John Holloway - Change the World Without Taking Power

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Django
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Mar 27 2008 20:31
John Holloway - Change the World Without Taking Power

I've been rereading this recently. I first read it just over a year ago, on the recommendation of a couple of anarchoid mates who thought it was fantastic. Thought it was mostly good a year ago, and still do now, but I have more reservations and qualifications. Generally i like his writing style and method - I do think its useful not to pull all of the Marxist clichés out immediately. It also means that anarcho types can get into it, which is important i think because they can learn a lot from libertarian marxist approaches to the state (I did, and consider myself more of a libertarian communist now, not that it matters massively).

So heres what I like: The state as a social relationship, not as an exterior and fetishised object (which seems common in anarchist theory).
I think seeing both capitalism and the state as things that are continually constituted is really useful.
Marxism as a politics of subjective resistance – where this goes can depend though, as aufheben's review on here pointed out.

I dont like the uncritical cheerleading for the Zapatistas. I definitely think they should be supported, but not without reservations.
I also think that although it is important that class doesn't act as a label, as another a priori category in identity politics (though self-perception is important), his ideas about how as alienation is universal, proletarianisation is universal are unconvincing. His professors-are-proletarians stuff was a bit embarassing. I think that questions of hierarchy and co-ordination are important, and that class needs to be understood in relation to this.

I'd be interested to see what other people think about this book.

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Mar 27 2008 20:35
Django wrote:
So heres what I like: The state as a social relationship, not as an exterior and fetishised object (which seems common in anarchist theory).

How does that work?

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Django
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Mar 28 2008 10:43

Its not something set up once and for all until its "smashed" but a relationship which is constantly renewed

mikus
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Mar 28 2008 14:56

And what does that mean?

Antieverything
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Mar 29 2008 01:58

Structured structures structuring structuring structures.

mel
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Mar 29 2008 02:46

i think django just means that the state is a relation between two behaviours, rather than an object in it's own right, independent of what we do like an apple is.

btw mikus, i wrote in an essay that realism meant independent of language and got marked down - scientific realism typically means independent of mind. well it was only a draft but i'm mad at you so.

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Khawaga
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Mar 29 2008 09:54
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i think django just means that the state is a relation between two behaviours, rather than an object in it's own right, independent of what we do like an apple is.

I'm pretty sure that Mikus knows exactly what Django means.

mel
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Mar 29 2008 14:28

what was the point of the question then?

he thinks 'relation' is a fake term? i've covered that, vaguely.

mikus
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Mar 29 2008 16:08
Khawaga wrote:
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i think django just means that the state is a relation between two behaviours, rather than an object in it's own right, independent of what we do like an apple is.

I'm pretty sure that Mikus knows exactly what Django means.

Nope, if I did I wouldn't have asked. Holloway has made quite a profession of babbling like an idiot.

I'll stick to Marx on the state, thank you very much.

mel
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Mar 29 2008 17:47

well now all of us look stupid.

i agree that it seems unpractical, and it's not clear because 'relation' does need to be analyzed further - at the least for people who don't read philosophy. but it's not meaningless nonsense.

e.g. i'm not sure what point he's making with the idea it's a social relation; it sounds like an attempt at a proof of something, but i can't think what. tho doesn't marx say the same?

anyway, hi mikus smile

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Khawaga
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Mar 29 2008 18:56
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Nope, if I did I wouldn't have asked. Holloway has made quite a profession of babbling like an idiot.

I'll stick to Marx on the state, thank you very much.

OK, my bad. I thought you were being socratic or something like that. Usually you seem to know a lot.

In any case, what Marx view on the state? The Bonepartist one?

mel
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Mar 29 2008 19:08

nah he's just a fake.

mikus
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Mar 29 2008 20:21
Khawaga wrote:
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Nope, if I did I wouldn't have asked. Holloway has made quite a profession of babbling like an idiot.

I'll stick to Marx on the state, thank you very much.

OK, my bad. I thought you were being socratic or something like that. Usually you seem to know a lot.

In any case, what Marx view on the state? The Bonepartist one?

Not to toot my own horn, but I do know a lot. And one of the things I know is that Holloway is spouts of vaguely defined ideas that sound nice but really say little, if anything at all.

I think Marx's view of the state is most clearly laid out in his Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right and in The Civil War in France. There are other important ideas expressed elsewhere, such as Capital, The Critique of the Gotha Programme, The 18th Brumaire, etc. A friend of mine wrote something on Marx and the state with which I'm in 100% agreement, so I'll keep mostly quiet until that's worked up well enough to be put into the libcom library (assuming it's accepted).

But basically Marx's definition of the bourgeois state seems to me to be that the state is form of organization which acts to dominate civil society (civil society being the "sphere" in which the market, and the individual interest corresponding to it, reign supreme), and which sets the rules and limitations of civil society (while at the same time using the general means at society's disposal, such as law, the military, police, etc., in the private interest of those who hold power).

So yes it is a "relation" in this very specific sense (a sense which goes far beyond the vague formulations of someone like John Holloway). I don't know what it means to say that this relation is "constantly renewed" (nor to say that it isn't constantly renewed).

Also, the issue of what the state "is" tends to be a lot of metaphysical claptrap. Mostly you have people operating with different definitions of state, and then their acting as if they had discovered a new empirical fact about the state. (This is true even of the Marx/Bakunin feud, to a great extent.) This is how I see Holloway. He defines the state in a new way and then claims to have revealed new aspects of the state. This is a very good way to succeed in academia, but a very poor way to do theory.

It's not like "the state" is anything like, say, a tree, where we know what a tree is before (and after) one makes empirical claims about it. There is no way to simply point at the state. So claims about it make very little sense until it has been clearly defined. And I don't see how Holloway has moved anywhere beyond providing a definition of it. (Except, his definition is a very vague one and so wouldn't serve very well even if he did wish to provide an actual theory of the state.)

Also the claim that anyone saw the state as an "object" is mostly, maybe even completely, a strawman. True, many Marxists saw the state (in the bourgeois sense) as a class-neutral form of organization that could be used to serve various class needs (so long as the personnel changed). And that seems to be what people like Holloway are arguing against (and for good reason). But that doesn't mean that it was seen as an "object." Even the simplest (and indeed insufficient) definition of the state as a sort of combination of the military, judicial system, police, etc., cannot see the state as an "object", unless somehow the military and judicial system and police, all together, were an "object", which I find it hard to imagine anyone asserting.

So yeah, I don't see Holloway as doing much more than making very vague sentences which sound nice to those with bad taste.

mel
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Mar 29 2008 20:35

i don't know mikus says

Quote:
It's not like 'the state' is anything like, say, a tree, where we know what a tree is before (and after) one makes empirical claims about it... claims about it make very little sense until it has been clearly defined

i'm not entirely sure what is a tree and what isn't, and i'm pretty sure that the police are part of the state. and there aren't volume of marxist literature on trees.

i also wonder if holloway is attempting a virtuous circle - bringing our intuition of the state in line with a definition of it. something like that? tho i don't really understand what mikus means when he says "act is if they had found a new empirical fact about the state". does holloway say that his is an empirical fact or not? are facts found through experiment somehow privileged?

so yeah i think we know to some extent what 'state' means.

(Admin - dumb unfounded insults edited out)...mikus grossly overplays what he is saying, and fleshes out one sometimes two contentious points into a supposed refutation. usually it's an appeal to Marx's authority, but we're left guessing as to how well he has read him.

but you know there's communist credibility to be gained from rubbishing other communists' work.

mel
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Mar 29 2008 21:13

e.g., the post above by mikus. we have 2 points to refute holloway.

1. holloway says he makes an empirical claim [no quote provided]
2. holloway is attempting to refute state socialists and only does so through a straw man [no quote provided for either of these claims].

in return mikus brushes up against unargued: empiricism; dogmatic, marxism; arrogance; the impossibility of metaphysics; the falsity of most academia; nepotism; and the idea that strong definitions must always precede analysis [which seems wrong to me].

all in all - are we really lucky to have him?

john
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Mar 30 2008 20:04
mikus wrote:
A friend of mine wrote something on Marx and the state with which I'm in 100% agreement, so I'll keep mostly quiet until that's worked up well enough to be put into the libcom library (assuming it's accepted).

can you also post a link on this thread, so that we have a chance to see it when it's up - it sounds interesting

mel
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Mar 30 2008 22:20

perhaps i am being a bit mean to mikus - dunno.

but anyway i tend to think of the state in opposition to civil society - civi society being stuff that there's no laws against. but that's a bit vague. mikus' definition didn't really define it at all - not everything that sets rules is part of the state - bulletin boards e.g. [tho i accept he didn't say he was much of a definition].

anyway yeah i'd be interested in reading something he 100% agrees with - if only to be as uncharitable to it as mikus is to others.

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Apr 4 2008 19:22
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Also the claim that anyone saw the state as an "object" is mostly, maybe even completely, a strawman. True, many Marxists saw the state (in the bourgeois sense) as a class-neutral form of organization that could be used to serve various class needs (so long as the personnel changed). And that seems to be what people like Holloway are arguing against (and for good reason). But that doesn't mean that it was seen as an "object." Even the simplest (and indeed insufficient) definition of the state as a sort of combination of the military, judicial system, police, etc., cannot see the state as an "object", unless somehow the military and judicial system and police, all together, were an "object", which I find it hard to imagine anyone asserting.

But an object can be an aggregate of others - like how an arm is made up of a forearm, elbow, wrist etc. A galaxy is an object. The point, which i think is valid, is that much theory tends to see the state as set up once and for all, in the same way as primitive accumulation is seen to have happened once and for all, which i dont think is a sufficient view. It fetishises the transient in the way bourgeois ideology does.

I agree with you that Holloway is vague, but i still think he can be productively engaged with.

mikus
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Apr 5 2008 00:18
Django wrote:
But an object can be an aggregate of others - like how an arm is made up of a forearm, elbow, wrist etc. A galaxy is an object. The point, which i think is valid, is that much theory tends to see the state as set up once and for all, in the same way as primitive accumulation is seen to have happened once and for all, which i dont think is a sufficient view. It fetishises the transient in the way bourgeois ideology does.

Again, what does it mean to say that the state is "set up once and for all", or that it isn't. No one thought it was permanent, if that's what you're trying to say, since even the most crude progressivist Marxism (of the primitive communism - slave society - feudalism - capitalism - communism, sort) claims that there was a time when the state didn't exist and that there will be a time when it didn't. So it obviously isn't a matter of orthodox Marxists seeing the state as "set up once and for all" that you have issue with, unless you are unaware of what their views were.

I think you are trying to get at something else, but I'm not yet sure what it is. Perhaps it has something to do with the orthodox Marxist view that the bourgeois state is a neutral apparatus that can be used by various classes to exercise their power for different ends. In that case, I'd agree with you, but I don't see what it has to do with seeing the state as "set up once and for all", since as I said nearly every Marxist, including Stalinists, deny that the state is "set up once and for all."

And on the primitive accumulation stuff, we've already had a discussion of that here and it seems most people do not agree (although some do) with the "ongoing primitive accumulation" stuff.

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Apr 5 2008 08:29

Kinda drunk so can't say whether i agree or not but i think he meant whether the state is an institution that was set up and will continue along its course until it is brought down, or whether its a constantly reproduced series of relationships.

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Apr 5 2008 13:32
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Kinda drunk so can't say whether i agree or not but i think he meant whether the state is an institution that was set up and will continue along its course until it is brought down, or whether its a constantly reproduced series of relationships.

Like I said above, its not seen as permanent if its seen as something to be "smashed".

RedHughs
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Apr 5 2008 16:27

Hmm,

In this context, when Django says that the state is "just a social relation", he/she seems to imply that it is like a cloud floating around society without having any particular focus. In practice, this view seems to be detrimental to effective class struggle. We know already that capitalist social relations exist. Immediate capitalist relations can be ended by people relating differently, in the sense that a factory can be transformed into a meeting hall and a shopping center transformed into a potlatch. However, when this starts to happen, the capitalist state very often still survives in the form of police, armed forces and so-forth. The crucial step in such a situation, where people are starting to relate in a communist fashion, is to make those relations the sole, dominant relations. That means actively destroying any and all specialized means of control left over from bourgeois society - thus the police and armed must be ended, the bureaucracy dispersed, etc. This is how I'd interpret the dictatorship of the proletariat.

This is a crucial point. We know that in the Spanish Civil War immediate social relations were fantastically transformed but the state remained and gradually destroyed these new forms (I wouldn't say that social relations took communist forms but they were certainly at some intermediate form). There are numerous other example.

Also, the phrase "Change The World Without Taking Power" sounds noble but I'd take it as appeal to cowardice. The proletariat needs to take power. One horror of the present world is that so many people relate in terms of powerlessness, relate in terms of not being able to make or challenge any decisions about the forms their lives take. Every liberal today is a shill for some vision of everyone just becoming friends and "building community" without overpowering the dominant order and without asserting their personal or collective power. We may not desire power to be centralized in a state but we certainly need to take power and be powerful.

I haven't read the book but nothing I've read so far makes me want to do so. I know it starts out talking about a scream.

Red

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Apr 5 2008 21:47
OliverTwister wrote:
Kinda drunk so can't say whether i agree or not but i think he meant whether the state is an institution that was set up and will continue along its course until it is brought down, or whether its a constantly reproduced series of relationships.

Yeah but what I'm asking is exactly, which relationships? And again, this seems like a dispute over a definition of "state" than an actual claim about what we normally call the state. (If there even is any single thing which is normally called "the state".)

mikus
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Apr 5 2008 21:48
Django wrote:
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Kinda drunk so can't say whether i agree or not but i think he meant whether the state is an institution that was set up and will continue along its course until it is brought down, or whether its a constantly reproduced series of relationships.

Like I said above, its not seen as permanent if its seen as something to be "smashed".

Did you mistype here? Because if you mean what you wrote, then Holloway's whole schtick is pretty much superfluous. Pretty much any Leninist will tell you the state needs to be smashed.

mikus
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Apr 5 2008 21:48

double post

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Apr 6 2008 01:19
OliverTwister wrote:
i think he meant whether the state is an institution that was set up and will continue along its course until it is brought down, or whether its a constantly reproduced series of relationships.

This formulation contains a category error. It is positing a binary choice between concepts which operate on different levels of abstraction and have no relationship of logical negation between them. Current semantic theory holds that all information can be modelled as a set of relationships. Hence defining the state as an otherwise unspecified set of relationships is like declaring that a house is made of matter - not very enlightening at all.

The qualifiers that are supplied to the general purpose set of relationships in this case do not help us much. Our set is a series, but on what axis relationships are ordered remains mysterious. The fact that this set is constantly reproduced is also unhelpful. Does it mean that the set of relationships at time t+1 is the same as the set of relationships at time t? Or does this mysterious reproduction introduce variation into our set? We should be told.

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Apr 6 2008 18:34
gurrier wrote:
OliverTwister wrote:
i think he meant whether the state is an institution that was set up and will continue along its course until it is brought down, or whether its a constantly reproduced series of relationships.

This formulation contains a category error. It is positing a binary choice between concepts which operate on different levels of abstraction and have no relationship of logical negation between them. Current semantic theory holds that all information can be modelled as a set of relationships. Hence defining the state as an otherwise unspecified set of relationships is like declaring that a house is made of matter - not very enlightening at all.

So some specialize theory of language claims that statements like his should be meaningless and therefore his are meaningless? I have no trouble extracting meaning from his original statement. Perhaps "Current semantic theory" hasn't progressed as far as my brain has or perhaps my brain doesn't accept your argument from the authority of current science. Perhaps his statement actually disproves "Current semantic theory's" positions. I invite you to consult the current semantic theorists about this.

More to the point, the concepts are binary opposites if one assumes that something that is "constantly reproduced" won't have to be brought down through an active intervention by the proletariat but rather will be brought down by the action of the proletariat constituting itself as a collective - the obvious example is of capitalist relations ending in the factory when work there stops versus the power of the police and army needing to actively be ended through the proletariat attacking them.

It is normal for human language to contain implicit assumptions (as well as ambiguities). Normal communication with language involves a person processing such unstated assumptions and ambiguities as well as asking for clarification when the assumptions seem unclear or unacceptable to the person. Claiming that one can't understand a statement when the hidden assumptions are clear to one is ducking the issue. Using some fancy word to make your ducking more acceptable is philosophical quacking.

Red

gurrier
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Apr 6 2008 20:00
RedHughs wrote:
gurrier wrote:
OliverTwister wrote:
i think he meant whether the state is an institution that was set up and will continue along its course until it is brought down, or whether its a constantly reproduced series of relationships.

This formulation contains a category error. It is positing a binary choice between concepts which operate on different levels of abstraction and have no relationship of logical negation between them. Current semantic theory holds that all information can be modelled as a set of relationships. Hence defining the state as an otherwise unspecified set of relationships is like declaring that a house is made of matter - not very enlightening at all.

So some specialize theory of language claims that statements like his should be meaningless and therefore his are meaningless? I have no trouble extracting meaning from his original statement. Perhaps "Current semantic theory" hasn't progressed as far as my brain has or perhaps my brain doesn't accept your argument from the authority of current science. Perhaps his statement actually disproves "Current semantic theory's" positions. I invite you to consult the current semantic theorists about this.

More to the point, the concepts are binary opposites if one assumes that something that is "constantly reproduced" won't have to be brought down through an active intervention by the proletariat but rather will be brought down by the action of the proletariat constituting itself as a collective - the obvious example is of capitalist relations ending in the factory when work there stops versus the power of the police and army needing to actively be ended through the proletariat attacking them.

It is normal for human language to contain implicit assumptions (as well as ambiguities). Normal communication with language involves a person processing such unstated assumptions and ambiguities as well as asking for clarification when the assumptions seem unclear or unacceptable to the person. Claiming that one can't understand a statement when the hidden assumptions are clear to one is ducking the issue. Using some fancy word to make your ducking more acceptable is philosophical quacking.

Red

Sorry, that's utter gibberish.

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Apr 16 2008 16:28
mikus wrote:
Django wrote:
Quote:
Kinda drunk so can't say whether i agree or not but i think he meant whether the state is an institution that was set up and will continue along its course until it is brought down, or whether its a constantly reproduced series of relationships.

Like I said above, its not seen as permanent if its seen as something to be "smashed".

Did you mistype here? Because if you mean what you wrote, then Holloway's whole schtick is pretty much superfluous. Pretty much any Leninist will tell you the state needs to be smashed.

I know, I was rhetorically quoting Leninists.

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Apr 16 2008 16:38
RedHughs wrote:
Hmm,

In this context, when Django says that the state is "just a social relation", he/she seems to imply that it is like a cloud floating around society without having any particular focus. In practice, this view seems to be detrimental to effective class struggle. We know already that capitalist social relations exist. Immediate capitalist relations can be ended by people relating differently, in the sense that a factory can be transformed into a meeting hall and a shopping center transformed into a potlatch. However, when this starts to happen, the capitalist state very often still survives in the form of police, armed forces and so-forth. The crucial step in such a situation, where people are starting to relate in a communist fashion, is to make those relations the sole, dominant relations. That means actively destroying any and all specialized means of control left over from bourgeois society - thus the police and armed must be ended, the bureaucracy dispersed, etc. This is how I'd interpret the dictatorship of the proletariat.

This is a crucial point. We know that in the Spanish Civil War immediate social relations were fantastically transformed but the state remained and gradually destroyed these new forms (I wouldn't say that social relations took communist forms but they were certainly at some intermediate form). There are numerous other example.

Also, the phrase "Change The World Without Taking Power" sounds noble but I'd take it as appeal to cowardice. The proletariat needs to take power. One horror of the present world is that so many people relate in terms of powerlessness, relate in terms of not being able to make or challenge any decisions about the forms their lives take. Every liberal today is a shill for some vision of everyone just becoming friends and "building community" without overpowering the dominant order and without asserting their personal or collective power. We may not desire power to be centralized in a state but we certainly need to take power and be powerful.

I haven't read the book but nothing I've read so far makes me want to do so. I know it starts out talking about a scream.

Red

I've never claimed its "like a cloud", thats an absolutely ludicrous idea that you're putting into my mouth.

You're making assumptions on the book without reading it, I suggest you do. Power is discussed in the instrumental terms of seizing state power.

Its largely an attempt to the put the dialectical method in "accessible" terms, which has its pros and cons. The Aufheben review of the book in the Libcom library discusses this well.

As for starting with "the scream", he does. He's talking about the alienation of labour from product in capitalism, and the knowledge of this alienation as a basis for communist politics. Fair enough really.

Incidentally, I agree with you on the need for power - the seizure of the means of production is an act of power. Holloway calls this anti-power, which is mostly a rhetorical trick I think. He should distinguish between institutionalizing elite rule through state power and institutionalizing directly-democratic forms of self-government through workers' power. Like I said, I have criticisms of the book.

piter
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Jun 30 2008 12:07

I think to improve the definition of the state as "social relation" you need to say that it's a relation between classes.
by saying that the state is a "social relation" you kinda do like Marx do with capital, showing that it's not a "thing" (better to say a thing than an object ) but a social relation, and for Marx it's not only a social relation in general but a social relation between classes. I think you can do the same with the state.

on Holloway's idea about not taking power, I don't have read the book but I would say about taking power or not that the point is to make the taking of power a mean for the social revolution, if not it will be just a political revolution. if the taking of power is just a moment necessary in order to be able to destroy capital and put up a new mode of social production, then it would be a truly social revolution, a truly proletarian and communist revolution.