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Revolution without Taking Power

John Holloway on a major social change



Power under capitalism

Theory of fetishism


Against Holloway




The state of the world is very bad. This is not a universal consensus but probably most people think that some, if not all, of the following problems are really alarming: the ecological crisis, the poverty and destitution of billions of people, the enormous gap between the rich and the poor, the rapid destruction of small peoples and other divergent cultural forms, widespread human rights violations, the slave-like conditions in many workplaces, wars and violence.

Accordingly major changes are needed. There is wide unanimity that the main avenues for change are powerful organizations: pre-eminently states but also transnational corporations and quasi-world-state-like structures as the UN, WTO, World Bank, IMF and G7/8. Social movements are pressuring them for changes and the NGO's are lobbying them. When this is often unsuccessful, the most common conclusion is that we or "our men and women" must get into parliaments - perhaps also into the state and corporate administration and into global governmental structures.

In the light of the experience of some two hundred years, minor, and sometimes even important, positive changes are really achieved through the parliamentary method. But the experience is also that at the same time new problems appear or are created. The net result may be nil or negative, and there can be no talk of a steady progress.

Therefore, historically another idea of solving our big problems has been common: a major rapid social change or revolution. However, as the failure of the Russian revolution became more and more known during the second half of the last century, anti-revolutionary sentiment caught the wind in the western world. Prevailing opinion both in academic and non-academic circles has been that the time of revolutions is over, at least in the global North. They are thought to be bloody and devastating and generate bigger problems than solve.

So it seems that we are at a dead end: there is no way to overcome our predicament. During recent decades masses of people who have seen the urgent need for a substantial change have ended up in helplessness, hopelessness and despair. In social philosophy this has meant the popularity of postmodern theories which pessimistically or cynically accept the present and worsening condition, or make a total inversion and celebrate the world in all its brutality.

John Holloway's book Change the World Without Taking Power, The Meaning of Revolution Today (Holloway 2002) is an attempt to disengage us from this dead end. Its translations have attracted a lot of attention in Germany and Latin America - especially in Argentina - but there has been a lively discussion about the book also in English- and French-speaking Marxist circles(1). The publicity led to an invitation to Porto Allegre and Holloway was one of the "stars" in the last World Social Forum (January 2005).

Holloway was born in Dublin. He taught in Edinburgh university for a long time and made research on Marxist state theory. Holloway was one of the founders of a Marxist school called Open Marxism. In the early 1990's he moved to Mexico and has worked as a professor in a university situated in Puebla (Benemérita Universidad Autónoma). There he has studied the Zapatista movement and co-edited a book about it (Holloway and Pelaez 1998).

It is difficult to classify Holloway on the Marxist spectrum: He is inspired by critical theory - especially the philosophy of Theodor Adorno and Ernst Bloch - but at the same time he thinks that Marxist class analysis is still extremely important. Holloway is interested in the philosophical analysis of the young Marx (The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts) but finds the same themes important in the mature Marx (Capital).

Power under capitalism

Holloway's strategy is to open up the seeming rigidness of the present society by looking at its structures and processes from a certain perspective. One of his starting points is the well-known double meaning of the English word 'power'(2): it means both domination and the ability to do things. For these two concepts he uses the terms 'power-over' and 'power-to' (p. 28)(3) - as many others. However, his further analysis is not so common: the power-over of the few is constituted by the power-to of the many.

To understand how this happens in a capitalist society, where we were born and which we have learnt to regard as natural, Holloway suggests that we see the world as a social flow of doing: everything that we do or make is based on the doing of countless other human beings - living and dead (p. 26). On the other hand, if our doing is going to have results, it is based on the fact that other people use it in their doing. For example, a wooden chair that I have made is a chair only so far as somebody uses it for sitting, decoration or as a museum piece - otherwise it is just a chunk of wood.

Doing based on our power-to involves always both projection-beyond, or conception, and execution. Power-over means that doing is fractured: some people are able to arrogate themselves the projection-beyond and other people have the execution as their job. This arrogation is always based ultimately on the threat of physical force (p. 30). However, power-over works smoothly only if it is somehow institutionalised.

Under capitalism institutionalisation is not based on a personal relation between the rulers and doers but between the rulers and the done. More and more of the past doing is declared to belong to the rulers as their private property. Other people are free to do anything they want but because they cannot do essential things - for example to eat - without the past doing, now transformed into private property, they must do what the rulers want. The done begins to dominate the doing and the free social flow of doing is stopped. Doing becomes labour. Momentaneous situations in the flow of doing, or fleeting objectifications of the done, are frozen into capital (p. 31).

Very important for Holloway's theory is that he does not start from labour and capital, as most other Marxist scholars, but derives them only through the analysis of the change in the social flow of doing.

How damaging the freezing of the flow can be for us and our social creativity, is easier to understand when we consider new fields that are only now being converted to private property. Patenting knowledge and genetic material such as seeds has created a lot of controversy both in academic and lay circles.

Theory of fetishism

To understand better how the peculiar capitalistic form of power-over is institutionalized, Holloway uses and elaborates Marx's theory of commodity fetishism. This theory has an interesting and revealing history. Even though Marx presents it in the beginning of his main work Capital(4), the theory has been either ignored of marginalised in most of the Marxist studies. For the few Marxist scholars who have taken the theory seriously, the consequences have been serious. For example, Soviet economist Isaak Rubin, whose book (Rubin 1972) deals extensively with commodity fetishism, was arrested in 1930, accused, among other things, for idealism and Hegelianism alien to Marxism, and executed. Georg Lukács' main work (Lukács 1970), which also elaborates theory of fetishism, was condemned by the Soviet authorities in 1924 and, belonging to the Hungarian communist party, Lukács himself repudiated his own argument in the interests of party discipline (p. 86).

Fetishism was originally an anthropological concept which referred to a cultural practice among many Western African peoples: they worshipped certain handmade things, fetishes, because these were considered to have magical power. Already in Marx's time fetishism was used as a general concept in the study of religions.

In religious fetishism "the productions of the human brain" are projected to fetishes and "appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race" (Marx 1999, ch. 1, sec. 4). Analogically, when production to markets is universalized, social character of individual doing, appears to be a natural trait of a commodity: its exchange value. Accordingly, "there it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things." (ibid.)

On the other hand, because most important interactions between humans are through selling their products or labour power and because they are transformed into independent individuals, their relations are not social but material (p. 51). Therefore, there is a complete inversion of relations: "...the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things."(ibid.) We live in a topsy-turvy world.

Marx's theory of fetishism is a further development of those theories of alienation and reification or "thingification" which he put forth before Capital (Rubin 1972). Earlier he thought that reification of social relations is a mere appearance in the mind. In his theory of fetishism Marx regards fetishism also as a phenomenon of social being (ibid. p. 59). Therefore he writes in the above citation that relations "really are" inverted.

Accordingly, fetishes in our society are both illusions and real. As Holloway says, they are "real illusions". In this respect the theory of fetishism differs from theories of ideology and hegemony which are also popular among Marxists. The latter deal with ideas and forms of thought which come from outside to support daily social practice in a capitalistic society. The theory of fetishism, instead, tells how the daily practice itself creates ideas supporting it (p. 51-53).


But if there is such a factor creating stability in capitalistic societies as fetishism, how can we ever change it? Indeed, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who based their theory of identity and reification on fetishism, ended up in deep pessimism (p. 74)(Adorno and Horkheimer 1979).

Also those Marxists who disregard the theory of fetishism have usually thought that the main actor in a revolutionary change, the working class, is by itself hopelessly trapped in capitalism. Lenin writes in his influential book "What is to be done?": "The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc." (Lenin 1999, ch. 2.1.)

So what is to be done? For Lenin and for almost all other revolutionary Marxists the answer has been: party. The leading members of the party come from "educated representatives of the propertied classes, intellectuals". Therefore, the party is able to imbue the working class with socialist consciousness. Naturally these intellectuals also lead the revolution and take the state power into their hands.

History has condemned Lenin's model but much of the current Marxist thought in the West contains, according to Holloway, the seeds of a new Leninism and Stalinism. Marxism has been made a branch of normal social science and Marx's work are read as theory of reproduction of capitalism (p. 136). Theoretical work is not done from the perspective of systemic change, or collapsing or destruction of capitalism. Therefore, to make a revolutionary change, deus ex machina - a party or another outside agent - is needed.

What is then Holloway's solution to this dilemma? In brief it is to see fetishism as a process, as continuous fetishisation (p. 78-). This process is a struggle between fetishisation and de-fetishisation. Fetishised forms like capital and money are "constantly at issue, constantly questioned as social forms, constantly being established and re-established (or not) through struggle" (p. 89).

Those who are struggling are the working class and capital, but Holloway's conception of working class is extremely open: "class divide traverses all of us" (p. 147). We are actively and constantly both creating capitalistic social forms and power-over and threatening their re-institution. People are integrated into capitalism only partly and provisionally. Thus "being a revolutionary is a very ordinary, very usual matter"... "we are all revolutionaries, albeit in very contradictory, fetishised, repressed ways" (p. 211).

Accordingly, there is a real hope for a revolution. Revolution can be conceived as self-emancipation of the working class which does not need any outside agent to imbue it with revolutionary consciousness. Because capitalism is totally dependent on our doing and active support, we don't have to fight against it like a foreign army: it is enough "to cease to create the monster" (Holloway 2004b).

In this conception of revolution there are no need and no sense to change the world by taking state power. The aim is to emancipate the social flow of doing which means dissolution of power-over(5). This aim, which is at the same time more radical and more realistic as that of mainstream Marxists (p. 37), is obviously in conflict with the maintaining or reestablishing state power. State is an aspect of fetishisation in which our social relations appear as a thing and outside force (p. 92) and which revolution is trying to get rid of.

In many ways Holloway's conception of capitalism and revolution resembles that in

autonomist Marxism. This current was rather unknown outside Italy and Germany until a couple of years ago one branch of it got world publicity through Michael Hardt's and Antonio Negri's book Empire (Hardt and Negri 2000). However, Holloway's theory differs in important respect from that of Hardt and Negri. The latter see the relationship between working class and capital as external - not internal as Holloway. Therefore, the concepts of subjectivity of working class are also very different. Hardt and Negri see the multitude (their term for working class) as a subject already existing in positive sense and becoming more powerful as capitalism gets more strength. For Holloway, instead, we as the working class are a maimed subject, torn apart in the class struggle. The working class exists only in negative sense as being against capitalism - outside and inside us. Accordingly Hardt and Negri cannot conceptualise revolution as an internal collapse of capitalism but seem to understand it in more traditional terms like a fight between two powerful armies. (p. 160-175) Not surprisingly, revolution is not self-emancipation but it needs its leading cadres, "working class militants" which they compare - in a way resembling Soviet mythology - with Francis the Assisi (Hardt and Negri 2000 p. 413).

Because for Holloway revolution is a process of collapsing capitalism, a process which has no leaders and which liberate humanity from the domination of the done, he maintains that we can in principle know very little about revolution. His concept of revolution is a question (p. 139). The book ends with a sentence that has no full stop.

Against Holloway

Naturally such a radical and pathbreaking work as Holloway's has caused a lot of criticism. Some of it misses the whole point of the book. For example, Louis Proyect defends traditional interpretation of Marx against Holloway citing statistics that show child mortality being much lower in Cuba than in Chiapas where the Zapatistas have their base (Proyect 2004). Somehow he does not compare Cuba with those many countries where more traditional Marxist guerilla movements have been fighting.

Many critics clearly have not read the book very carefully: they criticise Holloway for some positions which he explicitly rejects himself in the book. For example Birger Scholz criticises Holloway for thinking that states automatically implement the interests of capital (Scholz 2005). Yet Holloway himself criticises this view (p. 94).

However, much of the criticism is relevant. A common point is that Holloway is too abstract and does not deal with the concrete experience of historical revolutions and all the different positions in history of socialist thought (e.g. Bensaďd 2005). Holloway admits that his book is lacking a lot, but he maintains that discussion of historical details give us often an excuse not to think. There are a lot of different interpretations of history, and historical experience does not accumulate like capital - anyway for a revolutionary movement "because it is not by tradition and continuity that we will break with capitalism". (Holloway 2004b)

Many critics maintain that Holloway's concept of working class is too general and that he is not interested to study the real conditions of present-day workers (for example Wildcat 2003). In related criticism Mike Rooke writes that "If we do not start from labour, as Marx did, then we lose sight of the specific character of the exploitation of human labour under capitalism" (Rooke 2002). Holloway replies that struggle is not restricted to factories. In order to exploit, capital must impose a discipline on society and transform people into labourers. This process is full of important struggles. Therefore, we must start our analysis from doing and not from labour. (Holloway 2004a)

Joachim Hirsch wants to moderate Holloway's concentration on negative criticism and writes: "The appeal to negation, the break with that which exists, the not-taking-part is no doubt important, but it takes us forward politically only if it is combined theoretically with an exact analysis of the changing forms of capitalist reproduction, of its historical changes of form, that is with that which Holloway crudely denounces as theory which legitimises existing relations." (Hirsch 2003) Holloway admits that this criticism seems to be sensible. But when we think it more closely it is not. When negative critique opens up fetishised categories which conceal power of doing, no "exact analysis of the changing forms of capitalist reproduction" is possible. However, this does not mean that scientific analysis of capitalism is impossible: it is possible but it is not exact. (Holloway 2004c)

Some critics wonder why Holloway is not criticising the Zapatista movement nor "altermundista movements"(6) in general (e.g. Aufheben 2003). They too may have problematic internal power structures. This point is linked to the question about alternative forms of organization and democracy (e.g. Wright and Hawkins 2004). Michael Löwy brings out that the aim of revolution cannot be a dissolution of power-over because "there can be no form of collective life and action of human beings without some form of power-over" (Löwy 2004).

Holloway's answer to these critics is interesting. He agrees on the importance of alternative democratic structures but he would not like to call them democratic. The problem with democracy is that it addresses people as abstract individuals, as beings. But the point of revolution is to restore social flow of doing, and therefore alternative decision making structures should address people as social doers, as We-Doer. The idea of workers' council is exactly this. The problem is to form an organization that mutually recognizes the dignity of each "I" as social doer. Holloway seems to think that a "mutually-recognitive We-Doer" would not have any power-over. (Holloway 2004)


Holloway's book and his related articles are an extremely important contribution to understanding the fragility of the capitalistic form of domination. Although his background is Marxism and inside social change movements Marxists have been main opponents of anarchists, his conclusions concerning state and power-over are similar to those found in anarchistic social philosophy (for a general historical overview see e.g. Woodcock 1986; Marshall 1992). Indeed, he maintains that the old distinction between anarchism and Marxism is not any more relevant (p. 21). Yet he is extremely well versed in the writings of Marx and his followers but apparently not so familiar with anarchist tradition. This may explain some points that I find weak in his theory.

Although states in the modern world have forms that are specific to capitalism and their existence is linked to capitalistic social relations (p. 94), states do have their bureaucracies and armies which are partially based on a form of power that is different and older than capitalistic power. This is power generated by organizing social relations in a hierarchal pyramid. Holloway hints to this separate power base when he deals with physical force needed to create private property. Yet he does not analyse why a minority can use physical force successfully on the majority, even though much of his theory of fragile constitution of power could be applied to armies and other hierarchal social structure. Understanding the logic of hierarchies is important also because big companies are organized internally as huge bureaucracies.

In fact some social philosophers have applied "Hollowayan" analysis on power hierarchies already a long time ago. Montaigne's friend Étienne de La Boétie wrote in his book Discours sur la servitude volontaire in 1574: "I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break in pieces." (La Boétie 1975)

Another old form of institutionalized power is that based on manipulation of people's beliefs and attitudes. Theory of fetishisation tells an important aspect of the process how consciousness is formed under capitalism, but it is not all. As important as rituals and preaches in churches were earlier are nowadays commercials and biassed news emanating from the cathode ray tubes of our living rooms(7).

As most Marxists, Holloway does not integrate ecology into his theory. The flow of doing on which our life is based, is as much ecological as social. Doers in that flow are, besides humans, also other species and their communities. Power-over in capitalism is based also on distortion of ecological aspects of that flow. For example, transforming a rich and varied forest into a monoculture, makes gatherers into labourers without any need to fence the forest.

The great merit in Holloway's book is showing that in all geographical locations and in all fields establishing capitalism is always an unfinished job: the struggle against it continues. To this view one might easily integrate the perspective developed by some ex-marxists German eco-feminists: capitalism has never destroyed subsistence economy completely even in the old centres of the world system. It lives and thrives at homes and among friends. (Bennholdt-Thomsen and Mies 1999) Another economic system inside capitalism - that gives some perspective for revolution! Maybe we have a cushion waiting when we fall from a collapsing capitalistic skyscraper.


Adorno, Theodor and Max Horkheimer (1979). Dialectic of Enlightenment. London, Verso. (Original work: Dialektik der Aufklärung, 1944)

Aufheben (2003). "Review of "Change the World Without Taking Power"." Aufheben, http//www.geocities.com/aufheben2/auf_11_holloway.html, (11).

Bennholdt-Thomsen, Veronika and Maria Mies (1999). The subsistence perspective. London, Zed Books. (Original work: Eine Kuh für Hilary, Die Subsistenzperspektive, 1997)

Bensaďd, Daniel (2005). Die Welt verändern, ohne die Macht zu übernehmen? Zur Kritik an John Holloway, http//www.die-welt-ist-keine-ware.de/isl/bensaid.htm (28.3.2005), internationale sozialistische linke. (Original work: La Révolution sans prendre le pouvoir ? Ŕ propos d'un récent livre de John Holloway, in ContreTemps, Paris, Februar 2003)

Carey, Alex (1997). Taking the risk out of democracy, Corporate propaganda versus freedom and liberty. Urbana, University of Illinois Press. (Original work: 1995)

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri (2000). Empire. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Hirsch, Joachim (2003). "Macht und Anti-Macht, Zu John Holloways Buch "Die Welt verändern, ohne die Macht zu übernehmen"." Das Argument, http//www.dampfboot-verlag.de/aktuelles/johnhollow.html (29.3.2005), 45(249): 219-27.

Holloway, John (2002). Change the World Without Taking Power, The Meaning of Revolution Today. Pluto & Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades, London.

Holloway, John (2004a). Doing or Labour, http://www.herramienta.com.ar/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=articl e&sid=34#_ref2 (29.3.2005), Herramienta.

Holloway, John (2004b). Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead, http://www.herramienta.com.ar/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=articl e&sid=169 (25.3.2005), Herramienta.

Holloway, John (2004c). The Printing House of Hell, http://www.herramienta.com.ar/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=articl e&sid=103&mode=thread&order=0&thold=0 (29.3.2005), Herramienta. (Original work: Die Druckerei der Hölle. Antwort auf Hirsch, Das Argument 45(250), 2003, 219-27)

Holloway, John (2004d). Reply to Michael Löwy, http://www.herramienta.com.ar/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=articl e&sid=56 (29.3.2005), Herramienta.

Holloway, John and Eloina Pelaez, Eds. (1998). Zapatistas! Reinventing the Revolution in Mexico. London, Pluto.

La Boétie, Étienne de (1975). The Politics of Obedience, The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. St. Urbain, http//www.constitution.org/la_boetie/serv_vol.htm, Black Rose. (Original work: Discours sur la servitude volontaire ou Contr'un, 1574)

Lenin, Vladimir Ilich (1999). What is to be done? Burning questions of our movement, http//www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/ (27.3.2005), Lenin Internet Archive. (Original work: Chto delat? 1902)

Lukács, Georg (1970). Geschicte und Klassenbewusstsein, Studien über marxistische Dialektik. Neuwied, Luchterhand. (Original work: 1923)

Löwy, Michael (2004). About Change the world without taking power, http://www.herramienta.com.ar/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=articl e&sid=55 (29.3.2005), Herramienta. (Original work: A letter written in 2002)

Marshall, Peter (1992). Demanding the impossible, A history of anarchism. London, Harper Collins.

Marx, Karl (1999). Capital, Volume One, The Process of Production of Capital, http//www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ (24.3.2005), Marx/Engels Internet Archive (marxists.org). (Original work: Das Kapital, Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, Erster Band, Buch I: Der Produktionsprozeß des Kapitals,1867)

Proyect, Louis (2004). A Critique of Change the World without taking Power, http//www.herramienta.com.ar/print.php?sid=155 (28.3.2004), Herramienta.

Rooke, Mike (2002). "The Limitations of "Open Marxism"." What Next?, http://www.whatnextjournal.co.uk/Pages/Back/Wnext23/Holloway.html (29.3.2005), (23).

Rubin, Isaak Ilich (1972). Essays on Marx's theory of value. Detroit, Mich., Black & Red. (Original work: Ocherki po teorii stoimosti Marksa, 1928)

Scholz, Birger (2005). Nein zum Staat ist noch kein Konzept. Neues Deutschland 11.3.05. http//www.nd-online.de/artikel.asp?AID=68714&IDC=10&DB=O2P (28.3.2005) Berlin.

Wildcat (2003). "Der Schrei und die Arbeiterklasse." Wildcat-Zirkular, http//www.wildcat-www.de/zirkular/65/z65hollo.htm, (65): 48-54.

Woodcock, George (1986). Anarchism, A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements. Harmondsworth, Penguin Books. (Original work: 1962)

Wright, Chris and Suprina Hawkins (2004). Change the world without taking power review, http://www.herramienta.com.ar/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=articl e&sid=91 (29.3.2005), Herramienta.


1. On the site of an Argentinian Marxist journal Herramienta (Tool) http://www.herramienta.com.ar there is a large collection of reviews, commentaries and Holloway's replies in Spanish, English and German, originally published mainly in various Marxist journals.

2. In many other languages this distinction is often conveyed by two different words: in Finnish valta/voima, in German Macht/Vermögen, in Russian vlastj/sila, in French pouvoir/puissance, in Latin potestas/potentia.

3. Page numbers like this without an explicit reference, point to Holloway 2002.

4. Marx 1999, chapter 1, section 4

5. This concept of revolution is probably less strange for Finnish speakers than for others, bacause the Finnish word for revolution vallankumous means overturning or abolishing power.

6. Movements which are erroneously called anti-globalization movements. The name alludes to the slogan of the Zapatistas and the World Social Forum: "Another world is possible!"

7. On political background of modern propaganda systems see Carey 1997

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