Sunday, April 26, 2020

The ruling class may not rule -- but the state always rules in the interest of the ruling class

Jacobin recently posted a fascinating thought-piece on the Marxist theory of the state. It is actually a reprint of an article originally published in 1977 by the radical sociologist Fred Block, titled, "The Ruling Class Does Not Rule." (

The article posits an "unorthodox" Marxist analysis of the manner in which the state in capitalist society is always a product of the interaction between the existing economic classes and social forces of society. This is true regardless of the desired political content of the state managers -- be they of the right, the center, or the left.

In other words, as long as society is cleft into opposing classes, and as long as the means of production by and large remain in the hands of one of those classes (namely, the capitalist class), then the state will forever manifest as a bourgeois state -- the state of a capitalist society -- despite the conscious intentions of the major social actors. Or, as Marx puts it, the character of the state is determined by the nature of the existing struggle between the classes so that it appears to take on a form independent of the will of any of the major social actors; that is, the content of the state is formulated "behind their backs," as it were.

The conclusion? As long as there is a capital-owning class arrayed against a working class, the state of such a society will always be essentially capitalist in form and function. Only with the abolition of the classes themselves, through the total appropriation of the capitalist class by a universal working class (which in turn, as a matter of definition, loses the character of a "class" as such), will the state lose its class, i.e., capitalist, character, and become, first, a socialist workers' state, and ultimately, a universal state of simply "the people."

Consider, by way of comparison, a slave society. Any state which exists and abides alongside the existence of a slave-owning class arrayed against a class of slaves will always be essentially a state of slavery. It is only by pitting itself in open and total hostility to the master class, and then proceeding to abolish said master class by "appropriating" or liberating it of its ownership over the capital from which it derives its power and very existence (i.e., slaves, human beings), that the state can be said to completely lose its character as a state of slavery. This can be stated in tautological form thusly: The abolition of slavery is the absolute precondition for the abolition of a state of slavery (i.e., a state influenced by the existence of a slave-owning and enslaved class dialectic).

In sum, as regards the question of capitalism and the state, it means that any movement which seeks to use the state as an anti-capitalist instrument must simultaneously and minimally prepare to pit itself in direct and total belligerence against the capital-owning class (i.e., that class which privately owns the means of production). It must prepare its constituency and convince the working class of the imminent need to appropriate the capitalist class out of existence entirely. Anything less will inevitably end in naught but capitulation to the role of state manager of capitalism, i.e., managing the capitalist state; which is to say, managing the systemic exploitation and oppression of the working class by the capitalist class.

This is why the notion of a Socialist Party governing in a society which exists and abides alongside the existence of a capitalist class is simply a contradiction containing the seeds of its own undoing. Socialists cannot truly pursue a coherent and consistent socialist program while managing a capitalist state. To rephrase the above tautology, the precondition of a socialist state is the abolition of the contending classes of capitalist society. Any socialist party or movement which does not view its road to power as passing through this imminent conquest has, a priori, forfeited the pursuit of a socialist state.