torsdag den 18. september 2008

The State and its abolition (4)

3. Notes on the State

Central to socialist thinking on the nature of the capitalist state is the concept of class. Drawing on the writings of Marx, socialists argue that we live in a class-based society, in which a small minority own and control the means of producing wealth to the exclusion of the rest of the population.

Specifically, we live in a society which is divided on class lines: the owners of capital, the capitalist class, and the sellers of labour power, the working class. This relationship between buyer and seller of labour power is necessarily antagonistic and this antagonism expresses itself from time to time in struggle over the distribution of the social product. Because of this socialists argue that the state cannot remain neutral — a passive observer of the class struggle. Rather we say that the state must intervene on the side of the economically dominant or owning class, because the state is controlled directly or indirectly by this class. This puts us at odds with the views of the "pluralists" who argue that power is diffused throughout a plurality of institutions in society and that the state is neutral in relation to the class struggle. But although it is possible to demonstrate the unequal division of power and wealth in society, and hence show up the crucial weaknesses of this theory, we still do not arrive at an answer to the central question of what makes the modern state capitalist.


Ralph Miliband's study, The State in Capitalist Society, that came out in 1969 signalled a general dissatisfaction in academic circles with the original Marxist writings on the state and this was reinforced in subsequent studies. It was concluded that Marx had not developed a coherent account of the nature of the capitalist state, particularly in regard to its role in the process of capital accumulation and the reproduction of capitalist social relations; indeed, that many of the references Marx makes to the capitalist state were contradictory and theoretically confused: at times he referred to the state as an instrument of class rule; and then, more subtly, as a social regulator moderating and channelling social conflict; again, he talked of the state as parasitic, that is, the private property of individuals; and, finally, as epiphenomenon (simple surface reflection) of a system of property relations and resulting economic class struggle.

The claim that the state is simply an instrument of class power used by the economically dominant class to dominate subordinate classes is highly problematical and (possibly) ahistorical. Although the ruling class owns and controls the material and mental means of production, one cannot automatically assume that it thereby controls, runs, dictates to, or is predominant in the state as well. The ruling class is not a monolithic power bloc; it is fragmented, with differing and, at times, conflicting interests. Moreover, in certain historical circumstances, the economically dominant class has not held state power, for example, in nineteenth century Prussia where the aristocracy (the junkers) controlled the state although it was a declining economic force.

Numerous problems also arise with the view of the state as a factor of cohesion in society, regulating the struggle between the classes, either by repression or concession. The main difficulty with this approach is that it suggests that the conflict over the social product is resolvable, and if taken to its logical conclusion it precludes the possibility of revolution as the state, in its role as class mediator, can act to defuse crises arising out of the contradictions within the capitalist mode of production. It is also very much akin to the liberal view of the state as "nightwatchman". Likewise, the parasitic approach can only lead to demands for a democratisation rather than the abolition of government and, perhaps, this is why Marx dropped references to it in his later writings.

The ephiphenomenon aspect of Marx's views on the state is rooted in the metaphor of base and superstructure, that is, that the state in its legal and political forms is simply a reflection of the economic base of society. This implies that the state is a passive instrument in the class struggle or, at best, is a tool of the ruling class. To adopt such a position leads one either to the reductionism of the equation that class power equals state power, or, to ignore the role the state has played, and is playing, in organising the labour process and in creating the conditions for further capital accumulation. The epiphenomenon view thus places a straightjacket on the activities of the state, divesting it of any autonomy or freedom of action, something which is at odds with the historical development of capitalism.

Dissatisfaction with the classical Marxist texts on the nature of the state led to a reformulation of theoretical perspectives by a new generation of Marx students. The outcome has been by no means theoretically homogenous, in fact, a variety of perspectives have emerged which we will now attempt to synthesise.


In Marxism and Politics, Miliband offers three possible, but not necessarily interrelated, explanations concerning the relationship of the ruling class to the state. The first of these concentrates on the personnel of the state. Miliband argues that those who control the state share a similar or common social background and are linked together by economic and cultural ties. These links result in a cluster of common ideological and political attitudes, as well as common perspectives and values. Thus those who run the state apparatus are by virtue of their circumstances favourably disposed to those who own and control the economic means of life. Empirical evidence would tend to bear out some of Miliband's assumptions. In The State in Capitalist Society, he provides an impressive array of detailed information which chronicles the interconnections between the elite groupings in society. The state is largely run by people from similar social backgrounds and educational establishments, in spite of numerous Labour governments and so-called working class occupational mobility. But this approach inevitably leads to the reductionism mentioned earlier as it does not explain how the state is capitalist. Crucially it does not amount to a Marxist theory of the state as it discusses the state in isolation from socio-economic forces. Miliband's work serves only as a rebuttal to pluralist assumptions about political democracy.

To buttress the obvious shortcomings of this approach Miliband introduces an economic dimension to his analysis. This centres on the role of capital as a pressure group. Here capital, particularly "monopoly capital", uses its position as the major controller of wealth and, hence, of investment to demand the ear of government. The fear in governing circles of multinationals redirecting investment and causing large numbers of job losses ensures that they listen sympathetically to them. In some accounts of this process, particularly that of Baran and Sweezey and the "Communist" Party, the state and monopoly capital become fused; the former acting as a pliant tool of the latter. These views ignore the fact that the state often acts against the interests of certain sections of the capitalist class. The state passes reforms in the social and economic fields which capital dislikes, for example, high levels of unemployment benefit and spending on welfare services in general. Moreover this approach reduces the state to an epiphenomenal position, that is, the nature of the state is drawn from the immanent tendencies of capital accumulation. It also disregards the role of class struggle in shaping the way the state responds to certain issues and problems.


The problematic nature of the above approach and its corollary that small and medium size capitals should unite with the working class in a struggle to overthrow monopoly capitalism has been severely criticised by "structural Marxists" such as Althusser and Poulantzas, and this leads us to the third explanation offered by Miliband. Structuralists argue that "the state is an instrument of the ruling class because given its insertion in the capitalist mode of production (CMP) it cannot be anything else". Thus it matters little who constitutes the personnel of the state, or what pressure is exerted by capitalists, as the actions of the state are determined by the "nature and requirements of the CMP". In other words, a capitalist economy has its own logic or rationality to which any government or state must sooner or later submit, regardless of its ideological or political preferences; the existence of the capitalist mode of production constrains the state to act in ways favourable to the expansion and preservation of the economic system and against the interests of the working class.

The structuralist view has been further refined by the work of the "capital logic" school of Berlin. This approach derives the character of the capitalist state from the categories of the capitalist economy, the process of production and accumulation. The state is seen as a political force which is required to secure the reproduction of wage labour—to the extent that this cannot be done through market forces—and to ensure the subordination of labour to capital. This requires the state to intervene in areas such as factory legislation, supervision of trade uniion activities and social welfare. In this role the state is prepared to act not only against the working class, but also against individual capitals or fractions of capital which threaten the interests of capital in general.
Although it has a persuasive logic to it the structuralist view nas a number of crucial weaknesses. Firstly, how constraining are the constraints? If total, then the outcome of that totality is economic determinism, as it would lead to a situation where human beings are deprived of any freedom of action or choice. Man however is not simply the product of economic forces, but a complex organism, whose actions are determined by many competing factors such as tradition, religion (where appropriate), altruism, nationalism, and so on. Secondly, and this follows from the first point, if we accept the structuralist position on the state, then we preclude consideration of how workers in struggle have affected the nature of the state and how it reacts to working class demands. In short, we could dismiss the last 150 years or so of the class struggle.
Similarly, the capital logic approach not only fails to account for the origins of the capitalist state, but fails to show convincingly how it can operate as the ideal collective capitalist. In short, how does it determine, and by what means, what are the "best" interests of capital? Moreover, in this scheme everything that occurs in a capitalist society apparently corresponds to the needs of capital accumulation, and even where modified by class struggle the interests of capital are always realised. The whole theory is deterministic, and can only provide a partial analysis to the central issue of what makes the state capitalist.


These explanations, although more systematic and coherent than some earlier Marxists' writings on the state, fail to explain the central issue of what makes the modern state a class state: the state of the capitalist class. The main reason behind this is the reductionism of the approaches. This means that a more adequate theoretical approach is necessary; one which takes account of the actual historical development of the state and how this development has been influenced by the balance of class forces at specific historical moments, and appreciates that the state can and does enjoy a fairly high degree of autonomy and independence in the manner of its operation as a class state. After all if the state is to act in the interests of the capitalist class it must be free to come to a decision as to what actually constitutes those interests. In doing so it may have to favour one fraction of capital against another in order to preserve or promote the long or short term interests of the sum total of the system's parts. This explains why particular social and economic policies are possible even though powerful economic groups are opposed to them.

This approach also allows for an account to be taken of the way the working class, through trade unions and other defence mechanisms, have affected the development of the state. For, given the nature of competitive capitalism, workers are forced to resist the encroachments of capital. The state must react in some positive way to workers' (reformist) demands. Failure to do so would lead to civil strife and political instability. Thus state forms and institutions, without this in any way threatening underlying capitalist social relations, are partly the outcome of working class struggle and cannot simply be attributed to the interests of the ruling class or a mere reflection of the changing needs of the capitalist mode of production.

Socialists, then, do not accept the pluralist view that the state is the property of no single class and that because of this it responds to the demands of all sections of society. We recognise that the modern state is comprised of a flexible set of institutions which operate subtly and is, ultimately, the executive committee for the capitalist class.

Bill Knox

nb -
the "State and its abolition" articles all appeared in World Socialist Nr.3 Spring 1985

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