John Holloway Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today


(London, Pluto Press  2002)

Thomas Guthmann, 16th May 2003

“Political power grows from the barrel of a gun.” (Mao Tse Tung)

As we know from history Mao gained power in China after a long civil war, including the Long March. At the beginning of 2001 the Mexican Zapatistas marched from Chiapas to the capital Mexico City. They did not come to power but spoke in the Mexican parliament and on the Zocalo, the main square of the Mexican capital.

John Holloway is one of the theoretical backers of the Zapatista insurgency. In his new book Change the World Without Taking Power – The Meaning of Revolution Today, he draws a picture of a new form of revolution.

While in Mao’s understanding power was located in the military forces of the capitalist state which had to be defeated by revolutionary firepower and guerrilla warfare, the Zapatistas, though armed, renounce provoking a military confrontation with the Mexican army. Instead, they are promoting the concept of ordinary-therefore-rebellious, a concept that rejects a view of revolution led by an avant-garde of professional revolutionaries and the view that revolution is made by taking power. Their strategy is the strategy of low intensity revolution, a revolution that changes society from the inside without taking the power but by destroying the power. 

Holloway supports the Zapatista style of uprising by backing this new understanding of struggle theoretically. His argument is different from the classical anti-imperialist and revolutionary view of struggle, preferring “a refusal to accept” (p. 6), a refusal of the daily experience of exploitation and injustice, whether experienced as direct injustice – being sacked by a boss – or cognitively perceived – by knowing about millions of children that have to live in streets, or the fact that the world"s income is unjust distributed. This feeling of being trapped in an unjust world like “flies caught in the spider’s web” (p. 5) is the energy that fuels resistance. Holloway"s "scream" is a primarily emotional rejection of the capitalist system, because it is in capitalism that injustice has to be located. The scream proves that ‘we are’ and above ‘what we are not yet’ (p. 7). So the identity of people who are screaming is first of all a negative identity. It is the identity of negating the present capitalist state of world society. Its negativity forbids thinking in terms of classic forms of identity such as working class, women or race.

Holloway states that old forms of revolutionary theory have been outdated as they have not brought the success expected and for this reason places his theory beyond the state and beyond power. He asserts that former leftist theory whether it was Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Ilich Lenin or Eduard Bernstein always had as its focus for social upheaval the taking of state power. Whether it was by elections (Bernstein) or by revolution (Luxemburg/Lenin), the object of desire was the state. Since the state is embedded in a network of power relations, the world cannot be changed by taking state power. The state itself is only a node in the net, but not equivalent with society.  Holloway maintains that all “major revolutionary leaders of the twentieth century: Rosa Luxemburg, Trotzky, Gramsci, Mao, Che” (p. 18) shared this logic. Further on he asserts that history has shown that this concept has not been successful.

Holloway is goes beyond this state-centred theory. It is not only the taking of state that he rejects but also the taking or building of power in general. On an epistemological level he sees the source of power in the doing. Doing is located in the centre of life. Doing creates, builds, a chair for example: when a chair is constructed, it exists materially afterwards. It becomes an independent object, independent in relation to its producer. But still the “existence of a chair depends upon someone sitting upon it” (P. 27). Its existence depends on the re-incorporation “into the flow of doing”. Our individual doing receives its social validation through recognition as part of the social flow. Through its incorporation in the social flow the power of doing is no manifested power. It is creative power, power of creating and constructing things that are useful. The power is given to it through use (social validation). John Holloway calls this ‘power to’. It is the power to create or to build something. In the capitalist world power has to be understood as interruption of the social flow. This form of power becomes valid in the process of separation: separation of “done from doing” (P. 29). The value of a chair is no longer verified through its use within a social context but through price on the market. The chair becomes a commodity. The author calls this ‘power over’. “Power over is the breaking of the social flow of doing” (P. 29). With the interruption, surplus value is created. Capitalism needs the conversion of the social flow into durable objectification. The basis of objectification is the doing. Non-capitalist objects are integrated in the flow of doing, capitalist objectification separates the object from the flow. It becomes a product (commodity) that can be sold. On the base of this objectification capital starts to exist. The real base of production remains work and with this basically capitalism is dependent on work and not the other way round.

To understand the nature of capitalist objectification, Holloway sees fetishism as the central explanation. Marx used the term fetishism to “describe the rupture of doing” (P. 43). Holloway points here to an interpretation of Marx which does not see alienation, ‘estranged labour’ as the key result of the rupture of the social flow of doing. Holloway focuses the fetish character that Marx sees in every commodity. The problem in here is not that the creation of commodity leads to alienation of man (Mensch) but that commodity itself is fetish.  The chair is snatched from the social flow through fetishisation. The chair is no longer a useful tool in daily life but a magic thing, something that has to be bought and is fashionable to have. Whether it has any use or not is no longer important. Holloway states that the mystical character of commodities “comes not from their use value but from the commodity form itself” (P. 48).

Once the social flow of doing is ruptured and commodity (fetish) is introduced, all relations in the social world are permeated by commodity. The rupture of social flow brings another point in the centre of analyses: identity. Identity is a result of commodity society since fetish creates the individual. In the process of creation of commodity “humans are deprived of their sociality [and] transformed into ‘individuals’, the necessary complement of commodity” (P. 51). As commodity society only operates if everybody treats each other as a private owner, everybody has to be seen as an independent individual. Commodity needs the individual and vice versa. So the rupture of social life does not only create commodity but identity. Identity is the result of the fetishised forms of social rupture. The two major expression of identity within capitalist society are the bourgeois identity and the worker identity. These forms are the expression of the fethisised forms of social rupture. The separation of the doing from the done, the separation of the chair from the social flow creates a society full of individuals and identity, as result of the fetish character of commodity.

From a revolutionary point of view this determination of the character of identity means that revolutionary action has to aim at destruction of identity and not to make identity policy as old school communist movements did. Most of these have been related to the working class. But the ‘we’, the revolutionary subject, says Holloway, “cannot be defined” (P 62). It is the dilemma that every one of us is permeated in his or her existence from the rupture of the social flow. So every one of us is identified from the very beginning of our existence. Hence we have to pass the picture of a “pure, eager revolutionary subject” and welcome the “damaged humanity” (P. 69). The way out of the fetishised world is to be gained by overcoming the separation of the doing from the done. It is not a question of consciousness but of a change of our social practice. 

Even though this view on revolution and identity is nothing new, the form of interpretation of Marx that Holloway presents is very interesting and is a contribution to the discussion that he wants to incite. His understanding of labour is very similar to the Operaist interpretation of labour. Both see labour as the creative potential of humanity that cannot really be subjected by capital. Work is the source of human existence, innovation and social change. Capital does not have this ability.

Holloway"s understanding of resistance as negation is the same as was drafted by Frankfurt School theory. Last but not least his understanding of identity as fetish is related to the concept of identity that has been elaborated by postmodern feminist theory. Although postmodern feminists have not used the word "fetish" in the same way, the picture – in particular of the cyborg that is elaborated by Donna Haraway – comes very close to the picture of ‘damaged humanity’. In some ways John Holloway"s book seems like a synthesis of the three theory schools (Postmodern Feminism, Italian Operaism and Frankfurt School) with a strict argumentation based on Marx"s Capital. He explains labour in the same way as do Operaist theorists, like Toni Negri, drafts identity like Donna Haraway drafts identity and has the same understanding of criticism as Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno have: criticism as negation of the persisting.

Beyond this he opens with his picture of the rupture of social flow, the door for the use of Marx by Postmodern theory. Here sociality is seen as flow too: as flow of communication. It is not surplus value that is snatched from the workforce by capitalism, it is the fetish character of commodity that is the problem. But what else is fetish but a different form of communication about an object? Either it is seen as magic thing or as useful tool: so capitalist communication has to persist on the fetish character of commodity while communist communication has to make propaganda for the primate of use of objects. In this view it is no longer materialism, the form of production processes, that is the centre of capitalism but the form of communication. This is in some ways a de-materialisation of materialism: a possible connection towards postmodern theory.

Everybody who expects an answer to the question, how to change this world, will be disappointed.  In the End Holloway admits that he has no idea how the world can be changed, and the book title seems to be just a marketing trick.

Thomas Guthmann is an author and graduated in pedagogics from the University of Bielefeld. He lives in Berlin