Sunday, December 20, 2015

What is the State? (1950)

From the July 1950 issue of the Socialist Standard

THE state, said Kant, is the outcome of reason. The state, said Hegel, is the realization of moral principles and concrete freedom. “I am the state,” announced Louis the fourteenth of France. The modem echo of this by the Fabians might well be “We are the state.”

Perhaps the most fashionable theory of the state, extant, tends to see it as an institution established in the interests of society as a whole, its purpose being to arbitrate on and reconcile conflicting interests which themselves are a result of social existence. The state on this view assumes an above the battle impartiality in maintaining social stability. Such a view might superficially seem to fit in with a considerable body of observed fact and in line with present day political tendencies.

The weakness of this viewpoint lies in the fact that it is generally tacitly accepted that the present system of property relations is given, and, apart from minor modifications, is in essentials unalterable. In this way it avoids the question of asking how did a particular class system come into being and contents itself with investigating how conflicting social groups adjust their differences and disputes. It then deduces that the state is the only social institution which can perform this function for the benefit of society in general.

The class structure of a given society is not however a natural or ordained order of things. As Marx showed in his historical studies there have been other class systems each with a form of state corresponding to its particular method of production.

The chattel slave empires of Egypt, Babylon Greece and Rome, all had a form of state suitable for the requirements of a slave society. Feudalism proper, i.e. the evolution of the warrior chief to the lord of the manor was a social and political Unit. Political authority was vested in the hands of the few, being as it was, an authoritarian productive system based on serfdom. Such a system produced its organizational counterpart in religion (the Roman Catholic Church), the family and education. What can be deduced as a general proposition from any set of private property relations is that the privileged class were the owners of the means of production and whose social well being depends on a class who work but are non-owners.

But not only have there been different forms of the state there have been societies without states. In primitive tribalism for instance there was the right of all to free access to the common wealth of the tribe. Consequently no contending groups could exist. Neither was it possible for a coercive authority to exist, to guarantee and perpetuate the properly rights of a privileged few.

As a result of productive development, e.g., the domestication of animals, the knowledge and use of agriculture, the discovery of iron, man was able to produce a surplus over and above the bare needs of the tribe. The notion of personal appropriation, i.e. the idea of private property began to evolve. Under the impact of new economic forces the old communal ties and loyalties of early society began to break down. Society became cleft into social groups with antagonistic economic interests. From the elected tribal chief and early patnarchalism evolved an institution whose function it was to protect and sanction property rights and yet prevent these antagonisms from developing into social disruption.

The state is not then logically prior to society as Hegel contended not as Burke, the founder of modern political conservatism, held, part of a divine moral order. Society is not the outcome of some metaphysical principle called the state but the state itself is the product of social development.

The state comes then, to exercise a sovereign power. Not only does it control the administrative and legal machinery but its control over the armed forces of the community provides the physical means upon which all social authority finally rests.

Private property is not however merely the ownership of things but is rooted in the social relations of men. Property rights give the owners of the productive resources not only freedom from labour but the power to control and dispose of the labour of others.

The state, so far from being the outcome of political reason, is not even the third man in the social ring of contending classes. The function of the state is not then to impose an agreement on all classes in the interests of society as a whole but to impose an agreement on the subject class for the continuance of a condition of affairs not in line with its own interests. The state is not then the sublimation of social differences but the expression of irreconcilable class antagonism The state will exist as long as classes exist.

The historic mission of a subject class, if economic development in the old social set-up is favourable to its advancement, is to capture political power and fashion the state in accordance with its own class interests, based upon a new method of production. Today the working class is the subject class. It is the only class therefore that has an interest in expanding the productive forces and regulating them on the lines of its own interests. But its position of economic servitude cannot be changed without revolutionizing the productive relations which make servitude indispensable for the continuance of a privileged class. A new set of social productive relations becomes necessary based upon free access by all to the means of living. This alone provides the social basis on which the free development of one is a condition for the free development of all.

The working class, like all subject classes must gain political power in order to make effective its own claims. But the working class is in historic order the last subject class. In abolishing itself as a working class it abolishes all classes. With the disappearance of classes the state disappears and gives way to an administration of affairs.

If we accepted the non-Marxist view that the state is an institution which allows all classes a participation in state power, then the real struggle between classes would be located, not in society, but in the state itself. It follows then that the non-privileged section of the community would use such power to try and arrange a set of conditions favourable to itself. In such circumstances there would only result internecine strife and complete social instability. It is only the Marxist view of the state which can explain not only the degree of permanence of a given social order but guarantees the possibility of continuous development.

From the Marxist view of the state it can be empirically demonstrated how economics, politics and the class struggle tie in with each other. For instance in the early 19th century capitalism, the unrestrained character of exploitation would have led to a catastrophic decline in workers' productivity and consequently, profits. The state power, because it aims at preserving the interests of the capitalist class as a whole, was forced at length to intervene with factory legislation on the length of the working day, even though it ran counter to the immediate advantage of certain sections of the capitalist class.

Also the fierce class resistance of the workers against this crippling exploitation was a powerful factor in forcing concessions via state agency, because such resistance threatened the stability of a profit-making society. Moreover the fight for the repeal of the corn-laws by the industrial capitalists, i.e. the import cheaper agricultural produce and the consequent cheapening of the price of labour power, compelled them to a change of front towards the workers. They promised them not only the ten-hour bill but a double sized loaf.

After the repealing of the corn-laws, the workers found support for their claims from the Tories, smarting as they were under the loss of certain economic advantages. State intervention favourable to the workers thus received support from the two great political parties as the result of the rivalry between landowner and free-trade capitalist.

As the result of technical development, more expensive and complicated machinery came into use. It thus became necessary to have a more educated worker. Education acts were introduced to give workers’ children the training necessary for a wage labour status and also to imbue a sense of responsibility and even concern for their masters’ property. Board of Trade regulations for the safer running of machines became necessary and with them, of course, workmens’ compensation acts. With the growth of wide-spread poverty and destitution caused by the economic effects of capitalism. the state was compelled eventually to legislate on health insurance acts, old age pensions and unemployment insurance. State activity regularizes and normalizes the exploitation of the vast majority. The state is concerned then not with the limitation of capitalist property but with its protection.

It can now be seen why socialism cannot be achieved through piece meal reforms. Reforms may modify the workings of capitalism but they never threaten its social structure.

The development of capitalism also compels the state to acquire an ever increasing number of economic functions. Certain monopolistic growths in capitalism come into conflict with the interests of the capitalist class as a whole. For instance, monopolistic practices in such spheres as transport, gas. electric power, constitute a threat to the majority of capitalist enterprises which use them. State intervention becomes necessary to curb such abuses in the interests of the capitalist class as a whole. The purpose of political controls is to ensure as far as possible the smooth running of various branches of capitalist production; to ease friction between the various sections of the capitalist class; to regularize and spread over some part of the capital resources of the ruling class in the main field of capitalist production.

The growth of Imperialism also integrates the political functions of the state with the economic functions of capitalism, i.e. the need for military protection in defence of the interests of its nationals. As the late Joseph Chamberlain once put it: “All the great offices of state are occupied with commercial affairs. The Foreign Office and the Colonial Office are chiefly engaged in finding new markets and defending old ones. The War Office and the Admiralty are mostly occupied in preparation for the defence of these markets, and for the protection of our commerce.”

It is not then, the programmes and policies of political parties which determine the basis of state activity but state activity which, in order to try and solve problems, posed by the development of capitalism itself, forces these programmes upon them. That is why the main burden of the party which comes to power is to implement and supplement the work of the retiring government. The only difference between them is how far the state should intervene in the economic functions of capitalism. Even in this respect, if we take as significant some of the recent statements of Labour spokesmen on the desirability of removing as quickly as conditions permit, certain controls; their admission of the limitations of nationalisation and the necessity for a large and efficient private sector in industry, then even such superficial differences look like being whittled down to vanishing point. It must be realized that such alleged differences between Conservative and Labour parties serve as a convenient ideological basis for ostensible political rivalry. The Labour party see the state, not as an instrument of class domination, but as a neutral social agency which can be used by different people for different ends. For them it is not what the state is but who runs the state which is crucial. On this view the state can be used in the interests of the non privileged class, just as, in other hands it can be used for the benefit of the privileged class.

Such a party, which seeks to become a mass party based upon popular reforms, faces an impossible task. In t'te first place its activity is limited by supporters who do not want to effect a real change but only to change certain effects. To attempt to go beyond this limited outlook would not only lose them actual support but scare potential followers away. It aimed at becoming the governmental power and at the same time to hold itself free from the taint of capitalist influences. It proposed to administrate capitalism and in addition to reduce the capitalist class to economic impotence or at best to allow them to exist only on sufferance until such time as they could be disposed of. Having agreed to accept capitalism even if only temporarily as they fondly hope, they arc forced to work with it and for it. From that moment they are engulfed in the economic processes of capitalist society. To attempt to extricate themselves from such a position would not only be disastrous for them as a party administrating capitalism, but impossible.

Such a party of course inevitably attracts the politically ambitious. Political trading based upon the attaining of political advantages becomes the rule rather than the exception. In this way it comes to accept all the rules of the political game and ends up by becoming respectable.

Reform parties under capitalism are necessary because capitalism is a reformist system par excellence. From the far-off days of the 19th century on to Chartism, the New Liberals, the New Tories, on to the Labour Party, Popular Front and the New Deal, capitalism has reformed itself again and again. Yet the more it is reformed and threatened with further reforms the more securely does it establish itself. Only the socialist realises that the great destroyer of capitalism is the inner contradictions of capitalism itself. "The greatest barrier to capital is capital itself."

It is this lack of understanding of the nature of capitalist society and the role of the state which allowed idealists of the Labour Party to indulge in a social dream world. Believing they could reform capitalism piece-meal and peacefully in the interest of the majority, they abstracted in their minds from capitalism all the features which make it capitalism.
Ted Wilmott

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