The role of the State is one of the most contentious issues on the left and the major dividing line between authoritarian and libertarian left. Before we get into the role of States in Revolution, we have to define what the State is.
The modern State has its origins with the Treaty of Westpalia in 1648, but has since become so hegemonic that many people assume it must have always existed and that nothing else can exist. In reality, States, and nation-states in particular, are very recent inventions. In fact, the history of the State and the rise of capitalism and corporations is deeply intertwined. That history could fill many books so I won’t get too deep into it here, but it’s worth at least examining what the State is.
Let’s talk about the State
First thing is that we’re not talking about US States like California, Michigan, New York, etc; we’re talking about Nation-states like the US, Germany, China, etc. The classic definition of a state dates to Max Weber, who defined it as a social institution that has a “monopoly of the legitimate use of force” within a specific area.
Feudal systems were not States because multiple actors – from the nobility to the church to others – could use force and have it be considered legitimate. The same goes for the Romans, Phoenicians, and other classical empires. Westphalia changed all of that by defining – via a treaty between the Catholic Church and the various western powers – that from that point on the sovereigns of Europe and their agents would be the only ones legally allowed to use force within each of those State’s claimed borders, and that all use of force by those agents within the State’s borders would be considered legitimate. So It didn’t matter if the king of France also had a feudal claim to lands in England, within England the English king was supreme.
It was essentially a non-aggression pact between the European ruling elite, and it paved the way for trans-national capital, the rise of capitalism, and the entire European imperialist project.
We’ve since traded kings for more or less “democratic” forms, but otherwise the system remains largely unchanged. Within the borders claimed by a State, only that State (the power structure at the top) is allowed to use force (violence) and all force used by that State is automatically considered legitimate by default. State power is ultimately based on this use of force (either actual, implied, or threatened), and police and militaries are the means by which it is carried out. Saying police are the “fist of the state” is not rhetoric, it’s an accurate job description.
As an aside, if and when a populace decides that the State’s use of force is NOT legitimate, the state will collapse or be overthrown. This is true even for States that operate based on fear – they inevitably invoke “stability” to lend legitimacy to their terrorism. Whether that succeeds or not is up to the people they are terrorizing.
Now that we understand what the State is, let’s look at how it operates.
Nowadays Kings may have largely been left behind, but the fact that State power is based on a minority using the threat of ‘legitimate’ violence to enforce its will puts sharp limits on how democratic the State can ever truly be.
A critical thing to understand here is that the center of power is not the state, the State is a tool by which an elite enforces its will on the minority.
Just as Kings were ultimately beholden to the feudal lords that supported them, modern States are beholden to the economic powers that be. The State is not the center of power, it is a tool by which elites exercise and maintain their power. The popular justification for the State may be ideologically based, wealth based, or a combination of the three; but it’s always a smoke screen. That might be a capitalist elite, a party elite as happened in the USSR, or a class of “socialist” billionaires as in China; but at the end of the day States always serve elites. The difference between a totalitarian State and a nominally democratic one come down to differences in the ruling coalition and how the State maintains its legitimacy, but the State apparatus itself is virtually identical.
Marx’s class analysis is useful (though other more recent models are objectively better) but his flawed analysis of the State is where Marxism falls down. Dictatorship of the Proletariat – a State run by the working class – is a logical impossibility because the very structure of the State requires a small decisive group at the top to function. States require class divisions in order to function, and so no State can ever eliminate class divisions as Marx suggested. At most you might have a dictatorship in the name of the proletariat.
Serving elites means that the interests of the State and the interests of the working class are – and will always be – fundamentally opposed. Making the State the vehicle for change means that when the two come into conflict, statists have to choose between preserving the State and thus their own power or siding with the populace. They will virtually always choose the State because no ruling minority will ever give up power voluntarily. This is how revolutions become counter-revolutions, and it is why marxism always fails.
In those incredibly rare cases where the people who control a State choose not to prioritize the interests of the State, the State fails – as the USSR did when Gorbachev decided not to roll tanks on the people protesting to keep socialism but abolish the dictatorship. Tragically, the response from the Soviet elite was to act just like elites everywhere else and steal everything they could grab. As the USSR collapsed, virtually all of its wealth was stolen by party elites and former KGB agents who used public funds to buy off and privatize basically everything. This process was actively aided by the IMF since the stolen wealth was being deposited in western banks. In the space of just a few years, these men who had been raised under the soviet system and in many cases risen to the top ranks of the Communist party became capitalist oligarchs, and it was their control of the State that let them do it. Far from using a dictatorships to abolish class, Marxism put into practice abolished socialism and kept the dictatorship. The same process is playing out in a more controlled fashion in China right now.
The requirement that the interests of the State always be prioritized is also why States are so incredibly bad at maintaining the rule of law – in practice laws that restrict the behavior of the elites who control them are virtually never enforced. This is not just true in extreme cases like the collapse of the USSR, it’s true in ostensibly “democratic” countries as well.
That’s worth re-stating: while States are nominally the guarantor of law and order – in reality they are consistently lawless because criminal behavior by the ruling elite is legitimized by the fact that it was done on behalf of the State. This is true to varying degrees for every State in human history.
This is precisely what is happening every time police in the white supremacist American settler state murder people of color and are not prosecuted or are acquitted in the face of overwhelming evidence. Because they are agents of the State, their violence is assumed to be legitimate by default, and anyone protesting that violence is de-facto challenging the legitimacy of the State. Which is why as I write this protesters against police brutality and murder all over the US are being met with such extreme brutality.
If we understand that the most basic “natural law” in every society is that killing people is immoral, we must recognize that the core power and legitimacy of the State rests on its ability to declare an immoral act to be moral; and to threaten enough violence against anyone who might object that no one dares challenge the crime.
- The State is a recent social institution and is less than 400 years old
- States and Capitalism originated at the same time and enabled each other’s rise
- The State is always run by a minority and its power is based on its monopoly on the use of legitimate force
- Because of that monopoly, all use of the force by the State is considered legitimate by default
- While States regularly govern using laws, they are never bound by laws – in fact the power of the state is dependent on the State’s ability to break the laws and let its agents break the laws with impunity.
- Attempting to use the State as an agent of popular liberation is counter-productive at best because the State must disempower the vast majority of people in order to function. Its existence creates a division between the people to be governed and the people doing the governing.
- Revolutionaries who seize the State and attempt to use it to re-shape society will find that the State re-shapes them based on its own logic instead.