Socialist Studies Socialist Studies


The SPGB case against capitalism is based on the interests of the working class, the fact of class exploitation by the wages system and production for profit, while we the workers do not own the land and other means of production. The property of the capitalist class is protected by the state through its legal system, the police, judiciary and penal system, and in the last resort by the armed forces of the state. This means that the state is not neutral: it is a class institution and, where the interests of the property- owning class are concerned, the institutions of the state do not take the side of the workers.

Consider these examples: the 1871 Paris Commune, when the French government brutally crushed the Paris workers - thousands were killed, many buried alive in mass graves under the streets, and thousands more sent into exile; the 1905 Petersburg massacre; and the 1926 British General Strike.

Socialists see clearly the absolute necessity of gaining control over the machinery of government, including the armed forces, at the least so as to ensure that these forces could not be used by the capitalist class to crush the Socialist movement, as the Paris Commune was crushed.

To achieve a social revolution, the overthrow of the current class system of exploitation, and to establish a new social system based on common ownership, it is essential to make use of the political machinery of government, converting it from a tool of oppression into an means of emancipation, so as to ensure that the armed forces and police etc, the coercive agencies of the state, would be under our control and so could not be used against us. That is just an outline, a summary of the SPGB’s argument..

Consider too what is mostly taken for granted: the pervasiveness and intrusiveness of the modern state in our everyday lives. Even a new-born infant comes into the world with a National Insurance number already allotted to it, long before he or she was born.

From birth onwards, the child as it grows up is monitored by state forces and agencies, until the time when he or she pops their clogs and is possibly allotted a state-provided pauper’s funeral.

Exhausted by work and commuting, the weary wage-slave gets home and switches on the television set for a bit of entertainment and relaxation. It is estimated that adults spend 3-4 hours a day, watching the box, about 30 hours a week. TV boasts large numbers of TV soaps, usually involving petty crime, and popular programmes have policemen trying to work out who did a murder. But if workers are interested in the world around him or her, they switch on the news. 90% of the ‘news’ consists of arguments and announcements by politicians, interspersed with reports about war and terrorism.

Maybe our worker goes for a walk in the fresh air. Given our variable climate, he/she is likely to check the weather forecast which is again provided largely by another government agency, the Met Office.

At work, there are innumerable government laws and regulations to control what you do, and especially if, as a trade unionist, you come out on strike. If you are disabled, sick or too old to be worth employing, the state has developed a bewildering variety of about 40 different ‘welfare’ payments, mostly means-tested.

So the state’s many agencies intrude into our lives almost all the time. Compared with Marx’s time, the modern state has become hugely enlarged, invading and regulating more and more of what used to be thought of as ‘civil society’. The political debate between the major capitalist parties is dominated by a never-resolved disagreement over what activities and institutions should be run by government or government agencies. That distracting and largely irrelevant debate dominates elections and political news.

Different state forms

Since Marx’s time, the nature of the state has taken different forms at various times.

In particular, there has been the rise of fascist or totalitarian states, with the increasing use of the mass media to impose a ruling ideology on the so-called masses. In Orwell’s book NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR, the ruling elite had control of all information, and made everyone suspicious of their neighbours and even their own children. That was an accurate description of the atomised, totalitarian, one-party states of his time, such as Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany.

There are now many examples of this type of regime, such as China, North Korea, and various Central Asian and African states. Although the rulers may like to pose as modernisers, they suppress any form of dissent, using torture, prison camps and the death penalty.

Another form of state is a ‘kleptocracy’ where rulers steal the country’s resources leaving the country, impoverished. This is like the gangster state: in Marx’s time, the coup which brought to power Napoleon III, with his corrupt hangers-on, was an early example. Later, Brecht in his play Arturo Ui, portrayed Hitler and his gang as similar to a Mafia mob. Russia got its own gangster chief in Putin backed by the Russian Mafia, and the oligarchs who got filthy rich, with their takeover of Soviet enterprises.

Modern parliamentary states are full of contradictions. Their spokesmen get all aerated about freedom and democracy. Yet the same freedom-loving politicians clamp down on ‘undesirables’, deporting them or holding them, without trial as at Guantanamo and Belmarsh. And these same ‘democratic’ politicians have few qualms about selling arms to the most ruthless, corrupt and vicious dictators.

The modern world now has international and supra-national political institutions. After World War I, the League of Nations was supposed to prevent future wars. The United Nations was also meant to stop wars from happening. Both failed, but international laws now increasingly play a part in shaping national laws.

These modern developments raise the question: is the ‘nation-state’ now defunct? Also, with the growing power of multinationals, just how much economic ‘sovereignty’ does any state have?

So what exactly is the ‘state’? The Oxford English Dictionary says it is “a country with laws and a government”. But from a plane, if you look down, you see geographical features but no lines marking the political frontiers of the various countries.

A second definition describes a state as an “organised political community with government recognised by the people... a commonwealth... a nation”. But this excludes dictatorships, and suggests unity where in fact there are class divisions. Such definitions avoid any mention of the state as a force or power, also of the reality of class conflict.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain offers this description of the role of the state:

The State is the public power of coercion. It arose out of the early division of society into classes, and developed with the development of class conflicts.... Through the ages, the State has been controlled, as a rule, by the class that has been economically the most important.
QUESTIONS OF THE DAY, chapter on Parliament, 1932

The ‘state’ is “the public power of coercion”, implemented through a number of different agencies, including especially the armed forces and the penal system, backed by legal powers. In capitalism, in any class society, these powers work, not in the interest of the whole community, but in the interest of the economically dominant class.

To dream, as anarchists and utopians do, of simply abolishing the state, is to forget that behind the political power of the state is the economic power of the capitalist class, which requires protection for its property. The need for a state would continue since with the class system continuing, a new state would be re-created to protect these continuing class interests.

Bakunin raised this problem in his book STATISM AND ANARCHY (1874), alleging that Marx recommended a “people’s state” “the proletariat organised as the ruling class”:

Question: if the proletariat becomes the ruling class, over whom will it rule? It means that there will still remain another proletariat, which will be subject to this new domination, this new state.

Marx in his comments on this wrote:

... so long as the other classes, especially the capitalist class still exists, so long as the proletariat struggles with it (for when it attains government power its enemies and the old organisation of society have not yet vanished), it must employ forcible means, hence governmental means. It is itself still a class and the economic conditions from which the class struggle and the existence of classes derive have still not disappeared and must forcibly be either removed out of the way or transformed...

Marx’s ideas on the state

Marx was not born a Marxist, and it is interesting to note how he changed, what was the issue which turned him from a liberal/radical into a revolutionary, and how his ideas on the state developed.

Hegel’s philosophy dominated the thinking of many Germans but when Marx was a student, Hegel’s ideas were already being challenged. Hegel’s thinking was idealistic, and Marx turned this on its head, with his materialist conception of history. For Hegel, the state was a quasi-divine power:

The state is the divine Idea as it exists on earth... The State is the march of God through the world.
[David Thomson, POLITICAL IDEAS, pp137-9, Pelican]

So how did Marx arrive at his new theory of the state as a class state, driven by material interest?

Thwarted in his ambition to be a professor he got into writing for the RHEINISCHE ZEITUNG, a progressive paper, and in 1842, he became the paper’s editor.

Soon he was in trouble with the censorship, and by April 1843 the government banned the paper. From then on, state interference in his life by various governments led Marx to be forced to leave Germany, France, Belgium, finally settling as a destitute exile in London.

Wood-theft laws

While he was editor of the RHEINISCHE ZEITUNG, an issue arose which led Marx to abandon his earlier Hegelian view of the state as representing the whole nation. Instead he was forced to see it as an instrument of class interest.

From feudal times, it was the traditional right for German peasants to take dead wood from forests. This was useful as fuel, as building material, or for fencing, making tools, etc. In Britain we still have vestiges of such ancient rights: the Commoners of the New Forest have grazing rights; on Surrey commons until about 100 years ago, villagers cut furze for fuel and other uses; and the fells of Cumbria still provide shared grazing rights.

When the forest owners got the Rhenish Provincial Assembly to make it illegal to take dead wood from any forests, they argued that large landowners like the small ones were entitled, as citizens, to equal rights of protection. Marx answered by asking pointedly:

What protection was the state giving to the poor, the paupered wood-stealers, who were also citizens of the political community?

If as Hegel had argued the state was representative of the whole community, how come this law was to be brought in to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor: The state has stepped forward to defend the property of one class of its citizens. But it did nothing to defend the welfare and the very lives of a still larger class – those who had no property. If it were, as it claimed, a classless state above privileged economic interest, its protecting zeal would extend to all sections of the population
[Quoted in Sidney Hook, FROM HEGEL TO MARX, 1936. pp159-160]

Then as now, the idea that the state represents the whole ‘nation’ is simply a fiction.

The state is really a protection racket to guarantee particularly the class interests of those with property. It is not neutral as between the employers and landlords, on the one hand, and the workers, wage-slaves, precariat, and tenants.

‘Base and Superstructure’

The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society - the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life.... [With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.] In considering such transformations the distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out...

In this well-known passage Marx summarised some important points. He contrasted, on the one hand, the economic structure of society, to the legal and political superstructure, i.e. the various institutions of the state. Since it is the mode of production which determines the general process of social, political and intellectual life, he argued that the state’s role is determined ultimately by developments in the real, material, economic system. He distinguished between the real, material, economic conditions of production, and on the other hand, the various “ideological forms”, including law and politics, in which people become conscious of the class conflict.

This passage has raised questions such as:

* Just how does the relationship between base and superstructure work out?
* What is the relationship between the economic and the political?
* Was Marx merely an economic determinist?

Marx was fully aware that the state’s powers and agencies were only too real. The Prussian state’s police got him expelled from Germany. Expelled from other countries and in exile in London, he knew he was spied on, his correspondence intercepted. The state’s powers and agencies were real, even if the ‘state’ itself was an abstraction.

In the 20th C, with the importance of the mass media, and the growth of powerful modern ideologies in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, a theory was put forward by the Italian Leninist, Gramsci, about the powerful role of ideology in sustaining class power, a theory of class ‘hegemony’. But it is a mistake to assume that ideology has only recently come to have this importance. The Catholic Church, Protestantism and Islam have also been powerful ideologies for many centuries, likewise nationalism and racism.

Capital and the state

[Private property] evolved... to modern capital, determined by big industry and universal competition... which has cast off all semblance of a communal institution and has shut out the state from any influence on the development of property... Through the emancipation of private property from the community, the state has become a separate entity, beside and outside civil society; but it is nothing more than the form of organisation which the bourgeois necessarily adopts both for internal and external purposes, for the mutual guarantee of their property and interests.

Even now, capital seeks to minimise the role of the state in the economy. In the same passage Marx wrote:

... all the struggles within the State, the struggle between democracy, aristocracy , and monarchy, the struggle for the franchise, etc., are merely the illusory forms in which the real struggles of the different classes are fought out.

As Marx and Engels argued in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, “every class struggle is a political struggle”. The contest for political control is the battle which has to be won.

Otherwise for workers the struggle would be suicidal. The state, the political arena, is where the class struggle must be fought out.

By insisting that workers must act as a political movement, must organise as a political party so as to take control of the machinery of government, including the armed forces, Socialists echo what Marx and Engels argued in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO:

Political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled... to organise itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms, and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.

The working class has to be organised as a class; to achieve the abolition of the capitalist mode of production and the class system, including the working class itself. By abolishing all classes, this revolution would mean the end of the state since “political power is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another”. Without classes there is no need for a state or for political power.

There are still too many of the Utopian school who think Socialism can be achieved by direct action, a mass strike, by setting up communes, or just by workers simply wanting it: But as Marx argued in his ADDRESS OF THE FIRST INTERNATIONAL (1864):

The lords of land and the lords of capital will always use their political privileges for the defence and perpetuation of their economical monopolies... To conquer political power has therefore become the great duty of the working classes...

Unfortunately since then, while the workers have easily enough votes to outvote the capitalists, they use their votes to elect politicians who only try to make capitalism run profitably.

Even more unfortunately, the ideas of revolution, class struggle and Marxism have all been identified with the Russian dictatorship inaugurated by Lenin – a supposed “dictatorship of the proletariat” which was merely a ruthless dictatorship but unfortunately is still thought of by many as ‘Socialism’ or ‘Communism’.

The SPGB pamphlet QUESTIONS OF THE DAY (1932) argued for the revolutionary use of Parliament:

Socialism will not be possible until the mass of the workers understand it and are prepared to vote for it... when the mass of the working class understand the meaning of Socialism they have the means to bring it into being through Parliamentary action if they desire to do so.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain has been consistent in arguing as Marx did: for the abolition of the wages system, for workers to unite worldwide to overthrow capitalism, for the working class to organise as “a class in and for itself”, to use their votes to end the class system of exploitation, and so to put an end to the state as a “public power of coercion”.

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