Change the World Without Taking Power - The Meaning of Revolution Today

Submitted by on 6 November, 2003 - 12:00 Author: Paul Hampton
Subcommandante Marcos

This is a provocative book that has been widely read in the global justice movement. But I think it is deeply flawed, tossing aside valuable ideas that can help orientate today's activists.

Holloway argues that people start out in politics because we hate the oppression and exploitation in the world around us. Holloway calls this "the scream". He describes us as "flies caught in a web of social relations".

He also says that past projects to change the world have failed. Both social democratic attempts to reform away the evils of capitalism (by winning elections to government), and "revolutionary movements" that have overthrown capitalism (for example in the USSR, China, Cuba, Vietnam, etc.) have failed to end this oppression and exploitation. Holloway argues that because they focused on winning state power, they were bound to fail.

He rejects the Marxist idea of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class. Holloway also rejects political parties, because he says they represent an elite seeking power "on behalf of the masses".

He argues that the only way out of this impasse is to change the world without taking power - hence the title of the book. He finds hope in a range of struggles, which do not aim to take power but rather fight for dignity. His examples include the Zapatistas in Mexico, struggles to defend health or education, and other more fragmented protests.

On a certain level, Holloway is right that many of us start from something like the scream - because we oppose the injustice around us. It's also true that social democratic reformism has failed, and that Stalinism in Russia, China, Vietnam, Cuba etc was (and still is) a form of oppression and exploitation that has nothing to do with our project for a better world.

However the "Marxism" criticised in this book is a parody, an amalgam that bears little relation to what Marxists really think. Holloway's caricature of Marxism is enough to make anyone scream!!

Being "trapped like flies" is not a useful analogy. It's not a starting point because, if we are trapped like flies, then where do those social relations come from? Even if it's true that we are constrained by social relations - social relations of production also empower the working class. As the direct producers of wealth, workers have the power to interrupt production - witness the recent London postal strike or the Bolivian gas strikes. And as collective producers, workers have the power to organise a different kind of economic system, for goals other than profit (principally human need).

This is why Holloway's redefinition of the working class as "nearly everybody" is mistaken. Peasants in Chiapas are exploited by capital, or suffer under market dependence even when they are not workers. But it is only workers that have both the interest and the power to break these chains and create a new social system.

There is a deep irony in Holloway's position. He's university lecturer in Puebla in Mexico, and constantly looks to the Zapatistas. Yet right under his nose Volkswagen car workers have fought a 30-year long struggle to create an independent trade union, in the teeth of opposition from the Mexican state and its allies. Recently, garment workers in the same area have organised unions to defend themselves against sweatshop conditions - mostly successfully in the Kukdong-Mexmode struggle in 2001. Here lies the real hope for revolution - the self-activity of the working class. But there is no mention of these struggles in this book.

Holloway is also wrong when he says the working class is in decline - in fact there are now more industrial workers than ever before (perhaps 200 million in China alone). For the first time in history, workers are globally the largest class. And workers have been important in all kinds of struggles, such as the end of apartheid, the end of military rule in Brazil and South Korea, and in the democracy movement in China.

Holloway's dismissal of the Marxist theory of the state is also too hasty. For one thing, he evades the difficult question of what to do about the capitalist class and its machinery of domination now, when it stands opposed to us, if we don't try to take power. Movements in Chile (1973) or Poland (1980) that did not seek power invariably were smashed by the states they faced.

During the Paris Commune (1871), the October revolution in Russia (1917) and in other places too in history, (at least in embryo), workers formed their own democratic committees or councils (soviets) with directly accountable representatives. These organs were both the means of taking power, and the basis of the new "semi-state" to replace capitalist rule. The Commune and the Soviets were both isolated in history, and were defeated - but had similar workers revolutions taken place in other countries, this form of democratic, collective self-rule could have worked.

These workers' revolutions failed, and the working class faced decades of defeat, because workers lacked their own party. Only the Bolsheviks in Russia formed such a party, conscious of the reality of capitalism, and conscious of how the working class could make a revolution. Elsewhere, without a party with clear ideas and with roots in working class struggles, the workers could not liberate themselves.

The working class still needs to clarify, through open, democratic discussion, what kind of resistance is effective, and who our allies and enemies are. Such a party, with a clear goal - socialism, and a well worked out and grounded way to make it happen, is far from the monolithic Stalinist parties, and far from the stale machine politics of mainstream parties.

Holloway's book rejects the working class as the only social force that can make a real revolution, and end the scream. It offers the new generation of activists only excuses, not a path to the workers.

Virtue from necessity?

"The Zapatista formulations of a revolution without taking power are more complex and more ambiguous than they appear at first sight.

"On a first level, we can see here a sort of self-criticism of the armed movements of the 60s and 70s, of military hierarchy, of commandism towards the social organisations, and of caudillo-ist deformations. On this level, the texts of the Zapatistas mark a healthy turn which rediscovers the lost tradition of "socialism from below" and of popular self-emancipation: it it not a question of taking power for oneself (party, army or vanguard) but of contributing to it being rendered to the people ...

"On a second, tactical, level, the Zapatistas ... are conscious that the conditions for overthrowing the central authorities and the ruling class are far from being ripe… so the Zapatistas say they don't want what, in any case, they cannot get. It is making virtue of necessity, settling into a war of attrition and a long-term duality of power at least at the level of a region.

"On a third, strategic, level, the Zapatistas' discourse comes down to flatly denying the importance of the question of power, and simply demanding the reorganisation of civil society. This theoretical position reproduces the dichotomy between civil society (social movements) and political institutions (for example electoral ones). The former [social movements] are relegated to a role of pressure (lobbying) on institutions which one is resigned to not changing ...

"By giving Zapatism a pretty much angelic image, at the cost of taking his distance from all concrete history and politics, Holloway sustains dangerous illusions. Not only does the Stalinist counter-revolution play no role in his balance-sheet of the twentieth century, but with him all history becomes a matter of good or bad ideas."

From Daniel Bensaid, "La Révolution sans prendre le pouvoir?", in Contretemps no.6, February 2003.

Score: 6/10
Reviewer: Paul Hampton