The Narrowing of Marxism: A Comment on Simon Clarke’s Comments - John Holloway

John Holloway responds to Simon Clarke about the nature of capitalist labour. Part of 3 of 3 in the 2002 collection The Labour Debate: An Investigation into the Theory and Reality of Capitalist Work.

Clarke's article is here.

Part 1 by Holloway is here.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on October 20, 2023

1.3 The Narrowing of Marxism: A Comment on Simon Clarke’s Comments

All of Simon’s comments are directed towards narrowing the scope of Marxism and the understanding of class struggle. The central thrust of Simon’s argument is to limit the significance of the concept of fetishism. He does so by making a distinction between the theory of commodity fetishism and ‘the more general theory of fetishism’. The former refers to the fact that the relations between commodity producers really exist as relations between things (their products); this does not affect the working class, which does not participate in capitalist society as a commodity producer. According to the latter, ‘social relations are misperceived and social powers are attributed to things. The first aspect is a theory of social forms, the second is a theory about the perception of social forms.’ Thus, for example, the idea that the wage is a payment for the worker’s labour (as opposed to labour-power) is ‘a pure mystification’. This is offered as an argument against my claim that the (real and perceived) fetishisation of social relations is pivotal to Marx’s critique of capitalism.

The limitation of the scope of fetishism is related to Simon’s defence of a restricted concept of class struggle. Although ‘all of the dispossessed are potential wage-labourers for capital, and in that sense are members of the working class’, nevertheless experience has shown that the only secure base of the labour movement ‘has proved to be the trade union organisation that develops out of the struggle over the terms and conditions of wage-labour.’ It is in this context, then, that Simon argues that the working class is not subject to commodity fetishism, nor, it would seem, to the ‘more general theory of fetishism’ either.

Thirdly, Simon would limit the meaning of Marxist scientific work. Marxist intellectual work does not, apparently, involve the critique of fetishism (since this is of limited relevance) but consists rather of ‘arduous and rigorous intellectual work to develop a more adequate understanding’ which can be put ‘at the disposal’ of those who do not have the same ‘skills and resources’ and so ‘inform the practice and programmes of the labour movement’.

Why do I insist on the centrality of the concept of fetishism? The most important reason is that it gives us a much richer concept of class struggle as including every aspect of human existence, and hence an understanding of our existence as an existence-in-struggle.

I see no ground at all in Marx’s work for making the distinction between commodity fetishism and the more general theory of fetishism. Such a distinction leads to a peculiar separation, quite foreign to Marx’s method, between social forms and the perception of social forms. Where does the perception of social forms come from if not from the forms of social relations themselves? And how can one have social forms that do not give rise to perceptions?

The core of Marx’s critique of capitalism is surely that it dehumanises humans, that it deprives us of control of our activity (and ‘what is life but activity?’), that it transforms (really and not just in our perception) relations between people into relations between things. This is a constant theme in the writings both of the young and the mature Marx (whereas the mature Simon seems to adopt the Althusserian conception of a rupture which the young Simon criticised so strongly). The young Marx speaks of ‘alienation’, the older Marx speaks of fetishism, but both concepts refer to the same objectification of the subject.

Dehumanisation is not a cultural malaise: it is not something that floats in the air. It arises from the material organisation of the activity of people as a process of exploitation, from the existence of human doing as value and surplus-value production. However, to limit Marx’s critique of capitalism to a critique of exploitation (as Simon seems to do) is to weaken Marx’s theory considerably.

If we understand the critique of capitalism as the critique of dehumanisation, then it is clear that every aspect of our existence is involved. Every moment of living is a struggle against dehumanisation: it is from there that our understanding of the possibilities of revolutionary change must begin. Obviously the struggle at the place of work is an extremely important aspect of this: I have never, as Simon claims, proclaimed the ‘revolutionary role of the marginal strata’. But why should anyone want to restrict class struggle to ‘struggle over the terms and conditions of wage-labour’? Why restrict it at all, when all existence is the struggle against capital?

If we understand the critique of capitalism as the critique of dehumanisation, then it is clear that every moment of our existence is contradictory.

The concept of fetishism points to the fact that capital does not stand outside us: it is a social relation that permeates us. Our existence and our perceptions are contradictory, whether we are workers in the factory or workers in the university. There is no pure, innocent subject, no one who stands outside the real and perceived fetishisation of human existence (not even the labour movement!) To say that existence is contradictory is to say that it is in movement, that there are no established facts, that fetishism can be understood only as fetishisation, as constant struggle.

Fetishism points to the ubiquity of struggle. Intellectual work is part of that struggle. It is not just ‘arduous and rigorous’ work on behalf of the labour movement, but part of the constant struggle against the fetishisation of social relations, against the transformation of relations between people into relations between things. Marxist intellectual work cannot be just the digging up of ‘facts’ that are useful to the labour movement. We are not advisers to the class struggle. Our daily doing (teaching, writing) is inevitably part of that struggle. Marxist intellectual work is part of the struggle against the dehumanisation of social relations. Its method is critique, the critique of fetishisation, the critique of all that negates the presence and the force of human social practice. Marxist intellectual work is part of the struggle of that which exists in the mode of being denied against its own denial.

Why does Simon want to narrow the scope of Marxism? I do not know. His argument is a critique of my alleged ‘romanticism’, presumably in the name of ‘realism’. What is at issue here is surely the understanding of the failure of communist revolutions in the twentieth century. Simon’s implicit argument (the argument of ‘realism’, I suppose) seems to be that in the past revolutionary demands were pitched too high, that we must tone down our expectations, forget all that nonsense about creating a society based on the mutual recognition of human dignity, that we must focus on ‘democratic socialist politics’ (what is that?), that our struggle must be centred on the ‘struggle over the terms and conditions of wage-labour’. As the last phrase suggests, the realism which Simon would hold up against my alleged romanticism is quite simply the realism of capitalist reality.

My argument is just the opposite: we need to take revolutionary theory far further than the revolutionaries of the past. Revolution has failed in the past not because revolutionaries set their sights too high, but because they set them too low. Capital, and therefore class struggle and therefore revolution, penetrate every aspect of human existence. The more we see struggle as an aspect of everyday life, the more radical our concept of struggle has to become. Our struggle is the struggle of that which does not even appear in ‘realistic’ accounts of capitalist reality. That is why we must break with the ‘realist’ logic of capitalist reality. This is what the critique of fetishism, and therefore Marxism, is all about.