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International Socialism, Spring 1979


Tim Potter

The ‘strong state’


From International Socialism, 2:4, Spring 1979.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up for the Marxists’ Internet Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


One of the most striking changes in the post-war world has been the increased role of the state within the internal life of each Western European state. The aspect of this that has been concentrated on by the left has been the increased intervention within the economy. What has been much rarer, until the last few years, has been any comparable analysis of the post-war state’s political role. Yet real changes have taken place here too.

All these states have seen a rapid rise in the repression used against the most militant sections of the working class and especially against the left. The most notorious example is that of West Germany where under the pretext of an anti-terrorist campaign, the state has introduced an array of laws whose aims are to isolate or even make illegal any radical criticism of the existing state. These moves have been paralleled by similar developments in Italy, Britain and the United States, to cite only the most well-known examples.

These developments are obviously of great importance to the revolutionary left. After all if we aim to overthrow the existing state, we must be aware of its strengths and weaknesses. Yet the left has done little rigorous analysis of these developments.

Classical Marxist analysis of western capitalist state forms have employed four basic concepts; those of bourgeois parliamentary democracy, military dictatorship, fascism and Bonapartism. Of course, each of these forms as they have existed, exhibit national peculiarities; but between them they have been found adequate to describe the political forms of bourgeois rule.

However, when it comes to the modern evolution of western democracies, most Marxists have abandoned these traditional concepts to come up with an entirely new one; that of the ‘Strong State’. The two major currents on the European left, the Fourth International around Mandel and the much less formal grouping centred on Democrazia Proletaria in Italy, both use the conception of the ‘Strong State’ though they emphasise different aspects of the problem.

In this article I want to outline the position held by the two tendencies and raise some objections to them in the hope of carrying forward the debate. This should be seen only as a preliminary, to be followed up by further, more positive explanations of the political tendencies inherent in the ‘liberal democracies’.

The position of Democrazia Proletaria

For DP, changes in the state have become of increasing importance over the last few years. The most cogent expression of their views is to be found in an article by Luigino Scricciolo, their International Organiser, in DP’s educational bulletin. For DP, changes in the Italian state are a direct product of the changing balance of power inside Europe over the last twenty years. The main change over the last twenty years has been:

“The emergence of a growing domination of the West German economy in the key industrial sectors ... This was especially the case in the sector of investment. German finance capital is well in front of its rivals in the penetration of European markets ...

“This dominance of German capital is manifested in other ways as well:

  1. economic: the division of labour favours German industry. The Mark is the only strong money system in Europe and realistically is the only one that can serve as the basis for a unified money.
  2. political: Germany has valuable allies (Trojan horses) in European countries; in the Socialist parties of Portugal, Spain and Italy.
  3. military: the German Army is the key force in Western Europe and a major strength of NATO.

The expansionist power of German capital is matched on the social and political level by the extension of the German model. By that we mean:


The transformation of post-fascist democracy to a late capitalist system can be seen most clearly in West Germany. The changes involved are: a concentration of power in the executive; the extension and growth of the bureaucracy and civil service; a decline in the political role of Parliament; an expansion of state aid to industry to aid accumulation; the integration of the trade unions into the control of the economy and the increased use of the mass media in the socialisation of the masses. The growing demands of the economic crisis of the nation state force West Germany, as the dominant European state, to rapidly expand its repressive forces in order to control the class struggles which cannot be contained politically.

As the formally politically autonomous organisations are integrated into the state, any dissenters are criminalised by such a series of exceptional laws that they radically alter the principles and institutions of the normal state.” (T. Pironti, editor, Germania e Germanizaztione)

The state of law is being transformed into an ‘offensive democracy’, that is an authoritarian though lawful state. It has a huge capacity to criminalise dissent and to use that dissent both as an instrument for reinforcement of the state and to organise the silent majority who desire a repressive order. All dissenters, be they individuals or whole strata, who do not commit themselves to the defence of the state are potential enemies.

The concentration and centralisation of political control in the executive, the police and the civil service as is happening in West Germany is not a temporary phenomenon nor some malfunctioning of the political order. Rather it is a phenomenon linked to the development of the state and the social structure. As such it is not limited to West Germany but is spreading throughout the EEC ...

The problem that is posed today throughout Europe is that of an attempt of capitalist socialisation and repressive integration of the working class … What is happening in West Germany is being extended into a single picture. In moving towards co-control of the crisis, the action of the trade unions, the party and the government together, along with the limitations on the right to strike and the berufsverbot have begun a new phase of social control on the part of these forces. Their aim is to become part of the state but in reality it means an integration of the working class ...

We are not talking of either a fascistisation of the state nor of social-fascism; rather the problem is about instruments of integration and repression which are becoming more and more refined. The European-wide tendency is to develop an economy regulated by the state; with regulated food prices, rents, of petrol etc. to the final control of workers’ resistance.”

For DP, the move towards the ‘strong state’ is an integral part of their analysis of modern capitalism and a key element in the reconstruction of their theory as they attempt to emerge from the crisis of the last three years. It plays a major role in their publications and, as I shall attempt to show, has major implications for their practice.

The Fourth International

In contrast to DP, the FI have not produced any major analysis of the changing nature of the modern, parliamentary state. There have been no fundamental analyses in Inprecor/Intercontinental Press or any other of the theoretical journals that I have had access to. This is surprising since the concept of the ‘strong state’ is liberally used but never explained. For instance, in Mandel’s From Stalinism to Eurocommunism, de Gaulle’s France is described as a ‘strong state’ but there is no explanation as to why this is a ‘strong state’ rather than the ‘Bonapartist’ form I had always assumed it was.

The nearest the FI have come to an overall analysis of the ‘strong state’ is in a chapter of Mandel’s Late Capitalism. He sees a clear movement “towards a ‘strong state’, imposing increasing restrictions on the democratic liberties which have existed in the past”. According to Mandel, a ‘strong state’ has a number of tendencies within it. The first is an increased autonomy of the state from the rest of society as economic power is concentrated into fewer and fewer hand thus dispensing with the need for parliament to act as a debating chamber for the whole bourgeoisie. This is backed up by the threat posed by the entry at the beginning of the twentieth century of the representatives of working class parties. Thus we see a shift in power from parliament to the executive. Secondly, because of the instability of capitalism the state is forced to actively intervene in terms of ‘crisis-management’, both within the economy and in society. “The state thus deploys a hugs machinery of ideological manipulation to ‘integrate’ the worker into late capitalist society as a consumer, ‘social partner’ or ‘citizen’ (and ipso facto supporter of the existing social order) and so on.” Finally, Mandel sees “another tendency in late capitalism, the subordination of all the elements of the productive and reproductive process to the direct control of monopoly capital and its state. Wage struggles by trade unions and unrestricted rights to strike, normal liberal freedoms ... all these are becoming increasingly intolerable to late capitalism. They must therefore be legally restricted, undermined and abolished by the state.”

For Mandel, this tendency is an inevitable one when capitalism enters into crisis since he sees the level of working class activity as a key determinant of the rate of profit. Thus the state has to diminish workers’ rights in order to maintain profits.

Some objections

1. What’s causing the ‘strong state’?

There is obviously a great deal of overlap and truth in the two positions. Certainly in Britain, and probably throughout Europe, one can see plenty of examples of restrictions of workers’ rights, an ideological offensive and a shift in power from parliament to the executive.

However, there are three parts of the analysis which I think need to be examined in greater depth. The first is the reason for these changes. For DP, the answer is simple; “the expansion of German capital is matched on the social and political level by the extension of the German model (of the state)”. Now this, I have argued, fundamentally confuses the causes of increasing authoritarianism with its effects.

To repeat, German capitalism is not in the main, expanding its political power over its weaker partners inside the EEC. Rather those weaker ruling classes are demanding the protection of the stronger sections of international capital to shore them up from the dual pressures of the economic recession and the strength of their own working class. Thus in Britain, the position of the British ruling class was severely weakened during the early 1970s through working class militancy and the onset of the world economic crisis. Between 1975 and 1978 they gradually re-established their position through the use of the traditional organisations of the working class. It is true that in October 1976 they turned to the IMF for a massive loan and that the final decision to enter the EEC was a key ideological defeat for the left. But was this a subordination of a weaker capitalism to its more powerful competitors? The answer is obviously no. Rather it was a weakened ruling class appealing to the stronger sections of international capital for aid in its crisis.

The obvious danger in DP’s analysis of West German influence is to shift our attention from the fact that it is the national ruling classes which are introducing repressive laws etc. They only turn to the stronger sections of international capitalism when it is in their interests to do so. There is no grand design thought up in West Germany and being implemented against the wishes of our own rulers. Rather there is a common response by all sections of the West European ruling class to deal with a common crisis. At their worst, such ideas can feed a chauvinistic analysis of the role of West Germany in Europe.

Authoritarian trends are not the result of a state model exported along with Volkswagens. Rather they are a result of a continuing deadlock within the class struggle in each of the West European states. The preconditions of stability; an expanding economy, a passive working class and a relatively united ruling class have all come to an end in the Europe of the 1970s. The changes in the state we see today are the individual states’ attempts to construct-a new response to the workers’ movement; they are comparable because the social crises they are attempting to deal with are similar.

2. New developments in the state?

The second major problem involved in any analysis of the ‘strong state’ is whether the trends observable are something new in the development of the state. The bourgeois liberal state, is and always has been strong in he sense that it has yet to be overthrown in any advanced country. It is generally accepted by Marxists that this strength is based on two inter-connected aspects; firstly an ideological acceptance of its rule by the mass of the population and secondly by a recourse to repression when that is necessary to safeguard its continued existence.

These two aspects have been observable throughout the history of the bourgeois state. There has always been an interweaving of ideological control and repression when needed. Many of the features which both Mandel and DP point to as being components of the move towards the ‘strong state’ have always existed within the form of state which up till now most Marxists have been content to call bourgeois democratic. Mandel pointed out three aspects of “a movement towards the ‘strong state’.”

The first was a shift in power from Parliament to the Executive. But Mandel himself says that this is no new development, but that this has been occurring since at least the beginning of the century. Of course, this process has been accelerated since the onset of the economic crisis but it is difficult to see how this marks a qualitative change over the earlier period. In times of crisis, whether it be war or economic depression, the state has always been forced to intervene into civil society and has had to take much of the decision making power away from Parliament.

The second aspect of the move towards the ‘strong state’ that Mandel points out is a “wave of ideological manipulation to integrate the worker into ... late capitalist society.” Yet again this is nothing new. The history of every bourgeois democracy is full of periods when this occurred. There have always been attempts to marginalise, criminalise or integrate any dissent since this is precisely how subordination to the ruling order is achieved. Ideological domination in capitalist society is not won by the ruling class lightly. It is certainly not won by the superiority of ideas alone. It has to be fought for and that means forcing under by one way or another any theories that threaten the ruling structures especially when, as in times of crisis, they threaten to gain mass adherence.

The last of Mandel’s three points, that of the restriction of normal liberal freedoms has also got its historical precedents. Working class democratic rights have never been safeguarded by capitalism and have often been set back especially in times of economic difficulty for the system. So again, what is new about the trends we are seeing today?

If we examine a radically differing period from today we can see the same trends as Mandel isolates at work. Britain, in the interwar years, went through its longest period of economic crisis. It was also the time when, according to both Mandel and DP, it would seem, a ‘strong state’ was created in Britain. Firstly, there was a major shift in power from Parliament to the executive. As a response to the weakening of British Capitalism the state was forced to intervene in wide areas of the economy. It was forced to nationalise parts of the transport system and electricity, to intervene over wages, mergers, trade and planning in order to provide a stable base for economic recovery. The puny attempts by the Labour Party during the 1920s to deal with the crisis soon crumbled away before the determination of the state to stick to its version of economic orthodoxy.

But the collapse of the first two Labour governments before the power of the state did not mean that there was no ideological offensive waged by the state against it or other more resolute opposition. One has only to think of the ‘Zinoviev letter’ incident, or the propaganda put out during the General Strike or during the 1931 National Government election, or the criminalisation and repression of those involved in the anti-fascist or unemployment struggles of the 1930s to realise that the tendencies we are seeing today are by no means new. Finally during that period, the democratic rights of the class received major setbacks. The right to strike was removed from wide sections of state employees, laws were introduced which made illegal any attempts to organise in the armed forces and demonstrations, especially of the unemployed, were attacked, and the ruling class prepared for the General Strike of 1926 by imprisoning most of the national leadership of the Communist Party.

Looking back on Britain in the 1920s and 1930s few if any Marxists would point to the form of class rule as that of a ‘strong state’, rather it would be seen as an intelligent response of a classic bourgeois democratic state at a particularly acute period of the class struggle.

The dangers of the ‘strong state’ analysis

None of this would matter if it was simply a debate over nomenclature. After all, western capitalist states are becoming more repressive, what does it matter if you call them ‘strong state’ or something else? The problem is that the analysis which led the proponents of the ‘strong state’ to reject the traditional marxist categories of the forms of the state are leading (in the case of Italy at least) to extremely dangerous tendencies in their practice. I have already pointed to one such danger: DP’s concentration on Germany as the leading force in the increased repression could lead firstly to chauvinism and secondly to an obscuring of the real enemies of the Italian workers’ movement.

A further danger, common to both Mandel and DP, is that an analysis of the ‘strong state’ obscures the mechanisms by which bourgeois rule is assured today. For what we are talking about is a new form of state; in other words one which is a stable instrument for class rule in the same way that bourgeois democracy, fascism, military dictatorship and, to a lesser extent, bonapartism were. These forms of state only succeeded in as much as they were able to defuse the threat posed to them by the working class which in its year by year struggle constitutes a threat, (even if a latent one), to the smooth running of their system. Fascism and military dictatorship are able to achieve this by the political and physical liquidation of the working class movement; bonapartism, by an increased role of the state along with concessions made to both contending classes. Liberal democracy rests first, on the acceptance of the political regime by the majority of workers and when this fails a reliance on the traditional forces of repression.

How, according to its proponents, does the ‘strong state’ defuse the threat from the working class movement? It is obviously not simply by the use of repression. Although the level of state violence has increased over the last ten years it does not yet pose any major threat to the working class movement. In Germany, where perhaps DP is right and the process has gone furthest, the state has not taken over the functions of a fascist movement and attempted to destroy all independent activity of the working class. Indeed the wave of strikes this winter in the steel industry show that the workers movement has still the physical capacity for mass activity.

But West Germany is, in a sense, an extreme form of an advanced capitalist state. The West German working class movement was destroyed by the Nazis and then recreated after the war by the allies in the form they wished, without any mass initiative to spoil their work. Further, it was then the beneficiary of the most rapid growth in Europe during the long boom. For almost forty years there was an almost complete absence of independent working class activity, due to the great weakness of German workers. Yet even here the German ruling class has been unable to cut down on fundamental workers’ rights.

The same is even more true for those countries which either did not suffer fascism or whose working class movements were rebuilt under conditions of mass popular initiative. Here, the levels of repression only affect the very fringes of the working class movement. None of the fundamental rights of the working class movement have effectively been taken away. Indeed, where they have been threatened by the state as in Britain with the Conservatives’ Industrial Relations Act they have been defended vigorously which in turn has often led to a heightening of the class struggle.

For the state to take away those rights would involve an enormous defeat for the working class movement both on a political and physical level. Yet there are no signs that the working class in any major western country has suffered such a defeat. In Portugal, where the working class was thrown back furthest, none of the fundamental rights have yet been wrested away. The task of the bourgeoisie in Britain, France or Italy is incomparably harder than in Portugal or West Germany.

But without a level of repression akin to that experienced under fascism, how can the stability of bourgeois rule be safeguarded in a time of deep generalised crisis? After all, the working class in Western Europe is both bigger and better organised today than it was during the 1930s. But then it was found necessary to use the barbarities of fascism and military dictatorship in order to defeat the working class movement. The task will be much harder today.

The second key aspect of the ‘strong state’, that of the ‘ideological offensive’, is open to similar objections as the first. Has the bourgeois media and all other forms of ideological persuasion the power to integrate the mass of the working class into bourgeois society at a time when the material conditions of life of those same workers is in contradiction to the state’s claims? It is undoubtedly true that they have used the revival of terrorism superbly as an excuse to launch an attack on the left. It is also true that in Britain at least there has been a wave of anti-union hysteria whipped up by a virulent press campaign. Finally, it is true that the law has been brought in to bring a kind of bourgeois sanctity to bear in attacks on the working class. But the fact is that this arsenal of ideological weapons is up against formidable obstacles; it is very difficult for the state to persuade workers that they are ‘social partners’ when they can see that society attacking their organisations and living standards.

No state even in the heyday of capitalist expansion could afford to rely on a passive acceptance of the bourgeois order. Each had to utilise certain institutions to channel any potential revolt. Since the second world war especially that instrument has been in almost every advanced liberal democracy the leaders of the traditional workers’ organisations; their parties or, more usually, the trade union bureaucracy. Now it is quite true that these leaders of the working class movement are becoming increasingly integrated into capitalist society. In Britain this has been the trend certainly since 1939 and, arguably, since the formation of a skilled elite at the head of the trade unions. But while this provides the ruling class with a crucial instrument in control over the workers’ movement, (all the more important given the decline of many of the other links between the ruling class and the mass of the population), it is certainly not sufficient. For the role of such leaders is contradictory. They are only useful to the ruling class to the extent that they are able to control the workers’ movement. And to achieve that they must (however partially and timidly) fight for some of their demands. In other words they can never be completely integrated or they will lose their base and thus their usefulness for the ruling class.

The concept of the ‘strong state’ which Mandel and DP counterpose to the liberal state as a different form of class rule, obscures the mechanisms by which the liberal state rules today. It underestimates the repression which has always been involved in the upholding of capital’s rule and it overestimates the political power of the leaders of the mass workers’ organisations. Its political results can be disastrous.

On the one hand, the analysis can lead to a left reformist strategy. Because it artificially distinguishes between the liberal state and the ‘strong state’, it can lead to an overemphasis on the defence of the forms of the present state against authoritarian trends. Of course, this is not to devalue the necessity and usefulness of organising mass civil liberties campaigns. Such work can lead to the involvement of many thousands of people outside the normal circles of the left. But it is important to realise that the attacks on civil liberties are the result of a weakening of the power of the state under the pressures of the economic crisis and increased militancy. The primary job of the left is to increase that weakness by continued mass mobilisation of the oppressed whether it be over economic, political or democratic demands. Where this perspective is lacking or where the left has been unable to mobilise around itself, the danger is that it will instead turn to working inside the state-structures or linking up with other class forces around the defence of the liberal state to the exclusion of the working class’s own interests In short it justifies an alliance of revolutionaries with bourgeois liberals and against the trade unions.

If we look at the Italian left over the last couple of years both of these tendencies can be seen. The behaviour of the new left’s six Members of Parliament has often been criticised for its cautiousness, notably their role in the abortion debate last year. And after the recent resignation of the President of Italy in a blaze of scandal, DP could only call for ‘an honest politician’ at the head of the state. Lotta Continua have also moved in a similar direction when they linked up with the Radical Party, a dynamic but essentially petty-bourgeois civil rights party, to fight a recent series of by-elections. In Italy, at least, the emphasis on the ‘strong state’ has been accompanied by a shift to the right in the political practice of the groups.

The obverse of this rightism is ultra-leftism which has also surfaced, but much more spectacularly. If the state really is being transformed into a new type of class rule using as its key props the trade union leaders, the repressive apparatus and the media, then surely revolutionaries should fight against this threat. It is from this analysis that the Red Brigades start. None of their suicidal objectives have been subscribed to by the left, and in fact they have been quite correctly fought against.

However there are certain aspects of the ‘strong state’ analysis which can in fact support the Red Brigades case. For if the state is in reality achieving its own transformation with the consent of the mass of the population, (and this is what the quoted document of DP states when it talks of the ‘silent majority who desire a repressive order’) then one conclusion would be to take up arms to shock that silent majority out of its passivity, by forcing the state onto the offensive. And if the trade unions are playing a key role in this transformation, then it makes sense to see the unions as being totally integrated into the state. The logic of this could be to completely turn ones back on the existing unions and set up new structures despite the fact that many militants are left inside them. An article in Lotta Continua in December 1978, reported the setting up of a new trade union by DP members and others, in Campobasso, in the south of Italy. This was presumably against the strategy of DP, but nevertheless it shows the ultra-leftist dangers that can arise from DP’s analysis.

The final danger is that in using the concept of the ‘strong state’, people actually believe what you say and see the state as a monolithic block, far more stable and far more intimidating to those who oppose it. Yet the authoritarian developments within the state are precisely a result of the weakening of the previous means of control. The working class, faced with attacks in their living standards and organisations, have been forced into struggle since 1968 in every European country. In that fight certain of the ideas which bound them to the ruling order have been dented. The number of revolutionaries within the workplace is far, far higher than it was ten years ago; more importantly millions of workers are forced to come into conflict with the state institutions in order to win their economic or political demands. In those struggles, however partial or defensive as most of them are, the working class is constantly having to develop new forms of organisation and makes it far more receptive to the arguments of the left.

The ‘Strong State’ is not strong, it is the state’s response to its own ideological and political weakness. As Mandel himself says “The strengthening of the State in late capitalism is thus an expression of capital’s attempt to overcome its increasingly explosive inner contradictions, and at the same time an expression of the necessary failure of this attempt.”

The concept of the ‘Strong State’ is not a useful one in analysing the trends within the modern state. It is ahistorical and obscures the mechanisms under which the bourgeoisie rule today. Its adoption can lead to very real dangers and diversions from the real tasks facing revolutionaries.

But having said that it will certainly be necessary to analyse the changes in the modern state towards an increasingly authoritarian regime. We will need to begin with the understanding that nowhere in Western Europe has there been a qualitative change in the state, and that instead what we have seen over the last ten years is an acute social crisis, marked by a series of major class struggles, but where neither the bourgeoisie nor the working class have suffered a decisive defeat. We shall take up these points in future contributions to International Socialism.

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