On the possibility that the revolution that will end capitalism might fail to usher in communism

hirstnailMarcel Stoetzler (2012)

Journal of Classical Sociology 12:2, pp. 191-204


The optimism of the left repeats the insidious bourgeois superstition that one should not talk of the devil but look on the bright side.

(Adorno, 1978: 114)1


In this paper I will try to get to grips with my partial reservations about John Holloway’s conception of revolution in Change the World without Taking Power and Crack Capitalism, which concern two problems. First, the interstitial revolution will not necessarily end capitalism, as capitalism will not simply die from the fact that communism peacefully, cunningly, like a cancer, grows and grows and grows in capitalism’s interstices: I suggest that capitalism will die because of the decay of capitalism, not the growth of communism, and that these two processes are neither the same nor related in any linear manner. Second, there are anti-capitalist screams and cracks that are not at all, and cannot even potentially become, communist: there are reactionary, anti-emancipatory forms of anti-capitalism, and as these were decisive factors in the catastrophic history of the twentieth century, their theoretical reflection needs to be more than a critical afterthought; it needs to be central. One way of putting this would be that, like many other variants of autonomist and left-wing Marxism, Holloway’s theory suffers from a lack of a theory of fascism. In spite of these reservations, though, his conception is of great importance, and my way of trying to deal with my own reservations will probably make clear enough why I think it is.2


Capital is the name we give to the totalizing structure of contemporary human society. On the one hand, this structure is out there, facing us, opposed, sitting there, ob-jective, bad, dangerous, but, on the other hand, it is also nothing more than our subjectivity, our acting or agency, the agency of all humans who are part of the capitalist civilization-world, the specific societal relation constituted by and emerging out of the interactions of all human agents at any one time, the world that humanity creates every single moment following the example set by God according to the theology of Eriugena as referenced by Holloway (2010: 169).3

Crisis is likewise objective, an objective aspect of the real–abstract dynamic of that structure called capital, and, likewise, it is also true that we are the crisis, just as we are capital. Our subjectivity and agency are constitutive of the objective existence of capital as much as of the crisis and of the negation of capital.4

Negation is an unruly category, and its unruliness is the focus of this paper. In particular, the issue here is that revolution-as-the-negation-of-capital is not in itself, not necessarily, the same as communism-as-the-negation-of-capital (that is, revolution as communism): the revolutionary bringing down of capital opens up but the possibility of communism, and this possibility’s chance of success depends in important ways on how the bringing-down occurs. How is decisive.


Revolution-as-the-negation-of-capital is mostly done by us-as-capital: that is, by capital in a process of self-negation of capital, a self-negation in which capital, which is in this sense the subject or agent of its own negation, makes use of us-as-the-constitutive-basis-of-capital.5 Communism-as-the-negation-of-capital, by contrast, is exclusively done by us-as-not-capital, which is, to use Adorno’s phrase, our non-identity, our identity against all identifications, in particular against all identifications imposed by the totalizing societal structure called capital (Adorno, 1975: 164) – a force otherwise known as communism-as-the-real-or-actual-movement, the ‘wirkliche Bewegung’ (Marx, 1969: 35): the movement of subjects that refuse being identified, classified, subjected.6

These two negations and these two ‘we’s – or, perhaps better, these two dimensions of ‘we’: the-(self-)negation-of-capital-as-revolution and the-negation-of-capital-as-communism; and we-as-capital and we-as-not-capital – are different though related. (We are all capital/labour as well as not capital/labour, although some are perhaps more the one, some more the other.) This conceptual distinction (although to be understood as merely a dialectical distinction, a contradiction within a unity) allows us to make a further distinction, namely that we-as-those-who-drive-capital-into-crisis (and, at some point, will bring it down, that is, we as the in this respect ultimately revolutionary agents; we-the-wreckers) are not thereby necessarily communists (in the sense of we as determinately not capital); we simply play our part as labour, which is the complementary opposite as much as the constitutive basis of capital, and we do our best to play a tough game with-and-against capital because we need to survive. No less, no more: by way of constituting capital, we also constitute its intrinsic, in-built, inevitable self-negation, but not, in and of itself, communism. Not communism, but only the possibility of communism follows from the inherent contradictions of the capital relation. Although capital’s self-negating dynamic produces the elements and conditions of communism, communism is more than just the self-negation of capital. Communism emerges from capitalism only as a potentiality; it is born out of freedom, if it is born at all, not out of necessity. Freedom is what communism essentially is. In other words, the abolition of capitalism will create a chance which humanity has the freedom to spoil or to use. Only because we can spoil it we can also make communism: if it were a guaranteed outcome, it would be freedom arrived at by ways of unfreedom; guaranteed, necessary freedom, though, is implausible.7


The conceptual construction proposed here makes possible two things (and was formulated precisely in order to deal with two problems perceived while reading Holloway’s two recent books). First, the distinction allows us to appreciate as revolutionary the kind of social practices that Holloway chose to refer to as ‘screams’, or practices that produce or reinforce ‘cracks’ in the social totality of capitalist society: they are revolutionary in the sense of helping to create or anticipate communism, although they are not revolutionary in the sense of being likely to help bring down capitalism. To use examples given by Holloway, such practices include dying one’s hair green, guerrilla gardening, being a girl reading a book in a park; more generally, all things queer and beautiful. Second, the proposed distinction makes it possible to articulate the critique and rejection of reactionary opposition to (aspects of) capitalism on two levels, namely responding, first, to the question, ‘Is this particular practice bad for capitalism?’, and responding, second, to the question, ‘Is this particular practice good for communism?’ On a pragmatic note, it could be added that a particular practice could be examined with respect to the question whether, if it is bad for capitalism (which is good), it is at least not bad for communism, too.8

This allows us to argue that:

• we should be most enthusiastic about actions and practices that are bad for capitalism, but good for communism;

• we should be reasonably enthusiastic about actions and practices that are neutral in terms of destroying capitalism but good for communism, or neutral in terms of communism but destructive of capitalism;

• we should somewhat more discretely and guiltily enjoy those that are as good for capitalism as for communism (I think here of nice food, well-designed clothes, and so on – things that will proliferate endlessly in communism, but require some rehearsing in advance);

• we should very much oppose, though, actions and practices that are bad for communism regardless of whether they are bad for capitalism, too: in other words, it is imperative explicitly to resist the temptation to join or support people who fight against capitalism in ways that are bad for communism.

It follows from this consideration that the question ‘What is good for communism?’ is much more important than the question ‘What is bad for capitalism?’ If a good-enough approximate definition can be agreed upon, such as communism is ‘the state of things where one can be different without fear’ (Adorno, 1978: 103),9 presupposing societal arrangements in which nobody’s access to the means of subsistence is conditional on what, if anything, that person chooses to contribute to society, then a set of criteria for what actions and practices will further such a state of things can be inferred. (The definition of communism – actually socialism, which in Marx are synonymous – that is quoted from Marx, for example, in an article by Paresh Chattopadhyay is the ‘society of free and associated producers’, which is an important formal characterization but too formal as a definition [Chattopadhyay, 2006: 46]. Chattopadhyay goes half-way towards making in this context the distinction I am proposing; he writes: ‘Marx shows how capital creates the subjective and objective conditions of its own negation and, simultaneously, the elements of the new society destined to supersede it – socialism’ [2006: 46]. Chattopadhyay formulates very carefully: capital does not automatically produce its own negation but merely the conditions for it, and ‘simultaneously’ not ‘the new society’ but the elements of the new society. This formulation does imply that still somebody has to do the negating, and somebody has to come up with some good idea of how to put these ‘elements’ together, or else they will go to waste or serve some other purpose. The concept of ‘negation’, however, might imply either simply disintegration or implosion, or else the ‘determined negation’ of capitalism by socialism/communism. The openness and indeed realism of his statement are in turn negated by Chattopadhyay’s adding that destiny has already decided that socialism/communism will follow capitalism. How does he know?)


The answer to the question ‘What is bad for capitalism?’ is – somewhat counterintuitively – even less straightforward than the answer to the question ‘What is good for communism?’, as even the capitalists don’t seem to agree easily on what they think is good for them, and those who define themselves negatively as ‘anti-capitalists’ seem to mirror their counterparts in this respect. Trade unionism, for example, is only very indirectly bad for capitalism, namely by way of being good for capitalism, by way of being good for workers as workers: insofar as we are workers, and that’s what we mostly are, we need to get as good a deal as we can get, like the air to breath. In fact only things that are good for capitalism are bad for capitalism, as only the capitalist dynamic digs capitalism’s grave. In terms of the question of consciousness – and the determined negation of capitalism by communism can only be a conscious one – there lies the rub: to the same extent that we succeed in getting better deals, being good workers and trade unionists, contributing thus (as labour/capital) to capitalism’s eating away at itself, we think less about communism and fail to get ready for task two (the big one). Conversely, an empty stomach is of course even less likely to become a communist – it’s a double bind.

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