Book Review from the October 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard
Sovereign States or Political Communities? Civil Society and Contemporary Politics. By Darrow Schecter. Manchester University Press. 224 pages.
German philosophy is still alive and, judging by this book, is just as impenetrable as it ever was. Schecter's basic argument is that while Marx was right to see that capitalism is based on the exploitation of wage-labour and right to say that a real democracy – what Schecter calls “a self-governing civil society” – is only possible on the basis of the abolition of both capitalism and the state, Marx was wrong to say that socialism would involve the end of politics.
This is largely a question of definition. Marx thought that socialism would mean the end of politics because he associated politics with the state and of course there would be no state – as a public institution having a monopoly of the means of legitimate violence within a given part of the globe – in socialism. Schecter, basing himself on various 20th century German political philosophers, comes to exactly the opposite conclusion. Defining politics as the disinterested pursuit of the common good, he argues that it cannot co-exist with the state as states are bodies which, besides being influenced by the most powerful interest groups, seek to contain and manage the various conflicts of material interest and competition for money that go on within capitalist society.
Thus, what is called “politics” today is merely competition between rival parties of professional politicians seeking state power on the basis of promising to improve the material position of those who vote for them. This reduces so-called democratic choice to giving electors the chance of saying yes or no every few years to whether an outgoing government should continue in office. Most people realise this and is what they consciously do when they vote, if they bother to vote at all. It also explains why they see politics as marginal to their lives.
Real democracy, says Schecter and we would agree, involves people actively participating in decision-making about general issues; which assumes that meeting their material needs is no longer an issue since these are adequately met by other means – which can only be on the basis of socialism. Which is why a real democracy can only exist in socialism.
Schecter also investigates how such a desirable situation could be brought about. At one time the working class movement – the trade unions, a mass party calling itself socialist – was seen as the instrument of this but now, says Schecter, this movement has accommodated itself to capitalism seeking only better conditions within the system and even being integrated into the state administration of labour and welfare matters. He sees a potential replacement in what have been called the “New Social Movements” – “feminist, peace, ecological, gay rights, indigenous peoples' rights” groups – though only insofar as these pursue politics (in his sense) by seeking to represent, not the sectional interests of their constituencies within the state, but the whole of “civil society” against the state.
Although he realises that these NSMs (as, apparently, we have to call them) are just as liable to accommodate themselves to capitalism and to be co-opted and integrated into the state as the Labour Movement was, he vastly underestimates this. In fact he seems to ignore the extent to which this was essentially all these movements ever wanted and indeed the extent to which it has already happened (women can now become trained killers in the armed forces, open gays can sit as Tory MPs, and in America they've got a black Secretary of State).
What is disappointing (if only because Schecter was for a short while a member of the Socialist Party and so should know better) is that he calls the regimes such as used to exist in Russia “state socialism” rather than state capitalism. He also (p. 52) misquotes Marx. Marx did not write in connection with the 1871 Paris Commune that “the working class cannot lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes”. What he actually wrote was “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machine and wield it for its own purposes” (Address of the General Council of the IWMA on the Civil War in France, 1871, beginning of section 3, in Marx The First International and After, Penguin Books, 1974, p. 206, emphasis added).
In other words, the working class can lay hold of the existing state machine but not “simply”, i. e. it must first change it by, in the occurrence, lopping off its militaristic, bureaucratic and other undemocratic features before wielding it to abolish capitalism thereby making itself redundant.