Can We Change the World without Taking Power?

Arvind Ghosh,
Peter Hudis

Critique of John Holloway’s Change the World without Taking Power. Originally appeared in Open Space Forum (India): – Editors

One issue is being widely discussed in the freedom movements today—whether it’s possible to change the world without seizing state power.

For many years the predominant view, especially among traditional Marxists, was that revolution centers on seizing state power. The question of how to transform social relations received less attention. For many years even the greatest revolutionaries tended to focus first and foremost on the political seizure of state power, leaving until later the question of how to fundamentally transform social relations. That approach defined the attitude of the generation that made the Russian Revolution of 1917. As Lenin noted after 1917, making the revolution was relatively easy; figuring out how to reorganize conditions of life and labor after the seizure of power proved far more difficult.

However this approach is now being contested. As the Movimiento Raiz, an indigenous rights group in the Andes, stated at this year’s World Social Forum: “We refuse to be articulated around the paradoxical and frustrating strategy of ‘resisting power by becoming power yourself’ and ‘to take power with the goal of afterwards changing society’ which ended in the massive retreat of the extinct ‘socialist’ camp facing capitalism, which facilitated the counter-revolution of global capitalism, euphemistically named ‘globalization.’ Our democracy should be a total, social, direct, alternative and planetary democracy. A new network of new theories is needed with new movements which reinvents and redefines socialism and democracy.”This view is a most welcome one. However, it raises many unresolved questions. How are the social relations of capitalism to be uprooted if the question of state power is put aside? Does the rejection of statist fetishism lead to another illusion—namely, that the world can be changed by separating ourselves from existing society through the creation of enclaves temporarily free from the repressive power of the state?

The work of John Holloway exemplifies the unsettled nature of these questions. He argues against the notion that “first we win power and then we shall create a new society.” The state, he notes, is not an instrument that exists outside of capitalism; capitalist relations are instead thoroughly embedded in the modern state. A focus on seizing state power inevitably leads radicals to reproduce the basic hierarchies of capitalism—of leaders versus led, of power-over versus power-to-do. Capital, he says, is not just something that exists outside us; it is based on the separation between doing and done, between subject and object. When radicals focus on seizing control of the state they soon find themselves upholding the very relations of capital they had earlier sworn to oppose: “Once the logic of power is adopted, the struggle against power is already lost” (p. 17).

Holloway instead calls for creating relations of “anti-power”—that is, dissolving relations of power-over-others in our everyday struggles: “This project is far more radical than any notion of revolution based on the conquest of power and at the same time far more realistic.” His model is the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico, who eschewed any notion of trying to seize state power after their revolt of 1994.

The Zapatistas’ focus on developing new forms of resistance has surely made a valuable contribution to reconceptualizing the idea of revolution. At the same time, the power of the Mexican state in isolating and repressing the Zapatistas shows that the problem of state power can in no way be bypassed. The state still needs to be confronted, challenged, and ultimately smashed. Yet since the state is the expression of capital, it will not vanish overnight; it will persist in some form until we have created a new society of freely associated labor on a world scale. This raises the thorny question of how we can contest the power of the state without falling prey to its logic of domination.

In a presentation at the 2005 World Social Forum Porte Alegre Holloway stated: “If we organize ourselves to take power, to try to win state power, then inevitably we put ourselves into the logic of capitalist power…we reproduce within our own struggles the power of capital.” He therefore argued that we need to build “our own power-to,” by which he means creating “different forms of organization, forms which are not symmetrical to capital’s forms, forms which do not separate and exclude. Our power is not just a counter power, it is not a mirror-image of capitalist power, but an anti-power, a power with a completely different logic—and a different temporality.”‘ This requires, he contended, that we “tear a hole, a fissure in the texture of capitalist domination now, today…. This means not just living despite capitalism, but living in-against-and-beyond capitalism. It means an interstitial conception of revolution, in which a new world, a new commune-ism, grows in the interstices of and in opposition to capitalism.”

This raises a conceptual problem. As we all know, the state is an expression of the social relation of capital. The state therefore cannot be abolished so long as the capital relation persists. And the capital relation will persist so long as the two-fold character of labor in which it is grounded isn’t transformed on a world scale. Thus, creating communism in the “interstices” of capitalism cannot rid the world of the capital relation upon which the state rests. Holloway acknowledges this, stating: “Self-determination can only be a social process, a global knitting together of collective processes of self-determination, a weaving together of councils or communes or assemblies. But it is not just a question of deliberations (of how we make decisions), it is also and above all a question of how we can organize our doing, our activity, in a way that goes against-and-beyond capital. And not just against-and-beyond capital, but against-and-beyond the law of value, against-and-beyond the market and the times and the disciplines which it imposes. That is the most difficult part of thinking how we can create and are creating a new commons (or common), a new commune-ism.”

Holloway has hit upon an important point that is often neglected in contemporary discussions of social transformation. Attaining the “right” form of deliberations or decision-making is certainly important; but that alone does not resolve the problem of what specific human relations need to be transformed in order to abolish capital. Marx never ceased to emphasize, as he wrote in Capital,that “the means of production become capital only in so far as they have become separated from the laborer and confront labor as an independent power.” Marx insisted that this separation not only marked the historical origin of capital; it is also the “continuous process” by which capital is repeatedly reproduced and self-engendered. Only if this terror of separation is overcome can a new society emerge. Achieving that depends not simply on the right form of political decision making, but on uprooting the specific content of social relations that separate labor from its objective conditions. As Marx wrote in the Critique of the Gotha Program in 1875, a truly communist society that completely transcends the confines of the old society emerged when labor becomes “the prime necessity of life” instead of serving as a mere means of life.

As Holloway’s book Change the World Without Taking Power makes clear, achieving such a new society involves transcending the central problem of capitalism—the fetishism of commodities. The problem is not just that we are dominated by a power outside us, the state or the capitalist class, but that our human relations take on the form of relations between things. Fetishism “refers to the breaking of the social flow of doing, the turning of doing against itself” (p. 45). Unless we confront and uproot this, Holloway insists, we will never be free. Yet this raises a difficult issue. Marx says in capital that human relations in capitalism appear to take on the form of relations between things because “that is what they really are.” Commodity fetishism is no illusion; it defines the nature of our lives. But if that is so, is it even possible for us to think outside the fetish?

Holloway sees the way out as lying in the everyday resistance engendered by those opposing oppression. We cannot feel alienated, he notes, unless we have some sense of what it means to be non-alienated. This friction between our everyday oppression and our sense that we are more than a mere object of oppression breeds negativity, resistance. This negativity, he argues, is the font from which we can break through the fetishism of commodities

What Holloway fails to single out, however, is that for Marx mere negativity by itself does not surmount the fetishism of commodities. In chapter 1 of Capital, Marx does not say that that the spell of commodity fetishism can be broken simply through “everyday resistance” or pure negativity. He instead says that the spell of fetishism is broken when we have “for a change, association of freely associated men.” Marx projects a momentous, fundamental break with the very nature of value production as the way to transcend the fetishism of commodities. He presupposes a positive transcendence of capitalism and from this standpoint penetrates the inner mystery of fetishism itself.

All of this suggests that to transcend fetishism the power of negativity must become absolute, that is, inseparable from a vision of the future, a notion of the transcendence of value production. Marx could project such a vision because he held on to Hegel’s concept of “the negation of the negation”—that is, what is needed is not only the destruction of the old but also the creation of the new. History has shown that ceaseless negativity by itself does not free us from the stranglehold of commodity fetishism. Without a vision of a future non-exploiting society, we remain at mere first negation—opposing what is—without having a sense that we can create a non-alienated reality.

What defines the alienating character of today’s reality is the separation of labor from its conditions of production, which Marx defined as the originating condition of capital that is constantly reproduced through the entire course of its perverse existence. This separation is based on the effort to divide what cannot be divided—the human being. It is the negation of our humanity as conscious, purposeful beings. A successful social revolution represents the negation of this negation, the restoration of the wholeness of the human being—humanism.

So long as the active act of overcoming this separation is not the target of social transformation, reactionary tendencies that strive to provide a false sense of community and solidarity on the basis of existing forms of separation produced by the capital-relation will continue to deform our planet. We encounter an array of such tendencies today, such as religious fundamentalism, narrow nationalism, and ecological primitivism. The one and only ground for combating these regressive tendencies today is the humanism of Marx.

Therefore what is needed is neither to focus everything on seizing state power nor to leave the question of the state aside. What our generation needs is a concept of what happens after the revolution, what kind of human relations must be created at work, between men and woman, between the races, and in society as a whole, in order for capital to be transcended

Here we come face to face with the grave difficulty of envisioning an alternative. It is clearly pointless to focus on seizing state power while leaving aside the transformation of alienated social relations. Yet leaving aside the question of the state in order to create “‘interstices” of communism in a sea of capitalism doesn’t provide a clear way out either—since at the very least, the continued existence of the law of value and the state means that any interstices can be readily crushed. Is it possible then to avoid becoming entrapped in the web of state power without falling prey to the notion that the most we can hope for is creating what Herbert Marcuse at the end of his life called “islands of safety for spirit”? Is there a way out of becoming either enmeshed in state power or ignoring state power by focusing on creating autonomous zones that capital can readily kill off?

The answer to this isn’t clear, not alone to Holloway, but to anyone. Those who think they have the answer haven’t thought through the problem very seriously. What makes it harder to answer it is that much of this discussion skips over Marx’s work. In the Critique of the Gotha Program Marx sharply attacked his followers for exhibiting a “‘slavish belief in the state.” Instead of appealing to the state to establish the “socialist organization of collective labor,” Marx held that the socialist reconstruction of society depends upon smashing the state. He spelled out the role of the state in the aftermath of a revolution as follows: “Between capitalist and communist society lies a period of revolutionary transformation from one to the other. There corresponds also to this a political transition period.”

Marx’s point is that the state cannot vanish so long as the capitalist mode of production has not yet been fully uprooted. But during the “political transition period” the state no longer governs society; society now governs the state. It is a transition period, because the “revolutionary transformation” of capitalism into communism either succeeds—in which case a communist society emerges in which there is no state—or it does not succeed, in which case society reverts back to what prevailed before the seizure of power. To Marx the political transition period is brief. If the revolutionary transformation from capitalism to communism is not achieved, the political transition—regardless of the particular form—is not sustainable. A political transition period is therefore not the same as a lengthy transitional society, which Marx does not discuss at all in his Critique—or anywhere else for that matter!

Marx clearly drew upon the experience of the Paris Commune in his Critique of the Gotha Program. The Commune did not totally eliminate the state—nor could it in its six weeks of existence. But it completely transformed the state by converting it “from an organ controlling society to one completely controlled by it.” Marx wrote in The Civil War in France that the Commune was “a thoroughly expansive political form…at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor….it was therefore to serve as a lever for uprooting the economical foundations upon which rests the existence of classes.” According to Marx the political form does not by itself transform the mode of production. It is a lever that makes it possible to transform it. The mode of production is transformed when the law of value is abolished. At that point, social labor no longer counts as an indirect part but as a direct part of the total social labor. Labor is no longer characterized by a dual form of individual working time versus the amount of social labor that it represents. Alienated human relations give way to transparent ones. The new mode of production in turn gives rise to a new mode of distribution, based not on the abstract medium of socially necessary labor time but on a concrete, sensuous medium—actual labor time.

Again, Marx had in mind a relatively brief political transition period. Either the revolution spreads and the masses make use of the proper political form to transform the mode of production and create a new society; or the revolution doesn’t spread and the mode of production isn’t transformed, in which case the old society reasserts itself.

The problem with much of today’s debate on the state is that one side argues for seizing state power; the other side argues for cooperative forms independent of the state. Undoubtedly alternative organizational forms can play a key role in creating a new society. But they can do so only if we spell out how such forms can lead to the abolition of the alienated character of labor and other human relations. It is by no means ensured that spontaneous actions will achieve this. They can do so only if the dialectics of thought—the conceptual determinants found in Marx’s philosophy of “revolution in permanence”—are applied on the question of how to create a new kind of non-alienated labor process through the uprooting of the capital relation.

Unfortunately, this dimension of the issue has received the least discussion of all in today’s debates on the state. It is therefore no accident that neither side in the debate points out that the task is to smash state power. It’s easy to see why those who fetishize the state refrain from doing so. But why do many anti-statist leftists refrain from doing so? To Holloway capitalism is based on “‘power-over,” whereas revolution is based on “‘power-to.” So what is one to do in the interim between creating “interstices” of communism and the world revolution? Marx’s answer, to use Holloway’s language, is that society must exert its “power-over” the state, instead of allowing the state to have “power-over” society. Yet by completely rejecting any concept of “power-over,” state Holloway removes Marx’s concept from the parameters of the discussion. As a result, his position seems to end in a cul-de-sac.

There is no golden key that can answer the difficult question of “what happens after” a revolution. But we will not be able to make progress on this issue unless we come to grips with Raya Dunyaevskaya’s insistence that “unless the inseparability between the dialectics of thought and of revolution does exist, any country that does succeed in its revolution may retrogress, since the world revolution cannot occur at one strike everywhere and world capitalism continues to exist.”

This is the crucial issue. To steer our way through the many contradictions that are sure to confront even the most successful revolution, the dialectics of revolution must become joined with the dialectics of thought as found in a body of ideas—Marx’s philosophy of “revolution in permanence,” central to which is Marx’s appropriation of Hegel’s concept of absolute negativity. Without that as mediation, a totally new revolt in which everyone experiences absolute liberation cannot be sustained.

Permission to upload this granted on October 15 2005


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