[Marxism] Ernest Mandel on historical materialism and the capitalist state, part 3

Jurriaan Bendien andromeda246 at hetnet.nl
Sat Dec 11 20:32:49 MST 2004

The classical pre-capitalist state had its autonomous material basis. The
Roman Empire of the slave owners, in its heyday, maintained the army (and
the slave market) through conquests abroad. The court in ancient Asiatic
modes of production lived on the plunder of their own producers, and on the
plundering of foreign countries, and not on the gifts of the mandarins,
priests or generals. The feudal king was originally the foremost landowner,
and as such was supported by tributes paid from the surplus product
appropriated by other lords. But with the generalization of a cash economy,
closely related to the victory of capital, i.e. with its penetration in the
sphere of production, a state form appears which does not possess autonomous
sources of revenue apart from taxing the population (in the last instance,
this signifies collectivizing a fraction of the social surplus-product).
   The absolutist monarchy, very aware of its income source, for centuries
battled (ideologically aided by its legal counsels) to maintain sovereign
rights to taxation. This battle, in which it sometimes united with fractions
of the rising bourgeois classes, was ultimately lost. The unrestricted power
to levy tax was broken, and since that time even the most "autonomous" or
most "tyrannical bourgeois state (including Hitler's Third Reich) failed to
force unacceptable taxes on the bourgeoisie.
   In capitalist society, the individual capitalist obviously experiences
every tax as an "expropriation" of a fraction of his own surplus-value,
profit, or income. However much he might consider taxes as inevitable under
given circumstances, or even a communal necessity, this expropriation always
remains a burden, an obstacle to maximizing accumulation. Since the
capitalist class nevertheless also needs security for its capital, a genuine
"role conflict" reproduces itself within this class as such, and within the
consciousness of each individual capitalist, between the member of civil
society and the personification of capital accumulation: two souls are
continually at war in his Faustian breast. In different historical periods
and in different capitalist states, this produced wide variations in
attitudes among individual capitalists, from a very ordinary conformity to
fiscal discipline to maximal tax evasion. These attitudes can be explained
in part conjuncturally and in part historically. The conflict here is a
conflict between bourgeois private interests and bourgeois social interests,
not a conflict between the private interests of unspecified "citoyens" in
general and unspecified "social interests" independent from class divisions.
In the consciousness of other citizens, however false or reified, this
conflict mostly appeared in that special form.
    Workers knew very well that they did not have political equality when
the right to vote was based on property ownership. It is an anachronistic
error to project modern capitalist ideologies onto early capitalism or
classical 19th century capitalism without regard for the specific state
forms and political structures of-these periods. For citizens living in the
period from the 16th century to the end of the 19th century, or even the
beginning of the 20th century, it was self-evident that only men of property
had full political rights. Only tax payers could have the full right to
participate in decisions about state expenditure. Otherwise unrestricted
taxation, i.e. collectivization of surplus- value, would have no limit. This
principle was not just articulated by bourgeois intellectuals, but also by
countless bourgeois politicians of the past. Precisely for this reason, the
contradiction between the private interests and the social interests of the
bourgeois class, reflecting the contradiction between the expenditure of
surplus value for immediate accumulation and for tasks which at best benefit
this accumulation only indirectly, remained limited in two ways.
   There was a time when all (or a great majority) of the owners of
surplus-value were fully prepared to "sacrifice a little to keep the lot",
i.e. there was a general consciousness to defend the class and state
interests together. The battle for the conquest of political power by the
bourgeoisie was an historical process, in which this bourgeois class
consciousness was formed and crystallised. On the other side, the whole
bourgeoisie (with the possible exception of the "lumpen-bourgeoisie" who
live by the direct plunder of the public purse) has a social interest only
in offering as little as possible, i.e. an interest in a "poor state". This
is not only because the entire bourgeoisie is interested in maximum
accumulation, but also because the permanent poverty of the state is the
solid material basis for the permanent rule of capital over the state
apparatus. The "golden chain" of national and international debts tie the
state inextricably to the rule of capital, regardless of the state's
hypertrophy and its autonomisation. Precisely because this dependence
exists, regardless of how large the state budget may be - the fiscal crisis
of the state can be greater given a budget which absorbs 40% of the national
income than with a budget which only represents 4% of that income - it is a
permanent structural dependence, without which the class nature of the
bourgeois state cannot be fully understood.
  Because the specificity of the capitalist state derives from the class
conflicts between the bourgeoisie, the working class and pre-apitalist
classes, it is simultaneously rooted in the characteristics of the
capitalist class itself. The conflict between individual and social
interests of the bourgeoisie, a conflict that centres on private expenditure
versus social expenditure of surplus-value, is closely tied to the problem
of the functional division of labour within national territory created by
the specific organizational form of the capitalist state.
   Just as in pre-capitalist society the state commands a qualitatively
bigger independent material basis than the capitalist state, the
pre-capitalist state also features a much closer personal union between the
top of the ruling class and the top of the state apparatus. In the Roman
Empire (even in Julius Ceasar's decadent republic) the ruler was the largest
slave owner. In the feudal state, the king was often also the most important
landowner. In the absolutist monarchy, all important offices of the lord,
the central administration and diplomacy were exercised by the most
important families of the court nobility (and often the court clergy). In
capitalist society by contrast, at least in the epoch of bourgeois
ascendancy, this was impossible because most capitalists are busy with their
private business and simply lack the time to specialize in affairs of state.
Insofar as these tasks were not left to the decadent or bourgeoisified
nobility (i.e. a rentier class), they were more and more taken over by a
subdivision of the bourgeois class, namely by professional politicians and a
growing bureaucracy [13]. Although the latter developed parallel to the
absolutist monarchy, it could never assume anything other than limited
leadership functions, except through entry into the aristocratic elite
(noblesse de robe).
  This bureaucracy identifies to a large extent with "the state in itself",
and this identification resonates best with the ideology of the state as
representive of society's collective interests (in contrast to the
traditional bourgeois conception of the state as representative of the
propertied citizenry). The relative credibility of that ideology in turn
depends on the degree of genuine relative autonomy of the capitalist state
vis-à-vis "functioning capitalists".
  This autonomy is obviously only relative, but it is not just a mere
"appearance" insofar as it is based on the mentioned functional division of
labour, and insofar as it does not necessarily imply a functional division
of labour within the capitalist class (top civil servants can also be drawn
from the small bourgeoisie, professionals etc.). This division of labour is
structurally rooted in the essence of capitalism, i.e. private property and
competition. Private property and the pressure of competition create an
objectively inevitable conflict within the capitalist class between private
and social interests. A functioning capitalist forsaking his private
interest consistently for a common capitalist interest would fare just as
badly as capitalist (i.e. lose out in the competitive battle) as a
functioning bourgeois politician who systematically neglected the common
interests of capital in order to advance his own private interests - a bad,
and from a class point of view incompetent politician.
  Under "normal" conditions of capital accumulation and valorization, the
capitalist class delegates direct exercise of political power to
professional politicians or top bureaucrats only if they provide basic
guarantees that they will subordinate their private affairs to common class
interests - which is something which functioning capitalists usually cannot
provide. If professional politicians fail in this respect, they suffer the
same fate as Nixon or Tanaka.
  Even so, the relative autonomy of the capitalist state, shaped by private
property and competition vis-a-vis functioning capitalists, should not be
exaggerated. Especially to avoid platitudes and prevent abstract Poulantzian
formulas about the "structural dependence of the state on the bourgeoisie"
from degenerating into empty tautologies or simplistic petition principii, a
few more aspects should be integrated into the analysis.
   It is a mechanistic error to reduce the capitalist class to "functioning
capitalists". All owners of capital belong to it, including rentiers and all
those that could live from their interest receipts, regardless of whether
they work in some profession. The high income of top state functionaries and
parliamentarians, as well as their opportunities for getting access to
confidential information enabling risk-free speculation, almost
automatically guarantees the inclusion of top politicians and top public
servants in the capitalist class, regardless of background - because their
position enables them to accumulate capital, which they do in most cases. As
owners of capital they then have a vested interest in the preserving the
foundations of bourgeois order.
   In capitalist countries there are few top politicians or top public
servants who, at the end of a successful career, have not become owners of
substantial assets, stocks and share portfolios beyond owning their own home
etc.,  and this "purely economically" makes them full members of the
capitalist class.
   If in analyzing the structure of capitalist society we do not pay due
attention to this aspect tying capitalists and the state together, for fear
of "vulgar Marxism" or "descriptive verbiage", we turn a blind eye to the
pivot of society, i.e. capital itelf. The universalized drive for enrichment
and the cash economy are not "external" or secondary phenomena of capitalism
but defining structural characteristics. No group in society can permanently
escape their influence, and that includes professional politicians and
   It is not a matter of individual corruption, but rather the inevitable
effect of the intrinsic tendency of capitalism to convert every substantial
sum of money into a source of surplus-value, i.e. capitalize it. Only a
state in which top politicians and public servants would not receive
salaries higher than the average wage of workers would evade this direct
structural bind. It is no accident that Marx and Lenin made this demand as
basic precondition for real workers' power, and that it is a norm that never
has been, nor will be, realized in a capitalist state [14].
   The special nature of the capitalist state is also defined by its
hierarchical construction, more or less mirroring the structure of society.
Key public servants are no more elected by staff at lower levels or the
citizenry than company managers or employers are elected by employees, or
army officers by their men. Between this hierarchial structure and great
disparities in income there is again a structural nexus characteristic of
capitalist society. Competition, the drive for private enrichment and the
measure of success according to financial gain can hardly dominate social
life while inexplicably playing no role at all in government affairs. Again,
the negative test can round off the analysis: there never was, and never
will be, a capitalist state where the hierarchical principle is replaced by
democratic elections in all key areas (police, army, central
administration). Only a workers' state could realize such a radical
revolution in the make-up of the state.
   Another characteristic of the capitalist state is the selection process
leading to the choice of top positions in politics and administration. This
selection process - based less on direct buying of state functions,
nepotism, inherited prebends or reward for service to the head of state than
was the case in pre-capitalist states - is governed to a large extent by the
pressure to perform and competition, which dominate economic life. It is
important though to stress that in this selection process, those modes of
behaviour and ways of thinking must win out which objectively make
successful capitalist politicians and key public servants the instruments of
capitalist class rule, regardless of their personal motivation or the
self-image they happen to have.
   The functional character of the bureaucracy plays a decisive role here.
One could imagine prison guards who occasionally help a prisoner to escape.
But it is inconceivable that wardens who did this regularly would gain posts
at the summit of the justice administration. One pacifist lieutenant is
possible, one might even have a few hundred of them, but a military general
staff exclusively made up of committed pacifists is obviously improbable.
Only those who exercise the specific functions which capitalist society
requires with minimum efficiency can reach top positions. Only those who
conform long-term to the prevailing laws, rules of the game and ruling
ideology which the social order expresses and secures, can make a successful
career in the system.
   The weakest point of all reformist and neo-reformist conceptions of the
democratic state (including the eurocommunists [15] consists in not
understanding this specific character of the capitalist state apparatus,
inextricably bound up with capitalist society.
As an extreme hypothesis, the possibility cannot be ruled out that an
absolute majority in a normal parliament could somewhere vote to abolish
private ownership of the means of production. But what can be safely ruled
out is that the local Pinochets would not regard it as "violation of the
constitution", "contempt for basic human rights" or a "terrorist attack on
Christian civilization". They will promptly react like Pinochet, among other
things with mass murder of political opponents, mass torture and
concentration camps [16]. In so doing, they would of course take care to
draw attention away from the abolition of all democratic freedoms. When the
stakes are high, the eternal values of capitalist society turn out to be
limited to private ownership, and the necessity to defend it legitimates
every violation of even a merely formal popular sovereignity, every kind of
violence and even declaration of war on one's own countrymen (in the course
of history, the Thiers, Franco's and Pinochets have proved this in a "purely
formal" way). In this sense, it is pure utopia to try not only to use the
capitalist state apparatus to abolish capitalism, but also to think this
aspparatus could somehow be neutralized instead of needing to be replaced by
a radically different state apparatus, so that the economic and political
power of capital can be abolished.
   And finally, the management of ongoing state affairs should not be
confused with the wielding of political power at the highest level. If in an
enterprise various functions are delegated to specialist managers, this does
not mean that the board of directors and the nig shareholders lose their
power of command over the assets and the workers. In the same way, just
because the haute bourgeoisie leaves the day-to-day tasks of governing to
professional politicians or key public servants, this does not mean that big
business also leaves the most important strategic and political decisions to
them. If we scrutinize some of the crucial decisions taken in the 20th
century - such as for example the decision to appoint Hitler as imperial
chancellor, the approval of the popular fornt government in France (almost
at the same time as the approval of the Mola-Franco putsch against the
Spanish popular front government); the green light for the start of world
war 2 in Germany and Britain; the decision to orient the USA towards
participation in the war; the decision of the USA and Britain to ally with
the Soviet Union and later to break that alliance; the decision by the
Western powers  to reconstruct the economic power of Germany and Japan after
world war 2 - then we find that these decisions were taken not in
parliaments or in ministerial offices or by technocrats but directly by the
captains of industry themselves. When the very survival of capitalism is at
stake, then the big capitalists suddenly govern in the most literal sense of
the word. At that point, every semblance of "autonomy" of the capitalist
state vis-à-vis business disappears completely.
   Engels's maxim that the capitalist state is the "ideal-total" capitalist,
because the real-total capitalist can only be an aggregation of the
sectional interests of "many capitals", must be understood and interpreted
dialectically [17]. Here again, it is a question of applying the dialectic
of the general and the particular.


1. A review of the discussion can be found in Bob Jessop, The Capitalist
State (Oxford: Martin Robertson, 1982)
2. For a brief discussion of the theory of state monopoly capitalism, see
Gerd Hardach, Dieter Karras and Ben Fine, A short history of socialist
economic thought (London: Edward Arnold, 1978), pp. 63-68. See also Ernest
Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 1981), pp. 515-522. On the concept of the
national democratic state, see Michael Lowy, The politics of uneven and
combined development (London: Verso, 1981), pp. 196-198 and Henri Valin
[pseudo. Ernest Mandel], "Le neo-colonialisme et les "Etats de democratie
nationale, in Quatrime Internationale, vol. 26 no. 23, April 1968, pp.
3. Valorisation of capital (Kapitalverwertung) refers to the process whereby
capital increases its value through production. In Marx's theory, capitalist
production is viewed as the unity of a labour-process creating use-values
and a valorization process creating additional capital value
(surplus-value). The newly valorized capital must however be realized
through sales of output before it can be appropriated and thus effectively
accumulated. Many English translations render Kapitalverwertung as
"self-expansion of capital" or "realization of capital" but this is really
misleading because capital cannot "self-expand" without exploitation of
living labour nor does it "realize itself" through market-sales
automatically. The same problem arises with Entwertung (devalorisation, i.e.
the loss of capital value) which is often translated as "devaluation".
4. Reification (Verdinglichung, thingification) was a term coined by Destutt
de Tracy but in Marx sense refers both to the process whereby human
attributes and relations are transformed into attributes of or relations
between things, and forms of consciousness resulting from this
transformation. The outcome is typically distorted, one-sided or false views
of reality. Marx sees the cause of reification objectively in the mediation
of social relations by market transactions, and subjectively in uncritical,
dehistoricized thinking patterns.
5. Karl Marx, On the Jewish Question (1843), in Early Writings, Penguin
edition, p. 230
6. See Goran Therborn, "The Rule of Capital and the Rise of Democracy," New
Left Review 103 (1977), pp. 3-41.
7. Frederick Engels, Anti-Duehring (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1947), p.
8. Elmar Alvater, "Zu Eingigen Problemen des Staatsinterventionismus". See
Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism,. Pp. 479-480
9. See Karl Marx, Capital Volume 2.
10. Karl Marx, Grundrisse (penguin edition), pp. 530-531 etc.
11. See Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism, pp. 508-511.
12. Lenin, The State and Revolution, in Collected Works, vol. 25, p. 424f.
13. Bureaucracy in the sense of a social stratum of functionaries.
14. See Lenin, op. cit., and Marx's writings on the Paris Commune.
15. See Ernest Mandel, From Stalinism to Eurocommunism (London: NLB, 1978).
16. See e.g. Les Evans (ed), Disaster in Chile (New York: Pathfinder press,
17. In Anti-Duehring, Engels states that the modern state "is only the
organization that bourgeois society takes on in  order to support the
general external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against
encroachments as well of theworkers as of individual capitalists. The modern
state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine, the
state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of of the total national
capitalist" (op. cit., p. 338).

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