John Holloway's Marxism

Image: Leo Zhao


Holloway has Marxism as the strongest and most appropriate theory for political autonomism

From the beginning, Karl Marx, Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, drew attention to the double character of work, dividing it into “alienated work” and “conscious vital activity”. This conscious vital activity is the “self-determined”, therefore “onto-creative” activity, like that which distinguishes humans from other animals. This is due to the particularly "surprising" fact that humans conceive of their doing before executing it, and that, as such, all human achievement is really "the present of the past", and the past "the present of the future". ”.

The other condition that makes us human, of course, is that future generations do not have to "learn from scratch" the whole wealth of valid information, and what is not valid, resorting only to the detailed observation of the ways in which the elements of their group they act in front of nature and their peers, or with whom they are led to live together. We call this vital for human groups because this continuous and cumulative learning that passes from generation to generation, as information in an ever higher stage of knowledge, really made us jump ahead of all known beings, increasing the speed and quantity of the mass of science and technology available to each new discovery and effective practicality.

Our DNA is amazingly similar to rats, pigs and other primates, but only man makes history in this sense. It does and undoes: because anticipating its achievements from an ever more developed repertoire of knowledge, it can anticipate, idealize, plan the execution/realization of its objects and objectives, and can modify them at any time, including along the way of your activities.

The other type of work that Marx was talking about, alienated work, is, in contrast, a social historical determination, and not a condition or power of nature over man, such as that developed over thousands of years of evolution and natural dynamics: work alienated is a construction derived from the division of social work, when in some way the execution of this work is separated from its idealization, when the conception suffers a break with the execution, that is, when man is separated from the object he builds.

This rupture that alienates him, therefore, that dehumanizes him, is not a simple “natural derivation” of the division of labor either, but it is a political rupture based on some privilege, therefore the domination of someone or some over someone and others. For alienated labor to exist, a corresponding type of domination must first exist, since power is imposed on it: but the dominations of the first estate and state civilizations were not yet exercised exactly as alienated labor in the Marxian sense. For alienated work to exist, there must be some power over who does and what they do, but not necessarily in the “knowledge” and “way” in which they do it.

The domination that has always been observed since the first human groups were socially organized, however, only reaches the predicate of “alienation” in the face of the phenomenon of expropriation of means and forms of work, knowledge and power to do – that is, it verifies in the maximum maturity and endemic naturalness within specific conditions of economic social organization, that is, in the specific capitalist way of producing food and goods necessary for collective survival. Thus, alienated labor appears at this moment for Marx as an intrinsic phenomenon to the capitalist mode of production and its functioning of capital reproduction.[I].

Em The capital, Marx no longer uses the same vocabulary, and starts to adopt the terminology “concrete work” and “abstract work”, regarding the characterization of the double character of work. Marx wrote to Engels: “the best points in my work are the following: (i) the dual character of work, depending on whether it expresses itself as use-value or as exchange-value” (24-8-1867). So it is clear here that Marx directly relates concrete labor to the use value of commodities and abstract labor to their exchange value. Concrete work produces use values ​​and abstract work produces exchange values, the former as a result of creative-productive work in doing, “without taking into account the society in which it takes place” (HOLLOWAY, 2021, p. 693), and the second as “non-self-determining” work that produces values ​​for the market under the determination of ownership and management of capital, for its reproduction or accumulation.

In any case, what this double character of work and the forms of commodity value tells us, as the seminal foundation of Marxian thought, is that these abstract categories are always inserted in a determined form of total social organization of work for survival. collective. The possibility of human life is given by this social organization determined throughout history, or the specific way in which in each era the means and ways of doing make up a totality where the knowledge accumulated and enhanced by man considers possible a certain quantity and quality products necessary for their survival.

The current stage of this form of organization is of the mercantile type, the matrix platform from which the capitalist mode of production is built, which aims not to produce use values ​​for the material (and immaterial!) of exchange imminently aimed at the transformation of everything into capital and its accumulation. This time, it is not just a matter of a productive form, but that way in relation to a certain disposition of the productive forces, and also of an intersubjective organization, that is, a set of correlated social relations in the dimension of abstract work, and their relation with: (a) the concrete work (or rather, the break with it); and (b) with the other strata of the so-called social superstructure (or culture).

The focus in hollowaydian thought is on this Aristotelian idea of ​​man who is realized in the given social organization – in the polis – inside her. But who can rebel against their ways and management of doing, against the bourgeois commodity form, and go beyond denial (HOLLOWAY, 2021), denial that materializes in the abstract work that produces the rupture through the domination of conception and its separate realization from the producer. This specific domination as abstract work materializes as what denies the creative self-determination of the power-to-do (including know-how). To affirm that there is a historical social organization is to affirm Marx's historical materialism, but to affirm the counter-and-go-beyond is to rescue the dialectical materialism with which it seems that authors in the left field have cut relations or underestimated it, at least since the turn of the millennium, in the name of a decontextualized orthodoxy.

The social organization taken by political economy directly implies safeguarding the foundation of formative social relations of a specific form of production and circulation of exchange values ​​or commodities, such as, and why, concrete work and the making of use values ​​end up being subsumed in commercial exchanges.

More: this subjunction of concrete work by abstract work, or the “sublimation” of use values ​​by exchange values, in (neo)liberal mercantile societies, is the way to allow the alienation of doing, but at the same time, to extinguish the permanent importance of the one who does, the salaried worker of capital – in this way, the human is not only alienated, but literally displaced from the social process of production and circulation and, consequently, from other vital activities, those of creative work, as in education and the arts.[ii] What the abstract, alienated, non-self-determined work performs is a transvaluation of the concrete idealization of the maker on the basis of the abstract execution of the work, in the commodity form, specialized, segmented, sectorized whose sole objective is to explore a quantum of more value that not only turns money into capital, but extends it.

Hence, in the manufacture of goods and their productive abstraction aimed at the production-exchange circularity, the perception of the determined capitalist organization of production-circulation and the associated social relations, corroborated by bourgeois political and legal institutions, as if “disappearing” or becoming “transparent”, “non-existent” in the real world, even though formal (legal) subsumption crystallizes the negative form of gift and potentiality to be eliminated in abstract work. And, consequently, in addition to all the alienation that exists in the capitalist work process, it provides the most complete form of dehumanization in its historical-dialectical trajectory.

The ability of the capitalist mode of production to remain as it is for the denial of human doing, its power-over concrete work, finds its contradiction in the impossibility of remaining outside competition and private monopolization, with more or less alliance with public capital (State). As capitalism begins to develop its contradictions for work, it dictates, on the one hand, overproduction, and on the other, contradictorily, the organic composition of capital on the basis of the exponential increase in investment in fixed capital, science and technology applied to industry on the global free market plane.

The phenomena of "fetishization" and "reification" of goods, and of things in general, are in Marxian thought, the ways in which humans do not see themselves in what they execute, outside their conception and within an execution under strategic domination foreign, depend directly on a perverse inversion, on the negation of their know-how, towards which the struggle of the working classes is directed, inside-against-and-beyond the intrinsic negation of abstract work or exchange values. Class struggle is the struggle against power-over doing, over power-to-do, it is thus the struggle against the way of doing things in capitalism and against capitalism.

Class struggle, then, in this less orthodox view, which starts from the full opening of the double character of work, must focus on the dimension of doing, or rather, the denial of doing under the dominion of the way of reproducing capital, which means that the class struggle, and the struggle of the working class must be raised to the dimension of the struggle against the forms of work proper to the capitalist mode of production, starting from the struggle inside-against-and-beyond its immediate (and real) abstraction and, consequently, of capital, unlike the class struggle whose focus is the struggle against capital itself, which turns out to be constituted in John Holloway, as an orthodox struggle for power. For John Holloway: “here the argument says that the revolutionary struggle is not the struggle of work, but the doing against work; it also says that the struggle of the working class is against its own existence as a class, that is, it is against its own classification.” (HOLLOWAY, 2021, p. 702).

From the double character of work and the double aspect of value,[iii] the author can distinguish capital not only as an economic category, but, as we said, “as the historically specific form of organization of human activity.” (HOLLOWAY, 2021, p. 703). In this more comprehensive way, it seeks to return the class struggle to broader and more dynamic aspects of the neoliberal market conjunctures, and to sustain the historical struggles of the salaried classes, insofar as the current struggles may have as focus the revolt of doing against work, as an impulse to creative self-determination and associative fulfillment. This “denial” inside-and-beyond in the class struggle fundamentally seeks to avoid the hierarchy and command that always reproduce institutions and institutes, apparatuses and apparatuses constituting power, unions, parties, class associations, mirrored in parliaments and power negotiations. Faced with the irrefutable fact that the capitalist system is the endemic domination of concrete work and use values, the struggle of the mass of workers should be, from this point of view, not exactly the struggle against capital, but against the ways of doing things. of capitalism, to place antagonism in the same process of acting, and says John Holloway, “not as a possibility, but as an inevitable part of living.” (2021, p. 703).

In this vein, John Holloway not only rivals and opposes the operaist cognitivism[iv] of Hardt and Negri (2006), as, in our view, it advances in the paradigms of the more individualist reason of identity (FRASER, 2019), mainly, regarding a certain reading of the contemporary labor movement from the point of view of the workerism that reforms the tradition at the base of the precariousness of the new urban workers,[v] arguing that “our movements are the crisis of abstract work and the outcome of this crisis depends on the (sic)[vi] future of the world.” (HOLLOWAY, 2021, p. 705).

Such, in short, is the vital conformation of the author's Marxian categories, dispelling the doubt of Marx's current importance for sociology and critical politics of neoliberalism and the hegemony of bourgeois economics, reinforcing Marxism as the strongest theory and appropriate for anti-global political autonomism to “crack”[vii] the hegemonic capitalist economic-cultural structure, in the field of emerging struggles and concrete insurgency for the right to self-determination of communities and peoples, and the scope of present environmental, conservationist, anti-capitalist and anti-state struggles for the left field.[viii]

*José Manuel de Sacadura Rocha He holds a PhD in Education, Art and Cultural History from Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie. Author, among other books, of Legal anthropology: towards an anthropological philosophy of law (Elsevier).


BONNET, Albert. Antagonism and difference: negative dialectic and posestructuralism in the face of the critique of contemporary capitalism. In: Holloway, John; Ponce, Fernando Matamoros; Visquerra, Sergio Tischler (Org.), Negativity and revolution: Theodor W. Adorno and politics, Autonomous University of Puebla; Herramienta Ediciones, Buenos Aires, 2007, p. 37-72.

HOLLOWAY, John. Fissures and the crisis of abstract work. Law and praxis magazine, Rio de Janeiro, Vol. 12, N.01, 2021, p. 687-706. Trans. By Gustavo Moura de Oliveira and Paula Monique Kunzler Schneider.

HOLLOWAY, John. Agitating capitalism. El do con the job, Buenos Aires: Ediciones Herramienta, 2011 (

HOLLOWAY, John. Positive and negative autonomy. In Holloway, John; Ponce, Fernando Matamoros; Visquerra, Sergio Tischler (Org.), Negativity and revolution: Theodor W. Adorno and politics, Autonomous University of Puebla; Herramienta Ediciones, Buenos Aires, 2007, p. 89-93.

HOLLOWAY, John. Change the world without taking power. So Paulo: Viramundo, 2003.

HARDT, Michael; NEGRI, Antonio. Empire. 8th. Ed. Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2006.

FRASER, Nancy. The old is dying and the new cannot be born. São Paulo: Literary Autonomy, 2019 (

JAPPE, Anselm. death credit. São Paulo: Hedra, 2013 (

MARX, Carl. Gotha program critique, In: Marx and Engels: selected works. V.2. São Paulo: Alfa-ômega, 1984 (

MARX, Carl. The capital. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2015 (


[I] The way in which this happens in the most ancient eras and further back in the beginnings of humanity, the way in which the first tribes constituted the first settlements with embryos of estates and hierarchical vital activities of domination, is still a field researched by modern anthropologists and archaeologists. But if any distinction in the attribution of activities derived to the field of domination, and from this to the expropriation of a collective knowledge and ownership of the means of doing, it could only have been from the conscious politicization of a cerebral idealization of the more natural observation of distinctions. observed between natural beings, nature and their environments. Contrary to what we idyllically conjecture, nature is difference and strength. For this reason, it should be said right away that the “distinction”, in the line of thought of Foucault and Deleuze, which was proposed in the ardor and academic and practical disillusionment of the 1960s of the last century, seemed unnecessary and even harmful to critical knowledge, non-instrumental objective, within the thinking of Adorno's Critical Theory and the other members of the Frankfurt School. See about the connection between the thought of John Holloway, and the opposition between Adorno, Foucault and Deleuze: BONNET, Albert. “Antagonism and difference: negative dialectic and posestructuralism in the face of contemporary capitalism critique”, In Holloway, John; Ponce, Fernando Matamoros; Visquerra, Sergio Tischler (Org.), Negativity and revolution: Theodor W. Adorno and politics, Universidad Autónoma de Puebla; Herramienta Ediciones, Buenos Aires, 2007, p. 37-72.

[ii] Engels, in a well-known passage in a footnote to the fourth edition of Capital for the English language, refers to “labor” in the following terms: “Labor that creates use values ​​and is qualitatively determined is called labor”. work, as opposed to labor; work that creates value and is only measured quantitatively is called labor, as opposed to work.” (O Capital, 2015, Boitempo, 2015: note 16, p. 124). We follow the following guideline: “work” here is that imposed outside the conditions of self-determination of the makers, which Engels calls labor, which corresponds to certain amount of value or exchange value; We will use the expression “to do” in the generic sense of power to idealize and a power execute, a join, therefore, qualitative thinking in terms of use value.

[iii] In this sense, the argument of Anselm Jappe, that “Marx hesitated, from his youth works until his last writings, as the Critique of the Gotha Program (1875), between the program of a liberation do work (thus, through work) and that of a liberation regarding to work (thus freeing oneself from work). His critique of political economy contains a profound ambiguity with regard to work.” (JAPPE, 2013, p. 135), seems to us to be extensively exaggerated; but it is here, on this threshold, whether or not Marx left doubts about the “future of work” and the form of the inevitable “exhaustion of abstract work”, that the differentiation between hollowaydian cognitivism and Kurz's value critique thinking takes place and Jappe.

[iv] Undoubtedly, there is in Holloway's thought a "germ" of an "ethics of personality" in terms of a radical rupture of values, notably when he distances himself, in terms of workers' struggles, from the "dictatorship of the proletariat" and from any power along the lines of the autocratic state forms. It should be noted that Holloway considers himself part of the autonomist or operaist tradition, but proposing an inversion, where vanguardism places class struggle, returning to the analysis of capital and domination. HOLLOWAY, John, “Positive and Negative Autonomism”. In Holloway, John; Ponce, Fernando Matamoros; Visquerra, Sergio Tischler (Org.), Negativity and revolution: Theodor W. Adorno and politics, Universidad Autónoma de Puebla; Herramienta Ediciones, Buenos Aires, 2007, p. 89-93.

[v] See: ANTUNES, Ricardo. The senses of work. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2011; BRAGA, Ruy. The politics of the precarious: from populism to Lulista hegemony. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2012.

[vi] If “do” is replaced here by “the”, the future of the world, to put it mildly, would depend on do result of the crisis, and not the other way around as it is said, the result of the crisis by the future of the world.

[vii] It refers to the author's publication, “Fissurar o Capitalismo”, at the same time as the publication of the article that served as the basis for this work (2011). In English: “Crack Capitalism”, London: Pluto Press, 2010; in Spanish: “Agrietar el capitalism. El hacer contra el trabajo”, Buenos Aires: Ediciones Herramienta, 2011.

[viii] The article by John Hollway, “The fissures and the crisis of abstract work”, Law and praxis magazine, Rio de Janeiro, Vol. 12, N.01, 2021, p. 687-706. Translation by Gustavo Moura de Oliveira and Paula Monique Kunzler Schneider. The original was published in 2011, when the author was preparing his book in English “Crack Capitalism”, for the Spanish language, by Bajo Tierra Ediciones/ Sísifo, Mexico.

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