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Can we change the world without taking power?

This article is over 16 years, 9 months old
Do we need political organisation to challenge the state? Chris Nineham replies to the arguments of the autonomist writers who claim that we don’t
Issue 1965
Italian workers join a 1974 general strike in Milan. During this period Italy saw the biggest left wing movement in Europe, but by the late 1970s the strategy of the autonomists had helped lead it to defeat
Italian workers join a 1974 general strike in Milan. During this period Italy saw the biggest left wing movement in Europe, but by the late 1970s the strategy of the autonomists had helped lead it to defeat

John Holloway and other writers known as autonomists have exerted a powerful ­influence on the anti-capitalist movement. Holloway’s main argument, expressed in books such as Change the World Without Taking Power, is that “you cannot build a society of non-power relations by conquering power”.

His conclusion is that the movement should ignore the state, because any attempt to challenge state power will lead to the movement trying to replace it. That in turn will create a new elite.

For Holloway change can only come from spontaneous action from the grassroots. He writes, “There is a whole world of struggle that does not aim at all at winning power… that sometimes goes no further than saying ‘NO!’.”

He looks to struggles independent of political parties, the official labour movement, or any other organised forces. All attempts at political leadership are seen as suspect. What matters is the act of resistance.

It is easy to see the appeal of these ideas. The anti-capitalist movement arrived on the scene in the late 1990s when Labour parties everywhere were selling their souls to the market.

Much of the rest of the left was compromised by its earlier support for Stalinist Russia and confused by the fall of this regime. Inspired by new signs of resistance around the world some activists rejected all politics in the name of the struggle.

It is also easy to see the problems. Talk of ignoring the state was perplexing when the US began throwing its military weight around the globe. As the war on terror turns into a state led assault on civil liberties, it now seems positively perverse.


The autonomists’ argument is confused. For one thing they skate over the different approaches the left takes toward the state and power. Even in its more radical days the Labour Party aimed to win elections in order to use the state to improve life for working class people.

Marxists take the opposing view that the state cannot be used to transform society because its purpose is to protect the interests of the wealthy.

Leading members of the ruling class run state institutions, such as the civil service, the police and the army. For our rulers the state is a vital barrier to change.

Holloway argues the left over­estimates the power of the state. “The state is not the locus of power that it appears to be,” he writes. “Power is not possessed by any particular person or institution, power lies rather in the fragmentation of social relations.”

Of course corporate power does affect every aspect of our lives. Privatised social life makes us feel isolated and powerless. Bosses and managers do everything they can to discipline and divide us at work.

But the capitalists still need a state that can overcome the divisions ­between different sections of their class and act as a centre of their power, while appearing as a neutral body.

Armies fight for business interests abroad and impose order at home in times of crisis. Police forces play a more calibrated law and order role, but their core duty is to defend the status quo.

Ten thousand police were mobilised to protect the world leaders assembled at the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, in July. Millions saw them on TV lashing out at protesters days before the march on the summit.

From Egypt to Ecuador strikes, demonstrations and movements for democracy all face attack by their local state.

Softer state institutions, such as the education system and state media, also play their part in shoring up ruling class power by promoting its values and ideas.


The state is far from all-powerful. The US’s might is being humbled in Iraq. In Latin America mass movements in country after country have defied the police and toppled governments.

There is a long history of sections of the army and even the police coming over to the side of the people during insurrections.

During the Bolivian uprising in June at least one police regiment in the capital, La Paz, refused to go onto the street to attack workers and peasants. But we are dreaming if we think we can change society without taking the state seriously.

This means analysing how capitalist society works. Here the autonomist writers are of little help. Holloway argues that analysis itself can be oppressive. “Through classification, conceptual hierarchies are formed,” he writes.

Holloway’s view is that the struggle against power takes place at an individual level, so he does not have much to say about how society works. He writes, “Anti-power exists wherever humans live.”

There are differences between the autonomist writers. The Italian author and activist Tony Negri has a more socially based analysis.

In Empire and Multitude, the two best selling books he has co-written with Michael Hardt, he argues that capitalism is undermining itself.

Old hierarchies are disappearing as networks form around new kinds of “immaterial” production. These flat, non-hierarchical networks contain the seeds of a new democratic social movement.


“The vast majority of our political and productive interactions are always based on democratic relations,” writes Negri. “Even when labour is subjugated by capital it always maintains its own autonomy.”

It is true that capitalist globalisation has spread the working class around the globe, making international solidarity easier. It has created enormous pools of bitterness from which new alliances and struggles can spring.

But it has also concentrated wealth and power into fewer and fewer hands. The spread of the market has been accompanied by increased tyranny in the workplace and repression in the streets.

More than ever, workers and the poor need to struggle to fight for better lives and a better world. But for Negri “class struggle and revolutionary organisation have become outdated and useless”.

Despite their differences, autonomist writers such as Negri and Holloway agree that all forms of political leadership are a menace.

The most activists should do is to create space for the spontaneity of the masses. This is an elitist and dangerous view. Any struggle will involve discussions about how to win. Some activists will put faith in persuading the authorities, others will understand the power relations at work.

The heated debates that take place in any campaign show that strategy matters. In the words of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, “There is no such thing as a spontaneous struggle.”


The history of autonomism proves the point. The ideas were first developed in the 1960s in Italy as a reaction to the reformist politics of the Italian Communist Party. But they led to disaster for the movement.

In 1969 there was an explosion of rank and file militancy in the Italian factories, which autonomists such as Negri supported.

When the reformist trade union leaders tried to contain this struggle, the autonomists didn’t challenge them for leadership of the movement.

Instead they looked outside the factory for new forces of change. Negri started to define a worker as “anyone who rebelled”. The autonomists began to champion the unemployed, students and women as the new driving forces of the revolution.

Some went on to back the terrorist tactics of groups such as the Red Brigades, whose bombings and kidnappings finally alienated an already tired working class from the left.

By the end of the 1970s Europe’s biggest left wing movement had run out of energy. Obsessed with spontaneity, the far left had not mapped out a way forward for the movement.

One participant admitted that they had “failed to build an alliance between the factory workers and other social groups outside the factories, to involve the mass of workers in the political issues underlying the factory struggles… the revolutionary movement lacked any kind of coherent strategy”.

Absence of memory

Cut off from the working class the left was wide open for attack. The Italian state rounded up and imprisoned hundreds of militants, including Negri himself.

Undeterred, Negri continued to insist on spontaneity and to deny the need for analysis or reflection. “The workers of Gdansk, the Neapolitan proletariat have no need of memory. Communist tradition is the absence of memory,” he wrote.

The autonomists’ refusal to face up to the politics of power can lead away from challenging the system. For example, Negri recently came out in support of the neo-liberal European constitution because he saw the European Union as a lesser evil than US power.

Today in many countries our movement is having to confront the power of the state. Across the world radicals and revolutionaries are trying to build a new left in the wake of the betrayal of the social liberals. The writings of Holloway and the autonomists are of little help in either case.

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