Review - Change the world without taking power by John Holloway - Red and Black Notes

Red and Black Notes review of Change the World without Taking Power by John Holloway. The full text of this can be found here.

Submitted by Fall Back on July 10, 2009

John Holloway's book Change the World without Taking Power makes an excellent case for not judging a book by its cover. The cover graphic of a ski-masked protester, paint brush in hand, and the anarchist circle @ might lead the curious reader to suppose the work to be the product of the anti-globalization movement; however, the title of the book suggests a new-age consciousness raising treatise. Both are misleading. In fact, while not flawless, the book is a sophisticated critique of much of what passes for mainstream Marxist thought, and deserves to be widely read and discussed within critical circles.

Holloway begins with the scream: Of rage, of negation. Parodying the Gospel of St. John he begins "In the beginning is the scream. We scream." And why not? Millions go hungry, while food is thrown away.

Corporations post record profits while their employees are thrown onto the scrap heap. Companies scramble to produce more and more elaborate toys to entertain while much of the world exists without clean water, much less having used a telephone, computer or the Internet. Holloway notes, even Hollywood has taken note of these massive discrepancies by producing movies which chart the world's injustices, such as Erin Brockovich, before assuring the viewer that everything is all right. To exist in capitalism is to rebel against its insanity. Millions everyday stage small acts of rebellion against capital. Be it through stealing of the company's time through phoning in sick, or by stealing the company's property through office supplies. In the last decade, several books have documented these underground rebellions against capital.

But these small acts merely resist capital, and while they may challenge aspects of capital's power, they do not ultimately challenge it. What is the strategy to overthrow capitalism? For conscious revolutionaries, the answer has largely been the taking of state power.

As he moves from small to large rebellions against capital, Holloway also critiques the "orthodox" Marxist notion of revolution and state power. In Marx's time and after many Marxists saw their role, as helping to build a powerful movement, which they believed would destroy capital. The anarchists, of the other hand, warned against the impending Red Bureaucracy. While this is not the place to debate old charges within the Marxist and anarchist debate, it cannot be denied that the German party was sucked into the state machinery and when the war broke out, identified itself with the German state (while other 'socialist' parties allied themselves with their national governments). This state identification extended even to the anarchists, the avowed enemies of all states, as sections of the anarchist movement including such luminaries as Kropotkin endorsed the allied cause against Germany, even though those allies included the backward reactionary Russia.

Yet still the lure of state power beckons. Reading Holloway reminded me of a review of Spike Lee's 1989 film Do the Right Thing in a leftist newspaper." Lecturing the filmmaker for his use of Public Enemy's song "Fight the Power," the review sagely commented "No, fight FOR power." Ironically, it is just that thought that has led the "left" in pursuit of unattainable and undesirable goals for over a century. Holloway notes that "these movements often had an instrumental view of the state" believing that state power was something which could be wielded in the interests of the oppressed.

It is this fetishism of the state, and indeed, the Marxist conception of fetishism itself, which informs Holloway's critique.

What then can be done? Holloway, in keeping with his thesis, is not a vanguardist, and realizes that resistance can take many forms. He quotes Foucault's dictum on power as a "multiplicity of force relations" and counter-poses an "endless multiplicity of screams."

But here is where Holloway's book seems to run into difficulties. While he is correct that resistance should not follow a pre-ordained schema, as the latter-day Church of Vanguardists would have us believe, Holloway runs the opposite risk, where autonomist Marxism often falls into of seeing every struggle as being equally important and equally central to the fight against capital. In rejecting this approach, and while not wanting to fall into old workerist conceptions, it is important to recognize that certain groups have social power in their collectivity and others do not. Recognizing this matter does not make you a vanguardist. It is a necessity in steering between the vanguardist and those who would disappear all distinctions in struggle.

The other curious aspect of Holloway's book is his seemingly uncritical approach to the Zapatista current. He argues at several points in the book that the Zapatistas do want to change the world without taking power, but is this true? When they emerged from the jungles of Chiapas onto the world stage a decade ago, the Zapatistas certainly had a very different approach from many leftist groups. On the Internet and elsewhere, the language of the Zapatistas was often about creating a new world. At other times the language has been of inclusion in this one and of finding a place in civil society.

But these are small criticisms. The merit of this book is its questioning tone. After all, didn't Marx call for "ruthless questioning"? Holloway is unafraid to attack icons (even Engles) and take on what has been the orthodoxy of the mainstream Marxist movement, even .as he maintains he has no master plan. Perhaps it is fitting that its final lines are

"This is a book that does not (yet) have a happy…"


First Published in Red and Black Notes #20, Autumn 2004, this article has been archived on from the Red and Black Notes website.