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.

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

  1. Pingback: Another critique of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien’s reformism | revolutionaryprogramme

  2. The debate concerning the State, capital and class is being handicapped for the lack of reference to intermediate categories like nation and regime. The obstacle of the nation is usually taken on board under the auspicious of universal self determination and this ends up settling very little because self determination is so universal that it skips over the particularity of the nation in context. Another intermediate category worth pondering is the ruling regime. In the Ireland of our context is it the case that the standing State is the ruling political element? What about that other ruling element of the Troika. The Troika is not an arm of the Irish State, it is not really an arm of any universal State, the IMF is in theory an arm of all the States that contribute to its funding. In short we need to supplement our understanding of the State with something called the regime. A regime wields political power without holding sovereignty ie the right to gather arms and use violence. There does appear to be a global regime of capital exercising sway over Ireland and other capitalist States that is all the stronger because it is not a State that can be directly overthrown. Marxist’s used to refer to this regime or substitute State as imperialism. Perhaps the State is just less important than the global regime of capital.

    • Belfast Plebian, what you are talking about here is the impact of the global hierarchy of capitalist states in the imperialist epoch where the imperialist states are able to economically dominate semi-colonies like Ireland with the local bourgeoisie taking a subsidiary role and this is reflected in political policy of the semi-colonial state power.

      When necessary the imperialist states will intervene militarily to control “their” semi-colonies if the super-profits generated there are threatened in any way (in the case of Ireland “our” imperialist masters are Britain and the USA). This does of course pose difficulties for any programme for socialist revolution as we face not only the forces of the Irish state but those of their imperialist masters. For myself I think this makes internationalism not just a nice aspiration for revolutionaries in Ireland but an absolute concrete necessity.

      It also needs to be recognised that there is not a single global regime that can be called imperialism. There are different imperialist state powers whose interests may overlap at times but can also come into conflict. this can be expressed in “trade wars” or “proxy” military conflicts or even in world wars.

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