Critical Considerations on Collective Empowerment: Class, Civil Society and the State

By Efe Can Gürcan and Gerardo Otero – Simon Fraser University

John Holloway, Change the world without taking power: the meaning of revolution today (London & New York: Pluto Press, 2010)

John Holloway, Change the world without taking power: the meaning of revolution today (London & New York: Pluto Press, 2010)

Eleven years after its first publication (in 2002), John Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power remains one of the most contested and controversial books of contemporary Marxist theory, having been translated into ten languages and seen three English editions in 2002, 2005 and 2010 (Holloway 2010: ix-x). In response to a series of critiques to the first edition of his book, namely on how can we advance the struggle for society’s self-determination—or Communism—without taking state power, the 2005 edition presents a new epilogue. Upon continuing controversies, the 2010 edition includes an “extensive” preface, in which Holloway felt it necessary to reassert the timeliness of the book after the waning of the Zapatista movement and Argentine piquetero and neighborhood assembly movements. In his preface, he rather points to the so-called “state-centered developments” (Holloway 2010: xi) in Venezuela and Bolivia, and keeps asking: “how do we stop making capitalism?” (Holloway 2010: xii). He claims that he does not know the answer to this question, while, on the other hand, quite firmly asserting that “the state has no part” in the solution (Holloway 2010: xii).

Holloway’s abstract considerations find shape in Raúl Zibechi’s (2010) Dispersing Power: Social Movements as Anti-State Forces. The book opens with Holloway’s foreword to the German edition, in which Zibechi contends that opposing capitalism stands for fighting the state (Zibechi 2010: xvii). Similar to Holloway, who was heavily inspired by the popular-democratic movements of his time (the Zapatista movement and the Argentine experience), Zibechi draws on the Bolivian experience.

Zibechi, Raúl, Dispersing power: social movements as anti-state forces (Edinburgh, Oakland & Baltimore: AK Press, 2010)

Zibechi, Raúl, Dispersing power: social movements as anti-state forces (Edinburgh, Oakland & Baltimore: AK Press, 2010)

Portraying social movements as desirably dispersed anti-state forces that need to avoid state contact and cooptation (Zibechi 2010: 7), Zibechi attempts to illustrate—undoubtedly more concretely than Holloway—how one could “build power beyond the state” (Zibechi 2010: 1).

In this short review essay, we make a parallel reading of Holloway and Zibechi to assess the possible theoretical contributions of their left-libertarian account to critical social movements literature. We also discuss the limitations of their libertarian outlook, as it pertains to the romanticization of social movements, civil society-centrism and an essentialist understanding of the state. We first offer a discussion of Holloway and Zibechi’s major arguments, whilst the conclusion engages in an elaboration of their contributions and our critique of their position.

Power-to-do versus power-over: movement potency and state authority

In Change the World Without Taking Power, Holloway (2010) aims to “convince” us about the inability of the state to be involved in radical social change and to demonstrate that the task of creating a different world needs to be carried out without the state’s involvement (Holloway 2010: ix). The first chapter is a call to refuse what the present social system imposes on us and to liberate people’s mind in order to carry forward the hope for alternative futures. The second chapter, which argues that the state does not have a place in these alternative futures, is followed by a refusal of power itself along with a discussion of “power-over” and “power-to.” Power-to is unalienated action or what can lead humans to self-determination, while power-over is domination or the appropriation by others of our power to do.

The next three chapters bring to the table Marx’s critique of fetishism as it pertains to the fragmentation of social relations within the context of state power and capitalism. Holloway argues that the critique of fetishism should be brought to the center of critical inquiry for “any thought or practice which aims at the emancipation of humanity from the dehumanization of capitalism is necessarily directed against fetishism” (Holloway 2010: 53). Indeed, the liberation of our “power-to-do” is key to the overcoming of fetishism in direct contrast to the “power-over” promoted by capitalism and the state. Chapter seven opposes the “scientific” positions of traditional Marxists such as Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Antonio Gramsci, who are branded by Holloway as the enemies of  “subjectivity”.

The remaining chapters assert that the revolutionary subject is not “definable” (or, more precisely, it is inherently anti-definitional). The struggle thus needs to be broadly formulated within the context of “anti-power,” equated to the fight for human dignity, the unity of the oppressed regardless of its class background and the disarticulation of fetishism.

Zibechi’s (2010) Dispersing Power, in turn, aims to demonstrate that bottom-up (or non-state) organizing resides at the heart of social emancipation. Drawing on the experience of urban settlements of the Aymara in El Alto, Zibechi devotes his first, second, and third chapters to an elaboration of the role of “community,” conceived as a social machine that provides social cohesion for collective action. Zibechi describes the ways in which urban Aymara communities rely on affinity-based relationships and self-managing activities by preserving and adapting their culture. In the fourth chapter, Zibechi establishes a discrepancy between state and anti-state powers, between those who want to homogenize and those who strive to disperse. Based on the experience of the Law of Popular Participation (LPP, approved in 1994), which established legal requirements for the institutionalization of neighborhood councils in Bolivia, Zibechi argues that state regulation has a negative impact on grassroots organizing so that it establishes a superficial separation between the representatives and local residents. Zibechi goes on to assert that the Conciencia de Patria (Conscience or Awareness of the Motherland, CONDEPA), once a popular-democratic political party that appropriated the Aymara cultural legacy and achieved major electoral success, was transformed into a de-ideologized and clientelist movement co-opted by the state apparatus. The fifth chapter discusses the emergence of community justice in El Alto in opposition to corrupt state institutions. Based on a model of “self-organized pluricultural society” that ensures the autonomy over local resources, the sixth chapter offers a more detailed investigation of how community power can assume an alternative function to that of the state.

Critical considerations

Our assessments will start with Holloway’s (2010) Change the World Without Taking Power. We can say that semantics is central to Holloway’s arguments. His heavy reliance on terminology, however, can sometimes get confusing. Initially, Holloway rejects the “power” as it is, but in later passages he distinguishes between “power-over” and “power-to-do,” and asserts that “power-to” allows for peoples’ self-determination (Holloway 2010: 32-35). At the heart of his conceptualization of power lies a firm objection to the growing “separation between doer and doing, doing and done” (Holloway 2010: 33). Holloway holds that those who accumulated richness (or those who possess the “done”) subordinate the laborer (the “doers”), and employ the laborer’s capacity to do in order to further accumulate. In simpler terms, Holloway advances that the social landscape is characterized by the domination of “power-to” by “power-over” (Holloway 2010: 34-35). The main task is then to “liberate power-to from power-over,” but the dissolution of “power-over” and the emancipation of “power-to” are unattainable unless one gives up the concept of power itself (Holloway 2010: 36-37). Once “power-to” is conceived as “anti-power,” the former is defined by Holloway as the capacity to “develop human potential to the full” (Holloway 2010, 37). In another passage, Holloway equates anti-power with “dignity,” i.e. “the struggle to live as humans” or “the struggle to do right, to live morally…” (Holloway 2010: 159, 212-213). In contrast, “power-over” signifies the “fetishized [and dehumanized] forms of social relations,” which find their expression in the state, money, capital, the individual, profit, wages, rent etc. (Holloway 2010: 52-53, 78). The most powerful source of fetishism in contemporary society is capitalism, which leads to “the daily separation of the object from the subject… the daily seizure from the doer not only of her done but of her act of doing, her creativity…” (Holloway 2010: 143).

Holloway’s work is built on the major argument that revolutionary social change cannot be achieved if the state is included in the equation (Holloway 2010, 13). Holloway views the state as “a bulkwark against change” and “a rigidified or fetishised form of social relations,” i.e. a social institution “in the form of something external to social relations” (Holloway 2010: 72, 92). Holloway contends that the state (and “institutions”) is the most concentrated form of capitalism and does necessarily work against the self-determination of the subject (Holloway 2010, 234, 243). He goes so far as to associate the quest for an alternative to capitalism with that for an alternative to the state (Holloway 2010: 217). For revolutionary change to occur, anti-state forces have to exclude themselves from the relations of power, defined as “not capacity-to-do, but incapacity-to-do” and “the destruction of our subjectivity” (Holloway 2010: 29).

Zibechi’s work seems to follow the same line of arguments as Holloway’s, which center on a critique of the subordination of “power-to” by “power-over,” expressed in the separation of the doer and doing. Zibechi maintains that the real success of the water and gas wars in the Bolivia of 2000 and 2003 lies in the absence of the traditional division between the leaders and the led thanks to rural community (ayllus) organizing and urban communities and local neighborhood committees (Zibechi 2010: 2). In other words, Zibechi focuses on the ways in which the uprisings in Cochabamba in early 2000 and in the highlands and the Aymara city of El Alto, followed by road blockades in 2000, 2003, and 2005, contributed to the delegitimization and fragmentation of state authority (Zibechi 2010: 12). Zibechi thus brings to the forefront the crucial importance of grassroots organizing conceived as an act of self-education, self-activity, and self-organization (Zibechi 2010: 3-4).

In presenting a highly romanticized portrayal of social movements, Zibechi holds that “the political, social, and economic scenario does not affect the movement’s potency” (Zibechi 2010: 5). Movement potency is broadly and poetically defined by Zibechi as individual and collective human relationships in movement establishing. Potency is formed “suffering” and, it resides within the movement itself regardless of the political, social, and economic context (Zibechi 2010: 5-6). Zibechi goes on to caution about the state’s efforts to co-opt social movements. He equates the state to capitalism and sets out the hypothesis of “community against the state,” by puritanically insisting that “community is always … a step forward” (Zibechi 2010: 131, 137, 140). Zibechi argues that movement potency finds its fullest expression in the strategy of “communalizing,” portrayed as “a process in which social bonds take on a communitarian character, thus strengthening reciprocity” (Zibechi 2010: 20). Relying on the principle of the collective management of resources, this strategy emerges out of the rise of a community consciousness and neighborhood cohesion as a form of survival. These forms of cohesion prevent the separation of the leaders and the led as well as that “between economy and politics or between society and state” (Zibechi 2010: 16-19, 27). According to Zibechi, there are three key features of the communalizing strategy: “collective decision-making at each step, the rotation of leaders and tasks, and the outpouring from below” (Zibechi 2010: 43).


If one were to ignore the unnecessary quibbles that prevail his discourse on “anti-power” and “anti-politics,” the most important contribution of Holloway’s work is to have brought back the Marxist critique of fetishism to the center of social mobilization by pointing to the crucial distinction between power-over and power-to. The development of the human potential to the full necessitates the elimination of relations of subordination and hierarchy, namely the subordination of “power-to” by “power-over in Holloway’s terminology. Holloway has the merit of making a strong case for the fact that what matters for social emancipation or empowerment is not atomized individual subjects (as opposed to Amartya Sen’s capacities-development approach), but rather collectivities that struggle for autonomy (Holloway 2010: 60-63, 188-189). He takes his collectivist argument one level further, and argues that the root of the problem is beyond individualism: it rather pertains to the prevalence of personalized leadership, namely the “hero-subject as such,” further articulating the need for collective human emancipation (Holloway 2010: 104). In this regard, Zibechi’s work contributes to Holloway’s approach to collective empowerment and de-personalized leadership by underlining the crucial importance of movement potency in a Bolivian context, which provides fertile ground for self-education, self-activity ,and self-organization. Bolivia’s strategy of communalizing has the merit of shedding light on the central role of the collective management of resources in social empowerment, supplemented by collective decision-making mechanisms and constant rotation of leadership positions.

A general weakness of both books, however, is that they contend with extremely abstract assertions that provide little basis for empirical evidence and research. More importantly, Holloway’s book fails to elaborate on minimal criteria for what unalienated decision-making and direct-democratic practices look like (Holloway 2010: 228, 231). Another chief problem that permeates both authors’ valuable work is their civil-society centric arguments that romanticize all “anti-state” practices and community organizing, and their concomitant essentialist and demonized conception of the state, which is assumed to be always and with no exception an instrument of capital. Especially outside the Bolivian context, communities tend to be complex and contradictory organisms that are divided along class lines (Veltmeyer 2001a: 59; 2001b: 29).

The case of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is illustrative of the ways in which community building is not always a step forward and can well serve to suppress popular-democratic values. The organization of the Muslim Brotherhood assumes an inherently undemocratic character which reveals itself in the self-appointment of their leaders known as murchid (the synonym of führer – or guide – in Arabic), the orders of whom are to be executed without question (Amin 2011). The class nature of the community building by the Brotherhood finds its expression in the fact that its top leadership is made up of a wealthy elite financed by the Saudis and the United States, who often express their opposition to workers’ strikes and peasants’ struggle for land (Amin 2011).

Building on the argument that there is no criteria to define the (counter-) revolutionary subject as they are indefinable by definition, Holloway argues that “there is no reason to restrict the scream to a limited group of people” since the revolutionary struggle is led in the name of “all the oppressed” (Holloway 2010: 150, 175). There is no question that Islamist movements and “communities” had been oppressed by dictatorial regimes, particularly in such countries as Egypt and Syria. If one were to follow Holloway’s abstract claims for human dignity, cultural pluralism and the unity of all “oppressed” groups regardless of their class nature and popular-democraticness, how could one assess the rise of Islamic community movements against the state in the North African and Middle Eastern geography, which has even led to the appropriation of the Arab Spring by Islamic fundamentalism? Without a sound class analysis of the so-called politically and culturally “oppressed” Islamic community movements, it is impossible to reach the conclusion that their efforts for self-management and “dispersing” the state authority are the by-product of top-down mechanisms. In fact, the Brotherhood has exhibited a form of power-over from the start despite the fact that they seem to fit to Holloway and Zibechi’s romanticized portrayal of community self-management and bottom-up cultural struggle against the state.

Another countering example that invalidates Holloway’s all-embracing approach comes from Turkey. In Turkey, many (neo-)liberal leftists (the intellectuals and scholars who are made of post-Marxists, post-modernists, post-structuralists, ex-Marxist liberals, many Trotskyists,  and the former advocates of the Althusserian school) agree on allying with the “oppressed” Islamist movements in their struggle against the secularist/modernist project of the Turkish Republic (Okuyan 2013). Their stance has been similar to Holloway’s in that they believe in the indefinable character of the subjects of radical social change and call for human dignity and cultural pluralism. The irony is that the “allied” Islamist movements have proved to be the main contenders of human dignity, as concretely exemplified in the case of MAZLUMDER (The Organization of Human Rights and Solidarity for Oppressed People), which publicly stated that homosexuality is a disease. From a Marxist perspective, both the Arab Spring and Turkish cases point to the definable nature of (counter-)revolutionary subjects in a way to invalidate Holloway’s abstractions. This reveals that Holloway and Zibechi’s conceptual apparatus alone cannot explain social change in the real-world, particularly social organizing outside the Latin American region, despite their efforts to apply their theory to a few instances such as the Zapatistas and Bolivian movements.

When it comes to Holloway’s abstraction of the state, the state in a real world-context cannot be conceived merely as a uniformly repressive and authoritarian apparatus that will necessarily counter the popular-democratic thrust of social movements. As Poulanztas maintains, “state apparatuses do not possess a ‘power’ of their own” (Poulantzas 1975: 26), but they are rather determined by the balance of social forces (or social classes), which ensures differing levels of relative autonomy in a given society. Far from being a top-down, solely structural and uncontested construct, the state can be seen as a social relation characterized by “strategic choices and conduct of actors in and beyond states” (Jessop 2008: 3, 6). Holloway and Zibechi’s conceptualization of the state as a concentrated expression of the “capital-logic” fits within the framework of the long-superseded instrumentalist/functionalist theories, which simply reduces the state to an instrument strictly controlled capitalist classes, once and for all (Gold, Lo, and Wright 1975). Following Poulantzas’ work and Jessop’s strategic-relational approach, the state can be viewed as being crossed by class struggle and contradictions. Such a framework does not only allow for looking at the state as a possible terrain of struggle for revolutionaries, but also helps one to investigate how substantial pressure from below can force favorable interventions toward popular-democratic groups and classes.

Holloway and Zibechi’s work, however, needs to be taken seriously so as to shift the attention of contemporary social movement literature to the empirically grounded study of collective empowerment efforts. Such a move would help reveal the factors behind the success and failure of participatory-democratic values and leadership practices. But this effort requires the abandonment of essentialist and class-blind approaches. In order to explain the relation between class structural processes and political outcomes, we need to adopt a more balanced and nuanced exploration of three factors that play a determinant role in collective empowerment, namely culture, leadership, and the state (Otero 2004, 1999, 2007).

We find it unfortunate how Holloway brands such figures as Engels, Lenin and even Gramsci as the enemies of subjectivity by inadequately engaging with them in a few pages. This unfortunate limitation finds its expression in the fullest in Holloway’s brief critique of Gramsci’s work. We tend to agree with Holloway in that it is even more important to tackle the question of how capitalism can be superseded (“negativity”) rather than merely trying to understand how capitalism is reproduced (“positivity”) (Holloway 2010: 136). However, particularly in Gramsci’s case, it would be highly problematic to reduce Gramsci’s work to the attempts to merely understand how capitalism is reproduced, given that Gramsci’s project of “factory councils” as a parallel form of organization to the Leninist party corresponds to what Holloway understands by the activation of “power-to” (Gramsci 1988, 1994). Gramsci’s critique of hegemonic forms of leadership practices such as charismatic-authoritarianism and bureaucratism in favor of democratic-participatory practices was elaborated with much clarity long before Holloway’s critique of fetishism and the “hero-subject” (Gramsci 2012, 1992, 1994, 2000). Similarly to Holloway, Gramsci’s strategy of the national-popular struggle is a call for a united front of oppressed groups (Rosengarten 2009, San Juan Jr. 2009, Gramsci and Togliatti 1926, Gramsci 1959), with an important distinction that Gramsci argues that the constituents of this united front are (and need to be) historically definable.

Methodologically speaking, the common weakness of Holloway and Zibechi’s work, which may be derived from our critiques above, consists of a failure “to outline how scientific belief systems operate in practical fact” (Stinchcombe 1968: 56). This results in the inability to refine the underlying concepts and improve their measurement (Stinchcombe 1968: 55). Particularly in the case of Holloway, his theorization attempts are confined to the most general level of abstraction with a complete lack of empirical testing of the proposed ideas and concepts. What we need here is a lower level of abstraction that allows for a more nuanced understanding of social movements and the state. As Arthur L. Stinchcombe (1968) asserts, there are different levels of generality or abstraction in social theorizing. Lower levels of abstraction require both the hypothesizing of the empirical consequences of theories and the testing of their specification based on empirical interpretation (Stinchcombe 1968: 50-51). As far as higher levels of abstraction are concerned, Holloway and Zibechi’s works fail to establish solid “general causal imaginaries, about the kinds of causes and causal structures that work for explaining phenomena of many varieties” (Stinchcombe 1968: 49), despite their attempts to ground their theorizing on the empirical context of Mexico and Bolivia. Put differently, Holloway and Zibechi’s essentialism about social movements and the state gives way to a romantic and civil society-centric reductionism, which presents a crude model of causality.


Amin, Samir. 2011. “An Arab Springtime?” Monthly Review 63(5): 8-28.

Gold, David, Clarence Lo, and Erik Olin Wright. 1975. “Recent developments on Marxist theories of the state (Part I).” Monthly Review 27: 29-43.

Gramsci, Antonio. 1959. The modern prince and other writings. New York: International Publishers.

———. 1988. Selections from political writings (1910-1920). London: Lawrence and Wishart.

———. 1992. Selections from the prison notebooks. New York: International Publishers.

———. 1994. Pre-prison writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2000. The Gramsci reader: selected writings (1916-1935). New York: New York University Press.

———. 2012. Selections from cultural writings. Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books.

Gramsci, Antonio, and Palmiro Togliatti. The Italian situation and the tasks of the PCI: “The Lyons theses”  1926 [cited May 9, 2013. Available from Gramsci/1926/01/lyon_congress/lyon_thesis.htm.]

Holloway, John. 2010. Change the world without taking power: the meaning of revolution today. London & New York: Pluto Press.

Jessop, Bob. 2008. State power. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Okuyan, Kemal. Hoş geldin liberal sol [Welcome, the liberal left]  2013 [cited May 27, 2013. Available from]

Otero, Gerardo. 1999. Farewell to the peasantry? Political class formation in Rural Mexico. Boulder, U.S.A: Westview.

———. 2004. “Global economy, local politics: Indigenous struggles, citizenship and democracy.” Canadian Journal of Political Science no. 37(2): 325-46.

Otero, Gerardo. 2007. “Class or identity: a false dichotomy.” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 48(1): 73-80.

Poulantzas, Nicos. 1975. Classes in contemporary capitalism. London: NLB.

Rosengarten, Frank. 2009. “The contemporary relevance of Gramsci’s views on Italy’s ‘Southern question.'” 134-144 in Perspectives on Gramsci: politics, culture and social theory, edited by Joseph Francese. London & New York: Routledge.

San Juan Jr., Epifanio. 2009. “Antonio Gramsci’s theory of the “national-popular” and socialist revolution in the Philippines.” Pp. 163-198 in Perspectives on Gramsci: politics, culture and social theory, edited by Joseph Francese. London & New York: Routledge.

Stinchcombe, Arthur L. 1968. Constructing social theories. New York: Brace & World.

Veltmeyer, Henry. 2001a. “Decentralization and local development.” Pp. 46-66 in Transcending neoliberalism, edited by Henry Veltmeyer and Anthony O’Malley. Bloomfield: Kumarian Press.

Veltmeyer, Henry. 2001b. “The quest for another development.” Pp. 1-34 in Transcending neoliberalism, edited by Henry Veltmeyer and Anthony O’Malley,. Bloomfield: Kumarian Press.

Zibechi, Raúl. 2010. Dispersing power: social movements as anti-state forces. Edinburgh, Oakland & Baltimore: AK Press.


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Great Books for Summer Reading

3 responses to “Critical Considerations on Collective Empowerment: Class, Civil Society and the State

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