[Marxism] Ernest Mandel on historical materialism and the capitalist state, part 1

Jurriaan Bendien andromeda246 at hetnet.nl
Sat Dec 11 20:37:07 MST 2004

(Thought I would post this manuscript to the list, as it never got
published and disappeared in a mess of papers. I made a translation
of this article by Mandel in the 1980s and edited it for readability -
it originally appeared in Marxismus und Anthropologie (Bochum:
Germinal, 1980) which was a volume of essays in honour of Leo Kofler, but I
based my translation on a subsequent Flemish version appearing in Toestanden
(Antwerp), vol 1 no. 3, August 1981, adding a few notes. It might be of
interest to a few readers, though possibly a bit dated nowadays - JB).


Ernest Mandel

Historical materialism elevates the principle of the dialectical
relationship between the particular and the general, which reveals the
essence of phenomena, to the theoretical foundation of the dialectical
understanding of history.

- Leo Kofler, Geschichte und Dialektik

    Theoretical discussion about defining and explaining of the class nature
of the capitalist state has increased significantly in recent years [1].
Although at this stage it is still mainly occurring in the West Germany,
Britain and Italy, it is nevertheless a discussion which - often within the
context of debates about "state monopoly capitalism" and the class nature of
the "national-democratic state" (in some ex-colonies in Africa and Asia) -
is taking place around the globe [2]. It is not my aim here to discuss in
detail the most important texts published on the topic. Instead my inquiry
concerns some general problems in applying the method of historical
materialism to the question of the class nature of the capitalist state -
problems which directly or indirectly play an important role in the
    The central category of the materialist dialectic is that of a totality
impelled and being driven to change by its immanent contradictions. The
forms of this movement itself vary (for example, purely quantitative changes
should not be conflated with qualitative changes). But the motion of the
structure is just as important as the character of the structure. For
historical materialism, there exist no eternal, unchangeable forms in any
social phenomena.
    This category of a totality replete with contradictions, and therefore
subject to change, directs Marxist research to inquiry into the origins of
phenomena, their laws of motion and their conditions of disappearance, both
with regard to the base and with regard to the superstructure of society.
For historical materialism, the "being" of each social phenomenon can only
be recognized and understood in and through its "becoming".
    That being the case, it should be clear from the start that every
attempt to define the class nature of the capitalist state which abstracts
from the historical origins of that state, i.e. which rejects the genetic
method, conflicts with historical materialism. Every attempt to deduce the
character and essence of the capitalist state directly from the categories
of Marx's Capital - whether from "capital in general", from the exchange and
commercial relations at the surface of bourgeois society, or from the
conditions for the valorization of capital [3] - overlooks that this state,
as an institution separated from society and transformed into an autonomous
apparatus, was not created by the bourgeoisie itself.
    In reality, this class originally took over a state which existed prior
its conquest of political power (in Europe, the semi-feudal absolutist
state) and then reshaped it according to its class interests. To understand
the class character of the capitalist state, we should therefore start off
by asking: why did the bourgeoisie not destroy the absolutist state machine,
but only transform it? How did this change occur? For what purpose does the
bourgeoisie use the state machinery it has conquered and adapted, and how
does it necessarily have to be used? How does the bourgeoisie succeed in
using the state machine for its own class ends, notwithstanding the autonomy
that the state has?
    The objection that such a methodological approach to the problem is
ambivalent and eclectic can be dismissed straightway, because the field of
action of the state is never reducible to "purely economic conditions". As
an outgrowth of the social division of labor, state functions as such
originally gained independence, i.e. became the responsibility of special
institutions separated from society, when the division of society into
classes was occurring, i.e. they were the instruments of an existing class
order. Technical necessity or reified consciousness [4] by themselves cannot
explain why the majority of the members of society are compelled to leave
the exercise of particular functions to a minority. Behind functional
necessities or reified consciousness exist relations among people, class
relations and class conflicts. So if we try to deduce any given state form,
including the capitalist state, from purely economic relations, we either
remain trapped in reified reflexes of class relations, or else we reduce
class conflicts in a mechanistic way to "pure economics".
    On the other side, the origins and development of the capitalist state
cannot simply be reduced to some general imperative to use non-economic
force against the class enemies of the bourgeoisie either. The basis of this
imperative must be related to the specific forms of capitalism, and viewed
as a necessary feature of the rule of capital, rather than of the ruling
class in general. If the essence of the capitalist state is detached from
the conditions of existence of the state, then what distinguishes it from
all other class states, is lost sight of, instead of being included in the
analysis. Only by linking the special functional conditions of the
capitalist state with the specificities of capitalist production and
bourgeois ideology - co-determined by the structure of bourgeois society. as
well influencing each other - can we frame the problem of the class nature
of the capitalist state exhaustively, and solve it.
    The corollary is that every modern capitalist state combines general
features of this class nature with unique characteristics, which derive from
the moment in history (the stage of capitalist development, of the formation
of the bourgeoisie and the working class) when the national bourgeoisie
fought to conquer independent political power, as well as from the
historical conditions of the class conflicts (including the balance of power
between the bourgeoisie, the aristocracy, and plebeian/pre-proletarian,
semi-proletarian and fully proletarianized workers). Not just the specific
institutional arrangements and the precise state form obtained (e.g. a
constitutional monarchy in Great Britain and Sweden, versus a republic in
the USA and France), but also the unique political tradition of each
bourgeois nation and its prevailing political clichés and ideologies (which
also play a very important role in the emergence and development of the
modern labor movement) are bound up with this.
    It is also important to distinguish clearly between what is intrinsic to
bourgeois society generally, and those special features of the capitalist
state which only reflect specific power alignments between the social
classes. Several authors unjustifiably claim that the reproduction of
capitalist relations is more or less automatically guaranteed, because those
relations directly influence and shape the consciousness of the producers
(the working class). Since wage earners experience their exploitation as the
result of an exchange, so it is argued, they will not question these
exchange relations. Hence they will also not question commodity production,
or the capitalist mode of production, or the accumulation of capital. From
this idea, it is then inferred that, in contrast to other class states, it
is sufficient for the capitalist state to provide formal legal equality
which separates political-legal relations between people from actual social
    Three conceptual confusions are involved here. Firstly, the fact that a
given mode of production generates its own forms of reified consciousness,
does not mean at all that these forms suffice to guarantee the reproduction
of the social order. Secondly, even a consciousness which cannot rise beyond
exchange relations can threaten the reproduction of capitalist relations of
production; workers who are politically uneducated can nevertheless stage
rebellions which threaten private property and the bourgeois order. Such
revolts might have little chance of success, but they can cause so much
damage, that the capitalist class believes that maintaining a costly and
parasitic state apparatus as a bulwark against the possibility of such
revolts is essential (cf. the second German empire). And thirdly, this train
of thought contains an economistic error. The continuation of commodity
production and privately owned means of production does not automatically
guarantee that a rapid valorization of capital will occur all of the time.
That also requires among other things a specific distribution of the new
value produced by labor-power between wages and surplus value, which permits
a "normal" valorization of capital. Aside from quality, quantity thus plays
a central role here.
    Capitalism has a built-in limit preventing wages from rising above a
level that would endanger the valorization of capital, principally through
an expansion of the reserve army of labor, in reaction to a decline in the
accumulation of capital. But this longer-term tendency does not have a
continuous and uninterrupted effect. In spite of the fact that it is
"bounded by exchange relations", wage-labor can thus demand, and achieve,
wage rises in some situations which make the valorization of capital more
difficult, and endanger it in the short term.
    Moreover, precisely because wage earners (be it with a "false
consciousness") experience their exploitation at the most basic level "only"
as the result of exchange, they are forced into a fight to defend and
increase their wages. Thus, so-called "reified consciousness" could even
lead them to conclude that this fight will succeed only through united
collective action and organized solidarity. Mutually contrary aspects of
"reified consciousness" (resignation and rebellion) are therefore inherent
in the system, but each of them obviously has different consequences for
potential threats to the system. Out of the impulse towards trade unionism,
emerges an elementary proletarian class consciousness, which can at least
potentially and episodically lead to anti-capitalist struggles.
    And so, with a less mechanistic analysis of the connection between
generalized commodity production, reified consciousness and the need for a
state machine for the bourgeoisie, we arrive at conclusions quite different
from many participants in the debate. In contrast to slaves or serfs, wage
earners are free workers, a circumstance which should be understood
dialectically and as replete with contradictions, and not simply reduced to
"separation from the means of production". Additionally, capitalism implies
not just a universalized market (and thus the inevitable reification of
social consciousness), but also - in contrast to the work of private
producers in simple commodity production - the objective socialization and
co-operation of labor in large-scale industry.  That is precisely why
non-economic power is essential for capital. It must guarantee the
reproduction of the social relations of bourgeois society, and market
mechanisms alone are not sufficient for this.
    Free workers can at least temporarily refuse the sale of their
labor-power under conditions most favorable for the valorization of capital.
They can do this more effectively if they have collective resistance funds
and collective organizations, and these have emerged everywhere in response
to capitalism, just like reified consciousness. Securing the reproduction of
social relations within bourgeois society therefore demands coercion and
violence by the agents of capital, to prohibit, prevent, frustrate, or
restrict the collective refusal to sell the commodity labor-power (the right
to strike) or at least make it less successful. That imperative is visible
throughout the whole history of bourgeois society.
    Not only because "free" wage-labor in reality (implicitly) also means
work under compulsion - not just economically or personally, but also at the
level of "law and order" - freedom and coercion necessarily co-exist in
bourgeois society. Without coercion for the working class,
no freedom for the employer: the young Marx had already
grasped this when he noted in his article On the Jewish Question
that "Security is the supreme social concept of civil society, the concept
of police, the concept that the whole of society is there, only to guarantee
to each of its members the conservation of his person, his rights and his
property. In this sense, Hegel calls civil society 'the state of need and of
reason'." [den Not- und Verstandestaat]" [5]. Indeed. Without police,
private property and the valorization of capital are not secure; without
capitalist state violence, there is no secure capitalism.
    It follows that there has never been, and will never be, a capitalist
state based on the preservation of "juridical equality", or on the securing
of the "application of formal principles". The capitalist state is and
remains, like all other political states before it, an instrument for the
preservation of the rule of a definite class - not just indirectly, but also
directly. Without a permanent repressive apparatus - and in times of crisis
the "hard core" of the state reduces to this apparatus, to a "body of armed
men" as Frederick Engels put it - the capitalist state could not exist, the
reproduction of capitalist relations of production becomes at the very least
uncertain, and bourgeois rule is vulnerable to challenge.
    One could actually turn the theories of many (especially German)
participants in the discussion on their head; precisely because the
conditions of capitalist exploitation seem to be based exclusively on
exchange relations and not on direct, personal master-servant relations, the
potential threat always exists in bourgeois society that the wage earners
will "abuse their freedom" to threaten the existing social order, if not
overthrow it altogether. Since the capitalist state was itself the product
of bourgeois revolutions, and since revolutions are, as is known, dangerous
schools in the possibility of changing society radically, the bourgeoisie
understood immediately after the conquest of political power that it needed
a permanent non-economic repressive apparatus to oblige resistant workers to
the sale of the commodity labor power, at prices promoting, and not braking,
the valorization of capital.
    For the same reason, it is simply wrong to suggest that some or other
tendency towards formal-political equality before the law of all "citizens"
of a bourgeois nation necessarily follows from the formal equality of all
individuals in bourgeois society. To the contrary: to neutralize the
contradictory effects on the market of the formal equality of capital and
wage-labor - an equality essential for the continuation of capitalism and
the valorization of capital - the tendency towards violating or contesting
the political rights of the working class is built into the capitalist
state. The idea the capitalist state or all of bourgeois ideology tends
spontaneously and automatically towards equal voting rights for all people
is belied by the real history of bourgeois society. It is one of the great
achievements of Leo Kofler to have demonstrated this in detail.
    In the real history of the capitalist state, the combination of the
universal franchise, equal voting rights with a secret ballot, and effective
freedom of political organization for the working class, has been the
exception. Even in Western Europe, it became the norm only after World War
I. In the rest of the capitalist world, it remains until this very day the
exception rather than the rule.
    More significant is that even this purely formal political, legal and
organizational equality for the working classes was in Western Europe nearly
everywhere forced on the bourgeoisie by the other social classes, and that
the bourgeoisie in no sense voluntarily granted it to all citoyens [6]. Just
exactly under what conditions and within what limits it could turn this
political defeat temporarily into a political victory is an issue which does
not alter the importance of the historical fact in any way whatever - if
only because in the last sixty years the ostensibly "bourgeois-democratic"
achievement has already been overturned again on many occasions (Mussolini,
Salazar, Hitler, Franco, Petain, to mention only the most important West
European examples) and because a renewed questioning of these rights is
again a definite theme in Western politics.

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