The REDSTAR2000 Papers

Listen to the worm of doubt, for it speaks truth. - Leftist Discussion

John Holloway's "Marxism" April 27, 2005 by RedStar2000

There is this idea floating around these days that, somehow, a revolution can be made that doesn't actually destroy the existing social and political relations of late capitalism at all.

Instead, it's proposed that we "nibble them to death", presumably, setting up alternative egalitarian institutions that render the existing institutions irrelevant.

Thus, there'd be no "decisive moment" where one could say that the power of the old ruling class had been broken...but something slower and more, well, evolutionary in nature.

When I came across it, it seemed to me to be like a modern version of Proudhon's "mutual aid".

Imagine my surprise when I was informed that a leading proponent of this notion considered himself a "Marxist".


John Holloway is a kind of "left celebrity" these days. What follows is from Chapter 7 of his book Change The World Without Taking Power; The Meaning of Revolution Today.

I confess some difficulty in attempting to grasp the kinds of distinctions that he seeks to me, they appear to be very tenuous.

As you will see.


...there is a radical distinction between ‘bourgeois’ science and critical or revolutionary science. The former assumes the permanence of capitalist social relations and takes identity for granted, treating contradiction as a mark of logical inconsistency. Science, in this view, is the attempt to understand reality. In the latter case, science can only be negative, a critique of the untruth of existing reality. The aim is not to understand reality, but to understand (and, by understanding, to intensify) its contradictions as part of the struggle to change the world. The more all-pervasive we understand reification to be, the more absolutely negative science becomes. If everything is permeated by reification, then absolutely everything is a site of struggle between the imposition of the rupture of doing and the critical-practical struggle for the recuperation of doing. No category is neutral.

Here, keep in mind what is meant by "reification" -- to treat an abstraction "as if" it were something real.

Therefore, one of Holloway's "conditions" for "revolutionary science" immediately fails: "everything" is not "permeated with reification". In the physical sciences, reification is trivial or non-existent. Treating abstractions as if they were real quickly becomes untenable...unless they are real.

For reification to "take hold", it needs "fertile soil"...and, if Marx was right, that soil is class interest. Abstractions are defended as "real" when people perceive that it is in their material interests to do so.

Thus, abstractions like "god", "the nation", "the state", "the volk", "the nobility", the "risk-taking entrepreneur", etc., are trumpeted as "real" and "valuable" by those who have a material interest (or think they do) in the wide-spread acceptance of such propositions.

Marx was highly critical of such propositions and the best of the Marxists in the last century continued to criticize them.


For Marx, science is negative. The truth of science is the negation of the untruth of false appearances. In the post-Marx Marxist tradition, however, the concept of science is turned from a negative into a positive concept. The category of fetishism, so central for Marx, is almost entirely forgotten by the mainstream Marxist tradition. From being the struggle against the untruth of fetishism, science comes to be understood as knowledge of reality. With the positivisation of science, power-over penetrates into revolutionary theory and undermines it far more effectively than any government undercover agents infiltrating a revolutionary organisation.

Can you follow this? It suggests that there's a "difference" between a "critical" knowledge of "false reality" and a seemingly more "accepting" knowledge of "true reality". The former Holloway suggests is "revolutionary"...and the latter is, well, not so good.


In speaking of Marxism as ‘scientific’, Engels means that it is based on an understanding of social development that is just as exact as the scientific understanding of natural development.

Agreed...he laid it on a little thick. This was common in 19th century science and Marxists, like many other scientists, are considerably more humble these days.

Knowledge of social institutions and how they are changed is a good deal more complicated than the physical sciences...and sensible people understand that.

quote (Engels):

These two great discoveries, the materialistic conception of history and the revelation of the secret of capitalistic production through surplus-value, we owe to Marx. With these two discoveries Socialism becomes a science. The next thing was to work out all its details and relations.

Almost...a coherent scientific understanding of the revolutionary process continues to be elusive. The evidence for proletarian revolution and the transition to a post-capitalist society remains fragmentary and inconclusive.

The claims of the Leninists in this regard, while initially plausible, turned out in the end to be false.


Science, in the Engelsian tradition which became known as ‘Marxism’, is understood as the exclusion of subjectivity: ‘scientific’ is identified with ‘objective’. The claim that Marxism is scientific is taken to mean that subjective struggle (the struggle of socialists today) finds support in the objective movement of history. The analogy with natural science is important not because of the conception of nature that underlies it but because of what it says about the movement of human history. Both nature and history are seen as being governed by forces ‘independent of men’s will’, forces that can therefore be studied objectively.

Yes, but there are better (clearer) ways to phrase that.

What people "will" is, if Marx was right, a product of their material reality -- which can be studied objectively.


The attraction of the conception of Marxism as a scientifically objective theory of revolution for those who were dedicating their lives to struggle against capitalism is obvious. It provided not just a coherent conception of historical movement, but also enormous moral support: whatever reverses might be suffered, history was on our side. The enormous force of the Engelsian conception and the importance of its role in the struggles of that time should not be overlooked. At the same time, however, both aspects of the concept of scientific socialism (objective knowledge, objective process) pose enormous problems for the development of Marxism as a theory of struggle.

I can only think of one: why should there be "reverses" at all? That is, there might well be objective defeats in struggle...but it seems to me that once any given level of revolutionary consciousness is attained, it should either remain at that level or advance still further.

Strictly speaking, the rise of Nazism (or any reactionary paradigm) as a popular and wide-spread ideology ought to have been impossible...and yet it surely happened and happens today.

The direct relationship between class interest and ideology that Marx posited suffers "mysterious" dis-connects...and we don't know why.


If Marxism is understood as the correct, objective, scientific knowledge of history, then this begs the question, ‘who says so?’ Who holds the correct knowledge and how did they gain that knowledge? Who is the subject of the knowledge? The notion of Marxism as ‘science’ implies a distinction between those who know and those who do not know, a distinction between those who have true consciousness and those who have false consciousness.

Well, yes. But it's not just Marxism that "suffers" this "burden"...but all of accumulated human knowledge. Someone claims to "know" something is "true" and that claim can only be verified by consulting real-world experience.

There is always a distinction between "those who know" and "those who don't" -- and given the enormous accumulation of knowledge, that's true about nearly everything for all of us.

A very limited number of things become "common knowledge" -- accepted as true by most people -- but even that is not any guarantee of absolute truthfulness.


Perhaps even more important politically: if a distinction is to be made between those who know and those who do not, and if understanding or knowledge is seen as important in guiding the political struggle, then what is to be the organisational relation between the knowers and the others (the masses)? Are those in the know to lead and educate the masses (as in the concept of the vanguard party) or is a communist revolution necessarily the work of the masses themselves (as ‘left communists’ such as Pannekoek maintained)?

The answer obviously depends on two considerations.

1. Does the "normal" operation of capitalism over time automatically generate revolutionary class consciousness?

2. Or is revolutionary theory forever the possession of an "educated" elite?

I think the first proposition is more consistent with Marx's ideas; the second option is that proposed by Lenin and his followers during the 20th century.

The idea, by the way, of "guiding the political struggle", is noted earlier, we don't have a valid scientific understanding of the actual revolutionary process. No one really knows "how to do it".

Leninist claims to the contrary notwithstanding.


The other wing of the concept of scientific Marxism, the notion that society develops according to objective laws, also poses obvious problems for a theory of struggle. If there is an objective movement of history which is independent of human volition, then what is the role of struggle? Are those who struggle simply carrying out a human destiny which they do not control? Or is struggle important simply in the interstices of the objective movements, filling in the smaller or larger gaps left open by the clash of forces and relations of production?

Those who struggle are indeed "carrying out a human destiny"...though that's a rather mystical way of putting it.

It would be clearer to say that those who carry out struggle do so because they perceive it to be in their material interests -- but that perception is a product of more fundamental characteristics of the social order and how it operates (which rest on still more fundamental material considerations).

Actual living, breathing humans do "make history"...they seemingly "choose" of their own "free will" to do this and not that. But their options are constrained by material conditions -- some choices cannot be made and if made anyway, cannot be realized.


Engels’ notion of the objective movement of history towards an end gives a secondary role to struggle. Whether struggle is simply seen as supporting the movement of history or whether it is attributed a more active role, its significance in any case derives from its relation to the working out of the objective laws. Whatever the differences in emphasis, struggle in this perspective cannot be seen as self-emancipatory: it acquires significance only in relation to the realisation of the goal. The whole concept of struggle is then instrumental: it is a struggle to achieve an end, to arrive somewhere. The positivisation of the concept of science implies a positivisation of the concept of struggle. Struggle, from being struggle-against, is metamorphosed into being struggle-for. Struggle-for is struggle to create a communist society, but in the instrumentalist perspective which the positive-scientific approach implies, struggle comes to be conceived in a step-by-step manner, with the ‘conquest of power’ being seen as the decisive step, the fulcrum of revolution. The notion of the ‘conquest of power’, then, far from being a particular aim that stands on its own, is at the centre of a whole approach to theory and struggle.

This "linkage" is weak, in my view...though it's certainly one plausible way to read Marx.

Most dubious is the proposition that people would not perceive struggle as "self-emancipatory" even though that struggle was, in reality, something that was inevitable at that point in history and brought into existence by a major clash of historical forces.

I also think "struggle-against" and "struggle-for" are not contradictory objectives...and I don't see what is gained by suggesting that. Prior to a revolution, "struggle-against" seems to take priority; after a revolution, "struggle-for" seems to be the dominant appeal. But both over-lap to such an extent that making the distinction between them seems to me to be pointless.

The "step-by-step" road to power is the social democratic variant of Marxism, of course...and even Leninists reject it in theory (though not necessarily in practice).

And the phrase "conquest of power" can obviously have a number of meanings. What is crucial is the destruction of the old state apparatus and the dispersal of its personnel. It does not necessarily follow that what "must" be "established" is some kind of Leninist "hyper-state".


If science is understood as an objectively ‘correct’ understanding of society, then it follows that those most likely to attain such an understanding will be those with greatest access to education (understood, presumably, as being at least potentially scientific). Given the organisation of education in capitalist society, these will be members of the bourgeoisie. Science, consequently, can come to the proletariat only from outside. If the movement to socialism is based on the scientific understanding of society, then it must be led by bourgeois intellectuals and those ‘proletarians distinguished by their intellectual development’ to whom they have transmitted their scientific understanding. Scientific socialism, understood in this way, is the theory of the emancipation of the proletariat, but certainly not of its self-emancipation. Class struggle is understood instrumentally, not as a process of self-emancipation but as the struggle to create a society in which the proletariat would be emancipated: hence the pivotal role of ‘conquering power’. The whole point of conquering power is that it is a means of liberating others. It is the means by which class-conscious revolutionaries, organised in the party, can liberate the proletariat. In a theory in which the working class is a ‘they’, distinguished from a ‘we’ who are conscious of the need for revolution, the notion of ‘taking power’ is simply the articulation that joins the ‘they’ and the ‘we’.

Here's where things get really hairy.

Is a scientific knowledge of social reality only available to bourgeois intellectuals? That was certainly true in the time of Marx and even of Lenin; is it still true?

Lots of working class kids go to college these days...and even the many that drop out for financial reasons (or never attend at all) nevertheless have access through libraries and increasingly through the internet to "advanced knowledge".

Are working people just "hopeless dummies" who simply "can't learn" this stuff?

Or who couldn't figure it out even in the complete absence of radical bourgeois intellectuals?

Is a scientific way of thinking about social reality just "beyond the capabilities" of workers (or most workers)?

You see, if that kind of stuff were really true, then some sort of "humane despotism" is all that would ever be possible.

It wouldn't be "so bad" -- physics is a humane despotism and so is chemistry. Those "who know" dominate those who "don't know"...who are eager to join the despots themselves. It has its faults but, by and large, allows progress to be made.

Is the same thing true in human social structures? Are most of us just hopelessly inadequate when it comes to telling the difference between slavery and freedom? Or even indifferent to the difference?


Marxist practice then becomes a practice of bringing consciousness to the workers, of explaining to them, of telling them where their interests lie, of enlightening and educating them. This practice, so widely established in revolutionary movements in all the world, has its roots not just in the authoritarian tradition of Leninism but in the positive concept of science which Engels established. Knowledge-about is power-over. If science is understood as knowledge-about, then there is inevitably a hierarchical relation between those who have this knowledge (and hence access to the ‘correct line’) and those (the masses) who do not. It is the task of those-in-the-know to lead and educate the masses.

I see nothing to reasonably object to long as it's understood that "lead" is not synonymous with command.


The basic feature of scientific socialism is its assumption that science can be identified with objectivity, with the exclusion of subjectivity. This scientific objectivity, it was seen, has two axes or points of reference. Objectivity is understood to refer to the course of social development: there is a historical movement which is independent of people’s will. It is also taken to refer to the knowledge which we (Marxists) have of this historical movement: Marxism is the correct ‘discovery’ of the objective laws of motion that govern social development. In each of these two axes, the objectivity shapes the understanding of both object and subject.

Yes...objective reality exists.

Besides that, Holloway again posits historical movement as "independent of people's will" -- which I think is very misleading. People "will" (by and large) what is in accordance with historical movement at a specific time under specific circumstances.


Although the notion of scientific Marxism has implications for the understanding of both subject and object, in so far as science is identified with objectivity, it is the object which is privileged. Marxism, in this conception, becomes the study of the objective laws of motion of history in general, and of capitalism in particular. Marxism’s role in relation to working class struggle is to provide an understanding of the framework within which struggle takes place.

Yes, the "object" is "privileged" it should be. The alternative is madness.


What all these modern disciplinary strands of Marxism have in common, and what unites them with the underlying concept of scientific Marxism, is the assumption that Marxism is a theory of society. In a theory of society, the theorist seeks to looks at society objectively and to understand its functioning. The idea of a ‘theory of'’ suggests a distance between the theorist and the object of the theory. The notion of a theory of society is based on the suppression of the subject, or (and this amounts to the same thing) based on the idea that the knowing subject can stand outside the object of study, can look at human society from a vantage point on the moon, as it were. It is only on the basis of this positing of the knowing subject as external to the society being studied that the understanding of science as objectivity can be posed.

This 19th century notion of observer and observed is a "tough old bird"...though challenges have been made to it (quantum physics, cultural anthropology, etc.).

I don't think any sensible person would argue that we can "truly" stand "outside" of our society and make "perfectly objective observations".

But, in the view of this "old bird", that's what we should try for.

Knowing that "perfectly objective" knowledge of human societies and history is probably unattainable, we should nevertheless attempt to approach that goal as closely as we can.

Why? Because the alternative reveals nothing at all except the personal prejudices of the "observer".

The "post-modernist" paradigm asserts that personal prejudice is all there is. That because perfectly objective truth is unattainable, therefore "no" objective truth exists.

That's just wacko!


Twist and turn the issue as one may, the notion of scientific Marxism, based on the idea of an objective understanding of an objective course of history, comes up against insuperable theoretical and political objections. Theoretically, the exclusion of the subjectivity of the theorist is an impossibility: the theorist, whether Marx, Engels, Lenin or Mao, cannot look at society from outside, cannot stand on the moon. Even more damaging, the theoretical subordination of subjectivity leads to the political subordination of the subject to the objective course of history and to those who claim to have a privileged understanding of that course.

A claim to have a "privileged understanding" of the course of history must nevertheless be subjected to empirical investigation; we are not obligated to accept "claims"...even if loaded with adjectives like "scientific", "objective" or even "dialectical".

The Leninist claims in that regard have been falsified by history. But others may emerge, with different claims, that may turn out to be true.

And what would be wrong with that???


The tradition of ‘scientific Marxism’ is blind to the issue of fetishism. If fetishism is taken as a starting point, then the concept of science can only be negative, critical and self-critical. If social relations exist in the form of relations between things, it is impossible to say ‘I have knowledge of reality’, simply because the categories through which one apprehends reality are historically specific categories which are part of that reality.

The test of your specific categories is do they work? Do they offer coherent explanations for a wide variety of social phenomena? Can others use your paradigm and achieve comparable results?

On the other hand, if one says that "reality is unknowable", then what is the point of any human activity? If no one "knows what they're doing" and everyone is "just guessing", then why the fuck bother attempting anything beyond personal survival? If that!


To be blind to fetishism is to take fetishised categories at face value, to take fetishised categories without question into one’s own thought. Nowhere has this been more disastrous in the tradition of orthodox Marxism than in the assumption that the state could be seen as the centre point of social power.

In the 19th century, the state was the "center point of social power" (in objective reality).

That is probably still the least in most of the world. What may emerge as a legitimate question is the "need" for a centralized state following proletarian revolutions in the advanced capitalist countries.

Can we "do without one" in the future? And, if that isn't possible, can we "get by" with a limited "Paris Commune" state?

The latter seems entirely practical to me...but I think we should try for the former and see how it goes.


The understanding of capitalist society as being bound by laws is valid to the extent, but only to the extent, that relations between people really are thing-ified. If we argue that capitalism can be understood completely through the analysis of its laws of motion, then we say at the same time that social relations are completely fetishised. But if social relations are completely fetishised, how can we conceive of revolution? Revolutionary change cannot possibly be conceived as following a path of certainty, because certainty is the very negation of revolutionary change. Our struggle is a struggle against reification and therefore against certainty.

From our individual and subjective viewpoints, revolutionary struggle is indeed uncertain.

"Standing on the moon" and looking over the centuries, it appears as certain as anything can be.

Same phenomenon; different view.
First posted at RevLeft on April 14, 2005

I wrote this...

quote (redstar2000):

1. Does the "normal" operation of capitalism over time automatically generate revolutionary class consciousness?

2. Or is revolutionary theory forever the possession of an "educated" elite?

To which you replied...


Marx would have certainly rejected the first proposition that consciousness is "automatically generated". He, and Lenin for that matter, would also have rejected the second proposition that only an "'educated' elite" can possess revolutionary consciousness. (This is a great vulgarisation of Lenin's ideas, and actually seems more in line with Gramscian distortions of the necessity of independent working class action.) In both of these propositions the subjective force of revolutionary transformation of capitalist society - i.e. the activity of the working class - is taken out of the equation. All hitherto history is the history of class struggles. Even this most infamous and direct of communist statements presupposes a decisive subjective element as the "engine" of history: the class struggle. But for there to be class struggle there needs to be class consciousness. Capitalism cannot somehow automatically produce workers' class consciousness; it fact it does all it can to distort class consciousness. That's the reason why Lenin insisted that class consciousness does not come about spontaneously or, indeed, "objectively".

In other words, revolutionary class consciousness just "falls out of the sky".

What other origin is left?

If the normal operation of capitalism necessarily generates class struggle (which it obviously does) and if that struggle over time becomes necessarily revolutionary (which I think is Marx's argument)...then it must be agreed that the normal operation of capitalism generates revolutionary class consciousness -- inspite of the conscious efforts of the capitalist class to stop or divert or distort or delay that development.

On the other hand, the Kautsky-Lenin hypothesis is that class struggle in and of itself will "never" generate revolutionary class consciousness...that an "educated elite" is "required" to develop and subsequently "inject" revolutionary class consciousness into the working class.

You used a lot of words to evade that choice...but it's one that still has to be made.
First posted at RevLeft on April 16, 2005


I would even go as far as to say that we actually live in a period bordering on "class peace", while capitalism of course still exists. If you consider the class struggle to be the economic and political struggle between a capitalist class and a working class, then this struggle has almost evaporated. Even in Western Europe, where there used to be (unlike in the US) a deep, long standing tradition of socialism and where even official political debate was based around the conflict between left and right, economic class struggle is now at new lows and the politics of the class struggle certainly no longer determine or dominate political debate.

Another way of saying that is: we live in a period of reaction.

The working class in the U.S. is demoralized and passive, by and large.

Will it "always" be like that? If Marx was right, the answer is no.


So I don't think that capitalism on its own generates class consciousness, or even class struggle. Even the spontaneous economic struggle and consciousness that Lenin talked about seems inaccurate today.

I disagree. I think it takes place "in the background" constantly...we just tend not to notice it until it "bursts on the scene" in a dramatic fashion.


The reality is that trade union membership is at an all time low (and this is the key organisation through which the economic struggle between worker and capitalist is waged) and socialist/communist party membership (the organisation through which the political struggle is waged) is not even worth mentioning. So how is there to be class consciousness or even class struggle when such organisations are in fatal decline?

I would hypothesize that the reasons for the "fatal decline" of such groups is their historically demonstrated inadequacies. No matter how discontented or rebellious you happen to be, do you want to join up with something that has proven that it can't make any difference?

I remember meeting a postal worker back in the 1960s; his wife was a Trotskyist and she was nagging him to join the union. He told her (and me) that when they started acting like a union, then he would gladly sign up!

When you look across the spectrum of Leninist and socialist parties today, how many of them act like they're serious about fighting capitalism?

The people who actually put up the most visible resistance to the despotism of capital these days are...anarchists!

I suspect that there will be some and perhaps many entirely new organizational forms through which the working class will struggle as this century progresses.

Among other drawbacks, the old forms are often just boring.


But we now live in an era radically different (at least culturally and intellectually) - an allegedly postmodernist era where even rationality is questioned, and any project for radical social change is deemed to lead either to genocide or the gulag. Furthermore, this kind of thinking is no longer the preserve of obscure French academics; it's relativist assumptions have been embraced by the mainstream - even by the political elites.

Is it the "era" that's different or is it just the latest bourgeois intellectual obscurantism that's different? I agree with you that this "pomo" crap is ubiquitous these days...even the "Marxist" John Holloway has clearly "signed on".

But do you really think that this is how "things will always be"? Back in the 1950s, the official line was that "the age of ideology is over". The ink was hardly dry on some of those books before things exploded in the 1960s.


No wonder why some Marxists are calling for a "culture war" against the postmodernists. Maybe they're right; perhaps we firstly need to challenge this mainstream culture of relativist, pessimist and conservative postmodernism before we can reinvigorate class politics.

I'm very much in favor of attacking reactionary paradigms in the harshest possible way...especially when they turn up "in the left".

Whether it's post-modern obscurantism, "evolutionary" psychology, "liberation" theology, Christian fascism, traditional bourgeois liberalism, etc.,...I think we should attack all forms of reactionary ideology.

One reason the left is in such bad shape is our "flabby tolerance" for self-evident crap!

That's just got to stop!
First posted at RevLeft on April 16, 2005
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