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 and author of Mistaken Identity: Anti-Racism and the Struggle Against White Supremacy (Verso, Spring 2018).

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