Zapatistas have a strategy, but not one that can bring liberation to the working class

Closed Marxism

Mike Macnair reviews: John Holloway, 'In, against and beyond capitalism: the San Francisco lectures', Kairos/PM Press, 2016, pp85 (plus preface), £10.59

In April 2013, John Holloway gave a series of three lectures at Namaste Hall, California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco (a private HE institution originating in the promotion of south Asian philosophy), organised by its department of anthropology and social change. In, against and beyond capitalism is a lightly edited transcript of these lectures and of the question-and-answer sessions after the first and third lectures (which occupy 27 pages of the 79 devoted to the lectures), together with a 5½-page ‘Bibliographical note’ by Holloway (mainly an opportunity for further argument) and a 10½-page preface, ‘Why Holloway?’, by Andrej Grubacic (who is chair of the department).

I say ‘lightly edited’, because the text feels closer to raw speech than is normally the case of - for example - the transcribed speeches we regularly publish in this paper.1 I make this point for two reasons. The first is that the reader should not expect to find ‘depth arguments’ here; in fact, the interaction between Holloway and the questioners is probably a bit more interesting than the lectures themselves. The theory can be found in more depth in his Change the world without taking power (2002) and Crack capitalism (2010). The second is that the product is unambiguously ephemeral, and it is not clear why it was thought worthwhile to bring it out three years after the lectures had been given.

The first lecture, ‘Who are we?’, argues, in essence, that left activists should use the term ‘we’ rather than talk of (for example) ‘the working class’: by doing so we identify ourselves with the broad masses, whereas terminology like ‘the working class’ traps us in ‘vanguardism’, the sin which produced all the defeats of the 20th century. This is not a novel idea, but one which goes back to 1970s Eurocommunist use of anarchist polemics against Marxism as a stick with which to beat the class politics of the Trots, the Tankies, and that generation’s left Labourites, and defend the ‘broad democratic alliance’.

Moreover (and this may actually be a more helpful idea), Holloway argues that our arguments should rest not on the unpleasantness, injustice, etc, of capitalism, but on our (the broad masses’) thwarted creativity and our dignity. Our aim should be to make the new rather than merely to oppose the existing order.

The second lecture, ‘Capital, the social cohesion that strangles us’, restates these points, and goes on to assert explicitly: “I’m quite happy to say that the working class is the only force that can break the dynamic of capital, but only if we say we have to understand the working class as the movement of doing against labor” (p37).

In other words, while calling on Marx, and in the ‘Bibliographical note’ recommending reading of Capital (volume 1 only) and the Grundrisse, Holloway explicitly rejects Marx’s politics of class-political organisation and its development out of the self-developing class movement. Marx’s line was argued alongside these books from the time of 1840s Chartism and down to and including that of the early Social Democratic Party of Germany in the 1870s. There is nothing wrong with selecting parts of an argument that you agree with and disagreeing with other parts; but the argument should be more explicit than it is here (or in Crack capitalism) and should engage directly with the logical connections proposed in the original argument.

Here Holloway assumes there is no need to argue it; the point was already made by his co-thinkers in the 1970s - and by himself, in the shape of ‘form-analytic’ criticism of Ralph Miliband’s ‘class instrumentalism’ and ‘reductionism’ on the state, in the introduction of Holloway and Sol Picciotto to their State and capital: a Marxist debate (1978).

The ‘we’ that is the ‘force of rupture’ is also the ‘forces of production’. Now, for Marx, it is quite true that humans are part of the forces of production; but these forces also include tools, machinery and, most fundamentally, land and natural resources. We will return to this point later, as it is quite fundamental to Holloway’s strategic conception.

The ‘we’ acts through ‘cracks’ (more on this, of course, in Crack capitalism); or ‘interstitially’ (more on this, of course, in Change the world without taking power). But then,

[W]hat are the forces we come up against? The most obvious force is the violence of the state ... But behind that, it seems to me, there is a greater force of social cohesion, which is the force of money or the force of value (pp45-46).


The state is thus brushed aside. The force of value, Holloway argues, is an ongoing struggle: there is an intensifying tendency to commodification, which is met with intensifying counter-struggles (pp47-49).

The title of the third lecture, ‘We are the crisis of capital and proud of it’, rather reminds me of a couple of badges I and other people I knew used to wear in the 1970s: They read: “We are the people that our parents warned us against” and “Out and proud”. The argument here is that the ‘we’ is to be the force of rupture in the sense of refusing all ‘alternatives’, of denying the need to seek solutions to the crisis of capitalism: this crisis is merely the result of our own insufficient subordination, the falling rate of profit due to wage-push (drawing here on Italian operaismo), so that ‘solutions’ would involve our further subordination. We have to, in effect - to borrow another slogan, this time from the US government in the 1980s - ‘Just say no’ to capitalism.

Questions, questions

Some of the questions asked of Holloway after his lectures pose rather sharply the limits of his strategy. After the first lecture, one questioner raised the issue of the necessity of the use of force to overcome that of the capitalists. Holloway responds primarily with the (and his) standard response - remember the Soviet Union as (merely) a disaster; and then repeats a point - that he has no answers. This is problematic when he has begun by ruling out all state-centred approaches: so that he clearly does claim to have some answers, if only negative ones. Then he comments:

But I think that we also have to be aware that the current struggles in places like Greece and Spain also confront us with our own crisis. In Greece you’ve got, on the one hand, this appalling politics of austerity and, on the other hand, you have the most militant tradition of struggle, both state-centred struggle and anarchist struggle and autonomous creative struggle, certainly in Europe, and they’ve been struggling and struggling and struggling and doing everything possible. But they haven’t actually succeeded in breaking the dynamic of austerity. I think we have to see that that’s our crisis too: it confronts us with the limits of our own thinking (pp18-19).


Which is plainly true, but raises large questions about Holloway’s strategy ...

A second questioner in this session asked what Holloway meant by his opposition to institutions. He is explicit in his response:

[A]ny kind of establishment of patterns is always an attempt to lay down what people in future will do. I think that is generally harmful; not always, but on the whole it is not the way to think about the sort of change that we want to create.


But immediately, he pulls back (perhaps sensing doubts in his audience):

On the other hand, I do feel that in some ways, because of our own limitations, we need institutions. Here we are in an institution, aren’t we, in the CIIS, the After Capitalism program. I work in an institution as well in Puebla, which I like very much indeed ... (p21).


In the third session, Chris Carlsson, the author of Nowtopia (2008), which Holloway referenced favourably in Crack capitalism, raised the question (among others) that

[T]o put it simply, what you are arguing for is that we can get up tomorrow and make the world very differently than what we do today. But one key element of that is convincing ourselves that we can reproduce a complex society. And you use a lot the language of rupture and breaking and anti-institutionalization, and I’m both enthused about that and then I think, well, but so many people, that scares the hell out of them. Because they feel, well, if we’re going to break everything, how is the water going to get here and how is electricity going to keep running? (p70).


Holloway’s response (pp71-72) is merely evasive, in so far as it does not simply fall back on his argument that human creative capacity is the forces of production. After all, we have before our eyes the effects of state failure without alternative forms of human political and productive coordination ready to hand - in Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya ...

Another questioner in this session raised the issue of Holloway’s “likening our ruptures to volcanic eruptions”; but “I do want to have a little bit more insight from you around keeping the momentum going.” Holloway’s response to this, besides celebrating the elemental force of the volcano, is:

How do you keep the momentum going? I suppose part of that idea is that you don’t. Or that you may do, but that perhaps we shouldn’t put too much emphasis on continuity ... If you think that there are explosions of anger, explosions of creation, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are going to last more than a week ... and their success or importance doesn’t necessarily depend on their continuity. ... They can be important as moments of creation, as great fireworks that light up the sky and change the way we think ... (p78).


This is a realistic self-recognition of the limits of Holloway’s politics: this approach can only celebrate “explosions of anger, explosions of creation”.

But it still fails to recognise that what is left behind by “explosions of anger, explosions of creation” is usually demoralisation of the defeated militants and/or exploitation by those who do have a strategic project, which extends beyond this sort of action to create a degree of continuity. Witness - among numerous other examples - the ‘Arab spring’ and its real beneficiaries: the street ‘revolutionaries’ merely open the way to a struggle between the long-term organised forces of, on the one hand, the Arab dictatorships (Egypt, Syria) and, on the other, the Saudi-backed Islamists.


I have indicated so far only what I think are the main lines of the lectures and some ‘strategic matters arising’ in the question sessions. I observe more generally that Holloway’s positive reference points remain the anti-globalisation movement and the Social Forums of around the turn of the millennium (a spent force); the ‘Occupy’ movement of 2011-12 (already a spent force by the time Holloway was giving these lectures in April 2013); and the Zapatistas, who are a slightly different case.

The Zapatistas - formally the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (‘Zapatista Army of National Liberation’ or EZLN) - drew international attention when they launched an insurrection in Chiapas province in southern Mexico in January 1994, demanding indigenous rights and opposing the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The insurrection as such was short-lived, but successful publicity and low-grade solidarity (albeit insufficient to actually defeat the government) meant that the Mexican regime was unable simply to crush it by force. Instead, a ‘peace deal’ was agreed; and, though the government rapidly broke many of its promises, and licensed the use of private hit-squads, it did not embark on a thorough official crackdown; with the result that a small number of indigenous communities were able to continue, and continue to this day, as ‘autonomous’ communities, cooperatives and municipalities with Zapatista links. Earlier this year, the criminal charges against Zapatista leaders in relation to 1994 were finally dropped on the ground that the statute of limitations had expired.2

The Zapatista project started as a Guevarist foco guerrilla project in the 1970s, moved into something more like a Maoist ‘prolonged people’s war’, and then in 1994 into an attempt to emulate the Nicaraguan Sandinista insurrection of 1979 (an influence also visible in the organisation’s name). But Mexico, with a population of 93.5 million in 1994, and a functioning, albeit deeply corrupt and clientelist, parliamentary system, was a different beast to 1979 Nicaragua’s 3.2 million under a third-generation dynast personal dictator. The insurrection attracted no significant support outside Chiapas, and the territory the Zapatistas have been able to hold afterwards is trivial.3

In short, the project has mutated into a localised peasant cooperative movement with an attached militia, with more friendly outside leftist attention than is attached to similar phenomena elsewhere. The impact on Mexican politics has in the end been marginal: this remains dominated by neoliberalism in spite of the return of the ‘Institutional Revolutionary Party’, as well as by corruption and gangsterism.

To say this is not to deny the actual value of what the Zapatista movement has done since 1994 in the way of building cooperatives, autonomous education, and so on. But, in the first place, the Zapatistas are the opposite of a good advertisement for Holloway’s anti-institutionalism and renunciation of projects of continuity: the institutions of self-government the movement has created are, precisely, institutions - and endeavours to create continuity.

Secondly, another fan, Leonides Oikonomakis, argues that the Zapatistas after 1994 ‘rejected vanguardism’. But the evidence offered is no more than that they have, in fact, attempted to mobilise masses and promoted standing institutions of mass self-government, based on anti-hierarchical rules and principles. This is an activity which is usually absent from the work of ‘anti-vanguardists’, precisely because ‘consensus’ decision-making produces either absence of decisions or unaccountable decisions. It is, on the contrary, a common feature of the mass work of ... ‘vanguardist’ parties, going back to the SPD, and through even the old ‘official’ communist movement in its most ‘Stalinist’ periods.

I accept, however, that promoting self-government is plainly inconsistent with either the caricatural bureaucratic ‘democratic centralism’ of the Socialist Workers Party variety; or with Tony Blair-style media management; or with ‘rule of law’-style regimes, which set up the judiciary (or party internal tribunals) as saviours from on high to deliver us from evil (like Left Unity). All three options are demobilising, requiring rigid control of local initiative either by the full-time bureaucratic apparatus, or by the (state or internal) judiciary.

Thirdly, even the limited seizure of territory which characterises the Zapatistas is, firstly, based on a peasant base - as was, of course, true of the Chinese Red Army before 1948, and other such operations. Secondly, it is a peasant base in a markedly impoverished highlands area. The value of the land held by the Zapatistas may be guessed to be relatively low. The social dynamic may, then, in a sense, have elements in common with that discussed in James C Scott’s The art of not being governed: an anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia (2009). That is, that ‘upland’ or otherwise agriculturally marginal areas can partially escape from state power by avoiding producing a surplus product, which would make it worthwhile for the state to expend resources extracting it.

Holloway, in fact, recognises at some level that the Zapatistas may be in a situation sufficiently different from that of the urban working class to limit the lessons that can be drawn from their experience. One the questioners suggested that the Zapatistas had access to “kinds of [decision-making] technologies that come from 500 years of [indigenous] struggle, as a cultural and political resource” (p66). Holloway responded:

If we think of the Zapatistas and their amazing ability to rise up, to involve a huge number of people in a constant process over a very long time, almost 20 years publicly, almost 30 years since they started, it is extraordinary. The ability to do that, I think, has a lot to do with the traditions that existed in those communities before the Zapatistas came into being … But everywhere there are certain traditions and certain patterns of working together, certain patterns of solidarity, certain patterns of mutual support, even in the most apparently individualized society. It’s no good wishing that we too were an indigenous community in Chiapas; we have to start from where we are.


There are two problems here. First, if Holloway were to be more concrete about the “certain traditions and certain patterns of working together” of urban working class society, which constitute the “where we are” from where we have to start, these would turn out to be the historically developed working class institutions which his anti-institutionalism rejects.

The more fundamental problem is that the issue is not, in fact, a matter of ‘traditions’. The point is that the urban proletariat or wage-earning class is immediately and visibly enmeshed in a complex (in fact, global) division of labour - Chris Carlsson’s “How is the water going to get here and how is electricity going to keep running?” Hence in the first place the problem of access to the means of production - land, tools and machinery, raw materials - poses itself very differently to the proletariat than to the peasantry. Secondly, the extended division of labour means that “traditions and certain patterns of working together, certain patterns of solidarity” require for urban workers the ability to coordinate beyond the local, in a way which is, to say the least, less necessary for peasants. It is from this that there flows both the problem of episodic outbursts without long-term result and the unsolved problems of ‘authority’ and labour bureaucracy. Holloway’s approach merely attempts to dodge these issues.

Finally, it is important to recognise that the Zapatista project in its present form started with an open insurrection: that is, an - at least ostensible - attempt to seize political power. The fact that the cooperative and municipality projects survived and survive reflects the fact that the Mexican state calculated that open and full-scale repression posed a greater threat to its political power than a sort-of ‘negotiation’ and subsequent toleration of small-scale Zapatista mass operations in parts of Chiapas.

One should compare and contrast the 1916 Easter Rising, where the British state’s decision to kill the leaders turned a micro-putsch into an event which ‘lit a candle’ for overthrow of British rule in the 26 counties a few years later. The Mexican state acted more intelligently in 1994 that the Brits in 1916. But they did so in face of a real political threat in 1994 - not a mere attempt to “change the world without taking power”.

Holloway says that “It’s no good wishing that we too were an indigenous community in Chiapas; we have to start from where we are.” True. Part of that “it’s no good wishing” is that we cannot practically build a militia in the forest (in the Forest of Dean, perhaps?) and launch a rural insurrection. But we can begin work to threaten the capitalist class with loss of its political power, in ways which might make it more willing to make concessions - as concessions have been made to the Zapatista movement.

To do so would necessarily start from using the limited freedoms of press, speech and organisation that we have and the limited electoral opportunities we have - not with a view to obtaining a friendly government, which would give economic concessions through tax-and-spend or borrow-and-spend, but to build a serious party of political opposition, which combined support for the workers’ independent movement (trade unions, cooperatives, strikes, etc) with exposing the corrupt character of the capitalists’ constitution and proposing alternative forms of decision-making.

Even quite limited success with a project of this sort could reinforce trade unions, cooperatives and other forms of “traditions and certain patterns of working together” against the efforts of capital to appropriate or dissipate them; and could make capitalists and their state sense the need to look over their shoulder at the risk of overthrow before they take decisions.

At the moment, the left and the workers’ movement is committed to not threatening capital’s political power - whether this commitment takes the form of the ‘transitional method’, the promotion of Keynesian solutions or ‘change the world without taking power’ ephemeral forms of ‘direct actionism’. The result is that, to the extent that capitalists look over their shoulder at the possibility of their overthrow, the spectre they see haunting them is the nationalistic far right, and this is the trend they conciliate.

Millions of ways

I said earlier that Holloway was, in my opinion, helpful to argue that we should go beyond mere anti-capitalism to efforts to construct alternative ways of doing things in the present. To take a representative quotation:

We exist in and against this society. And We also exist beyond, because, all the time, what We are trying to do is to create ways of relating to other people that don’t follow the logic of money, that don’t follow the capitalist pattern ... There are millions of ways of doing it (p12; the capitalisation of “We” is deliberate emphasis on Holloway’s part).


What this implies is, indeed, cooperative and similar endeavours, building mutuals, workers’ education (or peasants’, as in Chiapas), the seizure of any opportunities (‘cracks’) to do things differently, radical literature and art, and so on, and so on; indeed, millions of ways of doing it.

One of these ways is, precisely, to think about institutional forms of decision-making on a scale larger than the local face-to-face- group. We can think these questions in relation to the critique of the constitutional forms of the existing state order, and in relation to the concrete critique of the forms of bureaucratic management in the workers’ movement (in cooperatives, in trade unions, in campaigns, in political parties). It is no doubt true here as elsewhere that (as Holloway insists) no-one has a monopoly on truth - certainly not so as to justify the a priori exclusion of any point of view. Again, ‘millions of ways’.

But Holloway’s proposal is not in reality to ‘let a hundred flowers bloom’: he is committed a priori to ‘anti-institutionalism’, to the point that he is willing to surrender the possibility of building continuity and long-term momentum in favour of celebrating the ‘outbreak’ as the necessary form of the movement. Even the possibility of thinking about doing things differently through rethinking institutional order is in his account prima facie excluded.

There are here certain a priori commitments. They go back to the 1970s. ‘Anti-vanguardism’ could be a straightforward anarchist point of view. But it could, equally, be about an attempt to do politics without disagreement - which actually meant, in the ‘anti-vanguardism’ of 1970s Eurocommunists, without criticism of the labour bureaucracy (or of the self-appointed organisers and initiators of the movement). This was very visible in the meaning of ‘consensus’ in the Social Forums - which meant, in substance, not ‘consensus’ of all, but ‘consensus’ of the big players - primarily the Brazilian Workers’ Party in the World Social Forum and Rifondazione Comunista in the European Social Forum; in the London meeting of the latter, it meant the veto right of Redmond O’Neill per pro Ken Livingstone.

That Holloway is still thinking at least partially in these terms is visible from a response to a questioner in the third session, who asked:

... a lot of these projects have succeeded to some extent, but what happens over and over again is individual human beings have conflict with each other, and a lot of times that conflict breaks apart, whatever the project is ... How do we deal with that? (p67).


Holloway responds by recognising the fact, but

I think that these things tend to happen in moments of stagnation. As long as the movements are moving - movements that don’t move aren’t really movements - as long as there is a development, then on the whole the situation will be much more productive (p68).


Disagreement then appears as a product of failure. The idea would be fatuous if it was not so common and influential, and so poisonous.

Holloway’s exclusionary arguments for this approach are built by philosophising the reasons for the defeats of the workers’ movement in the 20th century. The need for ‘We’ is given by the danger of treating the masses as an object. Capitalism, on the other hand, does not have any tendency to decline as such: merely a tendency to intensify itself. Hence the only contradiction is ‘We’; “We are the crisis of capital and proud of it”. ‘We’ are the forces of production. ‘We’ produce capitalism merely by consenting to it.

None of this is a novelty in response to 1991, or (as Holloway might possibly argue) to the Zapatista movement. Holloway was already pre-empting political and empirical argument with philosophical arguments in his 1978 work on the state with Picciotto. That book was built primarily out of translations of German ‘form-critical’ arguments about the state, based on Capital volume 1 (not, please note, Capital volumes 2 or 3; and, at that, only on the first, most Hegelian part of Capital volume 1, not the second, more historical part). In these lectures there is further reliance on Adorno. The point that the approach goes back to the 1970s was well taken by Andrew Coates in his 2010 review of Crack capitalism in this paper.4

The school of which Holloway was part in the later 1980s to 1990s purported to be ‘Open Marxism’; but this ‘openness’ was, in fact, decidedly in one direction only: it was closed against Marx’s concrete political strategy of the centrality of class, and hence of building the actual existing workers’ movement, while giving it theoretical assistance - an approach which was supposedly an ‘Engelsian’ vulgarisation.

The lectures reproduced in this book indicate that this closure remains central to Holloway’s politics to this day.

Mike Macnair



1. Although presumably there has been some editing to remove ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ and similar features of taped speech.

2. I have drawn for this and the next paragraphs on B Sunkara, ‘Why we loved the Zapatistas’ Jacobin January 2011; L Oikonomakis, ‘Why we still love the Zapatistas’ (undated) Roar magazine (https://roarmag.org/magazine/why-we-still-love-the-zapatistas); JM Garcia, ‘Faded Zapatista legacy lingers in Chiapas’ Catholic Reporter February 10 2016; P Salgado, ‘An undefeated movement’ Jacobin April 7 2016.

3. As can be seen from Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebel_Zapatista_Autonomous_Municipalities).

4. ‘Capitalism cracked’ Weekly Worker November 11 2010. Paul Blackledge (‘In perspective: John Holloway’ International Socialism October 2012) is naturally enough friendlier to Lukácsian aspects of Holloway’s argumentation, which fit with SWP-think.