The State Debate 20 Years Later: How Aufheben Transcends Marx’s “Incoherent and Undeveloped” Theory of the State

by Jehu

page58_1It is now twenty years on since Simon Clarke published his book, The State Debate” in hopes it would serve as a “launching pad for the struggles of the future.” And more than thirty years have passed since the depression of the 1970s came to an end with the “neoliberal expansion” of the 1980s and 1990s. However, in a disappointing and altogether troubling 2010 commentary on the material discussed in Clarke’s book, Aufheben summed up the situation facing Marxists in the 1970s in pretty much the same words as did Clarke in 1991:

“At the end of the 60s, the two main opposed theories of the state in capitalism were the orthodox Marxist theory of state monopoly capitalism and the social democratic state theory, and they were both in crisis.”

Of the “orthodox Marxist theory of state monopoly capitalism”, Aufheben has this to say:

“capitalism was going through its last stage: the contradictions between private property and the increasing socialisation of production changed the nature of the state as they obliged the state to increasingly take up economic functions belonging to capital. As a consequence, the state ceased to be just a political expression of capital and became fused with it.”

Of the so-called “social democratic state theory”, Aufheben states this:

“social democratic state theory saw the state as a potentially neutral instrument. The state could be seized by democratic means by the working class and used in its interest. This theory was based on the apparent separation of production and distribution in capitalism: while, as long as the capitalist relations continued, production remained capitalist, a social democratic state could achieve the control of distribution through taxation and state expenditure.”

If there has been any “advance” in the theoretical discussion at all, it consists mostly in the rather peculiar way Aufheben explains this divergence between the two schools of Marxism, which does not appear to grapple either with the material left behind by Marx and Engels regarding their views on the state nor with the material furnished by the actual movement of society since Clarke published his book in 1991.

Of the former, Aufheben has this to say:

“The issue of the state was a problem for Marxists, as Marx did not leave any coherent or developed theory. A clear but brief comment on the state in capitalism was in the Communist Manifesto, where Marx defined the state as ‘a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’, but this comment did not amount to a fully developed theory.”

Although Aufheben argues Marx’s views in the Communist Manifesto, “did not amount to a fully developed theory”, in an astonishing footnote Aufheben essentially dismisses all of Marx’s work on the state including The German Ideology, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Civil War in France, Frederick Engels’s Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, Engels’s Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State and a list of other works to expansive to mention here.

In addition to the vast catalogue of works by Marx and Engels on the subject, the problem with Aufheben’s argument is this: Over two careers spanning five decades the view of Marx and Engels on the bourgeois state and its relation to bourgeois society was remarkably consistent. Thus we find in the Communist Manifesto, written in 1848, that the state is declared a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie. And in 1880, thirty-two years later, Engels argues in “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific” that the state, “is only the organization that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the external conditions of the capitalist mode of production”.

During the long careers of these two thinkers, never once did they suggest, directly or indirectly, “the importance of the class struggle in the constitution of the relations of power, including state power” or that (quoting Holloway) “‘the class struggle redefines the state as form’”. In fact at no point in their careers do either Marx or Engels suggest the state is in any form or fashion the product of class struggle between the bourgeois class and proletarians.

It appears Aufheben has to dismiss all of this material in order to establish their completely unsubstantiated assertion that the relation of the state to the capitalist mode of production is, somehow, not settled in historical materialist theory. How, for instance, is the argument by Aufheben to be squared with that of Engels in Socialism, Utopian and Scientific (with a foreword written by Marx himself, no less), that,

“The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine — the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers — proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head. But, brought to a head, it topples over.”

Here we find not simply the fusing of capital with the state as suggested by “orthodox Marxism”, but the coherent and developed prediction by Engels and Marx the state would eventually be forced to become the national capitalist. Moreover, Engels makes the further prediction that this event would lead to the downfall of the state.

As Clarke himself showed by looking at social democrat governments in the 60s and 70s, no more can be learned by looking at the state than real wages rise during periods of booms and fall during periods of bust. It does not really matter who is running the government, nor the policies pursued by whatever government is in power. As the history of both western Europe and the Soviet Union show, a socialist government is not the working class organized as the ruling class; it is nothing more than a bunch of socialist party bosses administering to the “committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”.

To be clear, the state form is not determined by the class struggle between workers and capitalist, but by common requirements of the mode of production — by the interests of the capitalist class, which not only stand over against the working class, but over against the particular interest of the individual capitalists themselves. The interests of the bourgeois class as a whole are not by any means simply the sum of individual interests of the members of that class. As Marx and Engels explained in the German Ideology, the interests of the class as a whole are quite independent of the separate interests of the members of the capitalist class. The latter interests are expressed, not in the state, but in the hostility and competition raging among the members of the class, while the common interests of the bourgeois class express the material conditions common to what is otherwise a fiercely hostile band of brothers.

As Marx and Engels argued in the German Ideology, the class itself only appears as a class when actually in conflict with another class, “otherwise they are on hostile terms with each other as competitors.” Not to be misunderstood on the implications of this observation, Marx and Engels add: “the class in its turn achieves an independent existence over against the individuals”. If the state takes a form that stands over against the individual members of the class, it is because the interest of the class as a whole stands over against its individual members.

Forty years of debate on the relationship between state and the capitalist mode of production has arrived at no conclusion, because the participants refuse to recognize that the common interests of the capitalist class as a class can only be expressed in the form of the state itself.

There is absolutely no other possible form within bourgeois society for expression of the common interests of this class except the state — and the state can express no other interest except the common interests of this class.