From International Socialism (1st series), No.77, April 1975, p.31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The State: Its Origin and Function
Proletarian Publishing, £1.25
IN THE First World War, William Paul belonged to that small band of courageous men, ‘the flying corps’ – flying away from the police and military, spreading anti-war propaganda while still evading arrest. Largely due to Paul, The Socialist appeared regularly every month and the SLP maintained cohesion and a sense of direction. Dearly, the authorities would have liked to capture him. Realising he was high on the wanted list, William Paul appears to have asked himself, ‘What would Karl Marx have done in these circumstances?’ He, therefore, took himself off to the British Museum. In those days, the British Museum does not appear to have been one of the haunts of the Special Branch, so Paul was left to complete the book under review without being disturbed.
Veteran Harry McShane, who writes the preface to the present edition, described The State: Its Origin and Function as a ‘neglected classic’. Undoubtedly, this is correct, although Harry exaggerates when he calls it ‘the only solid piece of theory ever to have been done in this country’. Not that I am wanting to decry the book: it has many virtues. First published in 1917, it shows that many of the ideas subsequently thought of as Bolshevik had been developed quite independently in Britain.
William Paul and his comrades realised that the capitalist state could not be gradually transformed into a socialist one, that it had to be smashed, and that to do this it was necessary first to build a revolutionary party. Equally perceptively, he foresaw capitalism, as class conflict grew in intensity would come to rely increasing upon the State. Far from this being a step forward, as many social democrats aver, it would merely add to the exploitation:
‘The desire to control national production, the fear of industrial unrest, and the wish to enforce discipline upon the workers will compel the capitalist class to extend state control. The bureaucrats will only be able to maintain their posts by tyrannising and limiting the freedom of the workers.’
William Paul thought this trend towards state capitalism created fresh problems in the struggle for socialism:
‘Instead of having to overthrow a system buttered by a handful of individual capitalists, the workers will be faced with a gigantic army of state-subsidised officials who will fight like tigers to maintain their status and power.’
Even so, he considered the working class could win. What was required was both political and industrial organisation: a revolutionary party to smash the existing state apparatus while militants in the factories wrested control from the capitalists and put workers’ control in its stead Many of the concepts expounded by William Paul have since become well known. It may appear strange that his book, which helped to popularise these ideas, should have been forgotten. But there are a number of reasons for this. Not written under ideal conditions, in places it reveals the scars of hasty construction. These are particularly noticeable in chapters 10 and 11, dealing with Modern Capitalism and Revolutionary Socialism. While fundamentally correct, they do not go into sufficient detail about the inadequacies of Labour reformism. That only the final couple of chapters deal with the contemporary political scene is an indication that William Paul was writing in the tradition of Engels’ Origin of the Family. He wanted to give a panoramic view, discussing the development of human society from prehistoric times right down to the present day. Certainly, this was useful. Far too many people wrongly believe society and the state are synonymous; they are not aware that for thousands of years of Mankind’s existence there has been no state in being. Moreover, when in some future age Mankind becomes truly civilised, there will again be no oppressive state apparatus.
Yet, the Engels-Paul approach does have its dangers: both of them wrote books that need modifying in the light of recent research and, more important, it is an approach which presupposes the reader has a bent for history, which many, of course, do not have. Consequently just as more people have learnt about the class nature of the state from reading The Communist Manifesto than The Origin of the Family, so in the subsequent development and expansion of these ideas Lenin’s pamphlet, State and Revolution – simple, direct, incisive – had a greater impact than Paul’s more involved statement of the same case. But this should not be permitted to detract from .the fact that William Paul blazed the trail: his work appeared in English two years before Lenin’s did.
I hope that William Paul’s book is widely read. It deserves to be. Not only does it demonstrate the falsity of historians like Walter Kendall, who claim there was no indigenous revolutionary tradition in Britain and say it was imported from Russia, but also Paul’s work has intrinsic merit. It is far easier and less painful to discover the nature of the capitalist state through reading its pages rather than from a policeman’s truncheon.
P.S. It I may be permitted to add a footnote: Lenin’s State and Revolution, jointly published by the SLP and BSP in 1919, was translated from the Russian by a talented Glasgow engineer, W.P. Lavin, who played a prominent part in the revolt on the Clyde during the First World War. Subsequently, having doubts about whether Russia was a workers’ paradise, Pat Lavin developed ideas along the lines similar to IS. In the 1950s, he contributed to Socialist Review, the precursor to Socialist Worker, before emigrating, I believe, to Australia. Does anyone know what has happened to him? He was one of the great pioneers. R.C.
Last updated: 21.3.2008