1. The Capitalist State
Inventing the State: The Instrument of Class Rule
The state is autonomous and subjects the ruling class to its own conception of its interest; it "serves the bourgeoisie despite the bourgeoisie."
"Autonomy" and "instrument," rule and subjection are terms that yield their real meaning only to the dialectic method.
Attempting to interpret the Marxist theory of the state carries more risk than reward. The young Marx, superbly talented political journalist that he was, said incisive and original things about the state, but he did so more under the impulsion of events than in search of a general doctrine. In his later system-building periods, on the other hand, he was not very interested in the state (Engels was a little more so), presumably deflected from the subject by the very force of his theory of class domination, which may be thought implicitly to provide an understanding of the state. In any case he made little effort to make it explicit. This was consistent with his confining the determinants of social change in the "base" and allowing the state, a phenomenon of the "superstructure," either no autonomy or only an ambiguous one. This implicitness is the reason why, despite the much greater respect later Marxists (notably Gramsci and his intellectual descendants) paid the superstructure, one is reduced to speculation about what Marxist theory "must mean," what view it may hold of the forces acting upon and exerted by the state, in order to preserve logical consistency with the whole of its construction.
Such speculation is rendered doubly hazardous by the combination, in much Marxist writing, of the dialectic method with verbose discourse aimed at the ad hoc needs of the day. Owing to the latter, one can nearly always find, in some hallowed text, passages to support almost any stand and its contrary, so that for every "on the one hand" the adept can cite an "on the other" and a "yet we must not overlook that...." The dialectic method, in turn, enables its practitioner to nominate any one out of a pair of contradictory propositions for the role of survivor, of the third member of the triad of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. He can for instance decide, according to the requirements of his argument, that where an object is black but also white, it is in reality white (though black in appearance), or possibly vice versa. It is in this way that the relation of state and subject in Hegel,*32 and that of the state and the capitalist class in Marx, turn out to be perfectly pliable according to the needs of the moment and of the context. (This is also, in a general way, the reason why the average dialectician can virtually always devastate the average non-dialectical argument.)
Having said this, let us nevertheless venture to put forward the bare outline of an interpretation where we will remain committed, as far as possible, to a non-dialectical (hence easy to refute) meaning. It is quite legitimate to take Marxism to hold that the victory of the working class and the extinction of class antagonism means, by definition, that the state withers away. Lenin, understandably, has a strong interest in adopting the contrary interpretation. He goes to immense trouble to argue that the cessation of class conflict does not entail the withering away of the state. There are no classes but there is a (coercive) state under socialism. Only in the abundance corresponding to full communism can the state wither away. Its doing so is not a logical implication, but a process in real historical time, about whose required length it would be naive to speculate in advance.
Though there will still be an apparatus for the "administration of things," there will be none for the "government of men." Close reflection is needed to grasp, if grasp one can, how it is possible to "administer things" without telling people to do this or that about them; and how telling people differs from "governing people." A tentative answer, for what it is worth, would seem to be that this becomes possible when men will do what is required of them in order for things to get administered, without being made or commanded to do so.
The classless society, then, can tentatively be defined as a state of affairs where this holds true, i.e. where men spontaneously administer things without being administered themselves. However, if men freely do what they have to do, what is the residual need for the administration of things and what is the residual non-coercive quasi-state which is said to subsist after the state proper has withered away? A necessary condition for the non-withering-away of the coercive state is the existence of more than one class. The interests of "historic," principal classes are necessarily antagonistic. The ruling class needs the state to deter the exploited class from attacking its property and breaking the contracts which provide the legal framework of exploitation. As history proceeds on its preordained course towards the victory of the proletariat and the one-class society, functionally obsolete classes fall by the wayside. The last-but-one surviving class is the bourgeoisie, which possesses all capital and appropriates the surplus value produced by labour. The state is the protector of property. If it is the bourgeoisie that possesses property, the state cannot but serve the bourgeoisie and any state would do so. This is why such autonomy as Marxism (sometimes, not always) allows the state, is so ambiguous. The absolute monarchy, the bourgeois republic, the Bonapartist, the "English," the Bismarckian and the Czarist states which Marx and Engels admitted differed from each other, were all said to be states obliged to further the interests of the possessing class, just as the compass needle is obliged to point northwards, no matter in what exotic corner we set it down.
The reduction of the state to the role of blind instrument of class oppression is obviously unsatisfactory. Engels and Lenin make intellectually more exacting Marxists wince when they resort to it. Yet the concept of an autonomous state, a state with a will of its own which keeps surfacing in Marx's early political writings, is even less acceptable; to elevate the state to the rank of a subject is revisionism, Hegelian idealism, fetishism if not worse, inconsistent with the mature Marxism of the Grundrisse and of Capital. It leads to deep political pitfalls. Among them, mainstream socialism is menaced with lukewarm reformist notions of the state reconciling society's inherent contradictions, promoting worker welfare "despite the bourgeoisie," taming "crises of overproduction," etc. The proponents of planned "state monopoly capitalism" as the means to mitigate capitalist chaos, and Juergen Habermas and his Frankfurt friends with their doctrines of legitimation and conciliation, are all considered as carriers of this menace.
A synthetic solution of some elegance, elaborated mainly by modern West Berlin Marxist scholars, consists in grafting social contract theory on to the trunk of Marxism. Capital in the "fragmented" (i.e. decentralized) capitalist mode of production consists of "individual capitals" (i.e. separate owners have separate bits of it). These "capitals" require that workers be docile, trained and healthy, that natural resources be renewed, legal relations enforced and streets paved. No individual capital, however, can profitably produce these goods for itself. A problem of "externality" and a problem of "free riding" stand in the way of capitalist reproduction and accumulation. Non-imposed cooperative solutions, sparing capital the risks involved in surrendering itself to a state, are not envisaged. There is, thus, an objective necessity for a coercive state "beside and outside society" to protect workers' health, provide infrastructures, etc. From this necessity, its form and function can be logically derived (Ableitung).*33 It leads to the state's monopoly of force, just as various other forms of political hedonism lead to it in the systems of Hobbes and Rousseau. Yet the "doubling" (i.e. splitting) of the economic and the political sphere and the Besonderung (separateness) of the state are subject to the "dialectic of appearance and essence." The state appears neutral and above classes because it must stand above "individual capitals" in order to serve general capital; it must subjugate the individual bourgeois in order to secure the interests of the bourgeoisie. Any state having the power of coercion, whether absolute monarchy, republic, democracy or despotism, seems able to fulfil this function.
However, the bourgeoisie must for some reason be requiring more than this, for otherwise it would not rise up in revolution, as it is supposed to do, to smash the pre-capitalist state. It is desperately important to Marxism to maintain, despite all contrary evidence, that revolutions reflect the economic requirements of the class which is called upon by the developing "forces of production" to rise to dominance, and that the contradiction between capitalist techniques and pre-capitalist relations of production must be resolved by revolution.
This belief is a source of difficulties and for none more so than for historians who hold it. An historian who does not, and who did more than most to dispel many of the myths that used to be spread about the French Revolution, reminds us: "neither capitalism nor the bourgeoisie needed revolutions to appear and become dominant in the main European countries of the nineteenth century," remarking drily that "nothing was more like French society under Louis XVI than French society under Louis Philippe."*34 Starting off in 1789 firmly committed to the sacredness of property, in a little over four years this revolution reached the point where property rights were to become contingent upon active support for the state of the Terror (Laws of Ventôse). Ironically it was Thermidor—the counterrevolution—which called the state to order, rescued the inviolability of property and secured the bourgeois interests which were supposedly the raison d'être of the revolution. Once it ejected the Girondins, the revolution made the purposes of the state override the security of tenure of property and, contrary to the usual excuse made for it, it continued to escalate its radicalism long after the tide of war had turned in its favour. Marx, who (notably in "The Holy Family," 1845) recognized perfectly well that the Jacobin state "became its own end," that it served only itself and not the bourgeoisie, considered this a perversion, an aberration, a departure from the norm. He diagnosed the trouble as the alienation, the detachment of the Jacobin state from its bourgeois class basis,*35 and in no wise suggested that it is far from being an aberration for the state to detach itself from its "class base," if indeed it was ever attached to it.
Nor is Marxist theory better served by the historical facts of other revolutions. Engels is reduced at one point to grumble that the French have had a political and the English an economic revolution—a curious finding for a Marxist—and at another juncture that the English have, in addition to their bourgeoisie, a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois working class. It has been pointed out that while the view that the "big," "real" revolutions were brought about by the interest of a class, fits badly 1776 (USA), 1789 (France), 1830 (the Low Countries) and 1917 (Russia), it fits worst of all the two English revolutions of 1640-9 and 1688—the Puritan and the Glorious.*36 Nor did capitalism need a revolution to rise to dominance of a sort in the Italian city states. Moreover, Russian peasant and mercantile capitalism between the seventeenth and nineteenth century throve to such good effect that it colonized the Black Soil region and Siberia, without noticeable hindrance from Moscow, which was the seat of a decidedly pre-capitalist state.*37 (It may be, though, that such "frontier" phenomena should be regarded as exceptions, i.e. that capitalism can colonize and settle a frontier, without being helped or feeling hindered by the state.)
Whether with or (in deference to historical evidence) without the benefit of revolution, the capitalist class nevertheless ends up with the state serving its interest. Sometimes, in aberrant, "untypical" situations, however, the bourgeoisie does not dominate the state. The distinction is important as it admits an at least quasi-autonomy of the state in particular historical settings. Engels formulates this as follows: (The state) "in all typical periods is exclusively the state of the ruling class, and in all cases remains essentially a machine for keeping down the... exploited class."*38 We must, I think, take this to mean that there are periods (which we can thus recognize as typical) when the state is an instrument of class oppression acting at the behest of the ruling class, while at other times it escapes the control of the ruling class yet continues to act on its behalf, for its good, in its interest. The ruling class, of course, is the class which owns the means of production, whether or not it "rules" in the sense of governing.
Just as the weather is not unseasonable in Russia except in spring, summer, autumn and winter, so there have not been untypical periods in the history of capitalism except in the golden ages of the English, French and German bourgeoisie. In England, the bourgeoisie has purportedly never sought political power (the Anti-Corn Law League and later the Liberal Party for some reason do not count), and was content to leave the state in the hands of the landowners, who could attract atavistic popular loyalties and whose apparent even-handedness and social concern helped retard the development of proletarian class-consciousness. It is not clear whether the English state is to be regarded as autonomous—Engels speaks of the aristocracy being properly remunerated by the capitalists for governing—but no doubt is left that it represents the capitalist interest more effectively and cleverly than the politically inept bourgeoisie could have done.
In France, at the fall of the July Monarchy the bourgeoisie momentarily found itself with political power on its hands. It was unfit to wield it, parliamentary democracy (viz. the election of March 1850) unleashing popular forces which endangered the bourgeoisie more than any other group or class.*39 (Contrast Marx's diagnosis with the astonishing position taken by Lenin in "The State and Revolution" that parliamentary democracy is the ideally suited system for the requirements of capitalist exploitation.)*40 In "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte," Marx talks of the bourgeoisie abdicating power, condemning itself to political nullity; he compares the dictatorship of Napoleon III to a Damocles sword hanging over the head of the bourgeoisie. It is not clear whether Marx thought that in abdicating, it was aware of the dangerous aspects of Bonapartism, lower-middle class populism, state parasitism, etc. He felt sure, though, that in doing so the bourgeoisie bought itself the secure enjoyment of property and order, which would suggest that the Damocles sword was not really poised over its head. Engels, as usual plainer in meaning, states that Bonapartism upholds the wider interests of the bourgeoisie even against the bourgeoisie. Like the rod for the good of the child, the autonomous state of the Second Empire was really for the good of the capitalist class even at times when the latter felt restive under it.
Germany, while being (as ever) a case apart, with its bourgeois revolution of 1848-9 coming much too late and miscarrying into the bargain, has nevertheless this in common with England and France; the Prussian state and, after 1871, the Reich, did what it had to do to further capitalist exploitation without being in any way under capitalist direction or control. When Engels says that Bismarck cheated both capital and labour to favour the "cabbage Junkers" (who, despite the favours, the grain tariff and the Osthilfe, stayed stubbornly poor), he is admitting the autonomy of the state (for subservience to the landed interest did not make the state class-controlled, as landowners no longer constituted a functionally real, live class—only the capitalists and the workers did that), without suggesting that this cheating gave the capitalists cause for complaint, any more than did the treacherous alliance of Bismarck with the despised Lassalle, and Bismarck's whole reformist, "social," welfare-statist drift. Solid bourgeois interests were being consistently served throughout, despite the bourgeoisie.
The Marxist prototype of the state, in short, allows it a good deal of autonomy outside "typical periods," i.e. virtually all the time, yet obliges it always to use this autonomy in the sole interest of the capitalist class. Nothing much is made by Marx, nor by his successors down to the present, of his original insights into the phenomenon of the state lacking a particular class base and serving its own ends, nor into bureaucracy, parasitism, Bonapartism and so forth.
In the end, Marx could not admit that it really mattered whether the state was or was not controlled by the ruling class. It had to act in its interest regardless. It made little odds whether the state was directed by true representatives of their class like Casimir-Périer and Guizot, Peel and Cobden, or by a classless adventurer like Louis Bonaparte, not to speak of men like Castlereagh or Melbourne in England, Roon or Bismarck in Prussia or Schwarzenberg in Austria-Hungary, who had little time for bourgeois concerns. Any state, it would seem, would do. Any state could be relied on to do what was good for capitalism.
Pursuing this logic further, we find moreover that the converse is also asserted: not only will any state do, but whatever it does turns out, on examination, to be good for capitalism. When in December 1831 Marshal Soult leads 20,000 troops against 40,000 striking silk workers in Lyons, when in June 1832 General Lobau reaps 800 dead or wounded rioters in putting down the Montmartre disorders, when in April 1834 there are 300 casualties in Lyons again while in Paris Bugeaud's troops fire into women and children, the state is helping the exploiters. When the English Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 make it (broadly speaking) a criminal conspiracy for employees to organize, the state is an ally of capital.
When the 1802 and especially the 1832 English Factory Acts make it illegal to work children under eighteen the same hours in industry as on the land, the state is somehow still helping the manufacturers. When trade union organization is (to put it simply) made lawful in England in 1824, in Prussia in 1839, in France and most German states in the early 1860s, when a ten-hour day is laid down by law in much of the USA in the 1850s, the state is still acting in the capitalist interest, properly understood. (The Marxist hypothesis of the state always acting in the interest of the ruling class is as irrefutable as the vulgar Freudian one of a person's actions always being the result of his sexual drive, both when he yields to it and when he resists it. Damned if he does and damned if he doesn't.)
The sole difference between the manifestly pro-capitalist and the ostensibly anti-capitalist acts of the state is that we need the dialectic method correctly to place them in a triad of thesis-antithesis-synthesis in order to see that the latter are the same as the former. Virtual, formal, superficial, ephemeral anti-capitalist appearance will thus dissolve into basic, genuine, long-term, true pro-capitalist reality.
In fact it is hardly feasible to reconstitute what might be the Marxist theory of the state, without recourse to dialectics. The state engages in acts that harm capital and capitalists, like progressive taxation, the grant of legal immunities for trade unions, anti-trust legislation, etc. These acts are pro-capitalist. The state serves the ruling class,*41 and as these are acts of the state, they are necessarily in the ("real") interest of the ruling class. Individual members of the capitalist class may be too short-sighted to recognize their real interest, and may be restive about the state's actions, joining the John Birch Society in opposition to bourgeois democracy, but the class as such will see the identity of its interest with that of the state, for this is how Marxism defines the concepts of ruling class, class consciousness and state.
The same iron-clad reasoning goes today for the socialist state, the working class and proletarian class consciousness. Many (or for that matter all) workers may be individually opposed to the actions of the socialist state. These actions are, nevertheless, in the interest of the working class, for the necessary terms are so defined as to make this true. Antagonism between the socialist state and the working class is a nonsense term; empirical evidence of conflict is admitted only on condition of redefining one of the terms, for instance in the 1953 East Berlin or in the 1956 Hungarian uprising the security police becomes the working class, Russian tank crews are friendly workers, while those rising against the state are either not workers or are "manipulated." (It is hard to find a more impressive example of the two-fold function of words, the semantic and the magical.) Although all this is no doubt tediously familiar to the contemporary reader, it has the merit of being a replica of, and an aid better to appreciate, the Marxist argument about the absurdity of the capitalist state (i.e. the state which Marxists conceive of as "capitalist") turning against the capitalist class.
Turn where he may, the bourgeois as political hedonist is thus stuck in a dead end. At first blush, Marxism seems to be telling him that if the state did not exist, he ought to invent it the better to pursue his pleasure—the exploitation of the proletariat—for which the state is the appropriate instrument. On a closer look, however, the state is a peculiar instrument, for it subjects him to its conception of his best interest and it serves its conception even despite the bourgeois. This is obviously unsatisfactory to each capitalist, taken individually. It may be satisfactory to the capitalist class if, but only if, we admit the existence of a class consciousness which is unrelated to the consciousness of the actual members of the class. Though Marxists have no difficulty admitting this, it is hardly likely to find favour with a member of the class concerned, nor is it designed to do so.
What, then is the capitalist to do? The state is either indispensable or just helpful to him. If it is indispensable, a necessary condition, if capitalism cannot function without it, the capitalist must invent the state, or embrace it if it has already been invented. If the state is merely a helpful instrument, the capitalist might very well prefer, if he has the choice, to pursue his interest without its help, i.e. perhaps less effectively but also unburdened by the servitudes and constraints which the autonomous state's conception of the capitalist interest imposes on him.
On this choice, Marxism gives no clear guidance. The thesis that the state, if it exists at all, must necessarily further class oppression, does not entail that the state must exist if there is to be class oppression. Why not have private, small-scale, home-made, diversified oppression? Though Engels, at any rate, appears to have held that a state must arise if there is division of labour and consequently society becomes complex, he did not really imply that capitalism presupposes a state and that the exploitation of labour by capital could not take place in the state of nature. To assert that he did imply this is to ascribe to him a rigid economic determinism or "reductionism," and though it is fashionable for modern Marxists to patronize Engels, they would still be reluctant to do that. The bourgeois, wondering whether he must unquestioningly opt for the state or whether he can try and weigh up the pros and cons (always assuming that by some miracle he is given the choice), is really left to make up his own mind.
The historical evidence points, as is its well-known habit, every which way, leaving it very much up to the capitalist to decide whether the state, with the risk its sovereignty involves for the possessing class, is really a desirable aid for the operation of capitalism. It is revealing of such perplexities to read of how inadequate the state can be as an instrument of class oppression, and of the remedies that were sought at one time. It appears that prior to the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1825, illegal unionism was rampant in Oldham, Northampton and South Shields (and no doubt elsewhere, too, but the account in question is a local one), the Acts being poorly enforced. Through three decades to 1840, unions grow muscle, "frame rules... and inflict punishments": the state was useless, and an 1839 Royal Commission report on the county constabulary found that "the owners of manufacturing property had introduced arms for self-defence, and were considering the formation of armed associations for self-protection,"*42 in some ways a more appealing idea than paying taxes and not getting the state's help they thought they were buying.
When hiring Pinkertons to break strikes and "to protect manufacturing (and mining) property," the Pennsylvania steel industry or the Montana copper mines not only made up for the shortcomings of state and Federal "instruments of class oppression," but have done so by taking up a private instrument which they could control and which in any case did not have the attributions and the scale to control them. No doubt armed voluntary associations or Pinkertons were only resorted to (in fact surprisingly rarely), when the state utterly failed to come to capitalism's aid as it was supposed to do. That sometimes it did fail is yet another support for the view that the political hedonist is really quite gullible in thinking that he has made a clever bargain, for there is precious little he can do to make the state keep its side of it.
Although there may be talk of "armed associations for self-protection" and Pinkertons may be called in to give an expert hand, these devices are essentially aimed at supplementing the services of the state which are inadequate or afflicted by momentary political cowardice and weakness of will. There is no question, except briefly in the American West, of taking the law permanently into one's hands and getting by without the state, both because the national brand of law and order is felt to be superior or safer, and because making it at home or in the village, without also producing strife and resentment, is a lost skill. This is basically the same misconception as the one identifying the state of nature with bellum omnium contra omnes and which overlooks some potent forces making for reasonably stable, peaceful cooperative solutions if, by a fluke, a learning process gets a chance to start operating. It is at any rate significant that, despite wishful gropings in this direction, there was until quite recently no good intellectual case for holding that one could give up the state without also wholly giving up certain services it renders, without which capitalism would find it awkward to function. There have since been good arguments making it plausible that the interaction of free contracts could spontaneously generate a supply of such services as contract enforcement and the protection of life and property, i.e. most of what the capitalist really wants from the state.*43 The point is not whether such voluntary arrangements are conceivable once a state is in place. Most likely they are not, if the very existence of the state breeds a civil society with a diminishing capacity for generating spontaneous civic cooperation. (It is not easy to think of any other good reason for the absence, in contemporary America, of vigilante action by desperate parents against drug-pushers in high schools.) It is, rather, that if they are conceivable and feasible ab initio, there is no compelling need for willingly subjecting oneself to the state. The capitalist who accepts coercion as being, by common knowledge, a cheap price to pay for the benefits he reaps, is suffering from "false consciousness."
Notes for this chapter
For Hegel, man is free; he is subjected to the state; he is really free when he is subjected to the state. The alternative way of completing the triad, of course, is that when he is subjected to the state, he is unfree; but few Hegelians would content themselves with such a simplistic version.
A relatively readable exponent of this Ableitung is Elmar Altvater. Several other contributors to the Berlin journal Probleme des Klassenkampfes employ a rather steamy prose through which, however, much the same contractarian motif of capital's general interest (general will?) can be discerned. They are criticized (cf. Joachim Hirsch, Staatsapparat und Reproduktion des Kapitals, 1974) for failing to show why and how capital's "general will" comes in fact to be realized in the historical process. This failure, if it is one, assimilates them even more closely to Rousseau. The criticism basically reflects the mystical character of contractarianism.
François Furet, Penser la révolution français, 1978. Both quotations are from p. 41.
This is a comfortable diagnosis which foreshadows, in its Deus ex machina character, the more recent one ascribing the doings of the Soviet state for a quarter-century to the Cult of the Personality.
J. H. Hexter, On Historians, 1979, pp. 218-26.
Apart from agricultural colonization in the south, Russian peasants also played a pioneer role, as principals, in industrial capitalism. Interestingly, many bonded serfs became successful entrepreneurs from the last third of the eighteenth century onwards, while remaining serfs. Cf. Richard Pipes, Russia under the Old Regime, 1974, pp. 213-15. If there is a pre-capitalist hindrance to playing the role of capitalist entrepreneur, being a serf must surely be it.
F. Engels, "The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State," in Marx and Engels, Selected Works, my italics.
In "The Class Struggles in France," Political Writings, 1973, p. 71, Marx points unerringly at the risk the bourgeoisie runs under elective democracy with a broad franchise. The latter "gives political power to the classes whose social slavery it is intended to perpetuate... [and] it deprives the bourgeoisie... of the political guarantees of [its social] power" (my italics). Once more, the young Marx recognizes reality, only to leave his brilliant insight unexploited in favour of his later, unsubtle identification of ruling class and state.
V. I. Lenin, "The State and Revolution," Selected Works, 1968, p. 271.
In modern Marxist literature this has at least two alternative meanings. One corresponds to the "structuralist" view (notably represented by N. Poulantzas). Vulgarized, this view would hold that the state can no more fail to serve the ruling class than rails can refuse to carry the train. The state is embedded in the "mode of production" and cannot help but play its structurally assigned role. The other view would have the state choose to serve the ruling class for some prudential reason, e.g. because it is good for the state that capitalism should be prosperous.
Presumably the state could, if its interest demanded it, also choose not to serve the ruling class; this case, however, is not, or not explicitly, envisaged. Such neo-Marxist writers as Colletti, Laclau or Miliband, who have got past the mechanistic identification of state and ruling class (rejoining in this Marx, the young journalist), do not for all that allow for antagonism between the two, despite the rich array of possible reasons why the state, in pursuit of its interest should choose to turn against the ruling class (which, in Marxist theory, only "rules" because it "possesses" property, whereas the possession of arms is reserved for the state).
J. Foster, Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution, 1974, pp. 47-8.
Cf. Murray N. Rothbard, Power and Market, 1970 and David Friedman, The Machinery of Freedom, 1973.
End of Notes
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