The State As An Agency Of Oppression

The State As An Agency Of Oppression

Marx contended that in the class struggle the state was an agency or device controlled by the bourgeoisie to advance its own interests. By the state Marx meant nothing synonymous with organized society or govern­ment. Sidney Hook holds that in the Marxian sense "we may speak of a state only where a special public power of coercion exists which, in the form of an armed organization, stands over and above the population" In support of this he quotes Marx as saying that "the state presupposes the public power of coercion separated from the aggregate body of its members." Presumably an organized society could exist in the absence of such power (Marx held that it would under full communism), while the government is merely the machinery in which this power resides.

The state in this "power of coercion" sense would have no function

to perform unless there were something or somebody to be subjected to that power.

The state, therefore, has not existed from all eternity. There have been societies which managed without it. Which had no conception of the state and state power. At a certain stage of economic development, which was necessarily bound up with the cleavage of society into classes, the state became a necessity owing to this cleavage.

The state is the product and the manifestation of the irreconcilability If class antagonisms. The state arises when, where, and to the extent that the class antagonisms cannot be objectively reconciled. And, con­versely, the existence of the state proves that the class antagonisms are irreconcilable.

Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized one class for oppressing another.

During each period in history, therefore, the state is in the possession of the class dominant at that particular time.
Former society, moving in class antagonisms, had need of the state, that is, an organization of the exploiting class at each period for the main­tenance of external conditions of production; that is, therefore, for the forcible holding down of the exploited class in the conditions of op­pression (slavery, villeinage or serfdom, wage labor) determined by the existing mode of production. The state was the official representative of society as a whole, its embodiment in a visible corporation; but it was this only in so far as it was the state of that class which itself, in its epoch, represented society as a whole; in ancient times, the state of the slave-owning citizens; in the Middle Ages, of the feudal nobility; in our epoch, of the bourgeoisie.
Thus a state can be nothing else than a dictatorship—a dictatorship of one class over one or more other classes.

The Bourgeois State

Such is the abstract nature of the state as an institution. Its particular evolu­tionary forms are determined by the changing modes of production. There­fore, the same forces that brought into existence the original capitalist employer and the original wage worker created what Marx, Engels, and Lenin have called the bourgeois state. As the power of the owning class has developed with the accumulation of capital, the power of the bour­geois state has increased concurrently until it "is nothing but the organized collective power of the possessing classes, the landowners and the capi­talists as against the exploited classes, the peasants and the workers. What the individual capitalists (and it is here only a question of these because in this matter the landowner who is also concerned acts primarily as a capi­talist) do not want, their state also does not want." The officials who "now stand as organs of society above society" are "but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie."20 "Moreover, this power, which is the essence of the state and is wielded by the bour­geoisie, grows stronger in proportion as the class antagonisms within the state grow sharper. .. ."

Democracy in the Bourgeois State

The state whose function is thus portrayed in Marxian theory is not necessarily a monarchical state, although at certain times it has been that. Engels takes particular care to point out that the "modern representative state is the instrument of the exploitation of wage labor by capital.. . . The highest form of state, the democratic republic, which in our modern social relations is becoming more and more an unavoidable necessity, and is the form of state in which alone the last decisive battle between proletariat and bourgeoisie can be fought out—the democratic republic no longer has any official cognizance of property differences. In it, wealth wields its power indirectly, but all the more effectively." These "indirect" controls, to En­gels, exist "on the one hand in the form of direct corruption of the of­ficials—America is the classic example of this; on the other hand in the form of an alliance between the government and the stock exchange, which comes about all the more easily the more the public debt increases and the more share companies concentrate in their hands not only trans­port but even production, and in turn find their own center of gravity in the stock exchange."

Still more subtly, "the possessing class rules directly by means of universal suffrage. So long as the oppressed class, that is, in our case, the proletariat, is not yet ripe for self-liberation, so long will it, that is, the majority, regard the existing social order as the only possible one, and be politically the tail of the capitalist class, its extreme left wing." Lenin contributes a more detailed catalog of devices whereby the bourgeoisie controls the votes of the proletariat in a "democracy." He holds:

Both in the . . . so-called petty details of the suffrage (residential qualification, exclusion of women, etc.), and in the technique of the representative institutions, in the actual obstacles to the right of assembly (public buildings are not for "beggars"!), in the purely capitalist organization of the daily Press, etc., etc.—on all sides we see restric­tion after restriction upon democracy. These restrictions, exceptions, exclusions, obstacles for the poor, seem slight, especially in the eyes of one who has himself never known want and has never been in close contact with the oppressed classes in their mass life . . . but in their sum total these restrictions exclude and squeeze out the poor from politics and from an active share in democracy. Marx splendidly grasped this essence of capitalist democracy, when, in analyzing the experience of the Commune, he said that the oppressed were allowed, once every few years, to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class should be in parliament to represent and oppress them.

Lenin concludes not only that the so-called democratic state under capitalism oppresses the proletariat but also "a democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism, and therefore, once capital has gained control ... of this very best shell, it establishes its power so securely, so firmly, that no change, either of persons, or institutions, or parties in the bourgeois republic can shake it."26 Thus, in all but the most exceptional cases—"periods when the warring classes so nearly attain equilibrium that the state power, ostensibly appearing as a mediator, as­sumes for the moment a certain independence relative to both"—state power in a modern "democratic" capitalist society remains an agency of oppression wielded by the bourgeoisie against the proletariat.

From this it follows that "the working men have no country." The machinery of state cannot be counted upon to alleviate any but the most trivial of the woes of the proletariat—it is by no means an instrumentality through which effective gradual steps toward socialism can be taken. The state, rooted by its very nature in class struggle, can never be anything but an agency of oppression until class struggle disappears, and the class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat cannot disappear until capi­talism itself is supplanted by communism.