Re: [OPE-L] Critique of Holloway on State Power

From: John Holloway (johnholloway@PRODIGY.NET.MX)
Date: Fri Apr 15 2005 - 16:46:23 EDT


    Many thanks for this. I don't want to comment just now, but I'll be
getting in touch with the author.


> Knowing that John H. is a member of OPE-L, M. Junaid Alam
> <> asked that I bring the following article
> that he wrote for Zmag to the attention of the list.
> John and others:  would you like to comment on this article?
> In solidarity, Jerry
> ======================================================================
>  Taking Power Seriously: A Response to John Holloway
> by M. Junaid
> Alam
> April 10, 2005
> John Holloway, well-known left intellectual and author of the popular
> polemic Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution
> Today, recently offered a concise presentation of his strategic vision on
> revolutionary change at ZNet. In his essay there, he strongly rejects the
> idea of approaching or seizing the state as an instrument for achieving
> social change, and encourages the notion of multiplying various kinds of
> incipient rebellions that bypass the state as the most fruitful path to
> human self-determination.
> In advancing his thesis, however, Holloway fails to take stock of
> important current political developments or ground his definition of
> capitalism in a concrete context. As a result, he makes a number of
> simplistic assertions and leans on certain false dichotomies about the
> state and the process of revolutionary change. By examining these flaws, I
> think it is possible to show that Holloway's concept of "changing the
> world without taking power" is, unfortunately, trapped in a narrow
> framework where premises hang from a ceiling of intellectual defeatism and
> conclusions crash into walls of political paralysis.    Holloway's
> broadside against taking power is stern and unequivocal: he warns that
> "focus[ing] our struggle on the state" or "tak[ing] it as a principle
> point of reference" "leads us in the wrong direction." He writes, "The
> a form of social relations…developed over several centuries
> for the purpose of maintaining or developing the rule of capital."
> Therefore, "we have to understand that the state pulls us in a certain
> direction." How? "It seeks to impose upon us a separation of our struggles
> from society"; it "separates leaders from the masses"; it "pulls us into a
> process of reconciliation with reality, and that reality is capitalism, a
> form of social organization that is based on exploitation and injustice,
> on killing and destruction." Worse, it "also draws us into a spatial
> definition of how we do things," one which not only "makes clear
> distinction between the state's territory and the world outside," but also
> "has no hope of matching the global movement of capital." These then are
> Holloway's most salient points against state-centered struggle.   The
> fundamental problem with all these concerns is that they could be raised
> anywhere. For instance, Holloway posits struggle within the state as a
> "reconciliation with reality," as capitulation, because after all the
> state represents the "reality of capitalism." But is the "reality of
> capitalism" not everywhere? Private institutions, organizations, cultural
> mores, and the entire general social milieu are all thoroughly penetrated
> and profoundly shaped by capitalism. Indeed, that is precisely why all
> these elements must be resisted and contested in the first place. What
> occurs vis-√ -vis the state in particular, however, is not a
> "reconciliation" with the reality of capitalism, but a confrontation with
> the reality of capitalism by forces opposed to capitalism in its most
> important arena of control.    Turning to the issue of leaders becoming
> separated from masses, nothing about this process is exclusive to the
> state either. Leaders can betray, deceive, or abandon whoever they are
> tasked with representing in any social situation where money, power, and
> politics is involved - the workplace, the sports club, the university, the
> union, and so on. The difference is only that the stakes are higher when
> the state is involved. This cannot be invoked as an excuse to abandon
> social situations in general or the state in particular, since that would
> amount to total inaction. Leaders must be held accountable through
> concrete organizational mechanisms, and masses must themselves stay
> conscious and vigilant: it is this interplay which determines in the end
> how effectively and faithfully any leaders represent those who choose
> them.   The objection that taking on the state apparatus confines oneself
> to certain parameters of struggle - "spatial definitions" - could also be
> invoked in any other scenario. To struggle is necessarily to place oneself
> in the specific arena where struggle is being waged - preferably at its
> highest, sharpest level. This is true whether one is speaking of physical
> terrain on a military battlefield, ideological terrain on a political
> battlefield, or national terrain on a state-centered battlefield. One is,
> in fact, always "drawn" into "spatial definitions" no matter what one
> does. The question is only whether one chooses the space of concrete
> struggle, or the space of empty retreat.   On this score, to condemn
> state-centered struggle because it has "no hope" of combating "global
> capital" is to merely tinker with words, since capital is only global in
> the sense that it plants itself in every nation by negotiating access
> through state permission. Global capital is resisted partially when one
> state demands to set the terms of national development; it is resisted
> more forcefully when a bloc of states demand the same; and it is resisted
> not at all when the state has acquiesced to capital's demands - because
> revolutionaries there decided to let the state fall into right-wing hands
> by refusing to be "drawn into spatial definitions," or rather, by
> accepting the spatial definition of defeat.   Ultimately, Holloway's
> sweeping assertions about flaws in state-centered struggle are misleading
> for two reasons. One, the same kinds of flaws exist in any other sphere of
> struggle. Two, and most important, state-centered struggle does not create
> flaws in movements, but rather reveals them. For as we have seen, the only
> difference in regards to the state is one of degree: because the power of
> capitalism is so deeply entrenched within the state, the true strengths
> and limitations of any movement are exposed in confrontation with it.
> Avoiding confrontation may allow a movement to hide its weaknesses, and it
> may lead to some short-term self-glorification, but it will also avoid
> solving the actual problem. The viability of any revolutionary movement is
> determined by how effectively it is able to confront the system exactly in
> that arena where the system has been crafting the injustices that gave
> rise to the movement in the first place. It is not clear why Holloway
> believes the answer is to abandon the arena altogether, instead of working
> on new ways to address the flaws of the movement which are revealed within
> it.   What would be most instructive in examining Holloway's case for
> changing the world without taking power, however, is to look at a movement
> that has taken power and is carrying out change: the Bolivarian Revolution
> in Venezuela. Here is a living, breathing example of social struggle,
> where it is possible for us to examine in real terms and without
> theorizing what actually happens in a genuine revolutionary process.
> What has the revolutionary government of Hugo Chavez Frias accomplished?
> It has undertaken a land reform program placing hundreds of thousands of
> hectares of idle land in the hands of small farmers and the landless poor;
> it has made education free for all from elementary through university
> level, offering students free daily meals; it has created special banks to
> assist women, small businesses, worker cooperatives, and farmers; it has
> locked into place the nationalization of the oil industry; it has
> organized vaccinations and community campaigns to increase literacy,
> training 1.3 million people to read; it has enlisted the previously
> unemployed to repair sanitation and transportation infrastructure; it has
> established 300 free health and dental clinics in slums where medical care
> has never been seen before; it has introduced price controls on 160 basic
> foodstuffs and 60 essential household goods, subsidizing food markets in
> poor communities.    It is unfortunate - though perhaps not surprising,
> given the implications for his thesis - that Holloway fails to even
> mention this most remarkable development in his article. For what the
> Venezuelan example illustrates above all is that the anarchist notion of
> the state as intrinsically negative - a notion Holloway expresses most
> openly when he writes, "Betrayal is already given in the state as an
> organizational form" - is untenable as any sort of universally applicable
> position. Indeed, it would take a fanciful imagination to pretend that
> Chavez, who has played a decisive role in improving the lives of millions
> within his country, has "betrayed" the revolutionary process.    It
> follows from the reality in Venezuela that Holloway's previously-discussed
> reasons for abandoning state-centered struggle are not sustainable either.
> Chavez did not "reconcile" himself to capitalism, he used state power to
> help break capitalist political control and declare the path of
> revolution; he was not defeated by "spatial definitions," but seized upon
> the spatial definition of the historical narrative of Simon Bolivar to
> animate and excite the national imagination; he was not crushed by "the
> global movement of capital," but snatched it by the throat, prevented oil
> privatization, and pumped $3.7 billion dollars derived from
> state-controlled oil revenues into social investment in just one year.
> Thus we see that the conquest of state power was not only not a barrier,
> it was an essential part of carrying out and defending the concrete
> improvements made on the ground.    The Venezuelan example, then, deals a
> blow to the anarchist shibboleth of the state as inherently reactionary.
> But it would be a serious mistake to think that it vindicates the equally
> erroneous vangaurdist shibboleth that posits people as subjects to be
> trained by an enlightened state leadership. Caught between these false
> dichotomies of "good people/bad state" versus "bad people/good state",
> Holloway not only adopts the anarchist end of this view, but wrongly
> dismisses all state-centered struggle as lying on the vangaurdist end. He
> writes: "The state oriented-argument can be seen as a pivoted conception
> of the development of struggle", whereby, "First, we concentrate all our
> efforts on winning the state," and "then...we can think of revolutionizing
> society." This description, aside from being a caricature of the way most
> socialists conceive of revolutionary change, is very far off the mark in
> explaining what has happened in Venezuela.    For while it is undoubtedly
> true that holding state power has helped Chavez mount a strong defense of
> the revolutionary project, he did not simply do this overnight, nor did he
> do it by himself. The Chavez government would neither be in power nor have
> the political strength to carry out any of its policies even while in
> power had there not been an intense, dialectical process of engagement
> with the people who comprise the backbone of the revolution. Time and time
> again, it has been the active mobilization of the people from the slums -
> those who have felt that it is their government under attack - which has
> thwarted the right-wing forces of the oligarchy, media elite and
> embittered sections of the middle classes still aiming to unseat the
> revolution.    Through a constant process of support, feedback,
> initiative, pressure, frustration criticism, and, most importantly, mass
> demonstrations, it has been the masses who have propelled the revolution
> forward, strengthening and consolidating it every step of the way. In just
> a period of a few years, the revolution has fought and won a wave of
> battles: a short-lived right-wing coup, ratification of a new
> constitution, judiciary reform, two national legislative elections, two
> presidential elections, a business-led oil industry sabotage campaign, an
> attempted referendum recall, a viciously dishonest corporate-owned media -
> and, of course, the United States.    Throughout all this, the government,
> which certainly did not start out by declaring itself socialist, was
> forced to either start meeting the expectations of the people or risk
> finding its basis of support disappear. It had to answer concretely the
> demands and concerns of supporters like Juan Blanco, who complained
> shortly after the opposition launched its debilitating national strike in
> December 2002, "The assistance we get is very small; we do not even feel
> it. I ask, what is the goal of the revolution - where are we headed?" To
> which Chavez has now supplied the answer we are all familiar with: "I am
> convinced, and I think that this conviction will be for the rest of my
> life, that the path to a new, better and possible world, is not
> capitalism, the path is socialism."    It is unfortunate that Holloway, in
> accepting the framework of false dichotomies about state and people,
> necessarily rejects the state and the electoral arena as a site of social
> struggle. It robs him of the ability to see that the construction of
> socialism is a process and not one of absolute, fixed immovable forces;
> that in this process the state can be a vehicle for change precisely to
> the degree that the people are pushing for change through the state. The
> great strength in this approach, in the context of a revolutionary
> program, is that it constitutes an active, positive initiative in which
> concrete, visible gains can be made, defended and referenced. The poor can
> be fed, schools can be built, children can be taught, the sick can be
> treated - in the assets of the state lies the active, real basis for
> cultivating the soil from which the flowers of humanist values may
> blossom.   But by dint of his ideological disposition Holloway is forced
> to look to the negative - "rebellions" and "insubordinations," the central
> focus of which is "people saying no to capitalism, no, we shall not live
> our lives according to the dictates of capitalism, we shall do what we
> consider necessary or desirable and not what capitalism tells us to do."
> He calls for "multiply[ing] and expand[ing] these refusals." The
> underlying problem with this approach is that saying no only goes so far
> no matter how many times one repeats it. It is intrinsically a negative
> demand and implies a program of only reflexive reaction, not positive
> action.    Moreover, it turns out that often times "doing what we consider
> necessary" actually coincides with "the dictates of capitalism" because
> capitalism is a totalizing force. Holloway, in describing capitalism as
> "not (in the first place) an economic system, but a system of command,"
> proposes we break this control through refusal: "To refuse to obey is to
> break the command of capital." But this is misleading because the means of
> enforcing the "system of command" is rooted in the "economic system"
> itself. The state commands, coordinates, develops, defends, and
> appropriates a vast amount of capital, and, in so doing, sets the basis
> for its further ability to regulate a wide array of social relations and
> organizations upon which people depend in their everyday lives.    In this
> sense, then, capitalism is not so much "a system of command" but a system
> of tenuous consent - people must work within the system in order to eat,
> to live, to buy things, and to maintain their position in society.
> Therefore to "refuse to obey" in the immediate sense is not to "break the
> command of capital" but rather to break one's connection to the social and
> support structure made possible by capital; it is to become isolated,
> atomized, individuated, and assigned to oblivion. This process is
> accelerated by the fact that, if a "refusal" turns into more militant
> forms of insubordination with any sign of creating "trouble," the state
> unleashes its energies and either marginalizes and demoralizes the
> movement or crushes it ruthlessly.   The only way to change this situation
> is to translate the idea of resistance into positive action aimed at
> building an alternative society. Naturally, this requires an economic
> basis - a project which cannot be achieved by any kind of magic, by NGOs,
> by "civil society," or by any other scattered, isolated, nebulous group
> hovering and floating about on the margins. It can only be achieved by a
> broad democratic mass movement which understands, among other things, the
> necessity of controlling that hub which has been responsible for
> overseeing the theft of our labor and channeling the wealth we produce
> upwards and in ways designed to control and fragment us: the state.    The
> goal of this control should be twofold: to remove what is destructive and
> to reenergize what is productive for the ascending movement of human
> liberation. It is impossible to speculate in the abstract what in the
> state would warrant removal and what would warrant renewal; one might make
> broad references to decreasing armaments, eliminating advisory boards for
> corporations, reorienting research away from environmentally hazardous
> chemicals and toward cures for the ills those chemicals have caused,
> increasing funds for public education, transportation - and so on.    The
> guiding idea, however, should be to dethrone power without principle and
> coronate principle without power. That is to say, we must strive for the
> empowerment of our humanist principles as well as the disempowerment of
> unprincipled power. It is this dual process which will help break apart
> the old array of social relations and open up the path to genuine human
> development and solidarity among humankind.    M. Junaid Alam, 22, is
> co-editor of the leftist youth journal Left Hook, and attends Northeastern
> University in Boston. He can be reached at

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