Determining the class nature of the state

By Simon Butler, Adelaide branch

[The following is a constribution to the DSP's internal discussion on Venezuela's revolution.]

Comrade Marce Cameron’s recent article “The State and Revolution in Venezuela” (Marce Cameron, The Activist Vol 17, # 1) contains a lengthy discussion on the Marxist view of the state and the class nature of Venezuelan state in particular. As part of his discussion Comrade Marce introduces a new but mistaken criteria for identifying for class nature of a state.

Comrade Marce argues that the class nature of any state is revealed by which side the state takes in decisive class battles. Yet historically Marxists have identified the class nature of the state is dependent upon the form of property relations that the state introduces and defends.

“First of all,” Marce argues, “we have to apply a correct methodology.” I agree with this wholeheartedly. Without a common methodology grounded in Marxism any debates around Venezuela and other revolutionary developments will be far from clarifying and useful. This article seeks to explain why Comrade Marce’s ideas regarding the class nature of the state are mistaken and why the methodology he applies is false.

The class nature of the state

Marce sums up his view on determining the class nature of the state in the following way: “The class nature of the state is revealed in which side of the class struggle the state comes down on in the decisive class battles.” The fact that this passage is in bold and italicized in the original indicates that Marce holds that this formula can be applied not only to analysis of the Venezuelan state but to all states in general.

Comrade Marce also explains that “this method for determining the class nature of the state can be equally applied to any of the various institutions that make up the state.”

The meaning of ‘decisive class battles’ in this context can only mean revolutionary class battles where the question of ‘which class rules’ is posed. www.freedictionary.com defines the word decisive as “Having the power to decide; conclusive.”

The first problem with Marce’s formulation is that it is convoluted and imprecise. Marce suggests that the class nature of the state is revealed in which side of the class struggle the state comes down on in decisive class battles.

But this method doesn’t explain as much as it purports to. It is equally possible to determine the class nature of a state (or any of the various institutions that make up the state) without a decisive class battle having occurred at all. This is because we know that even in non-decisive class battles the capitalist state will come down on the side of capitalist class interests. If we reject this idea then we would have to accept two things: a) that in non-decisive class battles a capitalist state could feasibly come down on the side of the working class and b) that in the non-decisive class battles a workers state could feasibly come down on the side of the usurped capitalist class attempting to restore capitalist class rule.

The reality of class struggle and state power is very different of course. No capitalist state (i.e. an apparatus of capitalist class rule) ever comes down on the side of the working class in any struggle whatsoever, decisive or otherwise. But because the capitalist state is “a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie” (Marx and Engels) which looks after the long term interests of capitalist class the state may at times make concessions to demands raised by powerful working class movements.

When the capitalist state is forced to make such concessions in the face of militant working class struggle this may be contrary to the interests of individual capitalist enterprises or even whole sectors of capitalist production as in the case of an industry-wide strike. But the state may enforce the concessions or grant reforms in order to secure temporary social peace and maintain the longer term sustainability of capitalist class rule.

When the Australian capitalist state gave in to the eight hour day campaign at the beginning of the 20th century it was not coming down on the side of the struggle of working class people. Instead by granting concessions the state believed it to be in the overall capitalist class interests to prevent an ongoing radicalisation among working people. It was attempting to shore up the conditions for the continuation of capitalist property relations. It is this characteristic which makes it a capitalist state.

In Australia the capitalist state power remains an instrument in the hands of the capitalist class dictatorship to defend and extend capitalist property relations. State power in Australia is an undeniably essential instrument of class rule. But it is the capitalist property relations that the state defends that determine its bourgeois nature.

Similarly a workers state such as Cuba can make concessions to capitalist interests in the tourism industry for example. In no way can we conclude that the Cuban state is coming down on the side of the capitalist investment and market relations in Cuba (although the most sectarian Trotskyist and anarchist outfits do indeed allege this). This is because we can judge that the concessions to capitalist investment have been made in order to maintain and defend the post-capitalist property relations that predominate in Cuba. It is this characteristic that makes Cuba a genuine workers state with bureaucratic deformations.

In Cuba the workers state power remains an instrument in the hands of the proletarian class dictatorship to defend and extend post-capitalist (nationalised and planned) property relations. State power in Cuba is an undeniably essential instrument of class rule. But it is the post-capitalist property relations that the state defends that determine its working class nature.

Comrade Marce may well object that he comes to the same conclusions regarding the class nature of the Australian and Cuban states using his own method. But the problem lies in the imprecision and convoluted nature of his formula and its inability to be applied more generally as we shall see below.

An empirical formula

A further weakness with Comrade Marce’s formula regarding the class nature of the state is its evident empirical nature. That is, using this formula we can only conclusively tell if a state is a workers state or a bourgeois state after it has been put to the test and forced to choose sides in a ‘decisive class battle’. In his article Marce gives the examples of Venezuela in 1989 during the Caracazo and Venezuela in April 2002 to illustrate this empirical approach. During the Caracazo, he argues, the armed forces (which he identifies as basically synonymous with the Venezuelan capitalist state) overwhelmingly comes down on the side of the ruling class policy of terror. Venezuela was, therefore, a capitalist state in 1989. In April 2002 the armed forces overwhelmingly comes down on the side of the Venezuelan working class insurrection. Venezuela was, therefore, an embryonic workers and peasants state by April 14, 2002.

But in trying to determine the class nature of the Australian state in this way we encounter an insoluble problem. We are faced with the absence of any such decisive class battle (i.e. a revolutionary situation) at any time in the entire history of the Australian nation-state. We have to abandon Marce’s empirical criteria straight away and search for some other way to identify the class nature of the Australian state.

That is, we have to identify the capitalist property relations that the Australian state defends to reveal its capitalist class nature. We are not required to wait until an empirical test of the attitude of the Australian state’s armed forces can be carried out in the midst of a decisive class battle before we can conclude that it is a capitalist state.

Similarly the class nature of the Venezuelan embryonic workers and peasants’ state is determined by the form of property relations it seeks to introduce and defend.

No one in the DSP was confident to come out immediately after the events of April 11-13 and declare that Venezuela had become a workers state. But according to Marce’s formula we should have been able to identify the class nature of the state straight away by virtue of the fact that the armed forces had sided with the people’s insurrection. It should have been that easy because otherwise as Marce argues “then we’d have to conclude that it was a bourgeois government and a bourgeois armed force that entered this ferocious class battle on the side of the workers! This is a logical absurdity. A state which comes down on the side of the working class is not a bourgeois state.”

But it wasn’t until 2004 that we first made this assessment in the article “The Revolutionary Process in Venezuela: an embryonic workers and peasants state” (Coral Wynter, Links, No 26). If Comrade Marce’s approach is the superior method, then why such an inexplicable delay? Were we just being “illogical”? No, I don’t think we made that mistake.

This is because we had to first identify that April 2002 was the decisive turning point where the state became a popular instrument (albeit in an embryonic form) for the overthrowing capitalist relations of production and introducing and defending a nationalized and democratically planned economy. The DSP did not use the ‘decisive class battle’ method advocated to us by Comrade Marce.

This materialist approach to working out the class nature of the state is superior to Marce’s empiricist method.

The “decisive class battle method” applied to history

Another serious problem with Marce’s idea that the class nature of the state is revealed in the side the state takes in decisive class battles rather than in the form of property relations that the state defends is that is comes into conflict with historical reality.

For example when the DSP made its 1998 assessment about the changed class nature of the Chinese state we did not apply the false method recommended to us by Comrade Marce.

Instead the DSP concluded as follows:

“In a report to the October 1997 meeting of the National Committee on ‘The Evolution of Economy and State in China’, the National Executive argued that the process of capitalist restoration in China was not the unintended consequence of concessions that the Chinese state was forced to make to secure foreign capitalist investment and access to the world market, but the consequence of a consciously restorationist orientation by the commanding personnel of the state — the ruling bureaucracy organised in the Communist Party of China — to replace China's nationalised, planned economy with a market economy and to convert themselves into private exploiters of commodified labour power, i.e., into capitalists.

“The report argued that: 'While the process of capitalist restoration is not yet completed in China, there is sufficient evidence for us to conclude that this is the conscious orientation of those who hold political power in China, and that therefore China, like Russia and the former Soviet bloc countries of Eastern Europe, is a capitalist state.'”

(Doug Lorimer, “The Class Nature of the Chinese State”, The Activist Vol 9, No 1, 1999.) [Italics in original].

In the above passages our criteria for judging the class nature of the Chinese state is revealed. We argued that the “conscious orientation of those who hold political power in China” was to reintroduce capitalism. Therefore China had become a capitalist state.

In other words we assessed that the commanding personnel of the Chinese state now sought to introduce and extend capitalist property relations thereby changing the class nature of the Chinese state to a capitalist state and completing the counterrevolution.

You will search in vain for Comrade Marce’s “decisive class struggle” criteria in either this document quoted above or in the DSP’s Theses on the Class Nature of the Chinese State. The Chinese armed forces were not called upon to come down on the side of the capitalists in the midst of a “decisive class struggle”. But the class nature of the Chinese state changed regardless. This cannot be explained with Marce’s method.

Comrade Marce’s theory becomes even more discredited when compared against the Russian Revolution.

Consider the following quote from Leon Trotsky regarding the class nature of the Soviet State in 1938:

“The Soviet revolution emerged from the October Revolution as a workers state. State ownership of the means of production, a necessary prerequisite to socialist development, opened up the possibility of rapid growth of the productive forces. But the apparatus of the worker’s state underwent a complete degeneration at the same time: it was transformed from a weapon of the working class into a weapon of bureaucratic violence against the working class and more and more a weapon for the sabotage of the country’s economy. The bureaucratization of a backward and isolated workers state and the transformation of the bureaucracy into an all-powerful privileged caste constitute the most convincing refutation — not only theoretically but this time practically — of the theory of socialism in one country.

“The USSR embodies terrific contradictions. But it still remains a degenerated workers state. Such is the social diagnosis. The political prognosis has an alternative character: either the bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers state, will overthrow the new forms of property and plunge the economy back into capitalism; or the working class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism.”

(Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program, Pathfinder Press, 1973, p 102) [Italics in original].

Here Trotsky describes a state apparatus which has been transformed into nothing less than a “bureaucratic weapon of violence against the working class.” But he argued that “it still remain[ed] a degenerated workers state.” Marce’s method of determining the class nature of a state can not be sensibly applied in this case. The Stalinised Soviet state apparatus would certainly have repressed the Soviet working class in any “decisive class battle” confrontation regardless of anyone believing this to be “logical” or “illogical”. But the class nature of the Soviet state did not alter because of this.

According to Trotsky the class nature of the Soviet state would only change if the bureaucracy overthrew the new forms of property and plunged the economy back into capitalism. At the time he was writing the ruling bureaucratic caste needed to maintain the nationalised and planned nature of the Soviet economy to maintain their relative privileges. Two options were presented for the future of the Soviet Union. Either the bureaucracy would consciously change their orientation to that of restoring capitalism (which they eventually did 50 years later) or the working class could carry out a political revolution against the bureaucratic Stalinist regime and “open the way to socialism.”

In his famous analysis of the origins and the nature of Stalinism Trotsky defended the idea that the class nature of the state is derived from the property relations it sought to defend. He did not define the class nature of the Soviet state by which side of the class struggle the repressive apparatus came down on.

Comrade Marce may well protest that he put forward a second, related method for determining the class nature of the state in his article which applies “more generally”. Marce states that “the class nature of the state is revealed by which class or classes the state seeks to organise, and which class or classes it seeks to suppress.”

Yet this secondary formula still remains inferior to the historically utilised Marxist approach. Radical petty-bourgeois-nationalist regimes such as Argentina under Peron, Egypt under Nasser and Indonesia under Sukarno succeeded for a time in mobilising and organising the working class in a subordinate alliance with the middle classes. This did not transform them into workers states. The difference was that these radical petty-bourgeois regimes were not organising the working class to take political and economic power into their own hands. Even though these regimes temporarily sought to organise working people they remained capitalist states despite their contradictions. Comrade Marce’s second formula cannot explain this.

Neither does this second formula allow us to differentiate between states arising out of political revolutions and social revolutions. A political revolution such as the Indonesian revolution that toppled the Suharto dictatorship in 1998 can have the same basic features (governmental crisis, split in armed forces, insurrection etc) as a social revolution with one crucial difference. A political revolution changes the personnel in the commanding heights of the state apparatus but does not touch the existing capitalist forms of property relations.

A workers state meanwhile organises the working class for a specific, not a general, purpose i.e. to introduce and defend socialist forms of property relations.

My argument with Marce throughout this article has not been, of course, that the state is not an instrument to defend the class interests of the politically dominant social class. This is not in question. Neither do I question that a healthy workers state is “a special machine for suppression of one class by another” (Lenin) i.e. a body for the suppression of the minority capitalist class by the majority working class.

Comrade Marce’s mistake is that he concludes that the repressive function of the state in decisive class battles determines the class nature of the state. I have shown above why this is a false method.

In one passage in his article Comrade Marce argues correctly that “The class character of a state is not determined by what the people who make up the state think… but by what these people, this state, actually does.”

This is true. But what the workers state “does” amounts to more than armed repression of capitalist class resistance, as essential as this is. The workers state is the instrument to initiate and defend the conscious restructuring of social relations to eradicate the division of society into classes. This function determines its class nature.

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