About Change the world without taking power

Reply to Michael Löwy (leer artículo)

1) 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'm very glad you picked up on this because I feel that the distinction between objectification and alienation is a way of putting a brake on revolutionary theory.

If communism is the emancipation of social doing, then revolutionary theory is part of the struggle to emancipate that doing from its current negation. Revolutionary theory is the attempt to conceive the world from the perspective of social doing.

To do this we must take our stance in the printing house of hell, "printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid." (William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell") Displaying the infinite which was hid means in this case emancipating the social power of human doing. Marxism, as the theory of social doing, is infinitely corrosive.

This means critique, critique of all that appears to be independent of doing, all the objectivity (Gegenständlichkeit) that stands over against doing. Critique is critique ad hominem: it takes that which appears to be, that which appears to have an identity independent of human doing and shows it to be the result of doing. Critique attacks objectivity and shows it to be a projection of subjectivity. Critique is an attack not just on alienation but on objectification. Critique puts humans in the centre of the universe, establishes us as our "own true sun". This is not anthropomania but surely essential for a theory of revolution, for saying that "in spite of everything that tells us we cannot do it, yes, we CAN change the world".

Two critics see a chair and say "Chair, you deny us, but we know you are the product of our doing". To which the chair replies "Yes, it may be that I am the product of your doing but now (like Frankenstein) I have a durable identity." To which one of the critics (you, Michael) say "yes, that is so", while the other (I, John) say "no, you do not have a durable identity, because the moment in which we humans cease to integrate you into our doing-sitting, then you cease to exist as a chair, although you continue to be a piece of wood. Your existence as chair depends not just on a previous constitution but on its present continuous re-constitution. The done never exists independent of its re-doing. Mary Shelley got it wrong. Frankenstein is not just a critique of capitalism, but a capitalist critique of capitalism - because it assumes as real the separation of done from doing which it implicitly criticises (instead of understanding it as a real illusion). (see p.100-101 of the book)"

Does this difference between the two critics matter? Yes, if we replace "chair" by "capital". To insist that the done never exists independently of its redoing is to insist on the absolute fragility of the done, in this case of capitalism. Capitalism is not something that is and that we wish to destroy. Capitalism is something that we create every day and that will cease to exist if we stop creating it. I think that implies a different concept of politics.

You ask " Well, in a socialist society, would necessarily the user of a chair have a “ direct relation ” with the workers who did it ? Well, would a good chair produced in socialism not become “ an object with a durable identity ” ?

Yes, the user of a chair would understand the chair as a human product and no, the chair would not be an object with a durable identity. Think of a computer instead of a chair and the argument is even clearer.

In short: the revolutionary project means seeing the world in terms of the power of human doing. There are limits on how far this can be taken (stars are not human products except in so far as they are conceptualised and named as stars), but any limitation has to be justified, not assumed. Revolutionary theory cannot stop half-way, as I think it does in the case of orthodox Marxism.

2) 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.

Up to here, no disagreement.

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”.

I think there is a disagreement here, but I'm not sure how far it goes.

Of course I agree on the importance of "democratic" structures, but I do not agree that the term "democracy" can be used uncritically. I think that Pannekoek said somewhere that "democracy, they say, is rule by the people, but the people do not exist; what exists is classes". Democracy, as usually understood, addresses people as abstract individuals, as beings. Our problem (theoretically and practically) is to address people not as beings but as doers, and therefore as social doers. That is the point about council communism: people come together as doers, and collective decisions are formed on the basis of doing (that is indeed the dictatorship of the proletariat, if one wants to retain the phrase). I do not think that there is any recipe: the forms of organisation of revolt develop historically, but I do think that the zapatistas are right in insisting that Dignity is the central principle. By dignity, I mean understanding people not as passive individuals but as doers, and therefore necessarily as social doers; but by social doing I do not mean homogeneous, massive doing, but the recognition that the sociality of doing is constructed by the articulation of particular doings, so that the recognition of people as social doers does not mean that all "I's" are submerged in the We, but rather that organisation is thought of as a movement from I-to-We and the recognition by the We of the I's of which it is composed.

Democracy is always power-over in so far as it addresses people as beings. But what is at issue in revolutionary organisation is the formation of a mutually-recognitive We-Doer, in other words the articulation of power-to. In the examples you mention, the reading group and the Zapatistas, there is a common project, a common doing and the issue is how to form a mutually-recognitive We-Doer. This is not the problematic of (bourgeois) democracy.

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...

I am neither a philosopher nor a historian, but I tend to agree with you the argumento could be enriched by giving it more historical grounding. But there are two problems. One is that I think that probably I am not capable of doing it very well. And secondly, and above all, I want to move away from the endless, deadening left-wing discussions of Stalin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Kronstadt, etc. If I had focussed on the real historical movements, then the responses too would have focussed on the historical interpretation of each of these movements. I do not deny the importance of these discussions, but history so easily becomes an alibi for not thinking, and for not assuming that it is we alone (the living) who have the responsibility of seeing that capitalism does not destroy humanity.

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 ”.

Power to the people means the destruction of capitalism and the development of a radically different form of doing. That is not democracy but revolution. If you want to understand "real democracy" in that sense, I agree, but obviously then "real democracy in Mexico" does not make sense, there cannot be socialism in one country.

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).

In some ways I am happy with "all power for the workers' councils", but only if we understand it in the sense I indicated above, in which case I don't think it makes much sense “to seize power and to establish their domination over society”. And if we think of guns as the material instruments of power, do you really think there is any way we shall ever be able to confront capital and win? Perhaps I should ask you how you visualise revolution and whether you really think it is still possible. I think there are lots of Marxists who, for very good (if perhaps mistaken) reasons really do not believe that revolution is still possible, or prefer not to think about it.
Beyond that, my earlier point stands. To the extent that power is power-over, to the extent, that is, that it addresses people as passive beings, as objects rather than subjects of the process, then it cannot be part of the revolutionary process.

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.

But emancipatory praxis presuppose that fetishism itself is a contradictory process - I think we agree on this. Of course Bin Laden is a blind alley, and the IRA and ETA, but our problem is surely is to try to find the "utopian kernel" (Tischler) even in acts like the attack on the Twin Towers. I don't think I said that suicide, going mad and terrorism are starting points for emancipation: on the contrary, the problem is to start from the No, the refusal of domination, of which these are perverted forms, and to articulate that No in a way that fights against its perversion. The problem is that we are in a labyrinth in which we can recognise blind alleys (the Fourth International as another one, perhaps?), but we do not know which is the right way out.

And yes, of course I would love to see your book.

John Holloway