Open reply to open letter - John Holloway

Holloway responds to Wildcat (Germany)'s 1997 open letter about his work.

Submitted by libcom on November 1, 2005

Open Reply to an Open Letter

Dearest Wildcat,

Many thanks for your letter. I'm very sorry for not replying sooner, but ... and then follow all the excuses. I don't know how many letters I've started in this way.

And yet your letter is very special. You say that it was a 'besonderer Gluecksfall' that you came across our texts, but of course the converse is also true. You cannot imagine what a pleasure it is, when one spends most of one's time in that peculiar form of class struggle (or peculiar vice, perhaps) which is Marxist theory, to discover that somebody not only reads it but actually discusses it and finds it helpful. Of course I was at first disappointed that you didn't publish the Dignity's Revolt paper, but it's actually far more gratifying to know that you read the paper with care, discussed it and took the care to write a detailed criticism. Thank you very much.

I would like to take up the points you make in the way that you suggest: not as an Answer to your Criticisms, but as moving a step forward in the Prozess des Fragens und Untersuchens. I want to focus on three points that seem to be central in your argument: the importance of the EZLN, the question of class and humanism, and the question of work.

1. The EZLN:

You say in your letter that the aim of my paper was to defend the EZLN against criticisms from the left. I think, on the contrary, that I was more concerned with defending the EZLN from their supporters than from their critics. As you point out, the movement that has grown up around the zapatista uprising is very confused and includes a whole range of different political positions. I think it is very important to engage within this movement by advancing political-theoretical arguments about the nature of the movement. The way I chose to do this was by focussing on the category of 'dignity', which seems to me a potentially very powerful category.

Part of my argument is, of course, that I consider the zapatista movement to be an extremely important and original revolutionary movement. I do not think that they are beyond criticism and the movement is, as I say, confused and ambivalent in many ways. But then I find it hard to imagine any revolutionary process that would not be confused, ambivalent and open to criticism. To refuse to engage with the movement in the name of theoretical purity or correctness would, I think, be a great mistake. I also think that any engagement with the zapatistas must be based on an openness to learn from them, to listen, and not just to apply pre-cast ideas of what is correct. What they have done, and what they are doing, and the revolutionary way in which they are challenging revolutionary ideas, make them for me the most exciting revolutionary movement in a very long time. 'May 1968' too was a confused movement, full of mistakes and criticable practices: then too, the many groups who felt that they had the 'correct line' stood on the sidelines. The position of the left-wing critics of the zapatistas, such as Deneuve / Reeve, seems to me no different.

2. Class and humanism:

You focus your discussion here on the section of the paper which begins: 'Dignity is the revolutionary subject. Dignity is a class concept, not a humanisitic one', a section which was obviously intended to provoke discussion. You accuse me of falling into the humanism that I claim to criticise and quite rightly link this problem with the 'sheer unrest of life' which I quote in other texts.

I have already revised this section considerably, partly in response to your criticisms, but I do not think that this revision affects the discussion.

Your criticism is that, in the attempt to avoid a definitional or objectivist concept of class, I throw the baby out with the bath water, reducing the concept of class to the contradiction between alienation and non-alienation, a contradiction present in every person.

I think your characterisation is right. For me, the working class, the revolutionary subject, is humanity dehumanised, insubordination subordinated, freedom enchained, the sheer unrest of life entrapped, indefinition defined, creativity negated, etc. However, these contradictions do not just float in the air: they are the precondition of and consequence of, they exist in and through, the daily, hourly pumping of surplus value from the workers. If exploitation comes to an end, then there is no dehumanisation of humanity, etc. But similarly, if there is no dehumanisation of humanity (etc), then there is no exploitation. Exploitation is the core of dehumanisation, the core of class struggle. But I do not think that the exploitation of surplus value producing workers can be separated from the dehumanisation of humanity that it implies, and this dehumanisation is not just an external contradiction between us and capital, but a contradiction that runs through all of us. Thus when you say that 'Subjekt der revolutionaeren Veraenderung ist damit die Klasse der Produzenten, die von der herrschenden Klasse ausgebeutet wird' [The subject of revolutionary change is thus the class of producers, who are exploited by the ruling class], it seems to me that there is a danger here of 'reducing' class conflict, of separating off one aspect of the class conflict, of impoverishing revolution.

When I say that exploitation is the core of dehumanisation, I do not mean by that there is a hierarchy between the direct producers of surplus value and the rest of us, simply that the negation of creativity (etc) is a material, palpable, historical process. I think that there might possibly be a case for establishing such a hierarchy if it could be shown that the direct producers of surplus value play a particular part in the attack against capital. This has often been the assumption, and was one of the points that came up in the discussion when we met in Hamburg: the idea that there are key sections of workers who are able to inflict particular damage on capital (such as workers in large factories or transport workers). These workers are able to impose with particular directness the dependence of capital upon labour. But I'm not sure that such groups of workers are necessarily direct producers of surplus value (think of bank workers, for example), and the impact of the zapatistas on capital (through the devaluation and the world financial upheaval of 1994-95, for example) makes it clear that the capacity to disrupt capital accumulation does not (any longer?) depend necessarily on one's place in the process of production. Anyway, which does more 'damage to capital' - a prolonged strike by industrial workers or a rebellion in the jungles of Mexico which stirs up again the idea of revolution and the dream of a different type of society?

You argue in your letter that I fall into the humanism that I set out to criticise. You say: 'es gibt eine unueberwindbare Trennung zwischen humanistischen und revolutionaeren Konzepten. Waehrend sich humanistische Ansaetze auf ein ideales, philosophisches Menschsein und eine abstrakte, unhistorische Menschlichkeit beziehen, geht die revolutionare Theorie von den historisch wirklichen Menschen aus.' [there is an insuperable division between revolutionary and humanistic concepts. While humanistic approaches refer to an ideal, philosophical concept of being a person and an abstract, unhistorical 'humanity', revolutionary theory starts from the historically real person] (37). My problem here is with the 'historisch wirklichen Menschen' [historically real person]. If this is understood positivistically, as meaning people as they are now, then there is no revolution: there might be complaints, struggles, but that is all. It is only if it is understood negatively, to mean 'historically real people, as they exist in their negation, their alienation, their form of being denied' that the term 'historically real people' carries any revolutionary force. But what is it then that is being negated, alienated, denied? The possibiity of living as humans, free and self-determining. The term 'historically real people' makes sense only if we understand that real historical existence as an existence-in-negation, an existence-in-tension, the tension being towards humanity, self-determining practice. The problem with humanism is not that it has a concept of humanity, but that it thinks of humanity positively, as something already existing, rather than starting from the understanding that humanity exists only in the form of being denied, as a dream, as a struggle. The zapatista slogan 'humanity against neoliberalism' is ambiguous: humanity can be understood either positively (socialdemocratically) or negatively. The argument of my article is that it should be understood negatively.

You object to the idea of 'humanity against neoliberalism' because the slogan could be just as easily used by supporters of the Socialist International. Yes, but I'm not sure that that's a problem. Any categories that we use are terrains of struggle: the PRI-politicians here in Mexico talk of the importance of the revolutionary tradition, the hacks of the ex-Soviet Union talked of class struggle, Clinton of freedom. So what? But, more fundamentally, any situation of revolutionary upheaval is a situation of confusion, of confused thought, of confused enthusiasms, of (less confused) opportunism, of ambiguous categories. That is not a reason for standing aside.

All this feels too negative, too defensive. The point, of course, is not to defend myself against your criticisms, even less to counter-attack. Your letter has been very helpful to me in trying to think things out more clearly. There are some points I agree with, others that I am still thinking about. One of the points that worries me is your argument that if one understands the concept of class as the contradiction between alienation and non-alienation, then it loses all meaning: 'er kann beliebig auf alles moegliche angewendet werden' [can apply to all possible movements, without saying anything at all about them]. But isn't that the point of Marxist theory? To understand all social phenomena as forms of class struggle, and thereby to understand the richness of class struggle and the fragility of all social phenomena? By focussing on money as a form of class struggle, for example, as in the articles you have published by Werner [Bonefeld] and myself, we can learn a lot about the current development and fragility of capitalism, which would be closed if one adopted a narrower view of class struggle and saw money as something external to class struggle. That the arguments are not sufficiently developed I agree, but one of the best ways to develop them is by seeing them in the context of particular movements of struggle such as the zapatista uprising. I don't understand why a concept that fits everything 'damit fuer did Praxis bedeutungslos bleibt'.

3. Work is central:

I agree with many of your comments in this section of your letter: for example, that the question of the relation between creative practice and work should have been developed more in the article on 'The Centrality of Work'. I think, however, that the central issue is again the question of how we think of class. You insist again on seeing class struggle as centred in the immediate production process: 'Diese materielle, dingliche Gestalt des Produktionsprozesses ist der harte Kern des kapitalistischen Kommandos ueber unser Leben' [This material, real shape of the production process is the hard core of the capitalist command over our life.]. And then you say just at the end: 'Das Kapital flieht vor der "aufstaendischen Macht der Arbeit", aber es kann nur in die Richtung ihrer weiteren Vergesellschaftung fliehen, die es den ArbeiterInnen gegenueber wieder als neue "soziale Macht" aufbauen muss, so wie der River-Rouge-Komplex von Ford eine "soziale Macht" war.' [Capital flees from the 'insubordinate power of labour', but it can only flee in the direction of its further socialisation, which it must build up against the workers as a new 'social power', just as Ford's River Rouge complex was a 'social power'.] I think I agree with both of these statements, but I understand them in a different way from you. For me, for example, the zapatista uprising is precisely an example of the way in which the flight of capital leads to new forms of socialisation (the fiercer subjection of the lives of Mexican peasants into the circuit of capital). I don't think we should limit the idea of socialisation to the old idea of the growth of the (industrial) proletarian army (Schornstein nach Schornstein - as Brecht puts it somewhere, does he?), which I suspect underlies your argument. I think it would be dangerous to limit class struggle in this way, simply because I think class struggle is much richer and faster-moving than that suggests.

Capital depends on the exploitation of labour, but exploitation is impossible without subordination, the transformation of insubordinate humanity (the 'sheer unrest of life') into subordinate labour. Obviously, this is a struggle that takes place not only within the factory but in every aspect of human existence. Primitive accumulation, capital's violent struggle to subordinate, is not something in the past but is everyday existence. I see no reason why an emphasis on the centrality of exploitation should mean restricting class struggle to the immediate process of production.

But I want to finish on a more positive note. The long article which you decided not to publish (as well as the shorter version which you did publish) is a plea for Marxists (and beyond) to listen carefully to what the zapatistas are saying and doing. They are saying very original and, on the whole, very good things. It is not just (although that is important) that they have reawakened the idea of revolution: it is also that they are re-inventing what revolution means. Central to this is the idea of changing the world without taking power, which, I think, has enormous consequences for the way we think about revolution and about political practice. Certainly part of the response in Europe has been a deaf romanticism, but far worse than the deafness of the romantics has been the deafness of the dogmatics, of those on the independent left who simply do not want to listen to what might challenge their established ideas. There are many indications now that the next few months could see a tragic outcome in Mexico: if so, it would be a tragedy for the world as much as for Mexico. I do not think the world has so many chances left: when one arises it is important to fight for it - critically, of course, but to fight for it.

Again very, very many thanks for your letter. I hope we can continue to make our disagreements productive and that I shall hear from you soon. I know there are many points of your letter that I have not touched. You criticise me for always wanting to round things off, with over-smooth general answers, instead of leaving problems and questions open. On this point I think probably .... [here the manuscript breaks off]