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Colin Barker

Reply to editors and critics

(May 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.–76, May 1985, p. 35.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

MY ARTICLE What Do We Mean by the State? in March SWR got a bit mangled in editing. An argument I think important disappeared.

Lenin’s formal definition of the state is insufficient. There is more to the state than ‘armed bodies of men’ etc. We shouldn’t define the state by a characteristic means it employs: violence.

States do useful things. The pensioner going to the Post Office doesn’t view the state as ‘organised violence’. Nor does the NHS patient, or the consumer of water. The modern state’s ‘useful functions’ strengthen it by making it seem inevitable.

Reformists, who take the state for granted, assume only ‘trained experts’, ‘managers’, etc. can organise key social activities. Their ‘socialism’ is always ‘from above’.

Marxists, by contrast, insist society must reclaim control over all its own necessities and functions. This argument applies equally to policing, production, distribution, welfare.

To define the state, we must follow Marx’s method, and begin with social relations. So, where to start? With the fact, surely, that every state involves one class monopolising key processes of rule-making and rule-enforcement. A society with a state is, by definition, a class-divided society. Those who comprise the state are a class. The existence of a state is an immediate sign of society’s alienated character. People are still reproducing the means of their own domination.

Every state is an impediment to popular self-government. Certainly, every state protects its monopoly by organised violence; but the monopoly itself, not the violence, is the centre of the evil.

This is as true of the ‘welfare state’ as it is of the police, army, judiciary, etc. To put the matter extremely, revolutionaries must aim to ‘smash the welfare state’. Lest some daft eejit seek to misunderstand me, of course we don’t oppose public welfare. But welfare does need to be ‘de-statised’, i.e., made directly subject to popular democratic control. Demands for just such democratisation of all state insitutions – health services, schools, law and order, etc. – have played a crucial role in all modern movements with any revolutionary potential. Look at France in 1968, Portugal in 1975, Poland in 1980!

What of a ‘workers’ state’ (Letters, SWR, April)? Certainly the working class has to establish its own democratic state power. But a ‘workers’ state’ has meaning only as what Lenin brilliantly termed a ‘semi-state’, a state whose democratic form permits its dissolution or ‘withering away’. What makes it still a state is that, in some respects, some parts of the population are excluded, in some measure, from control over the running of society. So long as the term ‘state’ still fits the situation, there is still hierarchy and subordination in social life.

Marx was an implacable enemy of all forms of ‘statism’ – and not only in respect of ‘capitalist’ stages. Socialism is the struggle for the destruction of the state, in all its manifestations and forms. The ‘subordination of the state to society’ is not the final goal; our ultimate aim is the removal of all forms of monopolisation of social functions and thus the end of the state in toto, without qualification.


Colin Barker

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