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. Read more