The Growth of State Power

The State is the public power of coercion. It makes and administers the laws, and it does so in the interests of the class that is economically supreme at the different epochs. In antiquity it was the state of the slave proprietors, in the middle ages the feudal proprietors, and in modern times the capitalist proprietors.The State had its beginning with the birth of private property, which started with the limitation of property within the early communistic tribes. Members of the tribe were appointed as officials to guard the rights of this budding property. As the operations of private owners extended outside tribal limits, the functions of these officials were extended.

With the disintegration of tribal society the incipient State was personified in the military chief and his followers. These war leaders overran other territories, and, like the Spartans and the Normans, established themselves as ruling, tribute collecting bodies.

The growth of trading and the splitting of society into more clearly defined classes strengthened the influence and power of the growing state, and the struggle for control of it. It was the only body that stood apart from the various social groups, and therefore the most obvious body to take over the work of promulgating laws. It also had the power to enforce the laws.

This early form of the state was rude and barbarous, and frequently resorted to open force. It was an object of struggle between social classes because the class that was paramount in society had the power to enforce its will and, if necessary, sweep away its opponents. It was a state form that fitted the early civilisations in which people lived in walled towns that were surrounded by agricultural territory.

In the city states of Babylon and Egypt the military rulers became both priest and law-giver, and the laws were administered at the gates of the temple. The temple itself was the receptacle for the tablets upon which the laws were engraved. From that time onwards religion remained a pillar of the state.

The growth of the small Roman state into the overlordship of myriads of similar states throughout Europe and a part of Africa and Asia threw up a host of administrative problems that resulted in a vast growth of officials and a huge bureaucracy that covered with a network the whole unwieldy Roman Empire. It was also a spur to the study of the use and abuses of private property, which resulted in the production of a mass of laws and methods of legal procedure, a good deal of which has lasted to the present day.

The empires that were based on the organisation into city states were not closely knit societies with local autonomy and direct connection with the centres, such as sprang up in modern times. They were in the main municipalities preyed upon by the central power. The Roman State was principally a huge tax-gathering machine.

Very little further progress was made in state building from Roman times until the modern state began to emerge in the 14th and 15th centuries with the opening of world markets and the rise of the capitalist class.

The growth of the modern state has followed similar lines everywhere, and thus a brief description of its development in England will give a clear enough general picture.

England was settled by different bands of warriors before and after the Roman conquest. The population was small and the country covered with woodland. The withdrawal of the Romans left it open for conquest by Angles, Jutes, Saxons and Danes, each of whom at first occupied definite tracts of country and kept their own identity.

As consolidation developed tribal kingdoms became local administrative centres of larger kingdoms, until eventually, in the ninth century, the whole country was brought under the control of one king. By that time also the manorial system, with its lords and serfs, feudal dues and local courts, had become firmly established.

By 1066, the Norman conquest, local government divisions of shire, hundred, borough and township had grown out of the swallowing up of earlier tribal territories in larger ones. The local settlement of disputes under the manorial system left little room for royal intervention at first, though it was from the latter that the state was to grow.

In those days the king was elected by leaders sitting in council, and obtained and held his position as a rule by his military prowess, although kingship generally kept within the same family group.

The Norman Conquest planted upon the country an upper tier of war lords, who exacted feudal tribute, and for this purpose took a census of the number, wealth and standing of the inhabitants.

The different districts were organised into a system of land tenure under which the whole country was owned in theory by the king, but each district, or a number of districts, was held in fief by nobles (his personal followers), who owed him military and other service. They in turn had vassals, who owed them similar dues.

In fact, the king was a glorified manorial lord, but his position at the head of the feudal system gave him the opportunity and the means to gradually intrude in local affairs. This intrusion began with the establishment of what was called the king’s peace. The lawlessness of some of the feudal lords and bands of feudal retainers became too much for the local courts to deal with, and furnished an excuse for the royal power to step in. During the Middle Ages the King’s Council ruled England. At first it consisted of the more powerful nobles, thanes, bishops and abbots, but was later reduced in size by various causes, including the crusades.

Eventually the growing power of the king led to a struggle between the king and the nobles for control of the state. It was this body of feudal lords, neither elective nor representative, that began to be known as Parliament about 1250.

The influence of the crown in the general affairs of the country really began with the appointment of Justices of the Peace, at first to assist the local sheriffs in police duties, but later to perform a great variety of functions necessary, for efficient administration.

For instance, the increase in commerce increased the importance of the monetary system and the need for reliable standards of weight and measurement. Counterfeiting coins and clipping gold and silver coins was common.

These were among the evils that the Justices of the Peace were organised to check. Also the putting down of piracy and securing the safety of highways came within their province. And so their number and activities increased until they covered the kingdom and attended to the smallest of local matters.

These justices were appointed by the King’s Council and were only answerable to it, and they reported everything and spied upon everybody.

Their growth was assisted by the disorders following the Black Death, the plague that ravaged England during the fourteenth century, and the wars with France during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. These factors contributed so much to the state power of the crown that by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the Tudor sovereigns, Henry VII., Henry VIII. and Elizabeth, had the country under the control of a despotism that covered the acts and aspirations of every single one of the inhabitants.

In the course of time control of public affairs had become so complicated that the King’s Council, which by 1626 became the Privy Council, had to delegate its work to commissions, such as the Star Chamber, Court of High Commission, and Councils of the North, of Ireland, and of Wales.

Secretaries were established covering the treasury, foreign affairs, and the navy and arms. In the seventeenth century these secretaries and heads of departments formed a Cabinet Council, which later entirely took the place of the Privy Council for executive purposes.

It was they who decided what money should be asked from Parliament and how Parliament should be prevailed upon to grant it. It is necessary to go back a little to consider the development of Parliament itself. The object of the crown in building up and controlling the state was to acquire wealth.

At first the use of brute force was sufficient, but it could not thrive indefinitely upon plunder, because wealth has to be produced before it can be plundered, and a measure of security was essential to the production of wealth. Hence the crown’s interest in the peace of the country.

The growth of trading, with the gradual disintegration of the manorial system, strengthened the central government, which undertook regulation of economic matters by proclamation and statute, but it also dried up some of the sources of royal revenue and forced the crown to devise other means of replenishing the treasury.

In 1264 four representative knights (minor landowners) from each shire were summoned to a great council in London for the purpose of voting money to the royal exchequer. This was the germ of the House of Commons, just as the council of nobles and bishops was the germ of the House of Lords.

In 1266 two representatives of certain towns (borough members) were added to this council. And in 1322 Edward II. settled by Act that the Commons must taker part in all future legislation. In 1341 the meetings of the council were restricted to Westminster, and the Commons sat apart from the Lords. By the middle of the fifteenth century the Commons had acquired the sole right of granting money, and used it to extract concessions from the crown.

The growth of the trading companies and the exploitation of the newly discovered foreign lands poured wealth into the hands of the commercial group, and they answered the financial demands of the crown with demands for influence in legislation.

These demands culminated in the Revolution of 1640, which gave the Commons an opportunity to gain experience in legislating on their own behalf. That is to say, on behalf of owners of property, because there was a property qualification for membership of Parliament which persisted until the Reform Acts from 1832 to 1886 cut into it, and it was finally abolished in the present century.

After the compromise between the crown and the landowners and financial magnates in 1688, there began to appear responsible accounts of public income and expenditure, and the practice of governing by departments readied a position by the middle of the eighteenth century that was similar in its main details to present-day practice.

The increasing complexity of social affairs, coupled with the struggle of the workers to make their voice heard, resulted finally in the admission of the whole of the population to the vote, and hence, in theory, to a voice in the control of social affairs.

In fact, however, the mass of the population have not yet reached the point of desiring to control their own affairs, due partly to the work of bamboozling accomplished by the capitalism and their supporters, and partly to a failure so far to grasp the fact that society is organised at present in the interests of the owners of private property.

The acquisition of the vote by the workers has, however, given them the key to the control of the state when they wish to use it to serve their own interests by establishing a new form of society in which the means of production will be commonly owned, thus abolishing private property and the need for a state.


From Socialist Standard April 1943