Special Issue: International Forum on John Holloway's ‘Change the World without Taking Power’,

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Not long ago, the demiurges of postmodernism seemed to have been relatively successful in spreading the idea that to change the world (or even to think about it) was the task of incorrigible activists who deserved a special site in a museum of modern dreams. An extremely rich ‘repertoire of actions’ of recent years (Tarrow, 1995), from Chiapas to Seattle, from Buenos Aires to Mumbai, made apparent the absurdity of this belief. ‘Another world is possible!’ has become the mobilising utopia of our time. What unlocks the feelings of liberation and allows the creation of new spaces for participation and debate is precisely the vagueness of this statement. But is this imprecision also a symptom of the difficulty to develop a general strategy able simultaneously to shelter and nurture the plurality of struggles, and provide political and ideological consistence to resistance?
The originality of this moment is that the regaining of the streets by a variety of actors does not only represent a reaction to global neoliberalism and its consequences, but also shows an enthusiastic determination to discuss the meaning of revolution today. This Forum is a contribution to this task. The debate about John Holloway’s book is inspired in previous debates and will, hopefully, encourage further polemics within Capital and Class and elsewhere.
The reasons to engage with this particular book are several. It would be hard to refuse Holloway’s call for what Žižek (2002) has called emancipatory reflection. Holloway’s work has been welcomed across the world at a time when intellectual contributions to radical change are scarce. Holloway stands against both those who have succumbed to the sirens of either empirical reality or abstract theory, and those who believe that the new Anarchist times don’t need any theoretical elaboration (Klein 2003). Loyal to the autonomous spirit of his time, and enchanted by the Zapatistas project, Holloway neither searches for a confirmation of his theses nor provides close answers to his questions.
Three key issues for Marxists and those advocating radical change, offered in the book, and all interconnected, constitute the kernel of this debate: the understanding of praxis as ‘practical negativity’, the idea of ‘anti-power’ and the rejection of the state as a tool for radical change.
As a continuation of his previous work, Holloway invites us to reflect on the weakness of what is conceived as inalterably powerful, i.e. capital. He suggests that, in this world, it is only humans (rather than the fetishised forms of their work) who retain the capacity to create and change the world: ‘it is labour alone which constitutes social reality. There is no external force; our own power is confronted by nothing but our own power, albeit in alienated form’ (Holloway, 1993: 19). Capitalist contradictions are in no way external, but inhabited subjectivity. However, capitalist societies are based on permanent processes of ‘objectification of subjective doing’ (p.27) (2). By ‘doing’ he means much more than work and physical action. ‘Doing’ is the movement of ‘practical negativity’: ‘doing changes, negates an existing state of affairs. Doing goes beyond, transcends.’(p. 23). The power implied in doing is negative: ‘[t]he doing of the doers’, Holloway argues, ‘is deprived of social validation: we and our doing become invisible. History becomes the history of the powerful, of those who tell others what to do. The flow of doing becomes an antagonistic process in which the doing of most is denied, in which the doing of most is appropriated by the few’ (p 29-30).
The notion of subjectivity as negativity is powerful: ‘the world that we feel to be wrong’ (p. 3) must be negated, including our identity. But this presents a real problem to the organisation of resistance: one significant point of contention in Holloway’s proposal is that, whereas the negation of ‘what we are’ is essential to insubordination, the moment of negation cannot be grasped without considering the moment of reinvention of identities, organisations and strategies which follow negation. If class struggle is, as Holloway argues, ‘the struggle to classify and against being classified at the same time as it is, indistinguishably, the struggle between constituted classes’ (p. 143), how do we then theorise the struggle for human realization and social recognition against the expansion of indifference entailed in the expansion of value? In other words, if the ‘scream of insubordination is the scream of non-identity’ (p.15), how do we enlighten the revolutionary potential of new organisational forms of resistance like the World Social Forum or the Brazilian landless’ Movemento Sem Terra, to use just two examples, which emerged as negation takes place and which became the forms through which resistance asserts itself? Is it ‘practical negativity’ or rather the ‘contradictory tension’ between both ‘negativity and positivity’ (Laclau and Mouffe, 1999) which gives rebellion its real force?
One lesson that can be learned from the Argentine experience is that, on the one hand, the struggle to recompose the political fabric and develop new forms of democracy and participation by a variety of social movements since December 2001, fired directly at the heart of the system of corruption, exploitation and domination entailed in neo-liberal stability. The rejection entailed in All of them, out! was followed by a moment of intense mobilisation and the emergence of new forms of resistance vis-à-vis the institutional crisis. Autonomous and ‘disorganised’ movements became central to political processes thus overshadowing institutional politics. On the other hand, the search for autonomy found its limits in the recomposition of state power in the hands of traditional political elites. Does this mean that there was no political change in Argentina after December 2001? Where do we look for ‘political changes’? The recomposition following the December crisis re established the separation between ‘civil society’ and the ‘state’ in a way that intensified the dilemma brought about by ‘anti-politics’ for social movement: the contradiction between the need to create a political movement able to coordinate action and dispute the power of the state, and the free development of a pluralist movement of resistance based on autonomous practices and self-affirmation (Dinerstein, 2004; 2003).
The second controversial issue in Holloway’s book is the idea that anti-power is the route to emancipation. Holloway is not concerned with strategic organisation but rather advocates uncertainty and anti-power: ‘how can we change the world without taking power? The answer is obvious: we don’t know’ (p.22). What we do know is that practical negativity is anti-power, and anti-power means the rejection of any revolutionary project aimed at taking the power of the state. Following Holloway, ‘the problem of the traditional concept of revolution is perhaps not that it aimed too high, but that it aimed too low. The notion of capturing positions of power … misses the point that the aim of the revolution is to dissolve relations of power, to create a society based on the mutual recognition of people’s dignity’ (p.20). But: is anti-power a real possibility or a rhetorical device that reflects the fragmentation and uncertainty of our time? Does the defence of oppositional struggles, which embrace the idea of praxis as practical negativity, adequately engage with the reality of present struggles? Does it give democracy -according to Lowy, the ‘absent concept’ in Holloway’s proposal-, the central place that it deserves?
The third matter of discrepancy within this forum is Holloway’s proposal that a revolutionary movement should not seize the power of the state. The impact of Zapatismo on the world lies according to Holloway, in that it ‘moves us decisively beyond the state illusion…The state illusion understands revolution as the winning of state power and the transformation of society through the state.’ (2002: 157). That a revolutionary movement must have as its goal to take the power of the state is highly debatable. What seems to be clear is that to reject such a project is not the same as to deny that the state is, due to the very nature of capitalism, one of the main institutional forms of mediation of capitalist social relations of production and, therefore, of class struggle too. Long time ago Holloway made a significant contribution by highlighting that the state was not a thing but the political form of social relations of capital (Holloway and Picciotto, 1977). One cannot get out of the ‘state-yes/state-no’ loop until one regards the state as such. As a social form, the state ‘is and is not.’ Then, why is the possibility that the form of the state can be disputed and fought over on behalf of the interests of the majority overruled by Holloway’s proposal? Is Holloway disregarding state power? If so, can the power of the state be disregarded? Or is the search for emancipation a contradictory process of going through in, against and through the state? These and more questions are posed below. In the end, ‘each thought is a force-field, and just as the truth-content of a judgment cannot be divorced from its execution, the only true ideas are those which transcend their own thesis’ (Adorno, 2000: 40-41). The polemic is open.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)13-31
Number of pages18
JournalCapital and Class
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2005


  • change
  • revolution
  • the state
  • John Holloway
  • collective action
  • marxism
  • social movements
  • the left


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