Chapter 2 - Beyond the State?

Submitted by Django on April 29, 2011

In the beginning was the scream. And then what?

The scream implies an anguished enthusiasm for changing the world. But how can we do it? What can we do to make the world a better, more human place? What can we do to put an end to all the misery and exploitation?


There is an answer ready at hand. Do it through the state. Join a political party, help it to win governmental power, change the country in that way. Or, if you are more impatient, more angry, more doubtful about what can be achieved through parliamentary means, join a revolutionary organisation, help it to conquer state power, by violent or non-violent means, and then use the revolutionary state to change society.

Change the world through the state: this is the paradigm that has dominated revolutionary thought for more than a century. The debate between Rosa Luxemburg and Eduard Bernstein a hundred years ago on the issue of 'reform or revolution' established clearly the terms that were to dominate thinking about revolution for most of the twentieth century. On the one hand reform, on the other side revolution. Reform was a gradual transition to socialism, to be achieved by winning elections and introducing change by parliamentary means; revolution was a much more rapid transition, to be achieved by the taking of state power and the quick introduction of radical change by the new state. The intensity of the disagreements concealed a basic point of agreement: both approaches focus on the state as the vantage point from which society can be changed. Despite all their differences, both aim at the winning of state power. This is not exclusive, of course. In the revolutionary perspective and also in the more radical parliamentary approaches, the winning of state power is seen as part of an upsurge of social upheaval. Nevertheless the winning of state power is seen as the centrepiece of the revolutionary process, the hub from which revolutionary change will radiate. Approaches that fall outside this dichotomy between reform and revolution were stigmatised as being anarchist (a sharp distinction that was consolidated at about the same time as the Bernstein-Luxemburg debate). Until recently, theoretical and political debate, at least in the Marxist tradition, has been dominated by these three classifications: Revolutionary, Reformist, Anarchist.

The state paradigm, that is, the assumption that the winning of state power is central to radical change, dominated not just theory but also the revolutionary experience throughout most of the twentieth century: not only the experience of the Soviet Union and China, but also the numerous national liberation and guerrilla movements of the 1960s and the 1970s.

If the state paradigm was the vehicle of hope for much of the century, it became more and more the assassin of hope as the century progressed. The apparent impossibility of revolution at the beginning of the twenty-first century reflects in reality the historical failure of a particular concept of revolution, the concept that identified revolution with control of the state.

Both approaches, the 'reformist' and the 'revolutionary' have failed completely to live up to the expectations of their enthusiastic supporters. 'Communist' governments in the Soviet Union, China and elsewhere certainly increased levels of material security and decreased social inequalities in the territories of the states which they controlled, at least temporarily, but they did little to create a self-determining society or to promote the reign of freedom which has always been central to the communist aspiration. In the case of social democratic or reformist governments, the record is no better: although increases in material security have been achieved in some cases, their record in practice has differed very little from overtly pro-capitalist governments, and most social-democratic parties have long since abandoned any pretension to be the bearers of radical social reform.

For over a hundred years, the revolutionary enthusiasm of young people has been channelled into building the party or into learning to shoot guns, for over a hundred years the dreams of those who have wanted a world fit for humanity have been bureaucratised and militarised, all for the winning of state power by a government that could then be accused of "betraying" the movement that put it there. "Betrayal" has been a key word for the left over the last century as one government after another has been accused of "betraying" the ideals of its supporters, until now the notion of betrayal itself has become so tired that there is nothing left but a shrug of "of course". Rather than look to so many betrayals for an explanation, perhaps we need to look at the very notion that society can be changed through the winning of state power.


At first sight it would appear obvious that winning control of the state is the key to bringing about social change. The state claims to be sovereign, to exercise power within its frontiers. This is central to the common notion of democracy: a government is elected in order to carry out the will of the people by exerting power in the territory of the state. This notion is the basis of the social democratic claim that radical change can be achieved through constitutional means.

The argument against this is that the constitutional view isolates the state from its social environment: it attributes to the state an autonomy of action that it just does not have. In reality, what the state does is limited and shaped by the fact that it exists as just one node in a web of social relations. Crucially, this web of social relations centres on the way in which work is organised. The fact that work is organised on a capitalist basis means that what the state does and can do is limited and shaped by the need to maintain the system of capitalist organisation of which it is a part. Concretely, this means that any government that takes significant action directed against the interests of capital will find that an economic crisis will result and that capital will flee from the state territory.

Revolutionary movements inspired by Marxism have always been aware of the capitalist nature of the state. Why then have they focused on winning state power as the means of changing society? One answer is that these movements have often had an instrumental view of the capitalist nature of the state. They have typically seen the state as being the instrument of the capitalist class. The notion of an 'instrument' implies that the relation between the state and the capitalist class is an external one: like a hammer, the state is now wielded by the capitalist class in their own interests, after the revolution it will be wielded by the working class in their interests. Such a view reproduces, unconsciously perhaps, the isolation or autonomisation of the state from its social environment, the critique of which is the starting point of revolutionary politics. To borrow a concept to be developed later, this view fetishises the state: it abstracts it from the web of power relations in which it is embedded. The difficulty which revolutionary governments have experienced in wielding the state in the interests of the working class suggests that the embedding of the state in the web of capitalist social relations is far stronger and more subtle than the notion of instrumentality would suggest. The mistake of Marxist revolutionary movements has been, not to deny the capitalist nature of the state, but to underestimate the degree of integration of the state into the network of capitalist social relations.

An important aspect of this underestimation is the extent to which revolutionary (and, even more so, reformist) movements have tended to assume that 'society' can be understood as a national (that is, state-bound) society. If society is understood as being British, Russian or Mexican society, this obviously gives weight to the view that the state can be the centre point of social transformation. Such an assumption, however, presupposes a prior abstraction of state and society from their spatial surroundings, a conceptual snipping of social relations at the frontiers of the state. The world, in this view, is made up of so many national societies, each with its own state, each one maintaining relations with all the others in a network of inter-national relations. Each state is then the centre of its own world and it becomes possible to conceive of a national revolution and to see the state as the motor of radical change in 'its' society.

The problem with such a view is that social relations have never coincided with national frontiers. The current discussions of 'globalisation' merely highlight what has always been true: capitalist social relations, by their nature, have always gone beyond territorial limitations. Whereas the relation between feudal lord and serf was always a territorial relation, the distinctive feature of capitalism was that it freed exploitation from such territorial limitations, by virtue of the fact that the relation between capitalist and worker was now mediated through money. The mediation of social relations through money means a complete de-territorialisation of those relations: there is no reason why employer and employee, producer and consumer, or workers who combine in the same process of production, should be within the same territory. Capitalist social relations have never been limited by state frontiers, so that it has always been mistaken to think of the capitalist world as being the sum of different national societies. The web of social relations in which the particular national states are embedded is (and has been since the beginning of capitalism) a global web.

The focusing of revolution on the winning of state power thus involves the abstraction of the state from the social relations of which it is part. Conceptually, the state is cut out from the clutter of social relations that surround it and made to stand up with all the appearance of being an autonomous actor. Autonomy is attributed to the state, if not in the absolute sense of reformist (or liberal) theory, then at least in the sense that the state is seen as being potentially autonomous from the capitalist social relations that surround it.

But, it might be objected, this is a crude misrepresentation of revolutionary strategy. Revolutionary movements inspired by Marxism have generally seen the winning of state power as just one element in a broader process of social transformation. This is certainly true, but it has generally been seen as a particularly important element, a focal point in the process of social change, one which demands a focussing of the energies devoted to social transformation. The focussing inevitably privileges the state as a site of power.

Whether the winning of state power is seen as being the exclusive path for changing society or just as a focus for action, there is inevitably a channelling of revolt. The fervour of those who fight for a different society is taken up and pointed in a particular direction: towards the winning of state power. 'If we can only conquer the state (whether by electoral or by military means), then we shall be able to change society. First, therefore, we must concentrate on the central goal - conquering state power'. So the argument goes, and the young are inducted into what it means to conquer state power: they are trained either as soldiers or as bureaucrats, depending on how the conquest of state power is understood. 'First build the army, first build the party, that is how to get rid of the power that oppresses us'. The party-building (or army-building) comes to eclipse all else. What was initially negative (the rejection of capitalism) is converted into something positive (institution-building, power-building). The induction into the conquest of power inevitably becomes an induction into power itself. The initiates learn the language, logic and calculations of power; they learn to wield the categories of a social science which has been entirely shaped by its obsession with power. Differences within the organisation become struggles for power. Manipulation and manoeuvring for power become a way of life.

Nationalism is an inevitable complement of the logic of power. The idea that the state is the site of power involves the abstraction of the particular state from the global context of power relations. Inevitably, no matter how much the revolutionary inspiration is guided by the notion of world revolution, the focus on a particular state as the site for bringing about radical social change implies giving priority to the part of the world encompassed by that state over other parts of the world. Even the most internationalist of revolutions oriented towards state power have rarely succeeded in avoiding the nationalist privileging of 'their' state over others, or indeed the overt manipulation of national sentiment in order to defend the revolution. The notion of changing society through the state rests on the idea that the state is, or should be, sovereign. State sovereignty is a prerequisite for changing society through the state, so the struggle for social change becomes transformed into the struggle for the defence of state sovereignty. The struggle against capital then becomes an anti-imperialist struggle against domination by foreigners, in which nationalism and anti-capitalism are blended. Self-determination and state sovereignty become confused, when in fact the very existence of the state as a form of social relations is the very antithesis of self-determination.

No matter how much lip service is paid to the movement and its importance, the goal of the conquest of power inevitably involves an instrumentalisation of struggle. The struggle has an aim: to conquer political power. The struggle is a means to achieve that aim. Those elements of struggle which do not contribute to the achievement of that aim are either given a secondary importance or must be suppressed altogether: a hierarchy of struggles is established. The instrumentalisation/ hierarchisation is at the same time an impoverishment of struggle. So many struggles, so many ways of expressing our rejection of capitalism, so many ways of fighting for our dream of a different society are simply filtered out, simply remain unseen when the world is seen through the prism of the conquest of power. We learn to suppress them, and thus to suppress ourselves. At the top of the hierarchy we learn to place that part of our activity that contributes to 'building the revolution', at the bottom come frivolous personal things like affective relations, sensuality, playing, laughing, loving. Class struggle becomes puritanical: frivolity must be suppressed because it does not contribute to the goal. The hierarchisation of struggle is a hierarchisation of our lives and thus a hierarchisation of ourselves.

The party is the organisational form which most clearly expresses this hierarchisation. The form of the party, whether vanguardist or parliamentary, presupposes an orientation towards the state and makes little sense without it. The party is in fact the form of disciplining class struggle, of subordinating the myriad forms of class struggle to the over-riding aim of gaining control of the state. The fixing of a hierarchy of struggles is usually expressed in the form of the party programme.

This instrumentalist impoverishment of struggle is not characteristic just of particular parties or currents (Stalinism, Trotskyism and so on): it is inherent in the idea that the goal of the movement is to conquer political power. The struggle is lost from the beginning, long before the victorious party or army conquers state power and 'betrays' its promises. It is lost once power itself seeps into the struggle, once the logic of power becomes the logic of the revolutionary process, once the negative of refusal is converted into the positive of power-building. And usually those involved do not see it: the initiates in power do not even see how far they have been drawn into the reasoning and habits of power. They do not see that if we revolt against capitalism, it is not because we want a different system of power, it is because we want a society in which power relations are dissolved. You cannot build a society of non-power relations by conquering power. Once the logic of power is adopted, the struggle against power is already lost.

The idea of changing society through the conquest of power thus ends up achieving the opposite of what it sets out to achieve. Instead of the conquest of power being a step towards the abolition of power relations, the attempt to conquer power involves the extension of the field of power relations into the struggle against power. What starts as a scream of protest against power, against the dehumanisation of people, against the treatment of humans as means rather than ends, becomes converted into its opposite, into the assumption of the logic, habits and discourse of power into the very heart of the struggle against power. For what is at issue in the revolutionary transformation of the world is not whose power but the very existence of power. What is at issue is not who exercises power, but how to create a world based on the mutual recognition of human dignity, on the formation of social relations which are not power relations.

It would seem that the most realistic way to change society is to focus struggle on the winning of state power and to subordinate struggle to this end. First we win power and then we shall create a society worthy of humanity. This is the powerfully realistic argument of Lenin, especially in What is to be Done?, but it is a logic shared by all the major revolutionary leaders of the twentieth century: Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky, Gramsci, Mao, Che. Yet the experience of their struggles suggests that the accepted realism of the revolutionary tradition is profoundly unrealistic. That realism is the realism of power and can do no more than reproduce power. The realism of power is focused and directed towards an end. The realism of anti-power, or, better, the anti-realism of anti-power, must be quite different if we are to change the world. And change the world we must.