The State and Everyday Struggle - John Holloway

John Peel

John Holloway's contribution to The State Debate, published in 1991 edited by Simon Clarke.

See the full text of The State Debate here for other contributions.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on January 19, 2024

The State and Everyday Struggle


The last fifteen years or so have seen the rapid development of new forms of working class struggle around the state.1 The battlefront between the working class and the state has been extended far beyond what are sometimes thought of as the traditional areas of conflict—conflict over the regulation of wages and working conditions and tension with the overtly repressive part of the state apparatus. The growth, and especially the retrenchment, of the “welfare state” has brought an enormous growth in struggles over the state’s role in housing, health, transport, education, etc. Many of these struggles have been fought outside of traditional working-class structures, with parties and trade unions often seeming peripheral at best. There has been a sense of developing new forms of struggle against the state, but often with considerable confusion about how to understand the state.

The development of new forms of working-class struggle is the counterpart of the development of the state itself. The growth of the “welfare state” and “state intervention” and the rise in state employment have meant an increasing permeation of the state in daily life. Over a quarter of the working population in Britain are now employed by the state and are in daily contact with the state as their employer. For many of these workers (especially those employed in the public service rather than the nationalised industries), the fact that they are employed by the state (rather than by an individual capital) is of fundamental importance for the nature of their day-to-day activity. But clearly it is not only state employees who are affected: workers not employed by the state come into much more frequent direct contact with the state apparatus than was previously the case. This is most obviously true of the various activities affecting the reproduction of labour power: education, health, social welfare, housing—all these bring the worker into constant direct contact with various parts of the state apparatus. This is also true of the immediate sphere of production. Although the immediate antagonist for workers employed by individual capital is still the individual capitalist, the relation between capitalist and worker is increasingly influenced by the state: through pay policy, the granting of subsidies and loans conditional on “good behaviour,” planning agreements, safety regulations, etc. For more and more socialists, the state has become a problem of everyday practice.

Undoubtedly it is these developments that account for the great surge of interest in Marxist state theory in the last few years. For socialists brought by their employment or political activity into direct and routine contact with the various agencies of the state, an understanding of the state is a matter of direct practical significance for their everyday lives. Yet it is hard to see what practical support they can have drawn out of the recent debates on state theory. This is not only because of the language in which the debates have been conducted, a factor making even the best theoretical contributions fairly inaccessible; it is also because of the questions that the theorists have addressed: In what way is the state a capitalist state? What are the structural limitations on state action? How does state expenditure relate to the reproduction of capital? In what way is the development of the state determined by the laws of motion of capital? All these questions are very important, but their relation to the political practice of socialists working in and around the state is a very indirect one. The discussion of the role of state expenditure on social services in the reproduction of capital, for example, certainly has political implications of a general nature, but it is hard to see its relevance to the nine-to-five practice of a social worker. Again it is hard to see how the knowledge that the state is a capitalist state or the injunction to “smash the state” can guide the socialist teacher in her daily confrontation with her pupils. Much of the writing on the state has tended to approach the subject from above, trying to supply answers to the questions that bourgeois theory has failed to solve; or, insofar as it has explicitly discussed, the implications of the analysis of the state for working-class action, it has tended to conceptualise working-class struggle solely in terms of party strategy. Consequently, although the resurgence of Marxist state theory has undoubtedly received much of its impetus and support from the development of new forms of struggle (generally non-party struggle) around the state and from the concerns of the large number of socialists in daily engagement with the state, it does not seem likely that the work of the theorists has contributed very much to the development of those forms of struggle.2

What we need is a theory of the state as the day in, day out class practice of the bourgeoisie. If state theory is to have any significance for those in daily engagement with the state, it must be able to throw light on the developing class practices implicit in the state and on the possibilities of countering them.

This essay does not aim to solve these problems; but it does aim to develop, in still rudimentary form, a framework within which we can begin to talk about the everyday practice of the state and the everyday struggles of socialists against the state.

The State as a Form of Social Relations

1. In order to answer this question—i.e., in order to understand the state as a form of everyday bourgeois class practice—we must try to build more explicitly on recent experiences of class struggle against and around the state. This is not to suggest an anti-theoretical position or a complete rejection of the last few years of debate about the nature of the state. On the contrary, the deficits of the recent accounts of particular struggles around the state underline the importance of developing much more explicitly certain concepts employed or implied in the best of the recent work on the state: namely the concepts of fetishisation and state form and the distinction between state form and state apparatus. The task is not to reject state theory but to draw out and develop the political implications of some recent developments. I refer in particular to the recent “state derivation” debate that developed in West Germany and has now been taken up in other countries.3 The German academics, true to their historical traditions, have been adept in theorising in highly abstract form the concrete struggles of others. Without always drawing out the political implications of their work, they have created a new framework for our understanding of the state, a framework that, if properly developed, can permit us to move toward an understanding of the state as class practice.

2. The starting point of the German debate was the critique of those theorists (in this case Offe and Habermas) who divorce the study of politics from the analysis of capital accumulation. However, instead of simply reiterating the connection between capital and the state, the contributors to the debate accepted the separation of the economic and the political and tried to establish, logically and historically, the foundation of that separation in the character of capitalist production relations. They argued that, in order to understand the “relative autonomy of the state”—or, better, the separation or particularisation of the state from the economic—it is necessary to derive that “relative autonomy” (particularisation, separation) from the basic structure of capitalist production relations: in order to understand the relation between two “things,” it is necessary to understand their unity.

In Capital, Marx developed his critique of bourgeois political economy from the most basic forms of capitalist social relations. To understand the relation between the state and capital, it is necessary to extend that procedure to the critique of the categories of bourgeois political science. They too must be derived from the basic structure of social relations under capitalism. The attempt to derive the state from capital (the focus of the German debate) is not an attempt to derive the political from the economic but the separation of the political and the economic (and therefore to derive both the political and the economic in their constitutive separate existence—since it is just their separation that constitutes them as “political” and “economic”) from the structure of the social relations of capitalist production, i.e., from the particular historical form of class exploitation. The task is not to develop an “economic” or “reductionist” theory of the state but to develop Marx’s method in the materialist critique of political economy to construct a materialist critique of the political. The state, in other words, is not a superstructure to be explained by reference to the economic base. Like value, money, etc., it is a historically specific form of social relations. As a category of political science, the state is a form of thought expressing with social validity the features of a discrete form assumed by the social relations of bourgeois society: “The categories of bourgeois economy consist of such like forms (value, money etc.). They are forms of thought expressing with social validity the conditions and relations of a definite, historically determined mode of production” (Marx 1965, 80). The German debate is concerned with developing Marx’s method in the critique of the value-form, the money-form, etc. to elaborate a materialist critique of the state-form.4

A materialist critique is not only an analytical process; it is not just a question of piercing the state form and unmasking its content as capitalist state. It is also what Rubin calls a dialectical process (1978 [1927], 109 ff.), a process of deriving (logically and historically) the genesis of that form from the most basic forms of social relations. Indeed, Marx distinguished his method from the method of bourgeois political economists on precisely those grounds: “Political Economy has indeed analysed, however incompletely, value and its magnitude, and has discovered what lies beneath these forms. But it has never once asked the question why labour is represented by the value of its product and labour-time by the magnitude of that value” (Marx 1965, 84–85).

Accordingly, the task that the German theorists set themselves was not only to discover “what lies beneath” the state form (the fact that it is a capitalist state) but to derive that form (the existence of the state as a particular instance, separate from the economic) from capitalist commodity relations. The debate produced various answers but the most fruitful approach would seem to be that of Hirsch (1978), who derives the particularisation of the state from the fact that under capitalism the exploitation of the working class by the ruling class is mediated through the sale and purchase of labour-power as a commodity. It follows from the nature of this form of exploitation that the social coercion essential for class domination cannot be directly associated with the immediate process of exploitation but must be located in an instance separated from individual capitals—the state. The existence of the state as a separate instance is thus dependent upon the capital relation and its reproduction dependent upon the reproduction of capital. In this perspective, the existence of the political and the economic (for it is only their separation that constitutes their existence as distinct spheres) is but an expression of the particular historical form of exploitation (the mediation of exploitation through commodity exchange). The political and the economic are thus separate moments of the capital relation.

3. Where do the German debate and its subsequent developments take us?5 In what way does it provide a basis for theorising the state in a manner more adequate to the current phase of class struggle? One of the problems of the debate is that its political implications are never discussed openly by the authors. This, combined with the fact that the authors do not always make a clear distinction between “materialist” and “economic,” has left their work open to various interpretations and developments (both by the “supporters” of this approach and by its critics, and indeed by the authors themselves in their subsequent work) that often obscure the significance of analysing the relation between the state and capital.

One such misunderstanding is to see the debate on the relation between capital and the state as being concerned solely with the “economic role of the state.” Thus, for example, Poulantzas, referring to the debate, could praise “work on the state in Germany, where Marxist discussion of the economic role of the state is probably the most advanced in Europe” (1976, 81). A separate but related misunderstanding is the accusation of “economic determinism” or “economic reductionism”: in this view the attempt to relate the state to capital is an attempt to “reduce” the political to the economic, which ignores the “relative autonomy of the state.”

Both of these reactions to the German debate come from a perspective that bases its analysis of the political on the “relative autonomy of the state.” While the latter response is a straightforward rejection of the “state derivation” approach, the former is far more insidious: instead of confronting the “state derivation” approach as an approach incompatible with its own premises, it seeks to casually integrate the approach by curtailing it to a specific area—“the economic role of the state.” What both reactions have in common is a narrow conception of capital and of the relations of production. Capital is seen, if not as a thing, then at best as an economic relation, rather than as a historically specific form of the relations of class domination. But, as Marx pointed out: “Capital is not a thing, but rather a definite social production relation, belonging to a definite historical formation of society, which is manifested in a thing and lends this thing a specific social character” (Capital, vol. 3, 814). In analysing the state as a moment of the capital relation, therefore, we are analysing its place in the production relations of capitalism. This is very important, because it is the only way in which the development of the state can be analysed as part of the overall development of the capitalist mode of production.

However, to see the state as a moment of the relations of production is very far from “reducing” the state to the economic. Crucial here is the conceptualisation of the “relations of production.”6 For Marx, the relations of production are not simply relations of the immediate labour process but are the relations constituted by the valorisation process, relations of a total process of social production. The relations of production are not distinct from society: rather “the relations of production in their totality constitute what are called the social relations, society, and specifically, a society at a definite stage of historical development” (Marx 1962a, 90). As Lukács has pointed out (1978, 20), Marx’s starting point is the “sum total of relations of production”; it is only vulgar materialism (from the period of the Second International through to the Stalin period and its consequences) that made the relationship between the economy and other aspects of society a unilateral and direct causal one.

Many of the theories of the Marxist renaissance have sought to escape from the vulgar materialist heritage. This has not been simply a movement of ideas. All the new forms of struggle referred to in the Introduction called for an analysis that could relate them to the dynamics of capitalism as a total system, yet did not reduce them to mere epiphenomena incidental to the “real” struggle at the “point of production.”

It is in this context that we must see the popularity of theories that emphasise the “relative autonomy” of the state, ideology, and much else from capitalist accumulation. In this view the notion of relations of production is limited to the narrow sphere of the direct production of commodities, what Marx called the “immediate process of production.” Given this narrow concept of production (a concept derived from the vulgar materialists whom they criticise), the state is seen as external to the relations of production and the analysis is left with no way in which the development of the state can be grasped as part of the historical development of the capitalist mode of production.7

The analysis of the state as a form of the capital relation, therefore, is not specifically concerned with the “economic role of the state,” nor is it an attempt to “reduce” the state to the economic. Rather it is an attempt to analyse the place of the state in the relations between capital and labour, conceived of as a historically specific form of class domination with its own laws of motion.

4. The other crucial question overlooked by both the “relative autonomy” school and the vulgar materialists is the concept of form. It is characteristic of capitalist relations of production that they do not express themselves in any simple way as relations of domination. Rather they are expressed in a whole series of discrete forms that appear not as forms of class domination but as disconnected things—commodity, money, capital, rent, etc. The process of capitalist production “gives rise to … formations, in which the vein of internal connections is increasingly lost, the production relations are rendered independent of one another, and the component values become ossified into forms independent of one another” (Capital, vol. 3, 828). Marx’s analysis of capitalism in Capital can be described as a “science of forms,” an analysis and critique of this “enchanted and perverted world” (Capital, vol. 3, 827) of disconnected forms, a critique directed not only at revealing the content but at tracing the genesis of and internal connections between those forms. This theme is made explicit at the beginning of volume 1 in the section on commodity fetishism, and the course of its elaboration throughout the three volumes is traced at the end of volume 3, in the chapter on the “trinity formula” (esp. 826–30). This critique (i.e., establishing the genesis and interconnections of the forms) is an essential part of the struggle for socialism. Capital lives by breaking the totality of our existence into apparently timeless, unhistorical fragments. An understanding of the movement for socialism presupposes establishing the unity of those fragments as a historically specific and transitory form of domination. The critique does not dispel the forms, but it is an integral part of the struggle to do so, to transform society.

The critique cannot dispel the forms, because the categories being criticised (value, money, state, etc.) are not mere forms of appearance. They are rather thought-forms that express the specific forms taken by relations between people under capitalism. Thus the money-form refers neither to a thing nor to a mere concept but to the way in which the relations between producers have developed in commodity producing societies. It and the other forms are “forms of social life” (Marx 1965, 75), the forms in which capitalist social relations are reproduced.

It follows that the forms cannot be treated as empty logical abstractions. As forms of social life they can only be understood historically. The scientific analysis of social forms cannot be a purely logical exercise but is a “matter of ‘reflection post festum’ on an actual process of history” (Picciotto 1979, 120). Marxist categories are not logical abstractions but aids to understanding historical processes: “These abstractions in themselves, divorced from real history, have no value whatsoever. They can only serve to facilitate the arrangement of historical material” (Marx and Engels 1976, 37).

Marx’s method is essentially a historical method. Indeed, it is only by approaching historically the forms in which social relations present themselves that they can be revealed as just that: historically specific forms of social relations. It is precisely their inability to analyse value historically, and consequently their inability to conceptualise it as a form, that constitutes one of the principal barriers to the understanding of the classical bourgeois political economists:

It is one of the chief failings of classical economy that it has never succeeded, by means of its analysis of commodities, and, in particular, of their value, in discovering that form under which value becomes exchange-value. Even Adam Smith and Ricardo, the best representatives of the school, treat the form of value as a thing of no importance, as having no connection with the inherent nature of commodities. The reason for this is not solely because their attention is entirely absorbed in the analysis of the magnitude of value. It lies deeper. The value-form of the product of labour is not only the most abstract, but is also the most universal form, taken by the product in bourgeois production, and stamps that production as a particular species of social production, and thereby gives it its special historical character. If then we treat this mode of production as one eternally fixed by Nature for every state of society, we necessarily overlook that which is the differentia specifica of the value-form, and consequently of the commodity-form, and of its further developments, money-form, capital-form etc. (Marx 1965, 80–81)

The analysis of forms must therefore be a historical analysis8 and not simply a process of logical derivation. This approach has, therefore, little to do with “capital logic”—a third false interpretation that does much to obscure its implications.9 The historical dimension is essential if we are to develop beyond purely formal argument about the nature of the state; and it is also essential if the approach is to retain its critical edge.

Being historical, the concept of form is essentially critical. The purpose of Marx’s analysis was to undermine the apparent solidity of the bourgeois categories, to show that they were not given by nature but expressed historically specific and transitory forms of social relations. Thus, for example, Marx’s analysis of money shows that it is neither a thing nor a natural phenomenon but a historically determinate form specific to societies based on commodity production. Similarly, the emphasis on the state as a form of social relations is essentially critical. The state is neither simply an institution nor a phenomenon pertaining to all societies but a historically determinate and transitory form of social relations. Consequently, it cannot be discussed simply as an apparatus or broken down into a conglomeration of apparatuses, ideological, mass-integrative, repressive, or whatever. Nor can the state simply be analysed in terms of its functions. What is important is not just the functions performed but the historical form in which they are performed.

Seen in the context of Marx’s method of analysing the genesis of and (hence) the internal connections between forms, the emphasis on the analysis of the state as state form is critical in a double sense of the bourgeois conception of the state as an autonomous institution. Inherent in the concept of form is, first, an emphasis on the interconnection between the different forms, on the unity-in-separation of the different forms assumed by the relations between capital and labour, and hence on the capitalist nature of the state in capitalist society. And, second, the concept of form when associated with the state draws attention to the historical and transitory character of the capitalist state. Both aspects of this critical dimension are absent from the concept of “relative autonomy.”

Fetishism and Fetishisation

1. The previous section underlined the importance of approaching the analysis of the state through the study of its historical development as a form of the capital relation.10 However, if the concept of form is to be made relevant to the developing forms of struggle referred to in the introduction, it is essential to see history as relating not only to the past but to the continuing process of social development. The development of the forms of social life is not an ideal process that has ended harmoniously in self-consciousness but a continuing and ever-renewed process of class struggle. History is nothing but the movement of class struggle, defining and redefining the battlefronts between the classes. As the relation between classes—the capital relation—develops, so the forms in which the capital relation is expressed develop. As capital itself is challenged by class struggle, the forms of capital are challenged: they must constantly be reestablished and redefined. It would thus be quite erroneous to think of the capitalist forms of social relations as being firmly established at the dawn of capitalism, withering away with the transition to socialism but existing stably within capitalism itself. Such a conception would locate capitalism in history but ban history (and class struggle) from capitalism itself. The determinate forms of capital are not simply historically established but must constantly be reestablished in their specific determinations through class struggle. In the case of the state, for example, it would be quite wrong to think of the separation of politics and economics as having been formally established when the capitalist state first emerged. As Blanke, Jürgens, and Kastendiek point out: “The separation of politics and economics … is not an historical act which happens once, but is constantly reproduced” (1978, 121).

If we think of the existence of the state as an apparently autonomous institution as one aspect of commodity fetishism, then it is important to grasp fetishism not as an established fact but as an ever-repeated process.

2. That fetishism can never be an established fact is obvious if one remembers that the forms are not just abstract categories but forms of social life, forms of capital, i.e., forms of class domination. Class domination inevitably means class struggle.11 Being forms of class domination, the fetishised forms in which capital appears are inevitably unstable. Any system of class relations is inherently unstable, simply because it is founded on exploitation, antagonism, and therefore on resistance and revolt. To think that such a system could ever be stable, could ever be reduced entirely to routine habit, could ever reproduce itself “normally” without conflict or disruption, as the bourgeoisie would have us believe, is nonsense. We can see all around us that the “normal” condition of things is one of instability: factories, families, schools—all are riven by conflict, disruption, and impermanence—far from the havens of peace and tranquillity that bourgeois ideology suggests. The veneer of equality and harmony scarcely conceals the daily eruptions of state violence and discrimination, on the one hand, and, on the other, sabotage, truancy, absenteeism, vandalism, and the million other acts of rebellion that capital is constantly seeking to control or suppress.

The fetishised forms in which capitalist domination appears can never be a totally opaque cover concealing class exploitation from those who are subjected to it. The apparent neutrality and fragmentation of the forms, the mystifying disconnections, come into constant conflict with the workers’ total experience of class oppression. Money, capital, interest, rent, profit, state—all are commonly experienced as aspects of a general system of oppression, even though their precise interconnections may not be understood. As Marx points out, the interconnections are clearer to “the popular mind” than to the bourgeois theorists:

It should not astonish us … that vulgar economy feels particularly at home in the estranged outward appearance of economic relations in which these prima facie absurd and perfect contradictions appear and that these relations seem the more self-evident the more their internal relationships are concealed from it, although they are understandable to the popular mind. (Capital, vol. 3, 817)

The fetishised forms of appearance should be seen less as an impregnable seal than as a thin crust on a seething, bubbling soup.

It is not only that “the popular mind” sees through the categories of the bourgeoisie: popular action constantly rebels against the forms of human life that those categories express. As forms of human life they are constantly disregarded, evaded, and resisted—shoplifting, vandalism, sabotage, tenancy, and squatting are all (or may be) more or less conscious acts of resistance to the forms assumed by production relations under capitalism. Shoplifting, for example, is an attack (conscious or not) on the commodity-form of the product; school truancy attacks the autonomisation of the state from society. Such acts generally lack political direction and rarely go beyond isolated and unconscious resistance directed at a particular manifestation of the form rather than at the form itself, so there is generally little difficulty for capital in absorbing such challenges. The last fifteen years or so have seen the development of new modes of more conscious challenge to the bourgeois forms—as witnessed not only in all the interest in “alternative” lifestyles, communes, cooperatives, etc. but also in the growth of struggles in which state workers have refused to accept their autonomisation from society, in which factory workers have refused to accept that use value production should be governed by the law of value, in which those involved in struggles of all kinds have sought to find ways of expressing the unity of their struggles as class struggles. Again, many of the movements have aimed at the evasion of bourgeois forms rather than being directed against the processes by which bourgeois forms are constituted and reconstituted, yet the significance of the development of new modes of resistance to the oppression inscribed in bourgeois forms of social relations should never be underestimated.

However one assesses the significance of these various forms of resistance, what they show is that the reproduction of the capitalist forms of domination is never simply an automatic process that can be taken for granted. In order to contain the ubiquitous resistance to class oppression, the forms of that oppression must be constantly developed and recreated.

3. It is in the face of this resistance and these attacks that capitalist social relations must be reproduced. Clearly, the reproduction of capital cannot be conceived of in any static sense as the automatic renewal of pre-given forms of social relations for two reasons. First, as we have seen, there can be nothing automatic about it: there is constant resistance to the reproduction of capitalist domination and this resistance itself impels the constant reformulation of the relations of domination. Second, the relations are never pre-given: capital is an inherently dynamic form of social relations. Its unquenchable thirst for surplus value drives it constantly to intensify exploitation and to reformulate (especially through crisis) the relations between capital and labour. The maintenance of capital as a form of social relations, therefore, can only mean the maintenance and restructuring of capitalist social relations, the constant reformulation-through-crisis of the relations between capital and labour. Inevitably, this reformulation is always a struggle to impose or reimpose certain forms of social relations, to contain social activity within or channel social activity into those (developing) forms. Now, inevitably, the only way in which this struggle can take place is through the forms of the capital relation. It is essential that we conceive of these forms not as static entities but as “form processes” (Sohn-Rethel 1978, 17), as processes that seek to impose ever-changing but always fragmented forms of social relations upon the resistance inevitably aroused by class oppression. The determinate forms of capital are not only the forms of existence of capital but the form-processes through which capital is reproduced. Capital is reproduced through the constant form-processing (i.e., processing into certain forms, Formierung, forming) of social activity: but it is essential to remember that the changing patterns of form-processing are to be understood not as a random, ahistorical process but as an interconnected historical movement structured by the laws of motion arising from the contradictions of capital. As we have seen, it is in the nature of class antagonism that the form-processing is never completed but is an ever-renewed struggle to impose capitalist social relations upon society, a struggle that becomes more acute as the expansion of capital demands the ever-greater subordination of social relations to its sway.12

If the political relevance of form analysis is to be made clearer, it seems essential to develop this aspect—i.e., to analyse the reproduction of forms and the form-processing of social activity.13 The rest of this essay takes a few hesitant steps in that direction, with particular relation to the state.

The State as Form-Process

1. The capitalist state is constituted by the particularisation of the political and the economic as distinct forms of social relations.14 This involves not the separation of the political from a preexisting economic sphere but the constitution of both the economic and the political through the fragmentation of the capital relation. This fragmentation of the capital relation into discrete economic and political spheres is perhaps the most important aspect of commodity fetishism. Through this fragmentation the unified expression of class relations typical of precapitalist societies is broken up. In the transition from feudalism, the serf (a term denoting totally indistinguishable political and economic subjection to the lord) becomes wage earner and citizen. On both sides of the divide, class (as an inherently antagonistic relation of production) has apparently dissolved into separate but interlocking and mutually confirming categories. The separation of economics and politics implies the separation of economic and political relations—the constitution of the proletarian as property owner (i.e., owner of the commodity labour power) and citizen (as burgher and citoyen, to speak the language of the young Marx [see Reichelt 1974, xxiii]).

This separation, however, is not an established fact but an ever-repeated process. The classless status of citizen comes into constant conflict with the class experience of the bearer of that status. As Blanke, Jürgens, and Kastendiek point out:

The emergence of a political subject of law corresponding to this economic category [property-owner], the “worker citizen” is accomplished through class struggles, because surface categories always constitute mere formal equality, while the material inequality posited in the production of surplus value continually calls this apparent equality into question. (1978, 142)

The processing of social activity into a political sphere separate from the economic and the processing of social relations into particularised political categories is a constant struggle to suppress the expression of class experience and class organisation. This process (i.e., the state understood as form-process and as a process of the particularisation of the political distinct form of the capital relation) is clearly of enormous importance in ensuring the reproduction of capital. An attempt to understand this process and its development is a necessary part of the struggle against capital.

2. Historically, the separation of economic and political relations coincided with the autonomisation of the state. This took place on the basis of the primitive accumulation of capital at a time when the direct relation of capitalist exploitation was not yet wage labour. Thus the first moment of the capitalist state is to establish and guarantee exchange as the mediation of production and consumption. This involved the creation and maintenance of individuals as economic and legal subjects, the bearers of reified property rights (see Picciotto 1979). At the same time, the establishment and guarantee of exchange implied the development of a coercive instance standing outside the exchange relation and relating to the members of society as individual subjects (see Blanke, Jürgens, and Kastendiek 1978; Pérez Sainz 1979). Historically, the European absolutist states provided the framework both for the spread of commodity production and the concomitant development of the individual citizen:

The idea of a general citizenship began to penetrate into the political sphere, by virtue of the regime’s absolutist nature and the unitary character of the state; to this idea the notion of general citizen rights was soon added. The population accustomed itself to fixed duties laid down by the state, to taxation and military service, to daily contact with the civil servants of a centralised state and, in consequence, acquired a sense of political cohesion, the rudiments of a common political interest. The idea of a unified political order … became now an innermost concern of the population itself…. The individuals became conscious of being a people: previously there had been no more than a populace divided up by region and class—a mere object of government. (Hintze 1975 [1902], 175; emphasis added)

The centralisation of power that replaced the “parcellised sovereignties” (Anderson 1974, 19) of feudalism found expression also in the atomisation of the population into “a multitude of particuliers, of private (though sometimes privileged) individuals” (Poggi 1978, 78). This process of individualisation is the first basic moment of the state form, counterpart of (and interlocking with and consolidating) the development of commodity owners as economic subjects. With the increasing generalisation of production based on commodity exchange, the principle of individualisation gradually undermined the ordered hierarchy of the old world, with its system of representation based on “community” and “rank” (see Beer 1965, 17–18). In Britain the redefinition of society as a mass of individuals was closely tied to the extension and reorganisation of the system of representation (see Beer 1965, 16 ff.).

In any full development of the argument of this essay, it would be essential to trace the development of this basic moment of the state form and the development of the changing modes of individualisation (particularly in relation to the emergence of the welfare state). Although this attempt cannot be undertaken here, the importance of a historical approach must be underlined, for it would be a grave error to mistake forms of individualisation current in Western democracies, with their parliamentary elections and rule of law, for the “most perfect” forms of individualisation or the “normal” (as opposed to the “exceptional”) expression of the capitalist state. The development of the mode of individualisation can be understood only in the context of the historical development of capitalism as a whole.

Here, however, it is only possible to emphasise the importance of individualisation as the basic moment of the state form. The process of individualisation is enshrined in all the basic practices of the state—in the law, in administration, in the structures of representation and intervention. In each case, the state isolates people by treating them as individuals, not as concrete individuals with individual peculiarities but as abstract, general, de-individualised individuals: the abstract nature of commodity-producing labour is here reproduced as abstract citizenship. The relation to individuals is therefore a general relation, a relation in which individuals are distinguished neither on the basis of their peculiarities nor on the basis of their class position.

This process of individualisation finds one of its clearest expressions in the legal form and the concept of legal rights: “A right is always that of an individual subject: hence to extend or claim ‘rights’ for people in a bourgeois legal form is immediately to isolate them” (Picciotto 1977, 3). But the same process is at work in the daily contact between all the state’s administrative agencies and the “public”: schools, social work departments, housing departments, and social security offices, for example, all act in a measure that isolates the person coming into contact with them, treats that person as an individual or (as Cynthia Cockburn [1977] points out) as part of a family.

Representative elections are no exception to the form-processing inscribed in the state’s practices, despite the sharp distinction that some (e.g., Foucault 1977 and apparently Poulantzas 1978) have drawn between representation and other aspects of the state’s practice. In democratic elections, the population is treated as an undifferentiated mass of “voters,” “constituents” defined according to arithmetical numbers rather than any membership of class or community. Similarly, the voting process itself, the institution of the secret ballot, is the supreme expression of the privacy of political opinion. Through the institution of the ballot box, resistance to class oppression is channelled into an act of individual private choice between two or more oppressors.

This is not to deny that the rule of law and representative democracy are generally more favourable to the working class than a regime in which neither of these prevails. The point is rather to recognise the limits, or rather the oppressive implications, of these forms and not to hypostasise them as achievements of civilisation that must at all costs be preserved. It is a mistake, for example, to make an absolute distinction between the exclusion of the working class from the state before the introduction of universal suffrage and its representation within the state after that event.

This is a mistake: first, the working class was able to ensure its representation within the state even before the extension of the franchise, as Foster’s study (1974) of early nineteenth-century working-class politics in Oldham shows; second, representation of the working class within the state through the processes of electoral democracy is simultaneously a process of fragmentation, of exclusion as working class. What is involved in the extension of the franchise is thus not an absolute change from exclusion to representation but a (normally very significant) change in the mode of representation and exclusion of the working class. It is not representative democracy that limits the power of the state (as Poulantzas 1978, 73, would have it) but the strength of the working class, whatever its institutional expression.

Law, administration, and representation are all practices that individualise, that treat the classes of society as a homogeneous mass of people. This individualisation is not an established fact but a process that consistently obscures the basic structures of society. Pannekoek put the point neatly when he wrote: “Democracy, they say, is government by the people, but the people as such does not exist; in reality, society is divided into classes” (1969 [1919], 136).

To see the state as a process of individualisation is not to suggest that this individualisation takes place solely in the political sphere, that classes are formed at the economic level and then fragmented at the political level. Nor, indeed, is it to suggest that the state simply consolidates an individualisation that is basically established at the economic level, as Poulantzas (1978, 65) suggests.15 Rather it is the fragmentation of class relations into distinct but interlocking economic and political forms that brings with it the atomisation of the working class. The struggle to build up class organisation must therefore be a struggle against these forms. This is not to say that it may not be important to use legal action or parliamentary elections as part of a campaign, but, if so, it is important that it should be within the perspective of a broader movement aiming at the total transformation of social relations and with an awareness of the individualising, fragmenting implications of these forms.

3. So far we have suggested that individualisation should be seen as the first moment of the state form, corresponding to the state’s basic function of establishing and guaranteeing commodity exchange. With the establishment of the capitalist mode of production on the basis of “free” wage labour, the state develops new functions and a new mode of political formation (see generally Holloway and Picciotto 1977). On the one hand, the generalisation of commodity production brings with it the clearest expression of individualist ideology in nineteenth-century liberalism and radicalism. On the other hand, with the generalisation of commodity production and the establishment of capital, “the laws of appropriation or of private property, laws that are based on the production and circulation of commodities, become by their own inner and inexorable dialectic changed into their very opposite” (Marx 1965, 583). The appearance of equality of exchange in the sphere of circulation is increasingly undermined by the inequality of production. The guarantee of the relations of exchange by the state, therefore, increasingly involves the state in the overt regulation of the conditions governing the sale and purchase of labour power. The abstentionism of the liberal ideal is at once undermined by the growth of state intervention, from the very beginning of the heyday of liberalism (see Roberts 1960). The expansion of state activity means that the state enters into more direct relations with an ever-greater number of people (see Poggi 1978, 123). Inevitably, this expansion involves not just an expansion in the quantity or density of relations between the state and individuals but the establishment of new forms of relations between the state and the “public.” The development of new forms of representation/intervention/administration—for these are but three very closely interrelated aspects of the same process—becomes a problem both for the administrators and for those being administered. Individualism, as soon as it is established, is apparently undermined by the development of collective political forms.

The primary impulse to the growth in state intervention was the need to ensure the reproduction of labour power as a commodity. Consequently the patterns of intervention/administration/representation that developed were structured primarily around the sale and purchase of labour-power. The growth of state intervention led to the development of more direct relations between the state, on one hand, and workers and capitalists, on the other—defined neither as classes nor simply as individuals but as sellers and buyers of the commodity labour-power, as owners of different revenue sources (trade unions and employers’ organisations). As the individual citizen is the counterpart of the individual commodity owner, so the new political collectives that began to emerge in the nineteenth century (very different from the old communities that had been undermined by the individualising effect of the spread of commodity exchange) were mostly so structured that they interlocked with the economic categorisation on the basis of revenue sources.16

Collectivism is, therefore, not the absolute opposite of individualism, as it is so often presented to be. Rather it complements individualism and arises on the basis of individualisation and the abstraction from the relations of production inherent in the process of individualisation. It is true that “class” emerges as a category of nineteenth-century politics (see Beer 1965; Poggi 1978), but this is class understood not as an antagonistic relation of production but as a mass of individuals owning the same source of revenue or enjoying a similar income. Collectivisation obscures the structure of social relations at least as effectively as individualisation. Classes are not only atomised, but the atoms are regrouped in such a way as to make the concept of class seem quite irrelevant to collective struggle.

Although it cannot be undertaken here, it would be absolutely essential in any further development of this essay to trace the changing modes of collectivisation, the changing ways in which capitalism groups us politically. In the modern capitalist state, citizens are lumped together into all sorts of groupings: they are classified first and foremost as families (an extremely important point made by Cockburn [1977]) but also as voters, taxpayers, tenants, parents, patients, wage earners, smokers, and non-smokers. Class members are categorised on the basis of consanguinity, of geographical residence, of income, of housing tenure, of parenthood, of health, of revenue form, of personal habits: never on the basis of class. Understanding the process by which classes are defined into the different categories of bourgeois politics is a fundamental problem for state theory,17 as this categorisation not only responds to but defines and redefines the forms of political organisation in bourgeois society. The process of categorisation can be seen as the formation of so many constituencies—the grouping together of individuals into (at least potential) “interest” groups based on their common parenthood, ill-health, predilection for tobacco, housing tenure, etc. The constituency—both in the usual sense of a geographically defined grouping together of voters and in the sense of the functional grouping of people in their relations with particular aspects of the state apparatus (the sense often given to the term by political scientists) can be seen as the basic unit within which political relations are constituted. If constituency is seen in these terms, then McConnell, the radical American political scientist, is clearly right to point to the question of constituency as the fundamental question of politics (McConnell 1966)—except that he addresses the question of the size of the constituency rather than the more fundamental question of the processes through which a constituency is defined. It is the manner in which constituencies are defined that is the crucial problem, the manner in which the massive totality of class struggle is fragmented through state administration into distinct problems for functionally defined branches of state activity—problems for the Department of Health and Social Security, for the Department of Education and Science, for the Department of the Environment, etc. and their smaller divisions right down to the division of responsibilities among individual officials—and then the manner in which this fragmentation is imposed upon those who have any dealings with the state apparatus, the manner in which “the rules and red tape that swathe the agency within … also reach out to mould the client” (Wilensky and Lebeaux 1965, 240)—and not only the “client” but the classes of capitalist society. This “moulding” is a struggle to channel class action into the fetishised forms of bourgeois politics, a struggle to constitute the state form. This struggle can only be understood in the historical context of the development of the class struggle that is the reproduction and accumulation of capital. The change in the forms of collectivisation is not a random process: the developing forms of the capital relation constitute a differentiated whole.

A distinction can, perhaps, usefully be drawn between the “external” and “internal” processes of constitution, i.e., between the constitution of bourgeois political relations through the interaction of the state with those outside of the state apparatus, on the one hand, and the constitution of bourgeois relations within the state apparatus, on the other. The “internal” process of forming social relations is not necessarily less problematical for capital than the “external” process: both involve the maintenance/re-creation of bourgeois social relations in the face of a contradictory experience. The two processes are, moreover, inextricably interlocked: the transmutation of class relations outside of the state apparatus depends upon the maintenance of bourgeois relations within the state apparatus. This implies, first, bureaucratic control of the actions of the employees of the state apparatus—a problem of increasing complexity and importance as state employment expands and the state comes to play a more crucial role in the reproduction of social relations. It implies also a fragmentation of relations within the state apparatus that complements the fragmentation existing in and imposed upon class relations at large. If the fragmentation of class relations at large can be seen as being accomplished (or rather transmuted and consolidated) through the “reaching out” of “the rules and red tape that swathe the agency within … to mould the client [or class]” (Wilensky and Lebeaux 1965, 240), then the same is true in reverse. The fetishised categories of commodity production “reach out” in transmuted form and mould the internal organisation of the state apparatus: this internal fragmentation of the state apparatus then “reaches out” in its turn to mould and reinforce the fetishised relations of bourgeois society. The question of the internal organisation of the state is thus far from being a technical question of public administration.18 When Aristotle posed his famous question in relation to the distribution of functions in the Greek city state: “We have also to consider whether to allocate duties on the basis of the subject to be handled, or on that of the class of persons concerned” (Politics, Book IV, chap. XV), he was raising not just a problem of administration but one of the most important questions of political organisation.

4. Whether as individualisation or as collectivisation, the constitution of the state (the process by which the structure of relations clustered around the exercise of coercion is constituted as separate from the economic) is a process of fetishisation, of the fragmentation of class relations into nonclass forms.

Fetishisation refers here not just to the creation of certain forms of thought but to the constitution of the bourgeois “forms of social life.” It involves the organisation of our lives in such a way that the important questions (class struggle and the transition to socialism) can never be posed in an active manner. What is important here is the material organisation of our lives rather than simply the dissemination or inculcation of ideas. As Heide Gerstenberger puts it:

Instead of assuming that people who do not fight have been successfully trapped by the ideology of the bourgeois state, we should try to analyse the everyday constituents of consciousness in a bourgeois society. And by doing this … we will pretty soon be confronted with the overwhelming presence of bureaucratic structures. Not only are most aspects of life administered, but the integrity of people’s lives and the connections between their problems are split up in fractional aspects of administration. (Gerstenberger 1977, 7–8)

In this respect, the emphasis by Foucault (1977) on the “microphysics of power” and the “politics of the body” is a helpful antidote to much of the recent writing on the state. In order to contribute to a more adequate theorisation of the state, however, such an analysis would need to be extended to the less spectacular forms of popular contact with the state and to be established on a historical materialist basis, i.e., in relation to the development of the forms of capital seen as a totality. Nevertheless, his insistence on the significance of the material practices of the state is an important one, for it makes clear that the struggle against the state can be neither simply a matter of theoretical enlightenment of the working class nor simply of capturing control of or smashing the state apparatus but must involve the development of material forms of counterpractice and counterorganisation. As Pannekoek puts it: “Organisation is the fundamental principle of the struggle of the working class for its emancipation. It follows that from the point of view of the practical movement, the most important problem is that of the forms of this organisation” (1969 [1919], 257; my emphasis).

To this point we must return in the conclusion. The state as a process of fetishisation, then, is a process of reaching out and ordering social relations in certain ways. It is easy to overestimate the penetration of this process into society and also to overemphasise its importance vis-à-vis other forces at work (e.g., the “dull compulsion of economic relations”). Certainly, as a general trend, the expansion of capital implies the increasing permeation by capital of every aspect of our lives and this is achieved in part through the state (the growth of state intervention implying the need for a more thorough categorisation and representation of our interests); but it is clear from present experience in Britain that there is no unequivocal and irreversible trend toward the expansion of the state’s role in this respect.

Some Conclusions

It is clear that this essay is very much a working paper. The purpose has been to take up a certain theoretical current (the state form debate) and suggest some ways in which it might be developed to make it more relevant to the development of new forms of struggle against the state. Its argument is that the state must be seen not just as a form of existence of the capital relation but as a moment in the reproduction of capital as a relation of class exploitation mediated through individual exchanges of the commodity labour power, as a process of forming social activity in such a way as to reproduce classes as atomised individuals and exclude the possibility of class organisation against capital. The conclusion, at its most basic level, is that the struggle to build class organisation must be directed against the state as a form of social relations and must involve the development of material forms of counterorganisation that reassert the unity of that which the state pulls asunder. But before developing this in slightly more detail, it is necessary to make two other points relating to crisis and to the distinction between state form and state apparatus.

1. Crisis: In many countries, the present crisis has taken the form of a fiscal crisis of the state. The state has come under attack from the bourgeoisie itself and significant cuts have been made, especially in the “welfare” aspects of the state. It is clear that the Left must defend working-class gains that have become enshrined in the welfare activities of the state, yet any straightforward defence of the welfare state that overlooks its capitalist form is highly problematic. First, such a strategy is unlikely to mobilise wide support: the great strength of the bourgeoisie’s attack in this area lies precisely in the fact that the state is widely experienced as being oppressive (as witness, the popular appeal of Mrs. Thatcher’s attacks on the overmighty state in the recent election campaign). And, second, such a strategy misses an opportunity of exploiting the destabilising potential inherent in the retraction of the state.

The problem must be seen within the general context of crisis and its impact upon the stability of capitalist relations. The contradictions of the capital relation express themselves in a constant tendency toward, and periodic outbreak of, crisis. Crisis, if it is to be overcome within the framework of capitalism, involves a restructuring of the capitalist relations of production (see Hirsch 1978). The relation between capital and labour must be restructured if it is to be maintained: by increasing the rate of exploitation, altering the ratio between constant and variable capital, accelerating turnover, etc. The problem, however, from the standpoint of capital is that, although restructuring is essential for the maintenance of the capital relation, restructuring may, at the same time, imperil the continued existence of that relation. In a period of restructuring, the maintenance/reimposition of bourgeois relations becomes particularly difficult. The “dull compulsion of economic relations” either becomes so sharp (for those still employed) that it may provoke reaction, or it becomes so blunt (for the long-term unemployed) that it may lose all effectiveness (see Frith 1978). Consider the slightly different but very instructive case of poor Mr. Peel who decided that it would be more profitable to “restructure” his capital by moving it to West Australia:

Mr. Peel … took with him from England to Swan River, West Australia, means of subsistence and of production to the amount of £50,000. Mr. Peel had the foresight to bring with him, besides, 3,000 persons of the working-class, men, women and children. Once arrived at his destination, “Mr. Peel was left without a servant to make his bed or fetch him water from the river.” Unhappy Mr. Peel who provided for everything except the export of English modes of production to Swan River! (Marx 1965, 766)

But we need not go as far as West Australia to find the very existence of the capital relation threatened by its restructuring. It is clear that the restructuring nearly always subjects the continued imposition of the relation to a severe strain: this can be seen, for example, in all the strikes connected with “rationalisation” and wage restraint in Britain in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Crisis is not only a technical question of restructuring inputs into the process of production, it is a crisis of the social relations of capital production.

The crisis, as a crisis of productive relations, extends not only to the immediate process of production but also to the state in its various moments. Here too the bourgeois form must be restructured if it is to be maintained; here too the restructuring of the bourgeois form subjects its continued existence to particular strains. The crisis of the state form is just as inevitable as the crisis of the capital relation, is in fact one moment of that crisis. The mobilisation of the countertendencies to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall that takes the place through crisis means a massive restructuring of social relations involving, as Hirsch points out, the whole “re-organisation of a historical complex of general social conditions of production and relations of exploitation” (Hirsch 1978, 74). The fact that increasingly the mobilisation of these countertendencies is effected through the state means that inevitably the whole complex of political relations is directly permeated by the general restructuring of the relations of production. The crisis and restructuring of the capital relation as a whole is inevitably also a period of crisis and restructuring of the forms constituting bourgeois political relations. Thus, to take an obvious example, the present attempt by British capital to raise the rate of surplus value does not simply mean the introduction of new technology or the implementation of wage cuts by individual capitals; what is involved is rather a very long and extremely complex struggle conducted at all levels, embracing such elements as the repeated attempts to restructure the relations between trade unions and the state and relations within the trade unions themselves (Donovan Commission, In Place of Strife, Industrial Relations Act, Social Contract), massive ideological campaigns (on productivity, inflation, etc.), changes in state expenditure and taxation, complex interplay of political parties, plans to introduce worker directors, etc.

The point that the crisis of capital is inevitably also a crisis of the state form is perhaps worth emphasising, if only because it differs from the view taken by a number of other authors. The problem is often approached through a discussion of the relation between “economic crisis” and “political crisis.” Many authors argue against the widespread but simplistic assumption that economic crisis leads more or less automatically to a crisis of the political system (see especially Gramsci’s critique of Rosa Luxemburg: 1971, 233). Countering this view, however, these authors either evade the problem by emphasising the relative autonomy of the political or, in the better cases (see Autorenkollektiv 1976), suggest that whether the crisis in the economic base gives rise to a “political crisis” and “ideological crisis” will depend on the organisation and militancy of the class struggle, an organisation and militancy that cannot be derived from the capital form. Superficially, of course, that is correct. Such an approach, however, does have several weaknesses. Most fundamentally, it treats the capitalist crisis as an economic crisis rather than as a crisis of the capital relation, which inevitably involves a restructuring of that relation in both its economic and its political forms. It then presents “political crisis” as a possible catastrophic crisis of the political system rather than as an inevitable process of restructuring the forms of political constitution. Such an approach is dangerous because it tends to focus attention on the fetishised forms of bourgeois party politics and to present a “top-down” view of the political system, rather than the “bottom-up” perspective of the working class in struggle. It tends to distract attention away from the less dramatic but very significant restructuring of the political constitution, a process that is inherent in the crisis and restructuring of capital. This restructuring is of great practical importance because it poses new problems for socialist strategy and opens up new opportunities for action. The attempts to recategorise the population in terms of communities, regions, nations, consumers, parents, participants in an enterprise, social partners of one sort or another: these make up the crisis and restructuring of the political form, these are the changes that create, willy-nilly, new forms of political organisation and pose new problems and new opportunities that cannot be waved out of existence by a dismissal of the “reductionist” identification of “economic” and “political” crisis. It is important to understand the changes taking place as a process of restructuring and potential destabilisation. The problem with the simple stress on defending the old forms of state now being overcome is that it not only misses this opportunity but effectively squashes it by asserting the neutrality or potential neutrality of the state.

2. State form and state apparatus: The struggle to reformulate the social relations of capitalism takes place not only outside of the state apparatus, and not only through the action of the state apparatus upon society but also within the state apparatus itself. The antagonism and conflict that pervade the whole of capitalist society are present equally in the state apparatus. Resistance to the oppression inscribed in the state form is not only external to the state apparatus, it takes place also within the state apparatus, both in the actions of state employees and elected representatives and in the behaviour of state “clients” fighting back against the oppression that seems implicit in their relations with the state. Often these antagonisms are expressed simply in individual acts of rebellion with little political consequence, but sometimes they take more significant forms: organisation by claimants, community workers joining tenants in protests against state housing provision, Community Health Council workers organising workers to disrupt the activities of the Area Health Authority, etc. Each of these may be seen as attempts to confront the oppressive definitions implicit in the state and to challenge the limits of the state form while remaining within the framework of the state apparatus.

To conceptualise these struggles, it seems inevitable that we should make some distinction between state form and state apparatus. We have already seen that the concept of the state form is an essentially critical one: its purpose is to emphasise that the state cannot be understood as an autonomous institution but only in the context of its historical interconnections with the developing forms of capital. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the institution does not exist; the form must have some institutional embodiment. It is thus possible to speak of a “double dimension” of the state as relation of capitalist domination and as apparatus (see Pérez Sainz 1979). Now clearly the form cannot have a disembodied existence. It is materialised through the institutional development of the state and the activity of the state agents. Similarly, the institutional development of the apparatus can only be the expression of the historical development of social relations.

Nevertheless, the distinction between form and apparatus does acquire significance if we view the matter from the point of view of the socialist employee (or “client”) of the state. For socialists in this position, there is little doubt that they work within the state apparatus. However, their problem as socialists is to shape their daily activity in such a way that they do not simply act as agents for the reproduction of capitalist social relations. Their problem, in other words, is to maintain their daily contact with the state apparatus (for this is normally a practical necessity), while combatting the processing of social activity usually implicit in the actions of the state: to work within the state apparatus, yet against the state form. The extent to which this is possible will depend on the general constellation of class forces, but for the socialist working within (or entering into routine contact with) the state apparatus who does not want her (or his) socialism to relate only to evening and weekend activity (thus consigning herself to the fate of Sisyphus, rolling the rock of socialism up the hill at night, only to see her alter ego rolling it down again during the day), this is an absolutely unavoidable problem.

In thinking about the problem of those engaged in daily contact with the state it is necessary to distinguish between the state apparatus (as an institutional network of financial and administrative controls) and the state as a form of capitalist social relations: the “double dimension” of the state must be retained and explored. This is certainly not to suggest that the state apparatus is a neutral venue for class struggle. Although the state apparatus must be distinguished from the state form, its general shape and detailed minutiae have been moulded by the past imposition of bourgeois forms upon class struggle. The state apparatus can be seen as the institutional fossil of past struggles to reproduce bourgeois forms. Thus, the conformity of behaviour within the state apparatus with bourgeois forms is normally more or less ensured not only by the informal codes of conduct but by the host of administrative and financial regulations backed by force that is the institutional outcome of those past struggles. The significance of organisational structures is constantly changing in the course of class struggle, so that it becomes, in particular circumstances, more or less meaningful to struggle within or through the state apparatus against the state form, against the constitution of social relations on a fetishised basis. The success or failure of such a struggle will always depend on the general constellation of class forces and the degree to which such a struggle is integrated into the general process of class struggle. It is impossible, therefore, to define a priori the limits of such a struggle. The point to be retained, however, is that the relation between form and its institutionalised expression is not the same in the case of the state as it is in the case of an enterprise. The imposition of the state form upon the state apparatus does not take place directly through the operation of the law of value on the market, so the problem of the limits to which the bourgeois form can be transcended is different in the case of the state apparatus than in the case of an individual enterprise.

The problem for capital is to maintain the bourgeois forms of social relations, increasingly through (and therefore also in) the activity of the state—even if it means breaking up the state apparatus in order to maintain the capitalist (and with it the state) form of social relations, as in the case of regional devolution or political independence. The problem for socialists is to break through the state form as an integral part of smashing the social relations of capitalism. For most socialists, especially those who are either employed by or come into daily direct contact with the state, this must at least occasionally involve struggle within or through the state apparatus against the state form. There is no way in which this problem can be avoided, there is no way in which one can remain class-neutral in one’s contact with the state: either one is playing a part in the fetishisation of social relations or one is struggling against it. In recent years the oppressive nature of the everyday practice of the state has been more often emphasised by libertarian radicals than by socialists, who have perhaps been too aware of the limitations of radical practice. The weakness of the radical experiments of the early 1970s, however, lay not so much in the fact that they tried to develop alternative practices before the revolution as in the fact that, first, they did not conceive of these practices as part of a long process of class revolution and, second, their practices, being directed to the liberation of the individual rather than the class, were reintegrated into the normal forms of bourgeois intercourse with relative ease.

The extent to which socialists can act through particular state institutions in a manner directed against the state form (i.e., in a manner that will lead to the strengthening of class organisation) is always a question of tactics. The changing forms of class struggle and of the process of constituting bourgeois political relations are constantly creating new possibilities of action and closing others, as the significance of particular institutions for class struggle changes. While it is clear that any decisive rupture of the state as a form of social relations presupposes the smashing of the state as an apparatus, it does not follow that we must await the smashing of the apparatus before directing our activity against the fetishising processes implicit in the state form.

3. Against the state form: This essay has argued that much of the recent state theory has failed to respond to the developing forms of working-class struggle. Analyses of the state that focus on factional conflicts within the state apparatus, on the determinants and limitations of state action, or on the functions performed by the state may (or may not) be important, but they are of little direct assistance to the socialist (party member or not) who comes into daily contact with the state apparatus. It may be important for a social worker or social security claimant to understand the role of state social expenditure in the reproduction of capital, but it is never clear how any such analysis can guide the social worker or claimant in her or his daily activity. To dismiss the daily activity of the social worker or social security claimant as being irrelevant for the overthrow of capitalism or irretrievably capitalist in nature before the great day of the revolutionary event is not only unhelpful for the vast majority of socialists who are not and cannot be full-time professional revolutionaries but ultimately reactionary in effect, for there is no way in which contact with the state apparatus (or any other aspect of social activity) can stand outside the class struggle.

We have suggested that in order to begin to lay the basis for an understanding of the daily practice of the state it is necessary to focus not on the functions but on the form of the state and to develop some of the insights to be found in recent German work in a much more explicitly political manner. The state does not simply perform certain functions but performs them in a certain way that categorises (or confirms the categorisation of) classes into individuals, families, and superficial groupings of one sort or another, all of which abstract from class relations. Yet it is only by the constitution of explicitly class relations that the transition to socialism can be put firmly on the agenda.

The task, therefore, is not to work through bourgeois forms to gain positions of “power” and “influence” (the hopeless, destructive illusion of Eurocommunism) but to work against those forms, to develop through practice material forms of counterorganisation that express and consolidate the underlying unity of the resistance to class oppression, that stand in opposition to the fetishised and fetishising forms of bourgeois “politics” and “economics.” What is revolution but the process of weakening and ultimately breaking with the bourgeois forms of intercourse, a process of the daily puncturing of bourgeois forms as a necessary prelude to that final decay that will lay a radically new basis for struggle?19 To imagine that you can weaken the old forms of intercourse by working through them is nonsense.

It is not possible at the end of this essay to do that; the essay itself doesn’t provide a basis to set forth a concrete programme for transcending the state form in daily practice. That would require a full historical analysis of the changing bourgeois forms. A theory of anti-bourgeois forms can no more be drawn out of an ahistorical hat than can a developed theory of bourgeois forms. The most basic point, however, which is valid for all bourgeois societies, is that the only way to defeat class exploitation is through class organisation. Thus, for Pannekoek, the key point about councils as a proletarian form of organisation was that, in contrast to the bourgeois forms of representative democracy, they were specifically class-based, “founded not on persons but on Labour” (Pannekoek 1969 [1919], 137).20 How this is to be achieved, how we can best develop forms of organisation “founded not on persons but on Labour,” how in any given situation the categories of person, community, region, parent, tenant, taxpayer, etc. are to be undermined by class organisation cannot be answered in a general essay like this. There is no timeless answer. We must beware of the hardened concepts of our revolutionary tradition.

Socialism is not a fixed, unchanging doctrine. As the world develops, people’s insight increases, and as new relations come into being there arise new methods for achieving our goal (Pannekoek 1974 [1919], 52).

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Taken from The State Debate edited by Simon Clarke

  • 1This essay is the individual formulation of the outcome of many collective discussions within the framework of the Conference of Socialist Economists (CSE). In particular, it is a critical development of two earlier essays, one by the Edinburgh CSE Cuts Group on “The Crisis of the State and the Struggle against Bourgeois Forms,” one by me on “The State as Class Practice.” It would be dishonest not to acknowledge my considerable debt to the work done in cooperation with Sol Picciotto, with the Edinburgh CSE Cuts Group (John Macdonald, Richard Paine, Olga Stassinopoulou) and with the London-Edinburgh Weekend Return Group (Cynthia Cockburn, Neil McInnes, Jeannette Mitchell, Kathy Polanshek), as well as to those who took the trouble to write substantial comments on the earlier essays: Simon Clarke, James Donald, Ben Fine, Bob Fine, the Frankfurt state group, Bob Jessop and Mike Williams. Since most of the comments were critical, it is clear that responsibility for the essay remains mine. Some of the ideas sketched here are developed more fully in Edinburgh CSE Cuts Group, I. “State Form and State Apparatus”; II. “The Cuts and the Crisis of the State Form”; III. “State, Crisis and Transport”; IV. “The Crisis of the State and the Struggle against Bourgeois Forms,” CSE Conference Papers, 1978; London CSE Group, “Crisis, the Labour Movement and the Alternative Economic Strategy,” Capital and Class, 8 (1979): 68–93; the present essay is critical of the earlier versions in several respects.
  • 2The lack of contact between recent development in state theory and the developing struggles around the state is brought to the fore by some of the analyses of the struggles around the state that have appeared in the last few years. Although these analyses often give excellent accounts of particular struggles, whenever the authors have tried to theorise their experience, they have done so by reference to the work of the state theorists and the result, not surprisingly, has been unsatisfactory. Cynthia Cockburn’s deservedly popular book The Local State (London: Pluto, 1977), which provides a very stimulating account of housing struggles in London, with a quite inadequate theoretical reliance on an amalgam of Miliband and Poulantzas, is an excellent example of this.
  • 3For a more comprehensive account of the debate and an assessment of its significance that does not stress quite the same points as the present essay, and for a translation into English of the most important contributions to the debate, see John Holloway and Sol Picciotto, eds., State and Capital: A Marxist Debate (London: Edward Arnold, 1978).
  • 4Note that the term “state-form” in this essay refers to the state understood as a form of social relations and not to what we may call the “type” of state (e.g., the fascist as opposed to the democratic state).
  • 5This is a question to which the participants in the German debate themselves have provided no clear answer.
  • 6On the contrast between Marx’s concept of “relations of production” and Poulantzas’s interpretation of that concept, see Clarke (1977).
  • 7The foregoing passage is a gross plagiarism, with permission, of Sol Picciotto, “The Theory of the State, Class Struggle and the Rule of Law,” mimeo, 1979.
  • 8See Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution? (New York: Pathfinder, 1988 [1899]): “The secret of Marx’s theory of value, of his analysis of the problem of money, of his theory of capital, of the theory of the rate of profit and consequently of the entire economic system, is found in the transitory character of the capitalist economy…. It is only because Marx looked at capitalism from the socialist’s viewpoint, that is, from the historical viewpoint, that he was enabled to decipher the hieroglyphics of the capitalist economy.”
  • 9For a criticism of some of the German contributions from this perspective, see the Introduction in Holloway and Picciotto, State and Capital; cf. John Holloway and Sol Picciotto, “Capital, Crisis and the State,” Capital and Class, 2 (1977); Picciotto, “The Theory of the State.”
  • 10For a general sketch of the historical development of the state, see John Holloway and Sol Picciotto, “Capital, Crisis and the State,” Capital and Class 1, no. 2 (1977).
  • 11The claim by the London CSE Group, in “Crisis, the Labour Movement and the Alternative Economic Strategy.” Capital and Class 3, no. 2 (1979), 90, that we emphasise class domination to the exclusion of class struggle is absurd. They fail to recognise that the two are inseparable: just as class domination inevitably implies class struggle, so too class struggle is scarcely conceivable in the absence of class domination.
  • 12This notion of capital as struggle, of form-determination as struggle, seems to be absent from Simon Clarke’s otherwise excellent critique of fractionalism: see Clarke (1978, esp. 63 ff.)
  • 13In relation to the Formierung (forming or formation) of state functions, Bernard Blanke, Ulrich Jürgens, and Hans Kastendiek have this to say: “The question of how this formation takes place in detail, how it is transposed into structure, institution and process of the state, can no longer be answered by form analysis. It would have to be made the subject of historical analysis” (1978, 119). Their separation of form analysis and historical analysis (criticised generally in the Introduction to the same book) has most unfortunate consequences here, for it cuts them off from what is precisely the most important aspect of form analysis. Blanke, Jürgens, Kastendiek, “On the Current Marxist Discussion on the Analysis of Form and Function of the Bourgeois State,” in State and Capital, eds. Holloway and Picciotto.
  • 14See Helmut Reichelt, Zur logischen Struktur des Kapitalbegriffs bei Karl Marx (Frankfurt: EVA, 1970), 21: “Marx agrees with Hegel that the state only really becomes the state when it appears as the state of bourgeois society, when it assumes the form of the political state standing outside and above bourgeois society and society can likewise appear as society.”
  • 15Poulantzas apparently sees individualisation as taking place basically in production (which he conceptualises narrowly as the immediate process of production) and being “consecrated and institutionalised” by the state. The problem with this is that he still starts from a presupposed separation of the economic and political. His whole discussion of “individualisation” is consistently ahistorical and static, apparently leaving no space for a rupture of this “individualisation,” see State, Power, Socialism (London: New Left Books, 1978), esp. 73–74. This may explain why there seem to be no clear conclusions for class struggle drawn from the analysis, or rather only inconsistent conclusions concerning the value of representative democracy. For a useful discussion of Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism (London: New Left Books, 1978), see Barker (1979).
  • 16The analysis of Sybille von Flatow and Freerk Huisken, in “Zum Problem der Ableitung des bürgerlichen Staates.” Prokla, 7 (1973), has something to offer in this respect, but only if the state’s relation to the owners of the revenue-sources is reinterpreted as a process of fetishisation.
  • 17It is an unfortunate effect of Simon Clarke’s overdeterminist view of the state that the problem of representation is reduced to the secondary aspect of the way in which the state is subordinated to capital. One implication of this is to suggest that the political system should be seen simply as a transmission belt between capital and the state, rather than as an extremely important and problematic moment in the reproduction of capital.
  • 18It is worth noting that the rise in interest in the internal structures of the state coincided in time with the growth of the collective organisation of interests and their increasing articulation with the bureaucratic structures of the state apparatus. Generally, the analysis of the fetishised forms of public administration (so vital for an understanding of the forms of political organisation) is a task still largely untouched by Marxist theory.
  • 19See Anton Pannekoek, “World Revolution and Communist Tactics,” in Pannekoek and Göurter’s Marxism, ed. D.A. Smart (London: Pluto, 1978 [1920]), 118: “Certain conditions must be fulfilled in any society for the social process of production and collective existence to be possible, and these relations acquire the firm hold of spontaneous habits and moral norms—sense of duty, industriousness, discipline; in the first instance, the process of revolution consists in a loosening of these old relations.” See also John Holloway, “The State and Everyday Struggle,” in The State Debate, ed. Simon Clarke (London: Macmillan, 1991), 231.
  • 20This passage appears in Pannekoek’s discussion of the Bolsheviks’ dissolution of the Constituent Assembly. It is interesting to compare Pannekoek’s approach with Poulantzas’s treatment of the same topic (State, Power, Socialism, 253) and, more generally, with the latter’s absurd and unfounded argument that the development of statism in Russia is to be attributed to the Bolsheviks’ exclusive reliance on council democracy (the main theme of the final part of Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism).