What is the state?

By Allen Myers

Today the state is so all-pervasive in nearly everyone’s life that it can be difficult to imagine a society in which it didn’t exist. But there have been societies without a state, and Marxists expect that there will be another in the future. The state is an organisation that seems to stand above society and regulate its operations and mutual relations. But tribal societies regulated themselves by custom and group decision, without any need for a special organisation to force individuals within the society to obey its rules. Such societies might have had temporary or traditional leaders, but their authority rested on general acceptance by the society, not on compulsion from an organised body of enforcers. Even when such societies fought with each other, the fighting was done by the whole group, or all the male members of it, not by a specialised army.

Class antagonisms

Historically, states arose when societies developed deep-seated antagonisms that threatened to consume the society in irreconcilable struggle. These antagonisms were between clashing economic interests: slaves and slaveowners, for example, or peasants and the landowning nobility for whom they were forced to work. In a society divided into hostile classes, the bearing of arms could no longer be the role of the entire society, because classes would use arms against each other rather than against external enemies. So the exercise of armed force became the exclusive right of particular specialised organisations.

The main function of these specialised organisations of armed force was to keep the class struggle within bounds that allowed the society to continue to exist. Not surprisingly, as states arose, they were formed and commanded by the economically strongest class, the class that owned the society’s major means of production — agricultural land — and used that ownership to exploit those who worked the land. So the specialised organisations of armed force became more than a means of keeping the class struggle in check; they became tools with which the exploiter class maintained its rule over and exploitation of the working people.

There is no contradiction between limiting the class struggle to “legal” channels and ensuring the dominance of one of the contending classes. Keeping the class struggle from overturning a particular social order necessarily means maintaining the fundamental relationship between the exploiting and exploited classes. Slaves generally have nothing to lose from the dissolution of a social system that holds them in bondage. The state keeps class antagonisms within safe bounds for the exploiter class by curtailing the exploited classes’ struggle for their liberation.

The state, especially the modern capitalist state, of course consists of more than the armed forces (the military); it includes a variety of civilian organisations that enforce compliance with the fundamental interests of the ruling class: the police force, the courts, prisons, the bureaucratic apparatus of “public” administration, parliament and the government (the executive committee at the head of the state). They are not all equally essential. There are capitalist states, for example, that get along for considerable periods without a parliament.

Standing army

What the capitalist state can’t do without is a standing army, commanded by officers either drawn from the capitalist class itself or paid high enough salaries to give them a personal interest in the maintenance of the capitalist system. In times of war or other social upheaval that weakens or destroys parts of the state, it is always the military machine that the capitalists seek to rebuild most urgently. States whose standing army has disintegrated or is too weak to enforce the will of the ruling class are known as “failed states”, because they cannot fulfil the state’s most essential function.

In the period of competitive capitalism, in the 19th century, a parliamentary “democratic” republic was the form of state most suited to capitalism. It was a relatively efficient method for different competing sectors of the capitalist class to reach compromise agreements among themselves. And because it created illusions among those workers included in the electoral franchise that the state represented their interests to some degree, it saved money by reducing the size of the armed force needed to guarantee capitalist rule.

But in the era of imperialism, of corporate capitalism, both the military and civilian bureaucratic organisations that constitute the state have grown far beyond anything known even in the most absolute monarchies of the 18th century. Even where imperialist states have maintained democratic forms, they are constantly increasing the strength of their military machine and their arsenals of repressive measures against working people.

It is because of the class character of any state that a socialist revolution must break up and dismantle the capitalist state and create a new one that will defend the interests of working people against the resistance of the capitalists to the replacement of capitalism with socialism.