The State and Society

This is the text of a lecture given to the Cole Society {Oxford University
Sociology Society) at All Souls, on February 19th.

The state and society


When G. D. H. Cole died, I remember being amazed as I read the
tributes in the newspapers from people like Hugh Gaitskell and Harold
Wilson alleging that their socialism was learned from him here, for it
had always seemed to me that his socialism was of an entirely different
character from that of the politicians of the Labour Party. Among his
obituarists, it was left to a dissident Jugoslav communist, Vladimir
Dedijer, to point out what this difference was; remarking on his dis-
covery that Cole "rejected the idea of the continued supremacy of the
Slate" and believed that "it was destined to disappear."

For Cole, as for the anarchist philosophers from Godwin onward,
I he distinction between society and the state was the beginning of
wisdom, and in his inaugural lecture in tha Chair of Social and Political
Theory in this university, he remarked that "I am well aware that it is
pari of the traditional climate not only of Oxford, but of academic
teaching and thinking in Great Britain, to make the State the point of
focus for the consideration of men in their social relations", and went
on to declare his belief that "Our century requires not a merely Political
Theory, with tha Slate as its central problem, but a wider Social Theory
within which these concepts and relations can find their appropriate

For him this demanded a "pluralism" which recognises the positive
value of the diversity of social relationships, and which repudiates what
he called "the Idealist notion that all values are ultimately aspects of a
single value, which must therefore find embodiment in a universal
institution, and not in the individual beings who alone have, in truth,
the capacity to think, to feel and to believe, and singly or in association,
to express their thoughts, feelings and beliefs in actions which further
or obstruct well-being — their own and others."

This particular rejection of the Idealist theory of the State was
voiced in 1945, the year when the States that liquidated Hiroshima
and the State that liquidated the Kulaks celebrated their victory over the
State that liquidated the Jews. If you think that people's personal
philosophies are a response to the experience of their own generation,
you would have expected that year, of all years, to have initiated a
period in which vast numbers of people, recoiling from this object-
lesson in the nature of the state— all states— would have begun to
withdraw their allegiance from their respective states, or at least to
cease to identify themselves with the states which demanded their

But the wave of rejection of the grand, all-embracing, and ultimately
lethal political theories has been very largely a movement of . . . pro-
fessors. You have only to think of the strands contributed to the
rejecting of political messianism and historical determinism by Cole's
successor, Professor Berlin, or by Professors Popper, Oakshott and
Talmon. It has come from the right and the centre, and to a lesser
extent from the left, but it does not seem to have been accompanied by
a new theory of society and the state and of the relationship between

In the loose, and no doubt, erroneous way in which we attach
currents of thought to particular decades, we can characterise the
nineteen-fifties as the period of the attack on messianic political theories
and on "ideologies", and we can note how it coincided with that period
in the early fifties when the most important topic discussed among the
intelligentsia was the social make-believe of U and non-U, while a
new generation was lamenting that there were no longer any causes to
get worked up about. Then suddenly the climate changed and thinking
people found themselves face to face with those ultimate questions of
social philosophy on which the professors had given us such tantalising
hints. Suez, Hungary, the Bomb, the dethronement of Stalinism, must
have made millions of people in both East and West ask themselves
those questions which resolve themselves in the question "To whom
do I owe allegiance, and why?"

Do I belong to myself or to somebody else, or something else?
Are my social obligations to the many informal and overlapping social
groups to which I adhere of my own volition and can withdraw from
if I wish, or to an entity which I have not joined, and which assumes
the existence of a contract to which I have not put my hand? Are my
loyalties to society or to the state?

These are not academic questions. They are being answered today
by the state in its Central Criminal Court, where it is arraigning those
members of the Committee of 100 who have dared to assert, through
disobedience, that their loyalties lie elsewhere.

"We have to start out" declared Cole in 1945 "not from the con-
trasted ideas of the atomised individual and of the State, but from man
in all his complex groupings and relations, partially embodied in social
institutions of many sorts and kinds, never in balanced equilibrium, but
always changing, so that the pattern of loyalties and of social behaviour
changes with them." This approach which is both pluralistic and
sociological in its orientation, explains the sympathy which Cole felt for
anarchists like Kropotkin, who also sought "the most complete develop-
ment of individuality combined with the highest degree of voluntary
association in all its aspects, in all possible fields, for all imaginable
purposes ... ever modified associations which carry in themselves the
elements of their durability and constantly assume new forms which
answer best the multiple aspirations of all."

Cole's "pluralism" had its ancestry, I believe/partly in the eclectic
and libertarian tradition that runs through English socialism, and partly
from an academic tradition through Maitland from Gierke and those
early German sociologists who reacted against German idealistic philo-
sophy. It was echoed recently by Professor Edward Shils, in expressing
his regret that what tie calls the "pluralistic theory" has "over the
years degenerated into a figment of antiquated syllabi of University
courses in Government and Political Science." He thinks that it is
ready for "a new and better life" because of its relevance to the needs
of thei "new" nations of Africa and Asia, since they are said to lack
what Gunnar Myrdal calls an infra-structure which is defined as "the
complex network of civic and interest organisations, co-operative
societies, independent local authorities, trade unions, trade associations,
autonomous universities, professional bodies, citizen's associations for
civic purposes and philosophic groups, through which a participation
more effective than that afforded by the usual iastitutions of represen-
tative government could be achieved."

Well, I don't know why pluralism (and the infra-structure it implies)
should be confined to the trunk of cast-off political clothes which we
hope might come in handy for our poor relations in the "new" nations.
I want some more effective infra-structure here, and I want a more
effective participation too, and like Myrdal, I see it arising from a
strengthening of society at the expense of the state. When we look at
the powerlessness of the individual and the small face-to-face group in
the world today, and ask ourselves why they are powerless we answer,
not merely that they are weak because of the vast central agglomerations
of power (which is obvious), but that they are weak because they have
surrendered their power to the state. It is as though every individual
possessed a certain quantity of power, but that by default, negligence, or
thoughtless and unimaginative habit, he had allowed some-one else to
pick it up, rather than use it himself for his own purposes.

The German anarchist Gustav Landauer made a profound and
simple contribution to the analysis of the state and society in one
sentence: "The state is not something which can be destroyed by a
revolution, but is a condition, a certain relationship between human
beings, a mode of human behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other
relationships, by behaving differently." (This is a refinement of the idea
I have just suggested of personal quotas lying around waiting to be used
and since we haven't the initiative to use them ourselves, being adopted
by the state so that a power vacuum is avoided). It is we and not an
abstract outside entity, Landauer implies, who behave in one way or the
other, state-wise or society-wise, politically or socially.

Landauer's friend and executor, Martin Buber, in his essay Society
mid the State begins with an observation of the American sociologist
Robert Maclver that "to identify the social with the political is to be
guilty of the grossest of all confusions, which completely bars any
understanding of either society or the state." And he goes on to trace
through philosophers from Plato to Bertrand Russell the confusion
between the social and the political. The political principle, for Buber,
is characterised by power, authority, hierarchy, dominion. The social
principle he sees wherever men link themselves in an association based
on a common need or a common interest.

What is it, he asks, that gives the political principle its ascendancy?
And he answers, "The fact that every people feels itself threatened by
the others gives the State its definite unifying power; it depends upon
the instinct of self preservation of society itself; the latent external crisis
enables it to get the upper hand in internal crises. A permanent state
oi true, positive and creative peace between the peoples would greatly
diminish the supremacy of the political principle over the social."

"All forms of government" Buber goes on, "have this in common:
each possesses more power than is required by the given conditions; in
fact, this excess in the capacity for making dispositions is actually what
we understand by political power. The measure of this excess, which
cannot of course be computed precisely, represents the exact difference
between administration and government." He calls the excess the
"political surplus" and observes that "It's justification derives from the
external and internal instability, from the latent state of crisis beween
nations and within every nation. The political principle is always
stronger in relation to the social principle than the given conditions
require. The result is a continuous diminution in social spontaneity."
The conflict between these two principles, dominion and free
association as Gierke called them, rajniti and lokniti as Jayaprakash
Narayan calls them, is a permanent aspect of the human condition. "The
movement of opposition between the State and society" said Lorenz
von Stein, "is the content of the whole history of all peoples." Or as
Kropotkin put it in Modern Science and Anarchism "Throughout the
history of our civilisation, two traditions, two opposed tendencies, have
been in conflict: the Roman tradition and the popular tradition, the
imperial tradition and the federalist tradition, the authoritarian tradition
and the libertarian tradition."

There is an inverse correlation between the two: the strength of
one is the weakness of the other. If we want to strengthen society we
must weaken the state. Totalitarians of all kinds realise this; which
is why they invariably seek to destroy those social institutions which
they cannot dominate.

Shorn of the metaphysics with which politicians and philosophers
have enveloped it, the state can be defined as a political mechanism using
force, and to the sociologist it is one amongst many forms of social
organisation. It is however "distinguished from all other associations
by its exclusive investment with the final power of coercion" (Mclver
and Page: Society). And against whom is this final power directed?
It is directed at the enemy without, but it is aimed at the subject society

This is why Buber declares that it is the maintenance of the latent
external crisis that enables the state to get the upper hand in internal
crises. Is this a conscious procedure? Is it simply that wicked men
control the state? Or is it a fundamental characteristic of the state as
an institution? It was because, when she wrote her Reflections on War,
Simone Weil drew this final conclusion, that she declared "The great
error of nearly all studies of war, an error into which all socialists have
fallen, has been to consider war as an episode in foreign politics, when
it is especially an act of interior politics, and the most atrocious act of
all." For just as Marx found that in the era of unrestrained capitalism,
competition between employers, knowing no other weapon than the
exploitation of the workers, was transformed into a struggle of each
employer against his own workmen, and ultimately of the entire
employing class against their employees, so the State uses war and the
threat of war as a weapon against its own population. "Since the
directing apparatus has no other way of fighting the enemy than by
sending its own soldiers, under compulsion, to their death — the war of
one State against another State resolves itself into a war of the State
and the military apparatus against its own people."

It doesn't look like this of course, if you are part of the directing
apparatus, calculating what proportion of the population you can afford
to lose in a nuclear war just as the American government and indeed
all the governments of the Great Powers are calculating. But it does
look like this if you are a part of the expendable population — unless
you identity your own unimportant carcase with the State apparatus
— as millions do..

In the 19th century T. H. Green avowed that war is the expression
of the "imperfect" state, but he was wrong. War is the health of the
state, it is its "finest hour", it expresses its most perfect form. This is
why the weakening of the state, the progressive development of its
imperfections is a social necessity. The strengthening of other loyalties,
of alternative foci of power, of different modes of human behaviour, is
an essential for survival. In the 20th century, unreliability, disobedience
and subversion are the characteristics of responsible citizenship in

Posted By

Jun 18 2016 19:27


  • "The state is not something which can be destroyed by a revolution, but is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently."

    Gustav landauer

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