First Published: In Struggle! No. 282, March 9, 1982
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.
For some time now I have been thinking more seriously about the problems revolutionaries have to solve. The starting point for this is the questions raised by IN STRUGGLE!. and this is no coincidence. The questioning is a painful but vital process if we want to understand what path progress can take and how we should act. Men and women make history, but they do so in the conditions and limits directly determined by and inherited from the past.
One of the questions facing us is the real nature of the modern State. Is it true that with the development of capitalism and liberal democracy the State has become an instrument of mediation between the different social classes, although remaining principally dominated by , the bourgeoisie? Or are its internal contradictions merely the expression of the contradictions within the bourgeoisie? In my opinion, these two explanations (thesis and antithesis) do not correspond at all to the historical and ever-changing reality of the modern State.
Let’s begin with a rapid recap of its history.
With the first bourgeois revolutions of the 19th century, all social classes (with the exception of the aristocracy and its allies) joined in the movement of revolt (bourgeoisie, proletariat, serfs, craftsmen, etc...). To the cry of “Liberty, Equality. Fraternity”, all these classes began to seek a form of State power representative of the real conditions in society and in opposition to the monarchy and its absolutism. What happened, however, was that the bourgeoisie rapidly took control of the emerging State. The Paris workers’ revolts in June 1848 and in 1870 (The Paris Commune) clearly showed up the real objectives of the ruling class of the time.
The bourgeois State in the 19th century was in fact nothing more than an apparatus designed to use its police and its army to protect the foundations of liberal society necessary for capital to flourish and circulate. Governments were supposed to keep their role in the economy to a minimum. Those who took part in elections had to prove that the had an interest in protecting the established order of things by proving that they owned a share of capital, some kind of property (a factory, a house. etc...). Most workers, working women and women as a whole did not have the vote. (ln Switzerland. women only won the vote in 1969.)
With the concentration of capital in big trusts and monopolies, the system’s repeated crises and people’s demands, States gradually changed. They took charge of large sectors of the economy essential to the reproduction of labour-power, services (education, helath care, etc.). Some of them even took control of sectors of industry so as to help the national capital they represent escape the domination of foreign bourgeoisies. State investments went mainly to infrastructure projects that were useful for the development of capital (such as communications networks. hydro-electric projects, etc.). We will not discuss the case of pre-industrial capitalist countries, except to point out that many of them have just achieved political “liberation”.
Meanwhile, the electorate was substantially extended, thus conferring added legitimacy on the established governments. The most recent reforms in this field have been the vote for women (won in Canada in 1919, Quebec in 1941, France in 1945, etc.) and the right to vote in provincial elections just won by prisoners in Quebec.
This brief review of the development of the capitalist State tends to indicate that seeing the organization of the State as the direct expression of the will of the bourgeoisie is too simplistic. It would be more correct to see the State as an instrument for developing and circulating capital. Instead of confirming either of the two theses mentioned at the beginning of this article, such a conclusion invalidates both of them.
Seen in this light, the capitalist State is the fruit of class contradictions and is maintained to conciliate classes – not outside, but within society. It thus is neither a direct expression of the will of the bourgeoisie that pulls all the strings; nor is it an instrument of mediation in which all classes are represented. In the last analysis, this apparatus is determined by the material conditions of production (the level of development of productive forces) and reproduction (schools, hospitals, the family. etc.) and the resulting relations (social classes, the couple, etc.). And in this society, the dominant ideology is liberal (bourgeois).
The State accepts and plans changes within the limits of the orderly development of capitalist society, a society whose conditions are constantly changing. The extension of the right to vote, like reforms in education and health care that improve the lot of working people, are ultimately nothing more than the reflection of this process at a given point in time. To demonstrate this, it is worth recalling the concepts that prevailed during the emergence and development of our societies.
Liberty, Property, Equality and Security are the major themes of all liberals in all eras. Liberty is understood as the primacy of each individual’s reason, taken in isolation, over all social realities. Property stands for private property as the driving force behind all progress and an intrinsic condition of individual happiness. Equality is seen as the guarantee in law, and in law only, of the first two. And security is the effective protection of primary values, Apart from the fact that all these slogans appeared and remained with the emergence and development of the bourgeoisie and capital from the 12th century through until today, we can say that the concept of security gives rise to all the ways of conceiving of the modern State. The latter is seen solely as the protector of the social values of liberty, property and equality. Although the bourgeoisie was responsible for utterly shameless and shameful exploitation in the 19th century, this was not the end of the matter.
The exploitation of children, the (partial) denial of rights as citizens to working men and women and women in general and the almost total lack of services for the people corresponded to the requirements of the free expansion and circulation of capital.
Increased State intervention and more rights for the people were made possible by a number of factors. These included the ideological, and structural (organizational, economic) integration of popular classes (for example, the labour aristocracy has an interest in defending private property); the development of productive forces (electricity. communications, electronics) that have opened the door for more progress by Capital; major changes in relations of reproduction; and the demands raised by popular classes. Once again liberal ideologues justify the changes proposed in the name of liberalism.
What I want to show here is that changes in the social reality of capitalism have, without challenging the foundations of capitalism (the development and circulation of capital), allowed the State to satisfy popular needs and demands to a certain extent. The State has contributed to and at times corresponded to this reality; it has never been in advance of it. The current economic crisis is transforming this reality from top to bottom. Slowly but surely, Capital is displaying itself as the sole dominant element in this society, and the State is its representative. The State is seen as the way bourgeois society organizes to counter encroachments by the popular classes and isolated capitalists (taken individually).
Unless and until the organizational forms and political and economic demands of the popular classes come into contradiction with the foundations of the expansion and circulation of capital, this society will continue to function with more or less ease. This is pertinent to the strategy and tactics revolutionaries must use. I will try to come back to this later.
This article is not an exhaustive analysis, but it is probably sufficient to affirm that the modern State represents Capital, the ideal of the collective capitalist. The bourgeoisie, as a class, looks to it to defend its fundamental interests.
N.B. In El Salvador. the contradictions have been nakedly exposed. The ruling class no longer tries and is no longer capable of hiding anything from the people as a whole.
A militant in Quebec