THERE ARE moments when the forces which really rule in society suddenly reveal themselves-20 years ago the state unleashed its full might against the miners during the year-long strike. Police, courts, media, judges, the benefits system, coordination between different industries-all were used in a concerted effort to smash the most powerful union in Britain.
Another enlightening moment occurred recently when we glimpsed the shadowy forces in the secret services who bug people like the head of the UN, witch-hunt those who might reveal the truth (such as Katharine Gun) and see themselves as entirely above any notion of democracy or accountability. There is a powerful apparatus, immune from popular control, which is dedicated to ensuring that the ruling class remains the ruling class.
This mechanism isn’t some invention of George Bush or New Labour. It is the state, an inevitable feature of a society divided into classes. During the last decade people have become increasingly aware of the great influence that multinationals have over the policies of governments. But the last three years have brought home with terrible clarity the continuing strength of states.
It was not General Motors or Shell that hurled F-16s and cruise missiles onto Iraq. It wasn’t Ford or Exxon that planned the war on Afghanistan. It was the US state and the other states it attracted to its murder gang. Karl Marx wrote that this state apparatus came into being when social classes emerged. The exploiters needed some organisation to apparently ‘stand above’ the battles between classes, while in reality helping one class to crush another.
Once the state is created, the economically dominant class-the one that owns and controls the factories, banks and so on-becomes the politically dominant class. The state creates ‘order’, an order which enshrines the right of the rich and powerful to exploit the vast majority of society, of the government to launch imperialist wars against the wishes of the majority, of the courts to imprison the woman who can’t afford a TV licence, of the racist cop to harass the black teenager.
And the state is always based on violence. This violence is directed towards other national states, and the state’s own population who revolt against the oppression they suffer.
The state employs soldiers and builds prisons. The state can bomb civilians, starve people with sanctions, and deport desperate refugees to torture and death. It can do it all legitimately, with the comfort of the bought and paid for law officers to buttress its actions.
At the core of the state are institutions and people who are immune from even the mildest forms of democratic accountability. These include the military general staffs and top ranks of special forces such as the SAS, the police chiefs, the upper levels of the MI5 and MI6 secret services, the top bureaucrats in government departments, the leading bankers and the judges.
Top politicians can sometimes be trusted members of the state’s inner circle. Margaret Thatcher certainly was and Tony Blair is. At other times elected politicians are tossed aside. In 1964 the governor of the Bank of England told Labour prime minister Harold Wilson that the financiers determined economic policy, not the government.
At the extreme end it involves the military physically eliminating a government-such as Salvador Allende’s in Chile in 1973. The state is much more permanent than any government. Parliamentary majorities change. But the state machine goes on regardless of the views of voters.
The Russian revolutionary Lenin wrote, ‘Take any parliamentary country and you find the actual work of the state is done behind the scenes and is carried on by the departments, the government offices and the general staffs. Parliament itself is given up to talk for the special purpose of fooling the ‘common people’.’
He added that although the sort of democracy we have in Britain is ‘a great historical advance it always remains, and under capitalism is bound to remain, restricted, truncated, false and hypocritical, a paradise for the rich and a snare and deception for the exploited and the poor. Deceit, violence, corruption, lying, hypocrisy and oppression of the poor are hidden beneath the civilised, polished and perfumed exterior of modern democracy.’
Such an understanding is often dismissed as crude and outdated. But it is more relevant than ever. The author and campaigner Susan George wrote five years ago that the way giant corporations are able to influence the decisions of national governments suggests that ‘the only explanation seems to be, as Marx and Engels put it, that ‘modern state power is merely the executive committee charged with managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie’.
‘This ‘bourgeoisie’, now embodied in huge transnational industrial and financial corporations, makes itself heard loud and clear by ‘state power’ via multiple lobbies.’ But the state is not unbeatable. One reason is that under the impact of social crisis different elements of the state machine react in different ways. Sometimes they come into conflict with one another.
During the Hutton inquiry the government, BBC and secret services gave different versions of events and blamed one another for what had gone wrong. The splits and tensions inside the state can be used by our side to weaken the ruling class.
Great protest mobilisations can thwart state assaults. Katharine Gun was released because there is a powerful anti-war movement which has frightened the people at the top. In contrast the Conservative government of the 1980s felt it could get away with imprisoning Sarah Tisdall for a similar ‘offence’ because it judged the movement around the issue involved was not so strong.
To see the state in some disarray should give us hope that we can go further. There has been a long tradition among people who want to change society of seeking to take over the present state and using it for the benefit of the majority.
But can we really believe that the army chiefs and the secret service commanders and the judges will one day become a force for social transformation and real democracy?
When working people take economic and political power they will need, for a time, their own state power to organise society and put down those former exploiters and military chiefs who want to restore the old order of violence and inequality. Such a state will be utterly different to the one that exists now. It will not be cut off from society, but one that serves the mass of people. This can arise only when all the old filth of secrecy, business interests and lack of real democracy have been done away with. This is the conclusion that Marx came to through the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871.
It was the lesson that Lenin underlined in the run-up to the Russian Revolution. Looking back at the forces unleashed against the miners, and the horrors the capitalist state is capable of now, it is clearer than ever that the state is our enemy.
Lessons from history
‘ONE THING is especially proved by the Paris Commune, that the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.
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-in other words, to replace one repressive, bureaucratic state with another-but to smash it. This is essential for every real people’s revolution.’
Karl Marx, The Civil War in France
‘THE LIBERATION of the oppressed class is impossible without the destruction of the apparatus of state power which was created by the ruling class. All previous revolutions perfected the state machine, whereas it must be broken, smashed.
We, the workers, shall organise large-scale production on the basis of what capitalism has already created. We shall reduce the role of state officials to that of simply carrying out our instructions.’
Lenin, State and Revolution
‘SOCIETY AS it was and as it is at present needed the state. That is to say it needed an organisation to maintain by force the exploited class. As soon as there is no longer a social class to maintain in oppression, as soon as the clashes of interest are abolished, there is nothing more to repress. And a special force for repression, the state, ceases to be necessary.
The intervention of the power of the state in social relations becomes superfluous in one area after another, and eventually dies away of its own accord. Government of people is replaced by administration of things. The state is not ‘abolished’, it withers away.’
Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring
‘WHILE THE state exists, there can be no freedom. When there is freedom there will be no state.’
Lenin, State and Revolution
‘THE STATE is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another and indeed in the democratic republic not less than in the monarchy.’
Frederick Engels, Preface to The Civil War in France
‘THE MORE highly ‘democracy’ is developed, the more the bourgeois parliaments fall under the control of the stock exchange and the bankers. This, of course, does not mean that we must not use bourgeois parliaments. But it does mean that only a liberal can forget the historical limitations of parliament.
Even in the most democratic bourgeois state the oppressed masses at every step encounter the crying contradiction between the formal equality proclaimed by the ‘democracy’ of the capitalists, and the thousand and one real limitations and restrictions which make the proletarians wage slaves.’
Lenin, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky
Every working class person will feel the pressure
Two inspiring strikes show the way forward