Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain (1991) Socialist Education Series - Marx and the Machinery of Government


Marx always insisted that the working class must get control of the State machine.

He wrote:

“…the first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy
(THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, 1848 p. 29 SPGB edition).

This is because Marx explicitly stated that the class struggle was in fact a political struggle. The means of production and class exploitation are protected by the capitalist state, “the Executive of the bourgeoisie” (THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO)

He also wrote:

Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one”. It is itself an economic power.
(CAPITAL VOL. 1 Ch. 31 Kerr edition p. 823).

This is frequently distorted to mean that the workers should fight against the State power by armed force. This is a complete reversal of what Marx wrote. He was showing how the capitalists destroyed feudalism and hastened the development of capitalism.

Marx named the different kinds of force used by the capitalists to do this, namely; brute force in the colonies, the national debt, the modern method of taxation, and the protectionist system.

Control of the State power was therefore:

those methods…all employing the power of the state, the centralised and organised force of society”( loc cit).

Civil War in France

For 70 years or more critics of the Socialist Party of Great Britain have been misquoting from Marx’s “CIVIL WAR IN FRANCE” pretending that Marx said that the workers must not get control of the machinery of government, or need not do so.

Marx was writing about the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Socialist critics thought that Marx drew from the Commune the lesson that the workers need not get control of the State machine, but must “smash it”.

On the contrary, Marx wrote that the Paris workers rightly got control of the State machine. Quoting from the Central Committee’s MANIFESTO:

“…They have understood that it is their imperious duty and their absolute right to render themselves masters of their own destinies, by seizing upon the governmental power” (p. 50 Moscow ed. 1977)

But Marx added the words:

But the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for their own purposes” (page 50).

The Socialist critics-usually supporters of Lenin and Trotsky- conveniently remove or ignore the word “simply

There is all the difference in the world between saying that the workers cannot get hold of the State machinery and saying that they cannot simply get hold. Marx said and illustrated it with detail.

What the workers had to do was first to get governmental power and then remove its purely coercive features, but retain its legitimate functions.

The point is that in fact all state machinery is both coercive and administrative; it is an exercise of ruling class force, but also the medium for carrying on necessary administrative functions.

As an example we can consider the Home Office (now split into two independent sections) which controlled Police and prisons but also operated health and Safety regulations in factories.

So in CIVIL WAR IN FRANCE Marx wrote:

The few but important functions which still would remain for a central government, (that is, after lopping off its class coercive exercises), “were not to be suppressed, as has been intentionally mis-stated, but were to be discharged by Communal, and therefore strictly responsible agents” (page 55).

And he continued:

While the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society (p. 55).

This statement by MARX should be compared to Clause 6 of the SPGB’s OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES where the Party states:

the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that the machinery including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic”.

The SPGB and the Machinery of Government

The Socialist Party of Great Britain has always insisted on the necessity for the workers to gain control of the machinery of government before attempting to establish Socialism. There has never been a parliamentary test of the power of socialist delegates acting on instructions given to them by Socialists. And here we are talking about a majority of Socialists who understand and agree with the case for Socialism.

In Britain, Parliament has a complete and secure control upon the armed forces. The use of troops to break thelast fireman strike demonstrates whose side the State takes in industrial disputes.

The use of the machinery of government against workers by Tory and labour governments demonstrates the necessity for workers to gain control of Parliament before establishing Socialism. And this can only be achieved though a socialist majority sending socialist delegates to Parliament.

The attitude of the socialist Party of Great Britain on the need to gain control of the political machinery has been logical and consistent. The SPGB holds the same view as Marx as to the necessity of the workers gaining control of the machinery of government before they can establish Socialism. And in countries like Britain the vote will give them that control.

One final point. The one way to prevent capitalists from using political power against workers is to stop voting for their politicians and political parties at elections. The SPGB has always urged workers not to vote for any candidate who is a supporter of capitalism “whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist…” (Clause 8 DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES)

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