The storming of the Winter Palace, October, 1917
There is so much confusion, vagueness, and even mysticism regarding the State that, in discussing it, I hardly know where to begin. Perhaps one of the most pernicious unfounded ideas is “there has always been a State.” In order to accept this, one must use such a broad definition of State that the term becomes meaningless. In particular, when we look at hunter-gatherer systems (according to the best information I’ve been able to find), we see a society without the fundamental element that, in my view, defines the State: compulsion. If there is no compulsion, and no threat of compulsion, and, above all, no organized force responsible for compulsion, then, whatever you’re going to call the social organization, it just isn’t a State.
The lack of compulsion was pretty clearly a product of egalitarianism—or, rather, egalitarianism meant there was no need for compulsion: no one had more than anyone else. In this write-up from Psychology Today, I was especially intrigued by the notion of “aggressive egalitarianism,” versus passive. The egalitarianism was, in turn, the result of scarcity. Lacking not only the means to produce a surplus, but (perhaps more important), the means to preserve what surplus nature might from time to time provide, meant no chance for an individual or a small group of individuals to accumulate wealth.
Before going further, a note on equality: I think the notion that “equality” refers to people being identical in every way is best left to reactionary science-fiction dystopias. But it is important to be precise about what is meant by the word, because it’s going to come up a great deal in this post. In brief, I mean equality in the sense that no one is entitled to a greater share of the products of human labor than anyone else, or a greater voice in how these products are distributed.
I’ve spoken before about the relationship between the State and class society, but this time let me look at it from the standpoint of its initial development: Once Man has invented the tools and technology (ie, agriculture) to regularly produce a sufficient surplus to permit the accumulation of wealth, and, thus, to support a leisure class, then the question at once comes up: how does this leisure class maintain its privileges, its luxuries, as against the rest of the population who, we might assume, would just as soon have some of the leisure and luxuries for themselves? If I am able to amass a certain amount of wealth from the labor of others—generally, at that stage of society, slaves of one form or another—then I can use some of it to pay for armed individuals to protect my privileges, and to enforce a monopoly on violence.
Once there is a group of armed individuals protecting the property and privileges of a leisure class, we have several things: First, we have a State, because that is exactly the definition I’m using. Second, we begin to have religious, philosophical, and moral injunctions to support the State. Third, we have, for the first time, the chance to hear someone say, “What do you mean leisure class? Do you know how hard I work?”
The question “when are two individuals part of different socio-economic classes, and when is one part a privileged layer of the same class as the other” is going to become very important, but I hope we can skip it for now. The point is, as long as there is socio-economic inequality, there must be a State. The State is a function of, and inevitably tied to, social inequality—in particular, inequality in the distribution of goods. As long as there is inequality, there must be a State; if there is a State, we know there must be inequality. The form of the State varies, but, in general, we can say that it always involves three aspects: a gendarmerie to maintain the property of the exploiting class, an army to deal with external threats, and a bureaucracy to handle the administrative details that inevitably come with the first two. These aspects may be larger, smaller, or combined in various ways, but they are always there. As society progresses, division and productivity of labor increases, relationships mediated by property become more diverse and powerful, and the State in general and the bureaucracy in particular becomes larger and more complex. Indeed, as capitalism advances through the industrial revolution, the bureaucracy becomes so large and complex that it begins to obscure the other functions, and make it appear as if the armed forces are secondary to it.
Another important function State begins to take on is that, except in unusual and extreme circumstances, it gives the appearance of standing apart from and above the contending classes, and mediating their conflict. Custom becomes codified into systems of laws that reflect the actual class relationships while giving the appearance of creating them—to identify the law as determining the relationship between classes is like saying thermometers cause changes in temperature, but it can sometimes look that way, if we ignore history and broader social context.
But with all of this complexity and fetishism, what always lies at the heart of it is the defense of inequality, of social privilege, and making certain those who create the material wealth of society are held in check and prevented from taking their share of it; in Trotsky’s words, “A special apparatus . . . for holding in subjugation the majority of the people.” And underneath the inequality is the inability of society to satisfy everyone’s wants.
So, then, two questions arise: 1) Once society is able to satisfy everyone’s wants, does that mean the elimination of inequality? And 2), Does the elimination of inequality necessarily mean the end of the State? In my opinion, the answer to both questions is yes. The first does not come without effort, without the overthrow of the State and placing it into the hands of the majority, and, even after that (as we’ll see in subsequent chapters) it is not an automatic result. The second is what I want to discuss here.
One argument for the Marxist view that the end of inequality will result in the withering away of the State was expressed by Hegel: “that which is rational is real, that which becomes irrational becomes unreal.” Or, in other words, once there is no reason for the State to exist, once it serves no purpose, why would it continue? Indeed, there are habits, customs, and expectations; but these by themselves aren’t powerful enough sustain a large bureaucratic institution of compulsion once there is no reason to compel. “The material premise of communism should be so high a development of the economic powers of man that productive labor, having ceased to be a burden, will not require any goad, and the distribution of life’s goods, existing in continual abundance, will not demand—as it does not now in any well-off family or ‘decent’ boardinghouse—any control except that of education, habit and social opinion. Speaking frankly, I think it would be pretty dull-witted to consider such a really modest perspective ‘utopian.'”
The money spent by the ruling class on preserving its rule is like the rake in poker; it’s what you need to pay in order to have the game. It is not, by itself, the determining factor in how profitable the game is, but you certainly want it as low as possible. Hence, we can rely on the ruling class spending as little as it can get by with. Prisons, police, secret police, surveillance are not things that come cheap. Your likelihood of spending your money on a security system is a function of, primarily, how worried you are about being burglarized. And if you must install it, you spend as little as is required to provide a sense of safety. As we study generally “liberal” societies (the Weimar Republic, the Second Spanish Republic, Italy under Giolitti), we see the rise of fascism in response to the intensity of the class struggle; whereas such oppressive regimes as Franco’s in Spain and Greece under the Junta gradually became more liberal as the class struggle eased under the influence of the post-war boom. The same phenomenon is repeated, only faster, in several South American countries.
This observation is hardly profound: Society is as repressive as necessary to protect itself under given conditions. It can be complicated by custom, ideology, paranoia, and simple miscalculation on the part of the ruling elite; and it, too, has its dialectical element: sometimes a less oppressive state can reduce class tensions, and a more repressive State exacerbate them. But the general rule still retains its power. If anyone can suggest a counter-example—that is, an extremely repressive State in a peaceful society, or the reverse—I’d be glad to hear it. I believe we can simplify the matter into the following two laws:
1. There is always a correspondence between how repressive the State is at a given time and place, and the intensity of the class struggle.
2. The intensity of the class struggle is a reflection of the degree of inequality at that time and place.
I beg to submit that we Americans have seen this process up close for the last few years.
Knowing this, what, then, is the program of the vanguard party of the proletarian revolution after seizing State power? The workers councils, or similar organs, that made the revolution, become the sovereign power, and are guided by the principles of free election, and, moreover, immediate recall. Should there be full-time functionaries, they must be paid no more than the workers they represent, and “immediate transition to a regime in which all will fulfill the functions of control and supervision so that all may for a time become ‘bureaucrats’ and therefore nobody can become a bureaucrat.” This is Trotsky, quoting Lenin.
The analogy of a workers state to a trade union has often been made, with the further comparison of a deformed workers state to a corrupt trade union. As a thought experiment, consider how much better would be the condition of rank and file workers today if they were represented by unions in which the above policies were enforced.
So, that was the Bolshevik program for the State; why didn’t it work out that way? That will be for next time.