‘Therefore, we repeat, state ownership and control is not necessarily Socialism—if it were, then the Army, the Navy, the Police, the Judges, the Gaolers, the Informers, and the Hangmen, all would all be Socialist functionaries, as they are State officials—but the ownership by the State of all the land and materials for labour, combined with the co-operative control by the workers of such land and materials, would be Socialism.’ – James Connolly, ‘State Monopoly versus Socialism,’ The Workers’ Republic, 1899
With governments around the world pumping the global economy full of cash, commentators have been busy penning dozens of op-eds about ‘Covid socialism’. One writer argues in Forbes that ‘We will come out of this [pandemic] further from capitalism and closer to socialism’. Another writes in The Hill about ‘how socialism saved America’, whereas Project Syndicate goes for ‘Pandemic socialism’. There is much to be said for the uses and abuses of the term ‘socialism’. It would be easy enough to argue that these writers simply don’t understand what socialism is, in the same way that Fox News dubs any state welfare provision socialist—as opposed to social democratic—policy proposal.
But there is a great deal of confusion about the term on the left too. One only has to look back to 2019 to find a Momentum campaign video claiming that liking publicly-funded healthcare ‘makes you a socialist.’ Don’t get me wrong, the creation of the NHS is one of the single greatest achievements of any Labour government in history. The introduction of any system even approaching Medicare for All in the US would be an achievement of a similar scale. But single payer healthcare is not a socialist policy; it might even facilitate capital accumulation in an age more dependent than ever on the proper functioning of the minds and bodies of working people.
These policies are critical for alleviating the suffering and oppression experienced by billions of workers all over the world; the revival of social democracy would be an incredible achievement for the Left today. But socialists would be advised to note that these policies do not constitute ‘socialism’.
This distinction is not simply important for the sake of intellectual clarity, or coherent activism. The distinction is important because words matter. If the Left allows the rise in state spending and surveillance that we are likely to see as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic to be dubbed ‘socialism’, then we will spend the next several decades consigned to the sidelines – just as we were in the years before the Financial Crisis.
State spending, as James Connolly reminds us, is not socialism. The capitalist state is not your friend. But what exactly it is; that’s harder to define.
What Is the Capitalist State?
The liberal mythology of the capitalist state rests on the idea of the social contract. Even if the actual historical processes through which states were formed were long and violent, in the liberal imaginary the only reason for the ongoing existence of the state is that life in the absence of centralised authority would be so challenging that free people voluntarily come together to invest their freedoms in a power which can mediate disputes, enforce laws, provide basic infrastructure, and act as a check on private power.
To these ‘political’ responsibilities were eventually added a set of purely ‘economic’ responsibilities, such as the enforcement of contracts, the promulgation of regulation, the collection of taxes, and the provision of public services. In the liberal formulation, ‘politics’ and ‘economics’ are two separate realms: the economy exists before and distinct from politics. The latter can, however, occasionally intervene in the former on those rare occasions when the most economically efficient outcome diverges from the socially optimal one.
If you asked the average person what socialism was, they would be likely to respond that it entails greater state intervention in the economy because socialists prioritise social justice over economic efficiency. The battle between Left and Right is boiled down to a question of what matters more, ‘society’ or ‘the economy’.
There’s just one problem with this vision of the world however: it’s utterly nonsensical.
The state and society are not separate; no more than politics and economics are. Marxists have known this for centuries, ever since Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto that the capitalist state was nothing but a committee for managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie. This infamous quote elides as much as it elucidates, and according to Marx’s outline for Capital, he had intended to devote an entire volume of the work to questions of the capitalist state; unfortunately he died before it could be completed.
Since then, Marxists have engaged in often quite bitter debates about the nature of the capitalist state. The challenge of understanding state power is all the more important as it has become an ever-present feature in our daily lives, as well as a critical facilitator of capital accumulation.
One of the earliest Marxist theorists to investigate the question of state power in depth was Antonio Gramsci, who wrote extensively about the idea of the state and civil society. Of course, due to Gramsci’s imprisonment under Mussolini, his theory of the state has to be pieced together from remarks made throughout the Prison Notebooks.
Gramsci writes that the state is civil society plus political society; in other words, he takes aim at the Hegelian view of the state as somehow sitting atop social relations, and instead argues that the state itself emerges from those social relations. He writes, ‘[t]he state is the entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance but manages to win the active consent of those over whom it rules’.
He does, however, recognise that the ruling class may not always have de facto control over all these elements of state power: that a battle may have to be fought to make the apparatus of the capitalist state ‘willing’ to act in the way it should. At certain times—during Gramsci’s widely-discussed ‘hegemonic crises’—the institutions of state themselves can become a terrain of class struggle.
For Gramsci, then, the state is less a fixed ‘thing’ than a particular kind of social relationship. The composition of the thing we refer to as the state really reflects the balance of a wider struggle taking place between capital and labour, and within sections of capital. Just as within the economic structure, in which capital represents a social relationship characterised by constant conflict between bosses and workers, the state represents a social relationship characterised by struggles within and between classes.
This idea of the state as a social relation, condensed into a particular set of structures, was further developed by the Marxist theorist Nicos Poulantzas. For Poulantzas, ‘the State… [is] the material condensation of such a relationship among classes and class fractions.’
Capitalist societies are characterised by a multiplicity of different, often conflicting class interests – and it is through the state that these individual interests can cohere into a power bloc. The ruling class can come to speak as one only through struggle and compromise within the state. Hence, for Poulantzas, ‘the state constitutes the unity of the dominant classes, thereby establishing them as dominant’.
The process of struggle through which these blocs emerge is highly unequal, and takes place on a terrain dominated by the interests of capital. But the fact that the bloc does not appear to represent the interests of just one party, or even a group of parties, is the foundation of its hegemony.
At the same time, the state is not simply a social relationship – it is the ‘specific material condensation’ of those relationships at a particular point in time and space; it exhibits ‘an opacity and resistance of its own’.
We must understand the state as a set of institutions and ideologies marked by deep internal contradictions. The balance of class power in society as a whole, not to mention individual battles that take place within the state apparatus, can momentarily settle these contradictions in favour of one class or another without ever fully resolving them.
Resisting the Capitalist State
Understood in these terms, we cannot speak of socialism as ‘the state doing more things’. Not only is the very idea of ‘the state’ as a single coherent entity exposed as lacking by this critique, state power is most often deployed in the interests of the most powerful groups within society and the state apparatus. As Marx says in The Civil War in France, ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.’ This is not to say that struggle within the state apparatus is not important, quite the opposite. We must recognise that state power is an ever-present feature in our lives, and that many people experience this power as an alien and unwelcome force – whether through interactions with the police, universal credit sanctions, or just as a stifling, unaccountable bureaucracy. The Left must not identify itself with the exercise of this power, it must organise to challenge and reshape it.
First and foremost, that requires organising to defend those communities facing the sharp end of state oppression. Supporting anti-racist, feminist, and migrant solidarity campaigns and protests should be a critical part of building left power. These campaigns are not mere sideshows to the main event of the class struggle: when you understand the multiple ways in which state power is used to bolster the power of capital, it becomes much easier to see the ways in which these campaigns are the class struggle.
Next, and this is the area in which the British left is most lacking, it requires organising within our workplaces. After an astonishingly successful decades-long state-led campaign against the labour movement, Britain’s unions are weaker than they have ever been in the history of modern capitalism. The rise in precarious work, stagnant wages, and the growth of practices like fire and rehire can all be explained by the UK’s extremely low union density. We need people to join unions, and we need them to organise within them.
Finally, and this is the area that the British left has spent almost all of its time focusing on in recent years, we must organise within the Labour Party and within the state apparatus. Even if you’re incredibly sceptical as to the capacity of any social democratic government to deliver meaningful improvements to quality of life for working people, no one can deny that capitalist state power can and will be used to crush the Left if it is not somehow neutralised. The only long-term way to prevent reactionary legislation such as the Policing or Spy Cops Bills, or the next raft of anti-union laws, is to change the balance of forces in the state – and this means changing the government.
The government is, of course, only one part of the state. Far too little time was devoted during the Corbyn years to discussing other essential aspects, such as the role of the civil service. Only through a rigorous analysis of the capitalist state can you truly understand how it is possible that a left-led government might be elected, even with a commanding majority, and still fail to implement its programme – because the ‘permanent’ government which operates from Whitehall would act to frustrate pro-worker reforms at every turn.
We are, of course, some way from electing such a government today. But the need to analyse the nature of the capitalist state, which organises and coheres our class enemy, is not diminished. Building power in a society where the odds are stacked against you is a long, slow, and painful process – but it should begin with questions about what change we aim to see in society, and what forces stand in our way. That leads us to the state, and to the project of building our own counter-hegemonic apparatus in a way which might be symmetrical to its strengths.
Socialists must be calm and strategic, as well as passionate and effective, to prevent ourselves from falling into the cycle of euphoria and despair that so often characterises mass social movements. Perhaps the most important thing to understand about these struggles is that there is a place for everyone within them. Leftists will spend hours arguing with one another about who’s approach is more fruitful; we castigate each other for ‘labourism’ or ‘voluntarism’, for liberalism or authoritarianism, but we rarely recognise the validity of one another’s perspectives.
Most of us can agree that the dirigisme of the pandemic is not the same as socialism. But we struggle fully to articulate our vision of what socialism really is. For me, capitalism has nothing to do with the presence or absence of ‘free markets’; it is the domination of labour by capital. Socialism, then, is the liberation and emancipation of working people from the oppression and exploitation they experience at the hands of capital, the state, themselves, and each other.
Realising this vision in society will be challenging. The state of our struggle today makes rebuilding power in the Labour Party, the unions, and on the streets look like a hopeless pipedream. But perhaps that’s because the place that we’re struggling to realise our vision most of all is within our movement itself.