From the September 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard
The French social democratic writer of the turn of the century, Gabriel Deville, defined the State as “the public power of coercion”. Lenin wrote of it as consisting of “special bodies of armed men which have prisons, etc., at their command”. Others have called it “institutionalised violence”. All these definitions are more or less adequate as they bring out the fact that the State is a social institution whose basic function is coercive: to force members of society to behave in ways they might not otherwise want to, if necessary by the actual exercise of physical force.
Normally it is not the leaders of the “special bodies of armed men” themselves who decide what patterns of behaviour are to be enforced (though in a number of backward capitalist countries military dictatorships are fairly common, exposing the State for what it is). This is decided by others, by the government.
In countries like Russia the government is made up of the leading members of the single political parties that exist in them. Such countries are political dictatorships. In other countries the government is made up either of the leading members of the party, or parties, which have the support of a majority of the members of an assembly elected by universal suffrage (as in Britain) or of men and women appointed, with the approval of an elected assembly, by a President who has himself been elected by universal suffrage (as in America) or by combinations of these two systems (as in France). The important point in all these cases is that those who form the government and thus control the State are elected, either directly or indirectly, by popular vote. In this sense such States can be described as "democratic” (but not in the sense of acting in the interest of a majority of people) or as being political democracies.
There is one feature which all modern States have in common, irrespective of how their governments are chosen: they are instruments of class rule. For society is today divided into two main classes, into those who own and control the means of production (the capitalist class) and those who, excluded from such ownership and control, have to sell their mental and physical energies for a wage or salary in order to live (the working class). The basic function of the State is to maintain this situation of ownership and control of the means of production by a minority class. This is true even of States which, because of the way their governments are chosen, can be called democratic. Such States too are instruments of capitalist class rule and domination, reflecting the fact that the vast majority of the working class accept and support capitalism.
The vast majority of the working class in political dictatorships too accept and support capitalism and in fact in order to survive and function properly States depend on a certain degree of public consent, on people accepting the legitimacy of their coercive role. No government can survive for long in the absence of a minimum degree of such public consent. States, however, have at their disposal powerful means of ensuring acceptance of their legitimacy: the education system and the means of mass communication. Right from the moment a child enters school (quite apart from what he might have learned beforehand from his parents who will have been similarly conditioned) he is taught to be loyal to the State in which he lives. When he grows up and buys newspapers, even those not controlled by the government (as generally they are not in democratic countries), he will read articles — on the sports pages also — which assupie that all citizens of the State form a national community with a common interest. Similarly with the radio and television. Democratic States have an even stronger argument: they can claim that the exercise of State power represents the will of the majority — as in a sense it does, even if it is not exercised in the majority’s interest.
Fortunately such conditioning can never be perfect. For the material conditions of the working class, such as having to work for a wage or salary, having to struggle to defend their standard of living, perpetually having to face problems in the fields of housing, health, education, and so on continually generate discontent and questioning. It was in this way that the idea of an alternative, socialist society arose and how, with the educational and agitational activity of those workers who have already become socialists, it will spread.
Where the State is democratic (in the limited sense we have described) this propagation of Socialist ideas is tolerated and can proceed without too much difficulty. And, when, as a result of their experiences of capitalism combined with having heard the Socialist case, a majority of wage and salary earners have come to want and understand Socialism, then they can use the institutions of the democratic State to win control of political power with a view to abolishing capitalism. In other words, they can win control of the State peacefully without having to have recourse to violence.
That the socialist revolution can be accomplished peacefully is a position the Socialist Party of Great Britain has held since its foundation in 1904. It was a possibility admitted by Marx, though he was not as optimistic as we are about the chances of the peaceful winning of political power not being followed by a “slaveholders’ revolt” on the part of the capitalist class. But then he was writing in the 19th century when political democracy was neither so widespread nor so stable as it has since become in the leading industrial countries of the world. The 1848 Communist Manifesto ended with a declaration that the socialist revolution would be violent. But later, as he had already noted in relation to the Chartists’ demand for universal suffrage, Marx came to realise that political democracy could allow the working class to come to power peacefully and publicly said so in a speech on 8 September 1872 in Amsterdam after the Congress of the First International: "We do not deny that there exist countries like America, England, and if I knew your institutions better I would add Holland, where the workers can achieve their aims by peaceful means” translated from Pages de Karl Marx pour une ethique socialiste, Vol. 2, edited by Maximilien Rubel, p.87).
Marx’s general position has been well summed up as using "the force of the law or the law of force, according to circumstances” to abolish capitalism (Rubel, vol. 2, p.11). Our view is that in modern political conditions (political democracy, the increased proportion of wage-workers in the electorate, the more powerful means of coercion at the disposal of the State) using “the force of the law” is the only practical way. It should be understood that although Socialism can be established without having recourse to violence, “force” will still be used to get the capitalist class to give up its privileges, but it will be the force of the “public power of coercion” democratically exercised by the socialist majority rather than the violence of a popular insurrection.
The idea that violence will have to be used to end capitalism is widely held amongst those who consider themselves “revolutionary socialists”. In their ignorance these people frequently imagine that Marx completely ruled out the peaceful establishment of Socialism and that the distinction between reform and revolution is between those who think capitalism can be abolished peacefully and those who say it must be overthrown by violence. In fact this goes back to Lenin not Marx.
In his State and Revolution written just before the Bolshevik coup d’Etat in 1917, Lenin countered Marx’s argument about the possibility of establishing Socialism peacefully by saying that this may have been so in the liberal era in 1870 but that since that time all States, even Britain, America and Holland, had become militarist and “imperialist”; which according to Lenin meant that the working class could come to control them only by violence.
This argument is not valid. As we have indicated the political changes since 1870 have been in the opposite direction: in favour of using “the force of the law” rather than the “law of force” but this has not stopped many people discontented with aspects of capitalism from imbibing Lenin’s views as “Marxism”.
Most of those who argue from their armchairs in favour of the violent overthrow of capitalism wouldn’t know one end of a rifle from the other let alone how to make a bomb or drive a tank, but what their arguments do is to create an intellectual climate in which the use of violence against the capitalist class and the State is seen as legitimate. So it is not surprising that from time to time a tiny handful of people from Leninist and anarchist circles actually try to use violence against individual capitalists and statesmen. Examples are the Angry Brigade in Britain a few years ago and today the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy.
Individual acts of violence are quite futile as far as advancing the socialist cause is concerned (even if this was the aim of those who practise it, which of course it isn’t). Such “propaganda by the deed”, as the anarchists of the turn of the century used to call it, does not make recruits for Socialism. All it does is to make life more difficult for ordinary workers. In this sense such acts are anti-working class. There are enough problems for wage and salary earners under capitalism without having to impose on them police searches and the fear of being blown up every time they take a train or go for a drink.
We are fully aware that the State is a machine for exercising violence and on a far greater scale than that of any terrorist gang. This is why, when there is a conflict between the State and some terrorist gang, we do not take the side of the State. We are opposed both to the institutionalised violence which is the State as well as to the freelance violence of terrorists. The way to abolish the State is not to take pot shots as it but to organise consciously to win control of it by using the means to hand, — the ballot box. This done, the State along with all the other institutions of class society can be abolished and violence banished for ever from social relations.