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Change the World Without Taking Power

The Meaning of Revolution Today
by John Holloway

First, let me say that I value the expression of anger in this book. The author is clear that:
“the wrongs of the world are not chance injustices but part of a system that is profoundly wrong” p.2 — and that there is “no inevitable happy ending”. p.6

The author understands that the beginning of our rejection of capitalism is not thoughtful or analytical but rather emotional: “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.
Our dissonance comes from our experience, but that experience varies. Sometimes it is the direct experience of exploitation in the factory, or of oppression in the home, of stress in the office, of hunger and poverty, or of state violence or discrimination. Sometimes it is the less direct experience through television, newspapers or books that moves us to rage.” P.1

This anger is recognised as dangerous:
“Often the No is violent or barbaric (vandalism,hooliganism,terrorism): the depravations of capitalism are so intense that they provoke a scream-against, a No which is almost completely devoid of emancipatory potential, a No so bare that it merely reproduces that which is screamed against… ..And yet that is the starting-point: not the considered rejection of capitalism as a mode of organisation, not the militant construction of alternatives to capitalism. They come later (or may do). The starting point is the scream, the dangerous, often barbaric No.”

The author also recognises that for various reasons this dissonance and rejection might be suppressed because of peer pressure to “fit in” or the promise of material benefit or fear of sanction. When this happens we become our own internal censors:
“In order to protect our jobs, our visas, our profits, our chances of receiving good grades, our sanity, we pretend not to see, we sanitise our own perception, filtering out the pain”. p.9

So far, so good. Then the author moves onto more debatable ground. The main assertion is that: “The world cannot be changed through the state. Both theoretical reflection and a whole century of bad experience tell us so.” P.19

The reasoning behind the assertion is that the State is so tied-in to the economic relations of capitalism that it cannot be used as an instrument for change: “the constitutional view isolates the state from its social environment: it attributes to the state an authority of action that it just does not have. In reality, what the state does is limited and shaped by the fact that it exists as just one node in a web of social relations. Crucially, this web of social relations centres on the way in which work is organised. The fact that work is organised on a capitalist basis means that what the stated does and can do is limited and shaped by the need to maintain the system of capitalist organisation of which it is a part.” p.13

Of course this is an implicit criticism of Marxist (and particularly Leninist theory). Later the author makes this criticism explicit:
“The difficulty which revolutionary governments have experienced in wielding the state in the interests of the working class suggests that the embedding of the state in the web of capitalist social relations is far stronger and more subtle than the notion of instrumentality would suggest. The mistake of Marxist revolutionary movements has been, not to deny the capitalist nature of the state, but to misunderstand the degree of integration of the state into the network of capitalist social relations.” P.14

Let’s look at what Marxists actually say about the State when before we consider whether they “misunderstand the level of integration between the state and Capitalism”. In The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels say: “…the bourgeoisie, has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway. The executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” Engels put his views on the State forward in his work: The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State. The State in a capitalist society is less obviously coercive, Engels argues, than in a feudal one. Still however power resides with the ruling capitalist class. No government can ignore the economic power of that class.

From this it seems pretty clear that the founding fathers of Marxism had a very clear idea of the way in which the State and Capitalism intertwine. Marxist structuralists such as Nicos Poulantzas have developed this further.

Despite this understanding, Lenin saw the State as a means of crushing the capitalists referring to the “special apparatus for coercion called the state” (The State and The Revolution, August-September 1917). He never said it would be easy – in fact he argued it would need a revolution!

I waited in vain for an alternative proposal from John Holloway:
“How then do we change the world without taking power? At the end of the book, as at the beginning, we do not know. The Leninists know, or used to know. We do not. Revolutionary change is more desperately urgent than ever, but we do not know any more what revolution means.” P.215

What a cop-out! … My advice? Read this book only alongside those of Vladimir Il’ich.

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