Jack Fitzgerald

Review of The State: Its Origin and Function

Source: Socialist Standard, February 1918.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain
HTML Markup: Michael Schauerte
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

The State: Its Origin and Function
by Wm. Paul

Historians in the past have made many attempts to discover and state what may be called the driving force or dynamic factor behind the various changes that have taken place in Society. As Larfargue has so well pointed out in his essay on “Marx’s Historical Method.” Vico, the Neapolitan historian, was one of the first to seek for this factor in man’s material conditions. Guizot was of the opinion that it was the development of man’s intellect that formed this driving force, though he failed to show on what this development was based. Buckle, in his valuable History of Civilisation in England, laid greatest stress on the climatic and geographical conditions of Society as being the factors of social change, failing to see how much more rapidly societies change than do climatic or geographical conditions.

The key to the riddle was supplied by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, who, independently, arrived at the same conclusion—that it was the economic development that formed the driving force behind social development, culminating in the changes in the forms of Society.

A brief summary of their discovery is given in the preface to Marx’s Critique of Political Economy, while the famous Communist Manifesto, the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, and the pamphlets on the Civil War in France in 1871 are splendid examples of the application of the theory—or use of the tool, as Lafargue would say—by its discoverers.

In America, apparently without any knowledge of Marx’s and Engels’s work, a famous ethnologist, working from a different standpoint, reached substantially the same conclusion. This scientist was Lewis Henry Morgan, whose great work, Ancient Society, solved the riddle of tribal organisation, throwing a flood of light on the early forms of Society, and tracing the path of social development to the birth of so-called civilisation.

The great theory which was formulated by these three investigators, and which is known as the “Materialist Conception of History,” is more, and more being adopted by modern historians and economists, often without real acknowledgment, as in the case of Loria in his Economic Foundations of Society, or even with sneers at Marx, as in the case of J. A. Hobson.

To take this theory and use it for the purpose of explaining and tracing the development of one of the features of Society is, of course, quite legitimate, provided the work is done with sufficient care to prevent confusion arising in the minds of its readers. The book now under review in an attempt to use the Materialist Conception of History for the purpose of explaining and tracing the development of one social institution called by the author “The State.” Some objection could be taken to the use of this title, but we may let this pass in face of the greater objections which exist to other parts of the book.

Whether due to the present world-war or to other reasons there is a good deal of slip-shod and even slovenly work in the 200 pages of this volume. Thus the method of placing the titles of the books referred to in the text at the end of each chapter is an awkward one and could only be excused if long extracts were being given in the form of an appendix. Worse than this, however, is the author’s practice of quoting a statement from a work, often consisting of 700 or 800 pages, and giving the title only as a reference. There is no excuse for this slip-shod method.

This carelessness or worse is further illustrated in the uncritical recommendations given to certain works referred to in this book. Professor Jenk’s statement that “Ancient Society will ultimately be recognised as one of the great scientific products of the Nineteenth Century” is quoted on page 9, and then Mr. Paul says: “m>of no less importance is the Origin of the Family by F. Engels” (italics mine).

Engels himself would be the first to deny this absurd claim. Morgan’s work is an original volume, the result of immense research covering 40 years’ labours, and is one of the great epoch-making discoveries of the human race. Engels’ little volume was intended as a summary, with some additional observations, for the use of those to whom Morgan’s work was inaccessible. A partial analogy may be found in the case of another epoch-making work of the 19th century. Far and away the best summary of Marx’s great work Capital is the little volume by Marx himself entitled Value, Price, and Profit. Here the essentials of Capital are stated in simple language which, later, assists the worker to grasp the detailed working out of the larger volume. But here the analogy ceases. Capital is written in rigid scientific language, often in mathematical form, that is difficult for the beginner to follow and understand. Hence the usefulness of Value, Price, and Profit in stating simply the main propositions. Ancient Society, on the other hand, is written in simple language and in a clear and unaffected style that enables the beginner to follow the arguments with a minimum of trouble. The Origin of the Family does not—as indeed it could not—present the case in any simpler way.

Another instance is given on page10 where we are told “for a detailed history of marriage in the past and present the famous book of Bebel on Woman Under Socialism is indispensable.”

Two editions of this work have appeared in the English language. The first, published many years ago by Reeves and Co., under the title “Women in the Past, Present and Future”, drew an apology from the Avelings for the historical and other errors it contained. This appeared in their pamphlet Woman. The other edition in English is the translation by Mr. De Leon, of America, of the 23rd German edition, and is the one referred to by Mr. Paul. Here some of the old errors are removed, but new ones are incorporated both of historical judgment and social development. The translator himself had to make some corrections to the text in long footnotes. Generally Bebel’s Woman is ill-balanced and far from being scientifically based, and it lends a larger amount of support to the “Suffragette” notion that the position of women is due to the “wickedness” of man than it does to the Marxian position of class oppression.

A further instance of this slovenliness on the part of Mr. Paul, and one that would greatly confuse the beginner are the various meanings attributed to the word “State.” On page 1 it is implied that the “State” is a “social institution specially devised to perform some social function.” On page 100 Mr. Paul says “legality means not the interest of Society but rather the interest of the State, i.e., of the dominant class,” while on page 108 we read “the making and administration of Law is an important function of the executive committee of the ruling class—the State.” So the State is first a “social institution,” then it becomes “the dominant class” itself, and afterwards it is “the executive committee” of that class. Such loose and faulty methods, however, become absolutely ridiculous when one reads the bombastic statement made in the introduction : eeSocial science, like every branch of science, uses terms which must be clearly defined...While, therefore, a clear comprehension of terms is scientifically imperative, it would seem that many dabblers in social science do not realise that grave dangers may arise by confusing the minds of the workers regarding the nature and function of social institutions.” (Page VI.) How completely these latter terms fit their own case is shown by the quotations given.

But the most blatantly idiotic claim in the book appears on page 198, where it is said that Mr. De Leon’s pamphlet, the Preamble of the Industrial Workers of the World, is “a work equally epoch-making as the Communist Manifesto.” To compare De Leon’s anti-political and painfully laboured attempt at a defence of the nonsense of Industrial Unionism with the world-famous work of Marx and Engels shows the shallow ignorance and blind hero-worship of one who could pen such drivel.

Among the minor points requiring correction may be mentioned the ignoring of the work done during the periods of Theseus and Draco (the last of whom is credited with having been the first to establish written laws) in ancient Athens, that made possible the changes brought about under Solon and Kleisthenes. The work done during these periods was of great importance as being initial steps towards the complete change.

A similar criticism applies to the section on Rome, where the necessary preliminary developments were carried through during the period of the reputed reign of Romulus—when the first hereditary aristocracy was founded—and of Numa Pompilius.

In both these cases it would be absurd to suppose that such large and fundamental changes could have taken place as those attributed to Solon and Kleisthenes in the one case and Servius Tullius in the other, without previous stages having been passed through. Moreover, the over-estimate of the work of these men, by ignoring the essential steps of their predecessors, tends to keep alive in the minds of the workers who are beginners in this subject, the false notion that “great men” make history (thereby encouraging the following of leaders) that the work of Vico, Marx, Morgan, and Spencer has done so much to disprove.

Of a different type is the statement in a footnote on page 112 where, referring to Eugene Sue’s The History of a Proletarian Family Across the Ages, it is said : “For rescuing this monumental work from the despoiling hands of the Church and the hireling intellectuals of Capitalism the S.L.P. deserves great credit.”

As Mr. Paul’s book is issued by the S.L.P. of Scotland the reader unacquainted with the facts would naturally assume the S.L.P. in this footnote referred to that organisation. The truth is that the Sue novels referred to were translated by Mr. De Leon of the American S.L.P.

A further instance of slipshod work appears on page 169 when the author is dealing with the invention of the steam engine. He says: “This new and powerful driving force was able to drive the tool or machine—a machine being simply a complex tool working at an extraordinary speed”! (Italics mine.)

The finest explanation and definition of a machine occurs in Marx’s Capital, chapter 15, in the part dealing with “Machinery and Modern Industry.” Section 1 reads almost like a romance, and is packed with information. Only a couple of passages can be quoted here. On page 366 Marx says:

“Mathematicians and mechanicians, and in this they are followed by a few English economists, call a tool a simple machine [as Mr. Paul does on page 2] and a machine a complex tool. They see no essential difference between them and even give the name machine to the simple mechanical powers of the lever, the inclined plane, the screw, the wedge, etc. As a matter of fact every machine is a combination of those simple powers, no matter how they may be disguised. From the economical standpoint this explanation is worth nothing because the historical element is wanting.

And on page 368 Marx gives his own definition in that masterly fashion of his that shows the whole matter in the clearest light. After describing the parts played by the motor mechanism and the transmitting gear he says:

The machine proper is therefore a mechanism that, after being set in motion, performs with its tools the same operations that were formerly done by the workman with similar tools. Whether the motive power is derived from man, or from some other machine, makes no difference in this respect. From the moment that the tool proper is taken from the worker’s hand, and fitted into a mechanism, a machine takes the place of a mere implement.

A comparison of the above quotations with Mr. Paul’s confused and inaccurate definition of a machine shows how little either he or the S.L.P., who are responsible for the production of the book, understand even the simpler portions of Marx’s writings, despite their bombastic claim in the introduction quoted above.

As this book is issued by the S.L.P. of Scotland with a special “benediction” in the introduction, it is fair to assume that it represents the views and policy of the Executive Committee of that body. If that is so then we are treated to a complete somersault in the policy that organisation has been advocating, with variations, for about twelve years. In 1905 the Executive Committee of the S.L.P., without in any way consulting the membership of the party, endorsed and adopted as a policy the position of the Industrial Workers of the World, had been formed in Chicago in June, 1905. Since then it has in various, and often contradictory, ways attempted to defend the claims of the I.W.W. that the workers by organising into industrial unions—one for each industry—could “take and hold the means of production.” They claimed that the industrial unions furnished the “might” to carry through the revolution; that it was the economic organisation that supplied “the power” lacking in the political party, and so on.

How an economic organisation could “ take and hold the means of production” while the capitalist class had control of the armed forces was a question neither the S L.P. nor the other Industrialists were ever able to answer. They simply wandered from one absurdity to another in the endeavour to dodge this—to them—fatal question. The endless contradictions and quibbles they have been led into by the catch phrases as “The economic is the basis of the political”; “The political is the reflex of the economic”; “The economic organisation will cast its own political shadow,” etc., etc., have been dealt with in the SOCIALIST STANDARD on numerous occasions.

But now comes this volume which flatly contradicts all these years’ teachings and takes up the position that the working class must seize political power in order to abolish capitalism.

Quite early in the book this position begins to take form, as on page 41 we read:

Throughout history the State has slightly changed its form but its role as the weapon of despotism in the hands of the economically and politically dominant class has remained unchanged. It is able to enforce its will upon those who oppose it, because behind its demands it has the organised armed forces of the Society. (Italics mine.)

Referring to the Civil War of 1644 it is stated .

The revolutionaries by their control of the political machine were able to use the rents of the Royal estates, the levies placed upon the goods secretly bought by the cavaliers, and the taxes gathered up and down the country to defeat the Crown.” (Page 151. Italics mine.)

But it is in the last two chapters that this position—so long sneered at by the S.L.P. —is stated in its most complete form. In the chapter on “Modern Capitalism” we read:

The State has behind every mandate it promulgates the armed force of the nation. It is this power which enforces the will of the ruling class.” (P. 190.)

While in the chapter on eeRevolutionary Socialism” occurs the following remarkable statement—remarkable, that is, coming from the S.L.P.:

In order to facilitate the work of the industrial organisation, it is absolutely imperative for the workers to disarm the capitalist class by wrenching from it its power over the political State. The State powers include the armed forces of the nation which may be turned against the revolutionary workers. The political weapon of Labour, by destroying the capitalist control of the State makes possible a peaceful social revolution. But in order to tear the State out of the grasp of the ruling class the workers’ political organisation must capture the political machinery of capitalism. (Page 198.)

This complete reversal of a policy followed for about twelve years is simply staggering. It is a full confession not only that the S.L.P. has been wrong all this time—a fact we have proved over and over again in the pages of the SOCIALIST STANDARD and in debate—but also that the S.P.G.B. has been right in its attitude and correct in its policy throughout its existence.

When the S.P.G.B. was formed in 1904 it laid down one aim—Socialism. It drew up a Declaration of Principles that has solidly withstood all attacks from every quarter. Paragraph 6 of that declaration states:

That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this 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.

We now have the S.L.P., in the pages of this book, taking up an attitude that corresponds completely with the above clause of our Declaration of Principles. Has it taken this world-war, with its terrific maiming and slaughter, to drive the simple but fundamental fact of their minds that it is control of the political machinery that is the essential factor in the domination of Society? What have the members of the S.L.P. to say to this complete change of policy? Does it represent the considered view of the members? Or is it another example of the E.C. of that body laying down its own policy, in exact opposition to one preached for so many years, without any authority or mandate from the membership? Do the members understand and accept this new situation, and if so how can they justify the retention of their membership in the S L.P.?

Nor is this the only change in the policy of the S.L.P., though it is by far the most important. In addition to the claim that the Industrial Union furnished the “might” and “power” to overthrow capitalism, the S.L.P. claimed that these unions were the “embryo” of the Socialist Republic; that they provided the “framework” or “skeleton” of Socialism.

This silly and childish “Utopianism” the absurdity of which we exposed long ago, would hardly require notice here but for the change of attitude that is now adopted. To lay down here and now the details of what the organisation of production will be under Socialism is on a par with Bellamy’s Looking Backward.

In the first place we have no means of knowing at what particular step in the development of capitalist production and methods a sufficient number of the working class will be converted to Socialism to carry through the revolution. The details of the economic organisation must depend upon the particular stage of development at that period. Moreover, the majority of the working class will then be Socialists—otherwise the attempt at revolution will be a fiasco—and they will have the requisite knowledge and ability to construct their economic organisation in conformity with the conditions then prevailing. It is, therefore, easy to see how foolish is the attempt to settle now the details of an organisation that will be called upon to act then. Even when the I.W.W. was first launched we pointed out that capitalism then was outgrowing the “Industrial” sub-division and large combinations of capitalists were controlling whole groups of industries. The increase of this factor that has since taken place and which looks as though it will extend still faster under the form of National and Municipal control as a result of the war adds further strength to this point. In addition it has to be remembered that economic organisations formed now have to fight the battles of wages and conditions of employment now. But to do so with any hope of success they must enrol as many as possible of workers in the particular businesses they are dealing with. This means the enrolment of Socialists (a small number of the workers at present) along with the passive and active anti-Socialists, all in the same union. This fact shows the utter impossibility of forming a Socialist economic organisation until a majority of the workers in a particular occupation have been converted to Socialism. Hence the farcical failure of the various attempts to form “Industrial Unions” before a sufficient number of the workers have accepted these particular teachings.

In the book now under review the question of Industrial Unionism takes so subordinate a place and is so watered down, compared with the former claims of the S.L.P., that if the term “Industrial Unionism” were left out the ordinary reader of the Socialist would fail to recognise this attitude as being the one taken up by the S.L.P. How much has been given up the following quotation will show:

We see, therefore, that the function of the future administration of society will be industrial. The constructive element in the social revolution will be the action of the Industrial Union seizing the means of production in order to administer the wants of the community. True to the dictum of social science, that the embryo of the future social system must be nourished within the womb of the old system, the revolutionary Socialist movement sets out to build up within capitalism the industrial organisation of the workers which will carry on the administrative work under Socialism on behalf of the community. Thus Industrial Unionism is the constructive weapon in the coming social revolution. (Pages 197-8.)

This very general and greatly modified position of the S.L.P.’s claims for Industrial Unionism shows how far they have come—implicitly, at any rate—to admit the correctness of our attitude on economic organisation. What the title of the future economic organisation will be is really guess-work now and is only of small importance, though the misleading, anti-Socialist, and Utopian associations covered by the term “Industrial Unionism” will certainly go far to discredit it in the minds of the workers as they become Socialists. Much more educational work requires to be done, however, before such an organisation can be started, for it is only as the workers learn that they are slaves, and clearly grasp that the essential factor in their emancipation is the control of political power, that they will build up the Socialist organisations, political and economic, necessary for the establishment of Socialism.

The nucleus of the political organisation exists now in the Socialist Party of Great Britain. The economic organisation cannot be started until numbers fulfilling the conditions laid down above have been converted to Socialism.