John Holloway1


“Holloway could have started with these yeses and say that the beginning is needs, desires, relations, affects, and their denial by capital lead us to scream.” (Massimo de Angelis)

Why do I start with the scream, No, negativity? The question of negativity and positivity is one of the central issues often raised by both sympathetic (Massimo) and less sympathetic (Michael Lebowitz, for example) commentators on the book.. This is the main point I want to focus on in the first half of this note and should allow me to address most of the criticisms voiced in this symposium. In a subsequent section I shall address explicitly the other main criticisms.


Why no? Here are some of the reasons:

a) No is experiential. The no arises directly from our experience, from what we see around us. It is revulsion against injustice, exploitation, violence, war. It comes before reflection, before reasoned thought – it is pre-rational, but not irrational or anti-rational.

b) No is uncouth. It is difficult to take away from its origins, difficult to civilise, difficult to represent, difficult to convert into the language of politicians or political scientists. However far we may fly in abstract fancies, the no pushes our face back into the mud of rude anger.

c) No is urgent. We are lemmings rushing towards a cliff. Humanity is on a highway that leads straight to its own self-destruction. The only possibility is to say no, to refuse: “No, we will not go down this highway to our self-destruction”. Not “we should go more carefully, or more slowly, or we should drive on the left rather than on the right”, but simply no.

The temporality of no is one of urgency. To think in terms of yeses suggests a different temporality, the patient construction of another world. This is important, but we are forced by the destructive dynamic of capital itself into giving priority to the urgency of no.

d) No is unity, yes is multiplicity: one no, many yeses. The yeses are necessary and the multiplicity is desirable. To start with the no is not to deny the importance of the yeses, but to insist that they must be understood as being within a negative logic. It is the no that gives internal (rather than external) unity to the yeses.

The yeses invite us to go our own way, to build our own spaces, our own different movements and ways of doing things. Our unity is then a question of alliances, of linking up with other like-minded movements. Our no (to capitalism, to war, to neo-liberalism) is something we share, something that invites us to connect with other expressions of the same no, a coming together that is not a question of building alliances but of extending our own no.

The yeses invite us to focus on our own autonomous spaces or movements, to strengthen and deepen them. That is important, but we need more than that. The no leads us rather to think of our struggles as cracks or fissures in the texture of capitalism, cracks that derive their strength from spreading. Where the yeses invite us to build a beyond capitalism, the no reminds us that the only beyond that makes sense is an against-and-beyond, and that, although we may have many different dreams of the beyond, we all share the same against. If I think of the contributors to the present discussion of the book (or many of the discussions of the last two years), I am sure that we have quite different concepts of what a post-capitalist world would be like and quite different ideas of how to get there. In other words, if I think of the movement in positive terms, then I know that our comradeship does not go very far and I quickly fall into sectarian distinctions. On the other hand, I know that we all share the same against, the same no to capitalism. They may be comrades of the yes only in a limited sense, but they are certainly comrades of the no, and, since no takes priority over yes, I think it important to respect and engage with them. Yes can easily become the logic of sectarianism, no reminds us of the unity of our multiple struggles.

d) No is the key to our power. Our power is our power-to-do, but it is refusal that unlocks it, refusal to do at the bidding of others.

Those who rule always depend on those who are ruled. The capitalists cannot make profit without their workers, the generals cannot make war without their soldiers, the presidents and prime ministers cannot rule without their subjects. If the servant says no to the master, then the servant is no longer a servant and the master is no longer a master: both start to become humans. Those who command live in fear of the refusal of those whom they command and spend much of their time and a very large part of their resources trying to prevent it. Refusal is at the core of the struggle for another world: strike, mutiny, boycott, disobedience, desertion, subversion, refusal in a thousand different ways. In order to make another world, we must refuse to make capitalism. We make capitalism (as Marx insists in his labour theory of value). If capitalism exists today, it is not because it was created in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, but because it was created today, because we create it today. If we do not create it tomorrow, it will not exist tomorrow. The question of revolution is not “how do we destroy capitalism”, but “how do we stop creating capitalism”?

Certainly, refusing to make capitalism makes little sense and has little perspective unless we do something else instead, unless we unfold our power-to do all the yeses that Massimo mentions, but we cannot go very far with our yeses unless they are grounded in refusal. Our refusal does not create another world, but it unlocks the possibility of doing so.

e) No breaks. All around us, in the media, schools, universities, in the shops, on the streets, there is a yes to the social organisation of capitalism – not so much an affirmation as an assumption of the permanence of capitalism. Bourgeois theory is that: the assumption of the permanence of capitalist social relations. To which we say no. This no brings us into a different problematic (the problematic of revolution) and therefore a completely different conceptual world – the conceptual world of Marxism in which critique, form and aspiration to totality become key categories. There is no continuity between bourgeois theory and Marxist theory, between the positive theory of capitalism and the negative theory of revolution. This is important not because negative theory creates revolution (it is no more – and no less – than a moment of practice), but because the positivisation of theory hinders the movement against capitalism – and this is true both of Leninism and of much of the current theory of the anti-capitalist movement.

No is much more difficult for capitalism to assimilate than yes, however alternative the yeses. Negative theory poses rupture as the constant preoccupation: how do we break from capitalism? Obviously the only complete answer is world revolution, but we also look for partial answers on a daily basis: how do we break now from capitalism? How do we stop reproducing capitalism, how do we stop making capitalism? The question leads to the creation of alternative practices, but the alternative practices, unless they are founded in rupture, run the risk of being easily absorbed.

f) No is a-symmetry. No to capital is no to the forms of social relations implied by capital, no to capitalist forms of organisation. There is, then, a fundamental a-symmetry in class struggle. Our forms of organisation are and must be radically different from capital’s forms of organisation. To the extent that we imitate capital’s forms, we are quite simply reproducing capitalist social relations. This is the core of the argument against adopting the state as a form of organisation. The state is an organisational form developed for the purpose of excluding people from the social determination of their own lives. The organisational form developed in many revolutionary struggles to articulate people’s drive to determine their own lives is the council, or commune, or soviet, or assembly, an organisational form which has inclusion rather than exclusion as its central principle. The council is a-symmetrical to the state, radically incompatible with the state as form of organisation.

The term “anti-power” used in the book refers quite simply to the a-symmetry of class struggle, to the fact that anti-capitalist forms of organisation are and must be radically different from capitalist forms of organisation. Since capital is nothing other than a form of organising people, a form of bringing their doing together, a form of social relations in other words, to say that anti-capitalism means radically different forms of organising is an obvious tautology: obvious but important and often obscured by the ambiguous term “counter-power”. Why Daniel Bensaid should find this controversial or objectionable is beyond my comprehension, unless he wishes to argue that our forms of organisation should mirror those of capital.

g) No points to doing and the attempt to understand the world in terms of doing rather than being: critique ad hominem, as Marx puts it.

h) No opens. It opens a new conceptual world. It opens too a new world of doing. It opens to all the yeses that Massimo wants to put as the starting point of discussion. But in a world which negates our yeses, the yeses cannot be the starting point: they can only bloom through negation. Our no is a negation of the negation, but the negation of the negation is not positive, but a deeper negation, as Adorno points out(1990, 158). The negation of the negation does not bring us back to a reconciliation, to a positive world, but takes us deeper into the world of negation, moves us onto a different theoretical plane.

The no opens cracks, the yes opens autonomous spaces. Perhaps they look the same, but they are not. The idea of “autonomous spaces” suggests a space in which we can enjoy, maintain and defend a certain degree of autonomy. This is very attractive but also dangerous. If such a space becomes self-referential, it can easily stagnate: socialism in one social centre or one region is probably not much better than socialism in one country. Cracks, on the other, hand, do not stay still: they run, they spread. They cannot be defended; or rather, their only defence is to run faster and deeper than the hand of the plasterer that would fill them.

i) No moves. It pushes against and beyond, experiments and creates. Cracks run, seek other cracks. A movement that does not move is no movement. It very quickly becomes converted into its opposite: a barren and stagnant Left.

j) No is a question, yes is an answer. No leaves us unsatisfied, wanting more, asking, admitting that we do not have the answers. No pushes against verticality, pushes against dogmatism, pushes us to listen.


k) No is immediate, without mediations. No to capitalism means revolution now. That is perhaps what most disturbs the more orthodox critics.

There are two ways of thinking of revolution, both intimately linked with the question of time.

The more traditional conception puts revolution in the future. It is unlikely to happen in our lifetime. The objective conditions are not right. For now what we need is “the hard work involved in theorizing contemporary capitalism and building the type of mass movements capable of checking the capitalist juggernaut and creating the objective conditions for revolutionary change” (Binford).

In this view, revolution is a great event. The death of capitalism is conceived in terms of a dagger blow to the heart: this is not the moment to strike because “the objective conditions for revolutionary change” do not exist. (We leave aside for the moment that many of the proponents of this view have no idea where capitalism’s heart is: they conceive of it in terms of taking state power.) The blow to capitalism is conceived in terms of totality: something that can happen when there is a Movement or a Party capable of representing the totality.

And since revolution is in the future, there is an in the meantime. In meantime there is “the hard work involved in theorizing contemporary capitalism and building” a mass movement. In the meantime, until the revolution, we live within capitalism. Within capitalism we have a space for positive theory (and practice). Theorising contemporary capitalism means above all talking of capitalist domination – or indeed hegemony, the great cop-out category, the great crossover concept to bourgeois theory.2 And indeed, in this perspective, there is no need to make a clear distinction between Marxism and bourgeois theory since in this in the meantime space (which may of course last for ever, since the objective conditions keep disappearing over the horizon) we are within capitalism and what we want to do is understand how capitalism works. In other words, revolution-in-the-future turns “revolutionary” theory of the present into a theory of society, rather than a theory against society, distinct in its sympathies but not in its method from bourgeois theory. Marxism becomes a left sociology3, or economics or political science.

If revolution is in the future, then capitalism is until that future comes. A duration is attributed to capitalism: it is assumed that capitalism exists until it is destroyed. Consequently, of course, there is a dominance of structure. Leigh Binford states this very clearly when he says that we “can’t avoid structure either, since capitalist relations of production and exchange present the overarching system that conditions the relations he criticizes and defines a ‘capitalist epoch’: a period during which, whatever transformations capitalism might experience, capitalism in some form or other persists.” That is precisely the point: with revolution in the future, capitalism “persists” or has a duration until that future comes, and logically structuralism rules (though – of course – process or agency is also important).

History in this view acquires a revered importance. History is the building up towards the future event. It tells us of the heroic struggles of the past, helps us to understand what went wrong, shows us how the objective conditions are maturing. Sometimes this history goes hand in hand with an analysis of the long-term cycles of capitalism, encouraging us to think that the pendulum of history will again swing our way, that however ridiculous it may seem to dream today of communism, the tide will turn in our direction.

The other conception of revolution says no: no to capitalism, revolution now. Revolution is already taking place. This may seem silly, immature, unrealistic, but it is not.

Revolution now means that we think of the death of capitalism not in terms of a dagger-blow to the heart, but rather in terms of death by a million bee-stings, or a million pin-pricks to a credit-inflated balloon, or (better) a million rents, gashes, fissures, cracks. Since the issue is not when to strike at the heart, it makes no sense to think of waiting until the objective conditions are right. At all times it is necessary to tear the texture of capitalist domination, to refuse, to push against-and-beyond. Revolution is now: a cumulative process, certainly, a process of cracks spreading and joining up, but revolution is not in the future, it is already under way.

We can put it in terms of birth rather than death: Capitalism is pregnant with communism, but gestation and birth are not like human gestation and birth – the baby does not grow inside the mother and then come out when the time is ripe. Rather, from the moment of conception the embryos start to burst through the pores of capitalism.

To speak of revolution now is not a vacuous triumphalism. The gash or crack does not mean (necessarily) that capitalism will disappear immediately, but the emphasis is on saying No, refusing, puncturing capitalist command and (within that) constructing alternative ways of doing things. That any such “break” will be limited and contradictory and vulnerable to re-absorption by capital is clear – as indeed will anything short of world revolution (and even that) – but that is not the point. What is important is that the thrust of the struggle is to go against-and-beyond capitalism now, not in the future. This introduces a completely different language of struggle, a different logic, in which the existence of capital is always at issue. Every moment is opened up as potentially revolutionary. There is no waiting, no patience.

There are no mediations, no stepping stones to revolution. The aim is not to build a force within capitalism which will then (when?) make the revolution, but to break, to push against-and-beyond now. This means taking as direct and immediate point of reference not the taking of state power nor even the building of a movement but rather the creation and making explicit of social relations that project against-and-beyond capitalism, the social relations for which we are struggling – communism, in other words. This question is often addressed in terms of pre-figurative struggle, but perhaps it is better to think of it as directly figurative: not as a pre-anything but as the immediate creation of an alternative society. The direct creation of alternative social relations has, of course, always been a feature of anti-capitalist struggle: this what comradeship means and it is the stuff of classic working-class strikes – the point most emphasised by the participants in the great miners’ strike in Britain, to take just one example that leaps to mind. Yet this aspect of struggle has often been smothered by orthodox theory, which has generally regarded such questions as secondary, irrelevant or even contrary to party discipline.

Struggle is not just a question of content but of form, not just of what we do but of how we do it. It is anti-fetishistic, de-fetishising, the practice of critique ad hominem. There is no pretence of taking the standpoint of totality: important is rather the aspiration towards totality – the cracks that spread, not the Party.

To say revolution now is to say that the existence of capitalism is constantly at issue. This is not to say that it is about to collapse, but to open up each moment as containing the possibility of radical change. This means refusing to project the present existence of capitalism into the future (whether as a paradigm (Hardt and Negri) or a mode of regulation (Hirsch) or simply “persistence” (Binford)), because to do so is to incarcerate ourselves theoretically. What interests us about capitalism is its fragility, not its strength, as Michael Lebowitz would have it. This is not to deny its strength (which is obvious enough), simply to say that the hope for humanity lies in finding the weakness of that strength, its fragility. Unlike Lebowitz, I read Capital not as a theorisation of the strength of capitalism, but of its weakness, as a theory of crisis: the issue of crisis does not appear only in the third volume but is present from the opening sentence of Volume I, in the concept of form (a concept to which Lebowitz, like many ‘Marxist economists’, is totally blind). To emphasise the strength of capitalism leads to a long-term view of revolution, with the perspective of building up our counter-strength so that one day we can seize the commanding heights (take power), whereas the focus on the fragility of capitalism points in the direction of exploiting that fragility now, opening up cracks in the texture of domination wherever we can.

We live, then, not within capitalism, but in-against-and-beyond capitalism, at any moment. Rupture is central, not the Great Rupture-in-the-future, but rupture now: how do we and how can we break capitalism now? There is no in the meantime, no within capitalism within which we can construct our theory of society, our cosy blend of leftishness and bourgeois theory. Similarly, there is no mixture of process and structure, because the whole point is not to deny the existence of structure (or identity) but that we are the revolt of process against structure, of non-identity against identity, of living doing against dead congealed labour.

Capitalism does not “persist”. It has no duration. Marx devoted much of his work to showing that capitalism does not persist: it exists only because we make it. It does not persist until the day that we destroy it: at the core of the notion of revolution-in-the-future is a lapping up of the bourgeois concept of duration. One of Marx’s central arguments, that we make capitalism (the labour theory of value), is simply forgotten. If we make capitalism, then it is clear that capitalism does not simply persist: it persists only to the extent that we make it. If we cease to make it, it ceases to persist, and to exist. If we do not cease to make capitalism, then we make it. There is no in-between, there is no standing outside and innocently observing the persistence of capitalism. We are in it, with one hand dirty and steeped in blood and guilt and the other trying to pull capitalism apart; we are, like Penelope, knitting and unravelling capitalism at the same time, but we are certainly not outside it contemplating its destruction in fifty or a hundred years’ time. If we treat capitalism as simply persisting, then we lose the whole point of Marxism, and, more important, we lose the source of our capacity to change the world – namely that capital depends on us, that the rulers depend on the ruled. The problem of revolution is not to destroy an external structure, but to stop creating capitalism.: to shift, decisively and collectively, the balance between our two hands.

In other words, we must break history, smash duration, shoot clocks. Revolution is not the culmination of history but the breaking of history and that means now. History is not the building up to the future revolution. History is a nightmare from which we are desperately trying to awake.4 Revolution must drive its cart and its plough over the bones of the dead.

The revolution-in-the-future view tends to construct history (and time) as a prison, as in the view expressed by Leigh Binford (and many others) that this is a time of historical defeat of the working class and therefore we must act accordingly, put aside our dreams of revolution and work hard at understanding capitalism-as-it-is and building the movement. This understanding of history incarcerates us, limits our expectations, puts “objective” limits on what we can propose or even think. Today is projected on to tomorrow, tomorrow on to the day after and so on, constantly pushing revolution beyond the horizon of “realistic” thought. This view of history dulls the senses, limits what we can see: yesterday’s patterns of struggle define what we perceive as struggle today. Defeat there may be, but the struggle has already moved on while we are shaking our grey heads about the situation, moved on in ways that we often do not even recognise. The defeat was of a form of struggle and from that defeat spring new forms of struggle which we are only learning to see. The decomposition of the working class is turning (and has turned) into a recomposition, but those who look at the world through the lenses of 1970’s Marxism cannot see, do not want to see.

History is not on our side. In the revolution-in-the-future view, there is the view that the tide of history will come back to us, that one day the objective conditions will be right (provided, of course, that we do the necessary hard work in the meantime). In the revolution-in-the-future view it is assumed that humanity will still exist in fifty years’ time (or whenever). The argument for revolution now starts from a much sharper sense of urgency. The existence of capital is an aggression against humanity and this aggression has now become so virulent that it threatens to annihilate humanity completely. Although it is certainly true that human creative capacity has developed to such an extent that a very different world is possible, the violence of capitalist aggression seems to be taking us away from the realisation of this possibility and towards imminent catastrophe. That is why it is important to think of revolution now, revolution as revolt against the flow of history.

This does not mean that history is unimportant, but in the argument for revolution now, there is no need to pay it the same reverence as in the revolution-in-the-future argument. However we analyse our present historical situation, there is no option but to break with capitalism now, to try to recognise the ways in which people are already breaking with capitalism and to try and expand and multiply these breaks: our revolt does not depend on history. History is important, no doubt, as the history of our struggles, but it is important to recognise that that history is a history of struggles against history. Above all, history is not a benevolent force leading us towards a happy ending, but just the contrary. The history which we are making is filled with the potential of another world, but is going very fast in the opposite direction. And vice versa: the history which we are making is going very fast in the opposite direction, but it is filled with the potential of another world.

There are two distinct concepts of time here. The revolution-in-the-future view is a pivoted concept. The revolutionary event acts as a pivot between two temporalities: the temporality of patience and waiting and preparing, and then the temporality of rupture and rapid change to a different society. The argument for revolution now also involves two temporalities, but very different ones. First comes impatience, rupture, break, revolution in every way possible, supported then by the patient construction of a different world: the temporality of the explosive ¡Ya basta! followed by the temporality of “we walk, we do not run, because we are going very far”. In the first view, it is patience that takes the lead, in the second it is impatient urgency that shows the way, with patience following in support.


“All very well” you say5, “excellent stuff if you’re that way inclined, but aren’t you being a bit slippery? Have you really answered the criticisms of the other authors?”

I think that most of the main criticisms are addressed by the No, but perhaps it is now better to take each of the authors in turn and address their principal points. It should be clear that, however unkind my replies may be, I am immensely grateful to all of the contributors to the symposium for taking up the book’s invitation to discuss the meaning of revolution today. It is this sort of discussion (whether hostile or friendly) that makes the writing of the book worthwhile. (Let me say here in the text, and not just in a footnote, that I am also extremely grateful to the editors of Historical Materialism for creating this space for discussion.6

There is an overall tonality that shapes Leigh Binford’s argument. We are living in “dark times” “under conditions of working class defeat”, and it is simply not realistic to think of revolution under these circumstances. The attempt to do so, he argues, leads me to a “strong dose of reductionism which bypasses the “hard work involved in theorising contemporary capitalism”. My response is that the times are far darker than he seems to realise, that the destructive forces of capitalism are now so great that we cannot take it for granted that humanity will exist in fifty or a hundred years’ time. There is no alternative but to think about revolution today. My question is not “is it realistic to put forward a theory of revolution today?”, but rather “how, in these miserable times, can we conceptualise revolution?”. My driving force is hope, but I am very aware that it is a hope against hope. The “realism” advanced by Leigh (and many of the other critics) is built upon an assumption of stability which is very far from realistic. If, as Binford, claims, the only way of “putting revolution on the immediate agenda” is through a “strong dose of reductionism”, then perhaps the response should be “well, so be it, that is what we need to do”. But I do not agree that that is the case, nor that the argument of the book is reductionist. What the book proposes is that the antagonistic organisation of human doing is the key to understanding capitalism and the potential for revolution, but that the only way in which we can perceive that doing and its potential is critically, through the critique of the appearances which the current organisation of doing generates and which conceal the centrality of human doing. I do not see this as being reductionist.7

Most of the other points raised by Leigh have to do with our basic difference of perspective. Thus, when he says that my “perspective on classes-in-process creates problems for the analysis of dominant groups”, this causes me no sleepless nights, simply because I am not interested in the “analysis of dominant groups” but in the movement of capital as a social relation. Capitalists are of interest as personifications of capital, but not as “dominant groups”. Similarly, his concept of hegemony does not touch the point, since, despite his attempt to broaden the concept, hegemony is still a conceptualisation of domination, and my argument is that the great disease of the left is that, by starting our discussions of capitalism from domination, we effectively incarcerate ourselves within the domination we are trying to criticise.

Michael Lebowitz claims that my book “represents a profound rejection of Marx”. He develops this argument in relation to Capital and in relation to the Communist Manifesto and The Civil War in France (he does not actually refer to this work, but he does speak of the Paris Commune).

For Lebowitz, Capital is “an attempt to explain precisely how capitalism reproduces itself and why”. For me, that is not the case. Like many others, I take seriously the subtitle of Capital, namely that it is intended to be A critique of Political Economy. Capital, in other words, is not a work of political economy, but a critique of political economy, which pierces the categories of political economy to reveal the self-antagonistic organisation of work under capitalism, and then goes on to derive from this pivotal dual character of labour the forms of existence of capital. Marx presents his own work very clearly in these terms in the summary that he gives in chapter 48 of Volume 3: (1972, 826ff.). Marx devotes his life work to the critique of political economy precisely because he is concerned to show the transitory character of capitalism, its fragility. Hence the centrality of crisis, to which I have already alluded; hence too the centrality of the concept of form, a category which Michael has apparently censored from his copy of the book (and quite rightly so, of course, it’s too dangerous). All this is explained in Change the World: here, in this paragraph, I boil my cabbage twice.

A more interesting point is the argument that I focus on commodity fetishism rather than exploitation: “the centrality of the sale of labour-power is displaced by the sale of commodities; the exploitation of labour by the fetishism of commodities”. It would have been correct, he suggests, to focus rather “(as Marx did) upon commodity production as a condition for the exploitation of wage labourer”. I do not think that such a separation can be made. Marx is concerned in Capital with the specific historical form that exploitation takes under capitalism. In this society, exploitation is mediated through the sale and purchase of labour power as a commodity. The existence of labour power as a commodity means inevitably that there is a generalisation of commodity production and that all social relations are fetishised. This general commodification is not just a side-effect of exploitation (as Michael would have it), but is inseparable from the capitalist form of exploitation. I do not substitute fetishism for capitalist exploitation, as Michael claims: I argue rather that they are inseparable. I do not think that Marx sees commodity production as a mere “condition for the exploitation of wage labour.”

What is at issue in this difference of interpretation? For Michael, the principal consequence of my interpretation seems to be that it leads me to a “broad concept of class struggle” in which “there is no reason to attach particular significance to the producers of surplus value”. For me, Michael’s interpretation de-radicalises Marx. The separation of exploitation from commodity production suggests that it might be possible to get rid of exploitation in a commodity-producing society (that it might be possible to have a socialist market, or that value might have some role to play in communist society), whereas I think it is clear that Marx’s argument is that the elimination of exploitation means the elimination of commodity production and exchange and therefore a radical transformation of relations between people. The struggle against capital cannot be reduced to the struggle of the direct producers of surplus value against surplus value production: it is inevitably also the struggle against commodity production by all of us who are riven by the self-antagonistic organisation of work under capitalism.

Lebowitz’s attempt to de-radicalise Marx is present also in his reliance on Marx and Engels’ comments in the Communist Manifesto. He prefers to forget that they revised their understanding of revolution and the state after the experience of the Paris Commune, commenting that after the experience of the Paris Commune “this programme has in some details become antiquated. One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz. that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the state machinery and wield it for its own purposes’”. In Marx’s study of the Commune in The Civil War in France, he pays great attention to the forms of organisation developed in the Commune, forms that are radically distinct from the state, fundamentally a-symmetrical to the state. Lebowitz argues that Marx concluded form the experience of the Paris Commune that the struggle should be fought “through a state of the Commune-type”. This is Lebowitz’s, not Marx’s expression: Marx is quite clear that the Paris Commune is not a state. To speak of “a state of the Commune-type”, is both disturbing and dangerous. It is disturbing because it suggests that Lebowitz has understood nothing of the argument of Change theWorld, which hangs on the distinction between the state and a commune (or council): he has understood some of the implications of the argument, which he does not like, but has not understood the argument itself. But, much more serious, to speak of “a state of the Commune-type” (or indeed a “soviet state”, a kindred barbarity) is profoundly dangerous. It is dangerous because it conceals the distinction and the inevitable conflict between two different and antagonistic forms of social relation: the state and the commune (or council) – the one developed to exclude people from determining their society, the other designed to articulate social self-determination. This is not just a question of conceptual clarity: the concealment of the distinction has served historically to justify the suppression of councils by the state in the name of the working class, to justify the suppression of the working class in the name of the working class.

What more can I say in response to Michael Lebowitz? Please, Michael, go and read Marx again, without fear of the radical implications.


Daniel Bensaid makes a number of arguments in his critique of the book. The question of anti-power I have already dealt with explicitly. The other points I take up here relate to the Zapatistas, history and newness.


Bensaid says that I appoint myself the “theoretical spokesman” of the Zapatistas and asks elsewhere if I am the “prophet” of Zapatismo. I have never in any sense at all claimed to speak for the Zapatistas. Like millions of others, I admire and respect the Zapatistas, but that does not mean that I am in any sense their spokesperson, nor that I am necessarily uncritical of their discourse or their practice. I state this clearly, simply because a number of critics have used their criticism of my book as a pretext for attacking the Zapatistas, but the two questions are quite distinct.

The more substantive point that Daniel makes, to the effect that the Zapatistas have simply made a virtue of necessity, that they have concluded from the proximity of the United States that taking power is impossible in Mexico and have therefore chosen “not to want what they cannot achieve in any event”, is peculiar. It can be read in two senses. It might mean that the Zapatista discourse is cynically manipulative: they really want to take power, but since this is not realistic in Mexico they develop an alternative discourse about not taking power to cover their own incapacity – a silly argument, if I may say so. Alternatively, it could mean that, since taking power is not a realistic option in Mexico, the Zapatistas have rightly concentrated on an alternative strategy of building up autonomous structures of (anti-)power. If that is Daniel’s argument, then one would have to ask whether taking state power is a more realistic option in France or the UK and, if not, whether Daniel is arguing that a similar (Zapatista) strategy should be pursued by the left in those countries as well. It is a pity that Bensaid does not develop his argument more clearly.

The issue of history I have already discussed. The importance we attribute to history is clearly related to how we conceive of revolution. If, as I suggest, we think of revolution here-and-now, then the notion of history as human trajectory must be abandoned. In this sense we must take seriously William Blake’s advice: “Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead.” Certainly it is important to recognise our continuity with the struggles of the past, but we do this best by ploughing those struggles into the soil of our present struggle, not by building monuments. Taking Blake’s aphorism as a title, I already wrote a reply to Bensaid’s initial criticism of the book and the last part of his article in this issue is a response to my reply. In what follows, I shall focus specifically on his final comments.

I am happy to admit that the advice to “spit on history” was probably an unhelpful turn of phrase. The hyperbole was provoked by the common use of history on the left as a way of avoiding thinking about the meaning of revolution in the present, and particularly the use of the term “Stalinism”. One strand of my argument is that authoritarian forms of organising for revolution lead to authoritarian revolutions, as witness the Russian Revolution – a logical argument with a historical reference. The reply from the critics comes: “no, you must study history – Stalinism.” The concept of Stalinism is used to break (and worse, to avoid even thinking about) the link between forms of revolutionary organisation and the outcome of the revolution, “between the revolutionary event and the bureaucratic counter-revolution” (Bensaid’s point 3). Bensaid goes further and portrays the argument that there might be a connection (not “a strict genealogical continuity”, for I never maintained that) between the Bolsheviks’ form of organisation and the outcome of the revolution as a right-wing argument (a “reactionary thesis”), when he knows quite well that it was an argument put forward by the left (Pannekoek, for example) from the time of the Russian revolution. So yes, in the face of such arguments, it is difficult not to want to spit: but better to restrain myself.

Critical history: yes, of course. This was already clear in the article to which Daniel is claiming to respond, where I argued that we need “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.”

On Maoists and Pol Pot: if we follow Marx in arguing that we create capitalism, then the central issue of revolution is how we stop making capitalism. This is not a symbolic question, as Bensaid wishes to portray it, but a very practical question. Refusal has to be at the core of revolutionary thought.

Bensaid says “Holloway blots out with his spit the criticisms that Atilio Boron, Alex Callinicos, Guillermo Almeyra and I have made of his work.” It is not so: with Boron, Callinicos and Almeyra I have on different occasions debated the points at issue in public and in a comradely atmosphere of mutual respect, and I have also published written replies to all of them.

Finally, Daniel says on five or six occasions that there is nothing new about the argument of the book. I have no problem with that. The book is, after all, as Stoetzler points out “an essentially orthodox intervention”.

Massimo de Angelis, apart from the general point on negativity, which has already been discussed at length, argues that the “the question of how the scream creates a new world is not even addressed”. That is not completely true, since the last three chapters of the book are largely devoted to this issue: I agree, however, that this is not an adequate discussion, nor with the degree of detail that Massimo would like to see. In part this is because the intention of the book was more modest than that: the book asks, quite explicitly (p. 22): “How can we even begin to think of changing the world without taking power?” The aim of the book was to open a discussion and certainly I now feel the need to advance further with this discussion. The Epilogue to the new edition in English attempts to do this by developing the notion of moving against and beyond capital.

Behind this objection of Massimo’s is a related point, that I do not devote enough attention to the question of organisation. I think there is a problem here, an assumption on Massimo’s part that the question of organisation and the question of capital are distinct. Capital, we know, is a form of social relations, but this means that it is a form of organisation, a form of bringing together subjects in a way that negates their subjectivity: this can be followed into the details of our everyday interaction. Fetishism is a question of organisation, and anti-fetishism (the struggle for us to relate to one another as subjects, the struggle for dignity) is and must be the basic principle of anti-capitalist organisation. This too is a question of detail, the stuff of daily struggle all over the world at the moment, waged over such key concepts as dignity, horizontality, love (amorosidad), but there are no rules to be laid down, and anyway my argument is that, beyond the details and problems of horizontality (excellently discussed by others8), what we need is to integrate these many struggles conceptually into an understanding of capital and anti-capital as organisational forms.

I do not follow Massimo’s point on “clashing powers-to”. The contrast between power-over and power-to relates to the bi-polar antagonism in the organisation of doing in capitalist society: a bi-polar antagonism in which doing exists antagonistically as labour, use-value as value, power-to as power-over. To dilute this into a multitude of powers-to is to dilute the class antagonism into a multitude of antagonisms (rather than seeing the multitude of antagonisms as the form in which class struggle exists), and that is a path I am not prepared to follow, above all because the analysis of capitalist society as a bi-polar class society points to our strength and the dependence of capital upon us.

That leaves us with the commentary of Marcel Stoetzler. Marcel’s commentary is elegant and seductive, just the sort of commentary I was hoping for when I was writing the book. The book contains some arguments that are experimental, many points at which I felt in the course of writing “I think this is right, but it would be good to have somebody to discuss it with in more detail, or it would be good if some reviewer could take it up and develop it further or argue against it”. This is just what Marcel’s commentary does. Thus, he argues, for example, that I conflate three different meanings of negativity: I think this is probably right, that there is indeed a slippage from one concept to another. What I am not yet clear about is whether this is a harmful slippage and what its political implications are. Marcel suggests that it leads either to an “affirmation (sometimes pride) of being a (bourgeois) producer-creator-subject, or its rejection”: for me, however, the combining of screaming and doing in the concept of negation leads to an affirmation (and indeed pride) of being doers-against-labour. And so it is with many of Marcel’s points: they are very helpful indications of the tensions and contradictions that exist in the book but often I disagree with his judgements. Thus, for example, when he says that “the concept of ‘anti-power’ is dangerous as long as it remains under-determined” because it may, for example, include anti-semitic or even fascist forms of anti-capitalism, then he is right and this is a problem that should be discussed: but I think the “determination” is not so much a theoretical determination or process of exclusion as one that can only come about through the forms of articulation of the struggle (council organisation, for example). When he says at the end of his commentary that “it is perhaps part of the appeal of the book that it gives expression to real contradictions by being itself contradictory”, then I am delighted. The book is intended as a stimulus to move forward, not a correct statement of revolutionary theory.

Certainly I do have a difference with Marcel. At the end he says perceptively “A criticism of the weak sides of the book can almost entirely be based on its strong sides: or, in other words, selective reading can construct either a crowd-pleasing, romantic ‘anti-global-capitalism’ Holloway, or an austere ‘back-to-Marx-via-Adorno-and-Italian/German-autonomism’, anti-identity Holloway”, and he says that he prefers the latter. For me, however, the question cannot be that of preferring one side to the other, but of how we bring the two together. The book is deliberately Janus-faced: an attempt to say to activists that, in order to take their activism seriously, they must read Marx and theorise austerely; and to say to the austere Marxist theorists that they must break through their austerity and think politically, and thereby transform their own theory. Marcel is clearly happier in the world of austerity, and that I respect, but that too must be criticised. However, to criticise this is deliberately to venture (with care) where austere angels fear to tread and it is no doubt from this that many of the tensions of the book arise. But I would not change that.

My hesitation in writing this last part of the article is that I have no wish to defend the book. The aim of the book is to promote discussion, a discussion that moves forward, that recognises that we all desperately want to change the world but that none of us knows how to do it.


Adorno, Theodor W. (1990)

Negative Dialectics (London, Routledge)

Bensaid, Daniel (2005)

“On a Recent Book by John Holloway”, Historical Materialism

Binford, Leigh (2005)

Holloway’s Marxism”, Historical Materialism

De Angelis, Massimo (2005)

“HOW?!”, Historical Materialism

Holloway, John (2003)

“Conduis ton char et ta charrue par-dessus les ossements des morts”, Contre Temps (Paris), no. 6, pp. 160-169

Lebowitz, Michael (2005)

“Holloway’s Scream: Full of Sound and Fury”, Historical Materialism

Sitrin Marina (ed),

Horizontalidad: Voces de Poder Popular en Argentina (Buenos Aires: Chilavert)

Stoetzler Marcel (2005)

“On how to make Adorno scream: John Holloway’s concept of Revolution against Class and Identity”, Historical Materialism

Thwaites Rey, Mabel (2004)

La Autonomía como búsqueda, el Estado como contradicción (Buenos Aires: Prometeo)


1 My thanks to those who have commented on a draft of this paper: Werner Bonefeld, Dorothea Härlin (both, very significantly, former students of the late Johannes Agnoli) and Sergio Tischler.

2 I should explain: my objection to the concept of hegemony is that, unlike capital, it does not contain its own grave-digger. Certainly there are attempts to complement the category of hegemony with notions of counter-hegemony, but they are additions, not integral to the concept itself. The endless left analysis of domination and hegemony is self-defeating, reproducing rather than dissolving the domination it purports to combat.

3 The concerns of Leigh Binford are very much those of a left sociologist concerned with the behaviour of subordinate and dominant groups.

4 Certainly, it is also a dream which we are trying to redeem, but for the moment the dream exists in-against-and-beyond the nightmare.

5 Indeed, you do not need to say it, dear reader, because the excellent editors of Historical Materialism have already said it on your behalf, for which I am grateful.

6 For further discussion of the debate around the book, see the Epilogue to the new English edition of the book (Pluto 2005). Most of the debate in all languages can be found in the web page of Herramienta:

7 The accusation of reductionism arises, I think, from a failure to distinguish between formal and determinate abstraction, abstraction on the basis of being and abstraction on the basis of doing.

8 See, for example, Sitrin (2005) or, more critically, Thwaites Rey (2004).