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 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.

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).