Power – The Fundamental Question of the State in Capitalist Society

At the heart of the many vexed questions which divide the working class groping towards a comprehension of the conditions it faces, and the many political expressions which vie for influence and leadership of the class struggle, is the analysis of political power both under capitalism and beyond. The clarity achieved by the leading theoretical founders of the communist movement, Marx and Engels, still remains as the only basis upon which to examine this topic and can be summed up in almost a word by Marx “...the state is an instrument for the suppression of the working class nothing else!” As in so many areas, the bright light cast by Marx and Engels proved far too much of a scandalous truth for generations of mealy mouthed reformists and revolutionaries in name only who were unable to grasp the sharply accurate sentence cast by authentic revolutionaries upon the capitalist State and only succeeded in providing further layers of confusion and mystification to cover up the blatantly anti-working class nature of power in capitalist society. It is quite remarkable that the original 19th century judgements of Marx and Engels have stood the test of time and correspond directly to our own crisis-racked historical moment.

On the many occasions that the problem of the capitalist State and the process of revolution were considered by Marx and Engels, the conclusion remained the same. The capitalist state was (and is) an instrument of class oppression, not a neutral body which could be used by the working class to implement a new social formation; “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”. In a letter to Kugelman, for example, Marx writes, “If you look at the last chapter of my Eighteenth Brumaire, you will find that I declare that the next attempt of the French Revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to the other, but to smash it and this is the preliminary precondition for every real people’s revolution.”

However for those of us who have explored the political spectrum in search of an organisational home in which to contribute to capitalism’s demise, it is quite obvious that the Marxist perspective has been largely abandoned by the plethora of parties, groups, tendencies and organisations claiming to stand in the socialist tradition. Again and again we are presented with rehashes of electoral parties and alliances who apparently aim to nationalise the most important sectors of the economy, take over the banks et cetera, endlessly reproducing “many old and antiquated notions that have been fished out of the dustbin of history – unscientific and utopian ideas that were long ago answered by Marx, Engels and Lenin, ideas that belong to the prehistory of the workers' movement. These old and tired ideas of pre-Marxian, utopian socialism have been dusted down and presented as 21st Century Socialism. And there are even some simple souls who take this seriously.”(1) As well as variants on the theme of voting in this or that party to liquidate capitalism through parliament we also find the old theme of voting in the Social Democratic/Labour parties and applying working class pressure upon them to apply socialist measures. Apparently radical revolutionary outfits can quote chapter and verse of Marx, yet still conclude that electing Labour to a parliamentary majority is a viable solution: "We have not yet convinced you of the need for revolution? Very well. Let us at least agree that we have to fight against the bosses and their government. Let us by all means fight together for the election of a Labour government. But that is not enough. A Labour government must carry out policies in the interests of the working class. How can they do that, when the banks and monopolies are in the hands of our enemies? How do we deal with that? Once elected, Labour must take emergency action to solve unemployment, homelessness and all the other problems. They must immediately pass an Enabling Act to nationalise the banks and monopolies.”(2)

If the arguments in favour of parliamentary democracy wrapped in pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric hardly manage to seduce anyone, revolutionaries must also remember that historical materialism, our method of interpreting the unfolding reality can never be a simple restatement of the positions of the past, an invariant suspension of time which requires nothing more than presentation to the working class of the texts of the “old masters”. We must strive to demonstrate that the theoretical conquests made in the past are valid now, to enrich and elaborate them. When Lenin wrote “Bourgeois democracy, although a great historical advance in comparison with mediaevalism, always remains [...] restricted, truncated, false and hypocritical and a snare and a deception for the exploited and the poor”, he could have been directly commenting about the resources made available to the parties whose ideological line directly favours the wealthy minorities who provide such resources. The figures released by the Electoral Commission show the millions of pounds donated by the wealthy and the trade unions whose bloated bureaucrats have every interest in maintaining an economic system which perpetuates their privilege at our expense. The Financial Times informs us that donations to all parties in the first three months of 2009 totalled over £9 million, with the Tories doing best of all with £4.3 million including “a £1.1 million donation from Stanley Fink, often referred to as the 'godfather' of the British hedge fund industry."(3) What more blatant example of the Marxist line that the class which wields economic power also wields ideological domination? What does this say about the liberal arguments about the wonders of democracy, its impartiality and its fairness? Money talks is an old saying, and this is an excellent illustration of that fact. Not that any of this is totally new. The same FT article goes on to say that the previous quarter saw even greater donations to the Tory party of £5.1 million. The massive resources which the capitalist parties command ensure they have their hands on the reins of power. The hollow illusion of democracy is yet another example of the primacy of economic power, the real source of power in this and every other historical class-divided social formation. Just as Marx described, the modern State is the present day instrument of class domination which grew out of absolute monarchy, not an impartial power standing outside of sordid material interests impartially representing all citizens.

"The centralized state power, with its ubiquitous organs of standing army, police, bureaucracy, clergy, and judicature – organs wrought after the plan of a systematic and hierarchic division of labour –originates from the days of absolute monarchy, serving nascent middle class society as a mighty weapon in its struggle against feudalism. [...] At the same pace at which the progress of modern industry developed, widened, intensified the class antagonism between capital and labour, the state power assumed more and more the character of the national power of capital over labour, of a public force organized for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism."(4)

Our analysis of the State has tremendous repercussions for our political positions in many areas and separates us from the left-wing of capital which, often presenting itself under the guise of the socialist label, poses no threat to the existence of capitalism, rather it seeks to secure its continued existence through a series of measures often involving state funding in order to procure social stability and the conditions for optimal profiteering. Unlike this so-called left and the trade unions which call on workers to support calls for nationalisation or to combat the spread of privatisation, to engage in electoral politics in order to propel those critical of the free market and private enterprise into power, we have no illusions that State control of productive forces is in any way advantageous to the working class. Public sector workers are particularly targeted by this sort of propaganda. They are exhorted by the unions to identify with their exploiters “for the common good” and to stand up for public ownership. Workers are divided between public and private sector and the media stokes up antagonism between them, an obvious tactic to create cracks in the working class unity which the capitalist class fears. Public ownership is depicted as somehow opposing capitalism even when it involves greater levels of exploitation. All of this directly relates to the historical defeat of the workers’ movement whereby the industries taken into public ownership became the vehicle for the privileged position of State bureaucrats. Public ownership does not at all do away with the capitalist relationship. The fact that the right wing of capital contributes to this illusion by presenting enlarged state involvement in economic affairs as “socialist” further fuels this dangerous trap; workers can only suffer if they allow themselves to be involved in ruling class disputes about the extent of state run capitalism and market freedom. Neither direction contributes to working class freedom from wage labour, from its position of estrangement from the decision making process regarding production, in short from its slavery to the capitalist class which can derive its position of power by direct ownership of industry, or through the State bureaucracy.

“We make our history ourselves, but, in the first place, under very definite assumptions and conditions. Among these the economic ones are ultimately decisive."(5) The class which dominates economically is able to dominate mentally, either through direct private ownership of the channels of communication, or by indirect ownership of the State’s tremendous arsenal of influence, parliament, education etc., through political parties reliant on the funding of those whose material conditions depend on the prolonged existence of capitalism. This is the obvious fact which negates any claim to legitimacy for capitalist democracy. Behind the illusion of pluralism and free competition between a multiplicity of political perspectives stands the unchallenged allegiance to the capitalist mode of production which all parliamentary parties must profess in order to receive the material support necessary to have an impact in the electoral process. Although no individual capitalist or sector has overall control, the interests of the capitalist class as a whole are served. It is precisely our adherence to the Marxist analysis of the capitalist state which prevents us from endorsing any of its variants. The internal disputes of the ruling class over the management of the capitalist process, particularly how to tackle the effects of the current crisis phase, disagreements over the degree of interference in market mechanisms, immigration controls, taxation levels, welfare spending and the like in no way represent a threat to the continued existence of the capitalist social relationship of class division which the working class can utilise to its own advantage. When this or that capitalist political outfit presents its plans for greater State expenditure, regardless of dressing up its rhetoric in the guise of (democratic) socialism, the issue at stake is only that of how to best serve and preserve capitalism, how to provide an infrastructure which will best serve the profit seekers and combat the inevitable negative effects of the capitalist process which left to their own devices unleash the most desperate levels of misery on the proletariat and the ensuing social breakdown which threatens the conditions for profiteering. In no way is the real antagonism addressed; the wage labour and capital relationship which is the motor producing deprivation and privilege at its poles. The State may well appear to act on behalf of the deprived, mitigating the worst effects of unemployment with benefits, carer’s allowances, disability payments and the like. Now and again this or that capitalist may fall foul of the Law and face sanction, but all of this only serves to maintain the basic framework of capitalist society. Give a little, take a lot, buy cheap, sell dear. Such is capitalism.

However, even this limited attempt to dampen the class struggle through softening the worst excesses of the capitalist process comes up against the limits of the logic of profiteering, and as contemporary conditions demonstrate with ever more force, the contradictions of capitalism are beyond the power of the capitalist State to contain. Whether one considers the global proletariat or that of the metropoles only, the same process is unfolding, a war of attrition against our conditions of life, incremented exploitation, unemployment, pension cuts in a futile bid to maintain the profitability of capital.

In the face of this insoluble crisis the working class must take a sword to the entire system, reject all the ideological traps and face the fact that it has no friends amongst the multifaceted political spectrum who are merely hydra’s heads attached to a single capitalist body. It has to recognise the need to set up its own class dictatorship outside of the capitalist dictatorship posing as democracy, and it in that structure that our Revolutionary Party seeks to work, not in the rotten world of the capitalist political arena which like all other aspects of capitalist society is a game played for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many, where sordid material interest are wrapped in a hypocritical veil of equality and fairness which can never be realised in capitalist society.

(1) Alan Woods, Reformism or Revolution. Yet the Trotskyist author of these accurate words belongs to the organisation quoted in the next footnote, the International Marxist Tendency, which encourages the working class to vote for the Labour Party and apply pressure upon it to realise "policies in the interests of the working class."

(2) marxist.com

(3) Financial Times 2009 No: 37, 012

(4) Marx, The Civil War in France

(5) Engels to J. Bloch in Konisberg

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