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“Walking We Ask Questions”: An Interview with John Holloway

Marina A Sitrin
Date Published: 
February 01, 2005
    There are new politics rising throughout the world. Unlike thirty years ago, these politics are not centered on the idea that in order to make change, movements must acquire state power. Rather — in recognizing the state’s inability to provide true self-determination — they relocate power in the ability of communities to create change in the present, without narrowing or bureaucratizing visions for the future. In the following interview, Marina Sitrin and John Holloway observe and articulate these new political — or “non-political”— tendencies.

    John Holloway is the author of Change the World Without Taking Power and co-author of Zapatista! Rethinking Revolution in Mexico

    Marina Sitrin is completing an oral history (in Spanish and English) of the autonomous social movements in Argentina.

Marina Sitrin: Could you explain what events or activities in your life brought you to the point where you are now doing considerable theoretical as well as practical work on the question of power and, specifically, to challenge the concept of taking power?

John Holloway: I think the most obvious starting point is a theoretical one. Trying to think about the state from the perspective of Marxist theory, I got into the so-called “state derivation debate” — a mainly German theoretical debate that took place in the early 1970s. The main emphasis in the debate was on trying to understand the state as a specifically capitalist form of social relations. Although the actual participants in the debate developed this notion in different directions politically, to me it always seemed clear that the implication of the debate was that we could not think of revolution as taking place through the state, or in other words, that we had to try and develop an anti-state Marxism. Of course, this idea was very much bound up with the experience of 1968, of the struggles in the 1970s and of the anti-Poll Tax movement in Britain in the later 1980s.

I came to live in Mexico at the beginning of the 1990s and so was lucky enough to be here when the Zapatista uprising took place. That transformed everything, of course. It put previous theoretical reflections and fragmented experiences in a new context. Here was a major movement saying clearly “we want to make the world anew, but we do not want to take power.”

Like millions of others, I felt and feel that that is absolutely right. But how do we make sense of it? What does it mean in terms of the way we think about the world, and about power in particular? How can we change the world without taking power?

MS: Exactly. Your questions are mine, and I imagine those of countless others around the world, especially now. Over the last ten years, and the last few in particular there are more and more people in communities and movements who are saying: “No, we do not want state power.” For me Zapatista communities in Chiapa and the autonomous movements in Argentina are reflecting this not only in their ideology, but also in their practice — or are showing it in their practice and the ideology is following. What do you make of all sorts of people all over rejecting the idea of taking power and particularly the Argentines and the Zapatistas challenging this idea concretely? Why now?

JH: Why are more and more people turning their back on the state now? Partly I think it is a question of accumulated experience. All the attempts to change the world through the state have failed. The collapse of the Soviet Union made that very clear. But it is not just the so-called “communist” countries — it’s also the experience of the reformist or social-democratic governments all over the world. Lula in Brazil is just the latest in a long line of disappointments. But it’s more than that. It’s not just that all the “Left” governments have failed to realize the expectations of their supporters. It is also the experience of activists that building for taking state power involves us in a bureaucratic, hierarchical, alienating sort of politics that is a long way from the sort of society that we want to create. Directing our anti-capitalist anger towards winning influence or power within the state means channeling our activity into the logic of power, and the logic of power is the logic of reconciliation with capital.

There is another reason too for people turning away from the state. And that is that the state itself is changing. The growing aggressiveness of capital means that there is less and less possibility of achieving any sort of meaningful reform through the state. The welfare state was a way of integrating people into the system, but there is now very little room for that. I don’t think we should try to re-create a welfare state, but rather build upon the anti-state space that is opened by the narrowing of the state itself.

MS: Your response makes me smile, a reminiscent, though not so happy one. (Were you never a Guevarist or a Trot?) I was once among the ranks of those who think that the only way to rid ourselves of capitalism and its horrors is to overthrow the state and replace it with something else, something better of course. I no longer think that we need to, or in fact should, take power. As a friend in the movements in Argentina reminds me, what would we do with it even if we had it? “The concept of taking power is an archaic one, and not something we want. We are going back to the neighborhoods.”

I have so many questions, and am not sure where to begin. At the most fundamental level, what do we want? What do we create as we are struggling against centrism and the state? What do we do when the state comes into our communities? I believe in prefigurative politics, but then what do we do when the state comes in and tries to shut us down? This is not so much an abstract question, as one based unfortunately more and more in the realities of the Argentine MTDs (Movimiento Trabajadores Desocupados—Unemployed Workers Movement) and the Zapatistas.

JH: I think we have to start by admitting that we don’t have the answers. The fact that we think that taking state power is the wrong way to go does not mean that we know the right way. Probably we have to think of advancing through experiments and questions: “preguntando caminamos” — “walking we ask questions” — as the Zapatistas put it. To think of moving forward through questions rather than answers means a different sort of politics, a different sort of organization. If nobody has the answers, then we have to think not of hierarchical structures of leadership, but horizontal structures that involve everyone as much as possible.

What do we want? I think we want self-determination — the possibility of creating our own lives, the assumption of our own humanity. This means collective self-determination, just because what we do is so tightly integrated with what others do. The drive to collective self-determination should be the guiding principle, the utopian star that lights up our questions and our experiments. That means, of course, an anti-state politics, not in the sense of having nothing at all to do with the state — which would be very difficult for most of us — but in the sense of recognizing that the state is a form of social organization which negates self-determination.

What do we do when the state tries to shut us down? I think violence is one of the central problems. How do we confront state violence? Not by trying to gain control of the state, simply because control of the state always turns out to be control by the state. And not by confronting violence with violence, both because we would lose and because that involves us in a sort of politics that reproduces what we are struggling against. But then what? Self-defense is important in many cases, not so much to “defeat” the state forces as to make it unattractive for them to intervene. But the most effective form of self-defense is the density of the social relations that the struggle weaves. What has protected the Zapatistas is not so much their organization as an army — though I don’t dismiss that — but rather the depth of the social relations of support that they have woven both in their own communities and beyond. The same can be said of the piqueteros, or of some of the Social Centers in Italy, or lots of other struggles.

MS: I believe each day more and more people around the world agree with the vision you are reflecting with your words. I believe as well that this is part of a new politic, based in new experiences. Do you see this articulation as new? While new, I do not believe anything is absolutely new, and that everything is related in some way to previous experiences, thoughts and feelings. What do you think? What sort of influences does the current movement(s) draw upon? I ask both about articulated ideas as well as feelings and experiences.

JH: One thing that is new and exciting about the re-articulation of ideas is that the old divisions between anarchism and Marxism are being eroded. The fall of the Soviet Union and of the communist parties has given a new momentum to the long and distinguished tradition of heterodox Marxism. I am thinking of people like Bloch, the young Lukács, Pashukanis, Adorno, Marcuse, Pannekoek and the whole tradition of council communism, the Italian autonomists. These for me are the most exciting influences, but clearly Hardt and Negri, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari are also important voices in the current development of the movement.

MS: Your response, while I agree with it, also makes me wonder about the various ways theory is articulated. For example, in many MTDs in Argentina people are talking about the importance of organizing first from a base of affection, “política afectiva.” As well, many in the autonomous movements speak of “horizontalidad” (horizontalism) as a tool and a goal for their relations as well as vision. To me, these are not only styles of organizing, but are theories as well. Do you think there are different and new ways of articulating theory?

JH: Yes, Raúl Zibechi puts a lot of emphasis on “política afectiva” in his book on the Argentinean revolt, Genealogía de la Revuelta [Genealogy of the Revolt]. I think that’s very important. For our struggles to be strong, I think that they must be anti-political, in the sense of aiming to overcome the separation of politics from everyday life — that is, anti-political if one understands the political to be constituted by the separation of the state from society. That means understanding struggle as being rooted in everyday experience, and that includes affective relations. That implies a different understanding of the meaning of theory, and of the relation between theory and experience. It means too, of course, a radical critique of Leninism.

One of the most important things that the Zapatistas say is “we are ordinary people, that is to say, rebels.” I think that is, theoretically and politically, the most challenging statement of the whole Zapatista uprising.

How do we understand rebellion to be an everyday feature of ordinary people’s lives? How do we give expression to that rebellion?

MS: Yes, anti-political. My friend Cándido is part of an occupied printing press in Buenos Aires. He is quite explicit in stating that he is not political, and yet is part of a horizontally run factory and spends his spare time speaking to workers all over about how they too can take over their work place. Anti-political. This feels much more clear to me when discussing movements that are at a high level of creation, such as the Zapatistas, the Argentines, South African autonomous groups, the Sem Terra Movement in Brazil and others. What does anti-political mean to folks that are in different stages of creation? How do we speak of being anti-political, while a lot of our work is in the realm of talk? How do we give expression to rebellion in our every day experiences? And, how do we not get impatient?

JH: But I think we should get impatient. I think we have to be impatient. The state means patience, in both senses: patience in the sense of waiting, waiting for the next election, waiting until we build the party or organization that can win, influence, or take state power; patience too in the sense of passivity, in the sense of accepting to be the objects and not the subjects of social change. We cannot wait: the process of human self-destruction is too rapid. Also we cannot wait because waiting is in fact active complicity: we make capitalism every day and we have to stop making it. Refusal. The first question is how are we refusing and how do we strengthen those refusals? And refusal means impatience, breaking time, breaking history.

But the obvious problem with refusal is that, if we refuse to serve capital, we are threatened with starvation. Subordination to capital is our access to the means of survival. If we refuse to subordinate ourselves, how can we survive? Here I think refusal has to be complemented with developing an alternative doing, a doing through alternative social relations. And yes, here it is a question of patience. This is the difficult part. But the patience has to be understood as reinforcing the impatience, not as suppressing it. Traditional revolutionary theory is the other way around: we must wait till the time is ripe, wait for the next major crisis of capitalism, wait until the party is built, and so on — impatience is subordinated to patience. I think that’s the wrong way around. Patience has to be subordinated to anti-capitalist impatience, the wisdom of experience must serve the impatience of youth. This double temporality is very clear in some of the major movements today.

The Zapatistas say ¡Ya Basta!, but also “caminamos, no corremos, porque vamos muy lejos” — “we walk, not run, because we are going very far.” In Argentina too there is the impatience of the ¡Que se vayan todos!, but also — in at least some groups — a very strong sense of the importance of doing things at their own rhythm, that part of constructing an alternative community is constructing an alternative temporality. I’m not sure if that answers your questions about smaller movements, but I feel that a similar logic applies — first refusal, then grounding that refusal in alternative creation. To resist is to create, as our Argentinean friends say.

MS: It does answer much of the question, while not prescribing. It brings one back to “walking we ask questions.” I have been thinking more about the earlier discussion we were having on the different expressions of theory in our movements, and still, well, wonder. I wonder why the articulation of these theories is not being written, almost at all, by those in the movements. I also wonder, then, if this reflects a difference in approaches to theory. Historically there have been many social protagonists reflecting upon their struggles, ranging from Ricardo Flores Magón, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Fredrick Douglass, to Louise Michel or Steve Biko. I guess I am wondering why so few folks in the movements are writing about their experiences, and if this represents a different approach to written ideas. Are Negri and the Zapatistas really talking about the same things? Is it a question merely of articulation?

JH: I’m not sure that I understand the question. I think people are writing about their experiences. Marcos, for example. Or in Argentina the Colectivo Situaciones together with the MTD Solano. Probably a lot of what is being written is just on the internet.

Are Negri and the Zapatistas really talking about the same things? That’s another question. Perhaps they’re talking about the same things from quite different angles.

MS: I am trying to address the gap I feel when reading theory about autonomous movements and how people in these movements speak of their experiences. It is not an academic reflection versus an experiential one, but different languages that are sometimes used to address similar situations.

Another question. Many hundreds, if not thousands, of people have been organizing in New York over the past months against the Republican National Convention, focusing particularly on Bush and the Iraq war. While many are saying “No” to Empire etc., there is also energy being placed in trying to vision what we want, what our “yeses” are. What do you think of organizing around Party conventions and the electoral process more generally? Is it worth any time or energy? Can one organize against the electoral system without somehow engaging the state? Does Bush, et al, make any difference in this conversation?

JH: I think there are bad states and worse states, bad governments and worse governments. And clearly the Bush government is one of the worst and yes, it is important to defeat it. In general I think it is important for us to set our own agenda, to have our own sense of time, but there are occasions on which we have to try to turn the spectacle against the spectacle, to do everything possible to show our disgust and refusal and to present an alternative vision of a possible world. It is inevitable that we engage with the state: the important thing is not to reproduce the logic and the forms of organization of the state in this engagement.

MS: What sorts of things in the world give you hope?

JH: Any hope today has to be hope against hope: hope that — in spite of all that points in the direction of human self-destruction — we will be capable of creating a better world, a world worthy of humanity. Hope against hope but yes, definitely hope. Being human means that we constantly drive towards the creation of our own humanity.

Hope lies in everyday life, in all the things that point against-and-beyond capitalist social relations: love, friendship, solidarity, mutual recognition, dignity — all these fundamental aspects of humanity that exist in spite of and, increasingly, in open opposition to capitalism. We cannot think just of “life after capitalism” (as the conference in New York proposes), nor just in terms of “life in spite of capitalism” (as the alternative European Social Forum in London proposes). We have to think in terms of life against-and-beyond capitalism. For more and more people, the most basic things in life — love, playing with children, spending time with friends — are becoming more and more difficult to reconcile with capitalism.

Beyond that, clearly the upsurge of struggle over the last ten years — especially since the Zapatista uprising of 1st January 1994 — is an enormous source of hope, in part because it is so deeply rooted in everyday practice.

MS: And what do you dream?

JH: There’s a lovely answer to a similar question given by Marcos when being interviewed in connection with some film festival. He says he dreams that one day we can all live in a cinema programme (cartelera—how do you say that?) where we could choose to live a different film each day — the Zapatistas rebelled because they have been forced to watch the same film for the last five hundred years.

I think that’s a lovely answer because it points towards absolute self-determination. Self-determination — that is, social self-determination, because there can be no other — means liberation from the past, liberation from history, the capacity to re-create ourselves completely each day. It also means assumption of our own humanity with all the responsibility that that implies. It’s hard to imagine a completely self-determining society, because it would imply living with a fullness and intensity that is hard for us even to imagine. That’s my dream.

This article appeared in fall 2004 issue of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, the biannual magazine of the Institute for Anarchist Studies. For more info see:


Marina spent the Spring in Argentina working with the autonomous popular movements and developing an oral history of the movements for a book entitled “Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina.” She returns to Argentina periodically to continue this work.