What is Political Power?

Tina Modotti, Untitled (“1st of May Manifestation – Labor Day – Taken from a balcony of the National Palace,” 1927)


The surprising trajectory of the Bernie Sanders campaign has revived discussions of socialist politics. And renewed interest in socialist politics has brought a renewed interest in Marxist theory, specifically about the state. This isn’t surprising, because there’s a lot to explain. 

Even in the current conditions of total medical emergency, the state has made sure to avoid infringing the intellectual property rights of pharmaceutical companies, and has failed to guarantee paid sick leave for the majority of American workers. Business interests take clear precedence over public health.

The coronavirus pandemic is clearly demonstrating to us the need to administrate the problems of public health in a more rational fashion than the capitalist state. It’s obvious based on previous experience that we need to shift towards the democratic public control of medical resources. But this doesn’t mean control over people. The capitalist state is happy to let the profit motive continue to dictate our lives while stepping up xenophobic border policing, coercion and surveillance, and prison labor — when we actually need social safety nets, equal access to protection and care, and rational planning. A similar logic will apply to the urgent problems of climate change, and the time to make these changes was yesterday.

But this isn’t how the state operates. And the election season has shown that even when political procedures appear to be formally democratic, the game is still rigged. The oligarchic interests within the Democratic party — and make no mistake, the withdrawal of Bloomberg does not change the fact that the Democratic establishment is fundamentally composed of oligarchs — have been manipulating the media, exploiting every possible loophole in the process, and generally finding ways to prevent the public from participating. 

The party leadership displayed a total indifference to the accurate interpretation of voting results since the debacle in Iowa, and has explicitly embraced the prospect of anti-democratic maneuvering by superdelegates to avert the risk of voters making an independent choice. Supposedly progressive politicians joined in a concerted propaganda campaign to misrepresent Sanders supporters as white “Bernie Bros,” despite the overwhelming support of women and people of color. Recently party elites have consolidated around Joe Biden in an effort to prop up a campaign which would likely lead to total disaster in the general election, suggesting that they view democratic support for Bernie as a greater threat than Trump. Already, some are trying to use coronavirus as an excuse to permanently shut down voting and autocratically appoint Biden as the nominee.

So it’s not easy to figure out how socialists should relate to such a state. Can such a state be reformed? What would it take to change it, or to loosen its grip on society?

Among Marxists, we frequently hear about “the Marxist position” on such and such a question, including the state. Often “the Marxist position” is supposed to be that socialism means that the working class seizes state power, to be contrasted to anarchist positions which are apparently afraid to engage with the state, or liberal ones which don’t allow for the idea that the working class should use the state in its own interests.

There are at least two problems with talking about “the Marxist position.” The first one is just that as any Marxist knows, there are at least as many interpretations of Marxism as there are Marxists, and frequently the different positions are irreconcilable. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because Marxism seeks both to understand and to intervene in a constantly changing world, which means that it has to adjust and adapt. The diversity of opinions allows us to draw on rich debates in the history of Marxism, and this is nothing to fear. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean that “anything goes.” It would be meaningless to describe anything as Marxist if there weren’t certain core characteristics of Marxist thought and politics. It would obviously make no sense to say that tax breaks for the wealthy are Marxist, for example. So we have to both specify what makes something Marxist, and also identify where diverging positions might appear and try to find the most fruitful way forward for theorizing.

The second problem is that the fact that something “is Marxist” doesn’t make it correct, hard though it is to admit. This appeal to textual authority often has a repressive character that prevents us from adapting our ideas to our circumstances.  

On the other hand, we should learn lessons from a concrete history of political struggles. Marxism isn’t just a set of static ideas, but was an active historical force that was part of changing the world. And if there are certain basic premises of Marxist theory, it makes sense to evaluate what conclusions follow from these premises. 

Premises of the Classical Theory

What are the core premises of the Marxist theory of the state? They are quite clear in the published record, but I’ll avoid lapsing into the reciting of the “famous quotations” which is quite boring to read and sometimes a way to compensate for lack of clarity. But here are certain basic points.

In everyday usage, “the state” simply refers to the centralized authority which we also just refer to as the “government.” But according to the Marxist theory, the state isn’t an invariant feature of all human societies, and it isn’t just a more complex and elaborated expression of the general need to make decisions, or the minor and provisional forms of everyday authority which prevent children from running into traffic. It’s a coercive institution which arises with the division of society into classes. 

As long as some people are exploited by others, those who are exploited will struggle for better conditions for themselves, and the exploiters will try to maintain their position of wealth and power. These conflicts can’t be resolved as long as classes exist, so the state appears as a power that is separate from society, towering over it and preserving order. The state secures the domination of the ruling class over the ruled through the exercise of violence with the police and the army. The fact that this state may be formally democratic and parliamentary, and may grant various rights and liberties to the population, does not alter the underlying class dictatorship. In fact, rights and liberties only exist to the extent that the exploited classes resist domination and force the ruling classes to concede them.

So the struggle by the working class to build a society and world that will benefit the many rather than the few will necessarily mean confronting the state. In some senses this does mean seizing state power – that is, taking it away from the ruling class by breaking their monopoly over society’s wealth, redirecting that wealth towards the public good, and instituting measures of social equality. But it is misleading to stop there. After all, what use does the working class have for a coercive and violent institution whose function is the preservation of the power of the ruling class? This immediately establishes obvious problems. So it makes little sense to speak of the seizure of state power unless one also proceeds to the point that the working class has to also “smash” the state, in the famous formulation — rather than taking hold of the existing state machine and using it for their own purposes, they have to scrap it and create a completely new one. 

The state isn’t actually a “machine” in the literal sense — it’s not made of metal and plastic. So the idea of “smashing” the state is clearly metaphorical. It actually implies a very complicated process of transforming our social institutions, since the existing institutions won’t just disappear, and experimenting with the building of new institutions, making it possible to replace the instruments of ruling-class political power with mass organizations. 

What’s more, the ruling classes who have now been ejected from the seat of power will try to win it back. They will use all the violence at their disposal to try to re-establish their dictatorship and drag the world back into the misery of the old order. It will be in the interest of humanity to prevent them from doing so. 

So the “smashed” state will have to be replaced by something like a transitional working-class state. But such a state would not just be characterized by the working class sitting on top of the previously existing state, which would not only mean that the old forms of inequality and domination would persist, but would also leave the field open for coups and counterrevolutions from inside the state. This new working-class “state” — perhaps it would be clearer to describe it more neutrally as a “political power” —  would represent the vast majority of the population and would therefore be far more democratic than the capitalist state could possibly have been, whatever institutions of formal democracy and rights it may have embodied.

But the goal of the working class is not some liberal one of gaining better recognition. It’s the abolition of class society: overcoming the condition in which a small group of people own the resources necessary for human survival and the rest of us have to work for them. And if classes are abolished, the state’s function of preserving class rule becomes unnecessary, because there is no longer any need to preserve the oppression of the subjugated class. So this new working-class state, while already far more democratic than the previously existing state, will also become unnecessary and will itself, in another famous formulation, “wither away,” and the government of people will be replaced by the administration of things in a “free association.”

Relevance of the Classical Theory

“Sensible” socialists might object, like Joe Biden, that these are “pie in the sky” fantasies. It’s enough, they might say, to accept the first step, the seizure of state power by the working class (which will somehow happen within the existing state institutions), and the idea of the abolition of classes and the state is unnecessary and distracting window dressing. How silly! These notions are already quite popular in everyday language. The Bernie campaign has popularized the ideas that there should be no more billionaires, and that there should be a political revolution to overcome the anti-democratic character of the system which excludes the vast majority of people. But to understand these aims as being achievable within the existing system of class antagonism and state power is simply illogical. 

To get rid of billionaires, it’s not enough just to tax them. As long as we live in a society in which basic needs are only met through the accumulation of profit, it will be possible for a minority of people to maintain their ownership of private property and keep the rest of us separate from it. They will be able to exert pressure on the state to roll back taxation when it becomes too great a burden, as they have so many times before. 

To have a political revolution, it’s not sufficient just to elect better politicians to office. There has to be a mobilization of people at the grassroots level to overcome their exclusion from governance. The politicians may represent this grassroots mobilization, but if their goals become oriented around being re-elected rather than opening up further space in the state, that exclusion becomes entrenched. 

The basic intuitions of the regular people supporting Bernie actually require us to go further than the existing system, rather than confining them to policy adjustments within the system. In this sense, the classical Marxist perspective remains reasonable and valid. In fact, given the relentless drive of global capitalism towards social, political, and ecological disaster, it’s the only rational position.

The classical Marxist perspective is very distinct from some of the recent attempts to ground socialism in liberalism — in a conception of formal rights and individual freedoms. In certain respects, this is an understandable defensive reaction to the Cold War ideology that socialism denies people democratic rights, which was recently stirred up by the debate over Bernie’s comments on Cuba. But from the classical Marxist vantage point there are several limitations to this approach. 

The first is that as they have emerged in actual history, rights are the rights of the self-interested individuals of the marketplace, individuals who are separated from each other and the community. The formal and abstract equality of these individuals masks the real inequality generated by the market — a society in which everyone has freedom of speech, but only a select few own Fox News and MSNBC, and are able to effectively control who speaks and who is heard. In this individualistic society, the only way that people experience community is in the state, but in the realm of the state people’s social powers are also separated from them and dominate them like an alien force. So rights can only be at best the foundation of a partial emancipation. Real emancipation would mean overcoming the individualistic separation of the market, and reabsorbing the separate powers of the state into the human community.

The other problem is that while any rational society would certainly cultivate the freedom and self-development of the individual, in actual practice this discussion obscures the reality that the existing state structure is designed to exclude the people it is supposed to represent even if it grants them formal rights. Defending rights within the constraints of the existing state structure, without proposing a thoroughgoing transformation of that structure, is not enough to achieve greater democracy, and even tends to displace a much-needed discussion of the the “materiality” of the state — that is, an analysis of how state institutions are structured, how they organize people’s lives, and how they reproduce themselves over time. Greater freedom and democracy are won not through a nuanced and tolerant deliberative discussion of liberal rights, but through material struggles to limit the state’s power.

Of course, it’s no accident that this anxiety over rights and freedoms comes up in the discussion of state socialist societies like Cuba, in which the state conspicuously failed to wither away. But that problem isn’t solved by invoking formal rights, which, as capitalist states demonstrate, can be recognized while still excluding the majority of the population from participation at a very material level. Joining liberals in abstractly condemning dictatorship muddles the question, obscuring the class dictatorship underlying capitalist democracies and failing to even pose the question of the practices and institutions that would be required for a socialist transition to move towards abolishing the state, rather than just producing a state which more closely resembles the capitalist dictatorship.

In order to solve the problem posed by state socialism we need to renew not only the theory of the state, but also seriously confront the need for a theory of political organization, which has been one of Marxism’s major shortcomings. For much of the history of Marxism, the political party, which emerged as a component of the capitalist state, was taken for granted as an organizational form. But after the socialist revolutions, there was a kind of gap between the mass organizations which were supposed to replace the state — workers’ councils, for example — and the persistence of the old state institutions themselves. Without a theory of organization which could help provide an alternative to the forms of politics derived from the capitalist state, the party just became the state. To go beyond the limits of state socialism, we have to figure out what forms of organization will not just reproduce the existing state institutions.

Areas for Further Research

Alongside the problem of the theory of organization, the classical Marxist theory of the state has certain weaknesses, which is why the state was at the center of Marxist debates for the entire subsequent century. 

First, it’s not clear what it means for the state to be an instrument for the ruling class. Usually the ruling class doesn’t directly govern the population — the institutions of the state are separate from the institutions of the economy, after all. Figures like Trump and Bloomberg stand out precisely because most capitalists don’t have to enter into the state to have their interests served. 

And capitalists are in competition, so they don’t always collude to pursue their interests as a class. There are many barriers to them doing so, sometimes to their detriment; in situations of capitalist crisis, they may resist the state-driven measures which would lead to an overall stabilization of the economy, because they can only see their short-term competitive interests. 

So it’s not enough to say that the state is an instrument of the ruling class. And it’s also somewhat avoiding the question to just point out that there is direct participation by capitalists, that politicians are friends with capitalists, and that they are funded by capital. The fact that these things happen — and as we all know they happen quite systematically — is the effect of the complicated structure of the state, which is what has to be explained: how a relatively autonomous set of institutions reproduces the existing class relations. Bloomberg’s billions couldn’t buy him the election, but this doesn’t mean that the capitalist state won’t continue to operate in his favor. We could say that the form the state takes in capitalist societies is determined by the economic forms in which unpaid labor is pumped out of workers, and it reproduces the conditions for capitalist accumulation. But this doesn’t happen in some fixed and linear way. It happens within specific and varying conditions, and it reacts back on the relations of production.

This means that along with the structural aspect, there is also a question of political processes. If the ruling class does not rule directly, this means there are various political alliances, between the bankers and the industrialists down to the intermediary strata of the so-called “professional-managerial class.” These alliances are constantly in flux and are composed by particular political strategies which often come into conflict. The welfare state is actually a kind of strategy of compromise with the working class to make sure workers continue participating in their exploitation. It is thanks to working-class struggle that the capitalist state entered into this compromise. Neoliberalism isn’t an erosion of the state, but a very state-driven strategy of consolidating capitalist power. This strategy involved disorganizing the working class by undermining unions, increasing workers’ precarity, rolling back the gains of labor movement, and attacking the left with a radical right-wing program. It also radically reshaped political institutions and social life according to market relations, by privatizing social programs, deregulating capital, imposing austerity, transferring responsibility for the maintenance of basic living conditions onto individuals through debt, and so on. All of this was done with the highly authoritarian direction of the state, which criminalized resistance to the neoliberal “revolution from above” in the name of “law and order.” So defending the state as such against neoliberalism is an ambiguous position which runs the risk of conflating welfare programs with ruling-class apparatuses, obscuring the political processes which would be required to force the capitalist state to once again concede such programs. Trump represents a certain ruling-class strategy today, while the figureheads of the Democratic establishment have been debating other strategies. They feel so threatened by the Bernie campaign that they are resorting to all kinds of strategies which are not automatic parts of the normal operation of their representative institutions, and require strategic thought in response. 

Second, in democratic capitalist societies, the state does not always resort to the use of force. On an everyday basis it relies on people freely and voluntarily participating in their subjection. This means that alongside sometimes forcing people to submit, it also has to persuade them to do so. This is not, however, reducible to conspiracies (though they do happen), or propaganda (though it is absolutely pervasive). The trickier and more important thing is to explain why conspiracies are not always necessary, and people still participate in the system without being directly manipulated from above; and why people actually believe propaganda, or indeed why they still participate in the system even when they don’t entirely believe it. 

These are the questions of ideology. This isn’t a matter of people having false ideas, which could be counteracted just by explaining the right ideas. In fact, ideology only works because it refers to real phenomena and can resonate with real experiences, and because it’s embedded in everyday habits we’re trained in from birth, without always being fully conscious of them. So ideology is something more like the way we understand the reality that is imposed on us to be the result of our decisions, and this makes things rather complicated. It would be very logical for people to be constantly on strike, since they outnumber their bosses and business comes to a halt when they decide to stop working. But people are actually very rarely on strike. Of course, this is partly because they’re at risk of getting fired, but it’s also true that people regularly decline to join unions which would build their collective power and protect them from getting fired. 

A very wide range of different ideas are stitched together and generated by the everyday habits that lead to this decision, which are themselves embedded in very material institutions like schools, the media, and so on. Theorizing the state means theorizing all these institutions that are outside the state as we strictly conceive it yet play an ideological role, and it means reckoning with the fact that there is no transparent class consciousness or recognition of “material” interests, but rather a constant ideological struggle. Claiming that even reactionary and self-defeating choices by voters also represent a rational calculation of interest is “turtles all the way down” thinking which fails to recognize the complexity of human motivation and behavior. The fact that people are motivated by emotions, symbols, and representations doesn’t mean they’re stupid, it just means they’re people, and engaging with people at this level is a good idea if you want to get anything done.

The ruling class isn’t afraid of this complexity, and uses it to its advantage. Different ruling-class strategies stitch together different and not intuitively compatible ideological elements — tying family values and patriotism, for example, to free-market nihilism, as neoliberalism did — because economic compulsion in itself isn’t sufficient to facilitate these strategies. Waging the ideological struggle, then, means addressing people’s everyday lives in all this complexity, rather than presuming that leftist intellectuals have privileged access to an unadulterated economic truth. In fact, working-class people are often far more radical at this level than intellectuals, who, after all, disseminate ideology for a living, and are often at a certain level of remove from the stakes of the everyday class struggle. But this radical class instinct has to be supported by material organizational practices that can counteract the ideological institutions, or the reactionary elements of our contradictory common sense will prevail.

Third, the state is not monolithic and we are never in a society of total administration: there is always the resistance of the dominated classes. In fact, power is inconceivable without resistance; it’s not a scepter wielded by the dominant, but a relation, so the dominant classes are always responding to real or virtual threats to their domination, while the dominated classes are always pushing against the constraints of domination, even if this is in a seemingly passive and unconscious way. 

With this in mind we might say that the state actually has to be understood as including this political antagonism, so it really represents the “balance of forces” between the dominant and dominated classes. This unsteady balance is constantly shifting, but in the last resort the state represents the ruling class in its institutional structure. So a real rupture can only come about when the dominated classes exert pressure not just within the representative institutions of the state, but also with directly democratic organizations that can cause a transformation of the state’s structures. 

Now, an objection to this last theory might be that there’s never really a “balance of forces,” or there wouldn’t be a ruling class. Actually, it’s something more like an excess of force on the part of the ruling class, which appears to take the form of pure power in the state. This means that participation in the state’s institutional structure will have the tendency to co-opt opposition by absorbing it into the conventional practices of politics. In order to challenge the ruling class it is necessary to formulate new practices of politics which, strictly speaking, must be understood as being outside the state. 

It’s not very easy to decide between these two views, with a concept of the state traversed by political struggle on the one hand and the necessity of a politics at a distance from the state on the other; I find the former very elegant and the latter ultimately more convincing. But what each has in common is a basic point that has not yet been seriously engaged with today: the need for forms of organization that go beyond representative democracy. 

Strategy and Tactics

Here we come to questions of strategy and tactics. We can analytically distinguish the underlying questions of state theory from the questions of strategy and tactics, though they are clearly related. The underlying premises of the Marxist theory of the state lead in very clear ways to suspicion of electoral politics; voting would appear in the final analysis to be a voluntary ratification of ruling-class domination. 

Does this mean, however, that socialists should on principle refuse to participate in elections? I think this would be a dogmatic position. But let’s specify why it is dogmatic; it’s not because it corresponds to the utterly rational and valid goals of the abolition of classes and the state. It’s because it fails to concretely think through the historically determined processes by which those goals can be pursued. To arrive at the point where classes and the state can be abolished requires going through processes which start at a point we have not determined. Thinking strategically means figuring out how we can proceed from within the concrete situation, rather than abstractly realizing our goals in some imaginary reality.

But it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater and remember that there are good reasons to be suspicious of electoral politics. First of all, transferring power to a representative is a habit which can interfere with the self-organization that people have to engage in, from their workplaces to their neighborhoods, in order to act against the ruling class and to transform state institutions. Second, politicians who enter into the capitalist state operate under severe structural constraints, no matter how far to the left they are. This is quite clear from rational theoretical elaboration and has also been constantly proven throughout history. When socialists try to run the capitalist state, they tend to run into sticky situations which require them to favor capital over labor, and they often undermine their own electoral power — and organizational cohesion — as a result of this incoherence. 

What this means for the Bernie campaign is that it’s rather premature to speculate about President Bernie if this comes at the expense of the more pertinent and topical questions of strategy and organization — both because investing all faith in his powers would be to undermine the grassroots mobilization which is actually supporting him, and because the precarious political situation which may emerge can’t be determined in advance. 

Does this mean things will necessarily turn out badly? No, such predictions are pointless. Does this mean some correct solution was already determined in history and could simply be plucked out to apply to the present? No, nostalgia of that kind is ultimately disempowering. 

However, I think certain points remain clear and have not been superseded. Elections are not enough for pursuing a socialist political project, both because the ultimate socialist aims of abolishing classes and the state can’t be achieved within the existing state structures, and because there are very practical constraints on the scope of change which socialists can achieve if they do enter into the state. This doesn’t mean that it’s necessary on principle to abstain from elections, which in our concrete conditions could simply be suicidal for the left. But it does mean that the only available alternative that we know of is to build organizations which are outside the representative institutions of the state, which are democratic at an entirely different level, and which even present the possibility of a new practice of politics that goes beyond the limits of the state.

Some socialists like to say that once Bernie is elected, they will fight him just as much as any other politician; others say that if he is defeated, our task remains the same. Of course, these slogans may sustain activists who find themselves spending the night constantly refreshing the election results, but their future-oriented character risks miring us in passivity. As an orientation towards the future, hope is inseparable from fear. As an orientation in the present, hope should consist of commitment and confidence in the rationality of revolt. Our action in the present should not depend on a future outcome.

The parameters of American politics have been such that this level of electoral success for a socialist has been unimaginable. We are observing a fairly open-ended process characterized by the surprising effects of a mass mobilization and the crisis of the political establishment. What we know for sure right now is that Democrats are doing everything they can to suppress the Bernie campaign. We don’t need to set up an either/or of electoral politics or mass organizing, and we shouldn’t base our activity in the present on an unpredictable future. Whatever the outcome, it’s necessary to start building new practices of politics now. Yes, it’s possible that in a future scenario of American social democracy there will be a need for pressure from outside the state to implement and protect social-democratic reforms. But it’s also necessary in the present to build alternative institutions that can counteract the suppression of democracy that’s taking place as we speak. This can’t simply be deferred to the future, and it can’t be waved away as a horizontalist residue of Occupy which the Bernie campaign has superseded. Even while people mobilize now to do canvassing and electoral work, a discussion must be initiated about how these alternatives can be built.

Author of the article

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