Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 30 – base and superstructure 3

In the last post I noted the view that change in the material base of society, its forces and relations of production, cannot be viewed as a result simply of superstructural change, i.e. a change in the nature of the state.

There is an additional reason why this is the case.  This is because the state is not simply a superstructural phenomenon.

At first sight this might seem to invalidate the first criticism – that the state cannot be the agent of changing the material base of the forces and relations of production because it is purely a superstructural phenomenon.

The state is central to constituting and reproducing capitalism both in its economic role of direct state production and also in the many roles that involve supporting private capital accumulation. It is for example, vital to the reproduction of labour power through the provision of health, education and social services in addition to direct involvement in industries typically carried out by private capital, such as energy.

More generally it is also necessary for the reproduction of the legal framework within which capitalism operates – property law, contract law and the employment of an apparatus that enforces these through courts, police, regulatory bodies and inspectors etc.

The state encompasses economic and social tasks as well as the tasks of defending the existing relations of production through its laws, courts, judiciary, executive and legislative bodies, police and armed organisations.  Marxists propose the destruction of these but not the services the state otherwise provides such as health, education and social services.

But are these to continue to operate in the same way after a genuine socialist revolution, with only the purely political aspects of the state democratised?  The traditional Marxist view is that these political aspects – parliament, local government, quangos etc. are not to be democratised but replaced – by workers councils or other workers’ delegate or representative structures.  So what about direct state industry and services?

Marx’s answer would be to ask why these should be provided by the state at all?

As I have argued before, state ownership is not socialism and many of the tasks currently carried out by the state today would not be carried out by the state in a society arising from working class emancipation.  The provision of education, health and social services would not be carried out by the state but by the workers involved in delivering these services alongside those in receipt of them.

So not only is state ownership not a model of socialism within capitalism today; state ownership would not be a model of socialism so tomorrow.  It would not constitute socialism – the direct rule of the working class.  In such a worker-governed society these services would not be under the direction of the state’s bureaucracy and its executive.

By definition the state is a body standing separate and above society, at least partially insulated from its demands and requirements. None of these services should be in such a position, legally or organisationally.  They are part of the structure of society, of its forces and relations of production, as much a part of society’s productive powers as any other, consisting of production and services that should be provided by and for the working class itself.

It is only the incapacity of capitalism to socialise them through anything other than state direction, or then damage them through outsourcing aspects to private capital, that leads many to believe that only the state can represent society as a whole and provide such services on behalf of all within it.

Marx’s analysis was that the state does not represent society as a whole.  In fact, its role in suppressing subordinate classes can be seen in how it provides all of its services, from health, education and welfare to policing and application of the law.

It is consciousness of the necessity for these services to be carried out by the workers themselves directly that requires the material development of workers’ cooperatives that anticipate and point the way forward to workers replacing the current relations of production, including state owned production.

The power of the state cannot be the means of changing the material base, the relations of production, because it is not the objective of this transformation to increase state power.  In other words, the state cannot change the relations of capitalist production to one upon which socialism can be constructed because state ownership itself is not socialism and workers direct management and control cannot be carried out through a separate body but only directly by workers themselves. That is the experience of the Soviet Union and all other experiences of state-led ‘socialism’, and in any case was Marx’s vision of socialism.

The view that smashing the repressive arms of the capitalist state while maintaining its control of the services it provides is therefore mistaken.  The view that it can leads to two further mistakes.

One is the emphasis often put on the new cooperative economy being a centrally planned one.  The second is the underestimation of the complexity of modern capitalism, what is involved in its operation and therefore required of any alternative.

Marx has been criticised many times for not leaving a blueprint of the new society and how it would work.  If he had thought that a state would be the basis of introducing and constituting a new socialist society, or its transitional proletarian dictatorship, then this would be a valid criticism.  But he didn’t, so it isn’t.

He did not envisage a state planning all production and did not consider this to be the foundation of human emancipation.  This is clear from his earliest writings, which makes identification of Marxism with state control wrong from the start.

For him the new workers’ society was not an ideal and therefore static state (in any sense of that word) but a movement which starts from workers’ cooperative production, with a state body to defend that production, and the increasing role of cooperation in allowing humanity to control its own material circumstances and thereby its own development.

This involves planning in the sense that conscious decision making takes the place of exploitation and alienation, with alienation arising from commodity production in which the success of commodities determines the lives of those who created them.

The role the market plays in this is one that will more and more come under such conscious direction, but on its own such markets do not constitute the continuation of capitalism, nor does their increased marginalisation necessarily constitute socialism.

The emphasis on smashing the state and its replacement as the vehicle for determining the new society, including its planned economy, also leads to a chronic underestimation of the complexity of modern capitalism and the idea that it can be controlled by a central mechanism.

This was true in Russia in 1917, including Lenin’s expectations, and is even more true now.  In fact, the complexity of society is one very important reason why those that construct and reproduce it, the working class, its highest paid members as well as its lowest – including what is often considered the middle class – are required directly and consciously to ensure that its reproduction provides for the welfare of the majority of its people rather than the gross and excessive consumption of a tiny elite.

Marx’s view of the state should be well known but the influence of the massive growth of the capitalist state on socialist thought (a real example of the power of the material base to determine the consciousness even of its enemies!) has been lost on many of his followers.

In his ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme” Marx said that:

“First of all, according to II, the German Workers’ party strives for “the free state”. Free state — what is this?”

“It is by no means the aim of the workers, who have got rid of the narrow mentality of humble subjects, to set the state free. In the German Empire, the “state” is almost as “free” as in Russia. Freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it; and today, too, the forms of state are more free or less free to the extent that they restrict the “freedom of the state”. “

“The German Workers’ party — at least if it adopts the program — shows that its socialist ideas are not even skin-deep; in that, instead of treating existing society (and this holds good for any future one) as the basis of the existing state (or of the future state in the case of future society), it treats the state rather as an independent entity that possesses its own intellectual, ethical, and libertarian bases.”

Back to part 29

2 thoughts on “Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 30 – base and superstructure 3

  1. It ought to be pointed out that the most influential text associated with the name Karl Marx’ the Communist Manifesto’ does actually demand some of the things you rule out here ; ten things are proposed including point 5 ‘centralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly, and point six demands Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State, point 7 asks for the extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State bringing into cultivation of waste lands and the improvement of the soil in accordance with a common plan’.

    In short communists and socialists with a State centred of Marxism can still pull out passages from the works of Marx to support their ideology and they certainly did so in the past in the leading Socialist States of yesterday. So we have to acknowledge that with most authors of considerable scope there is a principle of selective reading and use to be argued for.

    What I do agree with is that Marx tended to dispute intellectual opponents who belonged to the anarchists strain of political thought and he liked to bend the stick in the direction of winning over the followers of the anarchists groups who were more numerous in revolutionary circles. So the context of the writings of Marx was favourable to anti-State rhetoric. Marx did often resort to intellectual rhetoric, a good example is his phrases and declarations covering the articles of the First International, in a letter to Engels he says ‘I was obliged to insert two phrases about ‘duty’ and ‘right’ …ditto about ‘truth, morality and justice’ but these are placed in such a way that they can do no harm’.

    There are other letters to Engels concerning the defeated Paris revolution of 1871 saying something along the lines that his ‘proposals’ around decentralisation of State functions etc were deliberately aimed at winning over the supporters of the Paris uprising who in the main were anarchists.

    What is noteworthy about the critique of the gotha programme is its new intellectual context, it was no longer defined by quarrels with anarchists, it was the first state of social democracy and just as important the first period of Germany welfare capitalism and State direction of industry.

    Finally I believe that a strong declaration of being for or against The State is not likely to be of much help in the context of our situation. Lenin added a Strong statement about the State in 1917 and called called it the State and Revolution and then proceeded to largely ignore what he had written in action not because he was a disingenuous politician but because the challenges of that revolutionary period were much greater than his pamphlet could have anticipated. Even if Lenin was sincere about his anti-State propositions about workers democracy and the like how to not organise a workers State in the context of warfare both intentional and civil was rather Utopian.

    In short the State will be with us whether we love it or hate it, our class enemies will impose one on us this, is our sad fate and our potential tragedy

    • You are correct to note that section II of the Communist Manifesto puts forward various demands that entail action by the capitalist state. This reflects the fact that it was published in 1848 and in German, while Germany at that time had only a very small working class so that a workers’ revolution was not really possible. Only a couple of countries at most had a large working class, so to simply repeat these demands – or variations of them – as if they represent core demands of a workers‘ party today would be out of place. As you say, it hasn’t stopped many doing so.

      As the Preface to the 1872 edition of the Manifesto written by Marx and Engels put it:

      “The practical application of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto itself states, everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions for the time being existing, and, for that reason, no special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of Section II. That passage would, in many respects, be very differently worded today. In view of the gigantic strides of Modern Industry since 1848, and of the accompanying improved and extended organization of the working class, in view of the practical experience gained, first in the February Revolution, and then, still more, in the Paris Commune, where the proletariat for the first time held political power for two whole months, this programme has in some details been antiquated.”

      The reason they didn’t change this section was that “the Manifesto has become a historical document which we have no longer any right to alter.”

      You are right in saying that Marx adjusted his language to ensure the unity of the diverse forces inside the First International, which would never survive a week if the currents that today call themselves Marxist attempted anything remotely like it. But as you say, Marx said that these remarks “are placed in such a way that they can do no harm”. In other words, he did not adulterate his politics in such a way as to mislead, or to point workers in a wrong direction, never mind state the opposite of what he really believed.

      And you are also correct that Marx’s writing in the ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, quoted in the post, is different from these, given the dangers posed to the workers’ movement through potential subordination to the state. The ‘Critique’ clearly represents his mature views.

      Lenin put forward a generally correct argument on the State in his booklet ‘State and Revolution’ but circumstances in Russia in 1917 could not allow application of a programme based on it given the weakness of the Russian working class, something I took up in the series of posts on the lessons of the Russian Revolution.

      As for today, I agree with you that the state isn’t going to go away any time soon, which is why socialists should be concerned to get their approach to it right.

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