Karl Marx Karl Marx. Photo: John Jabez Edwin Mayall, colourised by Olga Shirnina / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

Raju Das’ book, Marx’s Capital, Capitalism and Limits to the State, is an important restoration of Marx’s original revolutionary analysis, argues Chris Nineham

Raju J. Das, Marx’s Capital, Capitalism and Limits to the State (Routledge 2022), 348pp.
Raju J. Das, Marx’s Capital, Capitalism and Limits to the State (Routledge 2022), 348pp.

This is a theoretical book but it has a sense of urgency. Raju Das has written it in the awareness that the way people on the left understand how the governing institutions in society operate shapes their strategy for change, shapes their whole political approach, in fact. For decades, the issue of state power has been neglected on the left, so it is welcome that in recent years there has been a renewed interest in state theory. A raft of writers from Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin to Eric Olin Wright, Bob Jessop, Fred Block and Stephen Maher have contributed. Many take up and develop themes from the previous round of debate in the 1960s and 1970s, very often drawing on the ideas of Ralph Miliband, Nicos Poulantzas and various interpretations of Antonio Gramsci.

There is for Das, however, a problem. Most of this writing starts from the assumption that Marx’s description of the state in the Communist Manifesto as ‘a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’ is simplistic. It assumes too that Lenin’s famous restatement of Marx’s view, in State and Revolution, that the capitalist state had to be overthrown and replaced, is in turn outdated and crude. Leo Panitch was typical of the new state theorists in believing that the state had changed fundamentally in the last hundred years and that ‘the worn out concepts of the smashing of the state and the withering away of the state do not begin to capture this’ (p.47).

All the same, modern state theory is regarded as broadly Marxist or at least indebted to Marxism. As Raju Das points out in this comprehensive new book, however, its differences with Marxism are fundamental. He points to many useful insights about the modern state in recent literature, many of which he tries to incorporate into his own analysis. But the departures have serious consequences, ultimately leading, according to Das, to a break from Marxism by providing the ‘ideological justification for a theoretical and political escape from revolutionary action’ (p.6).

For Stephen Maher for instance, a follower of Leo Panitch, the state may be ‘structured to reproduce capitalism’, but it also ‘presents opportunities for democratic movements to counter-organise within and across its institutions’ (p.48). The result is that the capitalist state should not be seen simply as a block to change, but as a set of institutions that can be democratised through socialist strategies based on a struggle within and without its structures. The state, Maher says, echoing Poulantzas, ‘provides a terrain on which working class demands can be formed, contested and possibly implemented’ (p.48).

Despite the academic nature of much of this discussion – Das complains that in the literature the ‘ratio of substantive content to the number of words used is often rather low’ – the stakes are high (p.58). The ideas that Das critiques dominate much of the discussion on the left and have provided theoretical ballast for left electoral projects from Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain to the high-profile campaigns of Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. None of these projects have gone well. As Das comments, the ‘objective effects of the stalwarts of state theory – Miliband, Poulantzas, and many others and those who have been influenced by them – is reformism’ (p.51).

Das’s book is long and sometimes sprawling. It is also a major theoretical contribution. In the process of patiently pointing out the problems of current state theory, Das develops both a rigorous defence and a convincing update of the ideas developed by Marx, Engels, and subsequent revolutionary Marxists about the state.

Marx famously never set down his views on the state in one place, so Das proceeds by examining what volume one of Marx’s Capital can tell us about the modern state. Stripped to its essentials, Das’s case is that new state theorists get things wrong on four key issues. They tend to overstress the independence or autonomy of the state, to misunderstand the way in which it is shaped by social forces, and to overplay its internal contradictions. In the process, they exaggerate the importance of consent over coercion in the way it functions.

Underlying all this is the problem that the new state theorists seem unable to grasp the capitalist state historically as the product of the rise of the capitalist class and the indispensable enabler of capitalist class society. They miss therefore the inherent, class nature of state institutions, ‘the state is the capitalist state not because it relies on the capitalist class’ writes Das, the ‘state relies on the capitalist class because it is the capitalist state’ (p.46).

1) State autonomy

A recurring theme of contemporary state theory is that the capitalist state is relatively independent from economic processes and from the capitalist class. In the words of Leo Panitch, for example, ‘state institutions are more or less relatively autonomous from class representations and pressures’ (p.32). For Poulantzas before him, such autonomy was necessary for the state to be able to organise the warring groups of the ruling class and to disorganise the working class (p.24).

Ironically, the view is often justified by various passages from Marx and Engels. Marx made the point that the capitalist state, unlike previous state forms, is to a certain degree ‘beside and outside of civil society’ (p.92). For Marx, this is mainly because it has to be able to provide a level administrative and legal playing field on which capitalists can compete, and because the state is precisely a form to assert the common interests of the ruling class. Sustaining capitalism, in other words, necessitates a certain distance from particular capitalist interests.

This distance from particular capitalists gives the state the appearance of a certain independence from the capitalist class. This can provide it with some popular legitimacy by making it appear neutral. But, as Das says, no one should be fooled by an appearance, an illusion. It is in fact illogical to equate this relative separation from individual capitals – imposed by the overall needs of capital – with a real distance from capitalist class interests:

‘The question of the class character of the state and the question of how it actually functions (e.g. how autonomous it is) belong to different levels of analysis. The two do not have the same causal importance in explaining what the state does. The first has primacy. And the degree of autonomy is much less than often assumed. Very little autonomy is needed to subjugate the masses and to reproduce capitalist property relations. The separation of the state from capitalist economy is more a matter of the surface reality of capitalism’ (p.6).

The fact that the capitalist state is normally managed by non-capitalists is another reason why it can appear to be non-partisan. Partly this is a practical question. As Marx pointed out, capitalists in general are too busy to dedicate themselves full time to state administration. However, there is more fundamental point here. Far from being a sign of the state’s independence, this is in fact another indication that the capitalists are aware of the need for the state to operate in the interests of the capitalist class as a whole.

Das quotes US Marxist Hal Draper to make the point: ‘a built-in characteristic of capitalism … minimizes the functioning of capitalists themselves as state administrators or managers.’ This is because of a desire to find ‘political leaders who can tackle, and stick to, an overall and farsighted view of the interests and needs of the system as a whole’ (p.182).

The appearance of state independence or impartiality is reinforced by something else; the apparent separation between politics and economics in capitalist society. The ‘free market’ is – especially nowadays – regarded as being beyond politics or human intervention. This is not just because the state stands above particular capitalist interests in its efforts to enable ‘free competition’, but also because it is essential to capitalist survival to keep the economy insulated from democratic scrutiny or control.

Once again, however, we should be careful to avoid mistaking appearance for underlying reality. While the economy is carefully insulated from parliament, the state as a whole has tight, even symbiotic relations with business. State institutions are centrally involved in every phase of capitalist accumulation. They create and maintain infrastructure, administer tax regimes, guarantee the banking system, provide cheap credit to business, oversee financial regulation and provide a minimum of welfare and education to keep the workforce fit and skilled enough to function. Crucially, the state also provides the soldiers and hardware necessary to impose national capitalists’ economic interests abroad.

All this reflects the more fundamental reality that capitalism would simply not be able to function without the state. Das quotes Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky making the point that ‘the distinction between political and economic power … is a terminological trap.’ Economic power as such does not exist. There is only, Trotsky says, ‘property, different forms of property’ (p.97).

Without private property, profits could no longer be made because goods produced by workers would not be under capitalists’ control. This is why the capitalist state has everywhere played the historic role of imposing private property on society, and continues to play the role of maintaining the ‘right’ to property. As Das argues, without the state apparatus there would be chaos, ‘the conflict over the unequal control of over property and surplus labour is far too fundamental – it is unresolvable within the sphere of society where people pursue their individual interests’ (p.46). So, any and every attempt by workers to enforce control over their conditions or place of work is opposed not just by the employer but by various wings of the state. Laws, the courts, police action, all are framed around this central principle of the maintenance of private property.

Das also makes the important point that even when it has to undertake apparently socially useful tasks (which, incidentally, also contribute to its appearance as an autonomous, neutral force), ‘this functioning is still mediated by class interests’ (p.182). How else to explain the barbarity of the prison system, the punitive and impoverishing nature of welfare regimes everywhere, or the way that responses to the pandemic always involved the absolute minimum levels of care and were rolled out in ways that benefitted the rich? ‘The so-called neutral functions of the capitalist state end up having a class character, because the state is inherently a capitalist state’ (p.182).

2) What shapes the state?

For Das, there are two main approaches in current literature which appear to be opposed but in fact share the same problem; a failure to appreciate the extent to which the modern state is integral to capitalist rule. On the one hand, there are the ‘instrumentalist’ approaches which see the state as weaponised by the ruling class either by outside pressure (corporate lobbying, close ties between state officials and capitalists, bribery, etc), or by the fact that the state is staffed by members or supporters of the ruling class.

As Das says, there is a lot to be said for these approaches, not least that they ‘help demystify the liberal view of a class-neutral state’ (p.46). They can also reveal a great deal about how the state works on a day-to-day basis. But they don’t get to the heart of the matter. If it is the case that the kind of people that run the state are decisive, then presumably all that is needed is a change of personnel. If what determines state policy is the balance of social forces in society, then a powerful workers movement should be able to have a decisive influence on the state. The reality is, however, that the capitalist state always and everywhere selects its senior personnel on the basis of their commitment to the status quo and strongly resists all measures that challenge the interests of the capitalist class.

The second influential approach is the ‘structuralist’ analysis most closely associated with the work of Greek socialist Nicos Poulantzas in the 1970s. Poulantzas’s work is often somewhat baffling, (in the book’s introduction, Stuart Hall once described Poulantzas’s State, Power, Socialism, as ‘coming apart at the seams’). Two things do stand out clearly, however. The first is that Poulantzas understands the state as an expression or ‘condensation’ of social conflict and the means by which society resolves social conflict. He says for example: ‘The state has the function of constituting the factor of social cohesion between different levels of a social formation. This is precisely the meaning of the Marxist conception of the state as a factor of order’ (p.23).

This, as Das points out, is an extremely odd starting point for a self-declared Marxist:

‘For Poulantzas and those who follow him … state power is to be understood as the condensation of, or form taken by class struggles that vary historically and spatially. The state is the factor of cohesion and equilibrium of a social formation. This view is very close to the view that the state is really able to reconcile the opposed classes, even if in a contradictory manner. This is fundamentally anti-Marxist because in Marxism the state arises precisely because reconciliation between the basic classes is not possible’ (p.44).

The second fundamental feature of Poulantzas’ thinking on the state flows from the first. If the state for Poulantzas is shaped by class struggle, it is also itself a site of struggle. On the one hand, different branches of the state ‘are often the preeminent representatives of the divergent interests of one or several fractions of the power bloc’ (p.34). On the other hand, because state power is based on unstable compromises within the ruling class, it can become a terrain of actual class struggle. According to Poulantzas, different class interests are actually present in the state, ‘in the form of centres of opposition to the power of the dominant classes’ (p.34).

It is, of course, true that class struggle has an impact on shaping the whole of society and it can and has forced important concessions out of the ruling class and the state. As Das points out, however, it is important not to confuse ‘class struggle’ with ‘class power’. Class struggle short of revolution doesn’t change the underlying facts about who is in control, either of the economy or of the state. Even when the state is pushed onto the defensive, it is still a capitalist state operating in capitalist interests. It will concede as little as possible in class struggle, its concessions will be designed to defuse or disorientate opposition, and it will be looking to make up any lost ground at the first opportunity.

There are a number of important conclusions to be drawn from this. One is that the most effective campaigns for reforms will be revolutionary struggles which can force real concessions by threatening the continued existence of the state. The other is the opposite, that there is no path to piecemeal, cumulative transformation of the state into a vehicle for socialism. As Das puts it:

‘It is one thing to say that the state can be a terrain of struggle for reforms. But this claim cannot be conflated with the claim that the capitalist state will wither away and be transformed into a socialist state, through the struggle for reforms’ (p.49).

This is not to say that the state doesn’t evolve. States everywhere have, for example, been significantly recalibrated in the neoliberal years. There has been a change of economic model and political strategy by the ruling class away from nationalisation and limited welfarism towards privatisation, financialisation and more open attacks on workers. These changes, however, have been made from above and within, have mainly been a response to economic crisis, and haven’t altered the state’s essential class role. The state is not, fundamentally, a set of structures shaped by various external social forces, but a vehicle developed and sometimes reorganised with a very clear purpose; to ensure the continuity and maximum efficiency of capitalist class rule.

For Das, the underlying problem with new state theories lies in their static and unhistorical method which tends to ignore internal, organic and historical links between the ruling class and the capitalist state. They fail to identify the extent to which the modern state is historically, organically wedded to the capitalist system. Where most state theory sees the relations between class and state as external, in reality, as Das puts it ‘their relation is an internal rather than external one’.

3) Conflicts and contradictions

We have seen that the new state theorists place great emphasis on conflicts within the ruling class and the state. There are a number of different issues that need to be untangled here. First there is the question of state personnel. As we have seen, the class background of state personnel does not determine their class nature. In Britain, for example, much of the state was run by members of the aristocracy well into the twentieth century. But from at least the middle of the nineteenth century, the state was run entirely in the interests of the capitalist class.

It is, of course, absolutely true that the state has massively expanded its operations since the days of Marx and indeed Lenin, and the state employs huge numbers of workers in health, education and the civil service itself. The existence of these workers inside state institutions constitutes a vulnerability for the ruling class. Some of them – not including members of the police and many others – will be crucial in any successful socialist transformation.

In normal circumstances, however, these workers have no influence on state policy and the fact that the state employs workers does not automatically create ‘centres of class opposition’ within the state any more than the existence of workers in industry equates directly to workers’ opposition there. Nor does it mean the state can be gradually repurposed from below. A rational and truly democratic society would, after all, have little use for the core institutions of the modern state, its barbaric criminal-justice system, its violent, racist and sexist police forces, its colonial foreign offices and so forth. These institutions – at the heart of the state – need to be dismantled not reformed.

Even the transformation of the more marginal, benign parts of the state concerned with education, health and welfare would involve the forced removal of state managers and a complete overhaul of all methods and working practices. Given the hostility of the state to fundamental change, the task of dismantling, replacing or in some cases transforming these bodies is only imaginable in circumstances where the mass of the working class is mobilised across society and is organising new institutions of democratic power. This is not a vision of an inside, outside strategy of militant reformism, but of social revolution.

The second question concerns the impact of parliamentary democracy on the way that the state functions. As we have seen, Das rightly emphasises the way that the decisive economic questions are kept out of the realm of democratic politics. As he points out, however, even within the parliamentary agenda, the options are deliberately limited. Parliaments are so embedded in wider state institutions and so in hoc to big capital, that most of the time they are little more than forums for ruling-class discussion, which also provide society with some democratic window dressing:

‘The different political parties are, more or less, the slightly different mechanisms through which the economic interests of the different fractions of the capitalist class and of the whole class are politically represented. America’s Republican Party and the Democratic Party or India’s Congress Party and the BJP are both parties of the bourgeoisie, with trivial differences between them in terms of the economic policies they pursue on behalf of the capitalist class’ (p.93).

Here Das, writing as he does in the US, overstates his case. In many countries there are electoral parties whose origins lie in working-class movements. Their existence has to be factored into any serious strategy for change. Das’s central argument however stands. If you accept the Marxist notion of a state based on class interests, social-democratic and most left reformist parties’ acceptance of the division between politics and economics built into the state system and their commitment to a supposed ‘national interest’ does disqualify them as leading agents of fundamental change in the interests of working people.

The third issue concerns divisions within the ruling class. In times of crisis, major disagreements can emerge, and these can be destabilising for the state particularly when they find echoes in the wider population. At present, for example, differences in some countries between liberal globalisers and populist protectionists are creating various degrees of turbulence.

Most states, however, have proved resilient in the face of these and other tensions. This is because, although different ‘fractions’ of capital do jockey for position and influence in the state and champion different state policies, they agree on much more than on which they disagree, and state institutions are designed amongst other things to resolve the disputes which do occur.

In the exceptional cases where sharp conflicts in the ruling class do break into the open, space can be created for movements from below to try to impose their will on society. It is a fatal weakness of contemporary state theory, however, that it fails to understand that at such moments of danger, the ruling class will do everything possible to overcome its secondary differences, regroup, and act ruthlessly against opposition from below. All history tells us that these are times which call for the most decisive, revolutionary action by movements for change, not the deployment of gradual reformist projects.

4) Consent and coercion

This brings us finally to the issue of force. Das points out that existing state theory systematically plays down the use of force by the modern state. Partly, he argues, this is a product of Eurocentrism. Most of the writers concerned base their analyses on more developed countries, where coercion is to some extent concealed. As Das points out, in the majority of less developed countries, class rule tends to be much more openly repressive. Populations in the global south also are much more likely to have experienced the violence of foreign imperial invasion, something that is intrinsic to global capitalist relations and central to state functions in the leading capitalist countries.

The downplaying of violence also relates to the lack of historical perspective discussed above. In every country, the establishment of capitalist relations has involved various forms and degrees of violence against domestic and foreign populations, including the enclosure of common land, the criminalisation of vagrancy, and the seizure of land and destruction of whole populations. As Das rather drily puts it, ‘the state typically enables the forced separation of direct producers from their private property and from access to communal property and contributes to the emergence of private property in its capitalist form’ (p.128).

It is clearly true that the growth of state institutions since the early part of the twentieth century in the developed world have helped to provide some legitimacy for the system. The capitalist class has learnt to use welfare, state education and a carefully circumscribed democracy to limit discontent and bolster the impression of state neutrality. It is absolutely right that any serious socialist strategy needs to be attuned to the way that welfarist state institutions have helped to generate levels of consent.

It is also important not to overestimate the significance of this trend. Force and the threat of force are an inescapable part of capitalist life everywhere. As Das comments, ‘force must be a general condition for the maintenance of commodity relations’ because capitalist production can only exist by continually separating workers from the goods they produce, which they need in order to survive (p.102). Das quotes China Mieville explaining, ‘without a constant threat and/or application of force, commodity production would stand in danger of rapid subversion and breakdown’ (p.103).

Much of the time, this threat of arrest and imprisonment, combined with the general sense of powerlessness generated by the drudgery of alienated work, is enough to keep order in place and profits flowing. The threat, however, would be empty if the courts and the prisons weren’t full and the state apparatus of repression is kept in good order for generalised use in times of emergency.

One of the virtues of this book is that while Das is critiquing the left’s tendency to downplay state hostility to progressive challenge, he is not tempted by the opposite danger of seeing the state as all powerful. He recognises that the economic reality of the neoliberal years has led to a general increase in authoritarianism. He is, however, alive to the fact that this can have contradictory effects, including a decline in the level of consent. Particularly in the developing world, there has, in Das’s view, been a profound change in the nature of state rule. Where the post-colonial state ‘gained a degree of legitimation from its promise to foster economic development’, the subsequent ‘selective retreat of the state’, its abandonment of even the pretence of development and its growing violence has ‘eroded its legitimacy in the eyes of the vast majority of the rural population’ (p.287).

There is in fact a very uncomfortable irony to this debate which was no doubt part of the impetus for this book. Theorists calling for a gradualist approach to what they regard as a more complex and less class-bound state have achieved at least partial hegemony on the left. This comes just at the time when the actually existing state is becoming more openly authoritarian, more committed to class struggle and less concerned with the welfare of the wider population than perhaps at any time since the nineteenth century. There is, as a result, a spreading bitterness and alienation from state institutions around the world. Raju Das has done us a favour by taking on these ideas in a serious way and by recovering and reconstituting a Marxist approach to the state. The left urgently needs to take it to heart.

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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