Theses On The State, Its Form, Function, And Future


The State is the sum of social institutions whose function it is to contain the antagonisms that inevitably arise among classes which, by their very nature, exist locked in permanent struggle with one another. The state, therefore, originates from the relations of production and emerges, not consciously or voluntarily out of the will of the politically dominant class (the instrumentalist conception), but rather through the restructuring of all other social processes around the exigencies of class society, namely the necessity to integrate the exploited class into production in spite of this conflict. 


The mode of functioning of the entire machinery of the State and the internal structure of its governmental apparatus is dependent upon the politically dominant class. This is not because the logic of their social positioning compels different classes to carry out those functions differently (not entirely, anyway) but because the state itself enjoys—though this is more or less conditional upon the mode of production in place—relative autonomy from the politically dominant class, whose interests it advances. It does not enjoy any autonomy at all from reproducing the material preconditions which are indispensable to the production process, and without which, therefore, there could be no state. The State expresses the totality of class relationships at the same time that it formalizes and codifies them into normative guidelines regulating social behavior which become crystallized in “the law.” It achieves this primarily by incorporating the entire ensemble of productive relations into an overarching framework of structural violence (what we might call political power). Within this schematic, the relations of production are no longer simply considered abstractly but instead begin to take real form as proper class relations, with a mechanism of exploitation and a means of reinforcement of that mechanism. This can be difficult to understand (even with the aid of heuristics like the metaphor of the economic base and political-ideological superstructure) because we live in a period within which the economy, as a reified sphere of alienated human activity, possesses a considerable degree of mastery over people. However, things become much clearer when we apply the same schematic to previous social formations.


In feudalism, there was no doubt for the serf, when harvest time came and the feudal lord sent his troops to extract his rent, either as a share of the total yield of produce, labor service(s), or cash, that the political and economic spheres were really part of the same unified social domain. In contrast, the social forms in which labor is bound up under capitalism effectively disguise the innately social character of production and shroud the very process through which we draw our subsistence in a thick veil of mysticism. It is precisely because labor is only indirectly social, or to be more clear, because it becomes social only through the act of exchange, that the magnitude of the labor-time expended within production appears to assert itself as “a law of nature.” Thus, the economy as a social phenomenon has its genesis in the drive, inherent to capital as a social form, to seek every channel by which to realize its own endless self-expansion. The natural outcome of this is that the ineluctable imperatives of value-production completely subordinate to their arbitrary whims and erratic fluctuations the social activity of the producers, whose material relations merely supplement the actual social intercourse among forces and things. At present, exchange is the intermediary of labor at every phase of the process of production and circulation, and therefore, the relations between the classes are also mediated by exchange and subject to the same laws dictating its movement. Of course, the participation of the exploited class within social production is still, as a general rule of the operation of state functions, secured coercively, but this coercion is in almost every instance indirect, for example, taking the form of the implied threat of homelessness, starvation, destitution, etc.


The State is a body seemingly outside of and increasingly isolated from civil society. In its earliest incarnations, it formed out of the disintegration of the communal kinship ties that characterized primitive forms of human society and was very intimately connected to the politically dominant class, to the extent that it appeared indistinguishable from it. Within the social formations that sprang up from these primitive societies, the majority of the social labor which secured the simple reproduction of society, and which financed the military demands and luxury consumption of the ruling class, was carried out by slaves who were physically subjugated under a state that was directly controlled by the ruling stratum of society. Obviously, this differs from our experience within capitalism because capitalism is the only mode of production in human history wherein the entire sphere of production confronts human beings in a completely compartmentalized way, because it appears to us as separate from every other part of sociality—including the realm of politics, in which are expressed the totality of class relations.


It is crucial to grasp the impersonal domination of people by forces and things within capitalism in order to understand the mode of functioning of the State, and this is true for two fundamental reasons. The first is that, because the rigors of competition are equally imposed on every sector of the ruling class, this class is fragmented in a way that often compromises the stability of capitalism as a social system. The balance of power within the politically dominant class very frequently tips, and we generally experience this in the form of power struggles between different factions of the capitalist class for control over the machinery of the State itself. Arguably, this has been a fixture of the class system and ruling-class politics ever since the emergence of class stratification, but only under capitalism is this constant power struggle so exemplary of the relations within the ruling class. The second reason is that, since the anarchy of the market acts as the intermediary of class relationships, the State within capitalism consigns itself in most instances—provided that capitalism itself isn’t facing a potential threat to its existence—to safeguarding the institution that is really the fulcrum of capitalism: individual private property.


The State in capitalist society is an “impartially partial” arbiter. It isn’t impartial because it has stopped advancing the interests of the politically dominant class—this is impossible by definition, since the existence of the State and its laws presupposes a society divided into classes. Rather, its impartiality is due to it being the first state in human history that preserves economic exploitation by extending equality under the law to every single person, for example, by extending to workers and capitalists “equally” the right to acquire private property of their own. The motive for this peculiar mode of functioning, which is totally unique to the capitalist state, is the isolation of this state from the affairs of those for whom it has anointed itself intermediary. And of course, this isolation is brought on and gradually magnified by the advanced fragmentation of the ruling class (i.e., competition and conflict among capitalists isn’t the exception, but the rule) and the fact that class relations generally are not directly coercive. Capitalist legality fully expresses the profoundness of this isolation, and the law is simply another form of this mystification of equality since it only formalizes already existing social relationships. In reality, the liberal-democratic state, while it pretends to embody humanity’s struggle against its own endlessly corruptible and savage nature, advances the interests of the politically dominant class. That everybody within capitalism has the right to acquire property of their own (“right” being nothing more a socio-legal construction through which the state channels class conflict and guides the successive reproduction of the relations of production) is only reflective of the fact that property is already present in this society as a social relationship.


Class struggles are always political struggles insofar as they not only challenge the jurisprudence of the existing state, but if successful, also uproot it along with the economic relations that constitute their foundation. After its conquest of power, the revolutionary class must consolidate its class rule by organizing its own means of systematic repression (its own state organism) to clear out the remnants of the old social order, at least if it wishes to remain to the politically dominant class. The simple victory of the revolutionary class does not obviate the need for a dictatorship because the residual vestiges of older social forms and scattered elements of counter-revolution, likely to be materialized in the insurgencies of the defeated ruling class and its allied strata, undoubtedly re-assert themselves in an emergent social system, and in this instance the response can be nothing other than a completely unilateral repression.


When, in the course of sustained class struggle, the balance of power shifts between the two sides at war, the working class must rise to become the politically dominant class. This domination, known as “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” is the period of political transition wherein capitalism is transformed into communism by means of an open civil war against capitalism, generalized on a global scale. The ascension of the working class to dominance of the State does not signify the beginning of another, more or less brutal, social order built upon class exploitation and misery, but poses the negation of workers as a class, and therefore that of all the other classes. The reasoning for this is neither the prophetic insight of a rigid dogma nor the sort of stuff schizophrenic delusions are made of, but rather is a direct consequence of the unique role the working class occupies within production. The working class is similar to previous revolutionary classes in that, like them, it is a class that finds itself asphyxiated by the weight of a social order which is leveraged against its existence. However, unlike previous revolutionary classes, which were able to develop their own relations of production embryonically within the womb of the older system, the working class lacks any means to begin building communism within capitalism, because capitalism is the only mode of production wherein the revolutionary class is also the exploited class. Hence, the working class can only advance its interests in the class struggle by seizing the means of production from the capitalist class, and this must necessarily be done on an international scale, since capitalism operates and exists precisely on an international basis.


The working class won Marx and Engels over to its side because it demonstrated that communism was its political trajectory unraveling itself in the course of its struggle as a class and not just the utopian ideas of intellectuals and philosophers. The body of communist theory derives from the historical and living workers’ movement, and it has always been the indispensable task of the revolutionary minority to extract its successes and failures and to formulate them into new methods of criticism and lines of practice. The emergence of the workers’ councils illustrates this mechanism in action. The council form as such originated during the St. Petersburg Strikes of 1905 but has been utilized by workers as far back as the Paris Commune, in which working-class organizations took the form of mass assemblies where the two integral principles of the councils were present: 1) instantly revocable delegation, and 2) dissolution of the distinction between legislative and executive powers. A spiritual precursor of the workers’ councils were the councils of the Iroquois Gens, in which certain roles, namely those of peacetime leader and war chief, were decided upon collectively and through delegation from among the Iroquois people. It is extremely appropriate, then, that the form of organization corresponding to the last revolutionary class in human history, when it achieves sufficient political unity to govern as a class, is essentially the same as that of the earliest human communities, and, moreover, it lends a great deal of credence to Marx’s theorization of communism as “the return of modern societies to a higher form of an ‘archaic’ type of collective ownership and production.”


The workers’ councils are the organizations of combat which proletarian struggle naturally produced, and since the working class bears the liberation of humanity within its movement, the councils alone constitute the power-structure of its political dictatorship. The dictatorship of the proletariat is the rule of the entire mass of the working class over society and as such includes no members or representatives of any of the other groups in its class organs. This is, of course, not by moral principle or communist dogma, but because any participation in the State by a class other than the workers themselves—in other words, a class other than the revolutionary class—would almost assuredly lead the State to strongly favor the exploiters and embolden the elements of counter-revolution, which, in short, would accelerate the pace of revolutionary degeneration. The working class is the only revolutionary class within capitalism, and it can only remain the politically dominant class by maintaining its tight grip over the whole of society as it undergoes its revolutionary metamorphosis. The members of the opposing class will not only have no vote, and therefore no representation whatsoever, in the organs of working class rule, but they will never be allowed to form themselves into parties, nor agitate for their ideas. When the revolution is won and the materiality of class relations has been transcended, the workers’ councils will pass on from being organs of a proletarian state to the means for the scientific management of production by an association of free and equal producers and, thenceforth, be relegated, as Engels famously said, to “the museum of antiquity: by the side of the spinning-wheel and the bronze axe.”

Emanuel Santos Written by:

Emanuel Santos is an internationalist communist living in the United States.