We Need a New State Debate (Part One) — Chris O’Kane

by cominsitu

The first part of Chris O’Kane’s critical reevaluation of Marxist state theories and debates.

via We Need a New State Debate (Part One) — Chris O’Kane — Legal Form

We live in tumultuous times. Depending on whom you ask or even what day you happen to ask them, socialism is back, but so is fascism; neoliberalism is in crisis, but authoritarian neoliberalism is also on the rise. A range of scholars and public intellectuals have sought to understand such developments, using these and other concepts in various ways. These concepts have likewise come to play important animating roles in electoral campaigns, political parties, social movements, protests, marches, and spontaneous strikes. Yet these theories, articles, policy proposals, and political activities pass all too quickly over an issue that has been at the heart of debates over socialist theory and practice in previous eras of upheaval: the state.

In what follows I provide an overview of the context, issues, and positions in these debates. [1] I also point to primary and secondary sources for those who are interested in gaining a deeper understanding of these debates. [2] My intention is not to provide a comprehensive or authoritative study or to advance a position on these previous debates, but to provide an overview that signals their importance for our contemporary moment, and lays the foundations for a contemporary state debate.

The Dawn of the Workers’ Movement [3]

The state has been an object of contention since the dawn of the European workers’ movement in the nineteenth century. During this period different segments of the movement that would have lasting influence developed different conceptions of the state, how the state related to the capitalist economy, and whether or not a state was integral to an emancipated society. Utopian socialists such as Robert Owen founded small autonomous communities as an alternative to the capitalist nation-state, while others proposed founding large-scale neo-feudalist corporatist states. Anarchists such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon likewise argued that the capitalist nation-state should be abolished in favour of associations. Social democrats like Ferdinand Lasalle (and the Social Democratic Party of Germany’s, or SPD’s, Gotha programme) viewed the state as a neutral instrument that could be used to pass progressive reforms–the expansion of the franchise, the reform of the state and the economy along social-democratic lines, etc.–that would eventually lead to the realization of socialism. At various points Marx conceived the state as an alienated entity, a neutral instrument, a semi-autonomous entity–and he critiqued it as a form inherent to capitalism. He likewise argued that the state should be seized, repurposed, and smashed, or that it would wither away. [4] In spite of the 1848 revolutions, the Paris Commune, and the heated debates between Marx and Bakunin in the First International, social democracy became ascendent, in large part due to the constitutional reforms that followed the 1848 revolutions. [5]

Reform or Revolution? [6]

The question of “reform or revolution” can be said to mark the next state debate. This debate occurred within peculiar theoretical parameters and at a unique historical conjuncture, arguably the height of the workers’ movement in the capitalist core. It was made possible by the unlikely synthesis of social democracy with an interpretation of Marx’s theory promulgated by Engels under the auspices of the Second International.

Following Marx’s death, Engels ensured that Marx’s unfinished and previously unpublished writings appeared in print, but also that certain interpretations of these writings (by himself and also Karl Kautsky) were disseminated widely. Engels himself also published several highly influential works: Anti-Dühringand The Origin of Private Property, the Family, and the State. Consequently, Engels’ interpretation of Capital and his own pronouncements informed the Marxism of the Second International. Capital was interpreted as a work of scientific socialism that identified the laws of economic development which would culminate in the breakdown of capitalism and the expropriation of the means of production by the masses. Yet Capital lacked a theory of the capitalist state, or indeed a theory of the role of the state in the establishment of socialism.

Engels himself addressed this lacuna in his historical account of the development of private property, the family, and the state. Here Engels offered an influential transhistorical definition of the state. In all modes of production, the state was a semi-autonomous but neutral power manifesting class contradictions but nonetheless above society–and could thus be used by any class to achieve its own political objectives.

The paramount question in regard to the state of the socialists of the Second International was thus the following: how should the state be used to advance the development of socialism, and how would it “wither away”? Engels himself advanced two strategies. He argued that the state would “wither away” following the revolutionary seizure of power and the dictatorship of the proletariat. But he also argued that he and Marx had been wrong to think that the revolution was imminent or that it would be the work of a small minority party, when it should be a broad party that strives to establish socialism through state reforms. It is within such a framework that we can situate the different positions within the “reform or revolution” debate.

Capitalism’s recovery after the Great Depression of 1873 led the reformists to put their case first. Karl Kautsky, “the socialist pope”, close associate of Engels, and lead theoretician of the largest workers’ party in the world (the German SPD) argued that the demise of capitalism was not imminent and so the conditions for revolution were not yet ripe. Since the state was a neutral instrument, the SPD should participate in the electoral process to enact reforms for the purpose of progressing until conditions were indeed ripe. Eduard Bernstein, another leading theoretician of the SPD, made a more controversial case for reformism. Anticipating later analyses of the “Keynesian” golden age of capitalism, Bernstein argued that Marx’s non-scientific theory of immiseration had been disproved: capitalism had not collapsed, and the living standards of the working class had improved. Using Engels’ comments in favor of reformism as justification, Bernstein argued that reformism–and more specifically electoralism and even governance by coalition–was the only road to socialism.

The 1905 Russian Revolution, in which mass strikes and the election of workers’ councils had pressured the Tsarist government into concessionary democratic reforms, marked the occasion for those who supported revolution to respond. Left communist Anton Pannekoek debated Kautsky in the pages of the SPD journal, Die Neue Zeit. Kautsky provided a stagist analysis of the 1905 revolution arguing that the mass strikes happened because Russia lacked democratic representation. Achieving the latter now meant that Russia could steer the reformist course Kautsky proposed. Pannekoek argued that strikes and councils, rather than the party, trade unions, and the state itself, constituted the revolutionary tactics that should be embraced, and that the institutions Kautsky supported impeded them. Lenin adopted a different position, maintaining that these institutions should be conquered by the revolutionary party on the road to revolution. Luxemburg developed a position between Pannekoek and Lenin: the mass strike represented a new revolutionary tactic and organizations of the workers’ movement should be reformed to represent the will of the educated masses.

The First World War brought these differences to a head, leading to the collapse of the Second International. Kautsky, the SPD, and other social democratic parties supported their countries’ war efforts. The left opposition opposed the war and interpreted it as the coming final crisis of the highest stage of capitalism: imperialism.

Lenin’s State and Revolutioninveighed against reformism and argued for a revolutionary interpretation of the seizing and the smashing of the state. Drawing largely on Engels’ model of the state in The Origin of Private Property, the Family, and the State, Lenin argued that the bourgeois state expressed the class contradiction of capitalist society. Its immense bureaucracy, police force, and army thus existed to oppress the many in the interests of the few. The dictatorship of the proletariat would oppress the few in the interests of the many. Hence the socialist state would be smaller than the capitalist state, with proletarian bureaucracy, law enforcement, and armies. Once they were unnecessary, following the disappearance of class contradictions, it would “wither away”.

Following the Bolshevik seizure of power and Lenin’s change of tactics, Luxemburg and Pannekoek developed criticisms of Lenin. Luxemburg criticized Bolshevism’s non-democratic turn and urged a return to the democratic bases of the soviets. Pannekoek argued that the only revolutionary tactic in the face of the imminent final crisis of capitalism was increased reliance upon the councils. Lenin castigated him for such an “infantile disorder”: the world revolution could only be built by an international revolutionary party centrally directed from Moscow.

Classical Marxist Interpretations of Stalinism, Fascism, and Keynesianism

However, capitalism once again recovered and the world revolution did not come to pass. Stalin took power in the Soviet Union. Fascism rose in western Europe. In the wake of the Great Depression, many capitalist countries introduced “Keynesian” planning.

This turn of events was analyzed from within the framework of classical Marxism. From exile, Trotsky defended the advances of the USSR, but condemned its leadership, conceiving it as a “degenerated” workers’ state. Still adhering to the Leninist program, Trotsky argued that the conditions for the revolutionary seizure of the state were still ripe, but that there was a crisis of revolutionary leadership. The Leninist theory of state monopoly capitalism was in turn adapted to analyze Keynesianism as a particular mode of state administration of the market, overcoming the crisis that was fomenting anarchy in the market. Marxists in the Global South eventually took up the imperial aspects of this theory, theorizing neo-colonialism as another way in which crises have been staved off while developing anti-imperialist positions.

From the Left, Pannekoek argued that two types of state capitalism had overcome the economic and political crises of the 1920s. Stalinism consisted in direct state control over production, Keynesianism in the state’s direct control of capitalist firms. Each perpetuated class domination and antagonism. Ever the optimist, though, Pannekoek argued that these conditions would not last and that capitalism should be overthrown by wildcat strikes and councils. Paul Mattick Sr.’s Marx and Keynes later provided a more sophisticated argument for why Keynesianism could not last: the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall would reassert itself. [7]

Western Marxist Interpretations of Stalinism, Fascism, Keynesianism

“Western Marxism” had a more sombre debate about the role of the state and this regressive historical trajectory. Rather than centring itself upon the question of “reform or revolution” within the framework of classical Marxism, “Western Marxism” developed interpretations of Marx that encompassed a broader social theory, likewise developing notions of the culture, ideology, subjectivity, and the state in order to explain the persistence of capitalist society.

Antonio Gramsci and Karl Korsch developed Marx’s notion of the counter-revolution. For Gramsci the state was part of a historical bloc that ruled on the basis of hegemony. Following the crisis of the First World War, fascism had won the battle of hegemony over communism in Italy. Korsch argued that Marx had not anticipated the fact that counter-revolutions are part of historical development, with fascism as an exemplary example.

A number of thinkers associated with the Institute for Social Research developed sophisticated critical social theories that amplified Marx’s critical insights. Walter Benjamin’s enigmatic “Critique of Violence” critiqued law and the state as inherently violent. The early work of Marx Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Erich Fromm assessed how the authoritarian structures of the economy, the state, and the family reinforced each other, generating a subjectivity that led Germans, even parts of the German working class, to embrace fascism.

Nazism and Keynesianism led to a debate within the Institute over how to interpret these phenomena. Friedrich Pollock and Horkheimer argued that, in the current stage of late capitalism, the state now managed the market, overcoming capitalism’s crisis tendencies and integrating the working class. The authoritarian state had thus taken on the role of total social capital, with the “new ruling class” using the state as a “tool” to “control everything it wants to” control, including “the general economic plan” of production and circulation, “foreign policy, rights and duties”, and the “life and death of the individual”. [8] Contra Pollock, Franz Neumann argued that an ensemble of monopolies had aligned to use the German state as “the power instrument of a new ruling group”, and thus represented a “totalitarian form of state capitalism”. [9] Marcuse’s notion that the “National Socialist state” was “the government of hypostatized economic, social, and political forces” lies somewhere between Pollock and Neumann. [10] Finally, Adorno contended that Pollock’s idea “transformed hell into a bureaucratic hierarchy”. His unpublished “Reflections on Class Theory” suggests that the state was used as a rationalizing instrument under the monopoly rule of the capitalist class, counteracting but not overcoming capitalism’s crisis tendencies, integrating the consciousness of the working class but not overcoming class antagonism as such. [11]

Marcuse and Adorno’s theories were further developed in their late work. Marcuse famously argued that Keynesianism had integrated individuals into one-dimensional society. [12] Adorno’s “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?” argued that although the Keynesian state had counteracted capitalism’s crises tendencies for the time being, antagonism and domination persisted. [13]

Althusser and his students revisited scientific socialism, drawing upon developments in French bourgeois social science. In pointed contrast to the Frankfurt School, the Althusserian theory of the state developed out of Althusser’s reinterpretation of the classical Marxist topology of base and superstructure, which he characterized in terms of complex relations of overdetermination rather than mere determination. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” attempted to make classical Marxist theories of the state less descriptive and “more precise” by elaborating the complementary relation of the repressive and ideological functions of state apparatuses in the reproduction of relations of production. [14]

Henri Lefebvre and the Situationists, Althusser’s interlocutors, likewise held that the state’s repressive and ideological structures were pervasive. Yet in distinction to Althusser they criticized the state as an alienated entity related to capital, not as an element of the overdetermined structure. Hence the state should be abolished in favour of workers’ councils or autogestion (worker self-management), rather than seized.

The Crisis of Keynesianism and the Rise of State Debates

The crisis of the overaccumulation that began to manifest itself in the late 1960s, the ineffectiveness of Keynesian methods to redress the crisis, and the ensuing rise of monetarism and the New Right set the scene for a set of state debates over the course of the 1970s. This, as Simon Clarke argues, is because the inability of the state to manage the crisis called into question the predominant state monopoly capitalist and social democratic theories of the state. [15] This led a number of scholars from a number of Marxist perspectives to propound Marxian theories of the state that reflected these concerns.

The Poulantzas-Miliband Debate[16]

The Poulantzas-Miliband debate is probably the best known of these debates in the anglophone world. This debate was occasioned by Nicos Poulantzas’ review of Ralph Miliband’s The State and Capitalist Society. [17] Miliband’s influential work was written in the context of the British state’s inability to overcome the aforementioned crisis of the late 1960s and was in part a response to Tom Nairn and Perry Anderson’s argument that the crisis stemmed from the rule of the British state by the old aristocracy rather than the capitalist class.

Miliband is often portrayed as a proponent of the instrumentalist view of the state. However, it is more accurate to say that he conceived the state as a neutral institution within the context of a broader theory of the monopolization of the institutions of capitalist political economy by the ruling class. Rather than simply wielding the state as an instrument, the ruling class had “direct and indirect control over the state apparatus as well as over the economy and over the means of legitimating its rule”. [18] On this basis, Miliband turned to documenting how capital exercised control over the state, thus limiting the extent of social democratic reforms.

Although Poulantzas’ review of The State and Capitalist Society was primarily concerned with method [19], it garnered enough popularity for Poulantzas’ Classes in Contemporary Capitalism to be translated. Poulantzas argued that the capitalist state is a “semi-autonomous” entity by virtue of the structural role it plays in reproducing capitalist society. According to Poulantzas, the capitalist state does this within particular historical conjunctures by securing the reproduction of capitalism through ideological (as well as repressive) means that represent the interests of the capitalist class as whole in opposition to those of particular capitalists while fragmenting the working class.

As Simon Clarke indicates, the questions that Miliband and Poulantzas raised about the limits and role of the state informed the Conference of Socialist Economists debate alongside the West German state derivation debate and world market debate. [19]


[1] This approach differs from other works on Marxian state theory that tend to approach the subject by way of analytical distinctions. Those interested in such an approach may consult Chris O’Kane, “State Violence, State Control: Marxist State Theory and the Critique of Political Economy”, Viewpoint (24 October 2014), available at: https://www.viewpointmag.com/2014/10/29/state-violence-state-control-marxist-state-theory-and-the-critique-of-political-economy/. My discussion below of the Frankfurt School’s state debate, Althusser, the state derivation debate, and the world market debate draw on this work. See also Clyde W. Barrow, Critical Theories of the State: Marxist, Neomarxist, Postmarxist (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993) and Bob Jessop, The Capitalist State: Marxist Theories and Methods (Oxford: Blackwell, 1982).

[2] For that reason I have also tried to refer to primary and secondary texts that are readily available online in what follows.

[3] For an overview see Geoff Eley, Forging Democracy: the History of the Left in Europe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[4] For a discussion of Marx and Engels’ theories of the state, see Bob Jessop, “Marx and Engels on the State”, in Sally Hibbin (ed.), Politics, Ideology, and the State (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1978), 40–68; also available at: https://bobjessop.wordpress.com/2014/01/12/marx-and-engels-on-the-state/. See also O’Kane, “State Violence”.

[5] See Christopher Clark, “What Should We Think about the 1848 Revolutions Now?” London Review of Books (7 March 2019); available at: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v41/n05/christopher-clark/why-should-we-think-about-the-revolutions-of-1848-now.

[6] Excerpts from the documents to which I refer in what follows (up to my discussion of Gramsci) are provided in The Communist Research Cluster’s reader on “European Communism and Socialism”, available at: https://communistresearchcluster.wordpress.com/readers/.

[7] Paul Mattick, “Marx and Keynes”, Western Socialist (November–December 1955); available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/mattick-paul/1955/keynes.htm.

[8] Friedrich Pollock, “State Capitalism: Its Possibilities and Limitations” [1941], in Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (eds.), The Essential Frankfurt School Reader (New York: Continuum, 1990), 92.

[9] Franz Neumann, Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1942), 73; as cited in Karsten H. Piep, “A Question of Politics, Economics, or Both? The Neumann-Pollock Debate in Light of Marcuse’s ‘State and Individual under National Socialism’”, Cultural Logic (2004); available at: https://www.academia.edu/533612/A_Question_of_Politics_Economics_or_Both_The_Neumann-Pollock_Debate_in_Light_of_Herbert_Marcuses_State_and_Individual_under_National_Socialism_.

[10] Neumann, Behemoth; as cited in Piep, “Question”, 78.

[11] Theodor Adorno, “Reflections on Class Theory” [1942], trans. Rodney Livingstone, in Cold Tiedemann (ed.), Can One Live After Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 93.

[12] Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (London: Beacon Press, 1964); also available here: https://www.marxists.org/ebooks/marcuse/one-dimensional-man.htm.

[13] Theodor Adorno, “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society? Opening Address to the 16th German Sociological Congress” [1964], available here: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/adorno/1968/late-capitalism.htm

[14] Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation)” [1970], in Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 121; also available at https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm

[15] The state monopoly capitalist theory is defined above. The social democratic theory of the state essentially reflected Bernstein’s view and was reflected in an array of social and political theories, political parties, and governments during the era.

[16] For a helpful overview of the debate see Clyde W. Barrow, “The Poulantzas-Miliband Debate: An Intellectual History”, in Stanley Aronowitz and Peter Bratsis (eds.), Paradise Lost: State Theory Reconsidered (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 3; also available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/277664970_The_Miliband-Poulantzas_Debate_An_Intellectual_History.

[17] Ralph Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1969); also available at: https://libcom.org/library/state-capitalist-society-ralph-miliband.

[18] Simon Clarke, “The State Debate”, in Simon Clarke (ed.), The State Debate (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1991), 1, at 19.

[19] This is Barrow’s insightful point.

Chris O’Kane is Adjunct Assistant Professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.

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