[Marxism] Ernest Mandel on historical materialism and the capitalist state, part 2

Jurriaan Bendien andromeda246 at hetnet.nl
Sat Dec 11 20:32:38 MST 2004

The form of the capitalist state as the means of government of the bourgeois
class is therefore determined by class interests. It can only assume a given
form, if it coheres with its nature. So long as the bourgeoisie has not lost
its economic and social power - i.e. its command over the means of
production and the social surplus product - any suggestion that a
fundamental change in the form and function of the state is possible assumes
that the ruling class would use the social surplus-product not for
maintaining itself but for its own self-destruction. There exists not a
single historical example of such a process of the self-destruction of
ruling social classes, neither in the history of pre-capitalist societies,
nor in the history of capitalist society.     So the primary task of the
capitalist state is to provide, secure and reproduce the social conditions
(the social framework) of the existing class domination, those conditions in
other words which Frederick Engels indicates in Anti-Dühring with the
formula "external conditions of-production". The state is "an organization
of the particular class, which [is] pro tempore the exploiting class, for
the maintenance of its external conditions of production and, therefore,
especially, for the purpose of forcibly keeping the exploited classes in the
condition of oppression corresponding with the given mode of production
(slavery, serfdom, wage labor)" [7]. The way in which it fulfills this task
is determined by the specificity of the capitalist mode of production and
the nature of the social classes that it creates. It is also determined by
the given, historically emergent relationship of forces between the classes
specific to each specific bourgeois form of society, in each given phase of
its development.
    To carry out this task, both a repressive and ideological-integrative
instrument must be applied. The formal-legal equality of individuals in
bourgeois society and the absence of direct master-servant relations
certainly creates the possibility of much stronger legitimation of the
capitalist state in the eyes of the dominated classes as the (false)
representative of society as a whole than was the case in pre-capitalist
states. But the universal franchise, freedom to organize politically for the
workers movement, and the integration of the leaders of their mass
organizations in the capitalist state are only necessary, not sufficient
conditions for this perception of legitimacy. A definite long-term decline
of mass participation in class struggles, or a definite low level (or a
definite decline) of the average class consciousness of the working class,
due to particular historical circumstances, is also a factor.
    Whether the complex concatenation of objective and subjective factors
actually enables the bourgeoisie to camouflage its class rule successfully
in the eyes of the exploited as being the "result of popular sovereignity"
and as the "will of the people" expressed in electoral outcomes is something
which only an social and political analysis of a specific state in a
specific era can reveal. But whatever the case may be, there is no
convincing proof that particular state forms - such as in Great Britain at
the time of the prince-regent and of Queen Victoria, in France during the
reign of Louis Philippe or the Second Empire, in the German Empire under
Wilhelm I and Wilhelm II, in Belgium under Leopold I and Leopold II, not to
mention Mussolini's Italy or Franco's Spain - were perceived as the
"legitimate representatives of the whole society" by the working class of
these countries. Similarly we can justifiably doubt the presence of such a
perception in the North American state in the Coolidge-Hoover period.
    The capitalist state must not only secure the external conditions, but
also the social conditions of the capitalist mode of production. That is, it
must also create those general conditions for production proper which the
"functioning capitalists" cannot produce themselves, either because it is
not profitable for them to do so, and because of the prevailing competition
among private capitals. Capitalism presupposes social production and social
exchange. But "capital cannot of its own accord, by its actions, produce the
social character of its existence by any means", as Alvater puts it so well
[8]. The relationship between state and society is therefore not reducible
to the relationship between politics and economics; because the capitalist
state is also a directly economically active institution of the capitalist
    This is most clearly shown by the monetary regime. Just as generalized
commodity production presupposes the independent existence of exchange value
in a universal equivalent, in money, the normal reproduction of total social
capital requires a continual division and reconstitution of productive-,
commodity- and money-capital [9]. And that process cannot occur, at least
not on any large scale, without a currency and credit system which is
guaranteed and secured by the state. If we examine the supply of money and
credit, it is immediately obvious that without a central state authority, a
fully functional capitalist mode of production could not exist. But money
and credit point straightaway to other "directly economic" functions of the
capitalist state. Capitalist competition manifests itself in the history of
capitalism in two ways: as competition between individual capitals, and as
competition between fractions of world capital sited in territorial states.
In this second form of competition, the capitalist state fulfills a
defensive role for "national capitals against "foreign" competitors, in the
area of currency, customs and trade policy, colonial policy, etc. This role
of the state is likewise, at least initially "purely economic" and without
it the system would again fail to function, or function fully.
    In his Grundrisse, Marx concluded that the ideal conditions for the
capitalist mode of production are those in which private capitals themselves
can create a maximum of those "general conditions of production" [10] .
Nevertheless, in the case of a third category of these "general conditions
of production", namely those related to the provision of infrastructure and
education, the general tendency was demonstrably in the opposite direction,
from the time that large-scale industry began to dominate. These functions
were increasingly - and later almost exclusively - fulfilled by the
capitalist state, because far too much tension existed between private
interests seeking to organize them according to the profit motive, and the
collective interests of the bourgeoisie as a class, or the objective
requirements of the valorization of capital in general.
    A unified taxation system connects the money and credit system with the
infrastructural tasks which must be fulfilled. The link between the
"external" (social) and the "economic" (general) conditions is formed by
those state functions that fall under the general heading of
 "administration". Included here are not only the administration securing
law and order and the protection of private property, but also the police
and military apparatus protecting the bourgeoisie from "internal and
"external" enemies as well as all of the administration concerned with other
public services, such as the infrastructure proper (e.g. the public health
system, which, given the raw poverty of the early proletariat was essential
to protect the bourgeois class in the large cities from the danger of
    In the course of the development of bourgeois society, the number of
"general conditions of production" met by the state grew almost without
interruption. But this apparently linear process must be analyzed in its
different aspects. In some areas there really existed something like
technical necessity here, i.e. the logic of technology demanded ever
stronger centralization, and forced the bourgeoisie to recognize the
objective socialization of labor in these areas, through a genuine
nationalization of these functions. That applied, for example, to railway
construction and management, and later to the regulation of air traffic.
Private organization in this area was so strongly stamped by "partial
rationality" [11] that it endangered the system as a whole, so that
bourgeois society could, despite glorifying private enterprise, not afford
    With the unfolding of the long-term laws of motion of capital (inter
alia the increasing concentration and centralization of capital on the one
hand, and the growing difficulties for the valorization of capital on the
other side) there is an increasing number of productive areas in which the
risk of losing the gigantic investments required becomes too great to
attract any private capital. But within a complex social division of labor
precisely these areas can play an important or even crucial role in securing
or threatening the competitiveness of a given capitalist class on the world
market. Nationalizing these activities, or increasingly subsuming them under
the "general conditions of production" in that case does not express any
technical necessity but rather the requirements of capital valorization
under given historical circumstances. The nationalization of energy and
steel production in Great Britain, or the raw materials industry in France,
and more generally the "nationalization of losses" of unprofitable branches
of industry necessary for the material reproduction of capital, just like
the nationalization of the gigantically rising costs of research and
development, belong to this category.
    There is, finally, nevertheless also a tendential expansion of the
"general conditions of production" in areas where neither technical
necessity nor immediate conditions of valorization play a crucial role. Late
capitalism tends to bring all the conditions for the reproduction of the
commodity labor-power under its control, i.e. subordinate human beings and
human needs directly to its valorization objectives. Nationalized health
care, education and land-use authorities ultimately rest on the need to
discipline people and not on technical necessities. In the many of these
areas, parasitic centralisations which so clearly manifest themselves could
be eliminated in a systematic and planned way after the collapse of the
political power of capital, and be replaced by an integrated system of
socialist self-management.
    In the development of the capitalist state, a specific, contradictory
relation to the history of the state in general emerges, congruent with an
analogous relation of capitalist industry (capitalist productive forces) to
the general development of the productive forces. On the one hand, despite
the historic tendency of the bourgeoisie to weaken state absolutism,
particularly in the phase of modern imperialism, classical monopoly
capitalism and late capitalism, the capitalist state leads to a hypertrophy
of state functions which is almost unprecedented in the history of class
society. The number of functions which become distinct, independent
activities through a re-division of labor in basic productive and
accumulation functions, grows uninterruptedly and with an accelerating
tempo. No doubt the numerical growth of state apparatuses, the growth of
material wealth, and the growing complexity and specialization of the
administrative activities themselves are part of the explanation -  but, for
reasons already mentioned, we should not attribute to them the significance
which bourgeois ideology postulates here.
    At the same time, the average level of culture among large masses in
society grows, including the working classes, although this culture may be
less and less compatible with, or able to truly satisfy, the real needs of
individuals as social beings. In this way, the objective potential grows to
stop the further hypertrophy of the state radically, and to eliminate it, if
the social interests of the associated producers rather than the interests
of capital valorization begin to determine the developmental tendencies of
the state. Precisely because the working class, which fuses more and more
with the technical intelligentsia, itself acquires the growing capacity for
self-management as the capitalist mode of production develops, a workers'
state could, after the downfall of capitalism, become a state tending
towards generalized self-management in all social areas, i.e. a state which
begins to wither away from the moment it is established, as Lenin so
incisively and radically put in The State and Revolution [12].
    The specificity of the capitalist state is not just defined by its
special relationship to the working class, but also by its origins in the
relationship of the bourgeoisie to the semi-feudal nobility in class
struggles. This class conflict is closely related to an essential
distinction between bourgeois and pre-bourgeois class society with respect
to class rule, and between the capitalist class and the pre-capitalist
ruling classes, to which we ought to pay attention in analysing the class
nature of the capitalist state. Pre-bourgeois ruling classes appropriated
the social surplus product mainly for the purpose of unproductive
consumption. The form of this appropriation varies according to the
prevailing mode of production, but the goal is generally the same. Although
accumulation as goal was not entirely absent in the history of
pre-capitalist modes of production and ruling classes, it nevertheless
played a smaller, subordinate role compared to the capitalist mode of
   The capitalist class is compelled by generalized commodity production, by
privately owned means of production and the resulting market competition to
maximize capital accumulation. This limitless drive for enrichment
(production of exchange-values as an end in itself) is made possible by the
fact that the social surplus product takes the form of money. But that
circumstance also means a contradiction emerges between different
possibilities for investing the social surplus product which is specific to
the capitalist mode of production alone (although it may also present to
some extent in other types of society partly based on cash economy). The
immanent tendency of capital to maximize accumulation (i.e. to maximize both
the production and realization of surplus-value, and of the productive
expenditure of realized surplus-value to capitalize it) collides with the
tendency towards increased squandering of surplus-value on unproductive
consumption by the ruling class and its hangers-on ("third parties") on the
one side, and with the growth of unproductive state expenditures on the
  Just how much capital tries to restrict the unproductive waste of surplus
value by individuals to "normal" limits but also "to the level of one's
social station" is well known, and requires no further comment here. It is
important, however, to note that capital historically first experienced the
unproductive expenditure of the social surplus-value as the waste of this
surplus-value by a power alien and hostile to it, namely the semi-feudal
absolutist monarchy, which distributed the social surplus product to the
parasitic court nobility and the higher clergy, who were exempted from
   The battle of the rising bourgeois class to maximize accumulation of
capital, or rather, remove all restrictions on its free development, was
initially a struggle against the unlimited powers of the pre-capitalist
state to levy taxes. Thus originally its battle for the conquest of
political power was fundamentally about the power to decide itself what
fraction of surplus-value would be withdrawn through taxation from immediate
capital accumulation by "functioning capitalists", i.e. objectively
socialized. It is indisputable, and cannot be dismissed as "mere empirical
detail", that all successful bourgeois revolutions between the 16th and the
19th century were sparked off by taxation revolts, and that all modern
parliaments emerged from the fight of the bourgeoisie to control state
expenditure. The specific organizational forms of bourgeois political power,
with its complex array of informal political structures (parties, clubs,
pressure groups, networks and lobbies), trade associations representing
different interests in economic disputes (which were at first mainly, if not
exclusively, taxation disputes), elections and elected parliaments, as well
as a permanent administrative apparatus and a suitable state ideology
(including the doctrine of the "separation of powers"), is largely reducible
to this basic conflict.
   The real contradiction involved does not require elaboration in detail.
It is clear that when, after its triumph over absolutism, the bourgeoisie
did not smash the state machine but transformed according to its own needs,
it also had to pay for this state as soon as there was no longer any major
source of revenues other than the surplus-value appropriated by capital.
   When an actively organized labor movement did not yet exist, the
"political life" of bourgeois society revolved mainly around the question of
how much surplus-value should be withheld from private accumulation through
government taxes (direct collectivization), at the expense of which
fractions of the propertied classes, for what specific purposes, and with
what financial advantages for particular fractions of the bourgeoisie.
   We can also view the question more generally in terms of the direct
material basis for the existence of the state apparatus. Things are probably
less cut-and-dried when we frame the problems in this way, and do not limit
ourselves to abstract philosophical definitions. I think however that, if we
do not reduce everything to individual corruption of government leaders and
higher functionaries, it is no "vulgar Marxism" to ask the macro-economic
(or macro-sociological) question: what, then, is the material basis (in
capitalist society, the financial basis) of the state ? And the final
conclusion of a materialist investigation of the class nature of the
bourgeois state must return us to the Marxist axiom that the social class
controlling the social surplus product therefore also controls the state.

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