What is the State?
“We are the State !” exclaimed an enthusiastic young supporter of the Labour Candidate at a recent by-election. Presumably he included in the “we,” the working class, to which he obviously belonged; and as the notion to which he gave utterance lies at the root of much that is mis-called “Socialism,” it demands some consideration.
The State is the political organisation of society under the control of one class for the ruling of other classes. It arose and developed along with the division of society into classes and the struggle between those classes of which written history is the record.
Lewis Henry Morgan, in “Ancient Society,” showed how the State took its departure from the old kinship form of society as a result of the development of private property and chattel slavery. Up till that time the military force of the social group had been directed outward against hostile groups also based upon kinship, or common descent.
The essential feature of the State, however, is that its forces are directed not only against hostile States but inwards, against a subject class.
Thus the ancient city-states of Greece, Rome, etc., existed to procure and subjugate a slave population for the economic benefit of the patricians and rich plebians who were slave-owners. The kingdoms of the Middle Ages preserved the social supremacy of the feudal lords over the serfs, etc., while the modern State, no matter whether it be nominally monarchial or republican, exists to protect the accumulated wealth of the capitalist class against the wage-slaves who produce it.
Here, however, the bourgeois “democrat” (whether Conservative, Liberal or Labour) protests that these wage-slaves, as we call them, have the vote.
“They elect their own rulers; therefore, in effect, they govern themselves.”
It is necessary here to keep our eyes on history. The wage-earning section of the population have only been enfranchised for the last half-century, and up to the present have not developed the political knowledge and organisation necessary for the control of the State power in their own interests. They have, on the contrary, placed this power repeatedly in the hands of their class enemies by voting for parties which uphold the legal rights of those enemies. Hence we find that even under so-called “Labour” Governments the armed forces are held in readiness to repress any attempt by dissatisfied sections of the workers to challenge those property rights.
These facts lead superficial folk to the conclusion that the workers cannot acquire political control; that there is some obstacle inherent in the very nature of the political machinery which prevents the wage-slaves doing what all previous insurgent classes have done. We are frequently told, for instance, that the vote is “only a piece of paper” and has no real power. We have only to push this sort of “logic” a little further to see its utter absurdity.
A £5 note is “only a piece of paper,” but even an anarchist would not throw one away. The so-called “economic power” of the property-owning class is also represented by pieces of paper, i.e., title deeds, bonds, share certificates, I.O.U.s, bank books, receipts, bills of exchange, agreements, etc., legal documents, in fact, of every description. The validity of these pieces of paper is recognised and upheld by the State, which at present is but the executive of the entire capitalist class, the specially appointed guardian of its collective interests.
The enfranchisement of the workers was the outcome of industrial development. So long as they were scattered in small towns and villages under handicraft and early manufacturing conditions it was easy enough for the property-owning class to rule by virtue of their own organisation; but the advance of machinery brought the wage-slaves together in masses of formidable size, animated, moreover, by an increasing discontent with the existing social order. The political expression of this discontent, the Chartist movement, was for the time being crushed; but it opened the eyes of the ruling class to the danger of ignoring the force behind it. How to utilise this force and divert it into channels consistent with the safety of capitalist society became the most pressing problem for this class. It was solved by degrees through the partial granting of the Chartists’ demands.
Henceforward the various sections of the master-class—Conservative, Liberal and Radical—made bids for working-class support, professing sympathy with their aspirations towards improved conditions, promising measures of reform and thus effectively dividing the workers into corresponding factions which cancelled one another out and nullified any attempt at independent organisation.
The enfranchisement of the workers has thus served as a safety-valve in delaying the inevitable social explosion and has more recently enabled the masters to utilise on a wide scale the knowledge and experience of members of the working class itself in leading that class up political blind alleys and in gaining its support for the more efficient and economical working of the machinery of government.
Is it therefore useless to the workers ? By no means ! Any machine, tool or instrument may be used for a variety of purposes or to no purpose at all in accordance with the knowledge of the operator.
The same railway engine which draws hundreds off passengers to their desired destination may stretch them lifeless on the track. A razor may be used for getting a shave or cutting one’s throat, while spades may be used indifferently either for digging potatoes or burying the dead. Socialists regard the State as an instrument of oppression so long as it is controlled by the political organisations which support capitalism, no matter what facile yarn these organisations may use to ensnare the workers. The same economic development, however, which has raised the master-class to wealth has also converted the majority of society into wage-slaves. This majority can assume the ascendancy in the State so soon as it understands its revolutionary mission as dictated, by its interests. The franchise is not a mere bribe to be offered or withdrawn by some imaginary free-will of the master-class. It has been wrung from them by the necessity of having working-class support just as wages are wrung from them by the necessity of feeding and clothing their slaves.
“But,” it is objected, “the masters do not rely exclusively upon the workers’ support. They finance the armed forces and can thus defy a Socialist majority.” The people, who raise this objection talk as though financing the armed forces was quite a simple matter. They ignore wholesale the complex conditions under which that financing is carried on.
Charles I. in this country and Louis XVI. in France came to untimely ends through making similar mistakes and imagining that it could be done quite easily without the assistance of Parliament.
The capitalist class in both countries went to a considerable amount of trouble in gaining and developing parliamentary control of the Army, simply because painful experience convinced them that this control could not be entrusted to irresponsible individuals without danger to the interests of the tax-paying class itself.
Financiers do not lend money either to governments, military adventurers, or any other concerns just for the fun of the thing; or from patriotic motives, a relish for excitement or sheer philanthropy. Hence one finds at the top of most financial columns in the newspapers quotations of numerous gilt-edged securites such as Consols, 2½ per cent. and 4 per cent. ; War Loan 5 per cent. ; Victory Bonds, 4 per cent. On these securities interest has to be paid, and as the gigantic investments in the machine for the maintenance of capitalism are secured upon the entire property of the capitalist class, its taxable capacity has to provide the interest.
Parliament, among other things, regulates taxation according to the varying interests of the exploiting class. Its seizure by a class-conscious majority of workers or its voluntary abandonment by its capitalist upholders spells death for capitalism.
Finance is a power only so long as there is no greater power to take its place. So long as the workers accept the wages system they will of necessity allow those who hold the money-bags to hold also the reins of government. Only an organisation of the workers based on the recognition of the need for common ownership and democratic control of the means of life will be able to dispense with money and consequently snap their fingers at those who hug it like some weird talisman whose charm is broken.
In the proletariat’s hour of triumph the financiers will endeavour in vain to feed and clothe their erstwhile defenders with coins and pieces of paper. The producers of wealth will consciously assume control of its distribution.
Their fellows in the armed forces will have no conceivable incentive to attempt to say them nay.
The Labourites who claim now that “we are the State” have to explain how it is that the State enslaves us and withholds from us the means of producing and distributing wealth. On the other hand, the so-called Communists, Anarchists, industrialists and the like who claim that we have not the means to obtain control of the State machinery, have to explain how we can be prevented from doing so, or, alternatively, what other way there is of achieving our emancipation.
(Socialist Standard, October 1928)