A DEFINING feature of Marxism, which sets it apart from other political trends, is its theory of the state and its programme and policies for dealing with it.
Throughout the years workers have been found to have come up against the state in the class struggle be that coming up against the police on the picket lines or facing arrest on a public demonstration eitehr way this act by the state quickly teach's workers that the state is not your friend and the role of the police and army at times is there to protect private propety not its citizens as bourgeois media likes to tell us.
The state is not simply there for security . The capitalists use such provision to discipline workers, for example, by withdrawing benefits from strikers.
They also use different wings of the state to uphold their capitalist ideology. For example, the government attacks on single parents or the continual harassment and implication of laziness in relation to the long-term unemployed. In this way they attempt to deflect blame from themselves onto the victims of their system and undermine the confidence of those who campaign for better benefits.
However, the main sense in which Marxists use the term 'state' is to describe the institutions by which class rule is maintained. We live in a class society where the ruling class does not represent the interests of the whole population, where a minority maintains its power and privileges by exploiting the majority. They have to persuade the majority to accept this situation.
They do this partly though their control of ideas, for example, through their ownership of the mass media, their general control of education and other institutions. They try to persuade people that their system is the only and best way of organising society, almost to the extent of being "natural".
But their ideas and system clash with the interests of working class people. For example, if the working class believed the news and political commentators they would never go on strike. But workers find that without organisation and a willingness to take action, they cannot maintain living standards.
So, when propaganda and conditioning fail and working-class people and even sections of the middle classes oppose the ruling class, the ruling class use the police, the courts, the law and sometimes the army to defend their profits and power. They did this, for example, in their efforts to defeat the 1984-85 miners’ strike and during the anti-capitalist marches in Genoa (where a protester was shot and killed).
They need a special apparatus to ensure that their class rule continues. The core of the state, the part which it falls back on to ensure its rule when all else fails, is the repressive apparatus - the police, the army, the courts and the various intelligence agencies like Ml5. (Engels described the state as ultimately being "a body of armed men"). Carrying through the transition to a socialist society inevitably includes major strategic and tactical problems in defeating these agencies which exist to defend capitalist class rule.
Has the 'state' always existed?
IF YOU never read another work of Marxism again, you should read Lenin's brilliant booklet 'The State and Revolution'. Lenin explains that the state arose when society first divided into antagonistic classes.
For centuries humans lived in egalitarian societies, what Marx and Engels referred to as 'primitive communism', where all people were dependent on one another and co-operation was the guiding principle of society. However, as labour became more productive, society produced a surplus beyond its immediate needs.
This created the conditions for class society - the minority who came firstly to administer and then to control and own this surplus protected their right to it by force. The class with economic dominance and power, the ruling class, created the state to protect itself, hold down its adversaries and guarantee that its will was done. This is a very important point because the reverse is also true. When classes themselves disappear, as a classless socialist society comes into being, that same force will no longer be needed.
In a famous phrase of Marx, the state would begin to 'wither away'.
Class society based on the private ownership of the means of producing wealth has taken different forms. When the capitalist class began to develop, they had to wage a Civil War in the 1640s against the existing feudal state to establish a new state that would serve their own capitalist, class interests. They became the new ruling class.
Different Forms of Capitalist State
THE ‘TYPICAL’ form of state in the ad
Different Forms of Capitalist State
THE ‘TYPICAL’ form of state in the advanced capitalist countries today is capitalist ('bourgeois') democracy. Governments are elected by general election, and there are wide democratic freedoms - although in many countries these are under threat. Bourgeois – that is, capitalist - democracy hasn't always existed: the labour movement has carried out long struggles to win democratic freedoms such as the right to vote, to organise and the right to strike. Women also had to fight for the vote.
In many ways bourgeois democracy is more convenient for the capitalists, enabling them to maintain their domination without risky and unpopular dictatorial measures. In the last 60 years, the capitalist class has had some nasty experiences with non-democratic forms of rule - for example, fascism in Germany and Italy cost a world war and massive destruction.
In the last analysis however, if the capitalists feel threatened by the growing power of the working class, they will resort to other forms of capitalist state. In the 20th century typical alternatives to capitalist democracy have been military dictatorship (such as existed in Greece after the colonels' coup in 1967, or Chile after the military coup in 1973) and fascism, such as existed in Germany under Hitler and Italy under Mussolini. In both military dictatorships and fascist regimes, democratic parliamentary rights, trade union and political rights, are abolished and the ruling class gives power to a small group which governs by coercion and terror.
The type of regime which emerges in each historical period depends on how confident the bourgeoisie feels to grant democratic rights.
But every ruling class will revert to authoritarian forms of rule if it has to. The ruling class in Britain is no exception. In a revealing insight in his book, Inside Right, Tory MP Ian Gilmour (now Lord Gilmour and a former member of Thatcher's cabinet) stated: "Conservatives do not worship democracy... For Conservatives... democracy is a means to an end and not an end in itself. And if it is leading to an end that is undesirable or is inconsistent with itself, then there is a theoretical case for ending it."
There have been many occasions when the British ruling class discussed whether or not military intervention was necessary. In 1977, The Observer carried the following report: "Field-Marshall Lord Carver was chosen as Britain's Commissioner in Zimbabwe because he is a man the government knows it can trust. Carver's proving time came three years ago when he was the focus of tensions in right-wing army circles that gave rise to talk of military intervention in a political emergency.
"This time the trouble was over contingency plans for a breakdown in public order after a clash between the government and the trade unions... The Army Council decided that such plans were unnecessary - and indeed that to make them would be politically unwise. Their absence became a talking point in the Army when the 1973 miners' strike and state of emergency precipitated a general election." (Observer 4 September 1977).
It's obvious from the language here that the option of military intervention was not dismissed out of hand, considered outrageous, illegal or treacherous - just "unwise". Elaborate plans are in place to revert to dictatorial government if necessary.
Is capitalist democracy really democratic?
PRO-CAPITALIST POLITICAL theorists say there are two forms of state - 'dictatorship' and 'democracy'. Both of them are ways of ensuring that the ruling class stays in control. Marxists defend democratic rights but say that real democracy cannot exist so long as economic and social power is in the hands of a ruling capitalist class.
Capitalist ideologues say the system is 'democratic' because of the right to vote, and (within limits) there is the right of free speech and of political organisation. A typical argument is that 'if you want to change things, you can always stand for parliament.' In reality things are a bit more complicated. Under bourgeois democracy, the capitalist class keeps its power in the following ways:
It controls the economy:
This, of course, is the basic, most important source of capitalist power, giving it vast resources to ensure the continuation of its rule. Through their control of the workplaces and financial institutions they can decide, for example, that thousands of workers are put on the dole, destroy communities and evict thousands from their homes.
It dominates ideologically:
As Marx said:"The ruling ideas of any epoch are the ideas of the ruling class". The means of communication (newspapers, television etc) are either directly owned by the capitalists or controlled by their political representatives. Capitalist ideas - although sometimes challenged by Marxists - are reproduced in the universities and many other institutions.
It controls the judiciary and the civil service:
Leading civil servants – the Whitehall ‘mandarins' - are not elected, but career officers who earn vast salaries and have the same lifestyle as many capitalists. They often commute between industry and government.
In 1990, 373 Ministry of Defence officials and officers in the armed forces left to take jobs in industry, most of them with arms contractors. (Pallister and Norton-Taylor 1992). The tops of the civil service stay in office whoever is elected. They decide what information is presented and what options are available to politicians. They are recruited from the same public school and Oxbridge background as leading capitalist politicians, and of course the judges.
Law in Britain is not just made by Parliament; it is also made by unelected judges, who are overwhelmingly elderly males from a privileged background. This doesn't mean that groups necessarily take a uniform view.
For example, the whole justice system is held in open contempt by most people because of cases like the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four, the M25 Three, Winston Silcott and Oliver Campbell. A special division of the Home Office looks at about 600 "miscarriages of justice" a year.
Some judges are concerned about the credibility of their system and are therefore prepared to admit to some mistakes and release some people. They hope that in this way the idea of "impartial justice" can be recreated, the better to use their powers against more fundamental challenges to the capitalist system.
The capitalist class controls official politics:
In fact the whole 'democratic' structure is designed to keep working people out. Politics for most people is confined to voting once every few years. Most leading politicians are professionals - lawyers, journalists, doctors, company directors etc - and many Tory politicians are themselves capitalists.
Using the 'democratic' system is much easier if you have power and money, if you have access to the press and television. This makes it much easier for the capitalists than for working-class organisations - although, as we discuss below, socialists try to take advantage of every democratic opening that capitalism allows.
Parliament has been referred to as "the best club in the world" where there is a tendency to absorb any working class leaders or reform-minded MPs through its conventions and privileges. A large number of MPs, including Labour MPs, become directors of companies especially ex-public sector companies. Even the wages and expenses of MPs allows them a lifestyle far above what most people can afford. In this way they are insulated from the effects of their policies.
That is why we adhere to the policy of a workers’ MP on a worker's wage for those who claim to represent the interests of the working class.
There can be no real democracy without economic democracy, no real democracy without ordinary people having access to decision making. The only real democracy is socialist democracy.
Repressive apparatuses of the State
EVERY FORM of class rule, every form of capitalist rule, involves various forms of coercion. Even under bourgeois democracy, where there are lots of formal democratic freedoms, the bourgeoisie utilises repression, sometimes in vast quantities. A good contemporary example is the penal system in the United States. Of nearly two million prisoners 60% are black, overwhelmingly young men: the system is, at least in part, an instrument of repression against the black community.
Here, we shall briefly look at the different repressive branches of the British state:
The legal system.
In any society there tends to be a body of rules or laws which are broadly accepted by society. These outlaw anti-social behaviour such as murder, physical attack, theft etc. It’s through such laws and their enforcement that the state acquires its reputation as a neutral regulator of society.
However, law under capitalism is class law. It exists to enforce the rights of property. This is the case both with the civil law, which concerns itself with things like enforcing debt and contract, and also with the criminal law.
Marxists, of course, are not opposed to legal sanctions against anti-social crimes - domestic burglary and crimes of violence, for example. However, the way in which even the criminal law is applied is class-biased: if you're working class, if you're black, if you are a working-class woman, then you stand a much greater chance of being convicted or going to jail. Half the prisoners in Britain are there for crimes relating to debt, or are on remand. One in four women are jailed for a first offence compared with one in 17 men.
23% of women are jailed for theft compared to 11% of men. 80% of women sent to prison are unemployed or on benefit; in effect they are penalised for "crimes of poverty". You stand a much greater chance of going to jail if you are convicted of a bank robbery of £1,000, than if you are convicted of a City swindle of £5 million!
Marx explained the so-called neutrality of the law is undermined by inequalities in income. For example, it is a crime for both rich and poor to steal food. But the poor are much more likely to be forced to steal than the rich who can afford to buy all the food they want.
In addition, there is a series of blatantly political, class laws, relating to things like public order and industrial relations - most notoriously these were the Criminal Justice Act and the various anti-trade union laws introduced by the Tories, which are to do with making it more difficult for working class people to fight the attacks of the bosses.
New Labour has since added a whole new range of repressive laws, which clamp down on civil liberties. And although New Labour has amended some of the Tory anti-union laws, it is still the case that Britain has among the harshest anti-union laws in the world.
In many ways these are designed to intimidate and prevent people taking action. Yet, as many movements show, such as that which led to the freeing of the Pentonville dockers in 1972, the law cannot restrict the scope of working-class struggle once united action and solidarity come into play.
In putting forward these laws, the ruling class, echoed by the leaders of the labour and trade union movement appeal to workers to 'abide by the law'. They rely on the general consensus that may exist for the laws dealing with crime in order to persuade workers that they must abide by political laws.
Although this can have an effect in holding back the movement for a time, it tends to break down as it comes into conflict with the need of workers to defend their working and living conditions. In this respect the Anti-Poll Tax movement was an important breakthrough. It popularised the idea that unjust laws can be successfully defied.
The introduction of such laws cannot be seen as a sign of strength but weakness. It indicates the ruling class are losing the consensus which allowed them to rule with less expense and trouble in the past. It also reveals the real character of capitalism to working-class people.
It is this tactical consideration which has led to splits amongst the ruling class themselves and amongst those responsible for administering the state machine. At the top of society this is a tactical issue. They fear a loss of authority if the state doesn't appear neutral. At lower levels of the state administration, these measures heighten the conflict between the political use of the state and the commitment, for example, of many probation officers, social workers and some prison officers, who see their job as making a practical contribution to society through the rehabilitation of offenders.
The police, together with the army, constitute the central "body of armed people" which is at the centre of the state apparatus. They are the first line of defence against anything which disturbs the public order of capitalism. In the last 20 years, as social tensions have increased, the myth of the ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ type copper, sorting out lost cats and helping the elderly across the road, has vanished.
The thinking of leading policemen today - a time of increasing political and social tension - indicates that they well understand their basic function in defending capitalism. Former Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, James Anderton once said: "I think that from the police point of view that my task in the future... that basic crime as such - theft, burglary and even violent crimes - will not be the predominant police feature. What will be the matter of greatest concern to me will be covert and ultimately overt attempts to overthrow democracy, to subvert the authority of the state, and in fact to involve themselves in acts of sedition designed to destroy our parliamentary system and the democratic government in this country."
The large-scale involvement of the police against strikers and demonstrators, rather than against traditional 'crime', shows where the real policing priorities currently lie. In fact the Dock Green myth of the friendly neighbourhood bobby could only have come out of the relative social peace of the 1950s and early 1960s.
The miners’ strike of 1984-85 was a watershed for many people. On the field around the coke depot at Orgreave (just outside Sheffield) on 18 June 1984, 4,200 police officers organised into 181 teams, with 58 dogs and 50 horses trying to intimidate and break the spirit of the miners. The fierce repression of the miners’ strike and the poll tax demonstration were not aberrations, but a more open return to the traditional ‘priorities’ of the police.
Some sections of the working class and even the middle class, especially young people, are antagonistic to the police. But working-class people are also worried about crime, which they are the main victims of. They feel the police are needed to deal with situations they cannot tackle themselves.
The police use this fear of crime to build support for themselves and demand more power and resources. We campaign for the accountability of the police. After all if their role really is to protect people from theft and physical attack, what possible objection can there be to being accountable to those they are allegedly protecting?
The Socialist Party campaigns for a democratic check on the police; for elected committees to have the right to hold them to account and to determine priorities and resources.
Not only should such committees be elected but groups that face political policing like the trade unions, black and Asian groups should have direct representation. We also campaign for a fully independent complaints committee, an independent forensic evidence system, for the weeding out of racist officers and for the reinstitution of the right to silence for those subjected to harassment and arrest.
Boston Police Commissioner, Robert Di Grazia once said: "We are not letting the public into our dirty little secret that those who commit the crime that worries the citizen most, violent street crime, are, for the most part, the products of poverty, unemployment, broken homes, rotten education, drug addiction and alcoholism, and other social ills about which the police can do little, if anything".
He denounces the politicians who "get away with law and order rhetoric that reinforces the mistaken notion that the police, in ever greater numbers and with ever more gadgetry, can alone control crime."
The regular British army was built as a colonial army with worldwide operations to ensure the power of the British state against colonial peoples. The armed forces are vital for the security of the capitalist state against other capitalist states. But the army is also the last line of defence against revolution and civil disorder. "Assisting the civil power", ie intervening in civil disturbances in Britain is a traditional part of the role of the army.
The army was used extensively during the industrial disputes in 1910-1914, and again from 1919-1926. The army was used against the miners of Tonypandy in 1912, intervened when the police went on strike in 1919 in Liverpool and were used extensively during the 1926 General Strike. The army was used to try and break the firefighters' strike in 1977 and was used once again in the firefighters’ dispute of 2002-2003.
Major disturbances, which the police were unable to handle, would again see the attempted used of the army: however, with the semi-militarisation of sections of the police (riot squads etc) this would probably require a higher threshold of disorder than before. It is well-known that the army has detailed contingency plans for domestic counter-revolutionary and "low-intensity" mainland British operations.
The political police.
Every capitalist state operates one or more secret police services, which are in large part aimed at following and disrupting what they call "subversive elements" (ie political movements like the Socialist Party, militant trade unionists and radical activists of every kind who oppose their policies and their system). Their role has been exposed in The Enemy Within, a book by journalist Seumas Milne, about their role in the miners' strike and their attempt, linked to the Cook Report programme and the Daily Mirror, to destroy the NUM leader Arthur Scargill "politically and socially". This culminated in an abortive attempt by intelligence services to deposit £500,000 in a Scargill-linked bank account in Dublin with the aim of framing him as an embezzler.
More recently the BBC programme True Spies claimed that MI5 had sent agents into organisations like Militant (the forerunner of the Socialist Party) and also recruited trade union leaders as agents in order to keep radical ideas in check. Whether or not this was the case, the state’s activities did not stop Militant leading a successful struggle to defend jobs and services in Liverpool City Council and the magnificent campaign that defeated Thatcher’s hated poll tax.
THE BRITISH state today is obviously
with extracts taken from What is the state ? an introduction to marxism from the socialist party