About Change the world without taking power

Dear John,
Sorry for the delay, but finally I had the time - and the plesure - to read your book. It is a remarkable essay, thought-provocative and truly radical - in the original sense of the word, “ going to the roots of the problems ”. It brings to the fore, in an impressive way, the critical and subversive power of negativity.

Before I try to map my areas of agreement and disagreement with you, let me first briefely state my own standpoint, my own political and philosophical options, which are the “ position ”, the  Sitz-im-Leben , from where I try to assess your contribution.

I am, and have been during the last thirty years, a member - a “ militant ” - of the Fourth International. I don’t define myself as “ Trotskyst ” because, inspite of my admiration for Lev Davidovitch Bronstein, I draw my political inspiration mainly from Rosa Luxemburg. I will try in a moment to explain my disagreements with your reading of Rosa.

I consider myself a Marxist, but I’m very much interested in the Anarchist tradition, and some of my books are celebrations of libertarian socialism. And I’m also a great admirer of the Zapatista movement, that goes without saying. Philosophically, my main references are George Lukacs and the Frankfurt School (mainly Walter Benjamin).

As you correctly guessed during the brief talk we had in Mexico DF, we have many philosophical affinities - and some political disagreements. I generally agree with the aim of your book as you state it on page 9 : “ sharpening the Marxist critique of capitalism ” : indeed !

The section I most liked in your book is the first one, “ The Scream ”. This few pages are among the most powerful and moving in revolutionary thought that I have red in many years. I would like to recommend them to all young and old activists around the world, as a wonderful source of inspiration. They are just great !

I also liked your chapters on Fetishism and Fetishisation. Your developments on “ doing ” and “ done ”, starting from Marx and Lukacs, are very illuminating. I’m not sure however, that I quite understand your concept of the “ flow of doing ”. As an exemple of the breaking of this flow by capitalism you mention (p. 59) that there is “ no direct relation between the doing of the user and the doing of the maker ”. Well, in a socialist society, would necessarily the user of a chair have a “ direct relation ” with the workers who did it ? You complain that in capitalism “ the object constituted acquires a durable identity ”. Well, would a good chair produced in socialism not become “ an object with a durable identity ” ? Your refusal to distinguish between alienation and objectivation (cf. note 22 of ch.4) - a mistake the young Lukacs did not do (inspite of his late self-criticism of 1967) - leads to a denial of the objective materiality of human products.

I very much agree with your criticism of “ Scientific Marxism ” in general, and Lenin’s “ What is to be done ? ” in particular - a reasoning that you correctly trace back to Karl Kautsky. The most important point you make here is that “ the struggle is uncertain ” (p. 138) : I like very much what you write in this respect, against the positivism of the so-called “ laws of motion ”. You include Rosa Luxemburg in this criticism, and this is justified, as far as her first books - such as “ Reform or Revolution ? ” - are concerned. However, in her pamphlet on “ The crisis of Social-Democracy ” (1915) there is a radical metodological change, with the celebrated formula “ socialism or barbarism ”. This is a real turning point in the history of Marxism, and it introduces the “ principle of uncertainty ” in socialist politics.

Now I come to the main bone of contention, which gives the title of your book : “ changing the world without taking power ”. You suggest that all attempts at revolutionary change so far failed because they were based on the paradigm of change through winning state power. However, as you aknowledge on footnote 8 from page 217 - as you see, I read your footnotes very carefully - historical evidence is not enough, since all attempts to change the world without seizing power have also failed, so far. Therefore, we need to discuss the theoretical arguments.

Your first argument is that the existing state is part of the capitalist social relations. However, as you write yourself, revolutionary Marixms is aware of such connections, and does not want to use the existing state, but to smash it and create a new one (p. 15). Now, we come to your second argument : the state as such, whatever its social content, is a fetishised form. This is, in a certain way, the Anarchist argument, which Marx, to a certain extent, shared, particularly in his writings on the Paris Commune, where there appears the suggestion of a non-state form of political power. But here comes your third argument, the distinction between power-to and power-over. I must confess that I’m not persuaded by this distinction. I think that there can be no form of collective life and action of human beings without some form of “ power-over ”.

Let me try to explain my objections. They have to do with the idea of democracy, a concept that hardly appears in your book, or is dismissed as a “ state-defined process of electorally influenced decision making ” (p. 97). I have to disagree. I believe that democracy should be a central aspect in all process of social and political decision making, and particularly in a revolutionary process - an argument remarkably presented by Rosa Luxemburg in her (fraternal) critique of the Bolsheviks (“ The Russian Revolution ”, 1918).

Let us start with a very simple exemple : a group of ten people meet in a small room with a small window to discuss John Holloway’s book. Some of them are non-smokers, and some are smokers. There is a discussion if smoking should be permitted or not, and there are disagreements. How to solve them ? There are only three solutions : 1) The law of the strongest : some people being bigger, or having a big stick, impose their power over the others. Of course, this is not what we want... 2) Consensus : to continue discussing until all agree on the same solution. This is the ideal situation, but doesn’t work always. 3) All agree to have a vote, and the majority decides if smoking is allowed or not. The majority has power over the minority. Not an absolute power : it has limits, and it has to respect the dignity of the other. But still, it has power-over. Of course, the minority can always leave the room, but this will be also a form of aknowledging the power of the majority. You can apply the same logic to all kinds of human communities, including the Zapatista villages.

For instance : in 1994, after a few weeks, the Zapatistas decided to stop shooting and to negotiate a truce. Who decided ? The Zapatista villages discussed, and a majority - perhaps there was even a general consensus – decided that armed fighting should cease. The minority - if there was one, I don’t know – must accept this decision, or split from the Zapatista movement. The majority had power over the minority. The villages then gave order to the commanders of the EZLN to stop fire. They had power over the commanders. And finally, the commanders themselves, according to the logic of “ mandar obedeciendo ”, obeyed the orders of the villages, and instructed the Zapatista fighters to stop shooting : they had power over them.     I don’t pretend this is a precise description of what happened, but it is an exemple of how democracy requires some forms of “ power-over ”.

One of my main objections to your discussion on the issue of power, antipower and counterpower is its extremely abstract character. You mention the importance of memory for resistence, but there is very little memory, very little history in your arguments, very little discussion of the merits or limits of the real historical revolutionary movements, either Marxist, Anarchist or Zapatista from 1917. You may argue that you are a philosopher and not an historian, but you showed very persuasively that critical thinking cannot accept the distinctions between academic disciplines...

In one of the few passages were you mention some positive historical exemples of anti-fetishism and self-determination, you refer to “ the Paris Commune discussed by Marx, the workers’ councils theorised by Pannekoek, and the village councils of the Zapatistas ” (p. 105). I think one can show that in each one of this exemples you have forms of democratic power requiring some form of power-over. I have already discussed the practice of the Zapatistas’ village councils. What about the Zapatista’s propositions for Mexico ? Your book is, to a certain extent, a brilliant comment on the well known Zapatista principle of revolutionary action : “ We don’t want to seize power ! ”. I like this statement, but I interpret it in a different way as you. I connect it with that other statement : “ Everything for all, nothing for us ! ”. And if you relate both statements to the fight for democracy in Mexico, which stands high in all Zapatista pronouncements, you have the following argument : “ we, the Zapatista Army, dont want to seize power in our hands ; we want power to the people, i.e. a real democracy ”.

In the Paris Commune you had a new form of power who wasn’t any more a state, in the usual sense ; but still it was a power, democratically elected by the people of Paris - a combination of direct and representative democracy- and it had power over the population, by its decrees and decisions. It had power over the National Guard, and the commanders of the Guard had power over their soldiers (“ let’s go and put up a barricade on Boulevard de Clichy ! ”). And this power, the democratic power of the Paris Commune, it was litteraly “ seized ”, begining with the act of seizing the material instruments of power, the cannons of the National Guard. As for Pannekoek, he wanted “ all power for the workers councils ”, he saw the councils as a means for the workers “ to seize power and to establish their domination over society ” (I’m quoting an essay from Pannekoek from 1938).

What I feel is also lacking in your discussion is the concept of revolutionary praxis – first formulated by Marx in the “ Theses on Feuerbach ” - which for me is the real answer to what you call the “ tragedy of fetishism ” and all its dilemmas : how can people so deeply enmeshed in fetishism liberate themselves from the system ? Marx’s answer is that through their own emancipatory praxis, people change society and change their own consciousness at the same time. It is by their practical experience of struggle that people liberate themselves of fetishism. This is also why the only true emancipation is self-emancipation and not liberation “ from above ”. (I tried to develop this arguments in a book on Young Marx’s theory of revolution which is soon coming out in English ; I’ll send you a copy). Any self-emancipatory action, individual or collective, however modest, may be a first step towards the “ expropriation of the expropriators ”. But I don’t believe that any “ No ”, however barbaric, can be a “ driving force ” as you suggest on page 205 : I don’t think that suicide, going mad, terrorism and all sorts of anti-human responses to the system can be “ starting points ” for emancipation. Just to give the obvious exemple : Ben Laden is not a starting point, it is a blind alley.

I like your conclusion without an end. We all are searching our way, no one can say he has found the true and only strategy. And we all have to learn from the living experience of struggles, like those of our Zapatista friends...

This has become a very long letter, but it is all your fault, it is the fault of your book, which raises so many interesting questions and challenges.

With my best regards,

“ Yours for the revolution ”
(in memory of the old American IWW)


Paris, 26/11/2002

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