Home > Occupy the Marxist Academy, political-economy > Change the World Without Taking Power: A decade later John Holloway’s challenge still unmet

Change the World Without Taking Power: A decade later John Holloway’s challenge still unmet

February 20, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

«Kapitalismus aufbrechen!»

A decades ago John Holloway shook up the Marxist academy with the publication of his book, Change The World Without Taking Power”. Holloway’s argument was that the Marxist preoccupation with taking power was not only obsolete, it was counterproductive, serving only to divert energy and time to a quixotic effort that leaves Marxists banging their heads bloody against the brick wall of capitalist relations of production. Said Holloway:

The world cannot be changed through the state. Both theoretical reflection and a whole century of bad experience tell us so. ‘We told you so’, say the satisfied ones, ‘We said so all along. We said it was absurd. We told you that you couldn’t go against human nature. Give up the dream, give up!’

A decade after it was published, I think it an examination is called for, the purpose of which is to see how Holloway’s critique of post-war Marxism stands up to time.

The examination must begin with an honest admission that a decade later we are no closer to figuring out what comes next than in the immediate aftermath of its publication. The last sentence of the book, “This is a book that does not (yet?) have a happy…”, is a mocking reminder of the failure of activists to reformulate the conception of social emancipation in a period where the conquest of state power is not just proven wrong-headed, but also impossible even on the basis of its own assumption: by means of a democratic electoral victory.

At the point where Holloway wrote this book it had already become clear that such a victory, even if it happened, would only expose Marxism’s lack of a real conception of a post-capitalist society. No one had any idea what a communist society would look like, or how to even begin to construct such a society. The collapse of the Soviet Union, and events in China called into question everything about post-capitalist society we thought we knew. Beyond this, mounting a democratic challenge to, for instance, the domination of the US politics by the two parties was mostly a delusion. Holloway’s book calls to mind the observation Engels made toward the end of his life that the progress of the armaments industry had made insurrection obsolete as a means to break the state:

“Rebellion in the old style, street fighting with barricades, which decided the issue everywhere up to 1848, had become largely outdated. Let us have no illusions about it: a real victory of insurrection over the military in street fighting, a victory as between two armies, is one of the rarest exceptions.”

Who today seriously believes the social movement is any more capable of breaking the state by means of an electoral victory than it is by means of an insurrection? None of Holloway’s critics dares mention this, even as they cling to the hope of an electoral solution. And this is because letting this illusion go presents us with the stark reality that all political means have become a dead end. The unspoken assumption is that to follow Holloway’s advice must turn us all into bin Laden’s or the organizers of one ineffectual demonstration after another. A direct military solution is no longer possible, and even a political solution is impossible – are we left with terrorism and street demos? Simply stated: Holloway’s critics don’t want to face reality; they want to continue to live in an illusory world of revolutionary politics. It is not so much that Holloway’s critics have an argument to raise against him, it is that they no more have a solution than he does. They argue against Holloway’s conclusion because Holloway’s book appears to condemn us to inaction, to passivity, to powerlessness.

Few people realize Marx opposed the insurrection that led to the Commune; he called the idea a “desperate folly”. But, when it happened, he threw his support behind it because that is what you do when people put their lives on the line for emancipation. And he drew lessons from what they accomplished; lessons that were two-fold: 1. Don’t do that again; and 2. Kill the state at the outset. Because he ruled out insurrection as a path to social emancipation, some charge Engels with having sold out his revolutionary stance. Although Engels was just reflecting on the changes in classes and capitalism progress, these idiots charge he was abandoning revolution. He was just another old atheist who found god on his deathbed.

They forget that Marx and Engels had been arguing against insurrection for more than two decades. In place of it, they called for “work within the new Republic to gradually build up the strength of the French working class movement.” They counseled the working class, in other words, not to engage in immediate uprisings, but to fight for and within the bourgeois democratic republic.

Still, it is not accurate to state Marx and Engels foreclosed the possibility of insurrection, history had foreclosed it and the two gave their best advice based on this fact. This is also true of Holloway’s book: he is not foreclosing a political path, he is simply showing why history has already done so. And this is where the defect of Holloway’s argument weighs on his book: he never shows why Marx and Engels advice to the working class to fight for and within bourgeois democracy is now essentially outdated. And this is a problem since there is almost nothing of Holloway’s argument today that was not also true in the 1870s when Marx and Engels argued against insurrection and for working within bourgeois democracy. In fact, Bakunin made the argument and far better than Holloway does. Holloway never gets beyond Bakunin’s complaint against Marx and Engels except to show why Marx’s and Engels’ advice to the working class — which still motivates Marxists today — “contradicted” their own method of analysis — a fact that has to be pointed out since their argument then “suffered” then from the same defect as it does today.

Which is to say there is nothing about the state today in Holloway’s argument that was not true when Bakunin stated his disagreement. It is why Marx ends his unpublished reply to Bakunin this way:

“Aside from the harping of Liebknecht’s Volksstaat, which is nonsense, counter to the Communist Manifesto etc., it only means that, as the proletariat still acts, during the period of struggle for the overthrow of the old society, on the basis of that old society, and hence also still moves within political forms which more or less belong to it, it has not yet, during this period of struggle, attained its final constitution, and employs means for its liberation which after this liberation fall aside. Mr Bakunin concludes from this that it is better to do nothing at all… just wait for the day of general liquidation — the last judgement.”

Yes, says Marx, the forms of the existing state are merely fetish forms and the working class will be operating within these fetish forms. The working class movement, while operating within these forms, will not be operating within conditions of its final constitution. But what the fuck are we supposed to do? Stand here picking our noses until the working class movement appears in its final constitution? You have to fight no matter how the defect of your struggle might likely result in your defeat because the fight against exploitation is the fucking point.

The fucking defect wasn’t in the forms of struggle, the defect was in the constitution of the working class itself! The forms of struggle of the working class follow from its constitution, not the other way around. So, when Holloway makes his argument that obsession with the state power is obsolete, he is not making an argument about the state, but about the constitution of the working class. He is suggesting that there is something about this constitution that makes the Marxist obsession with political power obsolete. Holloway makes this point early on in his book, but never returns to it for some strange reason:

Revolutionary movements inspired by Marxism have always been aware of the capitalist nature of the state. Why then have they focused on winning state power as the means of changing society? One answer is that these movements have often had an instrumental view of the capitalist nature of the state. They have typically seen the state as being the instrument of the capitalist class. The notion of an ‘instrument’ implies that the relation between the state and the capitalist class is an external one: like a hammer, the state is now wielded by the capitalist class in their own interests, after the revolution it will be wielded by the working class in their interests. Such a view reproduces, unconsciously perhaps, the isolation or autonomisation of the state from its social environment, the critique of which is the starting point of revolutionary politics. To borrow a concept to be developed later, this view fetishises the state: it abstracts it from the web of power relations in which it is embedded. The difficulty which revolutionary governments have experienced in wielding the state in the interests of the working class suggests that the embedding of the state in the web of capitalist social relations is far stronger and more subtle than the notion of instrumentality would suggest. The mistake of Marxist revolutionary movements has been, not to deny the capitalist nature of the state, but to underestimate the degree of integration of the state into the network of capitalist social relations.

An important aspect of this underestimation is the extent to which revolutionary (and, even more so, reformist) movements have tended to assume that ‘society’ can be understood as a national (that is, state-bound) society. If society is understood as being British, Russian or Mexican society, this obviously gives weight to the view that the state can be the centre point of social transformation. Such an assumption, however, presupposes a prior abstraction of state and society from their spatial surroundings, a conceptual snipping of social relations at the frontiers of the state. The world, in this view, is made up of so many national societies, each with its own state, each one maintaining relations with all the others in a network of inter-national relations. Each state is then the centre of its own world and it becomes possible to conceive of a national revolution and to see the state as the motor of radical change in ‘its’ society.

The problem with such a view is that social relations have never coincided with national frontiers. The current discussions of ‘globalisation’ merely highlight what has always been true: capitalist social relations, by their nature, have always gone beyond territorial limitations. Whereas the relation between feudal lord and serf was always a territorial relation, the distinctive feature of capitalism was that it freed exploitation from such territorial limitations, by virtue of the fact that the relation between capitalist and worker was now mediated through money. The mediation of social relations through money means a complete de-territorialisation of those relations: there is no reason why employer and employee, producer and consumer, or workers who combine in the same process of production, should be within the same territory. Capitalist social relations have never been limited by state frontiers, so that it has always been mistaken to think of the capitalist world as being the sum of different national societies. The web of social relations in which the particular national states are embedded is (and has been since the beginning of capitalism) a global web.

The focusing of revolution on the winning of state power thus involves the abstraction of the state from the social relations of which it is part. Conceptually, the state is cut out from the clutter of social relations that surround it and made to stand up with all the appearance of being an autonomous actor. Autonomy is attributed to the state, if not in the absolute sense of reformist (or liberal) theory, then at least in the sense that the state is seen as being potentially autonomous from the capitalist social relations that surround it.

Holloway’s point here is entirely correct: We have a global production process and a global constitution of the working class, but a communist movement almost exclusively focused on its obsession with winning national state power. If the forms of struggle must follow from the constitution of the working class, the obsession with breaking the state must be obsolete. The core of Holloway’s book is not his examination of fetishism nor his flawed critique of scientific socialism, but his argument that a globally constituted working class demands globally constituted methods and organization of struggle. These forms of struggle are not obvious to us because Marxists continue to be diverted from this task by their obsession with capturing and/or breaking the national state power.

If Holloway had ended his book with the close of chapter two, he would have made his entire point. In fact, the entire debate thrown up by Holloway’s book never moves beyond this chapter; no one has an answer to the problem posed by initially by Holloway, although he has not yet ventured more than a fifth of the way into his argument. And this is a good thing too, because, as I will show, all Holloway does in the succeeding chapters is undermine his own argument.


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  1. February 23, 2013 at 9:42 am

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