The popular view of Socialism is a bundle of misconceptions. One of the most common is that Socialism means nothing more than the control of everything and everybody by the State, swollen to huge dimensions and constituting in effect a distinct official class in opposition to the bulk of the people. Yet nothing is more certain than that the State, throughout its history, has been the weapon of the property-owning class (the means by which it has protected and upheld its property) and with the accomplishment of the social revolution and the disappearance of such a class, the State also will disappear.
What is the State? Those who talk most glibly about it seldom offer evidence of possessing a clear idea of its nature. They usually express themselves in vague idealistic language which serves to hide either their ignorance or their real meaning.
In brief, the State is that central body which by coercion induces the rest of society either to do things which they have no desire to do or to refrain from acts which are dictated by their desires. It is thus the element of organised force operating on a comprehensive scale which forms the essential feature of the State.
The actual organisation of the State has varied with the changes in the social order, but that feature has remained unchanged. The first form of private (as distinct from common) property was the chattel form. Domestic animals, women and children, and finally enslaved debtors and captives became chattels in turn and the State developed in the first place in order to preserve the chattel relationship. The ancient empires, centred in the city-states (such as Rome, Athens and Babylon) were gigantic chattel procuring and tribute levying machines. In these States the freemen (i.e., the non-chattels) were alone citizens, privileged to bear arms and control political affairs. They used their control to hold their chattels in subjection and to protect them from others who might covet and struggle for these principal sources of wealth.
The break up of these ancient empires was followed by the rise of feudalism, a system based on serfdom. The serfs were legally bound to the soil. The landholder was also the lord of the serfs and exploited their labour power accordingly. The land-holders as a class formed a hierarchy with the King at its head. Here we find another form of State, which, in turn, gave way to yet another form, as a new property-owning ruling-class rose to power.
The modern parasitees, the Capitalist class (developed from the merchants, etc., of the cities), have brought the State to its present form. They acquired concessions from the monarch by means of their peculiar weapon, money, and finally curbed his authority along with the downfall of the feudal aristocrats by forcible revolution. In the place of the feudal State we now find representative bodies controlling affairs such as municipal councils and Parliament. The ruling classes of the ancient and medieval worlds ruled by their own right arms; the modern tyrants introduced the standing army as the mainstay of their sway. The military organisations of their predecessors gave way to the political parties of the Parliamentary arena, while the actual administration of the law was handed over to an ever-increasing professional bureaucracy.
The development of modern industry has brought to the front a new political element, i.e., the proletariat, the propertyless working class. For the first time in history the slaves are enfranchised and are openly recognised by their rulers to be the most important factor in the State. Only gradually, however, are they coming to realise the fact themselves.
The modern State, therefore, is a contradiction. It consists of a repressive machine supported by the very class which is repressed. It exists to protect private property in the means of life against the actual producers of those means. It is the political expression of the antagonism of economic interests in society.
Whence then arises the illusion that Socialism, a system of society involving a community of interests, will develop the State to a still greater extent? Partly, no doubt, from the confusing and ignorant propaganda of the so-called Socialist elements in the Labour Party ; but partly also from the fact that Socialism can only be established by means of the State in the hands of the working class. We here those who are afraid of bureaucracy make their mistake is in forgetting the phrase in italics.
Socialism cannot be established by the Capitalists. It cannot be established by the
State as it exists at present. Only when the workers, organised consciously and politically, capture the State and convert it into the agent of emancipation will it be possible to convert the means of life (i.e., the land, factories, railways, etc.) into the common property of the whole people.
This revolution within the State, necessary as it is for the social revolution, so far from extending the bureaucracy will abolish it. The first act of the revolutionary administration will be to take direct control and responsibility from the hands of the officials in every department. The working class must itself become the State. As the revolution proceeds and the Capitalist class are stripped of their economic privileges, so the workers’ organisation will cease to be political and will become economic. It will be concerned, not with government of persons, but with the administration of the social means of production and distribution. Class distinctions having been abolished, class antagonism will disappear and with it the need for a repressive force.
The reader may object, “But what of the law which depends on the State, is that to go, too? How will you preserve order among individuals?” Supporters of Capitalism among the workers seldom realise how much institutions such as “the law” are part of the social system existing at a particular time and are not eternal necessities of nature. “The law” has changed along with the State that made it. The laws of the ancient patricians, the laws of the medieval barons, have followed the customs of prehistoric barbarians; the laws of the last of the exploiting classes will do likewise and there will thus be an end of laws and the beginning of social freedom.
The civil law regulates contracts and implies private property and the production of commodities. When society consciously regulates production and distribution, contracts will become meaningless. The individual will depend for the satisfaction of his economic wants, not upon some other individual or group, but upon society as a whole ; consequently, he will have no motive for entering into bargains or seeking the aid of the law to enforce their terms.
Turning to the criminal law, that also will become meaningless in a society of equals. Time was when, in the interests of Capitalism, the idea was spread that there existed a distinct criminal type with marked physical and psychological characteristics. To-day that idea is discredited even among Capitalist authorities themselves. Crime is the effect of social conditions. Crimes against property such as theft, arson, etc., are directly traceable to economic causes which will disappear along with poverty and the fear of poverty. Crimes against persons are also in the majority of cases bound up with these same economic causes; while even the so-called “crimes of passion” arise largely from the unwholesome conditions, moral as well as physical, which are inevitably engendered by Capitalism.
Socialists do not pretend that violent anti-social acts will entirely cease to occur, but that they will, undoubtedly, dwindle to such proportions as to render the existing legal methods of dealing with offenders obsolete. The concern of society under Socialism will not be repression but the development of a physical environment and mental atmosphere which will allow for the full evolution of the individual and thus secure his voluntary co-operation with his fellows. Comradeship will take the place of coercion and for the first time since the dawn of history the legal State will give way to a moral society.
(Socialist Standard, June 1924)