Can We Change the World Without Taking Power?

A lot of our understanding of revolution is in terms of the capture of state power. Broadly speaking, there are two ways of doing so: One, you may join a party, raise to power, and change the ways of doing things. This is a reformist tendency. Two, you capture the state power through violent means and then change the state structure. This is a revolutionary approach. In both these approaches, we find that power and state are intrinsic to the way society could be changed. If one were to look at the experiences of the twentieth century, the revolutionary governments across the world — more specifically in China and Russia — or the reformist governments that have gotten power through elections as elsewhere, we find that they have led to a terrific disappointment in terms of how they have changed our world. 

John Holloway, a Marxist sociologist and philosopher, in his work Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today provides an important critique of the present-day understanding of revolutions in terms of state and power relations. He interrogates four key issues: the state, the nature of power, fetishisation, and the meaning and relevance of revolution. Holloway premises his thesis on the critique of capitalism. He believes that we are all living in a dreadful capitalist society, and there is a dire need to create a more human society. Therefore, he writes, “revolution, in the sense of radical social change, is more urgent than ever.”

Holloway argues, “there is simply something wrong with the whole idea of trying to transform society through the state.” This failure is due to fact that the state is not just a neutral institution, but a “specific form of social relations that arises with the development of capitalism”. And that social relation excludes, separates and fragments people from power. Therefore, our struggle must not focus on the state and on taking state power. 

In Holloway’s view, we must develop our structures and ways of doing things. He propounds his arguments with a reflection on the concept of “SCREAM” — an enthusiasm for changing the world. Holloway writes, “Faced with the mutilation of human lives by capitalism, a scream of sadness, a scream of horror, a scream of anger, a scream of refusal: NO.” It is the starting point of theoretical reflection of revolution, born out of rage, and not from reason. He adds, “Our scream is a refusal to accept” — the unacceptable. It is a refusal to accept the inevitability of increased inequality, exploitation, violence and misery. The scream “implies an anguished enthusiasm for changing the world”, the problem is “how we can do it.” 

Holloway, further, attempts to make an important distinction between the Leninist “counter-power” — the capture of state power, or the power to command — as opposed to “anti-power,” the power to do things, or our creative power. For this purpose, Holloway redefines power in terms of “power to” rather than “power over.” In his opinion, power means one’s capacity to do things. The scream is not just rage, but of hope. The scream implies doing. This “doing” implies being-able-to-do, and it negates an existing state of affairs. Power is merely the ability to do. It is “can-ness” — the capacity to do. It is the “power to” show our resentment, join together, and march under a common banner of being-able-to-do. To Holloway, this power is social power, as one’s doing of things depends on the doing of others. For example, we inherit language, technology, and knowledge from others. This is collective power, as “our doing is always part of the social flow of doing.” At this point, we realise that there is no clear division between the doing of one person and the doing of another. However, there are no clear distinctions, no divisions, and no identities. 

Under capitalism, this social flow of doing is broken. And one of the biggest contributors to it is the concept of ‘private property.’ It is the power of the capitalist to command the doing of others. “Capitalism is the process of breaking the social flow of doing, breaking our power to do, and transforming it into power over others,” writes Holloway. He also critiques past revolutions as mere institutions of “power over” authorities, which have not changed the structure of power itself. 

Holloway criticized Leninist “counter-power” that is based on conquering state power to change our society. Lenin noted: First, we win power; then, we create a society worthy of humanity. He argues, “For us, trying to think about how to change society means having confidence in our own form of action.” No matter how much lip service is paid to the movement, the goal of conquest inevitably leads to the “instrumentalisation of power.” The struggle has an aim — the capture of state power. And all those aspects of the struggle that do not contribute to the end goal are given secondary status. This leads to the hierarchisation of struggles. This hierarchy further impoverishes struggles, as it is a hierarchy of ‘self’ and ‘ourselves’. Holloway notes, the notion of the capture of state power misses the point that the aim of revolution is to have no such power relations. Thus, we need to rethink how to change society without taking over state power. 

It is at this point, Holloway introduces us to Zapatistas and their renewed vocabulary on revolution. The Zapatista uprising in Mexico in January 1994 has been of enormous importance for two reasons: One, they rebelled at a time when there was no longer any space for revolt in modern society. Two, they also had proposed to rethink the whole concept of rebellion. 

In one such instance, when the dialogue between the Mexican government and the Zapatistas in San Andrés, Chiapas, the negotiation was not seen as a symmetrical process between two sides. It was asymmetrical in two ways: First, they weren’t going to negotiate. They sought ‘time’ in responding to the government. And the time to them was not “clock,” but their ability to talk to everyone in Zapatismo and responding. This shows us that their concept of politics is inherently anti-hierarchical. Second, they had asserted themselves with their insistence on wearing their traditional attire and using their language. 

The fundamental break from traditional revolutionary approaches lies in the centrality given to the idea of dignity. Holloway writes, “Dignity speaks in the first words of the Zapatista uprising: Ya Basta! Enough!.” The Zapatistas claim that they rebel because they can no longer live in humiliation as they have for five hundred years. And the revolt is the revolt of dignity and not of power. It is dignity, not just of revolutionaries, but of ordinary people. This emphasis on dignity forms the basis of the Zapatismo vocabulary of revolution. And it invariably rejects the taking over state power. 

While reading Holloway, the Italian sociologist Antonio Negri notes that Changing the World Without Taking Power is “a beautiful but strange book.” And this feeling sustains throughout. Holloway, through his thesis, asks how we can formulate our understanding of revolution as the struggle against power, not for power. He does not seek to understand revolution as an answer, but only as a question. “There is nothing fixed to which we can cling for reassurance,” he writes. “Not class, not Marx, not revolution, nothing but the moving negation of untruth.” For Holloway, the central aim of a social revolution is to “make the world anew, to create a world of dignity, a world of humanity, but without taking power.” 

Disclaimer: I do not, unfortunately, present a critique of the book, for there are many as highlighted by several political philosophers and social scientists — more specifically from the far-left scholarship.