To change the world we need revolutionary democracy.

Author:Lowy, Michael

John Holloway's book is a remarkable essay, thought-provoking and truly radical in the original sense of the word, of 'going to the root of the problem'. Whatever its problems and weaknesses, it brings to the fore, in an impressive way, the critical and subversive power of negativity. Its aim is ambitious and topical: 'sharpening the Marxist critique of capitalism'.

The key philosophical chapters of the book deal with fetishism and fetishisation. Creatively drawing on Marx, Lukacs and Adorno, Holloway defines fetishism as the separation of doing from done, and the breaking of the collective flow of doing. This is a very insightful viewpoint; but Holloway seems to identify all forms of objectivity with fetishism. For instance, he complains that, in capitalism, 'the object constituted acquires a durable identity'. Well, would a good chair produced in socialism not become 'an object with a durable identity'? His refusal to distinguish between alienation and objectivation (cf. note 22 of ch. 4) (1)--a mistake the young Lukacs did not make, in spite of his late self-criticism of 1967--leads to a denial of the objective materiality of human products.

Another powerful argument is his criticism of 'scientific Marxism', i.e. those theories which attempt to enlist certainty on the side of socialism, and which claim to explain and predict historical change according to 'scientific laws'. This section is one of the most important of the book, and a significant contribution to a critical Marxist approach to politics.

Among the 'scientific Marxists', Holloway includes Kautsky, Lenin's 'What is to be done?' (1902), and Rosa Luxemburg's 'Reform or Revolution?' (1899).

However, he seems to ignore the latter's pamphlet on 'The Crisis of Social Democracy' (1915), which represents a radical methodological break with the doctrine of scientific certainty, thanks to a decisive new formulation: the historical alternative between 'socialism or barbarism'. This essay is a real turning point in the history of Marxism, precisely because it introduces the 'principle of uncertainty' into socialist politics.

Now I come to the main bone of contention, which gives the book its title: changing the world without taking power. Holloway suggests, at first, that all attempts at revolutionary change so far have failed because they were based on the paradigm of change through winning state power.

However, as he acknowledges in note 8 of p. 217, historical evidence is not enough...

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