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On the Limitations of "Open Marxism"

The Limitations of "Open Marxism"

Mike Rooke,

Reviewing John Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power, Pluto, 2002.
Paperback, 240pp, 15.99.

John Holloway has written an important book. It is a sustained
critique of orthodox (i.e. Leninist) Marxism from the standpoint of the
Open Marxism of which Holloway is an exponent (along with others
such as Richard Gunn, Werner Bonefeld and Kosmas Psychopedis). The
central argument is that the strategic orientation of the
(principally) Leninist tradition has focused on the capture and
wielding of state power, and the conception of socialism
characteristic of this tradition has been marked by a subordination to
this goal (the state illusion). More specifically he targets the
scientific-Marxist partyism of this orthodox tradition (p.84),
which he rejects for its pretensions to be an all-encompassing theory
of reality (a scientific epistemology). The greater part of the post-
Marx Marxist tradition, therefore, has become a reified theory and
practice, reflecting an accommodation to the structures and thought of
bourgeois society. Its fetishisation of state power (its capture) has
led to the consistent betrayal of revolutionary aspirations, and the
reproduction, rather than the abolition, of oppressive power
relations. While such criticisms of Lenin and Third International
Marxism are not new, a large part of the uniqueness of Holloways book
derives from his use of fetishism as a critical category with which to
construct a conception of revolution as the dissolution of power (as

He begins from the scream, a starting point that is ontologically
prior to doing. In contradistinction to metaphysical materialism
(which begins from the primacy of the material world) Holloways
conception of doing is that of practical negation. But human doing
is broken when the powerful separate the done from the doers and
appropriate it for themselves, bringing about a destruction of
subjectivity. This results in the struggle of the scream to liberate
power-to from power-over, to liberate subjectivity from its
objectification. Holloway argues that his notion of power-to is not
captured by traditional revolutionary concepts of power (which seek to
establish a counter-power rather than an anti-power). In his
discourse of the rupture of doing and done, Holloway relies on Marxs
category of alienated labour. The attempt to develop Marxs category
is based on a critique of orthodox Marxisms way of conceptualising
the working class and capital. The problem, now well elaborated in the
texts of Open Marxism, is that in orthodox Marxism the working class
is understood as standing in an external relation to capital, where
the antagonism is one of separately constituted entities. Holloway
argues that rather than seeing the working class as labour (it
actually constitutes capital in its acceptance of the wage relation),
it should be seen as the struggle against labour, and therefore
against capital. In a clear reference to the failed revolutions of
the 20th century, Holloway argues that conceptualising the labour-
capital relation as an external one is responsible for a view of
struggle which leaves both sides essentially unchanged, and merely
reproduces the old power-over relation after any seizure of state

How then can such a fetishised view of struggle and power be overcome?
The first step is to see categories as the manifestation of forms of
struggle ie. as open and therefore contested: we exist against-and-
in-Capital (p.90). A scientific (Marxist) approach involves
dissolving the categories of thought in this way, in Marxs words to
grasp the absolute movement of becoming. In parallel with this is
the flow of doing, the struggle for self-determination which
constitutes the actual struggle against fetishisation in daily life.
In developing this argument Holloway draws on both Marx and Lukcs,
but employs his own distinctive categories: doing and done;
power-to and power-over; and anti-power. I wondered throughout
whether Holloways discourse of doing and done adds anything
qualitatively new to Marxs labour- capital antagonism. In his
insistence that the separation of the worker from the means of
production must be seen as only part of a more general separation of
subject and object, of people from their activity, Holloway draws the
conclusion that value production cannot be the starting point of the
analysis of class struggle (p.148). Holloway has in mind those
struggles (such as the peasants of the Chiapas) not directly rooted in
capitalist production. We cannot just start from labour, he declares.
This, no doubt, explains his inclination throughout the book to
collapse the category of (alienated) labour into the more general
category of alienated doing, and thus to straddle (in my view, not
too successfully) Marxs historically specific dialectic of labour and
a more general ontology of doing.

This is directly contrary to the approach of Marx, who between the
1844 Manuscripts and the Grundrisse and Das Kapital progressively
concretised the category of labour (and its dialectic), precisely in
order to specify the central dynamic of the capitalist mode of
production. Marx was not oblivious or indifferent to struggles
originating outside this property relation, only insisting on the
primacy of the wage-capital relation because it was the dominant means
of pumping the surplus out of the direct producers. If we do not start
from labour, as Marx did, then we lose sight of the specific character
of the exploitation of human labour under capitalism, and the property
relation that dominates all others. If this is lost sight of, then we
fail to ask the very question that Marx criticised the classical
political economists for not asking: what sort of labour is it that
produces value? The upshot of this is that Holloway not only de-
historicises the category of labour, but also the category of
fetishism. This is a pity, since it is one of the noticeable failings
of the mainstream Marxist tradition (with the exception of Lukcs,
Rubin and Debord) to have underestimated (or simply ignored) the
centrality of fetishism for an understanding of capitalism and its

In Marx we see commodity fetishism as a necessary form of existence of
alienated labour. Fetishism consists in the way in which the
participants of value production experience the (de facto social)
connections between themselves as relations between things. Lukcss
notion of reification was an elaboration on this, drawing attention to
the way in which the atomisation and fragmentation of social life had
penetrated deeply into, and shaped, social consciousness. It is a
category, however, that is indissolubly related to the value form of
production, and one that loses its explanatory force when generalised
beyond (abstracted from) that context. Unfortunately, Holloways
commentary does precisely this. It follows from the specific meaning
that Marx attaches to commodity fetishism, that the struggle to
dissolve it is inseparable from the task of dissolving commodity
production: the de-commodification of social labour. This is the
principal reason why Marx privileged the proletarian struggle above

Holloways tendency to understate the historical specificity of (wage)
labour and fetishism finds a further expression in the absence of a
conception of history as necessary development. Marxs idea that there
is a logic to the historical process has become distinctly
unfashionable in these days of the celebration of contingency and
indeterminacy. But beginning with The German Ideology, and continued
at length in the Grundrisse, the notion that the development of the
division and productivity of labour through various forms of property
gives rise to the material pre-requisites of communism, was, for Marx,
central. Since Holloway claims to be continuing the scientific
inquiry begun by Marx (expressing the dialectic of negativity), it is
incumbent on him to confront the question as to why the practical,
daily struggle against fetishism should lead to the liberation of
humanity to communism (for Holloway talks of the endlessness of the
struggle for communism [p.152]). It may be the case that Holloway
fights shy of any commitment in this direction due to his (justified)
antipathy towards the Engelsian dialectic as an objective movement of
nature and society independent of the subject (the positivistic brand
of Marxism). Whilst his critique of this tendency is suitably
incisive, the bending of the stick in the direction of treating
everything as struggle becomes a too one-sided de-historicising of
categories. Although, as with Marx, Holloway identifies communism with
the absence of fetishism, a slippage into the abstraction of power in
general is a constant throughout this book. Just as the eternal
separation of doing and done is not Marxs starting point, neither is
communism simply reducible to the absence of power-over. Marx never
abstracted communism from the material preconditions brought into
being by capital.

We see this abstracting tendency at work when Holloway deals with
value analysis. In contradistinction to the mainstream Marxist
tradition, which has never fully appreciated the centrality of
fetishism, Holloway makes it central to his account, which is informed
throughout by the focus on the struggle against-and-beyond capital.
But again he reverts to thinking in terms of doing and done, and
power in general, leaving the discussion without sufficient historical
specificity. Nowhere in Marx will you find a posing of labour,
exploitation, domination, in general. There is no doing and done
in general, only historically specific forms of labour associated with
similarly specific modes of surplus extraction.

The Zapatista rebellion is a constant reference point for Holloway, an
exemplar of the practical negation of the fetishisation of daily life.
The discussion of popular struggle in this book (the material reality
of anti-power as Holloway refers to it) is cast in terms of the re-
appropriation of the means of doing. In order to be truly
emancipatory, movements of the oppressed must rely on a fluidity of
organisational forms, leadership (all must become leaders) and
political programmes. Clearly, the orthodox Marxist models of party
and programme, not to mention the idea of a proletarian state, have
the effect of reproducing the power- over that it is the aim of
revolution to abolish. Holloway rejects the politics of organisation
in favour of an anti- politics of events (p.214). The aim is not to
reproduce and expand the caste of militants (the organisation), but
to blast open the continuum of history (p.214).

Much of this is a necessary critique of some of the truly fetishistic
organisational forms and practices of the Third and Fourth
International traditions (and is reminiscent of the approach of the
Socialism or Barbarism/Solidarity current of the 60s and 70s). But
it conceals a serious lack. In his important attempt to re-cast
Marxism as a truly radical theory of anti-power the dissolving of
all externality (p.176) Holloway has avoided any concrete
investigation of the relation between party and class and the
organisational forms which these take. He poses the question of re-
appropriation of the means of doing repeatedly throughout the book,
with, it has to be said, originality and power. But there, at a fairly
high level of abstraction, Holloway leaves it, taking refuge in
warnings of fetishised thinking: To think in terms of property
[expropriation of M.R.] is, however, still to pose the problem in
fetishised terms.

But the question of organisation of unions, of factory committees,
of neighbourhood committees, of soviets/ workers councils and the
relation of these to the organisation of revolutionaries, remains
central to revolutionary tactics and strategy in situations of dual
power and transition. It is the site of the practical testing out of
the relation of theory to practice. Struggle, of course is always a
shifting interrelation of leaders, programmes and mass action, and
will never exist in an unfetishised form the Zapatistas included. It
is interesting that the historical examples that Holloway mentions
approvingly as examples of leaderless, protean, struggle May 1968 in
France, the Stalinist collapse in Eastern Europe, the Zapatista
rebellion, and the anti- globalisation movement while certainly
being event centred, are perfect examples of movements characterised
by a lack of organisational focus and strategic coordination, and
which stop short of challenging the social order in a fundamental way.
In this Holloway bows unnecessarily before spontaneity in celebrating
the abstraction of pure, elemental, unfetishised rebellion.

Within the limits set by his own categories, Holloway has drawn out in
a consciously dialectical fashion the opposing poles of fetishised
power (manifested in party and state) and anti-power. His discursive
method involves a continuous interrogation of categories, attacking
all fixity, and drawing out the negative content. The book therefore
becomes a dialogue between closed and open ways of apprehending the
fetishised results of human practice. The result is an incisive and
original demolition of the reified categories of much mainstream
Marxist theorising. And theorising it is, since the retreat of Marxism
into the academy has reduced it to the status of a classic school of
social science. But in a strange paradox, Holloway has ended up almost
fetishising struggle itself, identifying it as an absolute negation
of creativity, rather than seeing it also as that which makes struggle
possible. For Marx there was no struggle without organisation, and his
entire lifes work was inextricably bound up with the task of moulding
revolutionaries into organisations capable of connecting with workers
struggles. What is missing from Holloways book is a consideration of
the dialectic of consciousness and organisational form at different
stages of class struggle. Holloways dialectical presentation remains
too abstract, missing the more concrete dialectic that exists between
these two. This perhaps explains why there is no substantial
engagement in the book with the actual experience of the Russian
revolution and the degeneration of the Soviet state, and why the
critique of Stalinism in this book is too abstract.

In the political work of the Left Opposition (Trotsky, Serge,
Rakovsky), and the Left-Communist/Council Communist tradition
(Pannekoek, Gorter, Ruhle, Korsch, Mattick), we have an invaluable
record of how revolutionaries grappled with all the unavoidable
problems of counter-power in the circumstances of transition beyond
the rule of capital. Given the focus of Holloways book the
exploration of a future beyond the fetishised structures of the
present this surely deserved more attention.

There is therefore a major lacuna at the end of this book. On the
vital and immediate question of how revolutionaries should organise
themselves in relation to class struggles, Holloway has no practical
perspective to offer. He makes the following admission: How then do
we change the world without taking power? At the end of the book, as
at the beginning, we do not know. The Leninists know, or used to know.
We do not (p.215). This really is taking the humility of Marxist
theorising too far!

After the collapse of Stalinism and the Communist parties, and with an
increase in the variety and tempo of anti-capitalist struggles, the
relevance of Marxism for the struggle for communism has never been
greater. Holloways book is in this context a valuable contribution to
the discussion about how regenerate Marxism. It deserves to be widely
read and debated.