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The role of the state

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Issue 1744

What socialists say

The role of the state

By Sam Ashman

IT IS hammered into our heads from an early age that the state is a neutral body that stands above society and regulates fairly between everyone. Politicians talk about how we must “respect the rule of law” as though it is just and right. However, radicals and socialists throughout history have always stressed how the state is far from neutral but plays a very important role for the bosses and the capitalist system as a whole.

So Karl Marx described the state as merely the “executive committee” of those who run society, the ruling class or bourgeoisie. The Russian revolutionary Lenin wrote a short pamphlet called The State and Revolution on the eve of the Russian Revolution in 1917 that is still worth reading today.

He set out to show that the state is not a neutral body. He says the state arises at a point in history when antagonisms between classes can no longer be settled directly but require a power that appears to stand above society to regulate conflicts and stop them from tearing society apart. Lenin says the state is “the product and the manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms”.

So class divisions give rise to the need for a state in the first place. The state fulfils this role by possessing a monopoly of organised violence-the army, the police force and prisons. Lenin calls these “special bodies of armed men”.

No other institution in society possesses such enormous military resources-guns, tanks, bombers, aircraft, ships-and no one else has the power to arrest, detain and imprison. The state has enormous powers to take life and liberty away from ordinary people, with very little comeback.

In doing so, Lenin says, the state is acting as an instrument of one class, the ruling class, against other subordinate classes.

This doesn’t mean that every time the police go round to the scene of a robbery or a traffic accident they have been called out by the heads of multinational capitalist firms. But it means that whenever the police are needed to break up demonstrations or smash up picket lines, they are there and ready. And that is in the interests of capitalist firms.

These arguments apply to modern day states like Britain, where we have elections for members of parliament. Large sections of the state are untouched by these elections. The heads of the military and the secret services, the judiciary and top police officers are not elected.

They are not accountable in any way, just as no one elects heads of multinational corporations like Rupert Murdoch. Those who want to defend the status quo claim that the powers of the state are used in the interests of “the nation”, and therefore neutrally. Defenders of the status quo say that “without the police there would be anarchy”.

But what are the interests of the nation? Wars like the First World War or the American war in Vietnam were not in the interests of everyone in Britain or the United States. They were in the interests of a small number at the top. Defending the existing state is as much part of Labour Party history as it is part of Tory history.

For example, when thousands of working class Londoners rose up in Trafalgar Square against the poll tax, it was Labour’s Roy Hattersley who called for “exemplary sentences”. History is full of politicians who have accused protesters of being anti-democratic.

But the truth is the opposite. The protesters throughout history are generally the ones who are fighting for more democracy.

So the Chartists demonstrated for the right to vote, as did the Suffragettes. Workers were forced to protest for the right to be in a union and to organise at work, and have been forced to march and strike to defend that right many times since.

In more recent years people have taken to the streets against laws like the Criminal Justice Act which have given the state even more powers to snoop and clamp down on people. Mass protest, usually in defiance of the law, has again and again been necessary to win the smallest reforms.

In trying to brand protesters like those in Quebec City this week as violent thugs, the state and its allies are asserting the right of a small minority to run society unchallenged.

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