Ordinary Revolutionaries

Harry Thorne

Reviewed in this article

Crack Capitalism
John Holloway

John Holloway. Crack Capitalism. Pluto Press, 2010.

In his new work of political theory, Crack Capitalism, John Holloway offers a passionate philosophical defence of the “ordinary people” who he describes as “rebels” and “revolutionaries” (5). Holloway’s heroes are not political leaders or famous intellectuals, but everyday people whose diverse victories over capitalism are often overlooked. Holloway believes that we should base our hope for a different world not on the promise of spectacular political events, but on “millions of experiments in radical change” (11). This emphasis on the multiplicity of everyday resistance may be familiar to many readers; after all, the phrase “One no and many yeses” defined the global justice movement. In Crack Capitalism, however, Holloway pushes beyond familiar rhetoric and uses his theory of “ordinary rebelliousness” to redefine activism.

Holloway’s new focus on the anti-capitalist actions of “ordinary people” is partly inspired by responses to his previous book, Change the World Without Taking Power.1 In the epilogue to the second edition of Change the World Holloway writes that of all the criticisms of his book, one simple question resonated most: “But what on earth do we do?” (216). While the same question haunts many works of radical political theory, it is jarring to see it posed in response to a book whose title suggests that it will provide instructions for revolutionaries. Change the World is not an instruction manual, but it is nonetheless instructive. In that book, Holloway explains that trying to end capitalism by capturing the state is self-defeating because the state is itself a capitalist construction. In his revolutionary schema, radical change involves the “dissolution of power,” not “the conquest of power” (20). His theory has informed many readers’ visions of revolution. Yet, as Holloway admits in his epilogue, it leaves open the practical question of how to bring about change.

Change the World’s bold reimagining of radical change tapped into debates about the relationship between revolution and the state. Holloway’s Zapatista-inspired theory of revolution still resonates with many activists who prioritize autonomy, localization, and self-organization. Other left wing thinkers, who see a state-based system as desirable or unavoidable, use the lack of practical detail in Change the World to accuse Holloway of naiveté. Alex Callinicos argues, “Revolution has to be about seizing power, because otherwise the capitalist state will survive to become the launching pad for counter-revolution.”2 Callinicos’ criticism implies that Holloway’s theory does not work in the “real world” of power and political maneuvering. It is in light of such criticisms that Crack Capitalism is best understood. In his new work, Holloway gives the reader a more detailed account of how everyday actions may produce lasting and profound change outside the framework of state politics.

Crack Capitalism begins with the assertion that “there is nothing special about being an anti-capitalist revolutionary” (4). He describes his book as “the story of many, many people, of millions, perhaps billions” (4). These millions, he claims, participate in acts of anti-capitalist resistance even if they are not aware of doing so. For Holloway, simply taking the day off work and going for a walk is putting a crack in a system that reduces everything to work, consumption, and profit. Holloway’s ordinary rebels and revolutionaries refuse “to let the logic of money shape their activity” and have “the determination to take a space or moment into their own hands and shape their lives according to their own decisions” (21). Even the smallest acts of resistance are significant to Holloway, as the cracks they put in the capitalist system form what he calls “the material base for possible radical change” (12).

In the first of Crack Capitalism’s 33 short theses, Holloway gives the reader an extraordinary two page list of everyday people he considers anti-capitalist rebels and revolutionaries. The list includes those who would not typically be considered radical, such as the “car worker in Birmingham who goes in his evenings to his garden allotment so that he has some activity that has meaning and pleasure,” and “the nurse in Seoul who does everything possible to help her patients.” It also includes some more familiar figures of resistance, such as “the people of Cochabamba who come together and fight the battle against the government and the army so that water should not be privatized but subject to their own control,” and “the retired teacher in Berlin who devotes her life to the struggle against capitalist globalization” (4-5).

The ordinary people on Holloway’s list constitute a replacement proletariat for a reformulated Marxism that is developed throughout the book. According to Holloway, many Marxist theorists have overlooked Marx’s own emphasis on the ever-present tension between “doing” (free activity) and “abstract labour” (work that serves the needs of capitalism). Instead, many Marxists envision capitalism as a one-way system of oppression, where the demands of “abstract labour” are imposed from above. By refocusing our attention on the possibility of resistance and change in the present, Holloway’s reformulated Marxism is able to theorize the struggle against capitalism as taking place on the battleground of the everyday, not on the grand historical stage of the ever-postponed future. The old Marxist theory that the state has to be seized in order for workers to be given their autonomy is replaced in Crack Capitalism by a network of ever-evolving struggles. The ordinary people on Holloway’s list of rebels and revolutionaries are taking part in their own molecular revolutions, which in turn contribute to a larger movement.

Both Holloway’s list of revolutionaries and the reformulated Marxism that underpins it are hopeful and appealing. However, it is one thing to be labeled a revolutionary, and quite another thing to actually bring about radical change. Holloway puts seemingly inconsequential actions on the same footing as life-changing (and life-threatening) acts of political resistance. How can such a theory claim to be politically effective? Holloway is aware of this question and articulates it as follows:

“Is going out for a hike, or sitting down and reading a good book, or going out for a wild all night party to be seen as an act of rebellion to be placed beside the Zapatista revolt or the uprising of December 2001 in Argentina? This is a crucial question that recurs repeatedly. It is clear that spending a quiet afternoon reading a good book does not have the same impact on society as organising the occupation of several towns by thousands of indigenous peasants, and yet we ignore the lines of continuity at our peril” (34).

What counts for Holloway is the connection between small and large acts of resistance. Instead of division, he seeks resonance:

“Rather than creating sharp divisions (between the guerilla leader and the housewife alone on a Saturday night for example), we need to find ways of making visible and strengthening these lines of continuity that are so often submerged. This is the point of talking cracks: to understand our multiple rebellions and alternative creations as being connected by invisible or almost invisible (and rapidly shifting) fault lines” (35).

Holloway’s willingness to ascribe a rebellious undertone to acts that have no discernible impact on the world, combined with his equation of these acts with uncontroversially revolutionary events, has led other reviewers of Crack Capitalism to suggest that he is promoting a fake radicalism.3 According to these readers, Holloway’s theory is suited to a privileged and liberal lifestyle, but not to genuine resistance. It is certainly true that Holloway could do more to interrogate the class-based assumptions of some of the acts he labels as rebellious; not everyone has the time, opportunity, or inclination to tend to gardens or spend afternoons reading. It is also true that if they are taken individually, Holloway’s small acts of rebellion do not structurally challenge capitalism, and are therefore compatible with the neo-liberal status quo. Yet, despite Holloway’s praise of acts that might in a different context be simply part of a yuppie routine, his “line of affinity” still has considerable value. Ultimately, Holloway’s aim in Crack Capitalism is not to promote a certain lifestyle or sing the praises of gardening, but to envision a framework where all anti-capitalist acts, no matter how small, resonate with each other and therefore have the potential for collective strength. Such an approach is valuable because it provokes activists to assess how we view ourselves.

In Holloway’s schema, radical activists are not the primary instigators of anti-capitalist change, but merely one part of a resistance movement without bounds. Holloway tells us to “look beyond activism…to the millions and millions of refusals and other- doings” (12). Some activists may view this as an attack on both their achievements and potential, but Holloway is in fact providing a tactical warning about the dangers of an over-inflated sense of importance. He writes, “If we think we are special, distinct from the masses who are happily integrated into the capitalist system, we exclude the possibility of radical change” (258). Here Holloway provides a convincing argument against insularity and elitism. His ironic reference to the “happily” integrated masses reminds us that almost everyone is damaged, both psychologically and materially, by capitalism. Resistance, even if it is not commonly theorized as such, might be equally widespread.

While Holloway poses an important theoretical challenge to activists, some readers might be skeptical about whether his model of change has value in an explicitly revolutionary situation. As I write this review, “ordinary revolutionaries” are risking their lives in the Middle East and North Africa. The mass protests and the occupation of factories in Egypt, for example, seem to have little in the common with the slower, less direct path to change that Holloway envisions. Even so, Holloway’s theory holds explanatory value in such a context insofar as it offers a picture of the world where radicalism is everywhere, beneath the surface most of the time, yet potent and therefore ready – however unpredictably – to manifest. Although Holloway does not offer an analysis of how revolutionary moments suddenly emerge, the suddenness and ubiquity of the protests we are currently witnessing chimes with his belief that the distance between everyday acts of rebellion and militant resistance to power is smaller than it first appears. Moreover, while Holloway’s theory of a stateless revolution may seem inapplicable to the revolution in Egypt (which is necessarily focused on the state) his warning about the danger of co-option is valid. Holloway warns that rebellion is “likely to be increasingly suppressed to the degree that the state structures become consolidated” (62). In opposition to Callinicos’ criticism that seizing the state is necessary to prevent counter-revolution, Holloway asserts that the emergence of the state is the counter- revolution and therefore self-determining autonomous spaces are needed to protect against the consolidation of the state.

Ultimately, however, it is in countries like the United States and Canada – where ideological divisions hamper the formation and effectiveness of mass resistance movements – that Holloway’s theory of revolution is of the most value. Holloway asserts that his “line of affinity” vision of anti-capitalism in such countries is more practical than the state-focused revolutionary ideas of certain militant but narrow-minded leftist groups:

“Those groups that think that having pure dogma and perhaps good weapons and military discipline is the best self-defence could not be more mistaken. The best defence (whether we are a guerrilla group or a social centre in a squatted building) is to blend in with our neighbours; not just as intelligence tactics but because the mutual resonance of ordinary rebelliousness is the only possible basis for communising revolution” (258).

Holloway’s theoretical challenge to the insularity of activism is here turned into a blueprint for action. Leftists who dream of a revolution instigated by ideologically pure militants are prone to cutting themselves off from the possibility of communal change, as their insularity alienates the communities around them. For Holloway, however, true resistance is impure, widespread, and diverse. In Crack Capitalism, he asserts that lasting change can be created through connecting different anti-capitalist positions, such as the guerilla and the housewife, or the gardener and the anti- globalization activist. Holloway writes, “The only way to think of changing the world radically is as a multiplicity of interstitial movements running from the particular” (11). This is Holloway’s alternative to seizing the power of the state. Small acts of resistance are not subordinated to larger revolutionary events. Instead, they are, in themselves, evidence of an alternative to capitalism, and if they grow in number and are placed side-by-side, it will be possible to envision a new society entirely. Such a theory is refreshing because it does not begin from a position of weakness and isolation; rather, it reveals the possibility of change coming from every direction. To be sure, Holloway is not overly optimistic that radical change will occur, even according to his theoretical angle. He warns that, “There is absolutely no guarantee of a happy ending” (9). Yet, at the very least, Holloway offers readers a tactically useful shift from ideological division to “mutual resonance,” even though Holloway is, himself, offering us an ideological position.

Towards the end of his Crack Capitalism, Holloway provides his answer to the question “what on earth do we do?” by stating: “There is no answer, just millions of experiments” (256). To give a single prescription for change would be against the spirit of Crack Capitalism. Instead, Holloway tells us to put our faith in people’s innate need for dignity – a dignity that necessarily conflicts with capitalism’s drive for profit. If Holloway is to be believed, any action that defies capitalism creates a crack, however imperceptible, in the system and an opening towards a better world. For some activists this theory may still seem overly romantic and oblivious to the hard organizational work that it takes to bring about change. If revolution is merely a matter of gardening, or going for a hike, the critic might say, we would already live in a fairer and more just society. Such arguments miss the tenor of Crack Capitalism. Holloway isn’t slighting organizers; he is telling us we are not alone. In the battle against capitalism, ideological purity is impossible. Some may contribute to the battle more than others, but in the end, if Holloway is right, we are stronger than we have ever dared hope.


1 John Holloway, Change the World Without T aking Power, (Pluto Press, 2005).
2 Alex Callincos, “How Do We Deal with the State?”, http://www.herramienta.
3 A review in Counterfire Magazine, for example, describes Crack Capitalism as “feel good anti-capitalism,” where “any of us can be revolutionary… just by doing something different.” Alex Snowdon, “John Holloway, Crack Capitalism,” http://www.counterfire.org/index.php/articles/53-reviews/5932- crack-capitalism-john-holloway.