From Nouns to Verbs (Preface) - John Holloway

We Are the Crisis of Capital

In 2019, PM Press released We Are The Crisis of Capital: A John Holloway Reader. Holloway, a co-founder of Open Marxism, gives an overview of his work in the preface to the book below.

We highly recommend purchasing a copy from PM Press here!

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on November 10, 2023


From Nouns to Verbs

Spread our wings and fly.1

We are passengers in an aeroplane that is out of control and spiralling downwards toward the ground: How can we avoid annihilation? The only way is for us all to spread our wings now and flap them so hard that we break through the fuselage and away we go. That would be nonsensical if we were not already doing it.

Flying is a verb. We fly. At the moment we are entrapped in nouns (the aeroplane). Or better: we are attacked by verbs congealed into nouns, to paraphrase Marx’s Capital. The lines between anarchism and Marxism blur, as they should.

First, a stepping forward in the dark, a venturing beyond, as Ernst Bloch puts it—and then a path that is made by walking, un camino que se hace al andar.

Turning to the verb was the step in the dark, the venturing beyond. This is the first article in this collection, presented as a paper to a conference in Puebla in 1979, published in Spanish in 1980 and in English not until 1991: such was the hesitancy of my stepping.

I had already collaborated with Sol Picciotto in trying to open up new approaches to the state. We edited a book, State and Capital, in which we introduced the German state derivation debate into English, and wrote an article published in Capital and Class, entitled “Capital, Crisis and the State.” The debate on the derivation of the state started with an article published in 1970 by Wolfgang Müller and Christel Neusüß that opened a new and much more rigorous way of thinking about the capitalist nature of the state. Drawing on the resurgence of interest in Capital in those years, they argued that in order to understand the state, its limits, and its impulses, it was essential to understand it as a particular form of capitalist social relations, like money, value, capital, rent, and so on, and for this it was necessary to derive it logically from the nature of the capital relation in the same way that Marx had derived those other forms. It was, in other words, necessary to derive the particularisation of the state, its existence as a particular form of capitalist social relations distinct from money or rent.

This was to return to the long-neglected approach of the Russian jurist Evgeny Pashukanis, who, in his book Marxism and the General Theory of the Law, published in 1924, had derived the form of law and of the state from the nature of the commodity and had posed the question: “Why does the dominance of a class not continue to be that which it is—that is to say the subordination in fact of one part of the population to another part? Why does it take on the form of official state domination?” The link to Pashukanis was important both theoretically and politically. Pashukanis had insisted on the specifically capitalist nature of the state form just at the time when Stalin was consolidating the idea of the Soviet Union as a socialist state, and for his pains he was eventually executed in 1937. A similar fate befell Itzhak Rubin, who, in his Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value, published at much the same time as Pashukanis’s book, had theorised value as a specifically capitalist form of social relations. It was clear that to pose the concept of form as central to Marxist theory was not only to stimulate a new reading of Marx and particularly of Capital, where “form” plays a central part, but also to mark a rupture with the whole theoretical tradition of the communist parties.

The state derivation debate had important theoretical and political implications, which were generally not spelled out in the articles that were part of the debate. In general terms, the debate was a rejection of the old idea that the state is simply an instrument of the ruling class: that simplification does not help us to understand the limits and contradictions of state action and is difficult to reconcile with the many examples of state actions that do not seem to coincide with the interests of capital. The influential work of Ralph Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society, which highlighted the personal connections between members of the ruling class and the senior positions in the state, suggested by implication that if those personal connections were abolished, the state could be quite different: in other words, it paid little attention to the structural constraints on state action arising from the nature of capitalist society. The theoretically more demanding and also very influential work of Nicos Poulantzas emphasised above all the “relative autonomy” of the state: since it is not simply the instrument of the ruling class but relatively autonomous from it, there is room for left parties to take control of the state and use this “relative autonomy” to push the state in a different direction. This is still an influential approach among the world’s left parties. Poulantzas is much cited by Álvaro García Linera, the vice president of Bolivia, for example. The state derivation debate does not distance the state from its capitalist character (as the notion of “relative autonomy” does), but rather emphasises its “particularisation,” or the unity-in-separation, separation-in-unity of state and capital.

The state derivation debate was criticised for adopting a capital-logic approach of assuming that historical development could be understood as simply the unfolding of the logic of capitalist development. The objection to such an approach is that it leaves no place for class struggle. At best, struggle takes place within the interstices of the unfolding of the laws of capital—a point that Sol Picciotto and I made in the Introduction to State and Capital.

The issue can be seen in terms of the cohesion and dynamic of the society in which we live. The state appears to be the crucial force of social cohesion: the fact that we commonly speak of Mexican society, British society, U.S. society, and so on makes that clear. The state derivation debate, by insisting that the starting point must be not the state itself but the capital relation, points us in a different direction, arguing that the cohesion and dynamic of society is constituted by the capital relation. The term “capital relation” is open to differing interpretations, but basically it refers to the fact that social relations in this society are mediated through the sale and purchase of labour power as a commodity: this implies that our products relate to one another as commodities, and therefore through money. Put simply, it is money that holds the world together, and our understanding of the world must start from there. It is this basic structure of social relations that constitutes the cohesion and therefore the dynamic of social development. The state is one moment of that overall social cohesion, but it does not constitute it.

It is the existence of money as the social gel (the fact that human richness exists as an immense pile of commodities, as Marx puts it in the first sentence of Capital) that allows us to speak of the “laws of capitalist development” or the “logic of capital.” The question is: How do we understand the force of these laws? If we understand them in the strong sense of laws independent of human volition, then this leads easily to the view that little can be achieved as long as that basic structure exists, and that struggle should be focused above all on preparing the conditions for the future overthrow of this structure. There is a clear distinction between structure (the logic of capital) and struggle.

In the essay “The State and Everyday Struggle,” I took a tentative step beyond the capital-logic approach, and sometimes I feel that everything else I have written has been an attempt to understand the implications of that step. The crucial sentence reads: “It is essential, then, that we conceive of these forms not as static entities but as ‘form processes’ (Sohn-Rethel 1978, 17), as processes that seek to impose ever-changing but always fragmented forms of social relations upon the resistance inevitably aroused by class oppression. The determinate forms of capital are not only the forms of existence of capital but the form-processes through which capital is reproduced. Capital is reproduced through the constant form-processing (processing into certain forms, Formierung, forming) of social activity” (1991, 239). Possibly it is this sentence that provides the underlying unity of the different articles in this book.

An interlude: this “I took a step” is an egocentric academic way of expressing what happened. It is true, I did not put the argument forward consciously as the outcome of a collective discussion nor was it an argument directed at influencing some party decision. Yet the individualistic formulation expresses a broader social trend. I, like many others, was trying to think a way forward: the old patterns of revolutionary-party thought were breaking down. The idea of a state-centred revolution in the future was losing ground among the many of us who thought (and still think) that capitalism is a disaster and that we must find a way of breaking capital’s logic of death. The feminist movement had focused attention on the importance of the everyday and of prefiguration. The “workerist” (operaista or autonomist) revolts in Italy had emphasised the need to think from struggle, not from capital. In that sense the essay’s title, “The State and Everyday Struggle,” was a reflection of the way that anti-capitalist thought was moving. I remember still with terror that, as part of the events surrounding the congress in Puebla, I found myself in a panel with a French Trotskyist leader where we were asked, without preparation, to give our evaluation of the present crisis of capitalism. He gave a very articulate presentation of the party line, and fortunately I have no memory at all of what I said. The point is not that this is a tale of personal inadequacy, but that discussions have moved on since then, and that my apparently individual step has proved to be part of a more general movement. Of course party leaders and their self-confident certainties still exist, but there is a more general sense of taking tentative steps, of having to make the paths we walk on, of the Zapatista “asking we walk.”

The shift from “form” to “form-process” or, better, from “form” to “forming,” was part of the crisis of the party-centred thinking that had dominated Marxist discussion until then. If capitalism is understood as a closed system governed by the “laws of capitalist development,” then class struggle will be focused on building the organisation that can break this system with its laws and logic, and this organisation is generally understood to be the Party. However, if the nouns are changed into verbs, if all the forms of capitalist social relations are understood as form-processes, so that commodity is understood as commodifying, money as monetising, capital as capitalising, state as statifying, and so on, then all this changes. (And, of course, aeroplane becomes aeroplaning, and, if we understand the aeroplane hurtling us toward our mass self-destruction as the logic of capital, then the logic is a logicising.)

The first thing that changes is the direction of struggle. Instead of thinking of struggle as being our struggle against an established system of domination, we come to understand that this “established system” is a constant and desperate struggle to impose itself as a coherent logical system and reproduce itself as such. Money is not a thing, nor is it a stable form of social relations, it is a constant struggle to form people’s behaviour in a certain way, a struggle that involves the employment of millions and millions of police, supported by psychologists, teachers, parents, and so on, and that quite literally leads to the death of thousands and thousands of people each day from violence, starvation, and untreated curable diseases. Capital is an attack, an unceasing aggression against us, forcing us out of bed and off to work each morning, pushing us to work faster in the factory or the office or the university, coercing students and teachers to direct their concerns to that which will increase the profitability of capital, driving peasants off the land, destroying communities. It is an attack that constantly provokes resistance-and-rebellion and is never sure of its outcome. This does not mean that our thinking starts with capital: no, our thinking is part of the resistance-and-rebellion, it is part of a dissonant chorus of screams against the capitalist attack that is killing us.

The logic of capital is not separate from struggle: it is struggle. Marx gives a succinct summary of the laws of capitalist development: “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the Prophets!” (Marx 1990 [1867], 742). But accumulation is constant struggle; there is nothing automatic about it. Society is shaped by capital’s ceaseless drive to accumulate more surplus value, and this is a constant attack on working conditions, education, healthcare, the environment, everything, in order to shape them in a way that promotes the profitability of capital. This is a fragmented attack in which the different states compete to provide the most favourable conditions for capital accumulation, each trying to attract capital to its territory.

The logic of capital is attack, and the force of the attack lies in its coherence and its logic, but its success is never automatic. It is constantly confronted by resistance-and-rebellion. Resistance-and-rebellion: a hyphenated word that I picked up from talks given by Subcomandante Moisés of the Zapatistas, but I do not know if it originates with him. Resistance-and-rebellion is a fundamental concept because it refers us back to the attack: we resist-and-rebel because we are attacked. In the first place this is very often a conservative defence of what exists, what we are used to or attached to. Our teaching or learning conditions in the university are attacked by cuts or new administrative measures: our first reaction is to defend them; the structure of collective property that was the material basis of peasant and indigenous communities was attacked by a change in the Mexican constitution, and the reaction was to defend them—a strong impulse behind the Zapatista uprising in 1994; a mining company announces that it is going to start an opencast mine in a small community, and the inhabitants mobilise to defend their peasant way of life; a car company says that it is going to introduce new working practices, and the workers organise to defend their old practices and rhythms of work; a property development company plans to destroy the house in which we live, and we round up the other residents to defend the building. In all of these cases the distinction between conservatism and rebellion blur. One is reminded of the famous first sentence of John Womack’s book on the Mexican Revolution: “This is a book about peasants who did not want to change and for that reason made a revolution.” It is important to question the traditional distinction between a “Left” that is looking for change and a conservative “Right” that wants things to stay the same: this assumes a stable world. In reality, we are all under attack, our first reaction is generally a conservative one of resistance, and in many cases this overflows, leading on to more general questioning of the logic of the attack, the logic of profit. The first part of the word reaches out for its complement: resistance becomes resistance-and-rebellion.

This is an opening. We are under attack, and this attack has a coherence: the logic of capital. Without a concept of capital, we cannot understand the dynamic of attack that shapes our lives and structures the movement of the world. But this logic of capital is a logicising that is constantly confronted by resistance-and-rebellion, by a million refusings of this logic, a million attempts to create the world on a different basis. It is confronted by an un-logicised world. The capitalist forms of social relations are confronted by an unformed world of misbehaving, of misfitting, of disobeying. Forming against misfittings: that is the central antagonism of capitalism. If we remain at the level of form rather than forming, then this antagonism is closed.

The logic of capital does exist, and any attempt to understand social development that is not centred on a concept of capital will lose touch with the overall dynamic, but working out this logic is constantly at issue, constantly a struggle. The logic is a logicising, the totality of social relations is a totalising, the social cohesion of capital is a social cohering: they are never complete, always resisted, always in need of being reproduced. The struggle against capital is the refusal to accept the reproduction of its logic; it is the breaking of its cohering, the cracking of its totalising. These refusals, this breaking, this fragmenting, have not yet broken the constantly renewed drive of the logic of capital, but they do suggest a very different concept of revolutionary politics. The possibility of revolution is not a question of building the organisation that will one day take state power and break capital: rather it is the recognition, creation, expansion, multiplication, and confluence of all these breakings of the logic of capital, all these creatings of different ways of doing things.

The attack comes from capital, or rather, capital is the attack. Our thinking, though, arises from our reaction to that attack. We are the attacked, the violated, the misfitting, raging, refusing, the resisting-rebelling, the screaming-against, the pushing against-and-beyond. Understanding capital as a verb pushes us into a different world, our world, the world of We, the world of insubordination and nonsubordination. Our world does not stand outside: this is no innocent, pure world of community; it is a world being attacked and corrupted by the attack, an angry world of cripples maimed by capital. Our world is a world of rage and, in spite of everything, a world of hope. Of hope: but how?

Is this a helpful way of rethinking revolution? We do not know because capital still exists, still keeps on destroying the world, and very often it is difficult to see how we can stop it completely. We have learned from dread experience that revolution cannot be brought about through the state, but that does not tell us how to go. The argument against the traditional concept cannot take the form of “you are wrong, we are right,” but at most “you are wrong, we are exploring.”

The articles reproduced in the rest of the book are part of this exploring. A central theme is understanding crisis as an intensification of struggle and a manifestation of the fragility of capital. Crisis is the expression of capital’s incapacity to exploit us sufficiently to secure its own profitability, of its inability to submit us totally to its logic, to shape our daily activity in a way that guarantees its constant expansion: in that sense we are the crisis of capital, and capital’s struggle is the struggle to subordinate us more effectively. This is what is explored in “The Red Rose of Nissan,” which centres on the struggles in the car industry in Britain and on the opening of the Nissan factory in Sunderland as a very conscious introduction of a new mode of subordination, which found a parallel in the rebirth of the Labour Party as “New Labour,” a reorientation led at that time by Neil Kinnock, but which was later to find expression in the war crimes of Tony Blair. Both the managerial and the political changes analysed in the article are attempts to overcome insubordination. Insubordination is the central problem for any system of domination.

And insubordination is we. We are the object of attack, the subject of hope. If we understand capital and its forms of existence as verbs rather than nouns, then we put antagonism not domination in the centre. Capital is not just domination, it is antagonism. We take sides in this antagonism. By writing this I declare that I am on the side of insubordination, that I am against the subordination of humanity to capital. And you, dear reader, if you exist, make the same declaration by reading this. If you do exist, this already constitutes us as a we—and who knows, there may be more? We know that the attack comes from above, that we are the object of the attack, that our activities from day to day are shaped by that attack, by the totalising discipline of capital. But the very fact that we are writing/reading this tells us that we are more than the object, that we overflow. We are subordinate to capital, but we are also insubordinate. And this is what interests us: our insubordinating, our not-fitting. That is what interests us, because that is where we are, where we live, but also because the possibility of a different form of society springs from there. Our not-fitting is the present existence of a society that does not yet exist but could be created, to draw from Ernst Bloch (a constant influence). Our not-fitting is filled with the dream, the promise, the present creation of a world that does not yet exist, but in the first place it is a horror, a refusal, a scream: in the beginning is the scream.

I go no further. I do not want to spoil the excitement of the book that follows by telling you the whole story.

Yet, yes, one more thing. In the beginning is the scream, and what is it that we scream? We scream “¡Ya basta! Enough!” just as the Zapatistas did when they rose up on the first day of January 1994. I was already living in Mexico at the time (and have continued to do so ever since), but the waves of that great ¡Ya basta! roll beyond all frontiers. It is not just the power of the Zapatista refusal but also their extraordinary creativeness and openness. They have created hope where hope seemed gone. They have digested the failure of the state-centred revolutions of the twentieth century and have worked out a new grammar of resistance-and-rebellion, with their jokes, their stories, their concepts and principles: dignity; to rule by obeying (mandar obedeciendo); walking not running, because we are going very far; walking at the pace of the slowest; we are ordinary people, that is to say, rebels; and the wonderful “asking we walk” (preguntando caminamos). If their inspiration resonates in some of the articles that follow, and not just those that deal specifically with them, then I am happy indeed.

And now the Zapatistas confront us with the storm (la tormenta). In their presentation of the seminar on “Critical Thought against the Hydra of Capitalism” in May 2015, they confront us with a question: “The thing is that what we Zapatistas see and hear is that a catastrophe in all its senses is coming…. So we Zapatistas think that we must ask others from other calendars, distinct geographies, what is it that you see.”2 What do we think? What do we think of the storm that we are living, that we feel all around us, that is taking us closer and closer to total destruction? And how can we think of that storm not just as a disaster but as a midwife helping with the birth of a different world? And how do we think of that storm as ours, knowing that we are the crisis of capital? Questions, questions, questions.

And yes, another thing—because any list must contain more than one—thank you, thank you, thank you to so many people that I have decided to give no names, but just to mention our permanent seminar here in the university in Puebla, where for years and years now we have been thinking all these things.

With that, we are back in the aeroplane, spiralling out of control down, down, down toward the final crash. Only now we know that it is not a structure but a structuring, not a logic but a logicising, confronted by a million refusings to submit, a million raging-hoping flappings of wings. And away we fly.


Holloway, John. “The State and Everyday Struggle.” In The State Debate, edited by Simon
Clarke. London: Macmillan, 1991.

Holloway, John, and Sol Picciotto. State and Capital: A Marxist Debate. London: Edward Arnold, 1978.

Marx, Karl. Capital, vol. 1. London: Penguin Books, 1990 [1867].

Miliband, Ralph. The State in Capitalist Society. New York: Basic Books, 1969.

Müller, Wolfgang, and Christal Neusüß, “Die Sozialstaatsillusion und der Widerspruch von Lohnarbeit und Kapital.” Sozialistische Politik, 1970. Partly translated into English in John
Holloway, and Sol Picciotto. State and Capital: A Marxist Debate. London: Edward Arnold, 1978.

Pashukanis, Evgeny. Law and Marxism: A General Theory. London: Ink Links, 1978 [1924].

Rubin, Isaak Illich. Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1973 [1924].

Sohn-Rethel, Alfred. Intellectual and Manual Labour. London: Macmillan, 1978.

Womack, John. Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. New York: Vintage, 1969.

  • 1Many thanks to Panos Doulos for his comments on an earlier version.
  • 2“El asunto es que lo que nosotros, nosotras, zapatistas, miramos y escuchamos es que viene una catástrofe en todos los sentidos, una tormenta…. Entonces nosotros, nosotras, zapatistas, pensamos que tenemos que preguntar a otros, a otras, a otro/as, de otros calendarios, de geografías distintas, qué es lo que ven.”