The Ends of the State


We asked sev­eral con­trib­u­tors to write on the theme of the state and rev­o­lu­tion­ary strat­egy, for a round­table dis­cus­sion revolv­ing around the fol­low­ing prompt:

“In the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies the social­ist move­ment spilled a great deal of ink debat­ing the ques­tion of state power. Lenin’s work was per­haps the most influ­en­tial, but it also pro­voked a wide range of crit­i­cal responses, which were arguably equally sig­nif­i­cant. But whether or not Lenin’s con­cep­tion of the cor­rect rev­o­lu­tion­ary stance towards the state was ade­quate to his own par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture, it is clear that today the real­ity of state power itself has changed. What is liv­ing and what is dead in this the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal legacy? What would a prop­erly rev­o­lu­tion­ary stance towards state power look like today, and what would be the con­crete con­se­quences of this stance for a polit­i­cal strat­egy? Does the ‘seizure of state power’ still have any mean­ing? Does the party still have a place in these broader ques­tions?”

This essay is one con­tri­bu­tion to the round­table. Please be sure to read the oth­ersGeoff EleyPana­gi­o­tis Sotiris, Jodi Dean, Nina Power, Immanuel Ness.

As a prefa­tory aside, it seems worth aver­ring that, while we often encoun­ter the sug­ges­tion that pur­port­edly prac­ti­cal ques­tions like that of state power are short­changed at the expense of sexy but vague mus­ings on rev­o­lu­tion and full com­mu­nism and so forth, in truth con­tem­po­rary social move­ments are alto­gether far too focused on the state. It would be curi­ous indeed to sug­gest that the var­i­ous social move­ments and upris­ings of the last few years, spilling from the squares and plazas of Egypt, Greece, the United States, Turkey and beyond, some­how did not suf­fi­ciently ori­ent them­selves to the state and its func­tions, whether leg­isla­tive, repres­sive, or bureau­cratic. Indeed, these move­ments were often entirely focused on state power – on the tyranny of lead­ers, on the repres­sion of the police, on the bad deci­sions of par­lia­ments and leg­is­la­ture. If they were thought­less about any­thing, it was cap­i­tal; the orga­ni­za­tion of our lives by work and money remained far more elu­sive as a tar­get for these move­ments than the pres­i­den­tial palace or the depart­ment of inte­rior. This was true from the level of the most com­mon daily con­ver­sa­tions to that of the most mil­i­tant direct actions: again and again the state pro­vided the focal point for these strug­gles and the limit of their imag­in­ings. It is there­fore in no way self-appar­ent that think­ing more about the state, even if one promises to do it dif­fer­ently, is the sen­si­ble rem­edy for the prob­lem of social move­ments that hurl them­selves repeat­edly against the colon­nades of the National Assem­bly. If we are to con­front prac­ti­cal prob­lems in the strug­gle to remake the world, we should like to see the sit­u­a­tion right side up. For us, the prob­lem is not how to seize state power but how not to be seized by it – how we might elude being hailed by the ques­tion of power rather than that of social repro­duc­tion, and in turn, elude being forced to fight on ter­rain that is unfa­vor­able.

The Unity of the Political-Economic

No doubt one must have some seri­ous account of the state so as to avoid being cap­tured by it. Let us in fact grant that ques­tions of the state are of such sig­nif­i­cance for com­mu­nism that they ask us to return to first prin­ci­ples. As it hap­pens, it is pre­cisely the nature of first prin­ci­ples that dis­tin­guishes a Marx­ist approach from oth­ers: they are nec­es­sar­ily not based in for­mal­iza­tions, the­o­ries, or exam­ples drawn from the past. They are not to be found in pol­i­tics. Nei­ther, how­ever, are they to be found in eco­nom­ics, in the sense of a bour­geois descrip­tion of the market’s oper­a­tions. Marx­ism being nei­ther a pol­icy nor a pro­gram but a mode of analy­sis, the return to first prin­ci­ples insists on unfold­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties that inhere within a given his­tor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion. Within such an analy­sis, the polit­i­cal and the eco­nomic can­not be sep­a­rated into inde­pen­dent strata, for it is pre­cisely their enforced unity – the dom­i­na­tion of polit­i­cal econ­omy – which pro­vides the char­ac­ter of his­tory under cap­i­tal­ism and is thus the object of cri­tique. The state ought not be ren­dered as a mere epiphe­nom­e­non of eco­nomic inter­est; nei­ther can it be treated as a polit­i­cal instru­men­tal­ity.

The state is a pre­con­di­tion for a cap­i­tal­ist econ­omy, pro­duc­ing the legal con­di­tions for the dis­sem­i­na­tion of prop­erty rights (and ren­der­ing the vio­lence of prop­erty imper­sonal, by mak­ing the direct vio­lence of the state some­thing exter­nal to prop­erty rights), engag­ing in infra­struc­tural projects nec­es­sary for accu­mu­la­tion, estab­lish­ing the mon­e­tary and diplo­matic con­di­tions for exchange both nation­ally and inter­na­tion­ally – most sig­nif­i­cantly, per­haps, in the pro­duc­tion of money economies via tax­a­tion and mil­i­tary wag­ing. By the same token, a cap­i­tal­ist econ­omy is a pre­con­di­tion for a mod­ern state (which can only fund its mas­sive bureau­cratic and mil­i­tary oper­a­tions by way of the kinds of rev­enue gen­er­ated by cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion processes). Here we draw largely on the “state-deriva­tion” debate and its recep­tion by the writ­ers asso­ci­ated with Open Marx­ism, the con­sid­er­able nuance and com­plex­ity of which we can’t describe in any detail here.1 In nuce, rather than treat­ing the state as an instru­ment of class rule, or a semi-autonomous “region,” the writ­ers involved with the debate exam­ine how the func­tions and struc­tures of the cap­i­tal­ist state are pre­sup­posed by the under­ly­ing cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, which itself pre­sup­poses the exis­tence of a state. The recog­ni­tion of this mutual pre­sup­po­si­tion – that is, the “form-deter­mi­na­tion” of the cap­i­tal­ist state by cap­i­tal – is what led Karl Marx to con­clude, in the wake of the Paris Com­mune, that “the work­ing class can­not sim­ply lay hold of the ready-made state machin­ery, and wield it for its own pur­poses.”

This crit­i­cal unity of the polit­i­cal and the eco­nomic does not exist in the mind, in the­ory, before it exists mate­ri­ally; nei­ther can it be divided by any act of mind with­out affirm­ing the polit­i­cal and the eco­nomic as the bour­geois reifi­ca­tions they so often appear to be, as the names of aca­d­e­mic depart­ments, for instance, or sec­tions of the book­store. When we say that com­mu­nism is the real move­ment which abol­ishes the present state of things, the very con­di­tion of pos­si­bil­ity for such a scan­dalous claim is that “the real move­ment” (die wirk­liche Bewe­gung) draws together the vis­i­ble forms of polit­i­cal activ­ity with the deep­est dynam­ics of cap­i­tal, the cease­less expres­sion of the law of value, the ongo­ing restruc­tur­ings of the wage-com­mod­ity nexus, the recom­po­si­tions of class belong­ing and of tech­ni­cal and social divi­sions of labor, and so forth.

Para­dox­i­cally, it is this mode of analy­sis which offers a prac­ti­cal out­look onto strate­gies and tac­tics – pre­cisely because ques­tions of the state have salience only in so far as they are posed in rela­tion to present con­di­tions. This is the con­junc­ture in which peo­ple “make their own his­tory” but only “under cir­cum­stances exist­ing already, given and trans­mit­ted from the past.” Wary of veiled ide­alisms, we can­not start from a polit­i­cal the­ory of the state absent this care­ful engage­ment with cir­cum­stances exist­ing already for us. If we are to exam­ine the extra­or­di­nary devel­op­ments of France in 1871, of Rus­sia in the early 20th cen­tury (or for that mat­ter of China in 1949, Mex­ico in 1914, or any other false dawn in the long night of cap­i­tal), it is not to learn from these moments what an ideal state might be. It is rather to under­stand from the present prospect what was pos­si­ble within the given con­di­tions, what was not, and how that might inform the ques­tion, what is pos­si­ble in our own given con­di­tions? For that is the only place from which to begin: with a care­ful assess­ment of the present sit­u­a­tion.

Method in the Present

The debate as to whether long-stand­ing Marx­ist ideas about the state, for instance, or its con­cep­tual sup­ple­ment, the party, are presently a plau­si­ble model of com­mu­nist strug­gle will be by now a famil­iar con­ver­sa­tion to some. To revisit a recent argu­ment in which we have shared regard­ing the party, that might apply as well to state, “The col­lec­tive expe­ri­ence of work and life that gave rise to the van­guard party dur­ing the era of indus­tri­al­iza­tion has passed away with indus­tri­al­iza­tion itself. We rec­og­nize as mate­ri­al­ists that the cap­i­tal-labor rela­tion that made such a party effec­tive – not only as idea but as real­ity – is no longer oper­a­tive. A changed cap­i­tal-labor rela­tion will give rise to new forms of orga­ni­za­tion. We should not crit­i­cize present-day strug­gles in the name of ide­al­ized recon­struc­tions from the past. Rather, we should describe the com­mu­nist poten­tial that presents itself imma­nently in the lim­its con­fronted by today’s strug­gles.”2 Ideas about the state must also be ade­quate to their time.

None of this is to fore­close a dis­cus­sion of the state or the party but to make sure we do not fall into kitsch for­malisms and instead begin from solid ground. We must end there as well. By this we mean to spec­ify the con­tent of par­tic­u­lar strug­gles, their ori­en­ta­tion or dis­po­si­tion. As we know, a riot or a strike may be anti-cap­i­tal­ist or anti-immi­grant, just as a neigh­bor­hood assem­bly may be con­vened for the pur­poses of insti­tut­ing com­mu­nist mea­sures or pro­tect­ing the prop­erty of petit-bour­geois shop­keep­ers. We can only eval­u­ate forms such as the state or the party in the light of par­tic­u­lar con­tents, and those con­tents are always given by his­tory. How­ever, because cap­i­tal­ism obtains a cer­tain dynamic his­tor­i­cal con­sis­tency, based around axiomatic ele­ments – value and wage, abstract labor, and the imper­sonal dom­i­na­tion of the state – com­mu­nism as the con­tent of pro­le­tar­ian strug­gles obtains a sim­i­lar con­sis­tency, defined as the nega­tion of all these ele­ments and their replace­ment by a class­less soci­ety. In other words, this con­tent should not be thought of as invari­ant (to use the term given to it by some ultra-left­ists) except to the extent that cap­i­tal­ism and the con­di­tion of the pro­le­tariat is itself invari­ant, vested in the for­mal and appar­ent sep­a­ra­tion of state and econ­omy which occludes their com­pelled under­ly­ing unity.

The con­tent of com­mu­nism can­not be asso­ci­ated with a par­tic­u­lar form, be it of party, coun­cil, state. It is found in the smash­ing of said unity-in-sep­a­ra­tion: the break­ing of the index between one’s labor and one’s access to the social store, and the con­comi­tant abo­li­tion of state and econ­omy both. In this we dis­cover the eman­ci­pa­tion of pro­le­tar­i­ans from cap­i­tal­ist dom­i­na­tion, the gen­er­a­tion of a class­less and there­fore com­mu­nist soci­ety, the destruc­tion of all the poi­soned inher­i­tances of cap­i­tal­ism: wage, money, value, com­pelled labor, and yes, the state.

What remains con­tin­gent and his­tor­i­cally deter­mined is how this hap­pens. Each age gives rise to its own com­mu­nist hori­zon, one that unfolds from within the mate­rial con­di­tions at hand. The hori­zon only seems not to move; it is his­tor­i­cal con­tin­gency all too often mis­taken for invari­ance by Marx­ists and other com­mu­nists.

The Two Seizures

None of this means we can neglect the ques­tion of forms or their effec­tiv­ity. If we want to know whether the “seizure of state power” the­matic has rel­e­vance today, we still must under­stand the his­tory of the state as par­tic­u­lar social form, as well as the kinds of things social­ists and com­mu­nists have tried to do with it. To speak in the broad­est terms pos­si­ble, we might say that, among those who imag­ine the state as means to a social­ist or com­mu­nist end, who think of the state as an object to be seized, there are two cur­rents of thought. One is pro­gres­sivist, grad­u­al­ist, reformist. The other is strictly insur­rec­tionary. The for­mer imag­i­nes the cap­ture of the cap­i­tal­ist state through the for­ma­tion of pro­le­tar­ian elec­toral majori­ties (and the strug­gles for democ­racy and suf­frage that this pre­sup­poses) and from there a tran­si­tion to social­ism, per­haps involv­ing armed con­fronta­tion but mostly unfold­ing within the frame­work of the bour­geois state. In this project, there is no imme­di­ate or com­plete expro­pri­a­tion of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­ers, but rather the intro­duc­tion of grad­ual set of reforms – abo­li­tion of inher­i­tance, nation­al­iza­tion of bank­ing, pro­gres­sive tax­a­tion – that aims to slowly squeeze out cap­i­tal, per­haps by the expan­sion of a state-owned sec­tor. We can assoc­iate this par­tic­u­larly pro­gram­matic con­cep­tion with the prac­tice of the 2nd Inter­na­tional, if not its the­ory. The other cur­rent descends from the 3rd Inter­na­tional, based upon a read­ing of the insur­rec­tionary lines in Marx’s and Engels’s the­ory, par­tic­u­larly The Civil War in France. It is exem­pli­fied and per­haps sys­tem­atized first and fore­most by V.I. Lenin’s State and Rev­o­lu­tion. Here, the state is a tool of the insur­rec­tionary class, to be purged of its most loath­some aspects – the army, first and fore­most – and used both for the admin­is­ter­ing of soci­ety along com­mu­nist lines and for defen­sive com­bat against the orga­nized ene­mies of the rev­o­lu­tion.

In prac­tice, these two cur­rents often run together. Each can be tracked upstream to the same well­spring via a selec­tive read­ing of The Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo. Marx and Engels them­selves did not seem to see any con­tra­dic­tion between urg­ing, on the one hand, the need to smash the repres­sive machin­ery of the state in a rev­o­lu­tion­ary over­com­ing, and encour­ag­ing, on the other, the par­tic­i­pa­tion of work­ers’ par­ties in par­lia­men­tary processes toward win­ning vital reforms. The cur­rents sep­a­rate quickly, how­ever, and most fol­low­ers have empha­sized one or the other; it’s not hard to read the ebb and flow between the two cur­rents as a mov­ing index of rev­o­lu­tion­ary promise.

The con­flu­ence of the cur­rents is not only at their source. It returns down­stream, as it were, in the courses that the two streams are dri­ven to take in their flow­ing – until the two streams cross, not sim­ply a con­flu­ence but a chi­as­mus. The state seized within a reformist mode, if it is not to fall back into cap­i­tal­ism, is com­pelled to move toward rev­o­lu­tion­ary expro­pri­a­tion; the insur­rec­tionary seizure of the state will be drawn toward reformist arrange­ments.

Reformist Seizure

Let us con­sider this crossed des­tiny in some detail, begin­ning with the some­what more eas­ily dis­patched reformist con­cep­tion. Con­sider what it means to say that the mod­ern state pre­sup­poses the exis­tence of a cap­i­tal­ist econ­omy. At the most basic level, this is a sim­ple acknowl­edg­ment that a mod­ern cap­i­tal­ist state requires con­tin­u­ous rev­enue at vol­umes that only an expand­ing econ­omy can gen­er­ate: to pay its work­ers, to build infra­struc­tures, to pro­vi­sion armies and police, to act as a lender of first and last resort, to main­tain a felic­i­tous mon­e­tary envi­ron­ment for domes­tic and inter­na­tional exchange. The pre­sup­po­si­tion is mutual, since these nec­es­sary activ­i­ties can­not be under­taken by indi­vid­ual cap­i­tal­ists with­out erod­ing their com­pet­i­tive pre­rog­a­tives. The state is there­fore both a require­ment for, and depen­dent upon, con­di­tions of prof­itabil­ity.3

More­over, if pro­grams of redis­tri­b­u­tion and pro­vi­sion of a social wage – health care, edu­ca­tion, wage con­trols – are under­taken while main­tain­ing cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion, as one would expect from even the most fee­ble of social democ­ra­cies, such a state will need fur­ther rev­enues. If it is to gen­er­ate enough tax­able income to pay for all its pro­grams, it will be com­pelled to steer the econ­omy toward max­i­mal rates of sur­plus value gen­er­a­tion so as to sat­isfy the con­di­tions of prof­itabil­ity that cap­i­tal­ists demand if they are to keep rein­vest­ing their income. Notably, any attempt to redis­trib­ute out­put away from cap­i­tal and toward work­ers – via the mech­a­nisms of the state – will threaten the cir­cuit of val­oriza­tion and real­iza­tion, except in very excep­tional con­di­tions of high rates of profit. Such a state will be func­tion­ally sub­or­di­nated to world cap­i­tal, to the world-mar­ket, and the pre­vail­ing con­di­tions of prof­itabil­ity and com­pe­ti­tion. None of the obvi­ous expe­di­ents here are likely to help all that much – par­tial nation­al­iza­tion of “vital” indus­tries, for instance, cap­i­tal con­trols, pro­gres­sive tax­a­tion.

Here we encoun­ter the his­tor­i­cal aspect of such a process. The mutu­ally-pre­sup­pos­ing func­tions at play in cap­i­tal­ism – abstract labor, money, cap­i­tal, wage-labor, the state – are con­tin­u­ally repro­duced in a dynamic, his­tor­i­cally vari­able man­ner. They have a direc­tion­al­ity that cor­re­sponds with the ten­den­tial aspects of the accu­mu­la­tion process: real sub­sump­tion of labor, the ris­ing organic com­po­si­tion of cap­i­tal, the falling rate of profit, the expul­sion of liv­ing labor from the pro­duc­tion process. In this sec­tion, as ever, we are not describ­ing “the state,” for such is mean­ing­less. We are describ­ing an excep­tional devel­op­men­tal route. The path we have just out­lined is a best-case sce­nario, as it were, avail­able only to states con­trol­ling rapidly indus­tri­al­iz­ing and mod­ern­iz­ing economies capa­ble of gen­er­at­ing the rates of growth that allow states to meet all their social­ist oblig­a­tions with­out imper­il­ing repro­duc­tion. In fact, indus­tri­al­iz­ing economies are able to ben­e­fit in some cir­cum­stances from the kinds of puta­tive social­ist mea­sures that reformist pro­grams would want to enact: either social wages or direct wage con­trols, both of which can increase prof­itabil­ity. But few states are in such a posi­tion today, and those that are will quickly find them­selves in the same post-indus­trial dol­drums through which the United States, Europe and East Asia presently drift. This speaks rather clearly to prospects for Syriza-style left par­ties and so-called Latin Amer­i­can Social­ism both. Such projects – and here we come to the rock and hard place of a seri­ous analy­sis – will either be re-incor­po­rated and tamed by the cap­i­tal­ist world sys­tem, or will need to pass over into an explic­itly rev­o­lu­tion­ary, expro­pri­at­ing phase.

Revolutionary Seizure

We are left, then, with the “ortho­dox” posi­tion on seizure of state power. The state is taken up as a weapon wielded by an expro­pri­at­ing pro­le­tar­ian rev­o­lu­tion, a weapon nec­es­sary, accord­ing to the influ­en­tial treat­ment by Lenin, in order to smash the armed force of the coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion and ful­fill the admin­is­tra­tive duties of a nascent non-cap­i­tal­ist econ­omy.

Lenin’s book is an expli­ca­tion of the con­clu­sions that Marx drew from the expe­ri­ence of the Com­mune, piv­ot­ing on the pas­sage cited ear­lier: “ the work­ing class can­not sim­ply lay hold of the ready-made state machin­ery, and wield it for its own pur­poses.” Lenin educes a fairly crude con­cep­tion of the state. It is a two-headed mon­ster: bureau­cratic and mil­i­tary. The lat­ter he deems unsuit­able to the aims of pro­le­tar­ian rev­o­lu­tion; any suc­cess­ful over­throw of state power would need to shat­ter the police and army and replace them with the “armed peo­ple” or the “armed work­ers.” Many of the most sig­nif­i­cant rev­o­lu­tion­ary events have occurred against the exhaus­tion and even defeat of the state’s mil­i­tary pow­ers via inter­state con­flicts. This con­firms the impor­tance of dis­man­tling the repres­sive pow­ers of the state; if there was ever any doubt, the recent expe­ri­ence of the Egyp­tian rev­o­lu­tion reminds us of the army’s intran­si­gently coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary char­ac­ter.

In Lenin’s account, once the repres­sive frac­tion of the state is smashed and the leg­is­la­ture abol­ished, the admin­is­tra­tive remain­der can be made into an effec­tive tool for those who want to pro­duce com­mu­nist or social­ist rela­tions. The nec­es­sary staff posi­tions can be trans­ferred quickly to pro­le­tar­i­ans and, through rou­tiniza­tion, made sim­ple enough that no spe­cial skills are required for their per­for­mance. But this cleansed state is not sim­ply an “admin­is­tra­tion of things”; it is not sim­ply the post offices whose pow­ers of effi­ciency he extols. It is also, for Lenin, a “gov­ern­ment of per­sons,” a means by which pro­le­tar­i­ans gov­ern them­selves force­fully, as can only be the case once we con­sider that, as Lenin tells us,  “human nature… can­not do with­out sub­or­di­na­tion, con­trol, and ‘man­agers.’” What mat­ters, for Lenin, is who rules: “if there is to sub­or­di­na­tion, it must be to the armed van­guard of all exploited and labor­ing – to the pro­le­tariat.”4

Gov­ern­ment of per­sons is costly, how­ever, and can’t be self-man­aged, dis­trib­uted through­out the entirety of the social body. It requires cen­tral­iza­tion and cen­tral­iza­tion requires that no small amount of social sur­plus be directed toward state func­tions. Since these large, bureau­cratic states will require mas­sive vol­umes of rev­enue in order to oper­ate, inas­much as money rela­tions are main­tained they will find them­selves require to develop the pro­duc­tive forces of the econ­omy, to force the accu­mu­la­tion process for­ward, with all the bale­ful con­se­quences this spells for pre­sumed ben­e­fi­cia­ries of such a rev­o­lu­tion. Even where some of the main ele­ments asso­ci­ated with cap­i­tal­ism are sus­pended, as was the case with the USSR, rev­o­lu­tions will find that state func­tions inherited from cap­i­tal­ist states are not good for much else than super­in­tend­ing a course of eco­nomic (and nation­ally-delim­ited) devel­op­ment, and that what one gets with these kinds of exper­i­ments in “social­ist tran­si­tion” is a mime­sis of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion, using var­i­ous bureau­cratic and admin­is­tra­tive indices in place of the medi­a­tions at work in cap­i­tal­ism. This is the best-case sce­nario, of course, pre­sum­ing that there is an econ­omy to develop, an assur­ance that seems less and less the case in the world at hand. In short, states are good for one thing: admin­is­ter­ing cap­i­tal­ist economies. Those rev­o­lu­tions which would keep in place money, wages, mar­kets and other aspects of cap­i­tal­ism, in order to deal first with the ques­tion of polit­i­cal power, to win the war, to develop the pro­duc­tive forces, or any of the var­i­ous rea­sons usu­ally given, will find the state a use­ful tool, no doubt. But this is a tool that will use these rev­o­lu­tions with far more ruth­less­ness than they will use it. These rev­o­lu­tion­ary processes will there­fore, sooner or later, slip back onto a his­tor­i­cal tra­jec­tory not all that dif­fer­ent from the reformist and grad­u­al­ist path.

21st-Century Prospects

We can agree, as seems uni­ver­sally acknowl­edged, that any authen­ti­cally expro­pri­at­ing rev­o­lu­tion will need to arm itself and defend itself against attack. How­ever, the “armed peo­ple” is some­thing other than a state. Indeed, it is def­i­n­i­tion­ally the oppo­site of the state, as it dis­trib­utes and con­cen­trates power in the hands of the insur­gents them­selves rather than some del­e­ga­tion. The more state-like such armed groups become – that is, the more they func­tion through struc­tures of dis­ci­pline, com­mand, hier­ar­chy – the more they will bear in them­selves the germ of coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion. When the defen­sive power of the “armed peo­ple” is vested in a par­tic­u­lar, ded­i­cated frac­tion, directed by mil­i­tary lead­ers, it is eas­ily co-opted, neu­tral­ized, or turned against the peo­ple them­selves. What­ever ben­e­fits tra­di­tional com­mand and con­trol mil­i­tary struc­tures might con­fer to those who want to win this or that bat­tle is over­shad­owed by the fact that such struc­tures, by def­i­n­i­tion, lose the war. Here, also, the his­tor­i­cal dimen­sion is para­mount. We are not deal­ing with 19th-cen­tury mil­i­taries. The hyper-tech­no­log­i­cal pow­ers of killing and coun­ter-insur­gency at the dis­posal of con­tem­po­rary states puts paid to any idea of win­ning a frontal con­fronta­tion, of a purely “mil­i­tary” vic­tory. Even the old the­ory of guer­rilla war­fare, which has had scant suc­cess beyond periph­eral, rural zones, now appears ludi­crous in the face of the new algo­rith­mic secu­rity and mil­i­tary appa­ra­tus that inven­to­ries every spar­row falling and every grain of sand.

Only a process of demor­al­iza­tion and desta­bi­liza­tion of the armed forces, with mass defec­tions and an under­min­ing of the very social and eco­nomic foun­da­tions of the mil­i­tary, could have any hope of suc­cess. This can take place only under con­di­tions in which the rev­o­lu­tion is not merely a ques­tion of power, of the seizure of power, but is some­thing that allows peo­ple to directly and imme­di­ately meet their own needs – for food, hous­ing, and use­ful things; for care of all sorts; for edu­ca­tion; for hope in the future and mean­ing­ful par­tic­i­pa­tion in the things that con­cern them. For this rea­son, endeav­or­ing to lead the major­ity of peo­ple forcibly toward a future they don’t know is good for them – one def­i­n­i­tion of “dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tariat” – will always fail. If there is a role for a ded­i­cated, inter­ven­tion­ist pro­le­tar­ian frac­tion within the rev­o­lu­tion, it is in cre­at­ing the ini­tial con­di­tions under which com­mu­nist rela­tions and fur­ther com­mu­nist mea­sures might be under­taken. This might involve an inau­gu­rat­ing com­mu­nist mea­sure – for exam­ple, expro­pri­at­ing and dis­trib­ut­ing nec­es­sary and use­ful things on the basis of free access, or col­lec­tively and vol­un­tar­ily orga­niz­ing and gen­er­at­ing other use­ful things. But this is some­thing quite dif­fer­ent than telling peo­ple what to do or com­mand­ing and orga­niz­ing the activ­ity of the larger mass of dis­pos­sessed peo­ple; such a class frac­tion is a cat­alyz­ing fac­tor, pro­duc­ing com­mu­nist rela­tions in which it plays no part aside from its ini­tial con­tri­bu­tion.5 As we and many of our con­tem­po­raries have argued, the imme­di­ate estab­lish­ment of these new social con­di­tions, to the great­est extent pos­si­ble, is in the present not only the likely course a rev­o­lu­tion­ary unfold­ing might pur­sue, directly or indi­rectly, but, given the objec­tive mate­rial con­di­tions, its only hope for even­tual suc­cess.6

The ques­tion then becomes, if our task involves the imme­di­ate trans­for­ma­tion of social rela­tions, the abo­li­tion of money, wages, and com­pul­sory labor, how use­ful would the offices, resources, and tech­nolo­gies of the admin­is­tra­tive rather than repres­sive por­tion of the state be? Not very. As elab­o­rated above, the state bureau­cracy pro­vides func­tions which are nec­es­sary or at the very least help­ful for the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal­ism in many and var­i­ous ways. States are con­cerned with main­tain­ing the legal con­di­tions of prop­erty and exchange, main­tain­ing a proper mon­e­tary envi­ron­ment, pro­vid­ing the infra­struc­ture nec­es­sary for the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal (and not the devel­op­ment of human beings). They help insure that labor-power arrives at the site of pro­duc­tion in the right pack­ag­ing, requir­ing cer­tain con­di­tions of hygiene and edu­ca­tion.

More­over, while these func­tional com­po­nents of the state might have once enjoyed a cer­tain auton­omy from cap­i­tal­ist logic and mar­ket imper­a­tives, they have been increas­ingly dis­ci­plined over the last cen­tury to capital’s needs, cleansed of all aspects that elude the cal­cu­la­tive logic of the bot­tom line. It’s fairly fan­tas­ti­cal to imag­ine that the Depart­ments of Hous­ing and Urban Devel­op­ment, of Edu­ca­tion, or of Health and Human Wel­fare – along with their munic­i­pal and state-level coun­ter­parts – can be recon­fig­ured to meet the kinds of needs for hous­ing, learn­ing, and med­ical care that peo­ple are likely to have in a rev­o­lu­tion­ary sit­u­a­tion, with­out rely­ing on the medi­a­tions of money, wages, et cetera.

From the out­set, these depart­ments are con­sti­tuted by their sep­a­ra­tion from all sorts of func­tions per­tain­ing to edu­ca­tion, hous­ing, and health under­taken directly by cap­i­tal­ist firms; by design, they are con­sti­tu­tively inca­pable of admin­is­ter­ing the total­ity of func­tions peo­ple would need, even in the event that such func­tions and capac­i­ties already exist and do not sim­ply need to be gen­er­ated from the ground up, which is the more likely sce­nario. The resources of the Post Office that Lenin treated as prime exam­ple of the vir­tu­ous aspect of the state may, in fact, be use­ful to a rev­o­lu­tion, but no more use­ful than the tech­nolo­gies for mov­ing objects and dis­trib­ut­ing mes­sages that exist in the pri­vate sec­tor. In any case, rev­o­lu­tions will doubtless need to invent entirely new meth­ods of coor­di­na­tion and admin­is­tra­tion more suited to the tasks at hand. These func­tions will be most effec­tive when directly con­trolled by those involved in them, whether as providers or receivers or both; in this sense, there will be no divi­sion between the state, as a sphere of sep­a­rate pow­ers that stands apart from and con­trols soci­ety, and no divi­sion between “econ­omy” and “state.” There will not even be an econ­omy, since that also pre­sumes such sep­a­ra­tion.

Read­ers will rec­og­nize in this final turn the reap­pear­ance of our open­ing theme, hav­ing gone through its dialec­ti­cal unfold­ing. Under pre­vail­ing con­di­tions, which yoke the polit­i­cal to the eco­nomic at the root while pre­sent­ing each super­fi­cially as autonomous objects, one sim­ply errs in imag­in­ing there is such a thing as “the state” which can be sup­posed inde­pen­dent of capital’s pre­sup­po­si­tions. The task before us is to break the dom­i­na­tion of polit­i­cal-econ­omy as such – this is the min­i­mum def­i­n­i­tion of eman­ci­pa­tion from cap­i­tal, which engen­ders that unity even as it enforces its spec­tral sep­a­ra­tion. And this can­not be done other than by smash­ing the under­ly­ing unity in real­ity. The break­ing of this bond is recto to the verso of break­ing the index between labor and access to social goods, since it is pre­cisely this index­ing which makes labor the mea­sure of value and wage the instru­ment of con­trol, and thus allows the law of value and its com­pul­sions to stand over social exis­tence.

We can say again there­fore that this break­ing of the index is the goal pro­vided to us by cap­i­tal, which uni­ver­sal­izes the index in the first place; it is in this his­tor­i­cal sense that it becomes the project of the strug­gle for a class­less and free soci­ety. And with this cleav­age, “the state” and “econ­omy” will be nei­ther per­fected in their inde­pen­dent exis­tence nor bound together more effec­tively, but will cease to be; pro­vided the auton­omy in real­ity that they appear to have in bour­geois ide­al­ity, they will lack the mutual pre­sup­po­si­tions that have to this point pre­served them. There will sim­ply be peo­ple meet­ing their own needs and devel­op­ing the facil­i­ties and resources to do this.

  1. See Chris O’Kane’s arti­cle in this same issue for an excel­lent overview, as well as the intro­duc­tory essay in John Hol­loway and Sol Pic­ciotto, eds., State and Cap­i­tal: A Marx­ist Debate (Austin: Uni­ver­sity of Texas Press, 1979), and Werner Bonefeld’s overview “Social Con­sti­tu­tion and the Form of the Cap­i­tal­ist State,” in Open Marx­ism, Vol­ume 1: Dialec­tics and His­tory (Lon­don: Pluto Press, 1992), 93-132.  

  2. Joshua Clover and Aaron Benanav, “Can Dialec­tics Break BRICS?” South Atlantic Quar­terly 113 no. 4 (2014), 743-759. 

  3. The capac­ity of states to take on debt in con­junc­tion with their con­trol over the money sup­ply can mit­i­gate the lim­its imposed by the prof­itabil­ity of the under­ly­ing econ­omy – for a period, per the belea­guered descen­dants of Lord Key­nes, or indef­i­nitely, in the per­fer­vid promises of mod­ern mon­e­tary the­ory. And yet, as we’ve seen from the mon­e­tary crises of numer­ous states, the under­ly­ing eco­nomic con­di­tions assert them­selves sooner or later, and states that adopt these mea­sures reck­lessly risk desta­bi­liz­ing their cur­rency or jeop­ar­diz­ing their access to credit mar­kets. 

  4. V.I. Lenin, State and Rev­o­lu­tion, (Inter­na­tional Pub­lish­ers, 1943), 42-43. Notice the gram­mat­i­cal slip­page here, the appo­si­tional sub­sti­tu­tion of the van­guard for the class. It is still not ulti­mately clear that this is what Marx meant by dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tariat or how he con­ceived of the worker’s state. Stud­ies by Hal Draper and oth­ers have thrown into doubt the idea that Marx saw rev­o­lu­tion pro­ceed­ing through the rule of the pro­le­tariat over itself; rather, it may be that Marx thought the state offices to be seized were sim­ply a tool through which peo­ple could feed, house, arm, provide use­ful things, and defend them­selves against armed attacks by the remain­ing anti­com­mu­nist forces. His inter­est in the del­ega­tive, demo­c­ra­tic struc­ture of the Com­mune, which he calls the “polit­i­cal form at last dis­cov­ered under which to work out the eman­ci­pa­tion of labor” indi­cates that he and Lenin dif­fer on this point. In a pas­sage that hear­kens back to his 1840s writ­ing on the state, and his insis­tence that divi­sion between civil soci­ety and state must be over­come, Marx describes the rev­o­lu­tion as func­tion­ing through “the reab­sorp­tion of the state power by soci­ety as its own liv­ing forces instead of as forces con­trol­ling and sub­du­ing it, by the pop­u­lar masses them­selves, form­ing their own force instead of the orga­nized force of their oppres­sion…” Karl Marx, “First Draft of The Civil War in France,” in The First Inter­na­tional and After: Polit­i­cal Writ­ings, ed. David Fern­bach, Reprint edi­tion (Lon­don: Verso, 2010), 250. The Commune’s “great­est mea­sure” was “itself,” he writes, the fact that “peo­ple have taken the actual man­age­ment of the rev­o­lu­tion into their own hands and found, at the same time, in the case of suc­cess, the means to hold it in the hands of the peo­ple them­selves” (263). We are less inter­ested, though, in mak­ing an argu­ment about what Marx really thought than in eval­u­at­ing these ideas, on their own terms, which is why we con­fine this digres­sion to a note. We are well aware that one can mar­shal all sorts of tex­tual sup­port for Lenin’s view on this mat­ter. And even the best pos­si­ble recon­struc­tion of Marx’s thought on this mat­ter strikes us as inad­e­quate, from the present van­tage.  See Hal Draper, Dic­ta­tor­ship of Pro­le­tariat (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1987); a more recent and help­ful sur­vey can be found in David Adam, Karl Marx and the State.” 

  5. Some may choose to describe this frac­tion as a “party.” We have no prob­lem with this usage, except inas­much as it might be con­fused with other uses of the term party. The ded­i­cated frac­tion we describe is a more-or-less spon­ta­neous pro­duct of unfold­ing rev­o­lu­tion; it doesn’t pre­cede the his­tor­i­cal moment of an unfold­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary sequence. It is sim­ply the orga­nized unfold­ing of the rev­o­lu­tion, and the form that this orga­ni­za­tion takes, as peo­ple attempt to do what needs doing. This has no resem­blance to the sort of party that is orga­nized in advance of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary event and attempts to slowly accrue mem­bers so as to be able to act deci­sively in some future moment. Struc­turally, such par­ties are almost always bound to become oppor­tunis­tic, coun­ter-rev­o­lu­tion­ary forces. They are only use­ful inas­much as they form the object for a split at the deci­sive moment – as hap­pened with splits from and within the 2nd inter­na­tional dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion­ary wave after WWI. For an exam­ple of this sense of party and par­ti­saniza­tion, see “Spon­tane­ity, Medi­a­tion, Rup­ture,” End­notes 3 (2013), 240. 

  6. We can­not retrace this argu­ment here, but see The­o­rie Com­mu­niste, “The Present Moment,” Sic 1 (2011), Jasper Bernes, “Logis­tics, Coun­ter­l­ogis­tics, and the Com­mu­nist Prospect,” End­notes 3 (2013), and “Spon­tane­ity, Medi­a­tion, Rup­ture,” op. cit. We note, in pass­ing, that Marx­ism broke with all pre­vi­ous forms of com­mu­nism and social­ism by aban­don­ing a moral and ide­al­ist account of how com­mu­nism would come into the world. Marx’s inno­va­tion was that com­mu­nism would be the unfold­ing of self-inter­est. In other words, we can’t rely upon any con­cep­tion of what peo­ple should do, nor even upon the supe­rior, puta­tively sci­en­tific power of doc­trine in the hands of ded­i­cated mil­i­tants. Com­mu­nism will stand or fall based upon whether it is in the self-inter­est of the mil­lions upon mil­lions of peo­ple to fight for it and to insti­tute and strengthen com­mu­nist rela­tions. Com­mu­nism wins by being the most obvi­ous, prac­ti­cal and appeal­ing alter­na­tive on offer, within a par­tic­u­lar rev­o­lu­tion­ary con­junc­ture. This supe­ri­or­ity must be clear, sooner rather than later, to the great­est num­ber of peo­ple, and not just a ded­i­cated minor­ity who act as guardians of a bet­ter future to come. This is why we believe com­mu­nist mea­sures will not only be the most obvi­ous choice (per­haps the only choice) avail­able to peo­ple, once other alter­na­tives are exhausted, but the most appeal­ing. If there is a task for ded­i­cated insur­gents it is in gen­er­al­iz­ing such mea­sures and help­ing their suc­cess.  

Authors of the article

is a communist. He is also a professor of literature and critical theory at the University of California Davis, currently visiting professor at University of Paris. A widely published essayist, poet, and cultural theorist, his most recent book along with Riot. Strike. Riot is Red Epic (Commune Editions, 2015).

is lecturer in the English Department at UC Berkeley. He is the author of Starsdown (2007). Recent poems and essays can be found in Modern Language Quarterly, The Lana Turner, Los Angeles Review of Books, The American Reader, and Endnotes. His book-length poem, We Are Nothing and So Can You, will be published by Commune Editions in spring 2015.