Reading John Holloway

We denounce capitalism… We reject everything that restrains the full realization of human life. This life is being stolen from us before we learn to know it. We only vaguely discern it through traces of freedom, beauty and excitement.
(Stockholm Surrealist Group, The Scream In The Sack)

In the beginning is the scream. We scream.
(John Holloway, Change The World Without Taking Power)


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In the beginning is the negation. When Surrealists declare their elective affinities with particular Marxist thinkers – as Franklin Rosemont did for Marcuse, for example, or as Michael Löwy has done more recently for Ernst Bloch – a standard part of the declaration is the patient explanation of that, although these thinkers sometimes expressed an interest in or sympathy with Surrealism in their writings, their knowledge of the movement as such was often superficial, second-hand and misguided. In these cases the elective affinity stands nonetheless, because of the suggestive nature of the thinker in question’s ideas about, say, utopia (Löwy on Bloch) or the imagination (Rosemont on Marcuse), rather than because they were particularly knowledgeable about Surrealism. So let’s get these caveats out of the way in relation to John Holloway. He’s not a Surrealist. He occasionally makes sympathetic remarks about the Surrealist movement, particularly in Crack Capitalism, where he describes Surrealism as “a radical attempt to live the world that does not yet exist by breaking with the very dimensionality of capitalism” (p.268); but his references to Surrealist writings consist only of (alas) Vaneigem’s Cavalier History and (more cheeringly) Löwy’s Morning Star. His familiarity with the latter probably arises not from any active research into contemporary Surrealism on Holloway’s part, but from his familiarity with Michael Löwy as a Marxist commentator and academic. It is clear from the debate that followed the publication of Change The World Without Taking Power that Löwy strongly disagrees with Holloway’s ideas, although the disagreement is made entirely on Marxist political grounds rather than on Surrealist ones. This might raise the well-worn issue of the relationship between Surrealism and politics, a issue on which Holloway’s work might shed some new light, as I will discuss later. But in the meantime, let’s carry on screaming…

Holloway famously begins Change The World Without Taking Power with “the scream”, the expression of our horror at, and refusal of, the state of the world under capitalism. Perhaps we hear (and make) this scream as an echo of Marcuse’s poetic “Great Refusal”, which Franklin Rosemont and others heard in turn as an echo of the Surrealists’ “endless capacity for refusal”. For Holloway, the NO expressed in the scream is not just negative – a refusal – but also positive – an expression of the wish and hope that another world might be possible, and the two-dimensional NO is the starting point of any and all revolutionary activity.

This two-dimensionality is a version of negative dialectics that forms the philosophical core of the whole of Holloway’s argument in both Change The World Without Taking Power and Crack Capitalism (the two books I’m going to focus on here). Holloway himself explicitly and frequently refers to Ernst Bloch’s Not-Yet as a facet of this: the what-is-not that burst out of what-is. Even closer to home, it has loud resonances with Trost and Luca’s Dialectic of the Dialectic and its “demoniac taste for negation and for the negation of the negation”, which they present as the foundation of Surrealism’s “continually revolutionary state”.

Negative dialectics also means that Holloway’s argument is anti-identitarian, and this constitutes another point of elective affinity with Surrealism. What-is-not is always attempting to burst out of what-is, and vice versa. Everything contains the ghost of its own negation, including – or rather, for the purposes of the argument, especially – capitalism. If that were not the case, no revolutionary thought would even be possible; indeed, there would be no such thing as possibility, just an endless blankness of what is. This insight is also key to Surrealism, which pits the powers of the imagination against all forms of identitarian logic. In Holloway’s case it relates to his argument that social relations must be understood as ongoing processes rather than fixed forms; for this reason he insists that the struggle against capital must be anti-identitarian, and that political claims to identities such as “woman”, “black” or “working-class” must always be understood as processes (identifications rather than identities) that contain their own negation (e.g. “we are women but also more than that”). (This way of thinking about class identity, at least, is already familiar in the sense that the Marxist tenet that the struggle of the proletariat is precisely the struggle to abolish itself as a class.)

Capitalism’s refusal to admit the possibility that we might be more than, or other than, our identities – a refusal that certain forms of oppositional identity politics also share – is one of the social forces that leads to the deformation of subjectivity. We are not what we could be, or might be, or will be, and for that reason we must make the revolution not only against capitalism, but also against ourselves. As Holloway puts it in Crack Capitalism: “We exist in the mode of being denied… Revolution, then, is the return of the repressed… not just of the consciously repressed, but of the repressed unconscious.” Or as we might put it a bit more succinctly: Change life, transform the world. In fact this is one of the points in his argument where Holloway explicitly refers to Surrealism (albeit to Surrealism à la Vaneigem), and even emphasises the essentially poetic nature of revolution:

“The revolutionary process is a collective coming-to-eruption of stifled volcanoes. The language and thought of revolution cannot be a prose which sees volcanoes as mountains: it is necessarily a poetry, an imagination which reaches out towards unseen passions. This is not an irrational process, but it implies a different rationality, a negative rationality that starts not from the surface but from the explosive force of the repressed NO.”
(Change The World Without Taking Power)


Image in the public domain

Of course there’s a lot more going on in these two books than just these few major concepts. Change The World Without Taking Power in particular contains fascinating critiques of many aspects and problematic of Marxist thought, including Luckàcs, the Frankfurt School and autonomism, with a magnificent riposte to Negri along the way, and the main political thrust of that book is to reject state-centric versions of revolutionary thought and the forms of revolutionary organisation (such as parties) that go with them (hence the book’s title). There’s also a lot that isn’t fully worked through and doesn’t really work: there’s a touch of the “trendy vicar” about the earnest attempts to incorporate recent theories of gender and sexuality, for example, and he prevaricates rather helplessly on issues of violence and armed struggle. But the point of my whistlestop and very partial tour here is that Holloway takes some fundamental Surrealist principles – negative dialectics, anti-identitarianism, the reinvention of subjectivity – and applies them systematically to the overthrow of capitalism, including to questions of strategy. This is what make the points of overlap between Holloway’s ideas and Surrealism not just interesting, but also a bit urgent in the context of the current crisis and its revolutionary (and reactionary) potential.

One of the most widespread criticisms of Change The World Without Taking Power was that it failed to provide anything like an adequate consideration of revolutionary strategy. It was all diagnosis but no cure. In Crack Capitalism, Holloway still insists that there’s no single or programmable cure, but he both crystallises the diagnosis and in doing so also provides some clearer ideas about how revolution can be made. The core insight in Crack Capitalism is that the heart of the revolutionary struggle is not the struggle of labour against capital, but rather the struggle against labour itself. By “labour” here he means abstract labour, the form in which human beings’ power to do things is turned into a commodity that can be sold to employers. Against abstract labour Holloway posits “concrete doing”, by which he means forms of activity that humans perform out of choice, desire, pleasure or inner (rather than externally imposed) necessity. The relationship between abstract doing and concrete labour is a negatively dialectical one: concrete doing exists within, against and beyond abstract labour, and those of us with jobs, for example, experience this on a daily basis when we feel the tension between our desire to do something well and with care (or to do something else entirely) and our employer’s desire for us simply to do it quickly and cheaply (and not to waste time and energy doing anything else during work time). Holloway’s argument is that (a) the abstraction of doing into labour is what creates capital, and hence is logically prior to the division between capital and labour, and (b) this abstraction was not achieved once and for all in the past, but is continually recreated every day in capitalist social relations. The moments of tension between doing and labour constitute “cracks” in capitalism, points where the daily recreation of capitalist social relations stutter or fail. Capitalism is not a thing that can be destroyed in the future: it’s a set of social processes and relations that we can just stop doing, right now. Here again, the resonance with Surrealism is explicit in Holloway’s text: “surrealism is an aspect of the cracks: the breaking of dimensionality and projection into a different world, a world beyond capitalism… To struggle not just against but against-and-beyond is always to cross a threshold into a beyond, a sort of counter-world, that is both an experiment and a gamble, a beyond that is surreal in the sense that it projects us beyond existing reality.”

Surrealists insist that Surrealism cannot be reduced to politics. Holloway is insisting that the revolution cannot be reduced to politics either. For him the revolution will not be (is not being) made by political parties, institutions, organisations, programmes, nor by any identity group (including class identity groups), and certainly not by the appropriation of wealth or the seizure of power. Instead it comes down to nothing simpler (or more difficult) than: Stop making capitalism. Reject abstract labour wherever and whenever you can. Step out into the unknown. Practice other forms of doing, based on love or creativity or imagination or desire or…

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The recurring dilemma in Surrealist thinking about social revolution is strategic. Of course we’re all agreed that Surrealism is a necessary condition of genuine revolution; the question is whether Surrealism on its own is sufficient. Do we need Surrealism and politics, or is Surrealism already revolutionary enough? The Surrealist Revolution alone, or Surrealism in the service of a Revolution that has to (also) take place on another plane? Holloway effectively resolves this dilemma by dispensing with politics in any of its usual senses. In effect his argument as it develops across the two books can be read as a kind of thought experiment to see what social revolution might actually look like if it arose entirely from the Surrealist principles of negative dialectics, anti-identitarianism, creativity and imagination, with no external scaffolding or input from non-Surrealist revolutionary currents. Whether we think that this thought experiment proves or disproves the viability of a Surrealist revolution without politics will depend, of course, on  how successful or otherwise we consider Holloway’s argument to be. For me the sticking point is the problem of the necessity or otherwise of armed struggle, which seems inevitably to involve some kind of “taking power”. On this issue Holloway candidly admits that he “hums and haws and has no answer” (Change The World Without Taking Power) but, in the face of the current ratcheting up of state and non- (or crytpo-)state violence against poor people worldwide, it seems to me to be more than just a side issue to be gently mused over in a postscript. So on that score, for me, the jury is still out, both on Holloway and on Surrealism-without-politics. But I am incredibly inspired and excited to have found so many new angles from which to ask so many old questions, and it feels urgent to me to try to have a conversation with at least some of my Surrealist comrades about it.

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