State and Government

By Gerald Desmond
Socialist Party of Canada
(circa 1911)


It would appear that this important question of the state and government is not as well studied as should be. A great many books, pamphlets and treatises of various kinds have, indeed, been written under this head. Most of these, while very excellent and on the whole historically accurate, appear to pay too little attention to the important question of modern state and governmental institutions.

Believing that it would be advantageous to the workers to more thoroughly understand this question, the writer feels constrained to attempt a short analysis and review the state, dealing to a certain extent with its origin and development, but principally endeavoring to put in plain and simple language his conception of the modern “democratic” state, its character and functions. It is to be hoped that the doing of this will result in a wide discussion of the question and, what is badly needed, of it being taken up and dealt with in a more comprehensive and detailed manner than is possible here. It is recommended before the student reads the present little work that he should peruse the companion one entitled Struggle for Existence, which will serve to some extent as an introduction to this.

Origin and Growth of the State

In tracing the growth of Institutions, the hardest thing is to know where to start. Speaking in a scientific sense the “beginning” of anything is an assumption. What is the State? When was it born? How has it developed? These and similar queries come to us and the answering of them presents, as we are fain to admit, some difficulty.

In our opinion, the first organization which in any way approximated to or resembled our modern State sprang into existence with the introduction of slavery in primitive society. With such tribal or “clan” councils as may have existed in early communal eras we have nothing to do. Judging from such survivals of primitive communism as we can study today these were “governed” more by what may be called “public opinion” than by written “laws”.

The State may be defined in a loose way, as the power to coerce; in whatever form their power may be manifested at any given time. Now rulership, mastery, government, coercion, imply ruled, enslaved, governed, coerced. Why do some individuals, or a class, desire the power to rule, own, govern, coerce? The answer is easy – because it is profitable for them – it pays to be in this position and hold the power. Before the era of slavery – before it became profitable to hold the power to rule and govern others; before the human unit could produce more than it took to keep him or her alive – we find no state. To put it in other words, the possession of the powers of coercion being of no use to anyone, naturally enough no one wanted them.

The development of human society has been from the simple to the complex. This is true of all things of industry and production – the base of life – of slavery and of the state.

State a Class Institution

The State is organized force. We find, on examination, that from the first it has always and at every time been a class institution. This is, perhaps hard to grasp for the average individual of today. To most of us the state and governmental organizations are things which exist to conserve the interests of, to serve, to help, the community as a whole. We are frequently told, in fact it is dinned into our ears without ceasing by all supporters of the present system, that this is so. Nothing, however could be further from the facts of the case. The state has always been a strictly class weapon used to conserve class interests. The first state organizations came into existence as a result of class (instead of, as before, communal) ownership of the means of life, slavery and exploitation. The first master class had to have some properly organized power behind them to suppress slave rebellions, etc. Therefore, to meet the needs of the case, they organized armed forces (slave guards) to protect their property rights as slave owners. In order that these forces might be employed to the best advantage they further organized themselves into what may be called “administrative councils”. Here we have the state in its infancy – the administrative council representing the brain, as it were, the slave guards the fighting or striking arm. Our modern state is much more complex, of course, though still, as we cannot but remark in passing, the same thing in another form.

Early State Organization Frankly Founded on Force

In tracing history we find that all the earlier forms of state organizations were frankly and avowedly founded upon force. There was little or no pretense at “democracy” or “justice”. The state existed and its powers were used to keep slave classes separated from the means of life and in a position of servitude and exploitation. Its power and strength was used to this end openly and fearlessly. We find at various historical periods the state organizations in the hands of various master classes. At one time it was the chattel slave owners. At another the Feudal nobility. At all times the class was in possession of the state organization were the rulers and exploiters. They had the power, the might, the right, and they used it.

This view of the state and government may be a new one to some readers. We would assure them, however, that it is historically correct. The powers of the state have always and invariably been used for the purposes of exploitation. This is not in any way remarkable, indeed, and once we get away from preconceived ideas it ceases to surprise. In a class society all things must partake of a class nature. There can be no exception to this rule. The class nature or character may be hidden, covered up, veiled, but it is in existence none the less. So long as we have economic classes in society the state will be in the hands of the politically dominant class and used by them to serve their interests. In a class society we cannot be without class struggles – class must clash with class. The possession of the state therefore (since the state means organized force) will be necessary to that class which would rule.

The modern state, with its multitudinous ramifications and complexity, is an extremely interesting study. It is particularly remarkable for the manner in which its class character and functions have been hidden and covered up. This age is essentially the age of sham. In other eras the ruling class have been composed of a fighting breed. The mailed hand and naked sword have been openly displayed. Our present ruling class, however, are of a different calibre. They are tricksters, traders, diplomats. The attitude of the average feudal lord towards his serf was: “You are my slave. You belong to me. I shall hold you just as long as I have the power”. This attitude was openly displayed – there was no attempt at disguise. The design of the modern capitalist class, on the other hand, is to deceive, to mislead, to conceal as far as possible, and to resort to actual measures of suppression only when absolutely forced to do so. When pushed, however, or at all seriously threatened they have proved themselves just as ruthless as any others who have gone before.

The modern democratic state is a huge joke. It is merely the veil behind which modern slavery hides itself. The accepted dictum of “democracy” is “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. We have no quarrel with this definition, except to point out that “the people” are not “governed”. “The people” do the governing, if our idea be correct. “The people” to us must of necessity refer to the owners of the machines of production. To call the modern working class, who are divorced from the means of life and sell themselves on the market to the highest bidder, “people” is something we cannot tolerate.

Origin of the Ballot

One of the principal arguments urged in support of the “democratic” state as a non-class proposition is that the principal and most powerful – in fact, the directing – body, the parliamentary council, is elective and that the state is therefore in the hands of the community as a whole. This specious argument, however, is not in line with the actual facts. We admit that a certain section of the working class, as well as practically the whole of the capitalist class, are in possession of that expression of political power called the ballot, and that its possession by them places in their hands a weapon of tremendous offensive power if intelligently used. It might be interesting for us to understand how the political power which is the ballot came to be placed in the hands of the workers. Fortunately on this point we need not be at a loss. The workers, or a portion of them, anyhow, were enfranchised and principally through the efforts of the rising capitalist class. This will seem a strange thing to those who are so far “next” to modern conditions to know that one of the greatest aims of the capitalist class is at all times to keep the political power in their own hands. It is easily understood, however, when we come to consider the circumstances under which the thing was done. Briefly stated, the facts are these: The modern capitalist class were locked in a struggle for supremacy with the aristocracy and feudal nobility. They needed the workers to assist them in this struggle. A certain section of the workers were enfranchised therefore – given political power – in order that they might be used to help in this process. As a matter of fact, the ballot was almost forced on the workers.

The subdivision of the modern state organizations are many and varied. Let us examine a few of them briefly. Take our Legislative Assemblies. The class character of these bodies can be easily determined by observing their actions. In “civilized” and “modern” countries a certain portion of the legislative bodies are elective. That is to say, a certain number of the inhabitants of the country have the privilege within certain limits of saying who shall “represent” them in the legislative halls. That is what is meant by “democratic government”. Not being “democrats” we are not interested in “democracy”, yet cannot refrain from pointing out that if equal suffrage be the ideal of “democracy” the less noise we make about it the better. Even in the most “civilized” countries, the ideal of voting equality is far from realization. The “right to vote” is still in some parts very restricted. Moreover the tendency is towards an effort to still further restrict it if possible. Our modern ruling class, which at one time almost forced the franchise on the workers, may be said at the present time to have become somewhat alarmed and to be endeavoring by every means in its power to restrict its use and nullify its effects. We need only refer in this connection to the electoral system of Germany and other places.

From the foregoing it might be inferred that it is impossible for the workers to obtain a political expression through the legislative bodies. Such is in fact maintained by our Anarchist friends. Despite the various restrictions, however, this is not so. The workers, in the more advanced countries at least, are in a position to do what they like with the legislative bodies. They can capture them at any time they like. The reason they do not do so is after all in the main not because they cannot but because they are not yet sufficiently intelligent nor alive to the class nature of society. The sham of “democracy” has so blinded our modern slaves that the curious spectacle is seen of the modern working class holding a political power and using it to place an important part of the state organization in the hands of their enemies to be used against themselves. This example of political assininity is, so far as we are aware almost unique in the world’s history, and will doubtless stir the risible faculties of future (and wiser) generations.

In sizing up the situation therefore, we are forced to the somewhat paradoxical conclusion that, after all, our modern legislative bodies are fairly “democratic” in so far as they can in our opinion be said to represent the intelligence of the average worker of to-day. At the same time they are strictly class institutions in so far as they act in the interest of a certain class in society. Whatever move the workers or any section of the workers make to endeavor to improve their condition we can and will expect the legislative bodies to be against them while as at present constituted. So long as the workers are blinded by the sham of democracy to their true position in society we can expect to find our legislative bodies constituted about as now. At the present time the capture of the powers of the state through the legislatures is not only possible but easy. Whether this will continue to be so it is impossible to say.

To sum up, the legislative bodies we find to be class institutions acting in the interest of a small class in society while depending for their very existence (as at present constituted) upon the other class, whom they “soak” at every possible opportunity.

Armed Forces

Armed forces, whether naval or military, regular troops, volunteers, militia, police, or whatsoever branch they may be, are the striking arm of the ruling class. Their first and primary function – which is covered up at all times as much as possible – is the keeping of the working class in subjection. The secondary function is to assist the ruling classes of various countries in the conquest of fresh markets for the goods of which said ruling classes desire to dispose and, also, to protect capitalists of one country against encroachments of capitalists of other countries.

The present system of class ownership of the means of life is international, and in face of any great emergency the ruling class of the whole world may be pretty well depended upon to act together, throwing aside all national or racial differences is so doing. In “normal times”, however – that it to say, when the workers are not very rebellious or making any move which necessitates the bosses using their strength in that direction, the armed forces find employment in various national fights (or, as we prefer to call them, family squabbles), of the ruling class. The modern State, as beforesaid, is a complex thing. There are wheels within wheels. Administration within administration. Part of our armed forces may be directly at the disposal of, say, a Dominion or National governmental body; part at that of a lesser organization; part under the authority of a municipality even, and so on. This gives rise sometimes to amusing incidents. The standard of right or wrong varies according to “whose ox is being gored”, or whose class interests assailed. We have seen for instance, a speaker hunted from the streets of one town by the police for certain utterances and within a few miles be allowed to say the same, and worse, without interruption. The reason for this is obvious. In the first instance, the powers (such as they were) had been placed by the workers in the hands of their enemies. In the other, they had realized the importance of keeping them in their own.

Both when directly employed in preserving the interests of the capitalist class by protecting their property rights in the machinery of production or suppressing slave revolts or disturbances, the armed forces are performing a class function. The preservation of class property rights in the machinery of production is for the benefit of the owning class alone. Its preservation, therefore, is a matter of class interest. Even the various national quarrels, in which the armed forces are employed, are master class wars. The obtaining of fresh markets or the conquest of uncivilized lands is not a thing that materially improves the condition of the workers of that nationality. We see, therefore, that despite the veil of “glory” with which the military profession is covered up, despite the parrot-cry of patriotism with which wars are waged, that the primary object and function of armed forces is their utilization as a power or weapon for the subjection of rebelling workers.

During the war of 1871 when the communards of Paris had seized the reins of Government and were making a gallant, even if ill-timed and ineffectual attempt, to hold them we find the German authorities releasing many thousand prisoners of war to assist in subduing rebellious workers. Here we have the class interest of the rulers of both nations plainly manifested, and over-riding the national differences. Many other instances might be adduced.

The part played by armed forces in previous revolutionary movements has been important. The power which lies in the hands of a thoroughly equipped and organized body of men is very great. Sometimes it has happened that the armed forces have practically “held up” the whole of the state organization for a short time. As for as the composition of these bodies, we find it to be almost exclusively of the working class. This is more so now than at any previous time since the inauguration of slavery. With the increase of intelligence the armed forces will, in the future as in the past, probably prove a two-edged sword so far as the present master class is concerned.

Departments of “Justice” – Law Courts, Etc.

What may be called the legal department of the state is an important wheel in the machinery of government. Its growth under this present system has been great – the reason for which we shall see later on. Like the armed forces, the principal function of the law courts and legal department is the protection of capitalist property in the means of production. Their secondary function is the settlement of disputes between individuals or sections of the ruling class.

The reason for the growth of legal ramifications in the present day must be explained. The modern capitalist class are, as beforesaid, the tricksters of the ages. They are not a class who seek the use of armed force. They have on the whole a dislike of force – a dangerous weapon, and one liable, as they well know, to rebound on their heads. They have found out that it pays better to rule or govern by fraud if possible. If the idea can be inculcated into the minds of the workers that they may go to certain places and receive impartial – i.e., non-class – decisions on certain questions they are liable to do so. If they believe these decisions or judgments to be “fair” – non-class – they are likely to abide by them. The average member of the working class is not aware of his class position or of the fact that in a class society all institutions partake of a class character. Therefore he goes with his “working class” troubles to the legal department of the other class to receive a “fair and impartial” judgment. Is it not humorous?

There is a much cheaper and easier way, in ordinary circumstances, of handling a semi-rebellious but ignorant working class, and the legal department of the State is in existence for this especial purpose. The secondary function of the courts and legal departments, to settle as speedily as possible differences which may occur between sections of the ruling class in regard to the distribution of the profits we need not go into, since it does not concern us. Summing up, we may say that the legal machinery of government with all its tedious procedure, red tape, formality, etc., serves an important purpose by misleading the workers, nullifying their efforts, leading them into sidetracks and hampering them in every possible way in their struggle for emancipation.

The Church

In some countries the church and state are still officially allied. In such instances the function of what may be called the “clerical department” of the state is closely akin to that of the legal department – i. e., the misleading of the workers. The method employed is of course different: in the one case the attempt to cover the class nature of things; in the other to distract our attention from the realities of material existence altogether. We mention the church only briefly in passing. As a department of the state it has fallen into disrepute in our more advanced countries – the capitalist class having apparently come to the conclusion either that it does not pay sufficiently or that it does better work if separated from the state or at least not openly allied thereto.

Minor State Departments

The minor ramifications of our modern state organizations – post-office, health, forestry departments, etc., are of less importance to us. They can be merely glanced at in passing. We are of the opinion that they, too, exist primarily for the benefit of the ruling class in society. We notice, for instance, that in most countries where the postal and telegraph services are governmentally owned, and therefore theoretically run for the “good of all”, that commercial messages – those sent at the instance of the capitalist class, that is – get a special rate, and from this, and other innumerable instances, we infer that there are run more with an eye to serving the master class than the “community”. We are also of the opinion that forestry departments are in existence to ensure that the preservation of “natural resources” for the ultimate benefit of certain sections of the master class rather than for the “dear people” of whom we hear so much prate. Of course, it is admitted that certain departments of the state organizations – boards of health, etc. – may at times act in what will be called the “public interest”. We are of opinion, however, that, even in their most altruistic moments, the spur to these acts is rather the preservation of capitalist life and property than any great regard for the working class. We have noticed in many instances of outbreaks of disease, etc., that our health departments have made but perfunctory attempts to deal with the thing while danger was confined principally to working class sections or districts, but have displayed tremendous energy and activity as soon as either the lives or property of the “upper classes” were concerned.


To sum it all up. We find that the modern state was practically born with slavery. That it is and always has been a class institution. That whichever class controls the state organization has the power and is the master class in society. We believe that with the end of slavery, which is foreshadowed in the growing rebellion of the workers, the state as at present constituted will disappear, having fulfilled its mission. So long, however, as the state is in existence its capture by the working class is a necessary thing for the bringing about of that political revolution – change of ownership of the means of production – which alone can end our slavery.