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International Socialism, Spring 1980


Marcel van der Linden

The relative independence
of the bourgeois state apparatus

From International Socialism 2 : 8, Spring 1980, pp. 124–28.
The author of this article, Marcel van der Linden, is a member of the Political Bureau
of the International Communist League (IKB), Dutch Section of the Fourth International.
The article has been translated from German by Mary Phillips.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott, with thanks to the Lipman-Miliband Trust.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Some time ago in this magazine Tim Potter criticised the thesis of a ‘strong state’, which is represented in different forms by the Italian group Democrazia Proletaria and some spokesmen of the Fourth International (IS 2 : 4, Spring 1979). Potter did, I believe, raise a couple of important questions, but at the same time he overlooked an essential aspect of the development of bourgeois state apparatuses.

Historically it can be seen that at least under the conditions of feudal absolutism the state apparatus had a decisive significance as the midwife of emerging capitalism. But in the period of the operation and full expansion of capitalism it is reduced to the function of guaranteeing capitalist relations and the general external conditions of capitalist production. Finally it attains an ever more decisive significance as an apparatus of violence, internally and externally, and as an ‘economic’ force, i.e. drawn directly into the process of reproduction, with the sharpening of the contradictions in the process of capitalist development.

The liberal phase of bourgeois society, with a state bureaucracy which was weakly developed in comparison – even if differently from country to country – and a parliamentarianism which functioned more or less without friction, was only an episode from this standpoint. The development to the modern interventionist state is to be understood as the evolution of a form peculiar to the capitalist system, where the contradiction between growing socialisation of production and private appropriation can be temporarily removed. This indicates that an analysis of concrete state functions has to be applied to the development of class relations and class struggles – brought about by changes in the economic basis – and the resultant conditions for ensuring the political rule of the bourgeoisie. [1]

Here it is important to note that the bourgeois state is not a ‘real thing’, but is an ‘ideal collective capitalist’. Competing individual capitals can only formulate their political interests, which are directed towards the state apparatus, on the basis of specific conditions of valorisation, which are not identical with those of capital as a whole – apart from a common interest in the subjugation of the working class. Therefore no ‘politics of capital’ as a whole can be distilled out of a successful coordination and harmonisation of these interests. Measures for guaranteeing the conditions of reproduction of capital as a whole must therefore usually be forced through against the resistance of many or all individual capitals – e.g. protection of the workforce from being ruined physically or mentally, preservation of the natural foundations of production etc. Conversely, pursuing individual capitalist interests to excess can have considerable negative effects for the process of reproduction of capital as a whole. Under these conditions producing the preconditions for this reproduction becomes central.

To fulfil its functions the bourgeois state must be relatively independent, in its relationship to the masses as well as in its relationship to individual capitals. Securing capital reproduction also always means securing bourgeois rule. That means that the acceptance by the masses of bourgeois politics, the possibility of declaring them to be in ‘the general interest’ and so keeping the class struggle in abeyance, must be advanced politically all the time. The apparatus and its upholders must be accepted by the masses, or at any rate not actively opposed by them. The direct interest of the political system in preserving ‘mass loyalty’, ‘agreement’ or at least relative political apathy, forces it to develop permanent strategies for stabilising the process of accumulation. This forms a basic political precondition for the state apparatus being able to proceed against the limited interests of individual capitals.

State measures for compensating for the negative side effects of the capitalist process of valorisation and accumulation are fraught with conflict: regeneration of labour power, ‘restoration’, ‘protection of the environment’, etc. Thus the agents of the political system are forced to develop strategies concerned with the process of reproduction of capital as a whole, which can no longer be only ad hoc reactions in the face of the advancing socialisation of production and the complexity of social areas of conflict bound up with it. They must must contain elements of systematic ‘crisis management’ and ‘crisis prevention’.

Here they necessarily come into collision with the narrow interests of individual capitals and, faced with the resulting conflicts within the state apparatus, fall into problems which can only be endured by manoeuvring, manipulation and ‘muddling through’.

Taken as a whole, the dilemma of the state apparatus lies in the fact that on the basis of mass needs, actually or potentially articulated, and layers of conflict, it must carry out measures to stabilise the system which is in at least partial collision with individual capitals. These measures are already deformed and restricted in their scope by the dictates of the process of valorisation. The agents of the political apparatus, party leaderships, bureaucrats etc. can only be interested in the preservation of the relations of bourgeois rule as their own base. So they must operate permanently with mass needs which at the same time they can never satisfy, i.e. mass needs must be taken into account, even mobilised if necessary; but at the same time everything must be done to keep them within the bounds drawn by the dictates of the process of capital valorisation and the maintenance of bourgeois rule.

This means that crisis management does not solve the crises resulting from the contradictions of the process of valorisation and accumulation, but at best covers them up from time to time, postpones them and changes their form of expression.

Thus state measures are carried out in an extremely precarious balancing act of forces diverging in many ways. The guaranteeing of the general conditions of capital reproduction is put into question in three ways here:

  1. Through the structural inability of the political apparatus to conceive of or indeed realise a consistent and longer lasting ‘system of politics’ – resulting from the anarchy of capitalist production of goods.
  2. Through the permanent counter-strategies of individual capitals pursuing their own interests. These counterstrategies become more meaningful the more there evolve on the one hand involved ‘state-monopoly’ complexes between state apparatus and individual capitals and on the other hand ‘multinational’ blocs of capital.
  3. Through consideration of mass needs, which does not function if the built-in mechanisms of channeling, selection and particularisation fail. This is especially the case when demands no longer remain limited to partial ‘issues’, but are directed to the simultaneous solution of overlapping problems.

So the state apparatus and its upholders must continually put a check on ‘non-functional’ forms of expression of the forces on which they lean 6ndash; through particularisation, channeling, diversion, postponement and manipulative diffusion of problems and their causes, or through making illegal and violently repressing above all where the limits of the system are broken through or where the process of valorisation of capital is directly called into question.

The actual progress of this political process and its conjunction of power, influence and interest are determined by specific historical conditions like the level capital accumulation and the expansion of the productive forces have reached, the structure of the world market, the level of organisation and political strength of the working class and modified by a large number of historically contingent factors (like e.g. the character of the party system).

In this process, independently of the motives of the political actors taking part, there takes place what can be called ‘guaranteeing the general conditions for reproduction of capital’, but what in reality represents a conglomeration of regulating, repairing, mobilising and repressive measures, with a fundamentally indeterminate long-term effect for the process of reproduction, in short by ‘muddling through’.

The crisis is the decisive vehicle for carrying out ‘administrative measures for securing the system’. In the political apparatus of bourgeois society general and fundamental conditions of reproduction basically only become political ‘issues’ when they are not fulfilled, in other words as crises.

The forces which are necessary for the political execution of strategies for stabilisation directed against the interests of some or many individual capitals are mobilised through arguments and fights which break out and are sharpened in open crisis, between the different groupings and ‘factions’ of individual capitals as well as between classes.

As historical experience has confirmed repeatedly, the economic and social crisis is shown as the factor which makes possible as well as confirming institutional processes of adaptation in the state apparatus necessary for reproduction, the new definition of political ‘priorities’ and the introduction of measures for the administratively mediated reorganisation of the conditions of production and valorisation. In essence critical stoppages in the process of accumulation have appeared or are looming, which tend to draw in their wake incisive changes in the political system.

If we proceed from the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and the tendency to international sharpening of the competition of capital and class struggles forcing the ‘counteracting’, administratively mediated reorganisation of the conditions of production and valorisation to accelerate more and more, here lies an important reason for a tendency for the relative independence of the state apparatus to increase.

This puts it in a position to come into massive conflict with individual groups of capitals under conditions of strengthened world market competition and at the same time to counteract the wishes and interests of the population which do not conform to valorisation.

This relative independence has different aspects. From the economic standpoint three factors are important above all.

‘First, the continuous proletarianization of the population as capital spreads its influence to all sectors of the economy ... This trend towards a common proletarian status, whatever the income differentials and despite the high absolute living standards especially of certain salaried workers, has important consequences especially in the field of welfare provision. For the security provided by family production and the possession of a minimum quantum of means of production is no longer present ... Second, the quality of labour power must necessarily be raised in all capitalist economies to match the increased sophistication of production and of its attendant social processes ... Lastly, the urbanization process is, in the capitalist epoch, a major consequence of the tendencies to capital accumulation and concentration. In all countries conurbations and other urban areas (including their suburbs) continue to grow, while regional and sub-regional areas expand and contract in an uneven way. This historic process has major implications for state intervention. It necessitates on the one hand state physical planning: land use, town and country planning, regional programmes, etc.; and on the other hand a rapid growth in infrastructural investment ...’ [2]

From the political standpoint we see, as is well known, the tendency for power to shift from parliament to the executive, which is caused by the entry of the representatives of working class parties as well as by the necessarily increasing independence of the states towards individual capitals. Insofar as the directly repressive departments of the state are concerned, here there is a double development.

On the one hand there is always a need and a potential for violence, whereby the spectrum of instruments ranges from the ‘normal’ possibilities for repression through police via special troops for combating urban guerrillas and the like, up to the army as the instrument of civil war. The transition between the different areas is more and more fluid.

On the other hand the strength of the different instruments of repression also increases. Thus for example the number of inhabitants to each police officer in all the important capitalist countries has been decreasing for a long time.

All these developments make a lengthy development clear: the tendency to the relative independence of the state apparatus is at the same time a tendency for the strengthening of this apparatus. [3] But this tendency is not following through in a straight line. The labour movement and other opposing forces can hinder the development or even partially reverse it. Even so, the state, for the structural reasons already given, will always – especially in critical periods – work towards its strengthening and further independence.

Now we come to the question of whether it is right to define this tendency as a development in the direction towards a strong state. Tim Potter is right when he writes that it is more natural to conceive of the ‘strong state’ as a new bourgeois state form, i.e. as ‘a stable instrument for class rule in the same way that bourgeois democracy, fascism, military dictatorship and, to a lesser extent, bonapartism were’.

A similar interpretation is in fact sometimes suggested by spokesmen of the Fourth International [4], although in my opinion it is incorrect. The tendency for the state apparatus to become more independent and also stronger is taking place in all bourgeois state forms of advanced capitalist countries, whether they are bourgeois-liberal or something else. A certain amount of independence and strength is unalterable in every late-capitalist state.

Perhaps, if it wouldn’t lead to new semantic difficulties it could be formulated thus: in the advanced capitalist countries a sort of permanent pre-Bonapartisism is vitally necessary. [5]

For that reason it is misleading when Potter writes that the situation in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s is comparable with today’s: in its manifestations it may perhaps be so, but in essence it is certainly wrong. Before the Second World War the strengthening of the power of the state apparatus was incidental and limited to a relatively short space of time, now this strengthening has become – at least in part – structural and permanent.


1. Here I am basing myself on the works of Joachim Hirsch, Zur Analyse des politischen Systems, Gesellschaft 1 (1974), pp. 78–131 and Statesapparat und Reproduktion des Kapitals, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt 1974, pp. 49–74 and 217–273.

2. Ian Gough, State Expenditure in Advanced Capitalism, New Left Review 92 (1975), p.67.

3. Compare Rudiger Pusch, Die Totalisierung der Gewalt, in Albrecht among others, Anti-Wehrkunde, Luchterhand Verlag, Darmstadt/Neuwied 1975, pp. 127–167. Today’s spectacular extension of, for example, the West German apparatus of repression is not something incidental, but was already prepared in the 50s. See in addition Sebastian Cobler, Die Gefahr geht von den Menschen aus, Rotbuch Verlag, Berlin 1976, pp. 9–16.

4. So, for example, Ernest Mandel in Late Capitalism, New Left Books, London 1975. The concept of the ‘strong state’ – together with the concepts of ‘strong government’ and ‘strong power’ – was already used by Trotsky in a loose form to ‘characterise’ bonapartist and fascist dictators.

From that it already follows how unclear the category of ‘strong state’ has been since its inception. The regime of De Gaulle was traditionally defined in the Fourth International alternately as ‘Bonapartism’ and as the ‘strong state’. Compare the volume by Brohm among others, Le Gaullisme, etapres? Etat fort et fascisation, Maspero, 1974.

5. The concept of permanent pre-Bonapartism was suggested by Denis Berger in his article De Napoleon le petit aux bonapartes manchots – Remarques sur l’etat et le bonapartisme a notre epoque, Critique Communiste 3 (1975), pp. 3–31.

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