Lucien van der Walt, 2019, “Overview of Theories of the State,” in John Reynolds and Lucien van der Walt (eds.) , Strategy: Debating Politics Within and At a Distance from the State, Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit (NALSU), Rhodes University, Makhanda, South Africa, pp. 13-23.
** Based on a talk at the 2019 Vuysile Mini Winter School for workers in Makanda, of which more here.
About this piece: How we analyse the state has enormous political implications. Should we organise through, or in partnership with the state, including through parties? Or should we build working class counter-power outside and against the state? This piece provides a critical overview of the idealist “social contract” theory, the liberal-pluralist (which includes the social-democratic) theory, major Marxist theories, the Weberian model, and Bakunin’s anarchist/ syndicalist theory. It leans strongly to the last-named, although it also notes some of its limitations.
OVERVIEW OF THEORIES OF THE STATE
by Lucien van der Walt
What is a state?
The state is central to modern society, and has existed in various forms for much of written history.
A minimal definition of the state is an organisation that:
- Rules a territory, and the population within that
- Enforces that rule with military
- Has centralised decision-making.
- Sets binding regulations for that territory, among the most important of which are the rules called
In addition, states involve:
- Taxation by and for the state
- Control of means of coercion – the armed forces, courts and jails – and means of administration – the system of implementing state decisions, through
While almost all states control some means of production – raw materials, and productive equipment – such ownership is not unique to states.
None of this definition assumes that the state is efficient or inefficient. It does not require that the state be democratic. Some states claim to be, using parliamentary systems to which people are elected. Most states, historically, were openly undemocratic. It is only in the 1990s that the majority of states in the world allowed all adult citizens to both vote and be elected to parliament and other councils. The apartheid state, for example, was undemocratic.
Nothing in this definition assumes that the state has any specific origins, nor aims, nor that states actually rule effectively or can even claim a monopoly over armed force in their territory. Many states, in fact, do not control all of the territory that they rule. None of this means that every state knows the most basic things about its territories, such as how many people live in it, or the size of the domestic economy.
Finally, none of this definition assumes that states are the best or only ways to govern complex societies. It simply describes the state, which has become the most common way to do so.
The Republic of South Africa as a state
The Republic of South Africa is a state, running from the southern coasts of Africa, and up to the Limpopo. It is identical, in other words, with the territory we call “South Africa,” and, within that territory, has the sovereign right to rule. Simply put, if an individual incarcerates someone, it is kidnapping and illegal, but if the Republic – following the correct procedures – does so, it is imprisonment and legal.
The state is not identical with the population it rules. It is an organisation, in which only a minority are actively involved. Although most people have to deal with the state at some point, most people are not part of the state. The South African state is the single largest employer in the country, but the majority of employed people are not employed by the state. Although the state owns many means of production, and affects the economy in many ways – claiming tax, building roads, passing laws, spending money, hiring contractors, employing over a million people – a large part of the economy is outside of the state.
This state includes some of the structures with which you will come into a contact on a daily basis:
- Military and police formations, including the SAPS, SANDF, and municipal traffic
- Courts and prisons, including the Constitutional
- Parliament at national level, the provincial legislatures, and municipal
- Other mechanisms defined in the Constitution, such as the Chapter 9 institutions (including the Public Protector).
- Government departments, such as Home Affairs, which involve large staffs, the administrative components of which are organised as bureaucracies.
In addition, the South African state has direct ownership or control of a range of other resources, including many means of production, with which you will be familiar:
- Government schools and
- The roads, harbours, major dams, railways and major game
- The main universities (excluding a tiny number of wholly private ones, like Monash).
- State-owned corporations, among them ESKOM, TRANSNET, SAA and SABC, as well as a range of financial institutions, including banks, among them the Land Bank, the Public Investment Corporation (PIC), and the Eastern Cape Development Corporation, and lesser known bodies, like the state diamond mining company Alexkor and the state forestry company,
- Bodies like TELKOM (which the state partially owns), the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (around 12.5% of which is owned by the state through the PIC) and Lonmin mines (30% of which is owned by the state via PIC).
- Almost all land in the historic black homelands: that land is held in a state trust, from which it is allocated to chiefs and kings. The only significant exception is the land held in the Ingonyama Trust under the Zulu monarch. Chiefs and kings are, in fact, state employees (they even get salaries from the state), and this includes the most powerful, such as the Zulu monarch.
Nation-state and empire
Finally, the South African state is an independent nation-state, i.e. it is a state that claims to rule a distinct South African nation, with its own unique characteristics, and it is not part of or ruled by any other state.
Today, the nation state is the normal form of modern state, but it was not always so. As recently as sixty years ago, the most common state form was the empire: a mega-state ruling over a large territory comprising numerous groups including different nationalities. Empires were largely created by the takeover or conquest of states and stateless peoples, which were then included in the imperial territory, often as colonies. An empire might start with one nation state, or even as one city state, but it expands until far larger than this. Until 1961, South Africa was part of the British Empire; its head of state was the British Queen, its currency the pound, and God Save the Queen its second national anthem. At its height in the 1930s, the British Empire ruled one in four people in the world. From 1961, the South African state became a republic, meaning that it was no longer under a king or queen or emperor.
The rise of states
States are one means of governing – or organising – society, but not all societies are organised through states. Archaeological research indicates the first states emerged at least 8,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, the region that today includes Iraq, Kuwait, Syria and borderlands of Iran and Turkey. This is the area in which the main empires mentioned in the Bible were located: Assyria, Babylon, and Hittite Empire were near Israel. Abraham of the Bible and the Koran came from Ur, one of the first city-states in this region, located in what is now Iraq. States emerged soon afterwards in Egypt, and, over the next two thousand years in what is now India, Pakistan, and, finally, China.
This means that the state is a fairly recent arrival in human history, as human history goes back at least 100,000 years. At another level, however, what is striking is the rapidity with which the state, as a form of organisation, has spread over the world. There were still stateless societies – some of them substantial, with millions of people – in large parts of the world as recently as five hundred years ago, and some could still be found one hundred years ago.
However, it was the state as a system of governing and organising that has come to predominate, finally conquering and incorporating the stateless. While the state’s era may seem like a small part of the larger history of humanity, the state has consistently expanded its influence.
There is no human society on earth today that is not under a state. While the majority of humans in the past once lived without states, given population growth especially over the past two centuries, it is also true to say that most humans who have ever lived, have lived under states.
Every known class society – slavery, feudalism, tributary society and capitalism – has had a state, and states, therefore, existed well before capitalism and were the containers within which capitalism emerged. Since states have always existed with class societies, and since class societies have played a key role in the development of more advanced technologies, it might even be argued that classes and states have made modern population growth possible.
“Social contract” idealist theories of the state
It is not surprising that understanding and explaining the state has been a major concern for social scientists, as well as for activists. After all, how we understand the state shapes what we think can be done with it, and so, what our personal, political and organisational strategies should be.
An important tradition that has sought to explain the state is social contract theory. This theory argues, essentially, that complex societies cannot function without a state and that, therefore, people rationally decided to hand over power to a central body – that is, a state – which could ensure security and order. For Thomas Hobbes, for example, if everyone had equal rights and no restraint, there would be a “war of all against all.” Avoiding this “state of nature,” based on endless conflict, people chose to create states. They gained a liveable society by handing the power of violence to a centralising state. Freed of the continual threat of violent death from one another, they could now develop knowledge, production and culture. This is the “contract” into which people entered, the price of “social” order.
A critical assessment
This theory has a number of basic flaws. There were no classes or states in most of human history, which means that numerous human societies have had order without states (as noted above).
Therefore, the state is not inherent in society, nor is it the only means of ensuring social order, and the rise of the state cannot be explained by reference to a supposed social contract.
Second, states did not emerge in the way proposed by social contract theories. The evidence suggests, rather, that states emerged – as Karl Marx, Mikhail Bakunin and others argued – at the point in history in which societies divided into classes of rich and poor. This began when people started farming, which was around 10,000 years ago. Farming allowed larger populations and economic surpluses, and this enabled the development of class society.
States emerged as part of this process. There was no point in which people sat down and devised a social contract. Rather, ruling class minorities created states, as they centralised means of administration, coercion and administration in their own hands.
Once states emerged, they invariably sought to expand, competing with one another in an emergent international state system. Even societies that did not have states or classes were eventually brought under states through war, conquest and conflict.
A straightforward example of these arguments is the South African state itself. It was, in fact, created by the British parliament in 1909 through the Act of Union of South Africa. This Act unified territories Britain had conquered: the Afrikaans and black African polities, some of which – like the Zulu Kingdom and the Orange Free State – had themselves been built through conquest. In 1924, this South African state came under the control of Afrikaner nationalists, who took it out of the British Empire in 1961. From 1910-1994, this state ruled the majority of its population with racism and force. Only in the 1990s did it move towards a parliamentary democracy, although much of its law and its institutions – from homelands to parliament (which existed from 1910, but which was subject to racist restrictions before 1994) – originate with the British. Where, in this story, was there a social contract creating the state? It was never created through social contract by South Africans: in fact, people in its territory became “South Africans” as a result of being under this new state.
Thirdly, this theory actually says very little about how the state actually works, and what it actually does. It explains the state by reference to a supposed aim, and leaves it there: it does not look at how the state is organised, and it does not look at what the state actually does, which is often very different to what the social contract theory claims.
Obviously, states regulate society, and obviously they are one way of organising and governing it, but just knowing this tells us very little about states themselves – and what they can – or cannot – be made to do. For example, how do states change?
Finally, this theory fails to account for the fact that states are routinely biased towards powerful interests. If states serve the general interest of society, why have states consistently acted in ways that maintain – and even create – massive inequalities of power and wealth? If states exist simply to create public order, why do they also create billionaires alongside beggars?
For example, in the year that the South Africa state was created – 1910 – there was nothing unusual in the fact that the new state did not have universal suffrage i.e. voting rights for all adult citizens, regardless of education, income, race and sex, and the right to be elected. Britain itself excluded its own women, and many of its working class and poor men, from the vote until 1919. There were, in fact, only three countries with anything close to universal suffrage in the whole world at the time. It was only in the 1990s – within the last thirty years – that the majority of states in the world had democratically elected parliaments. If states were created by or for the public, why did they exclude the public for 8,000 years from the small act of voting?
Max Weber and the technical necessity of the modern state
The German economic historian Max Weber provided a much more sophisticated approach. Weber avoided the problems of social contract theory, by bluntly admitting that states emerged through violence, war and inequality, rather than free contracts, and served small elites.
Furthermore, he argued, explicitly, that states could never be truly democratic. All states were centralised, always hierarchical – that is, top-down – and based on force. State organisations were, in his view, the most efficient form of government. Furthermore, in his view, the most efficient form of state was the modern state in which decisions flowed from the top downwards, through a system of officials. The officials – appointed on the basis of skills, not elected, and not deployed due to political loyalties or personal influence – would simply carry out the orders from above. In doing so, this bureaucracy would follow pre-set, written rules and would receive no personal payments beyond their salaries. Decisions would be made on the basis of what was the best way to achieve set aims, rather than the morality of the methods or a discussion of the aims.
Societies governed by states would defeat societies without states, as states were essential to governing increasingly complex societies and more efficient than other forms. Modern states would defeat pre-modern states, as they were more effective than other states. And, as this happened, society would be controlled every more closely, by ever-expanding regulations, ever-more effectively administered. These would extend across business, work and politics. All major organisations would emulate the state form, including capitalist corporations.
Since the hierarchical, rule-bound, bureaucratic organisation, aiming at achieving goals efficiently, was both necessary and superior, it would never come to an end. For Weber, the modern state was basically a technical solution to governing complex societies. Without systems that operated top- down, based on the most efficient methods, with efficiency meaning the best way to get a goal with the least effort, modern society could not work.
Whether you had capitalism or socialism, the outcome would be basically the same. Elections would barely affect it; parliamentary democracy could not change the basic structure, which was undemocratic to its core. Society would end in an “iron cage” that would encompass all, unpleasant but essential. The “iron cage” was inescapable, precisely because it was necessary.
A critical assessment
There are several problems with this thesis. One is that the state is not obviously efficient. Rather than govern well, states are often wasteful and problem-generating. Now, Weber believed that the ideal state – bureaucratic, centralised– would overcome these problems, but the evidence suggests otherwise. As a simple example, consider the manifest inability of many state structures to efficiently carry out activities both small – for example, fixing potholes – and large – for example, reining in large-scale corruption.
Second, in whose interests does the state operate? Weber’s analysis clearly suggested that the state – as an organisation – had its own interests, separate to those of the larger society. It wanted to survive and expand. If that was the case, then the state was not neutral, but sought to claim more resources and power. Since that would bring the state into conflict with other groups in society –for example, it would mean more taxes – the role of the state was one that went well beyond simply ensuring society worked properly. The state then was not simply a technical solution to the problem of complexity.
Third, Weber’s analysis of the state as basically serving a necessary goal – governing society effectively – does not fit very well with his analysis of the origins and structure of states. If states emerged through war and oppression, and served elites, there was no reason to suppose that modern states were any different. The distinctive features of the modern state identified by Weber, were its centralised, bureaucratic and undemocratic structure, not a change in its basic nature.
Furthermore, that structure always concentrated power in the hands of small political elites. If that was so, then states remained organisations serving small elites.
Since modern societies remain basically unequal and conflictual, it does not make sense to see states as simply a technical means of addressing the complexities of society: rather, states are not neutral at all, being biased towards elites, enabling enrichment and exploitation, on the one side, and misery on the other. Certainly they helped maintain society as it is, and keep it working, but society is unequal and, therefore, the state – in maintaining such a society – is not neutral at all.
The liberal-pluralist theory of the state
A very common theory of the state – including in South Africa – is the view that the state is basically an empty place of power. This is a fancy way of saying that the state is a thing that exists and could be used by different social forces for their purposes. In this conception, a wide range of groups exist in society, and these put pressure on, and enter into, the state in order to secure their interests.
What the state ends up doing then is the consequence of the balance of forces between these interest groups, of which there may be a great many. When states do not act this way, it is seen as aberration from their real nature, due perhaps to corruption or conspiracies.
For example, an oppressed nation might create a state to secure its independence and express its national interests. A workers’ party might run in elections in order to win seats and implement socialist measures. A women’s lobby group might use the courts, lobby the parties and act to place more women in parliament in order to secure the passage of laws that grant women equal pay for equal work.
This theory might sound similar to the social contract theory, but it differs in two main ways. First, it has no interest in the origins of the state and, so, skips the whole idea that the state emerged through some contract. Second, it assumes that the state can be redirected by different groups, so long as they can exert their influence upon it. It is also very different from Weber’s view of the state: whilst Weber believed that states were barely touched by processes like elections, the liberal- pluralist theory assumes that states can change radically, depending on which interest groups influence them. So the aims of the state are, in fact, open: it has no fixed or essential aims.
A critical assessment
There are several problems with this line of argument.
The first major objection is that states do not reflect the demands of different interest groups equally, and that large, mobilised interest groups reflecting the demands of very large parts of the population do not seem to be able to control the state. A simple example is the case of workers’ movements. There have been numerous countries in which worker-backed political parties – including Communist parties – have won elections, but there is no case in which such parties have then been able to – for example – carry out stated programmes of abolishing capitalism, using parliaments.
On the other hand, it is obvious that states often act in ways that were never authorised by the public and which clearly harm the majority of people, and persist in doing so even in the teeth of massive popular opposition. As a concrete example, successive South African governments have pursued privatisation since 1979 right to the last days of the apartheid National Party, but this policy has never been subject to any vote. Similarly, the African National Congress (ANC) adopted the Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy in 1996, despite being elected in 1994 on the very different Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP).
This suggests that states have structured biases – in the words of Bob Jessop, influenced by Marxism, states have a “structural selectivity,” giving “unequal chances to different forces within and outside that state to act for different political purposes.” It may seem that states are open to all, but they are in fact heavily biased towards certain groups and, especially economic and political elites.
There are several basic reasons for this. First, if, as argued in the last section, states originated in wars and conquest, and served elites for thousands of years, they were not designed to be used by everyone. Second, societies are not based on equal groups. We have a capitalist society, in which, for example, small wealthy elites wield enormous economic power, and naturally have more influence than, for example, working class majorities. Third, states generally rely on capitalism to keep the economy going and generate tax revenues, and exist in an international economic system and a system of states, all of which limits what is possible.
Further, the liberal-pluralist theory – like the social contract theory – actually says almost nothing about the state itself. It sees the state as basically reflecting things happening elsewhere, as a sort of shadow cast by other forces. But the state – as argued earlier, when looking at South Africa – is a massive, powerful organisation. Its structures have a life of their own, well beyond what interest groups might want to, or can control – which operate in ways and for reasons that are independent of external pressures. Even the demands made of states by different groups are filtered by, and their implementation shaped by, the state itself.
If, as Weber suggested, the state as an organisation can have its own interests, then it simply cannot be understood as merely a tool for others; it is less a hammer than a builder in its own right.
Finally, it can also be argued that liberal-pluralist theory confuses participating in the state with influencing the state. As a concrete example, black trade unions in the 1980s either stayed completely out of the state, or only participated in the state in very limited ways – using industrial bargaining machinery and a few court cases – yet managed to get the state to radically overhaul its labour law; they also managed to play a massive role in bringing apartheid to its knees. This was done through struggle outside the state, and did not require any illusions that the state – as liberal- pluralism insists – was either democratic or, at least, open to influence by all sorts of forces. It was based, instead, on the idea that states always served elites but could nonetheless be forced to make some reforms.
Marxist theory on the state
By contrast to the foregoing approaches, Karl Marx argued that states emerged as a result of society splitting into classes, and always served the economically dominant classes. While Marx’s theory was complex and not always consistent, its core points were clear. Simply put, states were not the product of a hypothetical deal at the beginning of time, but were nothing more, and nothing less, than bodies of armed men whereby wealthy minorities that owned the means of production enforced their rule over the propertyless majority, which worked for the owners. They were not simply something made necessary by the “complexity” of society: they were made necessary by the harsh reality of a class society in which small ruling classes had to keep power over the masses they oppressed, using violence as the ultimate argument.
States, in other words, were class states: they served minorities, suppressing majorities. The state in slave-based societies like ancient Rome was the state of the slave-owners; the state in feudal societies like medieval Britain, Ethiopia, Japan and northern Nigeria was the state of the feudal lords; the state in capitalist societies was the state of the capitalists.
This was unchanged by the fact of elections – V.I. Lenin even described parliamentary democratic states as the “best political shell” concealing the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”  –and, therefore, liberal-pluralist notions that states could be used by pretty much any interest group were nonsense. The state was locked in step with one specific interest group, the economically dominant class, and the link could not be broken. As a concrete example, the Republic of South Africa is a state run for the capitalist class, regardless of whether P.W. Botha, Nelson Mandela, Jacob Zuma, the apartheid National Party (NP), or today’s African National Congress (ANC), Democratic Alliance (DA), Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) or Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) is in office.
This structural bond between state and economic ruling class cannot be broken – certainly not by elections. Another class can only take power by creating its own state. For example, the capitalists created new states – for example, in the French Revolution – to overthrow and crush the feudal lords, and the working class must create its own state – a “dictatorship of the proletariat” – to take power and crush the capitalists.
A critical assessment
A major problem facing this theory is the same directed against the liberal-pluralists and the social contract writers: it actually does not look at the state as an organisation, and therefore struggles to get to grips with the state itself.
As a concrete example, Marxism defines classes in terms of ownership or non-ownership of the means of production. From this view, a state president is not, as such, a capitalist – he or she might be, as with Donald Trump, but many, as with Mandela, were not. Yet a state president is not the same as an ordinary worker. What class, then, is he or she? It can and is argued by some Marxists that he or she is a capitalist because he or she serves capital. But so does a street cleaner.
A second problem lies in the fact that it is not quite clear how the capitalists control the state. It is one thing to state this as a fact; it is quite another to show how this supposedly happens. Do they phone in the orders? What if – as has been the case with almost every head of state in South Africa since 1910, before Ramaphosa – the president is not from the capitalist class?
Third, there are in fact many steps that capitalist states take of which many capitalists disapprove, ranging from “state capture” in South Africa, to laws protecting unions, to policies that restrict recruitment of cheap labour (e.g. Trump restricting immigration to the USA, which threatens for example farms in the California province, which are almost completely reliant on cheap Latin American labour). Many state activities – for example, the ban on interracial sex under apartheid – don’t seem easy to explain by reference to the needs of capitalism.
This brings up the related problem that the private capitalists are not united, beyond some common interests. For example, there were intense conflicts between white English and Afrikaner capitalists in South Africa until the 1970s, with the apartheid state actively promoting the latter, sometimes at the expense of the former. Today, we can see conflicts between, for example, emergent black- owned businesses and larger established white-owned businesses, as well as local capitalists objecting to cheap imports from foreign capitalists. What group, then, would a state take its orders from? If the fractures are deep, what does it mean to even speak of class interests?
A critical note on “relative autonomy”
One solution is to argue – like Nicos Poulantzas – that the state must have a degree of independence from the capitalists, if it is to serve the capitalists effectively. This will prevent the state serving one group of capitalists at the expense of others – for example, forcing mines to buy their supplies at inflated prices from politically-connected cronies, which would harm the whole system, or forcing capitalists to do things they might not like (like pay taxes) but are nonetheless good for capitalism (taxes, after all, build roads and pay for schools).
Second, he argued, the state could act as a space for resolving conflicts between the classes – precisely because of its distance from direct, crude control by actual individual capitalists, it could act as a space where class struggles were fought out (a “materialization and condensation of class relations”), but with the limit that, at the end of the day, “in the final instance,” the state was still capitalist.
This too, has some problems. What is the class character of the leading state personnel? If it is to be set by their ideological and political affinities, or the class they “represent,” we have either a break with classic Marxist definitions of class as objectively defined as a relation to means of production, or again, a theory of the state that does not look at the state itself, as an organisation, but reads it from outside forces.
What does it actually mean to say capitalist interests are determining in the “last instance”? What is a “last instance”? The idea is either meaningless or so vague to cover almost anything.
And, if class struggle take place within the state, why should the proletariat not win? In fact, Poulantzas came pretty much to this position in his last major book – State, Power, Socialism – where he spoke of “sweeping transformation of the state apparatus in the democratic road to socialism” where there is “no longer a place for what has traditionally been called smashing or destroying that apparatus.” Bob Jessop, much influenced by Poulantzas but much more careful to suggest that the state has a “structural selectivity,” giving “unequal chances to different forces,” nonetheless ended up somewhere similar: there “is no unconditional guarantee that the modern state will always (or ever) be essentially capitalist,” and could in fact be a range of types, like “a representative democratic regime answerable to civil society,” or “an apartheid state.”
If that is so, then the state is not – as argued by Marx and Lenin – always bonded to the economically dominant class, but, again, we end up with a theory that posits that the state is an empty place of power. This is essentially the claim made by liberal-pluralist theory, and faces all the problems that entails (see earlier). By contrast, for Marx, under capitalism, an apartheid state, a religious state, or a democratic state, are simply variants of the capitalist state.
Bakunin and the anarchist/syndicalist theory of the state
As we have seen, Marx stressed the role of class in shaping what states could do, but Marxists arguably struggled to theorise the state itself beyond describing it as a method by which one class suppressed another. Furthermore, it could be argued that the question of the class character of leading state personnel was left unclear.
One approach, which built on Marxism, but went beyond it, was that of Mikhail Bakunin. Bakunin argued, like Weber, that the state had its own dynamics, which could not be reduced to the interests of other groups. But he also argued, like Marx, that the state served elite interests, rejecting Weberian ideas of the state as a technical solution to the problems of modern society, and liberal- pluralist ideas that the state was there for anybody’s use. In other words, he wanted to take the state seriously, as an organisation, but he also saw the state as integrally linked to class.
His argument was that society was based on class inequality. The state was headed by a political elite, whose power rested on control of means of administration and coercion, which were concentrated in the state. The core members of this political elite were senior state officials, including senior politicians, police chiefs, army leaders, mayors and so on. The capitalist corporations were headed by an economic elite power rested on control of means of production, which were concentrated in the corporations. The core members were owners and senior managers.
These two elites worked together, as they each needed the other – political elites needed, for example, the revenue generated by capitalism, while economic elite needed, for example, the state’s armed force to keep order, although they could also clash, for example over tax rates, state policy, and corporate behaviour. What united them was a common interest. This would be reinforced in other ways, like marriage, social networks and so on, but the core connection was a convergence of definite interests. Together they formed ruling classes, which were more than just the capitalists; they included the politicians, and this meant political parties participating in the state were no allies of the working class.
What this all meant is that society was ruled by ruling classes – not just capitalists, but also state managers – and the question of the class character of the leading personnel in states was also solved. What defined ruling classes was ownership or control of any one or more of the three core societal resources: means of administration, coercion and production.
The fact that the state performed some useful functions did not refute this analysis. Private capitalists, too, performed useful functions. What matters is that in each case, small elites use their centralised, predominant control over these essential functions, based on almost complete control and ownership of essential societal resources, to dominate and exploit the majority in society: the popular classes.
None of this meant that states and corporations always struck good deals – complete disasters were always possible – or that either elite was united. Just as capitalists were divided by firms, sectors, factions and ideas, states were divided by departments, levels of government, factions and ideas.
And since these two wings of the ruling class rested on different power bases – means of administration and coercion, centred on the state, on one hand, means of production, centred on private capitalist firms, on the other hand – neither was in charge of the other. Therefore, the whole problem of how, exactly, capitalists would control a capitalist state, or why states sometimes did things that annoyed capitalists, or even had nothing to do with capitalism, fell away.
And, just as the capitalist corporation was – despite internal class struggles between their bosses and their workers – basically run and controlled by capitalists, so too were states – despite internal class struggles between their bosses and their workers – basically run and controlled by state elites. States and corporations were both centralised so that these minorities could rule.
States could not be captured by the working class and political parties were part of the problem, not the solution, for the working class Reforms should be won by direct struggle, but getting rid of ruling classes meant getting rid of states as well as capitalists, placing all means of administration, coercion and production under some sort of direct, bottom-up, democratic popular control.
A critical assessment
There are a number of criticisms that could be levelled at this thesis. For one thing, it could be accused of overstating the limits of what is possible within the state. It would be possible to dismiss the changes in state policies and actions by saying that states did what they were forced to do, but, if so, why should it not be possible to force states to make even greater changes?
It is one thing to say that everything the state does is, ultimately, constrained by what ruling classes will accept, but quite another to say this means radical changes are not possible within the existing system. Ruling classes exist in relation to the working class, and surely, then, cannot have all the power, all the time. An emphasis on ruling class power can lead to a tendency to ignore changes in the state and its policies, on the grounds that no matter what happens, it’s still a ruling class system.
Second, this theoretical approach could be accused of being quite vague in explaining the actual operations of actual states. States are not just made of state elites, and these elites are dependent on millions of officials, middle level and lower, and ordinary workers. Focussing on state elites misses a great deal of what happens in the state. An emphasis on the power of state elites can, in ignoring the other layers in the state, lead to reading state actions off elite actions, as if the very implementation of policy is not shaped by the lower level employees that have to do the actual work.
Finally, examining both political and economic elites will invariably show the deep fractures within both groups, and between them. If the fractures are deep, what does it mean to even speak of class interests?
- Australia had almost universal suffrage at this time, but most of the Aboriginal minority –around 2% of the population – was denied these rights until 1967. Finland was unique in having universal suffrage in 1910. It was not, however, an independent state, but a self-governing region of the Russian Empire. New Zealand had universal voting in 1910, but women could only vote: they not be elected.
- Jessop, B. 1990. State Theory: Putting the capitalist state in its place. Pennsylvania, University Park: Penn State University Press. p. 367.
- Lenin, V.I.  1933. The State and Revolution: The Marxist theory of the state and the tasks of the proletariat in the revolution. London: Martin Lawrence.
- The Prime Ministers from 1910-1984 were (in sequential order), a general, a general, a general, a priest, a professor, a lawyer, and a career party activist. The executive presidents, from 1984-1994, were a career party activist, and a lawyer. The executive presidents, from 1994-2019, were a lawyer, a career party activist, a municipal worker, and a career party activist – and, only in 2018, for the first time, a big capitalist.
- Poulantzas, N. 1978. State, Power, Socialism. London: New Left Books. p. 260.
- Jessop, State Theory, p. 367.
- Jessop, State Theory, p. 8.
- Van der Walt, L. 2018. “Back to the Future: Revival, relevance and route of an anarchist/ syndicalist approach to 21st century left, labour and national liberation movements.” In K. Helliker and L. van der Walt. (eds.). Politics at a Distance from the State: Radical and African perspectives. London and New York: Routledge.
- This is simplified for the sake of argument. Obviously all states have some means of production – for example, state corporations – and all capitalist firms have some means of coercion – such as security guards – and some means of administration – such as corporate bureaucracies.