quite the contrary, it is the apex of several thousand years of increasing domination of human and non-human nature whose enormity and absurd brutality, we hope, may still produce a revolutionary reaction so strong that it allows us to overcome the patriarchal civilization that produced capitalism as its latest, most systematically exploitative and oppressive form.)

At the same time, ‘stop making capitalism’ is as utopian an idea as they come, as there is no mechanism conceivable now, in the reality of this current moment, through which this could be organized.2 But this is beside the point: ‘stop making capitalism’ is a theoretical postulate, and it is irrelevant whether philosophers and activists can anticipate, let alone agree on, how exactly it might play out. (The point of a revolution—i.e., a radical opening—would be that the likes of us will play no special role in it at all. When it comes along, we must make sure that we do not ruin it by projecting any of our ready-made blueprints on it, and we can help preventing others from doing so—as, after all, it takes a thief to catch a thief.)‘Open Marxism’ is revolutionary in asserting revolution as an opening. It is negative in fighting the closing-down of the opening.

Holloway’s chapter ‘The Train’ is built around the image of ‘us’ sitting in a train that ‘rushes forward into the night’ (Holloway, 2020a: 168). Once one sits inside a train, one is not anymore producing this train, though, as its production has been completed. The train is a thing, a separate entity that exists as such, while society is not. The only way to think of ‘doing the locomotive’ that would illustrate Holloway’s argument would be to imagine it as an effect of the combined performative acts of people sitting down on seats as if they were in a train: something children do as a game, or actors on a (non-naturalistic) stage set. They really are the train (because the budget was not big enough for an actual train). Or else, one could think of a party dance like the one evoked in the classic song ‘Do the Loco-Motion’.3 Holloway’s argument that is awkwardly loaded onto the train metaphor is that the totality of society that humans produce every single day anew may seem like but is not in fact an ‘automatic subject’, whereas a train is. Marx’s formulation that capital is an ‘automatic subject’ is best understood as rhetorical, a deliberate exaggeration that rams home the point that reification and alienation have become extreme in capitalist society. Reification, ossification or petrification never mean that any social things actually turn into things, bones or rocks.

The chapter begins with a statement of the horror of the accelerating development of capitalism: ‘The train rushes forward into the night, faster, faster. Where is it going? To the concentration camps? Or to nuclear war? Or to annihilation by global warming and ecological disaster? To extinction?’ (168) The energy that drives the train comes from human sacrifice—Holloway writes that passengers ‘are actually being thrown, one after another, into the engine of the train and burned up’. This element of the allegory is rather ill-chosen, too: a train that ‘actually’ runs on burning up its passengers will not go far, unless the passengers are given an opportunity to reproduce, as is the case in capitalism. Capitalism does look after its own sustainability, the reproduction of its conditions of existence such as a sufficient supply of labour power, albeit not necessarily that of anything else.4

Holloway’s text does not reference but evokes a famous fragment by Walter Benjamin: ‘Marx says revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But … perhaps revolutions are how humanity, traveling on this train, reaches for the emergency brake’.5 The travellers in Holloway’s train look for but cannot find the emergency brakes, though. Circumspect engineers must have removed them from the train of history since Benjamin’s days. Instead, they ‘seize control of the engine room, but it makes no difference, the engine is more powerful than any driver’. (We seem to be dealing with an automatic train-subject-object that is not actually controlled by a human driver.)

We grow more and more desperate. … We organise protests, rebellions, even revolutions. We walk in the opposite direction, hoping that this might affect the forward rush of the train. We organise spaces within the carriages where we try to take control over our lives on a harmonious, non-hierarchical basis. We even rush from one side of the carriage to the other, thinking this might derail the train. (168–9)

This sequence sounds like Holloway wants to make fun of forms of blind activism (especially the one about walking inside the train in the opposite direction…). Then he leaps out of the image plane and lists some of the measures that previously have failed to make the train stop: ‘The Russian Revolution, the Chinese, Vietnamese, Cuban revolutions, the uprisings and revolutions in Africa and Latin America in the seventies, the Zapatistas, the alter-globalization movements, the Occupy movement’ (169)—a rather disjointed list, especially as most of these were revolutions that explicitly aimed to bring the train (the capitalist mode of production) up to speed, or get it started in the first place. (Certainly, most of these were attempts to change the world by taking, and massively expanding, modern state power.) Next, back on the image plane, ‘we examine the train’, which means reading works by ‘people like Backhaus, Reichelt, Postone, Heinrich, Kurz, Krisis and so on’ who ‘help us to understand the movement of the engine and where the train tracks are heading’. Holloway writes that they are useful for explaining why we need to get out of the train but are not able to tell us anything about how to do so, which seems slightly uncharitable, as at least some of these writers do have their own ideas on what’s to be done, and what not.

In the second compartment of ‘The Train’, Holloway asserts that the subject and its suffering—‘the scream’—are the point of departure of theorizing, which does not mean that it is and remains at its centre. Holloway goes out of his way to assert how much of the object has migrated into the subject: ‘the object penetrates the subject’ which sits inside the object (the train; society). This is true: when you spend too much time on a train, you become train-trained. Furthermore, you cannot look at the train very well when you are inside it: your vision becomes train-shaped. You become part of the train’s furniture. ‘The object cripples the subject’ (170), yet ‘never totally’. A degree of non-identity remains. ‘The relation … between damaged subject and terrifying object’ is unstable (171). Things are getting worse:

[T]he train penetrates more and more deeply into our minds, bodies, imaginations, damaging us ever more profoundly; and also it forces from us a scream that grows louder and louder, a scream of desperation. A scream of desperation that throws us back to the subject, however damaged. The caravans of Central American migrants camp just around the corner from where I live, on their way north towards the US border, where, subjectively-desperately-absurdly they hurl themselves often quite literally against the objective frontier, sometimes climbing 5-meter high fences with their children and then throwing themselves down to the other side. (171)

At this point Holloway grants that one of his interlocutors has a point:

Alfonso García [Vela] is right then when, referring to Adorno, he says “the more anonymous and alien the relations of domination are, the more unbearable it is for the subject to experience its own impotence. Therefore, thinking will tend towards a higher subjectivity. At the same time, the desperate self-exaltation of the subject stands in the way of its self-reflection. Generally speaking, the rise of subjectivity in theorising and the reification of the world are correlated.” (171; quoted from García Vela, 2020: 57)

The more overwhelming capitalism becomes, Holloway continues, the more we become like those migrants. He suggests that this confirms, rather than questions the notion that the ‘screams’ of the subject need to be the starting point of theory, though. What else could be? The point is, though, that the starting point does not determine where the journey goes. The starting point is in fact what we leave behind. By beginning and going on, we negate the beginning because we move elsewhere.

Holloway then discusses—still in the second compartment—an important phrase by Adorno, the ‘primacy of the object’, that is used by two of his critics, Mario Schäbel and Alfonso García Vela. Holloway suggests an important distinction crucial to understanding Adorno’s phrase:

The first sense of the object is nature, the natural object. In this sense, to recognise the primacy of the object is to respect the natural limits on human action, to accept that humans are just part of a totality of natural conditions in which they constantly intervene, but which they do not control. The non-conceptual is then that which goes beyond human control and indeed human understanding. (171–2)

This is Adorno’s rejection of idealist subjectivism, especially its extreme, Fichtean form: because we create the world in our minds, for ourselves, as a set of perceptions that we actively produce out of meaningless raw sense data, we are tempted to think that we create the world in itself, which we do not. We can hardly control our mind, but certainly not the world, and we need to control our urge to control.

The second sense of ‘the object’ is the objectivity of ‘the totality of social relations’, a ‘socially constituted reality’ (172). Also this objectivity has for Adorno (and, I would suggest, for Open Marxism and Critical Theory in general) a preponderance (‘primacy’ sounds too strong here), but it is itself socially constituted and, most importantly, fragile and changeable. This preponderance is what we are struggling against and which we are out to overcome. It differs from the ‘primacy’ of ‘natural’ objects. Holloway then equates this distinction to that between Objekt and Gegenstand in Hegel and Marx, which seems mistaken to me: if a carpenter makes a table, this table is a ‘Gegenstand’ for her but it is also (for everybody else) an ‘Objekt’. This is not the same as the distinction between social and natural objects. This misconstrual may play a role in the confusing use of the train metaphor: a train is a ‘Gegenstand’ inasmuch as it is a product of society, but it is clearly an ‘Objekt’, too. Capital is a ‘Gegenstand’, perhaps (although we do not produce it intentionally, which makes it again different from the carpenter’s table) but most importantly it is a social thing whose ontological status is that of a ‘real abstraction’—terribly real.

When the second compartment is the clearing the throat section of ‘The Train’, Holloway brings it all home in the third and last compartment. The train seems very happy to note our acceptance of its ‘primacy’. But: the train ‘is the totality of social relations’ (174) that ‘we humans’ continuously produce which is ‘the key to the fragility of the train’. Holloway quotes again Alfonso García Vela paraphrasing Adorno:

Adorno … acknowledges that, in capitalism, human practice has produced a social objectivity that is independent from particular subjects to a certain extent and rules over them universally, preventing their becoming subjects. (174; quoting from García Vela, 2020: 58)

Holloway points to the phrase ‘to a certain extent’ which indicates that Adorno does not actually suggest independence. He could also have pointed to the word ‘particular’: the social objectivity is quasi-independent from particular subjects, not from subjects as such or collectively. Theoretical emphasis on the fragility of the capitalist mode of production has always been central to Open Marxism (and to autonomist Marxism where it is the signature feature), whereas in the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School it has tended to be hidden away and covered up to avoid the impression of cheap and cheerful optimism. Both stand in stark contrast to positivistic, structuralist and functionalist Marxisms where it plays no part at all. Holloway argues that the importance of Marx’s labour theory of value lies precisely here:

Capital depends on human action not just for its original creation but for its continued existence. That is surely the significance of Marx’s labour theory of value: capital depends for its existence on labour, that is, on the constantly repeated conversion of human activity into abstract labour. It is the channelling of human activity into labour that constantly re-constitutes capital, that constantly re-constitutes the apparently autonomous existence of the train. It is perhaps not accurate to say that there is no separation between constitution and existence, but rather that that separation is always a fragile, momentary separating of existence from its constituting. Capital exists as an autonomous force to the extent that we constantly re-constitute it as an autonomous force. (174)

It is due to the imperfection of the object’s domination of the subject that Holloway is writing this chapter and some people read it. Both he and they are

part of a great world of resistance and refusal and rebellion, part of a world of confused No’s saying “take control of the engine”, “pull the emergency brake”, “jump out through the door”, “climb out through the windows” and our own preferred “stop making the train, stop them from throwing us into the engine-furnace”. (175)

This sequence again is somewhat muddled: if ‘we’ continuously make the train, who are ‘they’ who throw ‘us’ into the furnace? Would that not terminate the train? No such ‘they’ was mentioned before. ‘Stop making the train’ is not consistent with ‘stop them from throwing us into the engine-furnace’. A small detail, of course, but it indicates a crack in the argument where the traditional world of theorizing subject and object as strictly separate invades the critical argument of ‘Stop Making Capital’.

In the last paragraph, Holloway explicitly reasserts the autonomist starting point of his argument:

It is easy to see how the object penetrates the subject, more difficult to see how the subject penetrates the object and constitutes its crisis. That capital is in crisis is clear, but often we see our struggles as being the consequence of the crisis rather than the other way around. We have to make explicit how our struggles are the crisis of capital, the crisis of its capacity to channel our activity into the labour that creates and re-creates it.

The relation between subject and object, far from being an identity, is a dissonance that is present within both subject and object. The presence of the object within the subject has been much emphasised, but what interests us more is the destructive force of the subject within the object, the presence of the subject in-against-and-beyond the object as its crisis. (176)

The fact that Holloway ends the chapter on this note surely suggests that the autonomist version of Marxist crisis theory as developed in Change the World and elsewhere remains at the core of his theorizing. The autonomist reversal of the ‘Marxism from above’—assumption that capital does things while labour reacts to the effect that capital is now understood to be reacting to something that labour does, or rather refuses to do, can on its own easily become voluntarist. This is where the notion of the ‘preponderance’ of social objectivity over the individuals, articulated for example by Adorno, needs to be asserted. The latter does not mean, though, that critical theory reverted to a Marxist form of structural-functionalism or system theory.

In capitalist society there is no conflict between ‘us’ and ‘the totality’ but, in the dialectical perspective that was so powerfully set out in the first two volumes of Open Marxism and in parts of the third volume, ‘we’ are the-totality-which-is-not-one.6 ‘We’ are everything, the totality as well as its opposite. In society, anyway, there is nothing else (except all the other things that there are, but they are literal, not social things which is what we are talking about here). In capitalist modernity, society constitutes a totality in the sense that everything is linked up with everything else through the universal mediation by abstract labour. ‘We’ are the ones who do this, that is, the ‘we’ of people who do social things in the capitalist way: activities that take the twofold form of concrete and abstract labour.7

Its contradictions and sloppy phrases notwithstanding, ‘The Train’ is still the most enthusiastically dialectical text in a volume that seems strangely addicted to dichotomies and separations. The problems begin with the title. While the first two Open Marxism volumes of 1992 had dry scholarly titles, Dialectics and History and Theory and Practice, respectively, and the third volume of 1995 the somewhat more playful Emancipating Marx, OM4 (Dinerstein et al., 2020) declares itself to take a stance Against a closing world. Call me old-fashioned, but why the indeterminate article? Marxists don’t normally believe in the existence of several parallel worlds, which is why they cannot oppose ‘a closing world’ from the perspective of some other one. Proponents of Open Marxism normally posit themselves ‘in-against-and-beyond the closing world’, or perhaps, ‘against the closing of the world that we constitute’. It is not possible to be ‘against a world’, closing or otherwise: humans can only be opposed to something that happens to and in the one world that we inhabit. In the self-reflective mode of Critical Theory we must in the process acknowledge our own role in constituting whatever it is we oppose. The unique selling point of Open Marxism is that we understand that we constitute the world we oppose. That’s why we think we can change it, not just be against it. We are the closing world, and we look for ways not to be closing.

Two of the chapters in OM4, those by García Vela (2020) and Schäbel (2020) already mentioned, accuse Open Marxism, and Holloway in particular, of ‘subjective idealism’ as ‘it dissolves the object within the subject dialectically’ (García Vela,48). I think it is possible to read Holloway’s writings and others this way only by reading selectively as there are many passages that say the opposite. It seems fair to say that the (quite large) text corpus of Open Marxism is uneven and contradictory. When dealing with a contradictory body of texts, the interpreter needs to look to the rhetorical dimension of theoretical writing. When I say, for example, ‘We are the closing world’, this may grammatically look like a statement of identity but in fact it is a rhetorically stated challenge to the presupposed existence of the separate identities of ‘we’ and ‘the world’. An analytical philosopher will probably take the grammatical meaning at face value and leave it at that, whereas a dialectical philosopher will look for an explanation in terms of what the rhetorical meaning of an obviously paradoxical statement is (and then either find, or not find one).

In Open Marxism/Critical Theory, the key lies in always thinking the concept of ‘form’ even when it is not explicitly printed on the page: this gives you ‘we exist in the form of being the closing totality as well as in the form of being the anti-totality, the non-identity, the bad infinity of still somewhat hapless attempts at pushing back and reversing it’. No subject/object-identity there, certainly no ‘subjective idealism’. Many serious readers are probably frustrated by the style of many of Holloway’s texts and their sometimes wooly and flowery passages; well-meaning teachers may recommend to leave rhetoric to the priests and politicians and just speak the truth clare et distincte, the Cartesian way, more geometrico; but the practice of switching between a more analytical and a more rhetorical style (of which Marx was a grand master) can be defended by pointing to one of our eighteenth-century ancestors, Giambattista Vico, who thought that language bereft of its rhetorical, fantastical, literary, imaginary, non-mathematical, playful (and plain silly) dimensions cannot deliver truth, certainly not truth that will metamorphose the world (that is, us).8 Besides, without some flowery language we will sell even fewer books.9

García Vela’s actual position does not seem to differ from what I understand is basically Holloway’s, or generally Open Marxism’s position. The same is true of Schäbel, who is equally emphatic, though, about the ‘subjective idealism’ of Open Marxism, while at the same time offering plenty of evidence to the contrary (which he explicitly admits undermines his argument [77]). The strange tendency to exaggerate differences and build ideal-types linked to ‘idealism’ and ‘materialism’—words that have only limited validity in the Marxist context—might have to do here with the fetishization of the brand names of supposed ‘schools’ of critical theory that are anything but schools: ‘Frankfurt School’ versus ‘Open Marxism’ versus ‘New Reading of Marx’.10 These are names of overlapping tendencies, or perhaps ‘discursive fields’, that contain within themselves nearly as many differences as there are between them. The article ‘Open Marxism’ by Werner Bonefeld in the first issue of Common Sense (1987) as well as the original three volumes of the Open Marxism series (1992, 1992 and 1995) sound pretty ‘Frankfurt School’ to me, OM1 and OM3 containing long canonical texts by bona fide Frankfurters Backhaus and Reichelt, who have only subsequently been rebranded the ‘New Reading of Marx’. Adorno seems, after Hegel and Marx, the most often referenced author, especially in OM1. While these basic facts of the publication history roughly delineate the shared core between FS™, OM™ and NRM™, they also make clear the differences: in OM there have always been influences from Italian autonomism, world system analysis and socialist feminism, whereas both OM and NRM tend to ignore psychoanalysis, whose integration into a ‘new reading’ of Marx was the Frankfurt School’s most momentous theoretical innovation with huge implications for the large-scale empirical social research projects that were the Frankfurt School’s third defining field of work. (In all four volumes of OM, according to the indexes, the only reference to Freud is in OM3.) Autonomists have always had a soft spot for ‘workers enquiries’, but apart from that, Open Marxism does not generally seem to take much note of the empirical work done by the Frankfurt School, or empirical research in general, except for those OM authors most strongly influenced by autonomism. (The openness of autonomist Marxism to empirical sociological research might have to do with the Weberian influence at its origins.) Reading the four volumes of Open Marxism or indeed anything from the NRM canon, one would not learn that the Frankfurt School pioneered in the 1940s interlinked empirical and theoretical research on race and antisemitism. These are significant differences. If we consider the three-volume Sage Handbook of Frankfurt School Critical Theory edited by Best et al. (2018) as another product of the Open Marxism tradition, its much more inclusive openness is in this respect a major breakthrough: reading Marx differently is not the only thing that matters in the modern world. It is one of several important things.11

Also Ana Cecilia Dinerstein’s chapter in OM4 (Dinerstein, 2020) erects a false dichotomy: arguing for turning back from Adorno’s supposed negativity to Bloch’s ‘philosophy of hope’, she exaggerates the differences she perceives between them. Adorno consistently defended the utopian dimension in thinking, asserted ‘identity against its identifications’12 (which is not entirely different from the ‘critical affirmations’ Dinerstein argues for) and agreed with Walter Benjamin that ‘[i]t is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us’.13 If there was disagreement between Adorno and Bloch, it was on other things.14

The fact that such a large part of OM4 is dedicated to constructing rather unhelpful separations is frustrating specifically because it masks the absence of critiques that would be necessary. The ‘idealism’ that is problematic in Holloway’s writings and those of some others who operate more closely at the coalface of political activism is not so much the philosophical, ‘subjective’ variety but the more practical one that idealizes some rather dubious associations. While I am inclined to argue that the philosophical conception of the classic Open Marxism texts is more dialectical than that of the critics who demand more dialectical dialectics, I have serious misgivings about how the philosophically sophisticated dialectical position translates into assessments of the more down-on-earth, grubby world of political practice and the coalitions that it is always inevitably based on. The theory’s in-built drive towards being practical, inclusive, non-judgemental and accommodating becomes its own undoing when it remains blind to the fact that not every crack or scream is necessarily progressive and emancipatory.

Dinerstein, for example, writes that crises, such as financial crises, produce moments of ‘de-mediation’ (a term she borrows from Bonefeld), which are ‘instances of de-fetishization when capitalist mediations cannot hide their true fetishising character. In those moments, the space for autonomous organizing opens wide because the possibility of appropriation of resistance seems difficult’ (Dinerstein, 2020: 41). This is politically naïve and dangerous. The problem is not only that resistance could be ‘appropriated’ but more importantly the resistance itself could be reactionary. The breakdown of capitalist, bourgeois mediations, such as the rule of law, opens the space also to any number of additional fetishizations that might result in a fascist’s smashing my head in rather than ‘a great moment for autonomous organising’. At the same time, the chaos of ‘de-mediation’ might make many people (at least temporarily) find the stability of bourgeois mediations look rather attractive—as was the case in the USA after Trump, a master practitioner of his own brand of ‘de-mediation’. An emancipatory outcome remains possible, of course, but there is no guarantee that the open space created by the disintegration of bourgeois social forms will be filled by emancipatory movements. The underlying view of social mediations is undialectical: the latter are best understood as the institutionalized results of previous struggles, reflecting as compromises the existing power relations in the class struggle. Furthermore, not only progressives fight struggles against the existing social world, and social mediation is much more than just the recuperation of our emancipatory struggles by the capitalist state.

Already Holloway’s books Change the World and Crack Capitalism suffered from the problem that the dance of the dialectic occasionally freezes up, takes a breather and reaches for the firm ground of a positive that seems deserving of affirmation. Only a real philosopher, a Stoic perhaps, could totally resist the urge to forego the austere grift of la critique de la critique critique for the warm-as-blood temptation of the embrace of this or that really existing negative positivity. Like in ‘musical chairs’, though, the music has a nasty habit of stopping at the worst moments.15 My reservations concerning the vagueness resulting from expanded use of the concepts of ‘the scream’ and ‘cracks’ would similarly apply to confusing passages in more recent contributions by Holloway, such as the passage quoted above listing a hodgepodge of events from the Russian Revolution to the ‘Occupy’ movement as if they were all somehow of the same essence. Perhaps the most troubling recent example is Holloway’s approving foreword to Abdullah Öcalan’s treatise The Sociology of Freedom (Holloway, 2020b), an attempt to articulate a civic and democratic form of Kurdish (supposedly non-state) nationalism as a critique of civilization in the name of all of humanity. Öcalan’s ‘manifesto’, which seems to me even more reactionary than the regular Stalinist nationalism of the PKK it emerged from, rests on antisemitic Kulturkritik that links not only capitalism (as usual) but also the state as such, and the nation-state in particular, to something called ‘the Jewish ideology’.16 Using a well-established philo/antisemitic trope, Öcalan points out that ‘the Jews’ had to develop civilizational techniques like the nation-state and capitalism to defend themselves from supposedly eternal hatred. He also grants that there have always been democratic, albeit much weaker, counter-currents within ‘Judaism’, but nevertheless writes of ‘the Jews’ as one transhistorical force or identity. Many of the numerous passages concerning ‘the Jews’ or ‘the Hebrews’ establish a dichotomy that opposes a democratic, republican, confederalist and market-based, to a ‘capitalist’ and statist concept of the nation, the former rooted in ancient and universal, quasi-natural ‘moral and political society’ (Habermas’s ‘life world’ writ large), the latter on power, hierarchy, monopolies, the deification of rulers, exploitation and ‘the Jewish ideology’. Kurdish liberation, expanded now to a notion of general human emancipation as opposed to ordinary nation-state building, means getting rid of all those aspects of ‘capitalist civilization’. Another element of Öcalan’s discourse is a naturalized, ahistorical celebration of women who are supposed to be central to the effort of saving humanity from ‘capitalist civilization’.17

Holloway puts forward several criticisms but fails to address the antisemitism and the sexism of the book. His chief objection is that the critique of capitalism should not be interlinked so closely with that of civilization (Holloway, 2020b: xv).18 Furthermore, Holloway correctly argues that ‘it is better to think of the struggles for another world as being necessarily not only anti-state but also anti-national’ (xviii) as well as critical of ‘the market’. He warns against romanticizing indigenousness and unequivocally opposing it to modernity, and asserts that ‘moral and political society … does not exist positively: it exists negatively, in the mode of being denied and, therefore, as struggle against its own negation’ (xvi). These vintage ‘Open Marxist’ criticisms, if taken seriously, should pull the rug from under Öcalan’s constructions but they are drowned out by Holloway’s puzzling assertion that still, ‘The Sociology of Freedom is an important contribution to current debates about capitalism, patriarchy, ecology, and the state’ (xiv). Not least given that central passages read like a more radical version of Werner Sombart’s 1911 The Jews and Modern Capitalism, the classic example of a (nationalist-) ‘socialist’ argument that is antisemitic while seeming to celebrate the supposed ‘achievements’ of ‘the Jews’, it definitely is not such a contribution. It seems that the desire and hope to find positive connection points with a variety of political movements has here eclipsed the critical and emancipatory perspective, even though Holloway undermines the rationale for recommending Öcalan’s text in several important respects. It is depressingly unsurprising that the antisemitism and the sexism are not among them.19

Those who endorse the false kinds of screams and cracks sometimes defend themselves by tarring their critics with the brush of metapolitical, ivory quietism. This is another false dichotomy. The point is not never to be positive about anything at all: the point is to control the urge. At the core of Open Marxism, if defined politically, sits an anti-authoritarian reading of Marx that is anti-Bolshevik as much as anti-Social-Democratic and opposed to all state-centric forms of Marxism: an anarchist kind of Marxism, as it were.20 Such a definition seems best to provide some coherence to all the different philosophical and meta-theoretical positions that can be found within Open Marxism. Open Marxists have often shown that they look for contemporary engagements beyond concept maintenance, though. A currently obvious and germane field are the movements around the climate crisis. In this context, the specific task of Open Marxism would be not to say and write things that are as inclusive and network-happy as possible but, to the contrary, to be specifically useful by being critical, i.e. to push for non-authoritarian solutions, when state-centric traditions of Marxism will be happy to feed into the increased authoritarianism that inevitably results from the attempt by our rulers and their proxies to manage the ecological disaster within the framework of the capitalist mode of production and the world-system of nation-states that is its political form. (For a compelling image of this, see Snowpiercer.) Connecting to a larger cause or movement means trying to make a useful contribution by way of insisting on, and remaining true to, the specific difference of what one is. One should better not be part of a movement that would not allow that.

Adorno, T. W. (2004). Negative Dialectics. Routledge.
Benjamin, W. (1977). Gesammelte Schriften Vol. I, 3. Suhrkamp.
Best, B., Bonefeld, W., & O’Kane, C. (Eds.). (2018). Sage Handbook of Frankfurt School Critical Theory. Sage.
Blumenfeld, J. (2021, July/August). Lifting the Ban. Brooklyn Rail. Last accessed November 2021.
Bodemann, Y. M. (2014). Coldly Admiring the Jews: Werner Sombart and Classical German Sociology on Nationalism and Race. In M. Stoetzler (Ed.), Antisemitism and the Constitution of Sociology (pp. 110–134). Nebraska University Press.
Chanson, V., & Monferrand, F. (2018). Workerism and Critical Theory. In B. Best, W. Bonefeld, & O. Chris (Eds.), Sage Handbook of Frankfurt School Critical Theory (pp. 1302–1313). Sage.
Dinerstein, A. C. (2020). A Critical Theory of Hope: Critical Affirmations Beyond Fear. OM4, pp. 33–46.
Dinerstein, A. C., Vela, A. G., González, E., & Holloway, J. (Eds.). (2020). Open Marxism Vol. 4. Against a Closing World. Pluto Press.
García Vela, A. G. (2020). Objectivity and Critical Theory: Debating Open Marxism. OM4, pp. 47–62.
Holloway, J. (2020a). ‘The Train’. OM4, pp. 168–176.
Holloway, J. (2020b). Foreword. In A. Öcalan (Ed.), The Sociology of Freedom. Manifesto of the Democratic Civilization, Volume III (pp. ix–xix) . PM Press.
Mell, J. (2017 and 2018). The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender (2 Volumes). Palgrave Macmillan.
Memos, C. (2018). Open Marxism and Critical Theory: Negative Critique and Class as Critical Concept. In B. Best, W. Bonefeld, & O. Chris (Eds.), Sage Handbook of Frankfurt School Critical Theory (pp. 1314–1331). Sage.
Öcalan, A. (2020). The Sociology of Freedom: Manifesto of the Democratic Civilization (Vol. III). PM Press.
Pitts, F. H. (2020). Value-Form Theory, Open Marxism and the New Reading of Marx. OM4, pp. 63–75.
Schäbel, M. (2020). Is Open Marxism an Offspring of the Frankfurt School? Subversive Critique as Method. OM4, pp. 76–91.
Stoetzler, M. (2005). On How to Make Adorno Scream, Some Notes on John Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power. Historical Materialism, 13(4), 193–215.
Stoetzler, M. (2012). On the Possibility that the Revolution that will end Capitalism might fail to usher in Communism. Journal of Classical Sociology, 12(2), 191–204.
Stoetzler, M. (2014). Sociology’s Case for a Well-Tempered Modernity: Individualism, Capitalism and the Antisemitic Challenge. In M. Stoetzler (Ed.), Antisemitism and the Constitution of Sociology (pp. 66–89). Nebraska University Press.
Stoetzler, M. (2019). Capitalism, the Nation and Societal Corrosion: Notes on “Left-Wing Antisemitism.” Journal of Social Justice, 9, 1–45.
Stoetzler, M. (2021). Capitalismo, nación y corrosión social: notas sobre el “antisemitismo de izquierda”. In Bajo el volcán, revista del posgrado de sociologia de la Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla. Año 2, número 4 digital, 327–359.
Stoetzler, M. ed., (2023). Critical Theory and the Critique of Antisemitism. Bloomsbury.

  • 1Stoetzler (2005, 2012).
  • 2It is not even clear what kind of transformation would have to take place to create enough of an overlapping of interests among all humans at the planetary level to bring that about, considering that a very large number of people find capitalism serves them just fine. Some people, like Bookchin, have suggested that the climate crisis may be about to provide this point. This could perhaps be true, considering that it forces people to look at capitalism as a global issue (not even the most nationalistic tankie would suggest ‘stopping global warming in one country’), and it does not allow one to distract from what capitalism is (a dynamic-destructive totality with an inbuilt runaway logic) by focusing on one or several of its manifestations (the unequal distribution of wealth and related forms of injustice).
  • 3‘Now that you can do it, let's make a chain now/(Come on baby do the loco-motion)/ A Chugga-chugga motion like a railway train now/ (Come on baby do the loco-motion)/ Do it nice and easy now don't lose control/ A little bit of rhythm and a lot of soul/ So come on, come on, do the loco-motion with me.’ The song (by Carole King and Gerry Goffin) states that the everyday performance of the dynamic totality (the train) needs to be well-rehearsed, with control but nice and easy—with ‘soul’. It may be a fetish, but as a dynamic fetish it is not literally ossified (which would result in flat-footed and unpersuasive dancing).
  • 4In the allegorical 2013 film Snowpiercer, that I cannot help thinking of when reading Holloway’s ‘The Train’, passengers are not actually burned but, more plausibly, children are used to do some kind of dangerous maintenance job inside the engine (clearly echoing Marx’s descriptions of child labour). Another beautiful but unsettling image is provided by Pixar’s films Monsters Inc. (2001) and Monsters University (2013), where monsters—obviously representing capital—derive their energy supplies from the screams of children, which is why they need to learn at university how to be scary. Different from the Open Marxism approach, the Monster films take a pessimistic, system-theoretical approach suggesting that capital deliberately and systematically provokes our screams which it recuperates and uses for its own reproduction.
  • 5This is found in one of the ‘paralipomena’ to ‘On the concept of history’, which are notes that were produced in the latter’s preparation or in the same context (Benjamin, 1977: 1232).
  • 6There is, though, a conflict between we/totality and the individual as in capitalist society, one cannot be different without fear, as Adorno writes.
  • 7This obviously means the wage-form of labour based on labour power as a commodity, but there is an argument that also increasingly many of the remaining activities not actually performed as wage labour are coloured by the wage-form: the fact that you are not paid for what you do does not mean that you are entirely outside the wage/commodity form of social relations—which is even more depressing.
  • 8I made the surprising experience, though, that many of my students disliked Holloway’s ‘The scream’ when I used it in class. Some very serious students found it not serious enough, some others seemed to resent the rhetorical style as if they were being sold something.
  • 9In a complementary manner, García Vela argues Moishe Postone turned ‘the object’ into ‘the subject’, despite reporting correctly that Postone presents the ‘structures of social relations’ as ‘constituted by a type of objectifying practice’ (García Vela, 2020: 58).
  • 10Frederick Harry Pitts constructs the supposed contrast between OM and NRM in a different manner: ‘Value-form approaches to the Marxian theory of value have their roots in the mature economic works of Marx, but differ in important ways from orthodox, traditionalist approaches to his output, redressing the disproportionate emphasis placed upon the value-producing properties of labour in favour of a perspective which foregrounds the abstract process of social validation which renders labour productive of value, and, in turn, the concrete antagonistic social relations that undergird this. The New Reading of Marx focuses primarily on the first, Open Marxism primarily on the second. Together, their Frankfurt-School inflected reading of Marx’s Capital emphasizes the status of Marx’s theory as a critical theory of society rather than a positivistic economic account…’ (Pitts, 2020: 64–65). This seems overall very well put: my labour only reveals itself as having been abstract value-producing labour once the social process has validated it as such (in circulation, through the medium of money). I would be reluctant, though, to make too much of the different emphasis on ‘the abstract process of social validation’ versus the concrete antagonistic social relations that undergird this’. Pitts might have a point here, though, given that Open Marxists tend to use the concept of class more regularly. I have always seen this as merely a difference in emphasis in presentation, but maybe there is more to it.
  • 11Very illuminating on the relations between Critical Theory, Open Marxism and autonomism are Chanson and Monferrand (2018) and Memos (2018).
  • 12‘What is, is more than it is. This “more” is not imposed upon it but remains immanent to it, as that which has been pushed out of it. In that sense, the nonidentical would be the thing’s own identity against its identifications’ (Adorno, 2004: 164).
  • 13This is the last sentence of Benjamin’s essay on Goethe’s Wahlverwandschaften (Elective Affinities). In English it is best known as a quotation in Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (Beacon Press, 1964), p. 257.
  • 14Blumenfeld (2021) provides a pertinent discussion of the role of utopia and representations of utopia with reference to Bloch and the Frankfurt School. He suggests that ‘[c]linging to an image of utopia like an idol would … be anti-utopian, while criticizing the utopian image in the name of what the image represents would confirm one’s utopian consciousness’. Spot on.
  • 15See Stoetzler (2005, 2012). My work on antisemitism is grounded in exactly this issue; see Stoetzler (2019, 2021) as well as my forthcoming edited volume Critical theory and the critique of antisemitism  (Stoetzler 2023).
  • 16‘Jewish Ideology, Capitalism, and Modernity’ is the title of a section of chapter eight of The Sociology of Freedom (Öcalan, 2020: 221–238), which contains most of the book’s antisemitic material.
  • 17Öcalan suggests feminism be replaced by a ‘science of woman’ (Öcalan, 2020: 294–300) that would radically break with liberalism and explore ‘the nature’ of woman. ‘Taking the economy out of women’s hands and putting it into the hands of usurers, merchants, capitalists, power, the state and its agents … was the greatest blow to economic life’ (ibid.: 299). Like the ‘admiring’ form of (‘philo’-)antisemitism, the idealization of women as civilization’s last hope is also a trope common in the late nineteenth century, not least among male supporters of (some aspects of) the women’s movement of the time (Georg Simmel would be an example). Given that the expropriation of ‘woman’ would have begun thousands of years ago, the fact that Öcalan puts ‘usurers’ (a word traditionally connoted as Jewish) first in the list of the oppressors and usurpers of ‘natural woman’ suggests that (subconsciously, perhaps) the word is not used here in its literal sense.
  • 18Holloway rejects therewith the one similarity between Öcalan’s grand narrative and the critical theory of the ‘Frankfurt School’, in particular Dialectic of Enlightenment which does a lot of what Öcalan aims to do, but from a Marxist perspective (and without the antisemitism, albeit arguably with traces of a kind of ‘positive’ sexism not entirely unlike Öcalan’s).
  • 19Öcalan references Sombart repeatedly despite stating his arguments were ‘exaggerated’. On Sombart, see Bodemann (2014) and Stoetzler (2014). The antisemitic mythology around Jewish ‘money lending’ etc. has been debunked repeatedly, most recently by Mell (2017, 2018).
  • 20Beyond that, the concept becomes the more complex the more other aspects of ‘Frankfurt School’ critical theory assert themselves, such as the psychoanalytically informed critique of fascism and antisemitism, and the critique of civilization based on the critique of labour as developed in Dialectic of Enlightenment.