The debate on socialist strategy and the Irish Left – Part 6

istanbul-red1Again and again the socialism of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien rests not on the initiative of the workers but dependence on the state and the support of its bureaucracy – “Only a mass party with roots throughout the community, with an organisational reach comparable to the Catholic Church of old, can hope to win the active and passive support from the bureaucracy which is necessary to carry through socialisation measures.”

To their credit however, Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are too intelligent and honest not to acknowledge the obvious and very painful lessons of working class history.

They acknowledge the reactionary role of the state bureaucracy – “as it is, the bureaucracy stymies existing pro-capitalist governments all the time.”

And they acknowledge the potential for violence from the capitalist class and the necessity for the working class to prepare for it:

“At some point the reactionaries will try to move onto more aggressive measures, including investment strikes and ultimately a coup d’état. . . should the socialist-labour movement prove too resilient to fold before the disruption aimed at fostering economic breakdown, the doomsday weapon of violent reaction, whether through the mobilisation of a mass fascist movement or via a straight-forward coup d’état always looms over its head, ready to detonate. . . then an old-fashioned street revolution becomes not only desirable but inevitable.”

Unfortunately for them this acknowledgement renders much of their argument either mistaken or incoherent.

They do not develop what their acknowledgement of the potential for state violence means for their reliance on this same state to usher in socialism (at the behest of the workers’ movement). But they are hardly ignorant of how the state was behind the most vicious fascist and reactionary movements which decimated the working class movement in defeats that over 80 years later have not been reversed.

In the 1920s and 1930s in Italy, Germany and Spain and Chile in 1973 the capitalist state, under pressure from mass workers’ movements such that we do not have today, and in some cases with parties in Government with a perspective not very different from Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien, clamped down on workers independent activity precisely because initiative and control was to lie with the state.  The state then succumbed to fascism where it did not succumb to the workers and either directly or indirectly handed power over to fascist or military dictatorships.

Only workers independent organisation apart from and against the state could have prevented this.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are correct to repeat the dictum of Marx that we must win the battle of democracy but they are wrong to see this battle within the terms presented by bourgeois democracy.

They are actually right to say that “parliamentary democracy . . . remains the best gauge of public support for a political tendency”.  Right in the sense that right now it accurately tells us where what passes for the socialist movement actually is, which is a small minority.

This means we must reject the phantasies of much of the so-called Marxist Left that workers are champing at the bit to vote for the left social democracy if only Marxists would forget their previous criticisms of this political tendency and pretend to be, or rather more accurately reveal themselves to be, left social democrats.

Parliamentary democracy will not and cannot, as the working class develops its organisation, political consciousness and power, reflect the support for socialism because it is not capable of expressing or reflecting the expansion of all of the aspects of socialist development of the working class.

I have said it does so now only because all these are at such a low ebb.  As they develop parliamentary democracy at best expresses the lag in development and its weakest aspects at that and it would be a cruel education of worker-socialists to tell them that their powers and potential are reflected in what they see in parliament.

The truth of this is so fundamental that it is true even in the opposite case – where parliamentary support for socialism exceeds the real social and political development of the working class in society.  The parliamentary road sought by Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien, and by the small Left organisations, walks wide-eyed and innocent into the trap explained by Engels:

“The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realisation of the measures which that domination would imply.

What he can do depends not upon his will but upon the sharpness of the clash of interests between the various classes, and upon the degree of development of the material means of existence, the relations of production and means of communication upon which the clash of interests of the classes is based every time.

What to do, what his party demands of him, again depends not upon him, or upon the degree of development of the class struggle and its conditions. He is bound to his doctrines and the demands hitherto propounded which do not emanate from the interrelations of the social classes at a given moment, or from the more or less accidental level of relations of production and means of communication, but from his more or less penetrating insight into the general result of the social and political movement.

Thus he necessarily finds himself in a dilemma. What he can do is in contrast to all his actions as hitherto practised, to all his principles and to the present interests of his party; what he ought to do cannot be achieved. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whom conditions are ripe for domination. In the interests of the movement itself, he is compelled to defend the interests of an alien class, and to feed his own class with phrases and promises, with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are their own interests.

Whoever puts himself in this awkward position is irrevocably lost. We have seen examples of this in recent times. We need only be reminded of the position taken in the last French provisional government by the representatives of the proletariat, though they represented only a very low level of proletarian development.

Whoever can still look forward to official positions after having become familiar with the experiences of the February government — not to speak of our own noble German provisional governments and imperial regencies — is either foolish beyond measure, or at best pays only lip service to the extreme revolutionary party.” 

Without large and powerful trade unions and other workers’ societies standing proudly independent of the capitalist class and its state; without a large cooperative sector owned, controlled and managed by workers; without a mass workers’ party with deep roots in the working class, with the confidence and respect of the masses outside its ranks, the votes of workers and wider society will not provide strong enough  foundations either to overthrow capitalism in the advanced capitalist countries or begin the building of socialism.

But these hardly feature, have walk-on parts or have a purely supporting role in the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien production.  For them “Electoralism is the most important political activity in the European and North American societies and in practice it forms the centrepiece.”

They say that “It is only as a component part of the strategy of attrition that electoralism plays a critical part in moving beyond capitalism. Winning power is therefore not the only goal of electoralism; every bit as important is the role it plays in building a mass socialist party capable of winning it and of controlling the apparatus when it gets there.”

But even here they get the order wrong.  “But in order to benefit from electoral work there has to be an institutionalisation of the gains, whether through increased participation in the party or union, more subscriptions to sympathetic left-wing media, joining a co-op or simply voting for the party come election time. These and other possible methods of harvesting the labour expended in the springtime of campaigning all depend on having institutions capable of soaking up the goodwill.”

Here it is electoralism that is the engine to drive working class organisation, that builds the other wings and activities of the working class movement.  In fact, as an old Official republican said to me a few years ago, it is in elections that you reap what you sow, even in the narrow terms posed by Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien.

The commitment by them to bourgeois democracy is ironic given the decay of this form.  At the beginning of March ‘The Economist’ had a six page essay and a front page that asked “What’s gone wrong with democracy”.

It noted – “Nor is the EU a paragon of democracy. The decision to introduce the euro in 1999 was taken largely by technocrats; only two countries, Denmark and Sweden, held referendums on the matter (both said no). Efforts to win popular approval for the Lisbon Treaty, which consolidated power in Brussels, were abandoned when people started voting the wrong way. During the darkest days of the euro crisis the euro-elite forced Italy and Greece to replace democratically elected leaders with technocrats. The European Parliament, an unsuccessful attempt to fix Europe’s democratic deficit, is both ignored and despised.”

“Adjusting to hard times will be made even more difficult by a growing cynicism towards politics. Party membership is declining across the developed world: only 1% of Britons are now members of political parties compared with 20% in 1950. Voter turnout is falling, too: a study of 49 democracies found that it had declined by 10 percentage points between 1980-84 and 2007-13. A survey of seven European countries in 2012 found that more than half of voters “had no trust in government” whatsoever. A YouGov opinion poll of British voters in the same year found that 62% of those polled agreed that “politicians tell lies all the time”.

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All this reflects the supplicant position which reliance on the state places workers and the failure of the state to respond to popular opinion.  It reflects the legacy of the parties supported by workers who have embraced bourgeois democracy very much in the way proposed as much as it reflects the cynicism of other classes.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are aware of the dangers of integration into the existing political-economic system, of a tendency towards conservatism and dangers of bureaucracy but their strategy of attrition and its reliance on the state and representation as opposed to direct participation all feed these problems.

This approach teaches passivity, that someone else has responsibility for political activity and leadership.  That power lies in a machine (the state) that exists outside your own competence and capability.  That your own activity is primarily to engage in voting for someone else to press forward your interests and that your own productive activity is not directly something that you should seek to control.

All this can be said of the existing capitalist state and its bourgeois politicians. What Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien see as important – the state and electoralism – does not go beyond this.

Their confused perspective leads to incoherence and what is generally well considered in their argument succeeds only in accurately enumerating problems.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are correct when they say that we need to convince workers “that they have to do great things for the socialist organisation, that the future itself depends on us all playing our role in that great collective project, outside of which there is no salvation.”

My argument has been that their conception of this great collective project is mistaken and that within it there is no road to salvation.



The debate on socialist strategy and the Irish Left – Part 5

The strategy of attrition proposed by Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien proposes democratisation of the existing state through electoralism. They pose the question of the existing state as “whether its form in the advanced capitalist countries is so antithetical to socialism that it is of little use in the project of socialist transformation. But what is this form?”


I have tried to answer this question in the last post by setting out that the form the state takes is an expression of its role in resolving class conflict according to the rules of the capitalist system.  The rule of law performs an ideological role by disguising the rule of people, a particular class of people.

The capitalist state is adept at hiding its class nature as does the economic system itself because the rules of the state are universal in the same degree as the laws of the capitalist economy.  To challenge either is to invite economic, social or political collapse – unless one has a real, practical and concrete alternative.

The class character of society is not hidden from Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien but the class character of the state is, so that they consider democracy as something that is devoid of any essential class character.  There is only more or less democracy; not ‘bourgeois’ democracy or ‘proletarian’ democracy.

Presumably as the state becomes more democratic it reflects more and more the interests of the majority working class within society and if this were the only distinction between their view and that of classical Marxist then it might be argued that there would be differences only of terminology and views on the possibility of such democratisation.

Unfortunately this is not the case because their view of a democratised state leaves out the essential content of workers democracy, which because it is the rule of the vast majority of a class whose interests lie in the abolition of all oppression and exploitation, leads not to the perfection of the state but to its disappearance.

So the answer to their question is Yes, the “form [of the state] in the advanced capitalist countries is . . . antithetical to socialism [so] that it is of little use in the project of socialist transformation.”

The post by Revolutionary Programme sets out the views of Marx as to what a working class state might look like including the revocability of the elected, their working class membership, the working character of the elected body and the payment of the elected at a workers’ wage.

Much of the functions of the present state, such as education, would no longer belong to the state proper but would be functions of society.  Other functions would also be abolished in their present form such as the standing army and become a workers’ militia staffed by workers for short periods.  Hierarchical structures would be reduced and eventually eliminated while those at the top of certain functions would be elected and thus cease to be directly accountable parts of the state but an accountable part of the wider society.

Such a state that immediately begins to wither away is incompatible with the existing state which distinguishes itself by characteristics that are precisely opposed to these.  The capitalist state stands above and apart from society, apart from its ‘vested interests’, and prides itself on its hierarchical and bureaucratic character, its rules, its procedures and pure administrative logic.

Its staff pride themselves not on what they have in common with wider society but their professionalism that separates them from it.  Its representatives, elected and non-elected, require ‘adequate’ remuneration so that they aren’t vulnerable to corruption from it.  Their position must be insulated from popular pressure especially in choreographed periodic elections when extra care must be taken by the non-elected through entering a period of purdah and the elected have a few weeks in which to attempt to manipulate political debate.

Those who make laws must not be infected by their application.  Hierarchies are required to discipline and train the state’s staff in the rigours of bureaucracy.  All this is cemented by an ideology that eschews particular interests that actually do exist in favour of the interests of the state itself or the interests of the nation, which do not exist, except to hide the interests of the nation’s ruling class.

Such a state can only be separate and stand above and apart from society because society stands apart from the functions of the state.  This can only happen when society is characterised by the ownership of its productive powers by a small class and by the existence of a much larger class without ownership of any productive property and thus in little or no position to assert rights or interests within society or have them reflected by the state.  If the latter did the state would disintegrate through the struggle of incompatible interests.

Thus whatever impact working class struggle has on the workings of the state it is relatively minor and certainly cannot transform it into a mechanism for advancing the socialist project.

Where the productive powers of society, including its factories, offices, warehouses, transport, hospitals and schools are the collective property of society and controlled and managed by its members the possibility exists for the functions of the state to merge with this society.  Under capitalism no such possibility exists.

This is why the alternative democratisation proposed by Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien, of the state becoming the tool for the socialisation of production, does not succeed.  Even by doing so it does not cease to stand above society, above the working majority, who continue to work for it and not for themselves.   The state cannot therefore socialise society as it ‘socialises’ production.

For them the ‘herculean’ task becomes one of “learning to guide a large bureaucracy into a democratic mode of operation.”  In the same breath they say that it is “only in certain forms of organisation and under certain conditions that their (workers) capacity is actually realised.”  Unfortunately large bureaucracies are not one of them.  In fact such bureaucracies are the antithesis of free and democratic organisation.  How do you guide the democratic operation of bureaucracies without them either ceasing to be bureaucracies or ceasing to be guided?

The Stalinist states, the capitalist states, and the workers organisations in capitalists countries are all evidence of the incompatibility of bureaucracy with workers democracy.  Elsewhere in their argument Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien recognise this but unfortunately the logic of their position compels them to propose the employment of bureaucracy to extend democracy within the existing state.

I am reminded of the quote by Lenin, exasperated by the growing bureaucratisation of the new workers’ state: “If we take Moscow with its 4,700 Communists in responsible positions, and if we take the huge bureaucratic machine, that gigantic heap, we must ask: who is directing whom? I doubt very much whether it can be truthfully said that the Communists are directing that heap. To tell the truth, they are not directing, they are being directed.” (Works, vol. 33, page 288, our emphasis)

The working class is now more cultured than was the Russian working class of the 1920s but the state bureaucracy is now also much larger.  Besides the impossibility of steering a large bureaucracy to democracy, why would one want to? Surely the task is to remove bureaucracy in the way described by Marx and removing functions from it to be democratically run by the workers as part of the rest of society?

The strategy of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien to achieve such democratisation of the state through a political party seems wilfully to ignore the lessons of the degeneration of the Russian revolution.

Their proposals do not undermine bureaucracy but are inevitably built on its own principles since it is the state which they propose must be at the “centre” of democratisation.

So, for example “the state could mandate various banks to invest according to certain criteria which have won support through the majority socialist party.”

How could the state mandate the banks in any sort of sensible way as to how or where to invest?  What rules, which the banks already have, would they devise and bring to bear that those seeking money would not then present in a tick-box manner simply to get the money?  The lending decisions of the banks would therefore have to be monitored.

The decision of where to invest would now involve two parties where previously one existed.  But it is argued that it is the socialist party that will know what these rules should be although how a political party will know this is a mystery.  So we actually have three parties involved now where one existed before and we get more bureaucracy.

What we don’t get is any idea that workers taking control of production should establish their own banks and, being directly involved in production and finance, might have a better idea about where to invest.

But no, it is the state “by using its legislative and judicial functions in a pro-labour way . . . which promotes workers’ self-activity.”  As an example they argue that a bureaucratic ‘independent’ judicial process must decide whether workers can take over their workplace and create a cooperative enterprise.

“Workers would not be handed the products; the socialist militants would still have to persuade the workers in each enterprise to seek their legal right. Independent jury tribunals can decide in these and other cases between employers and workers. Assuming the juries are randomly selected, as they are now, then the working class will make up its majority, thereby facilitating pro-labour judgments. Of course, if the tribunals were to return consistently anti-labour decisions, we would have good evidence that support for socialisation was waning.”

Everything I have said about bureaucratic rules and the supposed independence of the state is employed to enforce dependence of workers on the state even when they seek to establish their own ownership of production.

Again the idea that workers should be free to establish their own cooperative production free from state interference seems alien to this idea of a rules-based socialism; for what is more rules-based that judicial proceedings where those with the greatest resources (the capitalist) argue and frustrate those with far less resources?  The reality of class justice in current society, which also has working class juries, seems to be lost on Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien.

To be continued.

The debate on socialist strategy and the Irish Left – Part 4


As part of the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien argument that the state is not essentially a capitalist one they state that society is more complicated than it once was.   Implicitly they must be arguing that it is less fully capitalist since the state now performs functions that workers should be defending.  Indeed they go much further than this:

“A further reason for not smashing the existing state is that we need it. . . . The modern state is needed for the simple reason that it performs socially necessary functions without which a technologically advanced, densely populated society would collapse. And compared to the pre WW I state, today’s one runs vastly more essential services like healthcare, education, food and pharmaceutical safety regulation, environmental controls, provision of infrastructure, and a civil and criminal justice system.”

“If those functions go unfulfilled by a future socialist polity, the day-to-day experience of life for everyone will quickly degrade leading to an erosion of support for the socialist government (or polity). Court summonses for drink driving, to take just one example, will have to be issued under a socialist administration just as much as they would under a capitalist one. In theory, the state justice system can be replaced by popular tribunals but rules of procedure, expertise in summarising and arguing the law, administrative clerks and the like cannot just be recreated at will. The legal norms are the product of a long, messy, and less than edifying social evolutionary process. Limited as they may be, they have the under-appreciated virtue of actually existing — not a trivial accomplishment.”

The last part of this long quote is particularly bad, with it having more in common with Edmund Burke than Karl Marx.  It is also amusing that they choose what might seem an everyday and unremarkable state function such as enforcing road traffic laws since we have just seen how the Irish State through the Garda have torn up thousands of penalty points. Even in performing such a humdrum function the state exhibits its propensity to bias and corruption.

As for the response to their overall argument, it is not the point that certain state functions, or rather certain functions currently carried out by the state, should not be done.  The question is how and by whom and for what purpose?

When we look at how the current state performs these roles we can see how it does so in subordination to the capitalist economic system.

We shall do this ‘logically’ but it should not be forgotten that the historical evolution of the state shows how it acquires its capitalist character.  So for example, as Marx pointed out, the growth of the state and the debts of the state became a powerful means of developing capitalist accumulation.

When capitalists turn money capital into productive capital they need to buy labour power capable of carrying out certain tasks effectively and efficiently.  Workers need to be healthy and with increasing levels of education to carry out increasingly complex tasks.  Even routine and boring tasks are not completely devoid of training.

The capitalists could try to pay for the health and education of their own workforce by themselves.  Unfortunately if some capitalists did this other capitalists would not and would then poach the healthy and skilled workers educated and kept healthy by competitors.  Such is one of the contradictions of capitalism.  Much better then to socialise the cost by getting the state to provide health services and education.

The market provided by the health and education services can then be milked by capitalist providers of health and education products such as drugs, medical equipment and hospitals and schools built through Private Finance Initiatives.

This then costs the health and education services more than necessary and results in either poorer quality services or higher taxes. And although these taxes are paid overwhelmingly by workers, who pay for the welfare state, the capitalists prefer cheaper and effective health and education services so that the value of labour power they pay for does not decline by higher taxes on workers’ income putting pressure on them to raise wages to compensate.

So the contradiction within capitalism isn’t removed, it is just displaced.  Getting the state to carry out functions doesn’t resolve the contradiction between seeking healthy and skilled workers and keeping down the costs while trying as much as possible to make these services easily exploitable commodities subject to direct capitalist provision.

The capitalist system doesn’t find it easy to negotiate through these requirements so, for example, it constantly reorganises the NHS in Britain, boosts then restricts private finance, changes school governance one way and then another and seeks to make working class children more suitable for employment while trying to limit the costs of educating them.

But all these changes of policy and seemingly confused changes of direction within state provided services are not direct examples of struggle between a progressive state and private capital but expressions of the contradictions of the capitalist system itself.

They do not reflect the pressure of the working class as against that of capitalists, although the working class will have its own views and interests bound up in such issues.

In Ireland and in Britain the working class has not been so weak for a very long time and while welfare is being tightened it is not being abolished.  Were welfare states the simple result of the balance of forces between capitalist and workers we would have expected much greater changes.

When the capitalist has bought labour power the state does not generally intervene in their prerogatives or that of their managers and then only if these are challenged by workers.  Factories and offices however generally don’t work without infrastructural facilities such as roads, transport, water and power and sometimes the state provides these or regulates the private companies that do.

Again the desires the private companies that do can often conflict with the needs of the private companies that use their services.

When production has ceased and the goods and services need to be sold to workers or to other capitalists the state intervenes by setting minimal standards, including contract laws and customer protection legislation, and supporting trade through tariff reductions, provision of insurance and sponsoring trade promotion.

When money is recovered from sales it goes into the financial system in one way or another and once again the venality of this system is a problem not just for workers but also for certain capitalists who would like the state to increase credit to business, reduce charges  and make the financial capitalists less privileged.  Opposition to ‘parasitic’ finance is not the monopoly of the left but has been a theme of the most reactionary movements in history.

In summary the main functions of the state as it has developed both reflects the needs of the growing capitalist system and reflects its contradictions.

An historical analysis also undermines the view that such aspects of the state as welfare, the ‘welfare state’, are examples of working class influence on what the state does.  The first steps in welfareism were taken by Bismarck in Germany, by the Liberal Party and Conservatives in Britain and a welfare state exists in the Irish State where there has never been a social democratic government of any type.

The argument that state functions have to be carried out for society to function is true but this does not support the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien argument but exposes their strategy, for it is not technical aspects that define state functions but the social relations of production that define the roles that are performed.

Were the state to start to carry out the economic functions currently performed by the capitalist class and on an international basis it would undermine the functioning of the capitalist system itself and would lead to economic dislocation and collapse.

This would happen because of the sabotage of the capitalist class itself, because of the internationalisation of capitalist production which the nation state cannot substitute for without enormous economic regression and because the state cannot carry out the economic functions of capitalism without either being the capitalist itself or it beoming the sort of society we saw in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

This sort of society proved unviable. It collapsed almost everywhere and is no model to emulate where it has not.  The inability of the state to substitute itself for capitalism both shows that it is not the road to socialism, or socialism would also be unviable, and that it is workers’ owned means of production that is.

In other words the functions carried out by the state that are recorded above are necessary for society to work without severe economic regression but only in so far as the society is a capitalist one.  Too little state intervention and the economic system will regress but too much and it invades what are more properly tasks of private capitalists.  The contradictory nature of capitalism, the bureaucratic rationality of aspects of state functioning and ideological disputes all mean that the concrete operation and role of the state is constantly in dispute.

The working class has an interest in who wins (temporarily) in this struggle but it does not take sides but advances its own powers to impose its own solutions upon the system and its state by ultimately replacing both.

The functions of the capitalist state are therefore performed because of the way the capitalist system works and are performed in a way determined by that system.  Just as the way the capitalist system works seems natural so does the workings of the state and the respective roles that they both have. All seem natural.

The economic system produces what Marx calls commodity fetishism where the attributes of people become the attributes of things.  The productive relations formed by people to produce the things they need become requirements of ‘the economy’, which has demands which people can’t control but can only accede to.

The actions of the state are complimentary to this economic system so that what it does not do – the activities of the capitalist class – also seems natural.  Just as capitalism delivers economic growth the state is seen to distribute the fruits of that growth.

The need of the former for the services of the latter become, as in the argument of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien, mere technical functions that must be performed regardless so that the class character of the state is not at all fundamental.

These technical requirements however only exist because of the capitalist nature of the mode of production and would not exist as they do in another mode of production.  For example under a socialist mode of production health services, education, product safety and infrastructure provision would not be carried out by the state or any state-like body.

The capitalist character of the state is therefore reflected in a number of ways.

So for example, the claim that the state is autonomous is also held to be proof that it is not capitalist.  But to the extent it is not autonomous it directly reflects particular (capitalist) interests and for socialists the fact that it does in general exist autonomously from society is also demonstration that it exits separate and opposed to it, including from  the vast majority of society, particularly its working class.  Under the new society no body autonomous from society with any political powers would exist.  The powers of society would be wholly integral to it under socialism.

We have seen that what the state does and does not do demonstrates its capitalist character.  Under a new society it will disappear and no coercive body above or autonomous from society would exist.  The state, as Marxists have claimed, will wither away.

The personnel of the state are carefully selected, vetted and trained.  In Britain the most important forces declare loyalty not to the people but to the Queen.  In Britain and Ireland and elsewhere there is no greater crime than those committed against the armed forces of the state.  Witness the media coverage of killings of Garda for example.

The most senior positions in the state are almost invariable held by members of the most privileged classes and their rank and position within the state cements this where it does not create it.  Many can make a lucrative career on the Boards of capitalist corporations when they leave state employment.

The bureaucratic and hierarchical structure of the state reflects its need to insulate itself from democratic control and accountability.  When it needs to enforce its wishes it acts with force and decisively, it is hard.  When it evades accountability it appears as a blancmange, a maze and an impenetrable system in which no one appears to know how things work and no one is responsible.  One may as well try to pick up mercury with tweezers or cut through water.  Excuses are offered that we have asystemic failure but no one in this system made up of people is responsible.  Once again the actions of people become the property of things.

Laws are broken by the state so we have an enquiry.  When laws are broken by workers they are put in jail.  In no other country in Western Europe more than Ireland is it less credible to believe that the state is a neutral upholder of the law.   A cursory examination of the actions by state forces in the North of the country would explode the most ingrained prejudices, except of course the North of Ireland is always held up as a place apart.  And so the state always upholds the law except when it doesn’t.

The state is also a nation state so right from the start loyalty to it immediately involves division, the division of the working class, even when the workers belong to the same firm and would be out of work were their fellow (foreign) workers to fail to carry out their labour as they should.  The state teaches dependency on it not on the cooperative labour of the working class of all countries without which “a technologically advanced, densely populated society would collapse.”

The symbols, rules, hierarchies, uniforms, traditions and ideology of the state all make it inimical to working class self-emancipation from the rules symbols, rules, hierarchies, uniforms, traditions and ideology that oppress it.

In the final part of this post I will look at the argument that the state is, on the contrary, the mechanism of working class liberation.

The debate on socialist strategy and the Irish Left – Part 3


“Marxists see the state as a form of class rule. It is not a free floating entity above the messy reality of class conflict but rather a tool for suppressing the exploited, that is, an organisational tool of those in control of the means of production. For much of history, this is essentially an accurate description and it remains fundamentally true to this day. In Ireland alone, the continuous and truly massive transfer of wealth from workers to capitalists arising from the latter’s losses in property speculation is a graphic illustration of the balance of class power.”

“. . . But modern society is more complicated than pre-capitalist social formations. The exploited are not as powerless and thus have gained a measure of influence over the state itself, the degree of which depends on the balance of class forces at any given juncture. The strength of the working class in Europe over the 20th century is reflected in the significant gains that it made, winning concessions on everything from maternity pay to lower retirement, from national health services to a reduction in militarism.”

“The western state is open to influence by other sectors. That is, it is dominated by capitalists and will, when push comes to shove, tend to favour their interests rather than those of other sectors. That tendency, however, demonstrates not that the state is intrinsically structured to deliver capitalism but that the social dominance of the capitalists manifests itself in the political choices made by those who control the state. Capitalist control of the investment process is key because most states are dependent on capitalists for a functioning economy, which itself is necessary to keep its population relatively satisfied and to generate income via taxation.”

“The state’s own capacity to reproduce itself, then, is dependent on capitalist investment but importantly it is not itself a capitalist formation as is proven by the existence of non-capitalist sovereign powers throughout history. The state, as a powerful entity with a distinct history and a degree of freedom regarding accruing resources, could attempt to usurp the capitalist position by supplanting its role in the investment process. Indeed, that is what we largely advocate. . . and a process of democratisation of the state is best seen as a parallel process to democratising the ownership of capital itself, rather than as either as a precursor or a successor to it. Until that balance of power is altered there is little reason to expect the state to escape its subservience to the needs of capitalists.”

“The state, in other words, does not operate on capitalist lines. It operates in a capitalist context. . .  The state is not, then, an eternal verity destined to contaminate all those who touch it but rather a site of struggle that reflects the balance of forces in wider society. It is a tool whose usefulness depends very much on who is wielding it and for what purpose. . . . but even if the premise of the state as an intrinsically capitalist one does not hold up, there is the further issue of whether its form in the advanced capitalist countries is so antithetical to socialism that it is of little use in the project of socialist transformation.”

These are the views of Gavin Mendel-Gleason and James O’Brien on the state.  In summary they say that the state has become more complicated, and so it has, and give its welfare functions as evidence of this.  The state has had a long history and has not always been capitalist and nor is it intrinsically capitalist now.  Rather it is open to pressure from forces in society, including the working class.  However the role of investment by capitalists, on which the state itself depends for functioning, means that the state tends towards supporting capitalism.  This however can be changed as both the state and capital is democratised with democratisation of the former being the means to democratise the latter.  So much so that it can be used to transform current society into a socialist one.

The view of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien is essentially of a rather passive reflector of outside forces that has developed its own interests but which is a powerful mechanism that can be employed to revolutionise society.  Not altogether a very consistent or coherent analysis.

Let’s take the role of investment which Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien say is the key question.

Why is it that only the capitalists invest and so can influence the form of the state and how it operates?

This is because capitalism rests on the exclusion of the working class from ownership of the means of production.  When capitalists invest they also buy the labour power of workers and in order to make a profit, to extract surplus value in Marxist terms, they must pay workers less for the labour they perform than is included in what they produce.  The value of the labour performed by workers that they receive in wages is less than the value of the goods and services they produce.  This surplus value pays for the state among other things.

This arrangement seems natural and democratic since no one is compelled to work for any particular employer, can start their own business if they want and can ask for higher wages if they think they deserve more.  They enter into an employment contract voluntarily and as citizens with equal rights.  The state sets laws which reflect and guarantee this natural, democratic and equitable arrangement.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien can presumably see that the process of investment is but one part of an economic arrangement that places some with the ownership of capital and the many without and that this is neither natural or democratic nor equitable.  The role of the state is to protect this system so why can they not see that it too is neither natural or democratic or equitable but is rather intrinsically oppressive because it is based on the capitalist system itself?

If the state more and more took over the role of investment, i.e. took over the role of employing workers to produce surplus value, it would not be democratising capital but itself becoming the capitalist.

The apparent harmony of the capitalist system is exposed when  workers challenge the right of capital to exploit them either through strikes, occupations, pickets or pursuit of any restriction on capital that the owners of the means of production find unacceptable.  The state in these cases protects strike breakers, expels workers occupying workplaces, restricts or attacks pickets and allows sometimes the most egregious behaviour of capitalists to go unpunished.

The state will often sacrifice its own tax revenue to defend capitalists and in the case of the Irish state will see itself go bankrupt to bail out native and foreign bond holders and the banks.

What the state does not do, and has never done, anywhere and at any time – even in periods of mass working class pressure when Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien say it should – is organise strikes, attack strike breakers, plan occupations and pass laws that threaten the profitability of capitalism.  Sometimes, in extremis, it will nationalise capitalist concerns but since the state is itself capitalist this can easily be reversed, as it has been so many times.

The harmony of capitalism is therefore undermined by class struggle and the state exists to resolve this conflict.  Since this conflict can be resolved in ‘normal’ and peaceful periods through negotiation or compromise the state will support this.  In periods of crisis when it cannot be resolved the state will apply its force to defend capitalism.

In normal times the basic legitimacy and rules of capitalism are not contested so resolution means defending capitalism by default.  In periods of crisis workers break the rules and the state, as rule maker, must defend these rules or see its role destroyed so that defending itself is coincidental with defending the capitalist system on which the rules are based.

Since the rules apply to everyone and, as we have said, the economic system seems natural, democratic and equitable the rules and the state that defends them appear not to be defending any particular interest but the general interest, the national interest.  Workers who break the rules are charged with attacking the national interest, which is one reason why socialists are so opposed to nationalism since it binds workers to a state that defends and protects their exploitation.

So the state does indeed reflect class struggle but it is the means by which one class deploys the overwhelming power it disposes of in society, by virtue of its monopoly of the ownership of the means of production, to dominate and suppress the class of workers on whom it relies to expand its capital.

As law maker it sets rules which can only be consistent with the dominant mode of production and which are ultimately enforced by the most openly and patently reactionary arms of the state – the police, army, prisons and judicial system.  By these rules, as the old English saying goes:

They hang the man and flog the woman,

Who steals the goose from off the common,

Yet let the greater villain loose,

That steals the common from the goose.

The capitalist state therefore appears to be autonomous from any particular economic interest but the essential characteristic of the state is not its autonomy but its class character.  This autonomy is often exaggerated by Marxists and it is not uncommon for particular capitalist class interests to dominate to the detriment of others.  Political history is replete with conflicts between various sections of the capitalist class – industrial versus landed, large versus small, monopoly versus competitive, national versus comprador and foreign, declining versus growing, financial versus manufacturing.  This is why ideally the state does have autonomy.  But it cannot have it from the system as a whole.

How the state does this is a question of historical development but we must nail the argument that just because the state existed before capitalism and therefore could not then have been capitalist, it is not its class character which is its essential nature.  Before the capitalist state there was a feudal state and sometimes the bourgeoisie fought what is termed ‘bourgeois revolutions’ in order to make the state a capitalist one.

In these cases the transference of power was one from one exploiting class to another while socialism is the taking of power by the exploited majority.  That is why it cannot be achieved by simply taking over an oppressive and exploitative mechanism and developing it into a mechanism of liberation and freedom.  But we shall come back to that.