How to Change the World Without Taking Power

Puebla de Los Angeles, Mexico.

One evening recently, an U.S. correspondent with a lengthy left-wing lineage sat down to dinner with two old comrades. Luis Cota had been a charter member of the long-defunct Mexican Communist Party and visited Moscow several times where he was enrolled at Patrice Lamumba University during the Brezhnev years. Pedro P. is a 40-year veteran of the Cuban news agency Prensa Latina who travels on the left are encyclopedic. He had visited with Lenin’s mummy four times (once each with Mao’s and the Bulgarian Georgi Dimitrov’s), he recounted.

The table talk turned to perspectives for the left in Latin America, a continent where Washington’s fetish with deconstructing Iraq has allowed a handful of social democrats to slide in under the radar and occupy the presidencies of their respective countries. The comrades touched glasses to celebrate the trade treaty just forged between Cuba and Venezuela, the ALBA, the anti-ALCA. Companero Chavez would soon be financing an Al-Jazeera-like 24 hour news network to combat CNN lies, the Prensa Latina man confided.

The U.S. reporter, whose work has often focused on the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, had just been invited to speak at the University of Puebla by the Irish radical scholar John Holloway and wanted to know if the two old Bolshies had read his controversial screed “Change the World Without Taking Power: the Meaning of Revolution Today.”

The mere mention of Holloway’s name had a curious effect on my dinner partners. Their garrulousness lapsed into frozen silence as if they had just been doused with a bucket of ice water. “Ufff Holloway!” gestured the Cuban in disgust, making bye bye signs with his small hands. Luis had not read the book but did not hesitate to label it as “treasonous” ­ he had heard that the CIA had financed its publication.

The object of all this old left virtupativeness is a soft-voiced radical scholar who first made his bones at Edinburgh University debunking Marxist shibboleths. Having taken refuge in Latin America, he is now in residence at the Universidad Autonoma Benemerito de Puebla de los Angeles, the UAP, where his latest volume of dense Marxian critique has ignited an unexpected fire fight between the state-oriented left and those who yearn for a less-hierarchal, more anarchistic structure such as embodied by the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas.

With nine books under his belt ­ four have the word “state” in the title, and “globalization” and “revolution” get one each (he is working on a tome with the Talking Heads-like title “Stop Making Capitalism”), Holloway touched a vein with his 1998 “Zapatista! Re-inventing Revolution” but seems genuinely amazed at the buzz “Change the World” has stirred up. Since its publication in 2002, young radicals have been cramming it into their backpacks when they march off to confront the Global Monster on the barricades at G-8 summits or World Trade Organization conclaves or else wedging it firmly under their arms as they descend into the Lacandon jungle to help the Zapatista autonomous municipalities build infrastructure.

“This is a very difficult book ­ I am surprised and gratified by the interest of young people” the author marvels over coffee at the Institute of Social Sciences, a lone radical enclave in a once-left university scarred in recent years by scandalous corruption. Housed in a creaky old colonial building painted a bright yellow, the Casa Amarilla, Holloway’s institute draws aspiring scholars from Argentina and Italy, the U.S. and the U.K. to sit at the Guru’s self-effacing feet and reflect on the new realities of the revolution.

Casa Amarilla is a lonely outpost in a city that suddenly finds itself on the frontline of global capitalism. An old and moneyed metropolis dominated by churches and gargoyles, Puebla de los Angeles, Mexico’s fourth largest city two hours east of the capitol, is now temporary home base for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (ALCA in its Spanish acronym), an unsigned hemispheric trade treaty, and seeks to become its permanent headquarters (Miami and Panama City are in the running) when and if the scheme to extend NAFTA’s dubious benefits all the way to Tierra del Fuego ever becomes a reality.

Global deals are being cut everyday in the backrooms of the glitzy Americas Center here where North American Free Trade Association commissions often meet to iron out kinks in that 11 year-old one-time beacon of corporate globalization. Indeed, Puebla is the gateway to the global south ­ the official departure point for Mexican president Vicente Fox’s grand stratagem for opening up resource-rich southern Mexico and Central America to transnational exploitation, the Plan Puebla-Panama.

Given the landscape, John Holloway may be the most subversive soul walking the streets of Angelopolis, as the neo-liberal set dubs the city. The ogre who armed (at least theoretically) the wild-eyed mobs of anti-globalization rioters forever threatening to tear down the gates of Davos or loot the vaults at the World Bank, turns out to be a kindly, sad-eyed academic with a shock of silver hair plastered to his forehead, a sort of thinking man’s Naomi Klein, who makes a point of not having all the answers. “How to change the world without taking power?” he asks, “we don’t really know what that means” Or again:” Change the World without Taking Power? It sounds absurd but we have no other alternative.”

Holloway’s book is a difficult slog for this reporter who, in his revolutionary salad days, preferred to take target practice rather than ponder Hegel in socialist study groups. I confess I often utilized the volume, which is studded with indecipherable nuggets like “the negation of the negation”, to combat chronic insomnia.

Why has so theoretical a manifesto captured the imagination of a movement that is grounded in action and reaction, the stuff of the street and the barricades and the infamous black blocs?

“Why, that’s just it, isn’t it?” Professor Holloway parses, “people have been very active and now want to think about what they are doing. This is an on-going process ­ the book did not really launch this debate. These issues have been discussed for the past decade, ever since the Zapatista rebellion I suppose ­ but the Zapatistas too pulled together ideas that had been floating around for ten years before that.”

“John, what do you mean when you say there is no alternative to changing the world without taking power? How does this fit into the developing left alignment in Latin America?”

“Well, there is no alternative. I mean, everyone knows that Capitalism is disgusting and disastrous. Although no one talks much about the Revolution these days, everyone knows we need one. But what will we do with this revolution? Take state power again? The error stems from a fundamental misconception of the role of the state in sustaining capitalism. Substituting one state power for another just repeats the same problems over and over again and eventually exhausts the revolution. This is the old way of thinking about revolution and it doesn’t work anymore. We have to find a new way. There is no alternative.”

For John Holloway, insurgent social formations in Latin America are that other way ­ the Zapatistas in Chiapas, sections of the Ecuadorian indigenous movement, the “piqueteros” at the nadir of the “Argentinazo” three years ago whose cry “que se vayan todos” (that all those who govern should leave) inspired “How to Change the World Without Taking Power.” But central to answering the question asked in the book’s title is its corollary: with what will we replace those who have left i.e. what do we do with power after we have taken it?

In Holloway’s equations, “power” is a word with two terribly distinct meanings ­ “poder hacer” in Spanish (the Spanish edition of “How To Change The World” has outsold the original English version) or the power to create, to do, vs. “poder sobre”, “power over”, the power of domination and subjugation which stifles the power of the people to create. We know what to do with “power over” ­ overthrow it. But the organization and use of the power to do requires articulation.

During the first years of the Zapatista rebellion, the very act of rising in rebellion itself empowered the rebels and helped them to realize that they already had the power and did not need to take the state to get it. The location of power was not always apparent to the Zapatistas ­ at the beginning of their rebellion, they talked about marching on Mexico City to overthrow the government. But after the “mal gobierno” (“the bad government”) failed to honor its pledge to enact the Indian rights legislation the rebels had been battling to achieve for years, they turned their back on the state and begin constructing their own autonomous infrastructure, one they could control through the leadership ethic of “mandar obedeciendo”, literally “governing by obeying the will of the people”, that is, to serve rather than to rule.

If the Zapatistas had not existed, we would have had to invent them to show the world another way, concedes Holloway.

All over the Americas, from Vermont to Venezuela and Peoria to Patagonia, the Zapatista model on one hand, and that of the democratically elected strongman Hugo Chavez on the other, is being counterpoised by activists and scholars as they peer into the future. Such juxtaposition may be overstating the Zapatistas’ weight. The Mayan rebels really did not rise up to save mankind but rather to sort out strategies for their own best survival.

Theoretically obtuse as it is, Holloway’s salvo has set off a storm of criticism from the state-oriented or old left, which dismisses the Irishman as an anti-Marxist interloper. Although the electoral triumphs of Brazil’s Lula, Kirschner in Argentina, and Tabare Vazquez in Uruguay, and the aggrandizement of Venezuela’s Chavez would seem to point to the primacy of taking state power, Holloway issues a caution. When a Lula or a Chavez take the power of the state, they suddenly find themselves trapped in alignments that force obeisance to the World Bank and the White House from which they cannot break away. Their promises begin to sound hollow as transnationals reap fortunes at the expense of the people whose progress is pretty much straight down hill.

Given the probability of such a scenario, John Holloway suggests that the Zapatista model will prosper. “When people are disillusioned, they begin to look for the real solutions. Building a party that’s a little more to the left isn’t one of them.”

On the other hand, the author of “How To Change The World” has to concede, the future of the polemic is hardly assured. “Hugo Chavez is a formidable opponent. He has oil and oil money and the support of international Trotskyists. He could pull it off. The possible election of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador as president of Mexico would greatly bolster the cause of the state-oriented left.”

John Holloway’s thesis is not much endorsed by Latin American left leaders who are closest to taking power. “What an absurd idea! We are fighting to take state power because we want to change things. How else can you make these changes?” exclaims Evo Morales, leader of Bolivia’s coca farmers and the Movement Towards Socialism which is only a hairsbreadth away from the presidency of his country.

Morales’s bitter rival, Felipe Quispe, “El Mallku” (“The Condor”), leader of the powerful Aymara peasant movement, is not much more supportative. Rather than ignoring the state, El Mallku seeks to build one ­ Tahuantinsuyo, the mythical Inca promise of unifying the Indian heart of Latin America into one nation. “We will take power and throw the white man’s constitution out and make our own state.” Quispe, an advocate of the old Maoist theorem that power grows from the barrel of a gun, is building an Indian army to take state power.

Others are not so sure about where power lies. Ecuador’s venerable indigenous coalition, the CONAIE, took state power in alliance with a junta of young military officers and then went on to back the coup leader Lucio Gutierrez in his successful bid for the presidency, for which the Indians were assigned two seats in the cabinet. 200 days later, feeling used and abused by Gutierrez, CONAIE founders Luis Macas and Nina Pacari resigned in despair. “We were in power but we had no power” Pacari later complained to researchers. As the former CONAIE chairman Leonidis Ica explained to this correspondent during a congress of Amazonian Indians last spring, “we made a mistake about where power was to be found. Now we know,” he laughed as he took his place at the microphone.

In Cochabamba Bolivia, Oscar Oliviera is still the coordinator of the Committee to Defend the Water which in 2000, after discovering that the local water supply was being privatized, filled the central plaza with a 100,000 angry city dwellers, stood off the military for weeks, and drove the Bechtel Corporation of San Francisco, California from the land in one of the first successful resistance campaigns mounted by the growing anti-globalization movement. Today, Oliviera considers that changing the world is viable without taking state power.

“The state is out of date, its like old medicine ­ it doesn’t work anymore and it has no credibility and it is billions of dollars in debt to international capital. What power does it have? Who would want to take it when we have the power right here? That is what we learned in the plaza of Cochabamba five yeas ago.”

The prospect of changing the status quo without seizing the reigns of power is not just limited to Latin America. While the two most gargantuan once-upon-a-time state oriented left regimes, Russia and China, now locked in a love frenzy with savage Capitalism, may be a bit cool to Holloway’s project, the scholar sees increasing international acceptance of his constructs. A recent first-time visitor to the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, he organized a workshop with speakers from five continents sounding off on how to change the world and was gratified by the resonance for his ideas in such far-off frontiers as Africa and Thailand.

Several years ago, when proponents of this new non-hierarchal approach to making revolution happen sought to mount a public debate at Porto Alegre, they were marginated and silenced by the state-oriented left in the guise of Lula’s Party of Labor goons. This year, Holloway reports, he was offered a classroom that accommodated 600 activists. “1500 showed up.”

JOHN ROSS has just been awarded the 2005 Upton Sinclair Award (an “Uppie”) by the San Pedro California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union for his latest cult classic “Murdered By Capitalism–A Memoir of 150 Years of Life & Death on the U.S. Left“. “The Wal-Martization of Mexico” appeared in a truncated form in the March issue of The Progressive.








JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to