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Colin Barker

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The state

(March 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 74, March 1985, pp. 25–26.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE question of the state has been one of the great causes of division in the socialist movement throughout this century. World War One split socialists into reformist and revolutionary wings over the issue of support for capitalist states in their imperialist rivalries. The same question still haunts people calling themselves socialists today: witness the failure of the Labour Party to attack the Tories over the Falklands.

The 1917 Russian Revolution, when a revolutionary workers’ movement destroyed the capitalist state, occasioned an organisational split within world socialism, with the founding of the Third International. In turn, the subsequent degeneration of the Russian Revolution posed issues for socialists directly centring on the state: should they support a ‘socialist’ state which attacked its workers and peasants, depriving them of all control over society? How should the regime of Stalin and his heirs, for whom the safety of the state was the supreme law, be understood? Those who upheld the banner of revolutionary Marxism in the world found themselves splitting again.

The State Illusion

Most people who call themselves socialists are still dominated by the idea that socialism is about expanding the sphere of activity of the state. For them, the key criterion of socialism is the nationalisation of property. The more militant their socialism, they assume, the more they must favour state property. A distinguishing mark of the Labour Left is its avowal of extensive nationalisation.

Similarly, judgements about the ‘socialist’ character of various regimes are based on the degree to which the means of productionare in state ownership. On this issue, Labourites, Stalinists and ‘orthodox Trotskyists’ are in broad agreement.

Surprises in Marx and Engels

Given this apparently widespread agreement among 20th century socialists, it is a refreshing shock to read Marx and Engels on this question. In 1916, Lenin experienced this shock: the young Bolshevik Bukharin had argued that Marxists should aim to destroy the state, a view Lenin associated with anarchism. To defeat Bukharin, Lenin systematically read what Marx and Engels had to say on the question – and discovered how correct Bukharin was. The outcome of his researches was the brilliant pamphlet, The State and Revolution.

Marx and Engels did not identify socialism with nationalisation of property.

Their attitude to the state was one of unremitting hostility. Far from wishing to expand its activities, they sought to do away with it. In 1844, Marx declared that the most useful thing the state could do for society was to commit suicide. The following year, he and Engels declared ‘... if the proletarians wish to assert themselves as individuals, they must overthrow the state.’

Marx celebrated the Paris Commune of 1871 on the grounds that it was ‘a Revolution against the State itself’. And in 1884, Engels looked forward to the day when the state would end its life ‘in the Museum of Antiquities, by the side of the spinning wheel and the bronze axe’. What a pleasant vision: all the pomp and glory of the state, finally reduced to an object for the amusement of children on wet afternoons!

The Nature of the State

A right-wing version of these ideas appears in what passes for Marxism today. What is wrong with the state, it is alleged, is that it supports the ruling class, capitalism and private property. This idea, though not untrue, leaves the door open to all manner of reformist ideas. For if the whole case against the state is that it supports capitalism, the possibility remains that the state can be won to other, socialist purposes. Much of ‘fashionable Marxism’, indeed, turns out to be of this type: at its heart is a deep opposition to smashing the state.

This was not Marx’s view. The problem is not simply that the state is an accessory to capitalism. It is an enemy in its own right; its existence is nothing but a barrier to socialism.

The state is an historical phenomenon. For the overwhelming majority of human history, our species managed without states. The real history of the state, as a specific social institution, is little more than 10,000 years old.

Stateless societies did not lack social regulation; life within them could be orderly, and remarkably affluent. We can begin to grasp how people in these societies managed, they lives if we consider aspects of our own existence that are outside state regulation. In many areas of our social life, we live by our own moral rules. We put pressure on each other to live by these rules: to remember relatives’ birthdays, to ‘stand our round’ in the pub, not to pick our noses in public. If we break these rules, no policeman arrests us, no judge fines or imprisons us. We keep each other ‘in line’ by various forms of moral pressure, including occasional small-scale violence. A lot of the time, we hardly even notice these rules: yet they are the real basis of social order.

Marx defines the state in terms of social relations. Here, the state is an organised body of people with a monopoly of crucial social functions, including that of making and enforcing rules. The state’s very existence necessarily involves the loss, by the majority of society, of the power to govern their own lives. The power of the state equals and parallels the powerlessness of its subjects. The state, which steals the function of government, ‘stands over’ the society it robs.

The emergence of states is associated above all with the development of settled agriculture and the peasant village. The peasantry is one of the two great exploited classes of history, the other is the working class. In both cases, although for different reasons, the state’s continuance rests ultimately on division and powerlessness among the exploited.

Even a casual analysis of states, from ancient Sumeria to the present, reveals immediately that the state everywhere is an exploiter of society. Those who compose the state depend on the direct producers to feed, house and clothe them. The relation of ruler and ruled is also, immediately, a relation of exploiter and exploited. Who says ‘state’ also says exploitation. It is probable that the first form of class society to emerge historically Out of pre-class communal societies was that in which the state itself was the sole ruling class. In later social development, above all with the growth of capitalism, the composition of the ruling class became more complex and divided. But the state remains, in its own right an exploiter, adjusting the forms of its surplus-extraction to the prevailing mode of production.

This aspect of the state is all too often missing from modern ‘Marxist’ accounts of the state. It was taken for granted by Marx and Engels.

Marx insisted that the state is in no sense a sphere of the ‘general interest’. It is a private interest, held as a monopoly against society, and defended by means of violence that are themselves based on exploitation, tax and conscription.

The political implications are of course obvious: those who oppose class exploitation must, necessarily, oppose the state. This is not simply because the state supports exploitation, but because it is itself directly a form of exploitation. Socialists who wish to maintain the existing state are simply not serious.

State Organisation and State Functions

The typical organisational form of the state is bureaucracy, with a centralised power and a hierarchy of state servants: army, police, judiciary, civil servants. Its form is significant: it is organised so that its personnel are dependent for the rules that control their actions on those above them, rather than on the people. It of course needs armed force as part of its structure, to protect its monopoly: no state could survive without its ‘armed bodies of men’.

None of this is to deny that states can and do perform ‘useful functions’ for society. They do, in their fashion, preserve ‘law and order’, redistribute resources within society, provide valuable services from water supply and roads to hospitals. Even if banditry is every state’s real relation to society, it must, to survive, be more than a mere bandit: it must perform services to seem indispensable.

But, always, states exact a price for their services: their own existence. We can find state power lurking behind the very phrases that deny it: ‘equality before the law’, for instance, places us all in a situation of equal powerlessness before the state.

State services – often valuable in themselves – have multiplied within modern capitalist countries, often because workers have fought for them. But every one of them has two crucial features which diminishes its real value: first, they all involve subordination to the state (education, welfare, law); second, they involve the division and atomisation of the population (competition in schools, health and welfare services for individualised ‘patients’ and ‘clients’).

Hence the ambiguity of the ‘victories’ won by workers through nationalisation of industries, or the expansion of state welfare. Class rule has been modified, but in no sense fundamentally challenged.

On the other hand, the fact that the state has been the mechanism through which workers have won significant concessions and improvements in their material and civil rights, is the real basis of the illusions of modern reformism.

The state formulates and maintains rules to maintain its place above society: there are special rules and procedures for making complaints against its officers difficult; there are rules of ‘official’ secrecy; certain offences ‘against the state’ attract the highest punishments; to give voice to the widespread ‘contempt’ people feel for its courts is a punishable matter.


Does modern ‘parliamentary democracy’ give us real control over the state? Hardly. In elections we vote as atomised individuals for representatives over whom we have no subsequent control by way of mandate or right of recall. Compared with the MP, the worst shop steward is the height of democracy! Parliament itself does not rule the whole state. Police, army, judiciary, secret service, civil service (even the DHSS) maintain their areas of ‘autonomy’ from parliamentary scrutiny and control. By far the largest part of the state is not subject to election, nor to direct control by any agency outside itself. This applies to the entire massive ‘executive’ of the state, which includes the army and police branches.

As the tragedy of Chile revealed yet again, the elected, parliamentary element in the rule of the state can be dispensed with by the ruling class if it threatens the class monopoly.

Rosa Luxemburg was correct: those who want to preserve the existing state machinery in the struggle for socialism are not simply arguing for a different road to socialism; they are arguing against socialism itself. The heart of the socialist idea is self-government in every sphere of life, including production. And the state, in its very, essence, is nothing but a series of massive impediments to that self-rule.

In practice, those who defend the ‘parliamentary road’ are, in the most exact meaning of the term, counter-revolutionary. As a long and bitter history in many different countries has shown, they prepare and even organise the defeats of workers’ movements aiming for socialism.

The aim of all those who want working class self-emancipation has to be the destruction of the capitalist state. Its existence is incompatible with the development of socialism.

The struggle for socialism is necessarily revolutionary. It involves a war between two opposed forms of organisation: on one hand, the centuries-old system of state exploitation; on the other, developing counter-institutions, led by workers but embracing all the exploited and oppressed of society, and based on the principles of the most complete democracy possible. Marx first identified these democratic principles in the brief explosion of the Paris Commune in 1871. They have re-appeared time and again in the 20th century, in the workers’ councils that have characterised every genuine revolutionary workers’ movement, from Russia in 1905 to Gdansk in 1980.

The development of socialism will only begin when such democratic organisations as these succeed in unifying their forces to break up the state power, replacing it with their own democratic and popular rule.

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