Why Holloway? (Preface) - Andrej Grubačić

In Against and Beyond Capitalism

Andrej Grubačić introduces John Holloway's Marxism: a creative and original combination of insights from state derivationism, autonomist tradition, critical theory, and Zapatismo.

This is the preface from In, Against, and Beyond Capitalism: The San Francisco Lectures released by PM Press in 2016. Pick up a copy here.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on November 10, 2023

by Andrej Grubačić

Why Holloway?

To criticize positive thinking is a dangerous thing in California, particularly if you do it in a room called Namaste Hall. Yet, in these three delightful lectures delivered at the California Institute of Integral Studies in April 2013, that is precisely what John Holloway did. Students and activists cheered him on, disagreed, and actively participated in one of the more memorable intellectual exchanges organized by the Department of Anthropology and Social Change.

In this preface, I will discuss the nature of John Holloway’s Marxism and its place in contemporary anticapitalist theory. I will focus on four key areas in Holloway’s thinking.

The first one is dialectics. As Roy Bhaskar and critical realists have pointed out (Norries 2009), the entire Western philosophical tradition can be explained as a confrontation between two very different positions. The first position, introduced by Parmenides, insists on apparent fixity of objects. Objects are fixed and protected from change. The other, Heraclitean, position sees objects as patterns of change (Graeber 2001). The world is a constant flux, bereft of solid objects. For Holloway, as for Adorno, “thinking heeds a potential that waits in the object.” Objects, or constitutive elements, are in constant motion, and our thought resists to “mere things in being” (Adorno 1990: 19). The best-known examples of thought that sees objects as processes and society as constituted by action are Hegel and Marx. It would be accurate enough to state that Holloway stands firmly in dialectical tradition, and he indeed patiently argues that it is theoretically and politically important to defend the notion of dialectics. It would be, at the same time, equally inaccurate to stop there. Holloway’s dialectics is not Hegel’s, and his political and intellectual project is defined by an effort to develop a notion of open and negative dialectics.

After the defeat of the real existing socialism, many Marxists, particularly those in the French-speaking world, have rejected the dogmatic certainty of the positive thought. No more synthetic thinking, they declared, no more closure, no more certainty. This reaction was entirely reasonable, as it was an intellectual and political protest against the official thought of the French communist party. The new generation of post-1968 Marxists, including Deleuze, Guattari, Foucault, and Negri, made what seemed a reasonable move from Hegel to Spinoza, a move from contradiction to difference. This post-structuralist current jettisoned coherent totalities, abstract categories, and monolithic revolutionary subjects. In doing so, Holloway argues, they went too far, throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. As Holloway is quick to point out, their intellectual anxiety is perfectly justified when one deals with unitary, or positive synthesis, and when the famous “contradiction” is embodied in the positive concept of the working class. The great paradox, he went on to argue in several important books (Holloway 2005 and 2010), is that extremism in rejecting dialectics led these same theorists to a new positivation of thought, and to a return to a synthetic closure. The new autonomist or post-workerist theory that has emerged with the antiglobalization movement, best represented in the works of Antonio Negri, Michael Hardt, and Colectivo Situaciones, identified all dialectics with the synthetic, Hegelian tradition. This, in turn, has serious political consequences. Instead of an open-ended thinking that celebrates the most important insight of Marx—the idea that the world consists of processes and actions, rather than of discrete and separable objects—this new positivism has embraced new totalities (“Empire” and “multitude”), lending support to political parties and socialist governments.

This is why, instead of rejecting dialectic thinking, Holloway invites us to redefine and develop it further. His Marxism is premised on another form of logic, one that affirms movement, instability, and struggle. This is a movement of thought that affirms the richness of life, particularity (non-identity) and “walking in the opposite direction”; walking, that is, away from exploitation, domination, and classification. Without contradictory thinking in, against, and beyond the capitalist society, capital once again becomes a reified object, a thing, and not a social relation that signifies transformation of a useful and creative activity (doing) into (abstract) labor. Only open dialectics, a right kind of thinking for the wrong kind of world, non-unitary thinking without guarantees, is able to assist us in our contradictory struggle for a world free of contradiction.

The second area of influence in Holloway’s work is Italian autonomist thought in general, and Mario Tronti in particular. In his seminal article “Lenin in England” (1979), Tronti wrote, “We too have worked with a concept that puts capitalist development first, and workers second. This is a mistake. And now we have to put the problem on its head, reverse the polarity, and start again from the beginning: and the beginning is the class struggle of the working class” (1979: 1). This famous inversion of the capital-labor relation defined the early autonomist project. In order to understand capitalism, the argument goes, we have to start from the struggles of the working class. Capitalism develops in the constant movement of composition-decomposition-recomposition. This implies that new forms of social organization are not inevitable results of unfolding capitalist rationality. The problem here, Holloway argues, is that for many of the post-autonomist thinkers, including Antonio Negri (Hardt and Negri 2000; 2004) and Paulo Virno (2004), the Trontian inversion is lost. Without negative thinking, these theorists have developed a paradigmatic approach that focuses on analysis of domination. This, in Holloway’s view, is positive autonomism. This is Marxism as a theory of restructuring of capitalism, not Marxism as a theory of crisis. The new revolutionary agent, the multitude, is an identitarian subject, deduced from relations of domination. Thus, Holloway calls for negative autonomism and revolutionary analysis that is not static and frozen in the world of abstract labor.

The Trontian inversion is extremely important in opening of the Marxist canon, but it only goes halfway. The other half is provided by Adorno’s Negative Dialectics (1990). This might sound a bit strange. John Holloway is known for his boundless, infectious optimism and dreamy revolutionary prose. He is never removed from social and political struggle, always inspecting the world for cracks in the world of capital and domination. Adorno, on the other hand, is usually regarded as a cultural elitist: the epitome of a resigned philosopher, a pessimistic theorist with a notoriously opaque style, and an unfortunate habit of calling police on his students. For Holloway, however, the theoretical legacy of Theodor Adorno is more layered and nuanced. Adorno makes it possible to build a revolutionary theory that puts the concept and movement of non-identity (particularity) first. It is not enough to put the working class in place of capital and leave identity intact. It is here that negative or critical thought reveals itself as indispensible. Negative dialectics is the ontology of the wrong state of things. “The right state of things would be free of it: neither a system nor a contradiction.” (1990: 11).

Adorno’s intention is to “use the strength of the subject to break through the fallacy of constituted subjectivity—this is what the author felt to be his task ever since he came to trust his own mental impulses” (1990: xx). Dialectics is struggle against identity, a misfitting logic for a negative subject that exist in, against, and beyond capital. Liberated from positivist heritage, dialectics is negation without synthesis, a creative movement against identity, an overflowing of thought that puts non-identity at the center of analysis: “dialectics is the consistent sense of non-identity.” This is the (second) key element in Holloway’s thinking. The working class rebels against capitalism—it constitutes the crisis of capitalism—but also against itself. This open political subject, the working class, becomes an inclusive and contradictory “we,” a creative force with “a consistent sense of non-identity.” Thinking against (constituted subjectivity) and doing against (alienated labor) refuses identity and understands class struggle as permanent negative revolution: an explosion of human creativity (what we hope Marx really wanted to capture by that much contested term “forces of production”). Revolutionary theory is, then, a critique of the very essence of bourgeois thought, a critique leveled against those categories of political economy that conceal the antagonism between abstract labor and creative (contradictory) human doing. With the help of Adorno, the inversion is complete. Tronti needs the negativity of Adorno, and Adorno is incomplete without the creativity of Tronti. There is no consistent autonomism without critical theory, and no effective critical theory without the autonomist project at its core (Holloway, Matamoros, and Tischler 2009).

The third theoretical influence in Holloway’s writing is the state derivationist argument. Perhaps the least known of all participants in the rich world of Marxist state debates of the 1970s, the German state derivationist school played an important role in Holloway’s intellectual formation. Holloway and Picciotto (1978) were the first Marxists to introduce this important theoretical current to the English-speaking world. The main derivationist thesis was that the central question in any debate on the state must be the form that the state takes (“form analysis”). The autonomy of the state is illusion, as the state does not stand outside and independent from capital and processes of accumulation. States are relations and organizational forms created for reproduction of capital. The great theoretical contribution of the derivationist school was to remind Marxists that any approach to the state must be “based on the dialectic of the form and content of class struggle” (1978: 31). Holloway was influenced particularly by Joachim Hirsch’s emphasis on the state as a capitalist form of social relations. The political conclusion Holloway took from this was that, if the state is indeed a capitalist form of social relations, then you can’t think of using it to bring about revolution. The state is, as Holloway defines it in this book, a specific form of social organization, a way of doing and seeing things, a form of social organization that excludes people. States, even when they are “pink,” have a dual effect on social movements: they separate the leadership from movement, and they draw movements into a process of reconciliation with capital. This is why state-centered politics needs to be abandoned and replaced by the “anti-grammar of revolution.” This conviction received new impulse after Holloway’s move to Mexico and, especially, after the Zapatista uprising.

In January 1994, on the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Mexico, Canada, and the United States took effect, a group of Maya indigenous people declared war on the Mexican government and seized several municipalities in the southern state of Chiapas. In the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle released on the day of the uprising, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) expressed their demands: work, land, housing, food, health, education, independence, liberty, democracy, justice, and peace. They cited Article 39 of the Mexican Constitution: “the people have, at all times, the inalienable right to change or modify the form of their government.” As the Mexican military moved to suppress the uprising, millions of people around the world demanded that the army end its attack on the Zapatistas. The EZLN withdrew from municipal headquarters but the land they occupied became “territory in rebellion.” They eschewed violence yet remained a guerrilla force committed to “autonomy”: territorial self-organization and self-administration of politics, justice, education, health, and economy.

John Holloway was one of the first to recognize the significance of the Zapatistas’ reinvention of politics (Holloway and Pelaez 1998). While Negri and other positive autonomists looked for a new revolutionary proletariat in the “cognitariat,” those “immaterial” workers tinkering with the internet in the core countries of the world-system, Holloway insisted that the new politics is being forged by the indigenous campesinos in Chiapas. The Zapatistas have refused traditional tenets of socialist developmentalism, including state-centered politics and Leninist vanguardism. In Holloway’s view, Zapatistas present an example of a “dialogical politics.” They have made their dictum “preguntando caminamos” (asking, we walk) the central principle of creative self-activity. The old certainties and tired dogmatism are thrown out. What emerges is Zapatismo, not an ideology as much as a festival of ideas. This is not an incoherent but profoundly contradictory set of ideas and practices. This, more then anything else, is what inspires Holloway. The very heart of Zapatismo is a contradiction between a form of organization (they are, after all, an army) and the movement of insubordination (they are an army that aspires not to be one). Contradiction is particularly pronounced in the contrast between the military structure of the organization and the autonomous modes of life in the indigenous communities. Zapatistas are not a synthesis; resistance is not reduced to a positive figure. They say, “We are ordinary people, we are perfectly ordinary women and men, children and old people, and that is why we are rebellious.” This contradictory politics includes an interesting relationship to collective identity. Zapatistas (ref)use identity. They have said from the beginning, “We are a movement which is almost totally indigenous in composition, but we are not just an indigenous movement. We are not just fighting for indigenous rights, we are actually fighting for humanity.” Escaping classification, Zapatismo is a constant movement of dignified fury. Finally, Zapatistas inhabit a territory or, to use Holloway’s terms, a spatial “crack.” For thirty years, in the jungles and mountains of Chiapas, Zapatistas have developed a society built on different sort of social relations, an elaborate form of social organization distinct from the logic of the state. In the Zapatista areas of Chiapas, you pass a sign that says “Bad Government Stay Out, Here the People Rule.”

Let me try to bring some of these ideas together. Holloway’s Marxism is a creative and original combination of insights from state derivationism, autonomist tradition, critical theory, and Zapatismo. Just like other Marxisms, he begins with forces and relations of production, but these are defined rather differently from the ones I had to memorize in my school subjects in socialist Yugoslavia. Communism is not about big tractors and assembly lines. It is a society that is always reinventing, created on the basis of human creativity and self-determination. The forces of productions are people themselves. This is why Holloway refuses to begin with capital and domination, or with the “miserable pit of commodity.” Just like other Marxisms, he speaks of class. But this class does not consist, at least not exclusively, of male factory workers. It is a class that rebels against capitalist society and against itself, a revolutionary subject against identity. Working class is movement against work, or against alienated labor and identitarian classification. We are “the movement that breaks the cohesion, that breaks the synthesis, that breaks identities.” Our infinite diversity is the principal basis of our solidarity. Capitalism is a system of deadly but weak social cohesion based on abstract labor, predicated on the dual process of abstraction of our creative doing into labor, and of classification of our richness into identities. This is, according to Holloway, the best-kept secret of capitalism and its central weakness. Capitalism is a deadly but tortured synthesis, an oppressive dynamic that is always in crisis. It has to be in crisis as it depends on us, on our labor, on the value we produce, and on our participation.

In keeping with the anarchist and councilist tradition, Holloway cautions against the state/party-option. He advocates a “crack-option” instead, “the outcome of the barely visible transformation of the daily activities of millions of people,” and located “beyond activism” in “millions of cracks that constitute the material base of possible radical change” (2010: 12). Is he a revolutionary? Most definitely. But the role of the revolution is not to replace one totality with another; the revolutionary task is to break the dynamic of capital. Revolution is imagined as a double movement, negative and creative, an interstitial movement that creates cracks in the texture of domination. These cracks are spaces-in-movement, moments (not institutions!) of alternative creation. There are at least three types of cracks. They can be spatial (Zapatistas are always a good example), temporal (refusal of 24/7 capitalism, appropriation of time and autonomous elaboration of associated activities), or structural (activities that promote non-monetized, noncommodified social relations). We should not take the state, we should crack it. If we think of revolution not in terms of conquering fortresses and palaces, but in terms of deepening the cracks, the most important question before us is how we can promote the multiplication and convergence of these self-governed organizational forms. Holloway’s recommendation is to “keep building cracks and finding ways of recognizing them, strengthening them, expanding them, connecting them; seeking the confluence or, preferably, the commoning of the cracks.” This might sound too hazy or dreamy to those using the conventional “grammar of revolution.” The problem, however, is that after several centuries of a catastrophic obsession with taking state power, this conventional language sounds not only less poetic but also far less realistic.

As I write this preface, I remember the last time my compañera and I met with John at his home in Puebla. He was kind enough to show us his favorite place, his most cherished crack: an autonomous garden maintained by his compañera and a group of enthusiastic students. Rarely have I seen a place of such magnificent beauty. “This is where I wrote Crack Capitalism,” he told us, pointing to a table surrounded by flowers, in the shadow of a big, luscious tree. Here we spent hours discussing Syriza and Podemos, progressive political forces in Europe that he supports. But he hastens to add that what he is really afraid of is massive disappointment when these parties fail to deliver their promise. “These are serious people,” he says, “but the form of struggle they have chosen is wrong.” These conversations were fresh in my mind when we returned to the Bay Area. In the aftermath of Occupy Oakland, everything seems so confusing: Who is the revolutionary subject? How do we reach out to the workers? Should we occupy or decolonize? Do we need to riot or to check our privilege? Should we support Bernie Sanders? Activists are discussing bad choices and less-worse choices. Encounter and experiment are, at least for the moment, replaced by habit and identity.

Why Holloway, then?1

That’s why.

Adorno, Theodor W. Negative Dialectics. London: Routledge, 1990.

Graeber, David. Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Multitude. New York, Penguin Books, 2004.

Holloway, John. Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today. London: Pluto, 2005.

Holloway, John. Crack Capitalism. London: Pluto, 2010.

Holloway, John, Fernando Matamoros, and Sergio Tischler, eds. Negativity and Revolution: Adorno and Political Activism. London: Pluto, 2009.

Holloway, John, and Eleina Pelaez, eds. Zapatista! Reinventing Revolution in Mexico. London: Pluto Press, 1998.

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

Norries, Allan. Dialectic and Difference: Dialectical Critical Realism and the Grounds of Justice. London: Routledge, 2009.

Tronti, Mario. “Lenin in England.” In Working Class Autonomy and the Crisis: Italian Marxist Texts of the Theory and Practice of a Class Movement, 1964–79. London: Red Notes, 1979.

Virno, Paulo. A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life. New York: Semiotext(e), 2004.

  • 1The title and conclusion “Why Holloway?” is a playful reference to Holloway’s chapter “Why Adorno?” in John Holloway, Fernando Matamoros, and Sergio Tischler, eds., Negativity and Revolution: Adorno and Political Activism.