Review of Change the World Without taking Power


Aufheben review John Holloway's 2002 book "Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today".

Submitted by libcom on July 24, 2005


Since the events of Seattle in Autumn 1999, there have been numerous books and articles that have either purported to define or explain the anti-globalization/anti-capitalist movement, or else have sought to give this rather amorphous 'movement' some theoretical expression. At first sight Change the World Without Taking Power seems just another book jumping on this post-Seattle bandwagon. Indeed, with its cover image of a badly drawn balaclavered 'activist' abseiling down a wall, paint-brush in hand, it is clear that the publishers hope to tap into the growing market for anti-globalization books. However, on closer inspection, Change the World Without Taking Power is not just another such book.

In his previous work, John Holloway has made important theoretical contributions, particularly with his contributions to the debate of the 1970s and 1980s over the nature of the state.1 In Change the World Without Taking Power Holloway attempts to radically revise the notion of revolutionary change in the light of both the failure of the revolutionary project in the twentieth century and emergence of the anti-globalization/anti-capitalist movement of recent years.

However, as he himself admits, much of his previous work was written in an often obscure and difficult style that made few concessions to the non-academic reader. Furthermore, in developing what were often highly abstract theoretical formulations Holloway rarely drew out their political implications. In contrast, in Change the World Without Taking Power, Holloway goes to great lengths to make what he says accessible. But in doing so Holloway does his best not to sacrifice his theoretical rigour.

Basing himself on Marx's theories of alienation and fetishism, Holloway mounts a formidable attack on the objectivism of traditional Marxism, and shows how such objectivism leads to a state-centred view of revolutionary transformation. Yet in attacking the objectivism of traditional Marxism in this way Holloway avoids the trap of falling into the pessimism and defeatism of post-modernism and 'post-Marxism'. Of course, such a critique of the objectivism of traditional Marxism, and its significance for contemporary social movements, is far from being new. Indeed, it is a project that has been regularly taken up in the pages of Aufheben. However, what is important about this book is that Holloway makes a serious attempt to set out this critique in a clear and succinct manner.

There is much in Change the World Without Taking Power that we would agree with, and we would hope that it finds a wide readership particularly amongst activists in the anti-capitalist movement, however, as we shall see, we can only recommended it with certain reservations.

The scream

Holloway takes as his starting point what he terms the 'scream': that is the immediate subjective refusal of life under capitalism. In taking up this starting point Holloway can be seen to place himself unequivocally on the side of the anti-globalization/anti-capitalist activist. After all, what is that unites the diverse individuals that make up the black blocs, the social forums, the Zapatistas and Indian farmers but a refusal of the horrors and banalities of capitalism rooted in their direct or indirect experience?

For Holloway, it is by basing itself on the immediacy of the 'scream' that the anti-capitalist/anti-globalization movement offers the hope of breaking free from the failed politics of social change that has been dominant through much of the twentieth century. Yet in embracing the 'new politics' of anti-capitalist/anti-globalization movement Holloway is concerned not to succumb to the gut reaction of many within the movement that leads to rejection of both theory in general and the ideas of Marx in particular. Indeed one of first tasks of Holloway's book is to show how this very gut reaction to theory, and the politics of traditional Marxism, can itself be grounded in the ideas of Marx.

For Holloway the problem of most social theory that has come to inform the politics of social change is that it has become dominated by the positivism that has become the orthodox approach in most of the social sciences in the twentieth century. The study of society has taken as its model the scientific method of the natural sciences in which the theorist is an objective and detached observer who seeks to analyse what is immediately apparent and measurable. This point of departure and method leads to a 'logic of identity' that reduces social relations to a mechanical and objective relation between things.

This 'logic of identity' tends to preclude the possibility of social transformation internal to social relations themselves. Of course, for bourgeois social theory, this preclusion of internal change serves well as an ideological defence of the status quo. However, for more critical social theory this positivistic approach requires that hopes for social change have to be imported from the outside (e.g. in the form of the autonomous development of technology or in the form of the revolutionary party bringing consciousness to proletariat etc.). Against this Holloway argues:

The starting point of theoretical reflection is opposition, negativity, struggle. It is from rage that thought is born, not from the pose of reason, not from the reasoned-sitting-back-and-reflecting-on-the-mysteries-of existence that is the conventional image of the 'thinker'. We start from negation, from dissonance. The dissonance can take many shapes. An inarticulate mumble of discontent, tears of frustration, a scream of rage, a confident roar. An unease, a confusion, a longing, a critical vibration. (p.1).

The problem is that the most radical and developed social theory that emerged from the nineteenth century, and which was to dominate the politics of social change in twentieth century, has itself come under the spell of positivism. For the Marxist theorists of the Second International at the end of the nineteenth century Marxism was above all a science and as such they came to interpret Marx's ideas in positivistic terms. For Holloway this became evident in the politics of state-led social change that the Second International bequeathed to the twentieth century.

Although the Second International split between reformists and revolutionists, for both sides of this split the state was seen as an essential tool for bringing about socialism. For the reformists who came to dominate social democratic parties across the world, the state was something that was essentially class-neutral and as such could be captured as it was and used to further interests of the working class and the cause of socialism. In contrast the revolutionists recognized that the state, as presently constituted, was a bourgeois state; it was therefore necessary to reconstruct the state so that it could be used by the working class.

For both the reformists and the revolutionists, the state was seen as a thing that was more or less suitable to be used as a principal tool to bring about social transformation. Indeed, as Holloway points out, this conception of the state was also shared by traditional anarchism. The only difference being that for the anarchists the state was a tool that could only be used by the ruling class, and which could not be reconstructed.

Drawing on his contributions to the state debate, Holloway criticizes such instrumentalist conceptions of the state which fetishize the state as a thing. Instead Holloway argues that the state must be seen as a distinct social form that arises from the social relations of capitalism. The state is not essentially some thing that is externally imposed on us, but is a form that arises from the practical activity between people in a society based on generalized commodity exchange.

In presenting his critique of the instrumentalist conceptions of the state that underpin the state-orientated politics of social change of the twentieth century, Holloway is led to set out Marx's theory of fetishism and alienation on which this critique is based: how the relations between people that arise out of their practical activity appears under capitalism as a relation between things and consequently how the movement of things, the products of their practical activity, come to dominate people. However, Holloway does not develop this theory of fetishism and alienation in the familiar terms of Marx. Instead of talking in terms of capital and labour, Holloway talks in the more general terms of the 'power over' and the 'power to' and in terms of the dominance of the 'done' over the 'doing'.

It must be admitted that avoiding the more familiar terms associated with Marx has certain advantages for Holloway. First, it allows Holloway, at an early stage in the book, to avoid introducing Marx's 'jargon', which may well put off all those anarchos and others that are in some way allergic to Marx. Second, it allows Holloway to avoid an economistic interpretation which may arise if terms such as labour, labour-power and capital were to be used. Indeed, Holloway's terms serve to emphasize the essential unity of the political and the economic, which is a point that he is keen to make. Thirdly, in using these new terms Holloway is able to reinvigorate Marx's theory of fetishism and go beyond the old formulations for a new generation of revolutionaries.

However, in talking in terms of 'doing' and 'done', 'power over' and 'power to', Holloway is not merely substituting synonyms into Marx's theory but in an important way is generalizing these concepts. As we shall see later, when we come to consider our reservations concerning Change the World Without Taking Power, such a generalization is problematic.

Avoiding the deep blue sea

Of course, the critique of the positivism of traditional Marxism of the Second and Third Internationals is nothing new. It is a critique that has its origins in the 1920s with the writings of Lukacs and Korsch and became prominent in the development of what became known as Western Marxism - a development that was to take a decidedly pessimistic turn.

The defeat of the classical workers' movement after the first world war brought with it a critical reappraisal of traditional Marxism. The Marxism of the Second and Third Internationals acted as if the working class was a positive category that subsisted prior to its subsumption to capital. As such, the relation of the working class to capital was essentially an external one. As a consequence, bourgeois ideology was merely a mystification that was imposed on the working class from the outside and was opposed to the proletariat's own objective class interests. From this it followed that the task of Marxists was simply to counter the mystifications of bourgeois propaganda and teach the working class the objective truth revealed by the doctrines of scientific socialism. Socialist transformation, whether by reform or revolution, merely depended on bringing the subjective consciousness of the working class into accord with its objective class situation.

However, with the failure of the workers' revolutions that followed the first world war, and with the increasingly evident degeneration of the Russian Revolution, this conception of the working class was put into question. If capital and labour were seen as mutually determining categories then bourgeois ideology could not be seen as simply being imposed on the working class. Instead it had to be admitted that bourgeois ideology adopted by the working class was rooted in its own practical and material experience. The fetishism of social relations, which in making relations between people appear as a natural and eternally ordained relation between things, was a real illusion.

For Lukacs the way out of such fetishism was through the Party which overcame the limited fetishistic view-point of each individual proletarian by providing a view of the totality. However, for those of the Frankfurt School, writing during the rise of both Stalinism and Fascism little comfort could be gained from invoking the totalitarianism of the Party. In their hands the theory of fetishism became a doctrine of despair. For them socialist intellectuals were doomed to labour endlessly at making criticisms of capitalist society that would inevitably be ignored by those who alone could put such criticisms into practice - the working class.

In recent decades the positivism not only of traditional Marxism but also most mainstream social sciences has come under attack from Post-Structuralist and Post-Modernist writers. Armed with anti-essentialism, relativism and the rejection of 'grand narratives', Post-Modernists have questioned both the supposed objectivity of positivist science and the idea of the rational bourgeois subject. As such they have in effect developed a theory of fetishism. However, like the Frankfurt School before them, the Post-Modernist theory of fetishism has ended up even more as a counsel of despair. Sweeping away everything apart from the fetishism of appearances, there is no hope of escape. The conclusion is either an endless struggle against some amorphous power, as with Foucault, or else the struggle is given up and the estranged world of capitalism is embraced and celebrated.

So as Holloway is keenly aware, in fleeing from the devil of positivism, the theory of fetishism has all too easily fallen into the deep blue sea of despair. Holloway is keenly aware of such danger, having no doubt seen many erstwhile comrades passing from Marxism to Blairism via Post-Modernism. Yet it is a danger not confined to academic fashions. In the current period of working class retreat, the notion that the working class has been unredeemably integrated into the bourgeois society is a common one and appears in various guises of greater or lesser sophistication. It appears, for example, in the despair of primitivism, whether of the green anarchos or of Camatte.

However, Holloway argues - and this is perhaps the most important argument of the entire book - that such theories of fetishism are themselves fetishistic. They take fetishism as a once and for all imposed state of being rather than as a process that has to be continually renewed and which involves its antithesis - defetishism. As such the working class is only ever provisionally integrated within bourgeois society and the process is always liable to rupture sooner or later.

For Holloway both the state and capital are not things; they do not exist independently of each other or from us. The state and capital are two sides of a social relation that is constituted through a constantly renewed process. This process is nothing other than that of class struggle.

Throwing out the baby

As we have seen, Holloway sets out to place himself on the side of the anti-globalization movement. In doing so, Holloway sets out a clear and accessible critique of the positivistic and objectivist conceptions of traditional Marxism without falling foul of the pessimism of the critical theory of the likes of the Frankfurt School or of Post-Modernism. However, in taking the side of the anti-globalization movement, no doubt in the face of the cynicism of his former comrades and colleagues, Holloway ends up merely cheering from the sidelines. Indeed, what is perhaps most striking about Change the World Without Taking Power is its completely uncritical attitude towards anti-globalization movement and, in particular, the Zapatistas.

This result is no accident. Holloway's uncritical attitude can be seen to arise from the development of his critique of traditional Marxism. This becomes evident if we consider Holloway's theory concerning class.

Holloway quite correctly attacks the sociological approach to the question of class. This approach first of all seeks to define class by a certain set of fixed characteristics. Then once class is defined in such a manner it is then asked how this class acts in relation to other classes. Against this approach Holloway argues that class defines and constitutes itself through class struggle. As such class is not a fixed identity but a process.

As Holloway points out, this conception that the working class is constituted through class struggle was recognized and developed by the Italian Autonomists in the 1960s and early 1970s.2 For the Italian autonomists the history of capitalism was a history of class struggle. The working class repeatedly composes itself as a class against capital and consequently capital is obliged to react by reorganizing production in order to decompose the working class. Thus the history of capitalism is a continuous spiral of class composition and decomposition centred around the process of the production of surplus value. Thus whereas traditional Marxism saw capital as the active subject which imposed itself on the working class, the autonomists saw the working class as an active subject that drove the development of capitalism forward.

However, despite its merits in grasping class as an historical process that constitutes itself through the process of class struggle, Holloway identifies two interrelated problems in the approach of the Italian autonomists. Firstly, to the extent that they simply reversed the roles of capital and labour so that the working class became the active subject, the autonomists were in danger of returning to a positivistic conception of the working class. The working class could easily be seen as constituting itself as a self-subsistent class autonomous from capital. As such the autonomists had merely changed the signs of the equation of traditional Marxism. Whereas traditional Marxists had seen capital as imposing itself on a pre-existent working class, the autonomists saw the working class imposing itself on capital. But both like traditional Marxism this relation could be seen as an external one.3

To the extent that the autonomists saw the relation between capital and the working class as an external relation they tended to develop the notion of two independent subjects - capital and labour - and hence of the confrontation of two strategies. Class conflict was seen as essentially political and the theory of value, that shows the interdependence of capital and labour, tended to be abandoned. For Holloway, by denying the mutual dependence of capital and the working class, by seeing them as self-subsistent positive categories, the autonomists tended to over estimate the power of both.4

The second problem of Italian autonomism was that the historical accounts of the development of capitalism held the danger of projecting particular social subjects that emerged from the struggles at the point of production as the exclusive or most important for the entire epoch. Struggles that did not arise at the point of production, and those that did arise from the point of production but which were not considered typical or dominant, were necessarily overlooked and considered unimportant. As such, the early autonomist theories were distinctly workerist, in the English sense of the term, and denied the validity of struggles that emerged outside of the work-place.

Against these dangers inherent within autonomist Marxism, Holloway insists on both the plurality and negativity of the scream. For Holloway, the working class constitutes itself as a radical subject through its refusal to be reduced to being the working class. On this basis Holloway seeks to embrace the multiplicity of refusal - 'the politics of diversity' - that is so evident and so celebrated in the anti-globalization movement.

However, the later Italian autonomists also sought to embrace the growing multiplicity of struggles outside the work-place in the late 1970s by developing the concept of the social factory. In doing so, the autonomists announced the new social subject - the socialized worker - in which all activity from housework to studying to taking holidays was reduced to work. The problem with this, of course, is that all differences are abolished every activity is labour - everything is the same. With everything flattened out, there is no room for critical analysis.5

Holloway effectively does the same but from the opposite perspective. By generalizing labour and capital to the dominance of 'done' over 'doing' Holloway dissolves work into general human activity. Of course it is true that all human activity within capitalist society is in some way subordinated and shaped by capital. But activity that directly produces capital and that which does not - labour and non-labour is an important difference. This might not mean that one form is inherently more important than another in terms of social change but that the differences must be recognized and their relative importance will be different in different historical circumstances.

This blurring of differences in relation to work underpins a broader blurring of differences within and between classes that leads Holloway, like many autonomist Marxists, into an uncritical acceptance of all forms of refusal. Holloway comes dangerously close to a position of liberal humanism. After all, under capitalism, everyone's activity - the capitalist's included - is alienated. Hence, underneath 'we are all human'. Class becomes so fluid that it is dissolved into a general humanism. For Holloway there is 'no them and us' only us! But there is a 'them': there are those who are well content in the roles as personifications of capital and are quite prepared to destroy any who would threaten capital's dominance!

"I scream therefore I am working class"

Yet it is perhaps Holloway's very starting point that is most problematic. The scream is only an abstract moment in our being. If we are to be in this world we must comply in some way or another. However much we may scream, we have no option but to make our own way in this world. To survive we must as individuals subordinate ourselves to the process of capital's own expanded reproduction. The scream comes out of this forced compliance.

In a very real sense capital is nothing other than our separation brought about by our compliance. It is nothing more than the reproduction of the reified and alienated relations that bind us together through our very separation. Indeed the power of capital is our separation. Capital is never more powerful than when we exist as merely isolated individuals, however much we may scream as a result.

As such, revolution is nothing other than the overcoming of this separation in which we seek to reconstitute human relations unmediated by things and their price. But in overcoming our separations we have to recognize the existing objective differences that separate us in order to overcome them. Revolution involves a process of totalization - indeed a process of recomposition - in which we find unity in our diversity against capital and all those who seek to defend it. In this sense, we have to find our unity as a class against capital; however, this does not mean that class is grasped as a positive thing separate from capital but as a process that has the potential to go beyond itself - as well as the danger of dissolving into atomized individuals or sectional interest that are recuperated and reintegrated into capital.

The scream is necessary not sufficient. The scream may be the seed of revolution, as Holloway contends, but unless it develops, unless it links up and makes common cause with other screams, then it can all too easily become another brick in the wall. All struggles that are brought to a halt become recuperated and reintegrated into the world as it is.

The failure to recognize both the objective conditions that separate us and give rise to different screams from different circumstances, and the ever present danger of recuperation in which the scream is absorbed and becomes a form of compliance is the Achilles heel of Holloway's book. Holloway all too easily falls into a cheer-leading of any form of resistance - a cheer-leading that is often little more than a celebration of our defeats and atomization in the name of the 'wonderful diversity of struggles'. With such an uncritical and complacent attitude the danger is that we are unable to find ways to move forward and are unable to recognize the danger of the recuperation our struggles.

Holloway tells the story of a peasant who farts as a sign of defiance every time he saw his landlord. This 'scream', Holloway tells us is the seed that may lead to revolution. This may be so; but if the peasant continues to merely fart every time he sees his landlord, then this gesture becomes merely a compensation for his continued subjection. If the peasant remains content not go beyond farting, then this fart becomes merely a sign of resentful acquiescence.

Holloway argues that the Italian autonomists' viewpoint was that of the factory militant who sought to develop the autonomous power of the working class at the point of production. Holloway's position can all too easily be seen as that of the humble professor who is no longer confident enough to tell oppressed masses what to do but instead uncritically cheers from the side lines, comforting himself with the notion that 'I scream therefore I am working class!'


As Holloway points out, Change the World Without Taking Power is a product of the uncertainty following the fall of the USSR and the general disillusionment with the old politics of the left that throughout the twentieth century had concentrated on the conquest of state power. To be fair to Holloway, unlike many in his position he has not succumbed to the cynicism of Post-Modernism, nor has he sold his soul to Blairism. Instead Holloway has made a brave attempt to develop a new politics for the twenty-first century. In doing so he readily admits that he does not have all the answers. He even admits that he might have thrown the baby out with the bath water - and we think he may well have done so. Nevertheless, despite our reservations, Change the World Without Taking Power is an interesting book and one that should be widely read.

  • 1See our review of 'The State Derivation Debate', Aufheben 2 (Summer 1993).
  • 2In our review article of' Cleaver's Reading 'Capital' Politically and of Steve Wright's Storming Heaven (see 'From Operaismo to "Autonomist Marxism"' in this issue) we have sought to make a clear distinction between the three terms operaismo, autonomia and 'autonomist Marxism'. Operaismo refers to the theories developed in the 1960s and early 1970s within the Italian movement of that name which focused on the work-place and the mass worker. Autonomia refers to the theories developed in the late 1970s that saw the mass worker being replaced by the 'socialized worker' as the revolutionary subject. 'Autonomist Marxism' is the term for that school of Marxism based largely in the USA that has sought to defend and propagate the theories of Italian autonomism since the end of the 1980s. Holloway does not make such distinctions and uses the term autonomism to apply to all. We shall follow Holloway's usage in this review.
  • 3Holloway accepts that such a positive conception of class does not necessarily follow from the Italian autonomist theory. However, this positivistic conception of class was most fully developed by Toni Negri; and, as Holloway points out, is still evident in his most recent writings including Empire in which the 'multitude' stands externally opposed to the 'empire'. See 'From Operaismo to "Autonomist Marxism"' in this issue.
  • 4This is a point that is made in our critique of the autonomist analysis of the oil crisis and the Middle East put forward by Midnight Notes in their book Midnight Oil. See 'Review: Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War, 1973-92' Aufheben 3 (Summer 1994) and 'Escape from the Law of Value?', Aufheben 5 (Autumn 1996).
  • 5For our criticisms of the tendency of autonomia to make all the working class the same in their theory of the socialised worker see 'From Operaismo to "Autonomist Marxism"' in this issue.