Taking Power Seriously: A Response to John Holloway


John Holloway, well-known left intellectual and author of the popular polemic Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today, recently offered a concise presentation of his strategic vision on revolutionary change at ZNet. In his essay there, he strongly rejects the idea of approaching or seizing the state as an instrument for achieving social change, and encourages the notion of multiplying various kinds of incipient rebellions that bypass the state as the most fruitful path to human self-determination.

In advancing his thesis, however, Holloway fails to take stock of important current political developments or ground his definition of capitalism in a concrete context. As a result, he makes a number of simplistic assertions and leans on certain false dichotomies about the state and the process of revolutionary change. By examining these flaws, I think it is possible to show that Holloway’s concept of “changing the world without taking power” is, unfortunately, trapped in a narrow framework where premises hang from a ceiling of intellectual defeatism and conclusions crash into walls of political paralysis.

Holloway’s broadside against taking power is stern and unequivocal: he warns that “focus[ing] our struggle on the state” or “tak[ing] it as a principle point of reference” “leads us in the wrong direction.” He writes, “The state…is a form of social relations…developed over several centuries for the purpose of maintaining or developing the rule of capital.” Therefore, “we have to understand that the state pulls us in a certain direction.” How? “It seeks to impose upon us a separation of our struggles from society”; it “separates leaders from the masses”; it “pulls us into a process of reconciliation with reality, and that reality is capitalism, a form of social organization that is based on exploitation and injustice, on killing and destruction.” Worse, it “also draws us into a spatial definition of how we do things,” one which not only “makes clear distinction between the state’s territory and the world outside,” but also “has no hope of matching the global movement of capital.” These then are Holloway’s most salient points against state-centered struggle.

The fundamental problem with all these concerns is that they could be raised anywhere. For instance, Holloway posits struggle within the state as a “reconciliation with reality,” as capitulation, because after all the state represents the “reality of capitalism.” But is the “reality of capitalism” not everywhere? Private institutions, organizations, cultural mores, and the entire general social milieu are all thoroughly penetrated and profoundly shaped by capitalism. Indeed, that is precisely why all these elements must be resisted and contested in the first place. What occurs vis-à-vis the state in particular, however, is not a “reconciliation” with the reality of capitalism, but a confrontation with the reality of capitalism by forces opposed to capitalism in its most important arena of control.

Turning to the issue of leaders becoming separated from masses, nothing about this process is exclusive to the state either. Leaders can betray, deceive, or abandon whoever they are tasked with representing in any social situation where money, power, and politics is involved – the workplace, the sports club, the university, the union, and so on. The difference is only that the stakes are higher when the state is involved. This cannot be invoked as an excuse to abandon social situations in general or the state in particular, since that would amount to total inaction. Leaders must be held accountable through concrete organizational mechanisms, and masses must themselves stay conscious and vigilant: it is this interplay which determines in the end how effectively and faithfully any leaders represent those who choose them.

The objection that taking on the state apparatus confines oneself to certain parameters of struggle – “spatial definitions” – could also be invoked in any other scenario. To struggle is necessarily to place oneself in the specific arena where struggle is being waged – preferably at its highest, sharpest level. This is true whether one is speaking of physical terrain on a military battlefield, ideological terrain on a political battlefield, or national terrain on a state-centered battlefield. One is, in fact, always “drawn” into “spatial definitions” no matter what one does. The question is only whether one chooses the space of concrete struggle, or the space of empty retreat.

On this score, to condemn state-centered struggle because it has “no hope” of combating “global capital” is to merely tinker with words, since capital is only global in the sense that it plants itself in every nation by negotiating access through state permission. Global capital is resisted partially when one state demands to set the terms of national development; it is resisted more forcefully when a bloc of states demand the same; and it is resisted not at all when the state has acquiesced to capital’s demands – because revolutionaries there decided to let the state fall into right-wing hands by refusing to be “drawn into spatial definitions,” or rather, by accepting the spatial definition of defeat.

Ultimately, Holloway’s sweeping assertions about flaws in state-centered struggle are misleading for two reasons. One, the same kinds of flaws exist in any other sphere of struggle. Two, and most important, state-centered struggle does not create flaws in movements, but rather reveals them. For as we have seen, the only difference in regards to the state is one of degree: because the power of capitalism is so deeply entrenched within the state, the true strengths and limitations of any movement are exposed in confrontation with it. Avoiding confrontation may allow a movement to hide its weaknesses, and it may lead to some short-term self-glorification, but it will also avoid solving the actual problem. The viability of any revolutionary movement is determined by how effectively it is able to confront the system exactly in that arena where the system has been crafting the injustices that gave rise to the movement in the first place. It is not clear why Holloway believes the answer is to abandon the arena altogether, instead of working on new ways to address the flaws of the movement which are revealed within it.

What would be most instructive in examining Holloway’s case for changing the world without taking power, however, is to look at a movement that has taken power and is carrying out change: the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. Here is a living, breathing example of social struggle, where it is possible for us to examine in real terms and without theorizing what actually happens in a genuine revolutionary process.

What has the revolutionary government of Hugo Chavez Frias accomplished? It has undertaken a land reform program placing hundreds of thousands of hectares of idle land in the hands of small farmers and the landless poor; it has made education free for all from elementary through university level, offering students free daily meals; it has created special banks to assist women, small businesses, worker cooperatives, and farmers; it has locked into place the nationalization of the oil industry; it has organized vaccinations and community campaigns to increase literacy, training 1.3 million people to read; it has enlisted the previously unemployed to repair sanitation and transportation infrastructure; it has established 300 free health and dental clinics in slums where medical care has never been seen before; it has introduced price controls on 160 basic foodstuffs and 60 essential household goods, subsidizing food markets in poor communities.

It is unfortunate – though perhaps not surprising, given the implications for his thesis – that Holloway fails to even mention this most remarkable development in his article. For what the Venezuelan example illustrates above all is that the anarchist notion of the state as intrinsically negative – a notion Holloway expresses most openly when he writes, “Betrayal is already given in the state as an organizational form” – is untenable as any sort of universally applicable position. Indeed, it would take a fanciful imagination to pretend that Chavez, who has played a decisive role in improving the lives of millions within his country, has “betrayed” the revolutionary process.

It follows from the reality in Venezuela that Holloway’s previously-discussed reasons for abandoning state-centered struggle are not sustainable either. Chavez did not “reconcile” himself to capitalism, he used state power to help break capitalist political control and declare the path of revolution; he was not defeated by “spatial definitions,” but seized upon the spatial definition of the historical narrative of Simon Bolivar to animate and excite the national imagination; he was not crushed by “the global movement of capital,” but snatched it by the throat, prevented oil privatization, and pumped $3.7 billion dollars derived from state-controlled oil revenues into social investment in just one year. Thus we see that the conquest of state power was not only not a barrier, it was an essential part of carrying out and defending the concrete improvements made on the ground.

The Venezuelan example, then, deals a blow to the anarchist shibboleth of the state as inherently reactionary. But it would be a serious mistake to think that it vindicates the equally erroneous vangaurdist shibboleth that posits people as subjects to be trained by an enlightened state leadership. Caught between these false dichotomies of “good people/bad state” versus “bad people/good state”, Holloway not only adopts the anarchist end of this view, but wrongly dismisses all state-centered struggle as lying on the vangaurdist end. He writes: “The state oriented-argument can be seen as a pivoted conception of the development of struggle”, whereby, “First, we concentrate all our efforts on winning the state,” and “then…we can think of revolutionizing society.” This description, aside from being a caricature of the way most socialists conceive of revolutionary change, is very far off the mark in explaining what has happened in Venezuela.

For while it is undoubtedly true that holding state power has helped Chavez mount a strong defense of the revolutionary project, he did not simply do this overnight, nor did he do it by himself. The Chavez government would neither be in power nor have the political strength to carry out any of its policies even while in power had there not been an intense, dialectical process of engagement with the people who comprise the backbone of the revolution. Time and time again, it has been the active mobilization of the people from the slums – those who have felt that it is their government under attack – which has thwarted the right-wing forces of the oligarchy, media elite and embittered sections of the middle classes still aiming to unseat the revolution.

Through a constant process of support, feedback, initiative, pressure, frustration criticism, and, most importantly, mass demonstrations, it has been the masses who have propelled the revolution forward, strengthening and consolidating it every step of the way. In just a period of a few years, the revolution has fought and won a wave of battles: a short-lived right-wing coup, ratification of a new constitution, judiciary reform, two national legislative elections, two presidential elections, a business-led oil industry sabotage campaign, an attempted referendum recall, a viciously dishonest corporate-owned media – and, of course, the United States.

Throughout all this, the government, which certainly did not start out by declaring itself socialist, was forced to either start meeting the expectations of the people or risk finding its basis of support disappear. It had to answer concretely the demands and concerns of supporters like Juan Blanco, who complained shortly after the opposition launched its debilitating national strike in December 2002, “The assistance we get is very small; we do not even feel it. I ask, what is the goal of the revolution – where are we headed?” To which Chavez has now supplied the answer we are all familiar with: “I am convinced, and I think that this conviction will be for the rest of my life, that the path to a new, better and possible world, is not capitalism, the path is socialism.”

It is unfortunate that Holloway, in accepting the framework of false dichotomies about state and people, necessarily rejects the state and the electoral arena as a site of social struggle. It robs him of the ability to see that the construction of socialism is a process and not one of absolute, fixed immovable forces; that in this process the state can be a vehicle for change precisely to the degree that the people are pushing for change through the state. The great strength in this approach, in the context of a revolutionary program, is that it constitutes an active, positive initiative in which concrete, visible gains can be made, defended and referenced. The poor can be fed, schools can be built, children can be taught, the sick can be treated – in the assets of the state lies the active, real basis for cultivating the soil from which the flowers of humanist values may blossom.

But by dint of his ideological disposition Holloway is forced to look to the negative – “rebellions” and “insubordinations,” the central focus of which is “people saying no to capitalism, no, we shall not live our lives according to the dictates of capitalism, we shall do what we consider necessary or desirable and not what capitalism tells us to do.” He calls for “multiply[ing] and expand[ing] these refusals.” The underlying problem with this approach is that saying no only goes so far no matter how many times one repeats it. It is intrinsically a negative demand and implies a program of only reflexive reaction, not positive action.

Moreover, it turns out that often times “doing what we consider necessary” actually coincides with “the dictates of capitalism” because capitalism is a totalizing force. Holloway, in describing capitalism as “not (in the first place) an economic system, but a system of command,” proposes we break this control through refusal: “To refuse to obey is to break the command of capital.” But this is misleading because the means of enforcing the “system of command” is rooted in the “economic system” itself. The state commands, coordinates, develops, defends, and appropriates a vast amount of capital, and, in so doing, sets the basis for its further ability to regulate a wide array of social relations and organizations upon which people depend in their everyday lives.

In this sense, then, capitalism is not so much “a system of command” but a system of tenuous consent – people must work within the system in order to eat, to live, to buy things, and to maintain their position in society. Therefore to “refuse to obey” in the immediate sense is not to “break the command of capital” but rather to break one’s connection to the social and support structure made possible by capital; it is to become isolated, atomized, individuated, and assigned to oblivion. This process is accelerated by the fact that, if a “refusal” turns into more militant forms of insubordination with any sign of creating “trouble,” the state unleashes its energies and either marginalizes and demoralizes the movement or crushes it ruthlessly.

The only way to change this situation is to translate the idea of resistance into positive action aimed at building an alternative society. Naturally, this requires an economic basis – a project which cannot be achieved by any kind of magic, by NGOs, by “civil society,” or by any other scattered, isolated, nebulous group hovering and floating about on the margins. It can only be achieved by a broad democratic mass movement which understands, among other things, the necessity of controlling that hub which has been responsible for overseeing the theft of our labor and channeling the wealth we produce upwards and in ways designed to control and fragment us: the state.

The goal of this control should be twofold: to remove what is destructive and to reenergize what is productive for the ascending movement of human liberation. It is impossible to speculate in the abstract what in the state would warrant removal and what would warrant renewal; one might make broad references to decreasing armaments, eliminating advisory boards for corporations, reorienting research away from environmentally hazardous chemicals and toward cures for the ills those chemicals have caused, increasing funds for public education, transportation – and so on.

The guiding idea, however, should be to dethrone power without principle and coronate principle without power. That is to say, we must strive for the empowerment of our humanist principles as well as the disempowerment of unprincipled power. It is this dual process which will help break apart the old array of social relations and open up the path to genuine human development and solidarity among humankind.

M. Junaid Alam, 22, is co-editor of the leftist youth journal Left Hook, and attends Northeastern University in Boston. He can be reached at [email protected].

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