a statement

As someone who is vaguely aware of the existence of someone named something like "Hegel" (Schlegel? Bagel?) I am constantly looking out for, pointing at, and doing the soyface near things that could possibly be termed contradictions. It's a fun little hobby to get into. Here's a free one for you to get started with—Communists advocate the destruction of the state, but have historically gone about this through centralising control of the economy (and therefore, in Marxist terms, society) in the hands of the state.

two grotesque caricatures, the archetypical pointing soyjaks, have turned their attention to large black letters - impact font, all capitals - simply reading 'the party state'.

Alright. Now those of you versed in Marxist theory may be making a clamour here. Please, no outraged emails! I am aware of the standard Marxist account of the state. It, for those unaware, goes something like this: As society is ultimately organised around economic lines[1], so too is the class structure of society. Therefore the division of classes into "ruling class" and "not ruling class" is not determined by their relationship to the state, but via their economic principle. Hence the state is not the the ultimate ruler of society, but rather simply a tool of the ruling class—the most important tool, but a tool nonetheless. Thus[2] when a classless society is created (through the proletariat's usage of the state to crush the bourgeoisie), the state will no longer have any useful role as an oppressive tool, and hence—in the words of Engels—"the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things".

preliminary sketches

As a Marxist, I agree with this account. Obviously. How-eyyy-verrr, I also disagree with this account[3], or more precisely I think the picture is more complex than set out here. So what I'll do, if you'll oblige me, is set out in the remaining space the problems I have with the standard Marxist account of the state, and then in articles yet to come grope blindly towards a resolution.[4]

problem numba one

This account is far too kind on the state. Now, when I said I agreed with that account as a Marxist, that was actually designed specifically to trick you. What it means when you agree with an analysis as a Marxist is not that you think it is the god-given explanation for everything related to the analysis, unless you are very vulgar.[6] What you actually mean is that the analysis is correct... in the last instance. And as everyone knows, the last instance never comes.

So while, in the last instance, the state is simply a tool of the ruling class, in the real world nothing is ever "simply" anything. The relation of the ruling class to the state is something like the relation of the state to an independent agency like the Federal Reserve. In the last instance, these "independent" agencies are of course totally beholden to the state, both via the direct influence exerted via executive control over staffing and via the obvious fact that these agencies are structured and purposed such that their interests are in broad alignment with those of the state. But these agencies also have real independence in day-to-day operations, whether that be manifested in ABC bipartisanship[7], the Federal Reserve's (or Reserve Bank of Australia's, if you prefer) monetary policies often conflicting with the government of the day's economic strategy, or in the effective oversight of many watchdog agencies (including the much-ballyhooed ICAC) over governments even to the detriment of many of their most powerful members.

So how does this complicate the Marxist picture of the state? Well, part of this is for next post. But, briefly, it obviously adds a lot more complexity to the idea that the state is the tool of the ruling class. For the analysis of the capitalist state, this just means that Marxists have to be a lot less lazy (i.e. a lot less reductive in their explanations of its behaviour.)[8] The real problem, however, is for the account of the socialist state—in particular, its "withering away". That is, if the state has separate structural interests to the ruling class (viz. the proletariat) it is ostensibly a servant to, then what would (did) those interests think about the potential of the whole destruction of the state? And if those interests are indeed structural, then what would that mean—once the initial, unreliable factor of the state's staffing with committed revolutionaries "wears away"—for the interests of a state modelled, as the USSR, PRC, Cuba, etc. were/are, on the bourgeois-bureaucratic state? And for that matter, what's this business about the "administration of things?" How is that actually, materially, different from the state? And don't give me the "real movement" type shit! I WANT TH


problem numba two

OK. I had to cut that last guy[10] off. But that's the case for the standard Marxist account being too kind on the state. Now, the second problem is that this account is too cruel on the state.[11] The problem here is the Marxist hate for bureaucracy. Now, I myself have what detractors may call a strange love for bureaucracy.

But this is not, fundamentally, a question of my love for bureaucracy.[12] It's a question of practicality. First off, with respect to the capitalist state: the aforementioned separate interests of the state from the ruling class cut both ways. For a socialist state, where the interests of the ruling class are the interests of the proletariat, this divergence of interests is of course a bad thing; for the capitalist state, it is of course a good thing. A uniformly negative view of the capitalist state ignores its role as moderator of capitalism, as provider of welfare, as regulator—all roles fought for by the labour movement, true, but no less assimilated fully into the structure of the state for that.

With respect to the socialist state: the focus on the withering away of the state has historically produced an instinctual distrust of bureaucracy in Communists—hence the proliferation of essentially identical Trotskyist theories of the USSR that condemn it for excessive bureaucracy as "bureaucratic collectivist" or whatever you will. This meant that the first generation of Soviet and Communist Chinese leadership (before the bureaucratic structure of the state asserted itself over its revolutionary heritage) were anti-bureaucrats leading a bureaucratic state. They may have turned to this organisational form for its efficiency, but that didn't mean that they were gonna like it! Now, in many respects this was a good thing, as can be seen from the rapid degeneration of the Soviet and Chinese states after the demise of this first generation (to stagnation in the Soviet case and managerial capitalism in the Chinese case).[14] It seems that it was only the external, personal pressure of committed Communist leadership that could force a bureaucratically-structured state into service for the goals of socialism.

But, equally, the distrust from the state's leadership of the very system they were heading led to an unstable, inefficient, crisis-wracked functioning of the system. Under Stalin, a shortage of qualified bureaucrats combined with sporadic hostility from high leadership (exemplified in the Great Purge that ravaged the ranks of Party pencil-pushers) created a highly inefficient bureaucratic apparatus—not ideal for a state with a centrally planned economy based on bureaucracy! And the Cultural Revolution, marked by Mao's unprecedented instruction to the masses to "bombard the headquarters" of the Party and destroy bureaucracy, paralysed the Chinese state for 2 years amidst much unnecessary suffering and chaos. Contrary to KKKonventional wisdom, what these states suffered from was not too much bureaucracy but too little.


way forward

Well, that's Part 1 of this series. Part 2 will contain... things not determined as yet! Further research is needed. Indeed, my thoughts on this subject are still very much in flux, so I may in future go back to edit this article as my views change. (I definitely will edit it to polish up the referencing, and probably to fix up the wording, once I wake up tomorrow.)