Power and the State

The following is a transcript of John Holloway's speech to the European Social Forum in London in October 2004.

November 1, 2004
9 min read


John Holloway is professor at the Autonomous University of Puebla in Mexico and author of the influential Change the World Without Taking Power.

1. I assume that we are here because we agree on two basic points. Firstly, capitalism is a disaster for humanity and we urgently need a radical social change, a revolution. Secondly, we do not know how such a change can take place. We have ideas, but no certainties. That is why it is important to discuss, respecting our differences and understanding that we are all part of the same movement.

2. In this discussion, we start from where we are, from a confused movement, a cacophony of rebellions, loosely united in this Social Forum. The question is how we should continue. Should we organise as a party? Should we focus our struggles on the state and in winning influence within the state or conquering state power? Or should we turn our back on the state in so far as we can and get on with constructing an alternative? I want to argue that we should turn our back on the state in so far as possible.

3. This is a question of how we organise and where we think we are going. The state is a form of organisation, a way of doing things. The state is an organisation separate from the rest of society. The people who work in the state (the politicians and the functionaries or civil servants) work on behalf of society, for the benefit of society, as they see it. Some are better than others (I have no doubt that Bertinotti is better than Berlusconi), but all work on our behalf, in our name. In other words, they exclude us. The state, as an organisational form, is a way of excluding us, of negating the possibility of self-determination. Once we are excluded, we have no real control over what they do. Representative democracy reinforces and legitimates our exclusion, it does not give us control over what the state does. Many of the worst atrocities are justified in the name of democracy.

If we focus our struggles on the state, we have to understand that the state pulls us in a certain direction. Above all, it seeks to impose upon us a separation of our struggles from society, to convert our struggle into a struggle on behalf of, in the name of. It separates leaders from the masses, the representatives from the represented, it draws us into a different way of talking, a different way of thinking. It pulls us into a process of reconciliation with reality, and that reality is the reality of capitalism, a form of social organisation that is based on exploitation and injustice, on killing and destruction. There is one key concept in the history of the state-centred left, and that concept is betrayal. Time and time again, the leaders have betrayed the movement, and not necessarily because they are bad people, but just because the state as a form of organisation separates the leaders from the movement and draws them into a process of reconciliation with capital. Betrayal is already given in the state as an organisational form.

Can we resist this? Yes, of course we can, and it is something that happens all the time. We can refuse to let the state identify leaders or permanent representatives of the movement, we can refuse to let delegates negotiate in secret with the representatives of the state. But this means understanding that our forms of organisation are very different from those of the state, that there is no symmetry between them. The state is an organisation on behalf of, what we want is the organisation of self-determination, a form of organisation that allows us to articulate what we want, what we decide, what we consider necessary or desirable – a council or communal organisation, a commun-ism. There are no models for how we should organise our drive towards self-determination. It is always a matter of invention and experimentation. What is clear is that the state as a form of organisation pushes in the opposite direction, against self-determination. The two forms of organisation are incompatible.

When I say “state”, I include parties or any organisation that has the state as its main focus. The party, as a form of organisation, reproduces the state form: it excludes, it creates distinctions between leaders and masses, representatives and represented; in order to win state power, it adopts the agenda and the temporalities of the state. In other words, it goes against the drive towards social self-determination which I think is the core of our struggle. Note that I am saying to Fausto and to Daniel and to Hilary “I don’t think the party is the right way to organise”. I am not saying “I don’t like you” or “I will not cooperate with you”, nor am I saying that struggles that take another route (such as the case of Venezuela) are therefore to be condemned. I am simply saying that in thinking of the way forward, party organisation or focussing on state power is the wrong way to go, because it implies a form of organisation that excludes and imposes hierarchies, that weakens and bureaucratises the anarchic effervescence of the drive towards self-determination that is the core of the current movement against neo-liberal capitalism.

4. What does it mean to turn our back on the state? In some cases, it means ignoring the state completely, not making any demands on the state, just getting on with the construction of our own alternatives. The most obvious example of that at the moment would be the Zapatistas’ shift in direction last year, their creation of the Juntas de Buen Gobierno, the creation of their own regional administration in a way that seeks to avoid the separation of administration and society typical of the state.

In other cases, it is difficult to turn our back on the state completely, because we need its resources in order to live – as teachers, as students, as unemployed, whatever. It is very difficult for most of us to avoid all contact with the state. In that case, what is important is to understand that the state is a form of organisation that pulls us in certain directions, that pulls us towards a reconciliation with capitalism, and to think how we can shape our contact with the state, how we can move against-and-beyond the state as a form of doing things, refusing to accept the creation of hierarchies, the fragmentation of our struggles that contact with the state implies, refusing to accept the language and the logic and perhaps above all the temporality of the state, the times and rhythms that the state tries to impose on us. How do we engage with the state without slotting in to its logic, without reproducing its logic inside our own movement? This is always a difficult issue in practice, in which it is very easy to get drawn into the logic of achieving particular concrete aims and forget the impact on the dynamic of the movement as a whole. I do not think it is a question of reclaiming the state, although I have a lot of respect for many of the struggles that are covered in Hilary’s book, but I think the idea of reclaiming the state is wrong: the state is an alien form of organisation – it is not, and cannot be, ours.

5. In all this the question of time and how we think about time is crucial. On the one hand the state imposes its temporality on us all the time, with its rhythm of elections and its changes of regime which change little or nothing: “Wait till the next election and then you can change things; if you want to do something now, then prepare for the next election, build the party”. On the other hand, the Leninist revolutionary tradition also tells us to wait: “Wait for the next revolutionary occasion or the next downturn of the long wave, wait until we take power and then we shall change society; in the meantime, build the party”.

But we know that we cannot wait. Capitalism is destroying the world and destroying us at such a rate that we cannot wait. We cannot wait for the election and we cannot wait for the revolution, we cannot wait until we win state power in one way or another, we have to try and break the destructive dynamic now. We have to refuse. Capitalism does not exist because the evil ones, the Bushes and Blairs and Berlusconis, create it. Capitalism does not exist because it was created a hundred or two hundred years ago. Capitalism exists today only because we created it today. If we do not create capitalism tomorrow, then it will not exist tomorrow. Capitalism exists because we make it, and we have to stop making it, to refuse. This means breaking time, breaking continuity, understanding that something does not exist today just because it existed yesterday: it exists only if we make it.

In thinking about alternatives to the state, I think refusal has to be the pivot, the key. But it is not enough. To maintain our refusal to make capitalism, we have to have an alternative way of surviving. The refusal has to be accompanied by the creation of a different world, the creation of a new commons, the creation of a different way of doing things. Behind the absolute here-and-now of refusal there has to be another temporality, a patient construction of a different world. There is no model for this. The only model is the multiplicity of experiences and inventions of the movement of resistance against capitalism. This multiplicity, this cacophony of struggles and experiences should be respected, not channelled into a party, not focussed on the winning of state power. The problem is not to take power, but to construct our own power, our own power to do things differently, our own power to create a different world.


John Holloway is professor at the Autonomous University of Puebla in Mexico and author of the influential Change the World Without Taking Power.


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