Materials for a Revolutionary Theory of the State

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“I believe that the sta­tus of the state in cur­rent think­ing on the Left is very prob­lem­at­ic,” Stu­art Hall wrote in 1984, in the mid­st of Mar­garet Thatcher’s war on the “ene­my with­in.” He reflect­ed on the lega­cy of the post­war peri­od, which saw the exten­sion of pub­lic ser­vices with­in the con­text of a vast expan­sion of the state’s inter­ven­tion in social life. The ensu­ing cri­sis and restruc­tur­ing of glob­al cap­i­tal­ism was char­ac­ter­ized by the strate­gic use of polic­ing and repres­sion, not to men­tion glob­al mil­i­tary pow­er – war­fare alongside wel­fare. Hall’s descrip­tion of the ide­o­log­i­cal dilem­ma faced by the Left could, with minor updates in ter­mi­nol­o­gy, have been writ­ten in today’s Unit­ed States:

On the one hand, we not only defend the wel­fare side of the state, we believe it should be mas­sive­ly expand­ed. And yet, on the oth­er hand, we feel there is some­thing deeply anti-social­ist about how this wel­fare state func­tions. We know, indeed, that it is expe­ri­enced by mass­es of ordi­nary peo­ple, in the very moment that they are ben­e­fit­ing from it, as an intru­sive man­age­ri­al, bureau­crat­ic force in their lives. How­ev­er, if we go too far down that par­tic­u­lar road, whom do we dis­cov­er keep­ing us com­pa­ny along the road but – of course – the Thatcherites, the new Right, the free mar­ket “hot gospellers,” who seem (whis­per it not too loud) to be say­ing rather sim­i­lar things about the state. Only they are busy mak­ing cap­i­tal again­st us on this very point, treat­ing wide­spread pop­u­lar dis­sat­is­fac­tions with the mod­es in which the ben­e­fi­cia­ry parts of the state func­tion as fuel for an anti-Left, “roll back the state” cru­sade. And where, to be hon­est, do we stand on the issue? Are we for “rolling back the state” – includ­ing the wel­fare state? Are we for or again­st the man­age­ment of the whole of soci­ety by the state? Not for the first time, Thatch­erism here catch­es the Left on the hop – hop­ping from one uncer­tain posi­tion to the next, unsure of our ground.1

We now con­front an even more dras­tic expan­sion of state pow­er. Even the main­stream media doc­u­ments with trep­i­da­tion the new tech­nolo­gies of sur­veil­lance and the increas­ing fusion of mil­i­tary and police con­trol, alongside the con­tin­u­ing domes­tic growth of pris­ons and the for­ti­fi­ca­tion of impe­ri­al dom­i­na­tion.

The hyper­tro­phy of the state’s repres­sive dimen­sions has been matched, how­ev­er, by an ampu­ta­tion of its wel­fare func­tions. The neolib­er­al restruc­tur­ing that began in the 1970s is there­fore expe­ri­enced by many on the Left as a loss of the state’s angelic effects, of every­thing that once emanat­ed from the reg­u­la­tion of finance and the embed­ded­ness of mar­kets. The state, we note for­lorn­ly in the age of aus­ter­i­ty, is just as much teach­ers and the post office as it is cops and pris­ons. “On the hop,” as Hall described, we won­der whether it would not be bet­ter to take our dis­tance from the Tea Par­ty, and even the aus­te­ri­ans of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty and Euro­pean social democ­ra­cy, by defend­ing big gov­ern­ment from big busi­ness. We are unable to find our way out of this bind: fight­ing some aspects of the state – police vio­lence, a racist judi­cial sys­tem, a sur­veil­lance appa­ra­tus beyond J. Edgar Hoover’s wildest dreams – while putting every­thing on the line to pre­serve oth­ers – a fail­ing pub­lic edu­ca­tion sys­tem, besieged social wel­fare pro­grams, crum­bling infra­struc­ture. Mean­while, one of the most pre­cious tenets of our lega­cy – not the reform, not the infil­tra­tion, but the abo­li­tion of the state – risks being aban­doned to the slo­gans of an agi­tat­ed fringe of the Repub­li­can Par­ty.

Regret­tably, the­se for­mu­la­tions have also become an obsta­cle to clar­i­ty about con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ism. Cov­ered up com­plete­ly is the role of the state in the cri­sis man­age­ment that fol­lowed the post­war boom, and the char­ac­ter of neolib­er­al­ism as a whol­ly state-dri­ven project – in which the insti­tu­tion­al coor­di­na­tion of mar­kets and the pen­e­tra­tion of finance into every­day life, both part of the her­itage of the New Deal, were pro­found­ly extend­ed and artic­u­lat­ed with an open assault on labor.2

The bru­tal real­i­ty of the neolib­er­al state, on ample dis­play in eco­nom­ic his­to­ry, can be doc­u­ment­ed just as much in the doc­tri­nes of its the­o­rists – a kind of uni­ty of neolib­er­al the­o­ry and prac­tice ele­gant­ly illus­trat­ed by Friedrich Hayek’s admir­ing vis­its to Augus­to Pinochet’s Chile. As both Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas would rec­og­nize, in an instance of the under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed con­ver­gence which began to devel­op just as their famous debate was peak­ing in vit­ri­ol, Sal­vador Allende’s defeat had already raised the strate­gic ques­tion of the state – the ques­tions of par­lia­men­tary action, the polit­i­cal alle­giances of the state per­son­nel, the social­ist use of the state appa­ra­tus, the rela­tion of state reform to pop­u­lar move­ments, and the dan­ger posed by the vio­lence of the Right.3 The prob­lem of the state was at the very cen­ter of both the defeat of the Left and the ascen­dan­cy of neolib­er­al­ism.

For­tu­nate­ly, the past few years have seen major shifts in the field of polit­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties. After a long peri­od of decline, a new cycle of strug­gle seems to have emerged, marked by an upsurge in rad­i­cal move­ments fac­ing off again­st the state. Glob­al mobi­liza­tions again­st repres­sive immi­gra­tion laws, police vio­lence, and aus­ter­i­ty direct­ly put the ques­tion of the state on the table. After all, the strug­gles for clean water, again­st racist police, and over the future of pub­lic schools are all state issues. But alongside the­se move­ments there is also a strik­ing resur­gence of social­ist elec­toral par­ties and pro­grams – from Syriza in Greece, to Podemos in Spain, to Kshama Sawant in Seat­tle – and much excite­ment about munic­i­pal social­ism, pop­u­lar ref­er­en­dums, and even the prospects of a future third par­ty.

But the rela­tion between the­se two dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal approach­es is uncer­tain. One side of the Left hopes to par­tic­i­pate in the state – to push for ame­lio­ra­tive reforms, to restore the forms of pub­lic spend­ing that char­ac­ter­ized the now-muti­lat­ed wel­fare state, to pres­sure elect­ed offi­cials and push them to the left, or to them­selves be elect­ed into par­lia­ment or local gov­ern­ment. At the oppo­site extreme are those who cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly reject the elec­toral ter­rain, iden­ti­fy­ing the pri­ma­ry line of strug­gle as the con­fronta­tion with the police. While the mil­i­tants denounce those who seek to work with­in the state as col­lab­o­ra­tors, decry­ing any such par­tic­i­pa­tion as an irre­deemable capit­u­la­tion to its log­ic, the prag­ma­tists insist that con­fronta­tion­al pol­i­tics can only harm the move­ment, and demo­nize their osten­si­ble com­rades in terms some­times worse than what you’ll hear from the Right. In the past, social­ist move­ments strug­gled to artic­u­late the­se approach­es to the state into a coher­ent front; today, the dis­tance between them has nev­er been greater.

What our sit­u­a­tion requires is a seri­ous strate­gic rethink­ing of the state. The renewed vig­or of elec­toral strug­gles on the one hand and mil­i­tant mobi­liza­tions on the oth­er form a vivid land­scape of action, a dizzy­ing “diver­si­ty of tac­tics.” But too often the lan­guage intel­lec­tu­als use to the­o­rize the­se strug­gles remains locked in obso­lete orga­ni­za­tion­al tra­di­tions, still fight­ing the vendet­tas of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions – again­st anar­chism, again­st Lenin­ism, again­st Euro­com­mu­nism. It is time to give up chas­ing after ghosts. A renewed the­o­ry of the state, the kind of the­o­ry that can help us over­come the polit­i­cal ambi­gu­i­ties of the present, will emerge from a space of encoun­ter, from the con­ver­gence of per­spec­tives con­di­tioned by dis­tinct sets of strug­gles from dif­fer­ent times and places. This issue of View­point is intend­ed as a con­tri­bu­tion to rebuild­ing such a the­o­ry. We have no “line” to pro­pose; instead, we wager that it is pre­cise­ly through such unex­pect­ed com­bi­na­tions and con­fronta­tions that a set of his­tor­i­cal­ly appo­site strate­gies may begin to emerge.


  1. Stu­art Hall, “The State – Socialism’s Old Care­tak­er,” Marx­ism Today (Novem­ber 1984); also col­lect­ed in The Hard Road to Renewal (Lon­don: Ver­so, 1988). See his self-crit­i­cal reflec­tions on the remain­der of this arti­cle and the Marx­ism Today lega­cy in his inter­view with Helen Davis, in her Under­stand­ing Stu­art Hall (Lon­don: Sage, 2004), 157-8; and Robin Blackburn’s astute com­men­tary on Hall’s polit­i­cal con­junc­ture, “Stu­art Hall: 1932-2014,” New Left Review 86 (March-April 2014). 

  2. For note­wor­thy exam­ples of the exten­sive lit­er­a­ture on the neolib­er­al state, see Wern­er Bone­feld, “Free econ­o­my and the strong state: Some notes on the state,” Cap­i­tal & Class 34 (2010); and Mar­ti­jn Kon­ings, “Neolib­er­al­ism and the Amer­i­can State,” Crit­i­cal Soci­ol­o­gy 36:5 (2010). 

  3. See Ralph Miliband, “The Coup in Chile,” Social­ist Reg­is­ter 10 (1973), also col­lect­ed in Class Pow­er and State Pow­er (Lon­don: Ver­so, 1983); and Nicos Poulantzas, State, Pow­er, Social­ism (Lon­don: New Left Books, 1978), 263. In a man­u­script cur­rent­ly under prepa­ra­tion, we trace this con­ver­gence and try to explain its sig­nif­i­cance, but the point has already been argued by atten­tive read­ers of Miliband and Poulantzas. See Leo Pan­itch, “The State and the Future of Social­ism,” Cap­i­tal & Class 4:2 (1980); “Ralph Miliband, Social­ist Intel­lec­tu­al,” Social­ist Reg­is­ter 31 (1995); and “The Impov­er­ish­ment of State The­o­ry” in Par­a­digm Lost: State The­o­ry Recon­sid­ered (Min­neapolis: Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2002). With speci­fic ref­er­ence to their debate, see Bob Jes­sop, “Dia­logue of the Deaf: Some Reflec­tions on the Poulantzas-Miliband Debate” in Class, Pow­er and the State in Cap­i­tal­ist Soci­ety: Essays on Ralph Miliband, ed. Paul Wether­ly, Clyde W. Bar­row, and Peter Burn­ham (Lon­don: Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 2008). 

Authors of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint.

is a founding editor of Viewpoint and a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania.