Book Reviews

Dig deeper for socialism

Crack Capitalism by John Holloway, London: Pluto Press 2010, £17.99.

John Holloway’s previous book, Change The World Without Taking Power, was relatively popular and the focus of much debate and discussion, at least in the relatively small circles where you find anti-capitalist activists. A lot has happened since the book’s publication in 2002, but you wouldn’t know it from reading Holloway’s latest, Crack Capitalism, which makes more or less exactly the same arguments.

Holloway’s main point is basically that of ‘autonomist marxism’ and there is one great island of strength in this, which readers might drag themselves onto if they don’t first drown in a sea of verbiage. It can be summed up in a paragraph. It is that the world’s workers create capitalism by going to work. Capitalism is therefore not a thing that stands outside and over and above us, but a social relationship that we create everyday through our daily activities. If we understand this, we can, if we want to end capitalism, merely stop creating it and do something else instead. In fact, according to autonomists, this is actually happening all the time – every time we refuse work, go on strike, call in sick, or even, if Holloway is to be believed, dig our gardens. The workers of the world are always resisting their exploitation, even if only in their own, small, personal ways, and even if they’re not conscious of exactly what it is they’re doing. The task is merely to extend and expand and ‘circulate’ the struggles. Holloway calls these struggles the ‘cracks’ in capitalism. What we need to do is find the cracks, and work hard to make them bigger. “The opening of cracks is the opening of a world that presents itself as closed,” says Holloway. This is a neat way of summarising a fundamental Marxian proposition about class struggle as the motor that drives change. The strength of the argument is that it puts the power and potential for change back where it belongs and where it in fact really lies: in our own hands. The weakness, however, is a very serious one. It is that it risks evading the real difficulties that remain.

According to Holloway, the ranks of the “anti-capitalist revolutionaries” are impressively large. They include the composer who expresses his anger and dreams of a better society through his music, the worker who bunks off work to go read a book in the park, the “gardener who creates a garden to struggle against the destruction of nature”, the friends who form a choir for no good reason except their love of singing, and “the young man in Mexico City who goes to the jungle to organise armed struggle to change the world”. The key to becoming fully human, says Holloway, “is simple: refuse, disobey.” If this didn’t happen, there would be no grounds for hope in a socialist future at all. But if it was enough, then surely capitalism would have collapsed long ago – in fact, could never have got off the ground in the first place.

Imagine, says Holloway, borrowing a metaphor from an Edgar Allen Poe story, that we are all in a room. We are all in it together – some sitting on a comfortable couch, others cramped miserably in a corner, perhaps; but in it together nonetheless. There are four walls, a ceiling, but no windows or doors. And the walls are advancing slowly inwards, threatening to crush us all to death. How would we respond to such a situation? No doubt, says Holloway, some would just refuse to see what was happening and distract themselves instead with the latest offering from Disney. Some would perhaps denounce the walls, but not propose to do anything about it, while others would look forward to and dream of a day when there were no walls. Then there are those like Holloway who would instead run to the walls and try desperately to find cracks, or to create them. In an unintentionally hilarious conclusion, which speaks against his whole argument, Holloway imagines these activists banging their heads against the wall “over and over again” until the wall comes crumbling down. Holloway, for all his straining after poetic effect, doesn’t seem to realise that, in the repeated encounters between a head and a brick wall, the wall very rarely gets the worst of it.

To take another of Holloway’s metaphors, and turn it against him, perhaps the cracks in capitalism are more like the cracks in mud than the cracks in a wall – one short spell of rain can wash them away without trace. To understand this and organise to counter-act it, to get to the stage where the class struggle of our side could conceivably counter, say, capital flight to the other side of the world, or the organised violence of state power, requires exactly the kind of big-picture thinking and dedicated, disciplined organising that Holloway dogmatically opposes.

We in the Socialist Party do not of course oppose most of the activities that Holloway places his hopes in. As individuals, some of us enjoy gardening, for example; and most of us are active in trade unions and similar organisations, even if we do not take up arms and head out into the Mexican jungle. But we do not flatter to deceive, nor dodge the most difficult questions. The problem we have to face is that, in the class struggle, the odds are nearly always against us, and that to build a socialist future, we need a mass organisation of people who know what it is they want and are prepared to work to achieve it. As Engels put it, “The period for sudden onslaughts, of revolutions carried out by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses, is past. Where the question involves the complete transformation of the social organisation, there the masses must be consulted, must themselves have already grasped what the struggle is about, and what they stand for.” Holloway’s work is in many ways an ingenious dodging of this immense task. But the task remains and will remain as long as capitalism does. It’s time we faced it.

Saving the planet

PLAN B 4.0 Mobilising to save civilisation by Lester R. Brown. Earth Policy Institute. W.W.Norton and Company. $16.95. (Book downloadable for free from The Earth Policy website

The book is built around what Brown sees as four mutually dependent goals – stabilising the climate by cutting carbon emissions 80 percent by 2020, stabilising the population at 8 billion or less (a rather contentious and difficult proposition), eradicating poverty and restoring the Earth’s natural systems, soil, aquifers, forests, grasslands and fisheries. ‘Plan B is the alternative to business as usual – the ambitiousness of the plan is not driven by perceived political feasibility but by scientific reality.’

The early chapters lay out the extent of the challenges he sees presented by pressures on water and land, climate change and the transition to non-fossil fuel energy, followed by chapters laying out his response to each of these areas in well documented detail. He offers plenty of evidence to show just what could be achieved in a relatively short period of time if there is the will to do it. However, in the capitalist system we live in this, the will, is what is so often shown to be lacking.

The chapters are crammed with solid information, some citing examples of good practice around the world, examples which could be followed with advantage to both people and planet. With his use of unemotional, dispassionate matter of fact language which presents the plan as realistic and rational it could be difficult for some to grasp why world leaders haven’t already grabbed the concept and run with it.

It is in chapter 10, the last chapter, that, as socialists, we get what we know to expect somewhere along the line; the let-down of how we are actually expected to put this plan into practice. Up to this point socialists and non-socialists alike could agree that here is a plan about which we could largely have consensus. It would appeal to most rational thinking people who believe we have to address immediately the problems that are facing us right now. But we are about to be divided again. It is the means to the end that divides us.

Non-socialists will accept without question that there is an economic equation to be discussed and will believe that politicians will be focussed in this direction for the good of the planet, reforming taxes and subsidies to achieve the objective and if they’re not then pressure will need to be brought to bear on them. This would be some of the action required.

Socialists, on the other hand, will simply want to point out that it is the use of such methods over the long term that has brought us to where we’re at now and it is this very system which perpetuates and deepens the problems. Only a move right away from the capitalist profit system will suffice to save the planet. Business not as usual means removing all financial incentives, taxes, subsidies and money itself from the equation, abolishing the wages system in favour of common ownership in a classless society.

African Narodnik

Africa’s Liberation. The Legacy of Nyerere. Edited by Chambi Chachage and Annar Cassam. Pambazuka Press. 2010.

If Julius Nyerere, President of Tanzania from independence in 1961 till 1985, had been a late 19th century Russian he would have been labelled a “Narodnik”, i.e. someone who thought that a basically agricultural country could move straight to socialism, on the basis of local communal villages, without having to pass through capitalism. The Russian Marxists denied this, but the Narodniks never got a chance to implement their ideas.

Nyerere did, with the Arusha declaration which adopted “Ujamma” (“socialism and self-reliance”) as the official state policy of Tanzania. As predicted by Marxists it failed. In fact one of the contributors to this tribute to Nyerere on the 10th anniversary of his death in 2009, Issa Shivji, once described the result as the development of a “bureaucratic bourgeoisie” in Tanzania. Today the present Tanzanian government openly embraces (is forced to) capitalist development.

This said, Nyerere comes across as sincere and principled, as genuinely wanting a society of social equality, democracy and without exploitation, and unlike nearly all the other historic African independence leaders power did not go to his head. However, the fact that he was sincere and incorruptible shows that the problem in Africa (and elsewhere) is not bad leaders but capitalism. Not even a saint can made capitalism – which African countries are currently obliged to accept – work in the interest of all.

It only remains to add that Tanzania in 1967 could have passed directly to socialism but only with the rest of the world following a world socialist revolution. Given that this did not happen, capitalism developed in Tanzania, as in Russia.


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