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Tadzio Mueller, "Open Marxism?"

An anonymous coward writes:

"Open Marxism?"

Tadzio Mueller

Reviewing Holloway, J., Change the World Without Taking Power,
London: Pluto Press 2002.

A spectre is haunting Marxism: the spectre of
anarchism. Anarchists, whether self-described or
called thus by the media, have been reaping most of
the publicity that the radical wing of the
globalisation-critical movement has been able to
generate, and Marxists are both excited and dismayed
by this. Excited, because for the first time in many
years there is a recognisable anti-capitalist protest
movement on the streets of advanced capitalist
countries; dismayed, because this relative resurgence
of anti-capitalist radicalism has not been accompanied
by a resurgence of Marxism.This mismatch between the hopes of Marxists to furnish
the guiding revolutionary theory for anticapitalist
struggles and the reality of its marginalisation into
academia lies at the heart of Holloway's book -- and
the title, the cover, and the introduction give
eloquent testimony of the desire to return Marxist
theory to its rightful place at the centre of radical
activism. The title is an obvious appeal to today's
anarchoid activists, who tend to eschew hierarchical
organisation and strategies aimed at conquering state
power; the cover in the Rastafarian colours red,
yellow and green, sporting an encircled "A" being
painted by a hooded activist, again makes it clear
that this book is pitched to young activists with
broadly anarchist sympathies; the introduction,
finally, is a masterpiece of politico-academic
writing, where Holloway introduces his project not
with a dry elaboration of the tenets of Marxism, but
with the image of "the scream", a scream of negation,
a scream of rage at the heart of all rebellion. This
image suggests a recognition of the fact that the
majority of young activists today are not motivated by
theory, are not "logocentric" activists -- they are
simply pissed off, and Holloway appeals to such
readers by presenting complex theoretical concepts,
ranging from alienation to dialectics to fetishism, in
clear and understandable language: that "reification"
becomes "thing-ification" is a stroke of genius.

Moving to substance: the above-mentioned scream of
negation, Holloway argues, results from capital's
attempt to negate our common humanity or "lliving
labour", that is, our shared capacity for
self-directed labour. In non-class societies, living
labour/humanity is communal, unitary, and
non-alienated, and there is thus only power-to, no
power-over/domination. The latter only comes into
being once the unity of the labour process has been
shattered by separating the conception of work from
its execution. In other words: positing a "unity in
the relations of power" (p. 41) located in the sphere
of production, Holloway can argue that power only
becomes antagonistic, becomes domination, once the
relations of production become antagonistic -- the
corollary argument being that in capitalism, the
relations of production constitute "the sole axis of
domination" (p. 31). This model also provides an (at
least conceptually) easy avenue of deliverance from
domination: since power-over is exclusively the result
of the separation of the conception of production from
its execution, once this separation -- that is, once
capitalism -- has been overcome, power-over/domination
will disappear from the world.

Does Holloway really succeed, then, in his quest to
give Marxism a hip, anti-authoritarian make-over, to
change the world without taking power? No, he does
not. In spite of his obvious sympathies for
libertarian socialism, his commitment to a Marxist
philosophy of history make his arguments unappealing
to anyone instinctively attracted by anarchism -- that
is, the majority of today's young radicals. Given his
goal, the key problem for Marxism as a philosophy of
history/metaphysics -- as opposed to a set of
categories useful for analysing capitalist social
relations -- is its fundamental assumption of a
dialectical social totality, for it implies a number
of conclusions directly at odds with left-libertarian
sensibilities. For one, seeing as that capitalism
knows only one axis of domination, "there can [...] be
no question of the existence of non-class forms of
struggle" (p. 143), because every social struggle, all
social practice in fact, is a struggle against the
"subjection to [...] capitalism" (p. 144) -- that is,
not by the working class, but against becoming working
class. However, it is simply ludicrous to assume that
a woman fighting for reproductive rights is, as
Holloway maintains, primarily struggling against being
subjected to capitalist discipline. It is this kind of
"definitional imperialism" of the "you might not know
it yet, but you're really all anti-capitalists"-type
that turned people in the social movements of the 60s,
70s and 80s off from Marxism, and Holloway does not
improve the situation.

Beyond this reductionism, Holloway's delivering on his
promise of a power-free revolution is actually based
on highly dubious religious assumptions
(essentialisms) and conceptual black-spots, which in
effect doom his project. First, by assuming that all
power emanates from the sphere of production, he is
unable to criticise domination within an
anti-capitalist movement. This is somewhat
counterproductive given his original goal, since
whatever weaknesses today's activists might have, one
thing they are certainly very aware of is the fact
that opposition movements themselves are sites of
power and domination -- hence the emphasis on flattened
hierarchies and informal structures -- and Holloway
manages to completely ignore this dimension. Secondly,
and more profoundly, he can only assume that
power-over will disappear once our human essence,
living labour, is reunited with itself by assuming
that in an unalienated state we are all good and
cooperative, and that rules conceived in this idyllic
state of enlightenment would not entail any power
over. Not only is this and undeniably metaphysical
argument -- we are simply asked to believe that we are
essentially good -- it also has some rather unpalatable
political implications for the project of constructing
an alternative society: the effect of such an argument
would be that in a post-revolutionary society, power
would become naturalised and declared unalterable,
since it does not "officially" exist -- and I do not
believe I am being polemic by suggesting that
authoritarian socialism, whatever Holloway's good
intentions, is a possible implication of such a

In the end, then, the book is a trendy restatement of
Holloway's "open Marxism", with its close links to
autonomist thought. It explains Marxist categories in
an understandable way, and is a good introduction to
their development through time. It is not, however,
successful in repositioning Marxism as a theory of
revolution that could appeal to today's
left-libertarian activists, as it simply cannot manage
to overcome the inherent weaknesses of a Marxism that
understands itself as a total philosophy of history,
that seeks to subsume every struggle, every practice,
every aspect of reality, under one central relation of
power. In the end, Holloway manages to resurrect some
old ghosts thought long gone -- but he does not dispel
the one haunting Marxism.

[Tadzio Mueller is a doctoral candidate in
international relations at the University of Sussex]