The state comprises the set of institutions that claim authority over society and its operations, including the courts, the police, the armed forces, the government bureaucracy and parliament.
At first glance the state under capitalism looks neutral. It provides us with Medicare and public education and public transport. Most of us would participate in an election before we went to a demonstration or decided to go on strike.
This is because there is a common sense idea drilled into us that the state is under the control of the democratically elected parliament.
But at the core of the state sit a series of repressive institutions which operate by the use of force.
These parts of the state remain unelected. We don’t get to choose the generals who make decisions about wars. We don’t elect the judges who make choices about the justice system. We don’t have any say over the police commissioners who decide when to break up pickets and protests.
Karl Marx described the state as “nothing but an executive for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”
Building on this idea during the revolutionary upsurge in Russia in 1917 Vladimir Lenin wrote his pamphlet State and Revolution. There he argued that the state arose out of the particular historical development of class society. The state emerged to deal with the fundamental antagonism between the exploiting class and the exploited class. But it has always been controlled by the class which controls society.
So although it regulates conflicts, between different corporations, between corporations and workers, between different nation states, it exists to defend the capitalist order.
Although the state gives the impression of neutrality, no capitalist state defends all people equally.
Police attack workers and students when they protest and challenge the existing order, but they don’t prevent bosses from cutting jobs. The legal system, police, prisons and armies—the repressive core of the state—are all designed to defend the interests of the exploiters. There is no equivalent institution anywhere that has as many weapons or as much power to detain as the state.
Running the state
Many parties and organisations through history have argued that electing the right people to parliament can change all of this and reform the capitalist state in a democratic way.
Some even think that the existing state can be harnessed as part of the transition to socialism. But we see consistently how impossible this is in practice.
Syriza in Greece is a classic example. Rising to power off the back of mass strikes and protests against austerity, ordinary people held huge hopes in Syriza.
But their decision to work within the state and not to challenge the ruling class’ desire to remain in the EU meant they had to find ways to pay off Greece’s debt.
The unelected “institutions”: the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank quickly forced it into line. This means Syriza is now enforcing exactly the same austerity policies today as the parties that came before them.
Smashing the state
A left government that did try to challenge capitalism would face serious resistance from state institutions, first of all from the managers of the state bureaucracy refusing to carry out government instructions.
It would also face violence, and ultimately an attempt to overthrow it, from the police and armed forces. Famously, this was the fate of Salvadore Allende’s democratically elected left-wing government in Chile, when it was overthrown in a military coup in 1973.
This is why socialists argue that we need to overthrow the existing state through a process of revolution.
The old ruling class will fight hard to claw back their authority in a revolutionary situation and they will use all the violence they can muster. If workers can control one workplace or even a whole industry, the ruling class will use the state to wrench that power away.
During the Arab Spring we saw in Egypt how the capitalist state turned the army and security forces against ordinary people. They will turn their guns on us if we step outside the lines. As soon as workers start to challenge the status quo in society the state uses all its repressive instruments to curb their power and maintain control.
To defeat the violence of the old ruling class will require co-ordination through a democratic state run by workers until attempts by the capitalists to regain power are defeated. We call this a workers’ state or the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
A workers’ state is an entirely different formation to a capitalist one. Instead of the state dominating ordinary workers, it is under the democratic control of the mass of ordinary people.
This formulation was drawn from Marx’s experience in the Paris Commune in 1871, where workers developed a new kind of state. People were democratically elected, recallable and paid regular workers’ wages. There was no specialised, separate body of unelected armed men. The workers state was simply the mass of workers, armed to defend their own power.
As Friedrich Engels wrote, if socialism triumphs then the workers state will wither away. Once there are no class antagonisms to manage anymore, there will be no need for the state. Lenin wrote in State and Revolution:
“Under socialism, all will take part in the work of government in turn and will soon become accustomed to no one governing… Socialism will raise the masses to a new life, will create conditions for the majority of the population that will enable everybody, without exception to perform ‘state functions’ and this will lead to the complete withering away of the state in general.”