"Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead" - John Holloway

Submitted by Django on May 3, 2011

Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead."1

That is my response to those2 who criticise my book3 or being anti-historical. This article is not a defence of the book: I can think of nothing more boring. We need to drive the argument forwards, not backwards. Books, like revolutions, cannot be defended: they go forward or they die.

I Drive your Cart

Spit on history. History is the history of oppression told by the oppressors, a history from which oppression conveniently disappears, a history of Heroes, of Great Men.

Spit on history. History, even our history, is a history in which the struggle against oppression is invaded by the categories of the oppressors, so that it too becomes the history of Heroes, of Great Men, of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao.

Spit on history, because it is the great alibi of the Left, the great excuse for not thinking. Make any theoretical or political argument about revolution and the response of the Revolutionary Left is to bring you back to 1902, to 1905, to 1917, to 1921. History becomes a whirlpool, sucking you into the details of lives long dead. Present political differences become translated into disputes about the details of what happened in Kronstadt over eighty years ago. Anything to avoid thinking about the present, anything to avoid assuming the terrible responsibility that the future of the world depends on us and not on Lenin or Trotsky.

Spit on history, spit on Stalin (that is easy), but spit also on the concept of Stalinism. Stalinism is the greatest alibi, the greatest excuse for not thinking, for an important part of the revolutionary left. "Look at what happened in the Soviet Union, how the great Bolshevik Revolution led to tyranny and misery." "Yes", they reply, "Stalinism". History becomes a substitute for critical and self-critical thought. Between Bolshevik Revolution and Soviet tyranny a figure is introduced to relieve us revolutionaries from responsibility. If we have Stalin to blame, then we do not need to blame ourselves, we do not need to be critical or self-critical, we do not need to think. Above all, we do not need to think that perhaps there was something wrong with the Leninist project of conquering power. Stalin becomes a fig-leaf, protecting our innocence, hiding our nakedness.

Spit, then, on Stalinism. When people criticise my book for being anti-historical, what they mean in most cases (not all) is that, by not mentioning Stalin, the book takes away this fig-leaf, exposes our complicity. "Revolutions focussed on the taking of power have led to disaster, therefore we must rethink what revolution means" is what I argue. "No", they reply, "it is true that these revolutions have led to disaster, but this was because of history, because of Stalinism; we do not need to rethink anything." This history, of course, is a peculiar history: it paints out of the picture those who said from the very beginning that the state-centred concept of revolution was flawed: not one of the critics mentions the name of Pannekoek.

Spit on history because there is nothing so reactionary as the cult of the past.4 "The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living", says Marx. Revolutionary thought means shaking off that nightmare, waking up to our own responsibilities. Self-determination - communism, in other words, both as movement and as aim - is emancipation from the nightmare of tradition.

Spit on history because "an ideology of history has one purpose only: to prevent people from making history".5 II Contre Temps

Revolution is the shooting of clocks, the breaking of time.6 he rule of value is the rule of duration. The breaking of duration is the pivot of revolutionary thought and action.

In capitalism, that which we make stands against us. Like Frankenstein"s Creature, it stands outside us and denies the creative doing which gave it existence. "A commodity is in the first place an object outside us", as Marx says at the beginning of Capital.[8] As an object outside us, it stands against us, presents itself as having an existence of its own, a duration independent of our doing. Capitalism is the rule of things that we have made and which deny their origin and continuing dependence on our doing.

We live in a world of Monsters of our own creation which have turned against us. They stand there, apparently independent of us, oppressing us: Commodity, Money, Capital, State and so on. They were there yesterday, they were there a hundred years ago, two hundred years ago. It seems certain that they will be there tomorrow. They are oppressing us, dehumanising us, killing us. How can we free ourselves, how can we get rid of them? They have been there for so long, their existence seems everlasting. How can we possibly escape?

"Wake up," says Papa Marx, "it"s just a nightmare. These Monsters are an illusion." We wake up and the Monsters are gone, we see that they were not everlasting, their duration is dissolved.

But no. It is not as simple as that. Maybe our vision of Marx was just a dream, because when we open our eyes the Monsters are still there, and more aggressive than ever, attacking Iraq, closing factories, reforming universities in their own image, subordinating every aspect of our lives to their domination, turning us into little monsters ourselves, so that we run around worshipping Commodity, Money, Capital and State.

The nightmare continues. Yet Marx was right, it is a nightmare, and the Monsters are illusions. But they are not mere illusions, they are real illusions. They are what Marx calls "fetishes". But what is a real illusion? On that hangs the meaning of revolution.

The Monsters seem everlasting. How do we break their duration?

If we take the Monsters as what they appear to be, as creatures independent of ourselves, then the only possibility of defeating them is by matching our strength against theirs, our power against theirs.

That is not Marx"s approach. Marx says "The Monsters are not what they appear to be. We must criticise them. The Monsters exist because we made them." "I beg your pardon", we say, "can you say that again please?" And Marx replies "The Monsters are not what they appear to be. We must criticise them. The Monsters exist because we make them." "But that is not what you said the first time", we say, "the first time you said "made", the second time you said "make". Which do you mean?" But Marx does not reply - he has been dead for over a hundred years. We are left to assume our own responsibility.

Commodity, money, capital, the state: all these are own creations. That is the core of Marx"s method, the centre of his argument in Capital.7 We create the monsters which oppress us. But, even taking this as a starting point, there is still a huge question. When we create these fetishes (these social relations that exist as things), are we like Dr. Frankenstein creating a monster that acquires an existence independent from us? Or are we creating fetishes that only appear to acquire an independent existence, but which depend for their existence on our constant re-creation? Does capital exist because we created it, or does it exist because we constantly recreate it?8 In the former case, revolution means destroying the monster that we have created. In the second case, revolution means ceasing to create the monster. The implications of this distinction for how we think about revolution and revolutionary organisation are probably enormous.

Capital exists because we create it. We created it yesterday (and every day for the last two hundred years or so). If we do not create it tomorrow, it will cease to exist. Its existence depends on the constant repetition of the process of exploitation (and of all the social processes that make exploitation possible). It is not like Frankenstein"s creature. It does not have an existence independent of our doing. It does not have a duration, a durable independent existence. It only appears to have a duration. The same is true of all the derivative forms of capital (state, money, etc.). The continuity of these monsters (these forms of social relations) is not something that exists independent of us: their continuity is a continuity that is constantly generated and re-generated by our doing. The fact that we have reasons for generating capital does not alter the fact that capital depends for its existence from one day to the next, from one moment to the next, on our act of creation. Capital depends upon us: that is the ray of hope in a world that seems so black.

With this, the clock explodes. If capital"s existence depends on our creation of it, it becomes clear that revolution is the breaking of that repeated act of creation. Revolution is the breaking of continuity, the rupture of duration, the transformation of time. The clock has tick-tick-ticked for two hundred years, telling the monstrous lie on which capitalism depends, the lie that says that one moment is the same as the last: it must tick no more. Capitalism is the establishment of continuity, of duration, of tradition, the projection of the present moment into the next, and the next, and the next. Revolution is not progress, or planning or the fulfilment of tradition or the culmination of history: it is the opposite of all that. It is the breaking of tradition, the discarding of history (its dismissal to the realm of pre-history), the smashing of the clock and the concentration of time into a moment of unbearable intensity. Communism is not five-year plans but self-determination, and self-determination is an absolute present in which no nightmare of tradition weighs upon us, in which there are no monsters. That is why Benjamin insists on the Jetztzeit (the now-moment) as the key to revolution9 , why Bloch sees communism as the pursuit of the Nunc Stans, the moment of perfect intensity,10 why Vaneigem says that the task is to subvert history with the watchword "Act as though there were no tomorrow"11

Continuities existed perhaps in the past: once we project them into the future, we render revolution conceptually impossible, we defeat ourselves. Periodisation of the present is always reactionary, whether we categorise the present in terms of a long wave, or a mode of regulation, or a paradigm. Revolution depends on the opening up of every moment, so that our continued production of our own repression (if that should happen) is a matter of amazement, never, never, never to be taken for granted.

Understanding that capital depends on us for its existence from one moment to another takes us into a whole new world of perception, a whole new grammar12 , a new rhythm.13 It seems that we are crazy, that we are entering an enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy world. But of course it is not so: the world we are criticising, the world of capital, the world of duration, the world of identity, is the "enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy world" (Marx 1972, 830). We are so used to this perverted world that to try to think the world from the starting point of our own doing seems insane. But we must plunge into this insanity, put our own doing in its proper place as the true sun:14 that is our struggle.

When I say that capital depends for its existence from one moment to the next on our creation, I do not meant that getting rid of capitalism is a simple act of volition or choice. Capital is a real illusion, not a mere illusion: its independence from us is an illusion, but it is an illusion really generated by our alienated labour, by the fracturing of our social doing. The understanding that capital is produced by us, and depends for its existence from one day to the next on our production of it, does not mean that we cease to produce it. It does, however, bring us to reformulate the question of revolution, to ask how we can stop producing the domination that is destroying us. How do we break continuity, not just the continuity of their domination, but the continuity of our production of their domination? How do we break not just their tradition but our tradition as well?

Break history. Du passé faisons table rase.15 III Drive your Plough

Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead. Yes. First your cart: show disrespect for the dead, for they have bequeathed us a world unworthy of humanity, a world of exploitation and of mass murder in the name of democracy.

And then your plough: plough the bones of the dead into the soil of revolt. Plough their legacy of struggle into the ground to make it fertile. Honour the dead by showing them disrespect.

Do not build mausoleums, or monuments, or even put gravestones for the dead, just use their bones directly as fertiliser. The disappeared are the great heroes of communism: not just those who have been disappeared by state repression,16 but all of those unseen, unheard people who struggled to live with dignity in a world which negates dignity, the knitters of humanity. The history we need is not so much that of the great revolutionaries, but of those who did their washing and played with their children.

The history of the invisible is a negative history, the movement of the scream of (and for) that which is not yet (the communism which is not yet, which might or might not be one day, but which exists now as movement, as longing, as not yet, as negativity). The history of the scream is not the history of a Movement, or an Institution, or of Marx-Engels-Lenin-Trotsky. And it is not a continuous history but a history of leaps and bounds and breaks and the constant search for rupture. It is, as Bloch puts it, a "hard, endangered journey, a suffering, a wandering, a going astray, a searching for the hidden homeland, full of tragic interruption, boiling, bursting with leaps, eruptions, lonely promises, discontinuously laden with the consciousness of light".17 A history in which people break their heads against duration, a history in which time itself is always at issue.

A history of broken connections, of unresolved longings, of unanswered questions. When we turn to history, it is not to find answers, but to pick up the questions bequeathed to us by the dead. To answer these questions, the only resource we have is ourselves, our thought and our practice, now, in the present. History opens questions that lead us on to theoretical reflection.

IV Appendix: Criticising the Critics

The aim of this article has been to develop some ideas prompted by those who have criticised my book for not developing a more historical approach to the question of revolution. I do not particularly want to defend my book.18 Perhaps the critics are right, yet I think they are wrong.

They are wrong because the history that they ask for is presented as something unproblematic. To say "there is not enough history" is rather like saying "there is not enough social science": it is meaningless, because it assumes that the categories of historical discussion are clear. It takes "history" for granted, as though there were some categorially neutral history which absolved us from the need for theoretical reflection. Vega Cantor complains of the absence of "real history": but what is this "real history" - a history of kings and queens, of working class heroes? A history of class struggle, presumably, but how do we understand class struggle? As the movement of capital"s dependence upon labour and upon the conversion of doing into labour? That is what I try to do in chapter 10 of the book, but it is difficult to even attempt to do it without a prior theoretical discussion.

The central issue is perhaps the relation between historical analysis and theoretical reflection. For me, historical analysis opens up questions, pushes us to think about those questions. Thus, the history of revolutions in the twentieth century does not demonstrate that revolutions focussed on the taking of power are doomed to failure: it suggests that there is something fundamentally wrong with the power-centred concept of revolution and that therefore we have to rethink the notion of revolution. The core of the argument is not historical but theoretical: reflection on the past thrusts us towards our own responsibility to think.

For the critics, however, history is a world not of unanswered questions but of explanations. As a result, they understand my argument as saying that history shows that power-centred revolution cannot succeed, and respond that history does not show that. Instead of seeing historical analysis leading to theoretical reflection, they push theory aside and look to history for the answers. Theoretical reflection is not important: the answers are to be found in history, they claim. Thus Bensaid: "Il faudra bien oser aller au-delà de l"idéologie, plonger dans les profondeurs de l"expérience historique, pour renouer les fils d"un débat stratégique enseveli sous le poids des défaites accumulées."

The accusation of anti-historicism (Almeyra) by these authors goes hand in hand with a dismissal of theoretical reflection. Above all, do not ask us to think: the answers are to be found in the past. Thus: "Holloway, porque mira las cosas desde el cielo de la abstracción teórica, no ve la concreción política e histórica de la lucha de clases" (Almeyra). And do not ask us to think about what Marx said, that is much too extreme: "Holloway espouses an extreme form of Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism" (Callinicos). Marx is not entirely dismissed (after all, we are all Marxists, aren"t we?), just shunted off into an irrelevant corner. The concept of fetishism is recognised (after all, Marx did speak of that), but then dismissed as unimportant: after all, so many people have spoken of it before, so there is nothing new there (Bensaid). And above all, why do I approach the question of revolution theoretically, when theory has nothing at all to do with politics? That is my great mistake, according to Ernesto Manzana, who claims to take from Callinicos the insight that it is a "fundamental error" to "mix questions of politics with epistemological questions". A whole chorus of voices saying "No, please, please do not ask us to think, We have all the answers, the answers are in history, Stalinism is the explanation for the failure of past revolutions. But above all, please do not ask us to think about the meaning of revolution!"

But there is something else behind the critics" insistence on the importance of history. History, says Vega Cantor, "debe ser un punto esencial en la reconstrucción de cualquier proyecto anticapitalista que no puede, ni debe, partir de cero, pues hay todo una experiencia y una memoria históricas acumuladas". That is perhaps the core of the critics" arguments: there is an accumulation of experience of struggle, of lessons learned, of wisdom won, of forms of organisation developped.

Yet I think not. Capital accumulates. It piles surplus-value upon surplus value, growing in quantity, getting bigger and bigger. Struggle against capital does not accumulate. Or perhaps it does accumulate, but then it ceases to be struggle. The accumulation of struggle is the position of the Communist Parties in 1968 who said "that is not the way to make revolution, learn from our experience". The accumulation of struggle is the (now) grey-beards of 1968 telling the protestors of today "that is not the way to make revolution, learn from our experience". The accumulation of struggle is an incremental view of revolution: "we won 1.6% of the vote in the last election, after the next we may have a few deputies, in twenty years" time we could well have thirty."

The movement of accumulation is a positive movement. But our movement, the movement against capitalism is and must be a negative movement: a movement not only against capital, but against all our own practices and routines and traditions which reproduce capital. The accumulation of struggle is the accumulation of tradition, of continuity, but it is not by tradition and continuity that we will break with capitalism. Think scream, think rupture, think break. "Yes, of course", say the wise heads of tradition, "we have many years of thinking of these issues, let me explain to you what happened in 1905, and 1917, and 1921, and …" But we have already fallen asleep. "Revolution now!" we say. "Ah yes", they reply, "but first we must build the party, and be ready for the appropriate point in the next long wave". But we are already dead. We and all humanity.

No, there is no accumulation of struggle. Of memories and self-justifications and identities, perhaps. Communism is not a movement of accumulation, but of negation, of leaps and bounds and breaks. Rupture, not continuity, is the centre of revolutionary thought. Rupture, not continuity, is the centre of revolutionary practice.

The new wave of struggle makes new music, a new rhythm, a new grammar. Using History as a pretext, you would pour new struggles into old methods. Do not do it. Those methods have failed. Whatever the excuses you may find for their failure, their time has passed. Do not rub our faces in the mire of the past. Let the new forms of struggle flourish. Let us drive our cart and our plough over the bones of the dead.

  • 1William Blake, "Proverbs of Hell", in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Blake (1988) 35.
  • 2 I have in mind particularly the critiques by Daniel Bensaid, Renan Vega Cantor, Guillermo Almeyra, Aldo Romero, Ernesto Manzana and Isidoro Cruz Bernal. I leave aside the thoughtful critique by Armando Bartra, which also raises the question of history, for separate consideration. For the full discussion surrounding the book, see http//www.herramienta.com.ar/index.php It goes without saying that I am immensely grateful to all those who have responded to the book"s invitation to discuss the issue.
  • 3Change the World without taking Power: the Meaning of Revolution Today, Pluto, London, 2002. French edition: Syllepse, Paris, September 2003.
  • 4 See Vaneigem (1994) 116: "In collective as well as in individual history, the cult of the past and the cult of the future are equally reactionary. Everything which has to be built has to be built in the present."
  • 5Vaneigem (1994) 231.
  • 6Benjamin in his Theses on the Philosophy of History (Thesis XV) reports that in the July revolution "on the first evening of fighting it turned out that the clocks in towers were being fired on simultaneously and independently from several places in Paris". Benjamin (1973) 262.
  • 7Much "Marxist" discussion is in fact pre-critical and in that sense pre-Marxist.
  • 8See the story by Borges of a man who dreams another man into existence:
  • 9 See Benjamin"s Theses on the Philosophy of History, Theses XIV and XVIII: Benjamin (1973) 261, 263.
  • 10See Bloch (1964), (1986).
  • 11Vaneigem 116, 232.
  • 12Understanding that capital depends on us for its existence from one moment to another takes us into a whole new world of perception, a whole new grammar
  • 13Hardt and Negri (2000) do not see this point at all. Just the contrary: they insist on dragging the insight into capital"s dependence upon labour back into an old world of paradigms.
  • 14Marx, Introduction to the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel"s Philosophy of Law: Marx and Engels (1975) 176.
  • 15"L"Internationale" (Eugène Pottier)
  • 16 See the declaration of HIJOS (the organisation set up by children of the dispappeared in Argentina: : "Nosotros debemos crear y reinventar un camino propio, que retome la senda que ellos marcaron y que se desvie cuando sea necesario. Como hicieron ellos, con las generaciones que los precedieron, para superarlos, para ser mejores, para aportar en serio y concretamente al cambio con el que soñaron y soñamos. Para que no se nos vaya la vida repitiendo esquemas que suenan muy contundetnes, pero que no le mueven un pelo a los dueños del poder.": Zibechi (2003), in press.
  • 17Bloch 1964, Vol. 2, p. 29.
  • 18I do not want to defend the book, but I have a special request to Daniel Bensaid: before discussing further, please read the book again. There are so many misrepresentations (or misunderstandings) of the book in your critique that it is difficult to take it as a foundation for discussion.