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(en) Wildcat (Germany) and John Holloway - On dignity and the Zapatists, debate (I)

From C.FRINGS@link-lev.dinoco.de (Christian Frings)
Date Wed, 28 Oct 1998 13:06:14 +0200 (IST)

      A - I N F O S  N E W S  S E R V I C E

To aut-op-sy@lists.village.virginia.edu

Wildcat (Germany) reads John Holloway - an ongoing debate (1/4)

In 1996/97 we translated some texts from John Holloway and Werner  
Bonefeld in german language. They were published in a Circular which  
we produce for our own needs in discussion, whereas we don't publish  
the german magazine "Wildcat" in the moment. We discussed the texts  
carefully and when John sent us his paper on "Dignity's Revolt", of  
which we translated a short version which was also published in  
»Common Sense«, we decided to begin an open discussion to clearify  
some points - for ourselves as well as maybe for others. The following  
three mails brings to you the short paper about "dignity" (the long  
one which is printed in the mentioned book, which is now out, is also  
available as file) (2/4), our Open Letter (3/4) which was published in  
Wildcat-Zirkular No. 39 (September 1997) and John's Open Answer (4/4)  
which was published in Wildcat-Zirkular No. 45 (June 1998). John also  
suggested to publish this debate in Common Sense.
Cologne, oct. 1998

*Dignity and the Zapatistas* (John Holloway - 2/4) 

1. It was dignity that rose up on the first of January 1994. Or, at  
least, that is how the zapatistas themselves present it:

'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'.

What is this dignity that distinguishes us from plants, animals and  
stones? It is not a concept that has been used very much either in  
political theory or in Marxist theory. Almost certainly, it was not  
part of the theoretical baggage that the original group of  
revolutionaries took with them when they went into the jungle in 1983.  
Dignity was forged in the jungle. There was a process of learning  
which the zapatistas describe in terms of listening. 'That is the  
great lesson that the indigenous communities teach to the original  
EZLN. The original EZLN, the one that is formed in 1983, is a  
political organisation in the sense that it speaks and what it says  
has to be done. The indigenous communities teach it to listen, and  
that is what we learn. The principal lesson that we learn from the  
indigenous people is that we have to learn to hear, to listen.'

2. The idea of a revolution that listens, the idea of a struggle to  
convert 'dignity and rebellion into freedom and dignity' (as the first  
Declaration of the Lacandona Jungle puts it) poses a theoretical  

The idea of dignity implies in the first place a critique of liberal  
theory. Within the framework of liberal theory it is not possible to  
discuss the idea of dignity seriously. It is not possible because  
liberal theory accepts as its point of departure the existence of the  
market, and the functioning of the market is based on the opposite of  
dignity, that is to say the active and daily exploitation,  
dehumanisation and humiliation of the people, as we know from our own  
experience and as we witness palpably every time we stop at a traffic  
light in the city of Mexico. To speak of dignity in the framework of  
liberal theory, that is to say in the framework of the acceptance of  
the market, is a nonsense.

For just the same reason, the idea of dignity implies a critique of  
the state and of state-oriented theory. The state, in the sense of a  
political sphere distinct from the economic also presupposes the  
existence of the market. States (all states) are integrated into the  
world market, into the global network of capitalist social relations,  
in such a way that their only option, whatever the complexion of their  
government, whatever the form of democracy that they proclaim, is to  
actively promote the accumulation of capital, that is to say,  
humiliation and exploitation. That is why the revolt of dignity cannot  
have as its aim to take state power or to become channelled through  
state forms. The zapatista struggle has been profoundly anti-state  
since its beginning, not in the superficial sense of proclaiming war  
against the Mexican state, but in its forms of organisation.

Much more interesting is the fact that the concept of dignity implies  
a critique of the orthodox Marxist tradition (and by orthodoxy I refer  
to the whole tradition that has its roots more in Engels than in Marx  
- I am thinking of the Leninist, Trotskyist, Gramscian and to some  
extent the autonomist traditions).

A central problem of that tradition is the way in which the concept of  
alienation or fetishisation is understood. The Marxist critique of  
capitalism is that capitalism is characterised by alienation or  
fetishisation: in capitalism people are alienated from themselves and  
the social creativity that makes them human, and part of this  
alienation is that relations between persons do not appear as such,  
but in the form of things.

There are two ways of understanding this alienation. The more common  
way is to understand it as something closed, a fait accompli: people  
are alienated, social relations are impenetrable to the ordinary  
consciousness. Therefore revolution can only be thought of in terms of  
the intervention of a group who have succeeded in breaking the  
fetishism of social relations, a group which can be conceived either  
in terms of a vanguard party or in terms of an elite of critical  
intellectuals (ourselves, of course).

The important thing about this conception is the relation that it  
establishes between alienation and disalienation. The people are  
alienated now; in the future, after the revolution, they will be  
disalienated. Or, to say it in zapatista terms: now the people are  
humiliated, in the future they will have dignity.

Obviously this conception has important consequences for how one  
thinks about revolutionary organisation, consequences that are  
formulated with impressive clarity by Lenin in What is to be Done?,  
but which are implicit in the whole orthodox tradition (and which have  
much to do with the Engelsian conception - so different from Marx's -  
of what is scientific). If the revolution depends on the intervention  
of the enlightened, then it is not possible to have complete  
confidence in the opinion of the common people. The organisational  
form of the revolutionary movement must give special weight to the  
enlightened - and we all know the problems that have resulted from  
this conception.

3. The zapatista expression about struggling to convert 'dignity and  
rebellion into freedom and dignity' suggests that they have a  
different conception of alienation - a conception that seems to me  
much closer to Marx's own and to the dispersed tradition of subversive  
Marxism linked with the names of Pannekoek, Bloch or Adorno, among  
many others. If the struggle is to convert dignity and rebellion into  
freedom and dignity, then that implies that the starting point is the  
present existence of dignity - obviously not in the sense of the  
dishonest and grotesque fantasies of liberal thought, as something  
established, but rather as the present struggle against the negation  
of dignity. Dignity exists as the negation of the negation of dignity,  
not in the future, but as present struggle. Or, in more traditional  
language, disalienation exists not only in the future but as present  
struggle against alienation. Dignity, as the struggle against  
humiliation, is integral to humiliation itself.

This concept of dignity has enormous implications for how we think of  
revolution and the forms of political organisation. If the starting  
point is the dignity of those in struggle (and we are all in struggle,  
since we are all humiliated), then the struggle of dignity must be a  
struggle that is defined by the people in struggle. Hence the  
practices associated with the zapatista slogans of 'command by  
obeying' ('mandar obedeciendo') and 'asking we walk' (preguntando  
caminamos). Revolution is not a talking but a listening or, perhaps  
better, a listening-talking, a dialoguing, a setting out rather than  
an arriving.

Therefore there is no transitional programme and there can be no  
transitional programme. The concept of dignity, as revolutionary  
principle, necessarily implies that the revolution is made in the  
course of its making, that the path is made by walking, not for lack  
of ideas, but as a matter of principle. Revolution is undefined and,  
above all, revolution is anti-definitional, a revolution against  
definition, a revolution against identification, against the  
imposition of identities.

In contrast with the engelsian tradition which develops in terms of  
definitions and crucially in terms of the definition of the working  
class (so that dignity, if mentioned at all, is a dignity confined by  
the limits of alienation), the zapatista emphasis on dignity places  
the unlimited at the centre of the picture, not just the undefined but  
the anti-definitional. To define is to limit, to deny the openness of  
creativity. Dignity is a tension which projects beyond itself, beyond  
limitation, definition, identification. Dignity, therefore, does not  
imply a politics of identity, but just the opposite: the affirmation  
and simultaneous transcendence of identity. Dignity is and is not: it  
is the struggle against its own negation. Dignity implies a constant  
movement against the barriers of that which exists, a subverting and  
transcendence of definitions. (That is why we cannot talk in terms of  
identities: identity is always a superficiality, a lie:  
identification, like alienation, like fetishisation, is always a  
process, the struggle of Power.)

Dignity takes us, then, to other grammatical tenses. For liberal  
theory there is a present, a future which is understood as an  
extension of the present and a past which has passed. The grammar of  
the engelsian or leninist tradition is not very different: there is a  
present (capitalism, alienation, the realm of necessity) and a future  
which is not the extension of the present but its negation, but which  
does not thereby cease to be the future (communism, disalienation, the  
realm of freedom). But in zapatista discourse, and in Marx's theory,  
the grammatical tenses are different. The present is replaced by a  
sort of subjunctive, an antagonistic tension between what is and what  
is not but perhaps could be: I cannot say 'I am', but only 'I am-and- 
am-not, I am but I am full of projects, of fears, of dreams of another  
world which is not and perhaps never will be but which could, perhaps,  
be'. The whole Marxist construction and the whole zaptista discourse  
is based on this other grammar, a grammar that is very close to our  
daily experience, but very far from the language of the social  

These two concepts (which are one concept), that is to say the idea of  
revolution as being anti-definitional and the change of tenses, come  
together in a phrase from a communique of Marcos in May 1996, where he  
puts words in the mouth of Power, and Power says 'I am who am, the  
eternal repetition', and says to the zapatistas 'Be ye not awkward,  
refuse not to be classified. All that cannot be classified counts not,  
exists not, is not.' The rejection of classification and of the  
grammar of the eternal present is expressed in the whole zapatista  
discourse, in the poetry, in the jokes, in the mockery of the state,  
of the left and of themselves - in all those elements which at first  
shocked those educated in a more austere left tradition, but which in  
reality are not adornments of the revolution but central to the  
conception of what a revolution is. The zapatistas dance, they dance  
on every possible occasion, they even took their marimba with them  
when they fled to the mountains after the intervention of the army.  
But it is not just they who dance, their categories dance too, and  
that is what we have to learn from them.

NOTE: This paper was originally presented to the First Conference of  
Philosophers and Social Scientists of the United States, Canada and  
Mexico, held in Puebla on 26th-28th June 1997. It draws on a much  
longer article entitled 'The Revolt of Dignity'. to be published as  
part of a book provisionally entitiled The International of Hope:  
Reflections on the Zapatista Uprising, to be published by Pluto Press,  

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