william paul’s ‘the state: its origins and function’

Here we reproduce sections of William Paul’s The State.

Introduction by Chris Ford – William Paul: a pioneer of communism from below

 William Paul (1884-1958) is a largely forgotten Marxist theoretician and activist from the early part of the 20th century. Paul joined the De Leonist influenced Socialist Labour Party (SLP) in Glasgow and was to become its leading Marxist theorist and tutor and later a founding member of the Communist Party and one of its key figures in the 1920s. Paul was joint editor, with Tom Bell, of the SLP’s paper, The Socialist, and was a formidable lecturer and theoretician mainly active in England.

He developed a conception of communism based on workers self-organisation. The workers’ revolutions, he wrote, would “force their way up from below, through local successes, until the whole centralised machinery of the national Capitalist State has been captured, uprooted, and replaced by the administrative organs of the working class.” Amongst his many writings were the books Scientific Socialism: Its Revolutionary Aims and Methods, The State: its Origin and Function, Communism and Society and the pamphlet The Irish Crisis: Ireland and the World Revolution.

Paul was a strong critic of state-socialism and with remarkable foresight saw the dangers of the bureaucratic state regimes which were to emerge so strongly in 20th century. Like John MacLean, Paul put great emphasis on working class education: he ran a series of well attended classes in 1917-18, the lectures from which were published in his classic book The State: its origin and functions. This book was written before and without any knowledge of Lenin’s work the State and Revolution: in regard to the problem of state-socialism Paul was more advanced than Lenin. In the early Communist Party Paul’s book was standard reading for the new generation of communists.

Paul was a leader of the Communist Unity group of the SLP and became a leader of the then revolutionary CPGB, editor of the Communist Review, he stood as a ‘Labour-Communist’ candidate in the general elections of 1922 and 1924. He then became the editor of the CPGB Sunday Worker, used to intervene with great success in the Labour Party: however he was elbowed out during the period of “Bolshevisation” along with other ex-SLPers to make way for the lesser men who rose during the Stalinisation of the CPGB. Paul like so many others politically drowned in the rising tides of Stalinism and remaining on the fringes of politics he was a lifelong member of the CPGB until his death.

Republished here are sections of Paul’s classic work The State: Its Origins and Function, along with the introduction by Harry McShane, another veteran of this generation of communists, which was written in the 1974 edition by the Proletarian Publishing House, Edinburgh. McShane was the then editor of the Scottish Marxist Humanist.

Introduction and chapter nine; chapters ten and eleven

 On a neglected classic: by Harry McShane

The decision to bring out a new edition of this book could not come at a more appropriate time. It was appropriate when it first appeared, in 1917, but the happenings in our present-day world fully justifies re-appearance now. If only it helps to expose the colossal ignorance those top politicians who are busy distorting what Marxist theory has to say on the State. There is hardly another question that is the subject of so much confusion, and deliberate distortion, than that of the origin and function of the State.

Pope Leo XIII, back in 1885, declared the state to be of divine origin. The thought that the human race existed thousands of years ago without the State will seem crazy to those who consider the State to be eternal and indispensable. The further thought that mankind will outlive the State will put us, in their eyes, beyond redemption. These thoughts, that seem so crazy, were expressed by a young Scotsman at a time thousands of young men, mobilized by the European states, were being slaughtered on the fields of war.

Something will be said later, about William Paul’s political affiliation. His aim in writing this book was to kill the illusion that the state worked in the interests of the whole population. It came into being as an organ of class rule. Its role in present-day is to keep the masses under the yoke of capital. That view expresses an essential element of Marxist theory.

State tyranny has been seen in practice on a higher level since the book was written. State intervention is taking many forms, but always with the aim of defending capitalism — even when making concessions in the field of social services. Lenin, in a lecture on the state in 1919, followed the same line as William Paul, but he drew attention to the complexities of the questions. The points made are indisputable, but the is more complicated — and more dangerous – than it was then. State tyranny exists in countries where private ownership has been abolished. Something will be said about this. It is interesting to note that the author did see that the abolition of private ownership was not enough. One the right to hope that his chapter on Modern capitalism will be read by all who are really concerned about changing society. He points out:

“The desire to control national production, the fear of industrial unrest, and the wish to enforce discipline upon the workers will compel the capitalist class to extend state control. The extension of State control will bring with it armies of official bureaucrats, who will only be able to maintain their posts by tyrannizing and limiting the freedom of the workers”

William Paul goes on to make the important point: “and instead of having to overthrow a system buttressed by a handful of individual capitalists, the workers will be with be faced with a gigantic army of State-subsidized officials, who will fight like tigers to maintain their status.” The reader has only to give a little thought to what is happening throughout the world to find proof of how correct was that analysis made in 1917.

Nothing has happened to detract from the importance of this book. The author made only a passing reference to the Russian Revolution. The great change that has come over Russia since 1917 provides abundant evidence of the function of the State as the battering ram of capital. Capital lives on the servitude of the masses, that is true whether owned by the private combines by the State. William Paul was emphatic on this long before the evidence became so abundant.

It is inevitable that the situation in Russia and Eastern Europe, where private ownership of the means of production no longer exists, will attract the attention of all who read this book. It is not possible for an honest person to banish this situation from his or her thoughts. If the means of production take the form of capital the position of the workers in society remains unchanged. Capitalist exploitation can be planned more effectively under state control. It is in Russia that William Pauls views on the state find the fullest confirmation. The law of value, and the law of the concentration of capital, continue under the ruthless guidance of the state. The fact that an attempt was to keep students from reading the first chapter of [Marx’s] Capital was not unconnected with the form of labor power existing there, as in capitalist countries. The ever-increasing world trend towards state-Capitalism makes a study of the Marxist approach a necessity. The trend is here for all to see, but, here in Britain, illusions regarding what it means are being fostered by personalities in the Labour movement.

William Paul’s book became available in Britain before Lenin’s State and Revolution and Engels had written a book on the subject under the title, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, but, by that time it did not have a wide circulation. Both works drew upon H. Morgans Ancient Society. Morgan’s book on his researches into primitive society in North America. The Socialist Labour Party sold many copies of this book. The full significance of the book was brought out by both Engels and Paul. The author asserts that “the gens or clan is the real starting point of a consciously organised social association”. He has much that is of great interest to say about the regulation of life under this system of primitive communism. There was no private ownership of property and, consequently, no conflict of interests. Whatever one may think of the customs of our primitive ancestors they were on a much more higher plane than the animals. By the use and development of tools the gap between animal and man became wider.

The why and wherefore of the development of private ownership and the consequent destruction of the old order is dealt with by the author, and it makes interesting reading. The new propertied class enslaved those without property, and established its own form of rule. The state is the new organ of class rule. That is what it remains as we enter the final quarter of the twentieth century. This point of view stands in direct contradiction to those who consider the State as the means by which all social problems can be solved in an impartial manner.

We are at a time when top leaders in the Labour and trade union movement are endeavoring to persuade the workers that their interests are tied up with the interests of the state. They have not been very successful up to now. There was a time when a Tory Prime Minister said, “All wages must come down.” What is said now is, “Wages must not go up.” Britain is very hard by the world-wide crisis, and those who over us want the workers to refrain from asking high a price for their labour power. Their appeal, up to now, has fallen on deaf ears. In this very acute situation it is imperative that we aware of the role of the State. Capitalism needs the state in its present predicament. It is in real trouble.

There never was a time when so many workers were in conflict with those in power, but that does not mean the workers are, as yet, imbued with political motives. The struggles have not been coordinated in such a way as to demonstrate class solidarity. The workers refuse to be influenced by the trade union leaders and the so-called social contract is being smashed to smithereens. These features of the struggle spring from the fact that it is motivated by economics. That limitation to economics will not be permitted to very long, politics will break through. We will then see the state in its true colors.

Since this book was written some works by Marx, unknown even to Lenin, have been unearthed. They give a deeper meaning to his teaching. Capital thrives on exploitation, but Marx was concerned about the “Fragmentation of man” by capitalism, and how it hindered human development. In his early manuscripts, 1844, he said: “Communism is the necessary form and dynamic principle of the immediate future, but is not itself the goal of future development of future society.” This takes us beyond the State — even the proletarian state.

William Paul was a member of the Socialist Labour Party when he wrote this book. His conclusions are those expounded by Daniel De Leon. He visualizes the building of the Industrial Union which will take over the means of production. He sees the possibility of a peaceful revolution. William Paul joined the Communist Party, and presumably, supported the seizure of power by the Soviets. What this had in common with the Socialist Labour Party approach was the destruction of the bourgeois form of government and the coming to power of the workers. Whatever opinion may hold on this it should be allowed to detract attention from the main theme of the hook.

The writer of this Preface would make the point that the human initiative in bringing about social change should not be forgotten. We should recall Marx’s praise for the initiative of the masses in the Paris Commune; the movement from below. The thoughts and passions of the workers are of great importance. The creativity of the masses must not be discounted if the savagery of the is to be countered

This book should be read. It deals with illusions about the State and its role in history. It brings Marxist theory to the front as a theory of liberation. State-Capitalism is on the march. It must be exposed and stopped.

Harry McShane, 1974

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