state authoritarianism and ontology

LeoCasey at LeoCasey at
Sat Jul 1 19:10:48 MDT 1995

I want to thank Howie and John for what were very thoughtful responses to my
lenghty discourse on ontology and Marxism.

I think that the first thing I should do to further the conversation is to
clarify my passing reference to ontology and theories of state
authoritarianism. The question of the relationship between state
authoritarianism and political theory is one I have ruminated over for some
time, and if I make myself a little clearer on the subject, then it will
possible to proceed without unnecessary misunderstanding,

My view is that after Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, to identify the three most
prominent signifiers of the problem, anyone who identifies him/herself with
the radical left must confront with utmost seriousness the problem of state
authoritarianism and how it has developed in the name of the principles we
uphold. This problem is first a matter of our own integrity. But I would go
even further and say that our ability to mount any credible movement of
social transformation from the left depends upon our ability to settle
accounts on this question.

Generally, there have been two approaches, neither of which comes anywhere
close to confronting the crux of this issue -- (1) Communism took root in
'backward' societies which did not have the capacity to create the socialism
from below envisioned by Marx. A lot of the discussion of the historical
specificity of Russian (Chinese, etc.) development fits in this category,
which is really a form of 'exceptionalist' theory which attempts to retain
the original theory in all of its essentials in the face of all these
historical counterfactuals.; (2) Stalinism (Maoism, etc.) betrayed the vision
of Marx (or Marx and Lenin). Here the theory becomes a matter of faith, and
Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc. become apostates. History becomes an 'if only if'
formula -- if only the Mensheviks rather than the Bolsheviks, if only Trotsky
instead of Stalin, if only Luxrmburg was not murdered, etc.

My point is not that the particular historical circumstances in which there
was an attempt to build communist societies are irrelevant, or that there are
not significant differences (as well as points of commonality) between Marx's
and Stalin's thinking. But these issues just do not go to the core of the
problem -- which is, what in the Marxist tradition itself made it possible
for these authoritarian/ totalitarian states to develop and rule in the name
of Marxism.

I believe that any reasonable interpretation of Marx's corpus (and some of
the preceding political theorists such as Rousseau, for some of the same
strictures apply to them) will conclude that his _intention_ was thoroughly
democratic. The question that needs to be asked, therefore, is this: what are
the unintended consequences of the structure of his theory which allowed it
to be mobilized on behalf of state authoritarianism (and mass murder) of the
worst sort?

I would agree with Howie that there is no one single (or simple) element in
political theory generally -- and Marxism specifically -- which lends itself
to state authoritarianism, and thus there is no single innoculation which can
immunize us. State authoritarianism is the effect of an ensemble of
relations. We can, however, identify elements in that ensemble, and to the
extent that we do, we will be   able to reconstruct radical theory in a
credibly democratic way.

For various reasons, the original Marxian corpus lacked a political theory
proper. (I would relate this lacuna in part to his ability to solve the
problem of political agency, given the subject-object dualism with which he
theorized the proletariat, and in part to the utopian way in which he
conceived socialism.) Theories of the political party, entirely absent in
Marx, are of considerable importance here; theories of the state, only
tangentily -- and then inconsistently -- addressed by Marx, are also central.
Those who followed in his footsteps, from Kautsky to Lenin, from Bernstein to
Luxemburg, from Lukacs to Gramsci, and from Trotsky to Stalin, focused on
attempts to fill that space, and often did so with the most undesirable

Take, for example, the theory of the party. It is often forgotten, as the
Leninists themselves did not want to draw attention to this inconvenient
connection, that Lenin's and Kautsky's theory of the party were very closely
related. (Lenin spoke very highly of Kautsky in the original publication of
What Is To Be Done?) Theirs was a very hierarchical, top down vision of the
party, one which the party was the repository of class consciousness and the
class was its passive recipient. Or take the theory of the state. Again both
Kautsky and Lenin had instrumentalist thoeries of the state; they differed
only in how one gains control of the state instrumentalities, and what makes
a state proletarian. If a state is fundamentally an instrument, it is very
difficult to think of how it might function in a democratic way.

It is important here to note also the lack of a positive theory of democratic
practice and institutions in the Marxist classics. While liberalism was
constantly criticized for 'bourgeois democracy', all that was ever posited as
an alternative was 'direct (proletarian, unmediated) democracy', be it the
Paris Commune or the soviets, and here the discussion was at the highest
level of generality. There was little or no discussion of the rule of law and
individual rights as limits on state power, or of notions of the separation
of governmental powers to prevent the concentration of state power, or of
concepts of an independent civil society as a restraint on the state (free
media, free trade unions, etc.) -- all this was simply ignored as part of
bourgeois democracy. (Luxemburg's critique of the Russian Revolution was a
start in this direction, but it was never developed.)

The problem here is not just the formal structure of the theories themselves.
An additional problem is the language in which the theory is constructed. A
couple of years ago I wrote an essay on the use of military metaphors in
political theory. I pointed out how the social organization of the modern
military embodies all the key elements of the authoritarian/totalitarian
state, and then showed how the incorporation of military metaphors into
political theory, from Hobbes to Carl Schmitt, brought those social relations
with them. Schmitt and his analysis of potitics along the line of the
friend-enemy distinction is an especially instructive case; if politics is
always and necesarily war, what choice is there but the vanquishing and
elimnation of the enemy? Take a look at the Marxist classics of political
theory, and you will see how recurrent military metaphors are among them.
(The more authoritarian the thinker, the more prevalent the military
metaphors -- Stalin's writings are full of them. The one exception to this
rule, and it is rather revealing, is Gramsci; for him the governing metaphor
of politics is education, and the party is a democratic teacher.)  One
illustration is particularly to the point: when the Marxist-Leninist Party is
conceived as the army of the proletariat, as Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and Mao
were wont to do, then what follows about the social organization of that
party? (And this is only set of governing metaphors; there are other examples
of the unintended effects of language on Marxist -- and other -- political

Finally, and I have to beg off of extended proof for some of these points if
this posting is not to become a small essay in its own right, Marxism never
grappled with what I would call the innate authoritarian tendencies of the
modern state (understood, qua Weber, as "the compulsory association which
organizes domination").In modern political discourse in the West,
legitimation is internal to the state ('the people,' a subject created by the
modern nation state, is the source of legitimation) and the state has, by
defintion, a monopoly on the use of force. (With more space and time, I could
show Foucault's analysis of normalization and knowledge as power reveals much
of the form of these innate authoritarian tendencies.) Therefore, there are
no intrinsic limits to authoritarianism in the modern state; it is only the
power and organization of democratic forces which restrict its growth. Since
the class essentialism of classical Marxist political theory would never
allow it to come to grips with this dynamic, it could not address it. (In
pre-modern political discourse in the West, legitimation was generally in the
realm of the sacred, thus providing an intrinsic limit on the exercise of
power, and there were competing armed forces. The pre-modern state thus
contained its own internal limits.)

Now, singular and homogeneous (which is to say, modern) notions of human
nature are only one element -- and a theoretical element at that -- in this
ensemble which leads to state authoriatianism. Without extending this lengthy
discourse much longer, let me see if I can show this is the case. When the
modern individual man is conceptualized as a pre-political and natural
phenomenon, as modern notions of human nature do, his social existence and
social unity can only be achieved through the state. But when the state is
introduced into a picture so conceived, the 'natural freedom' of man
immediately begins to dissipate and fade; for so long as atomized individual
and the state are the only two terms of the equation, and the state is the
second and dynamic terms, the rights of the individual exist at the
sufferance of the state. This is true not simply of those theories generally
seen as absolutist, such as Hobbes, but also those commonly understood to be
libertarian, such as Locke. The individual subject, Locke declares in Chapter
IX of the Second Treatise, must "part also with as much of his natural
liberty in providing for himself as the good, prosperity and safety of the
Society shall require..."  From Hobbes and Locke to Hegel and Marx, the ideal
state/society is understood to be the embodiment of Reason and the supreme
arbitrator of what is rational (knowledge is woven into the fabric of power),
and so it decides what constitutes the 'freedom" of its subjects. This point
was made clear by Poulantzas' critique of social contract theories. (Most
early modern political theory based on the concept of human nature takes the
form of social contract theory, and it is interesting to see how Marx's
attempt to resolve the problems of proletariatian agency mirrors the form of
Rousseau's social contract.) Poulantzas showed that the normalizing
techniques of state power produce both the modern individual 'man' (the
source of human nature) and the unity of individuals in the state. Against
the 'natural rights' conceptions dominant in modern political theory,
Poulantzas argued that the private sphere of the individual subject was not a
pre-political, much less natural terrain, but a strategic field of power
constituted by and through the modern state. Thus, the the rights of
 individuals are discursive constructs, and do not provide an impenetrable
barrier to state authoritarianism.

Once human beings are understood in terms of one arbitrarily given and
invariable set of ascribed qualities, the political norms based on this set
of qualities become equally homogeneous, as standards by which the actions of
all political subjects can be judged. If there is only one human nature, one
'essence of man', then there can be only one state in which it is fully
realized or protected. There is a homologous relationship here between the
authoritarian state, which obliterates the independence of all intermediary
organizations (civil society), to established a direct relation of state and
individual, and the political theories based on modern notions of human
nature, which postulate a state directly rooted in human nature.

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