As the “Day X” student protests unfolded before Christmas, a series of impressions were left in their wake: the sight of teenagers chanting and charging around central London; the smell of placards burning in the freezing air; the sound of breaking glass.
One school student told me, as we were both being kettled in Whitehall, that he thought attacking the police was pointless. The Tories were the real enemy, he said, to nods from others nearby. A few hours later the mood had changed. Police faced repeated attempts to break their lines. Above the cops’ heads the now-iconic red graffiti stating “Revolution” was paired with “Smash the state!” sprayed in salmon-pink paint.
When thousands of students smashed their way into the Tory HQ at Millbank on 10 November 2010, they achieved two things at a stroke. They showed that there is explosive anger at what the government is trying to do and they inspired others to resist.
Clearly though, breaking windows is not the same as breaking a government. Our movement is coalescing around an escalating confrontation with the state – but the state won’t simply smash like glass. It is a deeply entrenched network which includes the police, army, courts and prisons, none of which are democratically accountable. But why should we even want to smash the state?
Usually the state seems to be a neutral force, standing above class conflict in society. The police, for example, don’t say that their actions are intended to ensure the survival of the government and its cuts agenda. They do say they are just there to preserve “order”. But in a structurally unequal society, what is orderly? Under capitalism it must mean that the everyday business of exploitation continues unchallenged. The boss gets his bonus, Vodafone avoids its tax bill and Tory wreckers get their way – while the rest of us pay the price.
So the state is not neutral. It exists because society is divided into classes with opposing interests – the ruling class and the working class. Think of all those slimy bosses – Sir Philip Green and his ilk – who get handed government jobs. The state is shot through with super-rich capitalists. A thousand supple threads bind the state to its corporate paymasters.
When it comes to the crunch, concessions our side has won like welfare and accessible education recede from view behind the core enforcers of state power: special bodies of armed men and women. In a real encounter the police – and the judges and prisons that back them up – can seem pretty intimidating. But their power can be challenged – and overcome – by workers and students uniting in mass action. As people like to remind the cops, “There are many, many more of us than you!”
Should we try to take over the state and use it against the bosses? The entire apparatus of the state is a dark reflection of the society that created it – a society where a tiny elite controls the majority. It’s true that immediately following a revolution workers would need to organise themselves to repel counter-attacks by the former bosses. But this temporary “workers’ state” would be nothing other than people themselves armed and organised for the defence of the revolution. Once the ruling class has been thoroughly defeated, this “state” will wither away with the flowering of a classless society.
The key to the true and lasting destruction of the state lies in the elimination of the conditions of exploitation and inequality which gave rise to it in the first place.
Around the bonfires in Whitehall school students were drawing their own conclusions. It was clear that the police were trying to deter people from protesting again. People’s ideas change fast in the middle of a riot. On the next demonstration in London students kept on the move, determined to stay one step ahead of the police’s attempts to trap them.
The sight of rows of tooled-up cops interposed between us and the institutions of the rich and powerful is a reminder that the state is centralised and organised. So must we be. To be a revolutionary is to always think tactically about how best to intensify the struggle against the ruling class, and its enforcers in the state, in any given set of circumstances.
As the embers burned low in Whitehall, these were the lessons being learned and debated.
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