When working and oppressed people come together, we are as capable of toppling capitalism as we are of toppling statues.
In the sixth installment of our ‘Capitalism 101’ series, we will be discussing The State. What is the state, and what do communists want to do with it?
You can read the previous installment of our Capitalist 101 series, ‘Disability’, here.
Capitalism 101: The State
“Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” - Mao Zedong
What Is The State?
Power is the ability for one actor to make another actor do something which is against the latter's will. Political power is exercised through a social organism called the state. The state includes all the organisations of violence and coercion which govern a given territory, through which the laws of the ruling class in that territory are enforced over its population, and their interests are asserted against forces outside their borders.
The central state organisations are the repressive state apparatus – the army, the legislature and the police – the bodies which determine the laws and violently enforce them. Additionally, the state includes institutions of ideological coercion and control – such as the education system and the media – which disseminate ruling class ideology. The relationship between different branches of the state may vary depending on material context, with the media for example being more or less controlled by the executive branches of the state (i.e. the government). At times these branches may even conflict with each other. But the key is that all are controlled by the dominant class.
‘The state’ is not a natural or neutral phenomena, but emerged with the historical development of class societies. Marxists understand the state as a social organism for the dictatorship of the ruling class – whichever class controls the state is able to defend and further its own interests, and suppress those of opposing classes.
The Racial Capitalist State
In racial capitalist society, the state is controlled by the property-owning classes (or ‘bourgeoisie’, the marxist term for the capitalists and landlords), and used as a tool to oppress the working class (or proletariat, meaning those who have nothing to sell but their labour power). The working class greatly outnumbers the bourgeoisie, but because they control the state, the capitalist class is able to maintain the capitalist system which allows them to exploit the workers in order to accumulate private wealth. This amounts to a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie (the minority) over the working class (the majority). As well as being in conflict with their own working class, capitalist states are also necessarily in conflict with one another, as they compete amongst themselves to divide up the world’s natural resources, and find new markets for capital to expand into. This has led us to our current historical juncture — that of Great Power Competition between imperialist nations.
That the modern state emerged as a tool to enforce racial capitalism is plain from its historical origins. Early systems of professional night watchmen and constables in British towns and cities began around the 17th and 18th centuries, as the enclosure of common land and the accumulation of wealth from British colonialism led to the formation of the first industrial cities, and thus the industrial working class. These forces became increasingly centralised and professionalised as the working class developed and the risk of revolution increased. The first fully modern police force was the Peace Preservation Force, established in 1814 in the British colony of Ireland, to violently suppress anti-colonial resistance. The Metropolitan Police was founded just 15 years later by Robert Peel – the very same person who had created the PPF (it is, incidentally, with reference to Peel that the colloquialism of “bobby” originates). Many of the techniques of modern policing, including crowd control tactics, restraint and rubber bullets were first developed in Britain’s colonies, from Ireland to Hong Kong to Kenya, before being redeployed to suppress working class resistance in Britain. Thus we see how the development of this most central aspect of the modern state is rooted in the oppression of the working class and colonised people.
The modern state is thus infused with this foundational racism and white supremacy. The capitalist state’s repressive border regime, for example, enforces racist restrictions on labour mobility, deliberately excluding the proletariat of the Global South from accessing wealth both stolen by, and concentrated in, the imperial core. The state’s carceral arms (prisons, detention centres, and psychiatric hospitals) are structured by racism and anti-Blackness, used to blunt resistance from the most oppressed communities in capitalist society. This is evidenced by the disproportionate rate at which Black and Brown people are stopped, searched, detained, prosecuted, and murdered by the state.
The state likewise reinforces other social oppressions which structure class, such as patriarchy and ableism. This can be seen in the treatment of sex workers by the state, the persistent assault on the rights of trans people, and in how over a third of the prison population is constituted by people disabled people.
What Will Communists Do With The State?
The state cannot be abolished before class antagonisms have also been abolished. The abolition of classes is an entire historical process, which begins with socialist revolution – in which the working class establishes power and seizes control of the means of production – and continues through to communism, in which class has been abolished entirely. Whilst anarchists generally advocate for the immediate abolition of the state, Marxists recognise that this is not possible, because classes will not disappear overnight. Instead, we must overthrow the bourgeois state apparatus, and replace it with a proletarian state operating in the interests of the working class. The proletariat can then use the state apparatus to suppress the bourgeoisie, and bring about the eventual abolition of class.
This proletarian state is a necessary stage in the process of revolution, so that the revolution can defend against violent counter-action by the property-owning classes, who will inevitably want to defend their own interests against those of the masses. For example, Cuba’s strong proletarian state was able to fight off the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and decades of persecution by the US thereafter, whilst Allende’s Chile was unable to fend off both internal and external forces of reaction, as the bourgeois standing army was left intact.
Abolishing the systems of capitalist state power, and establishing our own organisations of revolutionary working class power, will allow us to do away with private property, and thus with class in its entirety. Only then will the state as a repressive organ cease to have a purpose, and thus be able to wither away – along with that entire period of human history characterised by the oppression of man by man.
- V.I. Lenin, State and Revolution
- Red Menace (podcast) State and Revolution episode
- Jose Maria Sison, Marxism Leninism Primer
The next article in our Capitalism 101 series, ‘Crisis and Imperialism’, will explore what is meant by the term ‘imperialism’, and why all capitalist roads lead to crisis.