The state and class rule

A pamphlet in the Socialist Party’s ‘Introduction to Marxism’ series, by Paula Mitchell

A defining feature of Marxism which sets it apart from other political trends is its theory on the state and its programme and policies for dealing with it.

In modern society, the term ‘state’ is used in many contexts. People might think of the ‘welfare state’ – the NHS, pensions, benefits, etc. Or they may be familiar with references to ‘state intervention’, for example the payments to furloughed workers during the Covid pandemic. Also, it is often a term used when referring to geographical territories which have their own government and boundaries, whether national, or sub-national in the case of countries like the United States of America.

The main sense in which Marxists use the term ‘state’ is to describe the institutions through which class rule is maintained. We live in a class society where a small ruling-class minority at the top doesn’t represent the interests of the whole population, but its own interests in maintaining its power and privileges – and exploiting the majority. It has to try to conceal this situation, or to persuade, and at times force, the majority to accept it.

Concealing and persuasion takes place largely though big business or government control of the means of communicating information and ideas, including the mass media, education and science. The capitalist system is portrayed as the best way of organising society, almost to the extent of being ‘natural’.

The capitalist class needs a state apparatus both to run class-based society and to try to ensure it continues. The police, the army, the courts and intelligence agencies like Ml5 form the repressive apparatus that is the core of the state. Karl Marx’s co-thinker, Friedrich Engels, described the state as ultimately being “a body of armed men”. Carrying through a transition to a socialist society will inevitably include major strategic and tactical issues to defeat those agencies which defend capitalist class rule.

Has the state always existed?

The state arose when society first divided into antagonistic classes. Humans once lived in egalitarian societies, referred to by Marx and Engels as ‘primitive communism’, where people were dependent on one another and cooperation was the guiding principle.

However, eventually, as labour became more productive, societies produced surpluses beyond their immediate needs. This created the conditions for class society – for the development of non-productive minorities who came firstly to administer and then to control and own the surplus. Those ruling classes, with economic dominance and power, developed state organisations to protect themselves, counter adversaries, and guarantee that their will was done. As states arose to mainly play those roles, it follows that when future socialist movements remove class society, those same state forces will no longer be needed. Engels wrote that the state would begin to ‘wither away’.

Class society, based on the private ownership of the means of producing wealth, has taken different forms, from slavery and feudalism, to capitalism (see the pamphlet in this series on historical materialism). When the capitalist class was developing in Britain, it had to wage a civil war in the 1640s against a feudal elite and state in order to establish itself as the new ruling class, with its own state to serve its capitalist class interests.

Forms of rule

The typical form of rule in the most economically developed capitalist countries today is ‘capitalist democracy’ (also referred to as ‘bourgeois democracy’). Governments are elected by general election and the populations have democratic freedoms, to varying degrees. Labour movements – workers’ trade unions and political representatives – had to struggle to win those democratic freedoms, including the right to vote, to organise and to strike.

In many ways capitalist democracy is the best form of rule for the capitalists, enabling them to maintain their domination in a relatively low-cost way, without risky and unpopular authoritarian measures.

However, if they feel threatened by the growing power of the working class, they can resort to other forms of rule, such as military dictatorship, as in Greece after the colonels’ coup in 1967, or Chile after a military coup in 1973.  Military dictatorships usually suspend or severely curtail parliamentary democracy, trade union and other rights.

As capitalist crisis has deepened in recent decades, democratic rights have been reduced in many capitalist democracies and repressive powers increased – a sign of the weakness of capitalism in those countries rather than strength. It indicates that the ruling classes are losing the consensus which upheld them in power with minimal opposition. It is also the case, however, that increased repression more clearly reveals the real character of capitalism.

Any ruling class can shift towards more authoritarian forms of rule if it regards it as necessary to safeguard its interests. In 1978, a Tory MP in Britain, Ian Gilmour, admitted in his book, Inside Right: “Conservatives do not worship democracy… For Conservatives… democracy is a means to an end and not an end in itself. And if it is leading to an end that is undesirable or is inconsistent with itself, then there is a theoretical case for ending it”.

Are attacks on democratic rights a path towards fascism?  Fascism was a specific type of repressive rule which emerged in the period after world war one, as in Germany under Hitler and Italy under Mussolini. Those regimes were only able to come to power after repeated failures by the leaders of mass workers’ movements to fully mobilise workers’ strength in advancing towards a socialist alternative. That failure opened the door to fascist regimes coming to power, funded by big business and using small business proprietors as a social base.  They were able to totally crush workers’ organisations and democratic rights for a period of time.

While today the divisive policies and actions of far-right parties must be resisted, they don’t have support that would allow them to come to power with a truly fascist agenda, along the lines of the character of fascism in the past. Also, the ruling classes are unwilling to encourage developments towards that because fascism in Germany and Italy did not ultimately serve their interests in those countries. Fascism led to a hugely destructive world war, following which capitalism was replaced by Stalinism in much of eastern Europe.

The monarchy

The UK today is a capitalist democracy, but in the form of a monarchy, not a republic as in countries like the United States and France.

While commonly viewed as a harmless relic of older times and good for the tourist industry, the monarchy is in reality part of the capitalist state machine, ultimately in place to defend the interests of the ruling class. It is a useful part of its tool box to engender feelings of ‘national unity’ across the classes and support for the capitalist state.

The monarch signs parliamentary bills before they become law, has the right to appoint the prime minister and the government (irrespective of who has the parliamentary majority), and the right to dissolve parliament. MPs, army officers, judges and all senior government officers, swear loyalty to the crown.

This means that in a time of crisis, the monarch could dismiss the parliament, and if necessary, utilise the armed forces against the will of parliament. It was the Queen’s representative in Australia, Sir John Kerr, who dismissed the Labour government of Gough Whitlam in November 1975. It was the Queen’s power of ‘prorogation’ that the Tories turned to in 2019 to suspend parliament to try to avoid scrutiny of Brexit.

For these reasons the capitalist media and other capitalist representatives make great efforts to rehabilitate the royals when events reduce their popularity – as they can only play their role as a reserve weapon for capitalism if they have social support.

The Socialist Party says the monarchy should be abolished. In addition, the UK’s non-elected second chamber, the House of Lords, should be abolished. The Lords have the formal power to sabotage measures decided by a future socialist majority in parliament.

The welfare state

The welfare state – the public services and benefits conceded by capitalism – has always been an area of conflict. The working class has engaged in many struggles for welfare and other services as a vital safety net, to provide basic health, education and financial security.

The capitalist class, on the other hand, resists funding public services out of its profits, through the tax system, except for a minimal level to keep the working population healthy enough to provide exploitable labour. Welfare provision was conceded after the second world war especially, when the capitalists feared a far-reaching working-class movement if concessions were not made. But today, in order for the capitalists to maintain and increase their profits under conditions of growing crisis in their system, many of those gains have been eroded. Capitalist governments had additional drive in doing this following the collapse of Stalinism at the start of the 1990s, when the idea of a non-capitalist alternative appeared to have been defeated.

Capitalist ideology is used to justify those attacks. For example, in order to reduce benefits for the unemployed, it’s suggested that unemployed people are lazy ‘scroungers’. This is an attempt to deflect blame from the capitalist system onto the victims of it, and undermine the support and confidence of those who campaign for better benefits and other welfare.

In a socialist society, welfare would be massively expanded, fully funded, publicly owned and delivered, and democratically controlled by workers and recipients.

State intervention

It may surprise younger people to know that after world war two in Britain utilities such as gas, electricity and transport were nationalised – ie they were taken out of private hands and put under public ownership. This was done by a Labour government which was under great pressure from the workers’ movement to create jobs, reduce prices and improve working conditions. It was also the case that in private hands those industries were failing to provide reliable infrastructure for industry to maximise its profits.

However, the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher reversed a number of the nationalisations in the 1980s, and subsequent Tory and New Labour governments pursued further privatisations.

The only nationalisations in recent decades have been when governments have felt compelled to intervene as last-resort emergency action. They have viewed them as temporary measures, intending to pass the rescued firms back to private hands as soon as possible. For example, Northern Rock bank was nationalised after it imploded in 2007, but was later restored to the private sector.

Of course, private owners will only take on companies they view as potentially profitable. The rail industry has been a catalogue of failures and worsening services since it was privatised in the mid-1990s, leading to a situation today where it is partially back under public ownership. Transport ministers have tried hard to find private sector offers to re-privatise the nationalised parts without too much further deterioration of the service being involved, but without success.

The fact that capitalist governments sometimes need to step in like this demonstrates that the capitalist market doesn’t work. The Socialist Party calls for the nationalisation of failing industries and services, but more than that, for all the main parts of the economy to be brought into public hands as part of a socialist transformation of society. Nationalised industries and services should not be run by pro-capitalist politicians and managers who want to see nationalisation fail, but rather be placed under democratic working-class control and management, with compensation paid to the former owners only on the basis of proven need.

Other forms of state intervention in Britain have included spending packages like the massive extra £450 billion of public money spent during the Covid pandemic – not in that case to bail out a single industry, but rather to keep the entire system afloat.

How democratic is capitalist democracy?

Marxists defend existing democratic rights but recognise that real democracy is not possible in a system in which a ruling capitalist class controls the economy, the state apparatus, and as said above, has ideological domination. As Marx said: “The ruling ideas of any epoch are the ideas of the ruling class”.

Benefitting from capitalist democracy is much easier if you have power and money, if you have access to the mainstream press, and if you can lobby your ex-school chums and business associates who sit in parliament!

Leading civil servants are not elected, but are career officers, in place whoever is elected to parliament, and earning high salaries. They play a prominent role in deciding what information and ‘options’ are available to elected politicians. In Britain they are largely recruited from the same public school and Oxbridge background as many of the top pro-capitalist politicians.

In advancing their careers it isn’t unusual for them to move jobs between industry and government, as do many capitalist politicians.

The capitalist class exerts considerable influence on the main political parties. Parliament has been referred to as ‘the best club in the world’.  The wages and expenses of MPs allows them a lifestyle far above what most people can afford, which insulates them from the effects of their policies. MPs should be paid the wage level that most workers are on. 

The whole ‘democratic’ structure is designed to keep working people out. Politics for most people is confined to voting once every few years. When working-class people do get into positions of political or trade union influence, they come under huge pressure to accept capitalist restraints, and inflated salaries and other privileges play a role in that enticement.

As the Labour Party leadership and officialdom is today firmly pro-capitalist, a fight is necessary for working-class political representation in the form of a new mass workers’ party, entirely independent of capitalist interests.

Defend and expand democratic rights

While recognising the great limits to democracy under capitalism, socialists oppose any attacks on the democratic rights that currently exist and argue for an enormous extension of democracy – supporting every democratic gain that can be made by working-class people and their organisations. Gaining more rights and freedoms to organise can only help the ability of the working class and its allies to mobilise and cut across division.

So campaigns to repeal anti-trade union and anti-protest laws are very important. Calls for extending democracy can include: Votes for 16-year-olds; MPs to be elected for a maximum of two years and subject to recall by their constituents; the election of judges; and greatly increased legal aid.

It is important to call for democratic access to the media. This could be achieved by taking the facilities of the top media corporations out of private ownership and making them available to everyone, with democratic decision-making on the criteria for access.

Nations should have a right to self-determination, if democratically decided by the people in those nations, up to and including independence. The Socialist Party calls for an independent socialist Scotland, as part of a voluntary socialist confederation of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland.

However, genuine democracy regarding all aspects of our lives will never be possible on the basis of capitalism, but only when the economy and state is in the hands of the overwhelming majority of people. That would lay the basis for the development of socialist democracy, in industry and services through public ownership and workers’ control and management, and in politics through decision-making bodies being elected at every level.

The repressive apparatus of the state: the legal system

Law under capitalism is class-based law, at root for the purpose of enforcing the rights of property and exploitation. This is the case both with civil law and criminal law.

In Britain, law is not just made by parliament; it is also made by unelected judges, who are overwhelmingly from a privileged background.

Capitalist ideology portrays the law and justice system as a neutral regulator of society, but when workers enter into struggles against their bosses or protest action of other kinds, they are often confronted with laws and actions by state forces that are clearly not in workers’ interests. The anti-trade union laws are used to try to prevent strike action, by placing strict rules on the ballots that have to take place and the voting thresholds. Even when those are abided by, the courts are sometimes used to overturn action. For example, in 2019 the courts blocked strike action by the Communication Workers Union in Royal Mail after a 97% vote in favour of it by the union members, with a 76% turnout.

Appeals from ruling-class circles to ‘abide by the law’, echoed by right-wing trade union leaders, can have an effect for a time, but they cannot put off struggle indefinitely. Members of the Prison Officers Association have shown how the law can be defied when they have resorted to prison walkouts, despite a ban on strike action being imposed on them in 1994.  

Nor can anti-protest laws prevent protests. When students protested in London against an increase in tuition fees in 2010, they were ‘kettled’ – surrounded and imprisoned on the street – by massed ranks of police, for hours in freezing weather conditions. Yet, the protests continued and grew, and were followed by mass demonstrations and strike action by workers the following year.

The 1989-91 anti-poll tax movement, led by Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party, was an important breakthrough. It called for mass non-payment of poll tax bills, with the result that 18 million people defied the threat of court action and the tax had to be abolished. That movement popularised the idea that unjust laws can be successfully defied.

There are of course aspects of the law which working people want: countering crimes such as murder, rape, assault and burglary. Laws and sanctions are accepted against such acts, which statistics show working-class people to be the main victims of. Socialists call for democratic control and accountability regarding those laws and sanctions. Under capitalism, the way in which law is applied is racist and class-biased. If you’re working class, or if you’re black, you stand a much greater chance of being convicted or going to jail.

There is also the point made by Karl Marx, that the so-called neutrality of the law is undermined by inequalities in income. For example, it is a crime for both rich and poor to steal food, but the poor are more likely to be forced to steal it than the rich, who can afford to buy all the food they want.

The police

The police are generally used as the first line of offence against anyone disturbing the public order of capitalism. As social tensions have increased, the vision of the local ‘bobby’ (police) helping the elderly across the road, common in the relative social peace of 1950s and 1960s Britain, has vanished.

A former chief constable of Greater Manchester, James Anderton, once said: “I think that from the police point of view that my task in the future… that basic crime as such – theft, burglary and even violent crimes – will not be the predominant police feature. What will be the matter of greatest concern to me will be covert and ultimately overt attempts to overthrow democracy, to subvert the authority of the state, and in fact to involve themselves in acts of sedition designed to destroy our parliamentary system and the democratic government in this country”.

The miners’ strike of 1984-85 was a watershed for many people. On the field around the coke depot at Orgreave, near Sheffield, on 18 June 1984, 4,200 police officers organised into 181 teams, with dogs and horses, trying to intimidate and break the spirit of the miners. This, and the fierce repression of the massive anti-poll tax demonstration in London on 31 March 1990 organised under the leadership of Militant, were not aberrations, but a more open return to the real ‘priorities’ of the police.

Every capitalist state also operates one or more secret intelligence services, which are in large part aimed at following and disrupting what they regard as ‘subversive elements’ – including militant trade unionists, socialists, environmentalists and other activists. The Socialist Party calls for those arms of the state to be disbanded.

Their role has been exposed in the 2020s ‘Spycops’ inquiry, which looked into the actions of the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS).

The SDS was founded in 1968, following an anti-Vietnam war demonstration, at a time of mass revolutionary protest internationally. The QC lawyer for the inquiry said: “Our government was concerned about communism”.

The ‘solicitor advocate’ for the London Met police explained that the SDS had two central roles: “Gathering intelligence for the purposes of preventing public disorder” and “to assist the security service in its task of defending the UK from attempts at espionage and sabotage and from actions of persons judged to be subversive of the security of the state”.

All of the eleven MPs known to have been spied on were in Labour and generally on the left. They included Socialist Party member Dave Nellist, who was the Labour MP for Coventry South East in 1983-92. The organisations targeted included the Socialist Party, formerly Militant, which an inquiry barrister admitted was spied on by MI5 as well as the SDS. Also infiltrated were black justice and family campaigns, some of them grieving the death of a family member at the hands of the police or racist gangs. Of the 1,000 organisations known to have been infiltrated, only three are thought to be right wing.

Police racism and sexism

When black teenager Stephen Lawrence was brutally murdered in 1993 by racist thugs, police racism and corruption stopped his killers from being brought to justice. While Stephen’s killers were being allowed to get away with their crime, the police poured resources into countering the anti-racist movement. Riot police attacked two large demonstrations to shut down the HQ of the far-right British National Party (BNP).

That followed years of racist policing, including many deaths of black people at the hands of the police. But Stephen’s murder was a pivotal moment – the McPherson inquiry was set up to investigate, and found the police to be “institutionally racist”. Yet police racism and brutality continued, leading young people to take to the streets nearly 30 years later in the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement.

Then in 2021, protests broke out after the murder of Sarah Everard, especially when it was known that she had been killed by a police officer, Wayne Couzens, and that he had been reported for sexual offenses over at least 13 years. It was revealed that 26 police colleagues of Couzens had committed sex crimes and more than 750 London Met police employees had faced sexual misconduct investigations in the ten years after 2010.

Racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination are rife in the police – and they run like a sore through all the institutions of capitalism. As Malcolm X famously said: “You can’t have capitalism without racism”.

The Socialist Party calls for the demilitarisation of the police, disbanding riot squads for example, and an end to police harassment meted out through powers like ‘stop and search’. Protests and demonstrations should be stewarded by democratically organised teams of trade unionists and other workers. It is necessary to campaign for the police to be accountable to local communities and controlled by workers in those communities – through elected committees that can determine priorities and resources.

Fighting for those changes needs to be part of a socialist programme of policies to eradicate poverty, provide affordable housing, increase funding for social services and youth facilities, and so on, which would all reduce crime far more effectively than the police will do.

This doesn’t mean that socialists should make bald calls to ‘abolish the police’. Faced with life in a society that is a breeding ground for crime, the overwhelming majority of people want forces for deterrence and enforcement against it to exist. But demands – like those above – can and should be used that help to expose and undermine the repressive function of the police, and trade union rights for police officers, and army personnel too, should be supported.

The army

The regular British army was built as a colonial army with worldwide operations, to ensure the power of British imperialism against colonial peoples. Today it plays a role as security for the capitalist class against other capitalist powers. Also, it is the last line of capitalism’s defence against civil disorder and revolution at home, with detailed contingency plans for domestic counter-revolutionary operations.

It was used extensively during industrial disputes in the early twentieth century – against the miners of Tonypandy in South Wales in 1912 and during the 1926 general strike. It was used to try to break firefighters’ strikes in 1977 and again in 2002-03.

There have been many occasions when the British ruling class has discussed whether to resort to military intervention domestically. Parts of the capitalist state discussed sabotaging a possible Jeremy Corbyn-led government. Unnamed generals were quoted in the media, with one saying: “The general staff will not allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of this country and I think the people would use whatever means, fair or foul, to prevent that from happening”. This threat was never needed, however, as the sabotage of Corbyn’s position was carried out by representatives of capitalist interests within the Labour Party itself.

The main consideration of capitalist governments before implementing such plans would be the strength of the organised working class and its ability to defend its historic conquests when faced with attempts to remove them.

Challenging and removing capitalism

Having understood what the state machine is and does, it’s possible to look at the tasks that will be needed to achieve a socialist transformation of society. Even the most well-armed capitalist states are not invincible.  In 1978, the Shah of Iran was the most heavily armed dictator in the world, but that didn’t stop him being overthrown by a revolution that year. In the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’, seemingly all-powerful dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt were overthrown by mass movements. The strongest military forces can collapse in the face of a determined struggle by millions of people.

However, it is not automatic that those movements then go on to assume power in the interests of the vast majority in society. In Iran, Tunisia and Egypt – and many other revolutions – capitalism itself was not overthrown, and so continued in existence with a different set of leaders at the helm.

For a successful socialist revolution, a workers’ political party with a clear strategy and tested leadership is vital (see the pamphlet in this series on the role of a revolutionary party). In a revolutionary situation, that party would be able to put forward measures to help to split the state forces, making them easier to defeat, and also measures to remove the capitalist state apparatus so that it can no longer be used against the workers’ movement by the capitalist class.

A crucial part of splitting the state forces is making appeals to rank-and-file soldiers, other army staff and police, to join the revolutionary movement rather than be used against it. History provides many examples of military forces refusing to suppress a revolutionary movement, most notably in the 1917 Russian revolution, which removed capitalism for the first time and installed a workers’ government.

Led by Lenin and Trotsky, the Bolshevik Party in Russia showed that a peaceful transformation of society is possible when the working-class ranks of the armed forces have been won to a socialist programme. Policies like full employment with well-paid jobs, and decent housing for all, are enormously attractive to them as well as to the rest of the working class.

The Bolsheviks rejected any compromise with capitalist politicians and army generals. They had learnt the lessons of the past, which were summed up by Lenin in his book, State and Revolution. He explained that the capitalist state cannot be taken over and used in the interests of the working class. Rather, it must be discarded and replaced by a new workers’ state, designed to serve the interests of the majority in society. This lesson was first drawn out by Marx and Engels as a result of the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871, which didn’t move to decisively defeat the capitalist and monarchist military forces, and then suffered them being used to crush the socialist commune.

Withering away of the state

After a socialist transformation, a workers’ state apparatus – democratically run – would be needed to counter any attempts by the defeated capitalist minority to regain power. It would also be needed to aid the running of society and to tackle the many problems created by capitalism – including anti-social behaviour, which would not die away overnight. Dramatically improving material conditions and providing decent services could be done quickly and would fast reduce crime. But there would also be the task of repairing the enormous psychological damage done by capitalism and the power relations, division and abuse it promotes. For example, ending capitalism as a social system that has discriminated against women will lay the basis for fewer crimes of violence against women, but they wouldn’t be wiped out immediately.

Some strands of anarchism insist that no form of state should replace the capitalist state.  However, the state is not an abstract body exerting power for itself, but is a tool of the dominant class. Lenin referred to workers coming to power as the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ – not meaning a dictatorship of the brutal, repressive capitalist kind, but one in which elected representatives of the majority, the working class, would be spearheading the democratic running of society in the interests of the vast majority. 

Over time, that new state itself would gradually ‘wither away’. Democratic common ownership of industry and services, along with socialist planning, would lead to much higher levels of socially-useful production than under capitalism, and on an environmentally sustainable basis. That would enable the meeting of everyone’s needs, and with a much shorter working week. Therefore, every individual would have time to develop their interests and talents, and also to participate in the running of society.

With everyone having a role in organising society – on a rotational basis or concurrently – the conditions for the development of a bureaucracy would be undermined. Other safeguards against the development of bureaucratic rule in a workers’ state would include giving no higher pay or special privileges to elected representatives and making them subject to instant recall if they are not acting in the interests of those who elected them.

All of these changes and more would gradually reduce the need for a state apparatus, meaning that it could eventually disappear. Democratic organisation would be necessary, but a structure for repression by one class in society over others would no longer have any purpose.

This series was first published in Socialism Today, during 2022.