Dialectical Investigations: The Meaning of Dialectics

Theses on the Capitalist State

  1. One major aim of Marx's analysis of capitalism is to explain how people can make their own history and be made by it at the same time, how we are both free and conditioned, and how the future is both open and necessary.

  2. In Marx's theory of politics, the capitalist state is conceived of as a complex social relation of many different aspects, the main ones being political processes and institutions, the ruling class, an objective structure of political/economic functions, and an arena for class struggle.

  3. These aspects also offer ways into the study of the state as a whole (perspectives from which to view and piece together its constituent elements).

  4. Viewed from one aspect, or one side, the state appears as a one-sided relation—not partial (because in most cases the various parts are all represented), but one-sided (because the parts are structured in function of where one begins, which also affects the attention given to each one).

  5. The main interpretations of Marx's theory of the state—that it is an instrument of the capitalist class (Lenin and Ralph Miliband), an objective structure of political functions interlocked with capitalist economic functions (early Poulantzas), an arena of class struggle (late Poulantzas), the illusory community arising out of alienated social relations (early Ollman), and the hegemonic political ideology (Gramsci)—are such one-sided relations.

  6. None of these interpretations denies the possibility that the institutions of the state at a particular time and place are in the hands of a faction or fragment of the capitalist class (or a coalition of such), who use them to promote their own special interests. Indeed, this is usually the case. Such inner-class political conflict constitutes the subject matter of most political science. The ways in which the state simultaneously represents the interests of the whole capitalist class in opposition to the working class, the former ruling class, other dominated classes, and fragments of the capitalist class itself (including the one that has temporarily come out on top in the inner-class conflict), on the other hand, constitutes the subject matter of a Marxist theory of politics.

  7. Each of these one-sided interpretations of the state (see no.5) brings out something important about the capitalist state—about its appearance, structure, functioning (including contradictory functioning), ties to the rest of capitalism, and potential for change—just as it hides and distorts much else. And insofar as each of these interpretations integrates politics with economic and social processes, they all carry us outside the boundaries of relevance drawn by orthodox political science.

  8. Some problems are better studied inside one rather than another of these interpretations. How the state protects the status quo, for example, is more usefully approached within the framework supplied by the view of the state as the instrument of the capitalist class. But it is the view of the state as a set of objective structures interlocked with capitalist economic processes that provides the most relevant framework in which to examine how the state contributes to the reproduction of capitalist conditions of existence. The requirements of tomorrow's capitalism and how they exert influence today emerge most clearly within the framework. The same political developments, when viewed inside these two different interpretations, will often exhibit a dual role: they defend existing capitalist relations while simultaneously laying down a necessary condition for what they are becoming.

  9. These different Marxist interpretations of the state are dependent to some degree (in when they are formulated, which ones get stressed, etc.) on the conditions and events in the lives of the people who hold them. Allowing for many exceptions, we can say in general that the structural view of the state (the state as a set of objective structures) is most popular in "quite" periods; the Gramscian view of the state as the hegemonic political ideology, which stresses the capitalists' near perfect control over the workers' thinking, emerges in periods of political reaction; while the views of the state as the instrument of the ruling class and as an arena of class struggle come to the fore in periods of rapid social change.

  10. Some of the interpretations of the state mentioned seem to contradict one another. For example, the view of the state as an instrument of the capitalist class (which suggests that the capitalists are in direct control of the state and consciously use its institutions to promote their interest) appears to contradict the view of the state as a set of objective structures tied to capitalist economic processes whose requirements it must satisfy (which suggests that the actions of whichever group controls the state are determined by forces outside its control, given that it does not want to overturn the entire capitalist system).

  11. These apparently contradictory views of the state are equally true—if not equally important (this is determined by research) —representing as they do different tendencies inside the state relation. Dialectical truth does not fit together like the pieces of a puzzle, but allows for the kind of multiple one-sidedness and apparent contradictoriness that results from studying any subject from perspectives associated with its different aspects. (Perhaps the best known example of this phenomenon in Marxism is the claim that capitalists are an "embodiment of capital," which stands in apparent contradiction to the claim that capital functions as it does because it is in the control capitalists who use it to further their profit maximizing interests).

  12. Particular political developments may also have apparently contradictory meanings when viewed within different Marxist interpretations of the state. For example, a political reform that favors the working class, when viewed within the framework of the capitalist state as an arena of class struggle, appears as a victory for the workers, perhaps one which help set limits to the exercise of capitalist power. On the other hand, viewing the same reform within the framework of the state as the instrument of the capitalist class leads to the conclusion that the capitalists have adopted a more sophisticated way of controlling or cooling out the workers, that it is a higher-order victory for the capitalists. These different conclusions do not balance out and a compromise makes no sense. Rather, bother conclusions are true, depending as they do on the interpretation of the state in which the event in question is placed.

  13. As regards the future, the apparently contradictory versions of the present that emerge from analyzing the same event within different interpretations of the state indicate the variety of real possibilities that make up the future. In the case of a political reform that seems to favor the workers, it could strengthen their hand in the class struggle; it could also—in quite different ways—weaken them. These alternative futures are part of the present; they don't begin tomorrow. It is only by studying present political developments within different interpretations of the state that we can capture the full potential for change, and change in different directions, which constitutes an essential part of the present moment—and maximize our chances for influencing them.

  14. The widespread debate among Marxists over the relative autonomy of the state usually goes on at cross purposes because the people involved do no sufficiently distinguish between these different Marxist interpretations of the state, and hence whether (under certain circumstances) the state is relatively autonomous from the ruling capitalist class, or from the economic requirements of capitalism, or from other alienated social relations, etc. As a matter of fact, there is a case to be made for relative autonomy within each of these perspectives on the state. What is important is to avoid the confusion that results from thinking there is only one debate when there are really several.

  15. Note for further research. The model for constructing the relations between the different views of the state arising out of approaches rooted in its different aspects is the complex set of "identities" Marx uncovers between production, distribution, exchange, and consumption in his unfinished introduction to the Critique of Political Economy.

  16. These complementary yet quite distinct Marxist views of the state have somewhat different consequences for the development of political consciousness and revolutionary will. For most people, their eyes are first open politically when they grasp the state as in instrument of the ruling class; the society-wide dimensions of the problem only come into view when the state is also grasped as an objective structure tied in with capitalist economic structures. Their understanding is deepened—and the problems of organizing against capitalism better appreciated—when they also see the state as the illusory community and the hegemonic political ideology. But only when/if the state is also grasped as an arena of class struggle does Marxism become not only a way of understanding the world but a means for changing it through political activity.

  17. The narrow focus that political science imposes on the study of politics (whether in American Government, Comparative Government, International Relations, or Public Administration), especially when combined with its ahistorical approach, radically falsifies both the degree of freedom and the degree of necessity that characterizes out political lives. In the absence of any inquiry into the state as an instrument of the capitalist class, political science seriously exaggerates the citizen's freedom to use the state to achieve his/her ends. Ignoring the state's character as an objective set of political structures tied in with capitalist economic processes, political science also underestimates the objective constraints under which any party in power acts, given a desire to retain even some capitalist relations (the classic dilemma of social democracy). However, should such a party decide to do away with capitalism entirely, the same view of the state accords to people greater freedom of action that most political scientists think they have (or could have). Likewise, on the level of individual effectiveness, viewing the state as an arena of class struggle means that people actually have more freedom to determine their lives (because it is only through class struggle that major change occurs) than they do in more traditional political science views of the state, which exalt the role of personal freedom while denying or ignoring class struggle.

  18. The interpretations of the state that contribute most to the development of revolutionary will are those that give a prominent place to the capitalist class, which is to say the view of the state as an instrument or ruling committee of this class and the view of the state as an arena of class struggle. To build up a full head of steam in and for the struggle, to maximize rational hostility as a politically motivating factor, most people require opponents in human form, other people who embody the oppressive functions of the system. It is as hard to hate abstract enemies, as it is to love abstract friends. It is true that an analysis of the state as a set of objective structures (and, to a lesser extent, as the illusory community) is necessary to fully grasp the origins of existing oppression, how it works and for whom, the weak points in the armor of oppression, who are one's potential allies, and even how the oppressors themselves may be suffering from the system that carries their name. But it is also true that only by directing the struggle against actual, living capitalists can people be sufficiently motivated to engage in revolutionary struggle. To ignore the structural dimension of the analysis is to increase the danger that revolutionary politics will degenerate into reformism, directed toward removing the worst politicians. Without the class dimensions, the danger is that revolutionary politics—lacking "fire in the belly" —will degenerate into scholasticism.

  19. By studying the state from the perspectives associated with its different aspects, Marxism is able to show how in politics people make their own history and are made by it at the same time, how we are both free and conditioned, and how the future is both open and necessary.