Marxism and the State

In a previous post I said that I would be looking at the Marxist view of the State and in this post I will look at some aspects of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ original view.   For them the possibility of socialism was not that it best met some general principles of justice or equality but that it was based on the actual social and political development of the existing capitalist system.  If there were no developments within capitalism that might form a real foundation for achieving the former ideals then these ideals were practically worthless.  The question however is on what developments within capitalism is the potential for socialism based?

It is undoubtedly the case that the state plays a greater and greater role in capitalist society and that as this system has developed so has the role of the state.  That this has been so despite decades of rhetoric by the most ideologically rabid supporters of capitalism against the state ranks as only further proof of its central role.  The state also played a major role in the creation of the capitalist system although its importance may be subject to historical debate.

On this basis the majority of the socialist movement has come to identify socialism with this state either through state ownership, regulation, taxation or state expenditure on ‘public’ services.  In the form of Stalinism it has taken the shape of the most gargantuan forms of state power which has assumed prerogatives in social life that have associated the liberatory content of socialism with the totalitarian nightmares of Orwell’s 1984.

This has nothing to do with Marxism.  In fact the intellectual journey by which the young Marx came to ‘Marxism’ involved an utter and complete opposition to the state, as formulated by the German philosopher Hegel, which Marx carried out through his ‘Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’.  Marx’s view of socialism was not an ideal state which society must seek to achieve but the movement of a class to achieve political power as the means by which to ensure its own and humanity’s social liberation.  Socialism is therefore the movement of the working class to achieve power, not the actions of a state and especially not a capitalist one!

For Marx therefore the active germ of socialism is not expressed under capitalism by the growth of the state but by the growth in the social and political power of the working class, which itself is based on the objective development of the capitalist system.  The growth of the state does not in itself herald the new society because Stalinism has demonstrated that a society based on even the state of a superpower is not a historically viable social formation.

The Marxist view of the increasing role of the state was explained by Engels in relation to his native Germany under the Chancellor Bismarck:

“. . . only when the means of production and distribution have actually outgrown the form of management by joint-stock companies, and when, therefore, the taking them over by the State has become economically inevitable, only then — even if it is the State of today that effects this — is there an economic advance, the attainment of another step preliminary to the taking over of all productive forces by society itself. But of late, since Bismarck went in for State-ownership of industrial establishments, a kind of spurious Socialism has arisen, degenerating, now and again, into something of flunkyism, that without more ado declares all State-ownership, even of the Bismarkian sort, to be socialistic. Certainly, if the taking over by the State of the tobacco industry is socialistic, then Napoleon and Metternich must be numbered among the founders of Socialism.

If the Belgian State, for quite ordinary political and financial reasons, itself constructed its chief railway lines; if Bismarck, not under any economic compulsion, took over for the State the chief Prussian lines, simply to be the better able to have them in hand in case of war, to bring up the railway employees as voting cattle for the Government, and especially to create for himself a new source of income independent of parliamentary votes — this was, in no sense, a socialistic measure, directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously. Otherwise, the Royal Maritime Company, the Royal porcelain manufacture, and even the regimental tailor of the army would also be socialistic institutions, or even, as was seriously proposed by a sly dog in Frederick William III’s reign, the taking over by the State of the brothels.”

In the development of capitalism increased socialisation of production that anticipates and presages socialism is reflected in the increased role of the state and in this sense only is it progressive in that it signals the development of society towards socialism.  This does not mean that socialists should give any political support to this increased role of the state never mind put it forward as socialist in itself.  The development of capitalism has created and continues to create massive misery and exploitation through driving people from the countryside to cities and is progressive because it creates a working class which is the bearer of a new society but no one thereby claims that socialists should support this process politically.

This again is presented by Engels:

“But, the transformation — either into joint-stock companies and trusts, or into State-ownership — does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces. In the joint-stock companies and trusts, this is obvious. And the modern State, again, is only the organization that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists. The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine — the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers — proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head. But, brought to a head, it topples over. State-ownership of the productive forces is not the solution of the conflict, but concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements of that solution.”

Support for nationalisation as a socialist measure is a short-cut, a short-cut to nowhere:

“It is a purely self-serving falsification by the Manchesterite [laissez-faire] bourgeoisie to label every intervention into free competition as `socialism’: protective tariffs, guilds, tobacco monopoly, statification of branches of industry,…, royal porcelain factory. We should criticize this, not believe it. If we do the latter and base a theoretical argument on it, then it will collapse along with its premises” (Engels quoted in Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, 1990,p.96)

From the glorification of the power of the state comes the betrayal of socialism in the form of nationalism which is why it is so apt that this is often expressed in the demand for nation-alisation, as if the more of this demanded the more radical is the socialism.

This type of ‘socialism’ is often also associated with ethical considerations of justice and equality and the view that this can be achieved through state action.  This opens up the possibility of the latter becoming prettified beyond all recognition.  So vast bureaucracies become socialist institutions and means tested, inadequate benefits dispensed through pipettes become a whole new model of society.

If statisation is the advance of socialism then reforming this state is inherently the way forward and electoral success to reach the ‘pinnacle’ of this society becomes the most natural means to its attainment.  Calls for widespread nationalisation, defence of the welfare state without the least criticism of it, demands on the capitalist state to do things it simply will not and cannot do and rank electoralism are all consistent with each other and hallmarks of many of today’s ‘Marxists’.  As Marx was himself compelled to say of some of his ‘followers’, if this is Marxism I am no Marxist.

In his career Marx came across this approach to politics, which is all too familiar today, in the shape of the German Ferdinand Lassalle, who sought state aid for workers cooperatives as the germ of a future socialism, of which the workers were not yet ready to openly fight for.  Today some demands for nationalisation and state redistributive policies are designed to manoeuvre workers into a movement for socialism without even mentioning the word never mind traducing its real content.

Frederick Engels and Eduard Bernstein penned a critique of this sort of approach:

“If the masses could not yet be interested in the actual end of the movement, the movement itself was premature and then, even were the means attained, they would not lead to the desired end. In the hands of a body of working-men not yet able to understand their historical mission, universal suffrage might do more harm than good, and productive co-operative societies – with State-credit could only benefit the existing powers of the State, and provide it with a praetorian guard. But if the body of working-men was sufficiently developed to understand the end of the movement, then this should have been openly declared. It need not have even then been represented as an immediate aim, to be realised there and then. Not only the leaders, however, but every one of the followers that were led ought to have known what was the end these means were to attain, and that they were only means to that end.”

Today calls on the state to do good are presented as the means to win workers’ votes, which will ultimately lead to socialism, while the goal is considered too advanced to be put forward clearly, put to them as something that they must do and only they can achieve.  The avoidance of socialism and its real content today goes under the name of anti-capitalism or under the banner of broad left parties and alliances which hide what its sponsors claim they really stand for.

Let’s be clear about what the nature of Marx and Engels’ argument was.  It has been compared to their attitude to reforms.  Thus while they were in favour of many reforms to the capitalist system, the purpose of such reforms was to place the working class in a better position to carry out the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.  It was not because such reforms of themselves were the means to bring socialism into effect.

So today socialists should not reject demands on the state or recoil from calls for nationalisation where these might be appropriate.  These proposals should not however be considered the basic mechanism for the transition to socialism; the all-encompassing framework for the programme that becomes its heart, body and soul and the all-embracing grounds on which the socialist argument takes place.  However as we have noted before this is exactly the role that the capitalist state plays today in the politics and programme of the left.  In a number of posts this has been explained; from the demands that the state tax the rich to investment to create jobs and nationalisation as if this were socialism itself.

The difference can quite easily be seen,on the one hand, in opposition to austerity, cuts in public services and opposition to privatisation, which should all be supported, and, on the other hand, putting forward as the socialist solution massive state investment  as the answer to unemployment, economic insecurity, inequality and low standards of living.  While such a policy by the capitalist state might be better for workers in that it provides some protection and better grounds for workers’ own organisation it is not itself the workers’ own alternative.  Nationalisation, state investment and taxation are not solutions and certainly not socialist ones.  All this has been explained in previous posts.

One other thing must also be explained.  Opposition to austerity must be supported, be part of the Marxist programme, because this is something to be carried out by workers themselves.  Keynesian programmes of state-led investment hand everything over to the state to achieve.  It remains in control, dictates how much and what is to be done, when, where and how.  It is precisely to remove all this from state control that is the task of the working class.

This is what Marx meant when he said that “every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes” which has been re-translated today so that state reformist electoral programmes are mistaken for real movement.  This denial of the primary role of workers’ own activity is reflected also in these organisations sectarian organisational practices and electoralism which are simply the everyday practical out-workings of a programme that signals dependence on the state for solutions that should come from the workers themselves.

Thus for Marx, support for workers cooperatives in ‘Capital’ is distinguished from Ferdinand Lassalle’s state aid for producers’ co-operatives  – “as far as the present co-operative societies are concerned, they are of value only insofar as they are the independent creations of the workers and not protégés either of the governments or of the bourgeois.”

For Marx and Engels “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”  This is the starting point for today’s struggle for socialism, not faith in the benign actions of the capitalist state.

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