John Holloway – On Poetry and Revolution

*This is the English translation of a talk given by John Holloway in the Primera Cátedra Latinoamericana de Historia y Teoría del Arte (First Latin American Conference of Theory and History of Art) Alberto Urdaneta, Museum of Art, National University of Bogota, September 17, 2007, which we previously published on our Blog and in Rufian Revista. We thank John Holloway for sharing with us this inspiring text.


            It is an honour and an excitement to be in a different world, a strange world of artists. When I was trying to think what I could possibly say about art to artists, I remembered that a few months ago, someone described me as the poet of the altermundista movement. I do not know why he said that, but I was very flattered, even though I knew that the person who said it intended it as an insult, or at least a disqualification. He meant it as an insult because he was saying that revolutionary theory should not be confused with poetry. Poetry is dangerous because it has to do with a beautiful but unreal world, whereas revolutionary theory is about the real world of hard struggle. In this real world of struggle, poetry and art and beauty do not play an important role: revolutionary struggle confronts ugliness with ugliness, guns with guns, brutality with brutality. There will be time for poetry and beauty and art after the revolution.

I do not agree with that argument. On the contrary, I want to argue that revolutionary theory and practice must be artistic, or else it is not revolutionary, and also that art must be revolutionary or it is not art.

(Forgive me if I speak of revolution. I know that it is a word that is out of fashion. It is just that I take as a starting point that we all know that capitalism is a catastrophe for humanity, and that if we do not succeed in getting rid of it, if we do not succeed in changing the world radically, it is very possible that we humans will not survive for very long. That is why I speak of revolution.)

Famously, Adorno said that after Auschwitz it was impossible to write poetry. We do not have to think back the sixty years to Auschwitz to understand what he meant. We have enough horrors closer at hand, perhaps especially here in Colombia, especially here in Latin America, especially in the world of today (Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo). In this world, to think of creating something beautiful seems a terrible insensitivity, almost a mockery of those who, at this very moment, are being tortured, brutalised, raped, killed. How we can write poetry or paint pictures or give talks when we know what is happening around us?

But then what? Ugliness against ugliness, violence against violence, power against power, is no revolution. Revolution, the radical transformation of the world cannot be symmetrical: if it is, there is no transformation, simply the reproduction of the same thing with different faces. Asymmetry is the key to revolutionary thought and practice. If we are struggling to create something different, then our struggle too must be something different.

Asymmetry is all-important because what we are fighting against is not a group of people but a way of doing things, a form of organising the world. Capital is a social relation, a form in which people relate to one another. Capital is the enemy, but this means that the enemy is a certain form of social relations, a form of social organisation based on the suppression of our determination of our own doing, on the objectification of the subject, on exploitation. Our struggle for a different world has to mean opposing different social relations to the ones that we are fighting against. If we struggle symmetrically, if we accept the methods and forms of organisation of the enemy in our struggle, then all we are doing is reproducing capital within our opposition to it. If we fight on the terrain of capital, then we lose, even if we win.

But what is this asymmetry, this otherness, that we oppose to capital?

In the first place, asymmetry means refusal, refusal of capital and its forms. No, we do not accept. No we do not accept that the world should be driven by profit. No, we refuse to subordinate our lives to money. No we shall not fight on your terrain, we shall not do what you expect us to do. No!

Our No is a threshold. It opens to another world, to a world of other doing. No, we shall not shape our lives according to the requirements of capital, we shall do what we consider necessary or desirable. We shall not labour under the command of capital, we shall do something else. To one type of activity we oppose a very different type of activity. Marx referred to the contrast between these two types of activity as the “two-fold character of labour” and he insisted that this two-fold character of labour is “the pivot on which a comprehension of political economy turns” – and therefore of capitalism. He refers to the two sides of labour as “abstract labour” on the one hand, and “concrete or useful labour” on the other. Abstract labour refers to the abstraction which the market imposes on the act of creation: it is emptied of all concreteness, abstracted from its particular characteristics, so that one labour is just the same as another. It is alienated labour, labour that is alienated or abstracted or separated from the people who perform it. (The concept of abstract labour has nothing to do with the material or immaterial nature of the labour.) Concrete or useful labour refers to the creative activity that exists in any society and that is potentially unalienated, free from alien determination. To make the distinction a bit more clear, we shall speak of abstract labour on the one hand, and useful-creative doing on the other.

Our No opens the door to a world of useful-creative doing, a world based on use value not on value, a world of a doing that pushes towards self-determination. Where is this world? Orthodox Marxist theory tells us that it exists in the future, after the revolution, but this is not true. It exists here and now, but it exists in the cracks, in the shadows, always on the edge of impossibility. Its core is useful-creative doing, the push towards self-determination which exists in, against and beyond abstract labour. It exists in abstract labour in the daily activity of all of us who sell our labour power in order to survive, against in the constant revolt against abstract labour both from within employment and in the refusal to enter into employment, and it exists beyond abstract labour in the attempts of millions and millions of people all over the world to dedicate their lives, individually or collectively, to what they consider necessary or desirable.

If capitalism is understood as a system of command, then these attempts, these doings that go against and beyond abstract labour, can be understood as cracks in the system. It is people saying, individually, collectively, sometimes massively “No, we shall not do what money commands, we, in this place, at this moment, shall do what we consider to be necessary or desirable, and we shall create the social relations that we want to have.” These cracks may be so small that nobody sees them (the decision of a painter say to devote her life to painting, whatever the consequences) or they may be bigger (the creation of an alternative school, or this conference, for example) or they may be huge (the revolt of the zapatistas, or the piqueteros, or of the indigenous in Bolivia). These cracks are always contradictory (they can never be pure non-capitalist spaces in a capitalist world) and they always exist on the brink of impossibility, because they are standing out against the dominant flow of the world. As artistsknow perhaps better than anybody, it is difficult to exist on passion alone. And yet that is what many artists do: in spite of the difficulties, they put their creative doing before abstract labour, they put use value before value, they refuse to accept the logic of money and try to live. Not all, but many.

Despite the fact that they stand against the logic of the world, these cracks exist all over the place, and the more we focus on them, the more we see that the world is full of cracks, full of people refusing to conform, refusing to subordinate their lives. To speak of cracks has nothing to do with marginality: there is nothing more common than being anti-capitalist. Revolution is quite simply the recognition, creation, expansion and multiplication of these cracks. (I speak of cracks rather than autonomies to emphasise three points: first, that they are ruptures which are rooted in negation, that they go against the dominant flow; second, that they are ruptures in movement – cracks run, they expand or are filled; and third, that a world of cracks is a fragmented world, a world of particularities in which the cracks tend to join up, but do not necessarily tend towards unity.)

Our vision of the world changes as we enter into another world, a world based not on abstract labour but on useful-creative doing, not on value but on use value. This is the world of communism, but it is not (or not only) in the future, but a world that already exists here and now, in the cracks, as movement.The world of capitalism appears to be one-dimensional, but it is not. There is never a total flattening of alternatives. There is always another dimension, a dimension of resistance, of otherness – the world of communism that exists in the cracks, in the shadows, a subterranean world.

This half-invisible world is a world of pain, but not of suffering. It is a world of pain because the other world, the world of abstract labour, sits on top of it, suppresses and represses it. The world of abstract labour is a world of money, of things, of fetishised social relations, of the objectification of human subjects, objectification to the point of murder, rape and torture. Pain is at the centre of our world, but not suffering. Suffering implies the acceptance of objectification. But our world is the world of the subject struggling against her objectification, of the creator struggling against the negation of her creativity. Our pain is not the pain of suffering, but the pain of an anguished scream, the pain of hurt-and-rage, the pain that moves us to act.

Our pain is the pain of dignity.

In our heart there was so much pain, so much death and hurt, that it no longer fitted, brothers in this world that our grandparents gave us to carry on living and struggling. So great was the pain and the hurt that it no longer fitted in the heart of a few people and it overflowed and filled other hearts with pain and hurt, and the hearts of the oldest and wisest of our peoples were filled, and the hearts of the young men and women, all of them brace, were filled, and the hearts of the children, even the smallest, were filled, and the hearts of the animals and plants were filled with hurt and pain, and the heart of the stones, and all our world was filled with hurt and pain, and the wind and the sun felt the hurt and the pain, and the earth was in hurt and pain. All was hurt and pain, all was silence.

Then that suffering that united us made us speak, and we recognised that in our words there was truth, we knew that not only pain and suffering lived in our tongue, we recognised that there is hope still in our hearts. We spoke with ourselves, we looked inside ourselves and we looked at our history: we saw our most ancient fathers suffering and struggling, we saw our grandfathers struggling, we saw our fathers with fury in their hands, we saw that not everything had been taken away from us, that we had the most valuable, that which made us live, that which made our step rise above plants and animals, that which made the stone be beneath our feet, and we saw, brothers, that all that we had was DIGNITY, and we saw that great was the shame of having forgotten it, and we saw that DIGNITY was good for men to be men again, and dignity returned to live in our hearts, and we were new again, and the dead, our dead, saw that we were new again and they called us again, to dignity, to struggle. (Carta del CCRI, 1/2/1994)

Our world is not just a world of pain, but a world of dignity. Dignity is the refusal inside us, the refusal to submit, the refusal to be an object, and therefore it is more than mere refusal. If I refuse to be an object, then I assert that, in spite of everything that reduces me to the level of an object, I am still a subject and I create, I create differently. Dignity is the affirmation of useful-creative doing against the abstraction of labour, here and now and not in the future. Dignity is the affirmation that we are not victims. We are exploited, humiliated, repressed, tortured: but we are not victims. Why? Because in spite of everything, we still have that “which made our step rise above plants and animals”: we still have something that goes beyond, something that overflows our humiliation, our objectification. There is a world of difference between a politics of dignity and a politics of the poor victim. Victims are the downtrodden masses, they need leaders, hierarchical structures. The world of victims is a world of power, a world that dovetails neatly with the structures of the state, the world of the party, the world of the monologue. But if we start from dignity, if we start from the subject that exists against and beyond her objectification, this takes us to a very different politics, a politics of dialogue not of monologue, of listening not of talking, a politics not of parties and hierarchical structures but of assemblies or councils, forms of organisation that seek to articulate the voices of dignity, a politics that seeks not to win the power-over symbolised by the state, but to strengthen the power-to-do that comes from below.  A politics too of doing, not of complaining. Victims complain, dignity does.

Dignity means the recognition that we are self-divided, each and all of us. Dignity is a self-antagonism within us, a self-antagonism inseparable from living in a self-antagonistic society, a turning not only against capitalism but also against ourselves. We submit, but we do not. We allow ourselves to be treated as objects, but then raise our heads and say no, we are creative subjects. Breaking capital, we break ourselves. Dignity is an ec-stasy within us, a standing out and against and beyond. We would be victims if we did not have this ec-static dignity within us that keeps the stones beneath our feet. The stones are beneath our feet because they have no dignity. If we tread upon them, they remain trodden upon. Stones are identities: they are. Our ec-static dignity is our non-identity, or, better, our anti-identity, our refusal to simply be. Capital imposes an identity, tells us that we are. Our dignity replies that no, we are not: we are not, because we do, we create and, in doing so, we negate and create ourselves. We overflow all identities, all the roles and personifications and character-masks that capital imposes upon us. We overflow all classifications. Capital imposes classifications upon us, divides us into classes. Our struggle is a class struggle, but not strengthen our class identity but to break it, to dissolve classes, to free us from all classification. This is important ,because, among other things, it makes sectarianism impossible. Sectarianism is based upon identitarian (that is, capitalist) thought: it labels, conceives of people as fitting neatly within a classification. If our starting point is dignity, this means the acceptance that we and others are contradictory, self-antagonistic, overflowing, unclassifiable.

Overflowing identity, we overflow time itself, identitarian time, clock time. Our world of pain and dignity, our shadowy world of doing against-and-beyond labour is a world of the dead-not-dead, of the born-not-yet-born. Our dead are not dead, they are waiting. As both the Zapatistas and Walter Benjamin make clear, the dead are awaiting their redemption. We saw our fathers with fury in their hands and now it us up to us to redeem them. They did not manage to create a world of dignity in their lifetime, now it is up to us to redeem them. This world of dignity that our ancestors fought for is a world that does not yet exist, but that means that it exists not yet, as Ernst Bloch tells us. If the struggles of the past exist in the present of our world, so too does the future possible. It really exists not yet, in the cracks, in our dreams, in our struggles, in our breaks from the dominant world, in our creations that prefigure another world, in the always fragile existence of the possible future in the present.

Fragile, shadowy, half-invisible, teetering on the brink of impossibility: that is the world in which we live, poor mad rebels who have no certainties but one – our scream of No against capitalism, against this world that is destroying us and destroying all humanity. Sometimes it all seems hopeless. Our dignity is there all the time, but sometimes it seems to sleep, drugged by money, labour or fear. Our ec-stasy is always there, but sometimes it seems crushed under the weight of routine. Our non-identity is there, but sometimes it seems totally imprisoned within the iron cage of identity. The not-yet is there, but sometimes it seems tightly bound to the hands of the clock that go tick-tock, no-hope, no-hope.

How does our dignity wake? How does it touch other dignities? How do our dignities speak to one other? We are the “sin voz” (the “without voice”), as the Zapatistas put it. This is not just because we have no access to the radio and television, but also for a deeper reason. Our struggle, being anti-identitarian in the sense that it goes against and beyond identities, is also anti-conceptual in the same sense, a struggle that breaks through and beyond concepts, that pushes beyond the language of conceptuality. The concept identifies, encloses, and therefore is unable to capture that which breaks beyond identity. The language of dignity must be conceptual (to understand and to criticise what we are doing), but also it must go beyond the conceptual, must explore other forms of expression. Revolutionary theory, then, must be both rigorous and poetic.

Our world is a world in search of a language, not just now but constantly, in part because the other world, that of abstract labour, steals our language all the time, but also because we are always inventing new doings and new fors of struggle. Social theory, art and poetry are all part of this constant search.

It is probably the Zapatistas who have understood this search and the unity of aesthetics and revolution better than any other group. I refer not only to the language of the communiqués but to their profound sense of theatre and symbolism. When they rose up on the first of January 1994, they not only expressed their own dignity, but brought our dignities to life. ““As more and more rebel communiqués were issued, we realised that in reality the revolt came from the depths of ourselves”, as Antonio García de León commented. The dignity of the Zapatistas in Chiapas resonated with our slumbering dignities and awoke them.

A politics of dignity is a politics of resonance. We recognise the dignity in the people around us, in the seat next to us, in the street, in the supermarket, and try to find a way to resonate with it. It is not a question of educating the masses or bringing consciousness to them, it is a question of recognising the rebelliousness that is inseparable from oppression, the rebelliousness that is inside all of us, and of trying to find its wavelength, of trying to engage it in a meeting of dignities. It is not necessarily a question of convincing whole people but of touching something within them. This is surely the question that should be behind all anti-capitalist political action: how do we resonate with the dignities around us? This question easily gets lost when we adopt closed, identitarian conceptions of our struggle.

How do we resonate with the dignities that surround us?

First we need a sharp sensitivity to recognise the many forms of rebelliousness against oppression, and hence the rejection of all dogmatism. We have to hear the inaudible, see the invisible.

A world of dignity can not be a world of  “I know, you don’t know”. It is world of shared not-knowing. What unites us is that we know that we must change the world, but we do not know how to do it. This means a politics of asking-listening, but it also means constant experimentation. We do not know how to touch the dignities that surround us, so let’s experiment.

Let’s experiment, but bearing in mind that the only art that makes sense, and the only social theory that makes sense, is an art (or social theory) that understands itself as part of the struggle to break capitalism, to overcome present society. This means understanding what we are doing as part (no doubt a heretical part) of a movement, or a movement of movements. And always with the central principle of asymmetry. We do not want to be them, we do not want to be like them.

Asking we walk.




3 pensamientos en “John Holloway – On Poetry and Revolution

  1. debo de leerla completa esta conferencia, cuyo mensaje podría ser el de que la revolución que el mundo necesita debe importar un cambio de conciencia o algo parecido para ser verdaderamente otra en relación con experimentos anteriores, en los cuales en nombre de la igualdad se ha arribado a mayor desigualdad, y lo mismo en materia de justicia, que nos ha llevado a ser cada vez más tolerantes con ciertas injusticia, y hemos cambiado opresión por unas formas distintas de esclavitud, y horror por otro distinto y solapado


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