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Class, Crisis and the State

(December 1979)

From Socialist Review, No. 8, December 1979–January 1980.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Class, Crisis and the State
Erik Olin Wright
NLB £7.00

Are you a student with a Sociology exam on Marx? This book reads like a set of lecture-notes made for the purpose. It has a simplicity almost unique for someone who invokes a certain L. Althusser as a mentor.

It even comes complete with diagrams full of arrows showing how the ‘structural limitations’ of the Economy on the State diverge from the ‘limits of functional compatibility’ of the State with the Economy. A travesty of Marx’s method of course but they do make him look like just another fashionable theorist of some abstraction called society, and are bound to impress that examiner.

Perhaps you’ve been worrying about the work of N. Poulantzas recently? Especially that book where he says all white-collar workers, State employees etc. aren’t really workers at all but ‘new petty-bourgeois’ and that the working-class amounts to only 20 per cent of the population. Do you think that rather undermines the prospects for socialism?

Rest assured – Erik Olin Wright has sorted it all out. ‘Unproductive workers’ like your dustman really are workers after all, indeed at least 40 per cent of us are, and as for teachers, technicians and the like they occupy ‘contradictory class locations’. The political conclusions are implicitly much the same – the workers only chance is to form some sort of Popular Front with sections of the ‘bourgeoisie’, but at least it doesn’t sound quite so hopeless.

Looking for a neat summary of the four Marxist theories of the crisis? They all get fair treatment here, each allocated an actual historical crisis of its own for which it is correct. Marx’s own theory gets the nineteenth century, Keynes is awarded the 1930s slump, and at the moment it seems that wage-rises and the welfare state are to blame, although the evidence isn’t ‘conclusive’.

You even got a preview of the ‘next stage of capitalist development’, the one we’re going to have when the State’s finally sorted out the current crisis for us. I think he means the US government, the one that’s having so much success with the dollar at the moment, but it’s not very clear. Most of the time the capitalist system exists only within ‘national boundaries’ and there’s this State in the singular capable of planning the whole thing, but there’s also something called Imperialism and even some nasty complicating international factors.

He hasn’t grasped that it’s a world-crisis and that there’s no world-state to deal with it but he’s scarcely alone on the reformist left in that respect.

Got an essay to write: ‘comparing and contrasting the work of Lenin and Weber on bureaucracy’. Erik’s packaged them both up for you, four numbered propositions each, sub-divisions where appropriate, just the thing for the tutor who’s forgotten to renew his subscription to the New Left Review.

Balance is the key-note here – Weber might have ignored the roots of bureaucracy in the class-structure of Capitalism. But Lenin doesn’t have much grasp of ‘the real organisational contradictions of soviet institutions’. Seems that the ‘socialist state’ of China has had a lot of difficulty with bureaucracy too – something to do with the inherent character of ‘technical experts’ apparently.

Finally are you in need for some more reassurance about peaceful roads to socialism? Do you want another dose of ‘parliaments’ supplemented by ‘local forms of popular democracy’ and other such nebulous bodies? In this book you get the truly remarkable idea of socialists ‘using the State to destroy the State’.

Wright does lack the polemical edge of his co-thinkers of the Eurocommunist ‘left’ – but he more than makes up for it by his earnest desire to see all sides of the question. There’s even a quote from Perry Anderson on the need for insurrection and an invocation of the memory of Chile on the second to last page.

He doesn’t mean it though. Academics just have this luxury of being able to hedge their bets. Indeed, the problem is that in ‘the United States in the 1970s no strategy for socialism is particularly plausible’.

Such a promising title too.

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