Can we change the world without taking power? Without organising ongoing, structured, political movements (parties)? John Holloway, in a much-read book (Change the World Without Taking Power, Pluto 2002) says we can.
He is wrong. If we don’t take power — if, to be more exact, activists do not agitate, educate, and organise to push the working class towards sufficient organisation, confidence and assertiveness for the working class to take power — then the Blairs and Bushes, the Schröders and Putins, will keep power.
If, at points of crisis and turmoil, we counsel the working class to step back and not challenge for power, then the ruling ultra-rich will use their power to crush us. The “self-limiting revolution” by Poland’s Solidarnosc in 1980–1, which consciously avoided challenging for power (because its leaders wanted to reduce the danger of a Russian invasion), ended up repressed by a military coup.
According to Holloway, both social democratic attempts to reform away the evils of capitalism by winning elections, and revolutionary movements that have overthrown capitalism (for example in the USSR, China, Cuba, Vietnam, etc.) have failed to end this oppression and exploitation. His examples of a better way include the Zapatistas in Mexico, struggles to defend health or education, and other more fragmented protests.
Of course partial struggles can win partial gains. But in the cold climate of today’s globalised neo-liberalism, they don’t win very many. The idea of dissolving away the evils of capitalism through one reform after another never made sense, but it is even more obviously nonsense today than it was 30 or 40 years ago. Look at the Lula government in Brazil for evidence.
Holloway says he is not reformist. The subtitle of his book is “The Meaning of Revolution Today”. But how can a revolution be made with the capitalists still in power? Partial struggles which do not directly challenge their power will not dissolve it away bit by bit.
During the Paris Commune (1871), in the October revolution in Russia (1917), and elsewhere, workers formed their own democratic committees or councils (soviets) with directly accountable representatives. These bodies were both the means of taking power, and the basis of the new “semi-state” to replace capitalist rule. The Commune and the Soviets both were isolated and defeated — but if similar workers’ revolutions had taken place in other countries, that form of democratic, collective self-rule could have worked.
To say it could not is to say that the working class is incapable of ruling society democratically — in which case rule by an elite is inevitable, and we had best stop dreaming about changing the world at all.
Tyranny came out of the Russian revolution because it was followed by a bureaucratic counter-revolution, led by Stalin. Tyranny came out of the Chinese, Vietnamese or Cuban revolutions because they were revolutions made not by the working class but by hierarchical military machines distant from the working class — which remained as hierarchical after taking power as they had been before.
The experience of Thatcherite and Blairite “reform” has taught us that reform is not necessarily good. Nor is revolution automatically good — it depends who makes it, with what aims. But working-class socialist revolution remains the only way to change the world decisively.