Re: [OPE-L] response to John Holloway

From: John Holloway (johnholloway@PRODIGY.NET.MX)
Date: Tue May 17 2005 - 17:16:26 EDT

> Dear Michael,
>     Sorry to be slow again.
>     I’ll take some of your most important points:
>     On the question of the book being dogmatic: The main aim of the book was
> to get people talking and thinking about revolution – revolution in the sense
> of the abolition of capitalism and the creation of a communist society
> (however one might interpret that). Very explicitly the aim was to promote a
> discussion on the basis of the acceptance of the fact that we do not know how
> to make revolution. Within that framework I put forward the argument that
> capitalism cannot be abolished through the taking of state power, and at the
> end of the book I say “but we still do not know how to make the revolution, we
> have to think, we have to discuss.” In other words, I have my views, to which
> I am strongly committed and which I will put forward forcefully, but I want to
> discuss these views. As I said before, I see the argument as taking place
> within a movement, not as dividing the movement and not as leading the
> movement. Preguntando caminamos (asking we walk) is a central thread in the
> argument and structure of the book. I do not particularly want to defend the
> book for the sake of defending it, but I do not think this approach is
> dogmatic. And, as I mentioned before, the best commentaries have understood
> the book in this sense, saying in effect “Yes, let’s talk about revolution. I
> do not agree with you and this is why I think your argument is wrong and
> dangerous.” This sort of response from people who disagree with me I respect
> enormously. (There have of course been lots of others that proceed only be
> denunciation and disqualification.)
>     You say that the Venezuelan government is trying “to create a state of the
> Paris Commune-type (the kind that Marx advocated).” You use basically the same
> expression in your review of my book. Jerry pointed out that >Most anarchists
> wouldn't agree that the Paris Commune was a state.< to which you replied >If
> you've read John's book, tell me what you think he means by the state
and its relation to the Commune; he made efforts to ground his argument in
Marx but I don't recall any mention.<
            It is fundamental to the argument of the book that the
expression “a state of the Paris Commune-type” makes no sense at all. The
state is a particular form of social relations grounded in the separation of
the political from the economic and the separation of the public from social
control and the commune is exactly the opposite – a form of social relations
directed against the separation of the political from the economic and the
subjection of society to social control. The commune is a quite distinct
form of social organisation from the state, a form viscerally opposed to the
state. To think of the state as any form of social organisation makes the
whole discussion meaningless. The state is always a process of forming
social relations (that is social struggles) in a certain way, the commune as
an organisational form forms them or shapes them in a different way. When
you say that “the state has played a central role in the struggle against
the old order in Venezuela”, then I am not sure what this means. Clearly the
struggle did not originate in the state: it originated as a class struggle,
a popular struggle against the manifestations of capitalism. In the 1990s it
clearly became focussed on the state and the winning of state power, and the
process has been organised to a fairly large extent through the state in the
last few years. My question is how this form of organisation affects the
development of the struggle. Has it, for example, had the effect of
diverting anti-capitalist struggle into the form of anti-imperialism, a form
quite compatible with the continuation of exploitation and private
ownership? I do not know, I ask. You say, in effect (and translating you
into my terms) that the state has been trying to overcome its separation
from society, to dissolve itself as a state and convert itself into a form
of communal or council organisation. Is that what you’re saying, is that
really what’s happening? And if that is what you’re saying, can it really
work? Is it possible for a state to dissolve itself into a radically
different form of organisation, or will the established practices both of
state functionaries and of the people themselves, and the integration of the
state into the global multiplicity of states and above all the global
movement of capital, not make that impossible? I ask. Has the Venezuelan
state managed to liberate itself from the need to secure the profitability
of capital? And if it has not broken from that need, does that mean that it
necessarily promote the exploitation of labour? And if it has broken the
need to secure profitability, this presumably can only be on the basis of
the creation of an anti-capitalist form of social organisation. Is this
what’s happening? It seems to me that you start thinking from the state
(very understandable in your current situation) whereas we need to think
from society and from social struggle, class struggle.

     I do not doubt your sincerity, your enthusiasm glows. I do not
particularly doubt the sincerity of Hugo Chávez and of the many, many people
struggling for a radical transformation of society in Venezuela, but I do
have these doubts and questions. Of course I support the struggles in
Venezuela, my question, as I have said from the beginning, concerns the
relation between this struggle and the state as an organisational form. I
still feel that to focus struggle on the state is self-defeating: if you say
that the state is dissolving itself, I am delighted but dubious. Beyond this
I am reluctant to make pronouncements about what is happening in Venezuela:
partly I take warning from your own offensive and nonsensical remark about
the zapatistas.

    Another point: you say that the turn away from the state which is
characteristic of many struggles in Latin America and elsewhere is ‘the
stuff… of a period of defeat.’ Not surprisingly, I disagree completely. To
put it in autonomist terms, the turn from the state is a mark not of the
decomposition of the working class, but of its recomposition, and it is very
important for Marxists to understand this.

    Enough for now. My trip to Venezuela is currently planned for the last
week in October, so I hope we can meet there and carry on discussing.


> Dear John,
>             My apologies for the delay in responding--- a very recalcitrant
> chapter is the principal reason (although intermittent problems with my
> internet connection have contributed, and I don’t know how quickly this will
> post).
>             Thank you for the response and the attachment. You sound like a
> nice person, and I look forward to a direct discussion--- although, if your
> visit is in November (as I recall someone mentioning), we may miss each other
> because I’ll be in Europe in the early part of the month.
>             I think we agree on the ultimate goal. The question, of course, is
> how to get there. And, here, we disagree profoundly (as you know from my
> Historical Materialism critique)--- not only on the specific means (such as
> the need for a political instrument  and the role of the state) but also on
> what I describe as your ‘No to Marx,’ your reversion to Hegelian Idealism, and
> your premise of the fragility of capitalism.
>             But, there is another criticism that runs through my discussion:
> despite all the statements in your book about how no one, no thinkers, no
> leaders, etc have any privileged understanding of history, of struggles, etc,
> I find your book incredibly dogmatic. As I said at one point in my comment,
> ‘Holloway, who screams his rejection of the “Knower” as vanguardist, does not
> hesitate to instruct real people on the correct struggles and to explain why
> some struggles contribute to dividing the working class.’
>            Accordingly, I find the statement in your response that ‘it makes
> no sense at all to assert dogmas as though we possessed the correct line’ as
> rather disingenuous (to say the least). What are the following statements that
> I quoted from your book if they are not dogmatic statements of the correct
> line? 
>> ‘the very notion that society can be changed through the winning of state
>> power’ is the source of all our sense of betrayal, and we need to understand
>> that ‘to struggle through the state is to become involved in the active
>> process of defeating yourself’ (12-3, 214)
>>  To retain the idea that you can change the world through the state (whether
>> by winning elections or by revolution) is a grave error--- one which has
>> failed to learn from history and theory that the state paradigm, rather than
>> being ‘the vehicle of hope’, is the ‘assassin of hope’ (12). For one, the
>> state does not have the power to challenge capital: ‘what the state does and
>> can do is limited by the need to maintain the system of capitalist
>> organisation of which it is a part.’ It is ‘just one node in a web of social
>> relations’ (13).
>             There are many more such assertions (such as a rejection of armed
> struggle and national liberation movements), of course, which are all part of
> your argument against seeking power to destroy (fragile) capitalism--- an
> argument that I find not only dogmatic but wrong.
>            Obviously, we can’t (and shouldn’t) debate here all the specific
> points I raised in my critique (and to which I hope you have responded in
> Historical Materialism with specifics rather than vague restatements of your
> position). I cited the statements above, though, after what I considered (in
> the light of your book) your quite undogmatic but vague response to Paul
> Zarembka’s question about your view of the Bolivarian Revolution. Here, I
> think, is an excellent opportunity to move away from vague generalizations
> about the state to a concrete application.
>             After all, it is no secret that the state has played a central
> role in the struggle against the old order in Venezuela. Not precisely the
> same state, though. Because the constitutional assembly began by changing
> ground rules--- writing a new constitution which decentralises power to
> communities, local planning committees, and commits the state to foster
> self-management and co-management and cooperatives in state bodies and society
> as a whole. Not the same state--- because the clientalistic and corrupt state
> of the Fourth Republic thwarted the efforts to transform the society, and so
> the government found it necessary to create Mission after Mission, a parallel
> state, to move forward. As the current foreign minister said last year around
> this time, we have a revolutionary government but we don’t have a
> revolutionary state. It is what they are trying to do now­to change the state,
> to coordinate these missions within new ministries, to foster popular
> participation in planning at municipal and parish level, to introduce
> worker-management in state firms and to expand it into the private sector, to
> create a state of the Paris Commune-type (the kind that Marx advocated).
>             But, you would say, I infer--- that’s the mistake, talking about a
> revolutionary state! How can there be a revolutionary state? The state is ‘the
> assassin of hope’: ‘to struggle through the state is to become involved in the
> active process of defeating yourself’. Since the state, after all, is a form
> of capital, you can not use it against capital.
>             So, would you have opposed the very idea of a new constitution in
> Venezuela because it reinforces illusions about 'the state paradigm'? Would
> you have opposed the decentralising aspects of that constitution because the
> state is the state is the state--- i.e., the state by any other name is still
> capital? Would you reject the idea of attempting to make inroads (especially
> the ‘despotic inroads’ referred to in the Communist Manifesto) because ‘the
> state (any state) must do everything it can to provide conditions that favour
> the profitability of capital’ [your attachment]? Finally, would you reject the
> idea of using the power of the Bolivarian state against capital because what
> is needed is not power but ‘anti-power’?
>             I suggest to you that you cannot be consistent with your book and
> not be an opponent of the Bolivarian Revolution. I hope, of course, that you
> are not an opponent--- despite the fact that it has departed so significantly
> from your perspective. That is why I asked, do you stand behind the arguments
> in your book?
>            Finally, let me say that I agree with you that your book is not
> responsible for the trend in Latin America and elsewhere to ‘turn away from
> the idea of taking state power’. As I suggested in my critique, this is ‘the
> stuff… of a period of defeat.’ What your book has done, however, is to provide
> theoretical support for this trend and thereby to help spread its influence.
> Since I regard this trend as destructive of any chance of destroying
> capitalist power and building a new society, you will understand that I
> consider it necessary to struggle vigorously against your arguments in the
> battle of ideas.
>             Of course, there are many problems in Venezuela. Some because of
> the very magnitude of what must be done. Others, I would say, because a state
> of a new type and a party of a new type have yet to come together. Since there
> is so much to see here and learn from, I am glad that you will be coming here
> to see the hope that this revolution has produced in so many people. (I
> certainly have learned much.) I only wish you were coming not for the purpose
> of discussing your book in a week-long seminar but to listen and learn for a
> longer period. The Bolivarian revolution could use a champion with your
> obvious skills.
>         Sincerely,
>         michael
> Michael A. Lebowitz
> Professor Emeritus
> Economics Department
> Simon Fraser University
> Burnaby, B.C., Canada V5A 1S6
> Currently based in Venezuela. Can be reached at
> Residencias Anauco Suites
> Departamento 601
> Parque Central, Zona Postal 1010, Oficina 1
> Caracas, Venezuela
> (58-212) 573-4111
> fax: (58-212) 573-7724

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