hal draper, the state and socialism from below

by David Broder

Recently this site has seen a debate over the question of the state in bourgeois society and after working-class revolution, with comrades from the Trotskyist group ‘Permanent Revolution’ arguing that such a revolution would necessarily have to create a new state which would centrally plan the economy. They call this “socialism”, to be followed by a later classless, stateless era of “communism”. They furthermore argue that state-planned economies such as Cuba’s, despite the lack of working-class power in decision-making, nonetheless represent, in some dilute form, “workers’ states”.

This has little in common with our conception of how working-class power comes about and should be exercised: by the working class itself, democratically, from below and creating its own structures organically. There are no saviours from on high: we do not want a benign régime or enlightened despot to dish out equality of poverty.

With this in mind, we have added three texts to the ‘ideas’ section of our website by the American communist Hal Draper. These argue against state socialist models and for ‘socalism from below’, and see this sentiment as a thread running through the works of Karl Marx.

Click here to read The Death of the State in Marx and Engels; the Two Souls of Socialism; and The Dictatorship of the Proletariat in Marx and Engels.

13 thoughts on “hal draper, the state and socialism from below

  1. Do you not think that, albeit under quite an esoteric definition, Marx considered himself to be for a ‘workers state’? c.f. for instance, the section from the Conspectus that Draper quotes:

    BAK.: “What does it mean – ‘the proletariat organized as ruling class’?”

    MARX: It means that the proletariat, instead of struggling against the economically privileged classes as individuals, has gained enough strength and organization to employ general means of coercion in the struggle against them; but it can employ only economic means that abolish its own character as a salariat [wage-earners] and hence as a class; therefore, with its complete victory its own rule is ended too, since its class character has disappeared.

    MARX: …if class rule has disappeared, and there will be no state in the present political sense.”


    1) (from the second quote) there are states whenever there is class rule. (There are other quotations which back this up, but I don’t have time to find them.)

    2) (from the first quote) in the revolution, the proletariat is ‘a ruling class’

    Therefore, unavoidably, as a matter of definition, in the revolution, the proletariat has a state. Whilst I don’t think Marx’s definition is a particularly helpful one, don’t you agree that under it he does defend the idea of a workers state?


  2. OK, I see the LRC conference debate has continued. I’ve replied to the argument that ‘this is not a semantic debate’ on that thread.


  3. I think you decontextualise the Marx (not that it’s holy writ, but still…) When combined with the rest of the quote Draper cites and his commentary, posted below, the Marx bit you cite hardly infers a “state”. Not only in the non-PR/ortho-Trot sense, but in any meaningful use of the term. Indeed, even the idea of “ruling class” has to be seen in the context that when it is the “ruling class”, the working class will not exploit other classes, since it would of course not hire wage-labour or establish any similar relationship in the means of production.

    BAK.: “The Germans number about 40 million. Will all 40 million, for example, be members of the government?”

    MARX : Certainly! Since the thing begins with the self-government of the Commune….

    BAK.: “In the theory of the Marxists, this dilemma is solved simply. By a people’s government they”

    MARX: – that is, Bakunin –

    BAK.: “understand the government of the people establishes a small number of administrators selected (elected) by the people.”

    MARX: YOU ass! This [would be] democratic rigmarole, political drivel ! Election – a political form, in the smallest Russian commune and in the artel. The character of an election does not depend on this name but on the economic foundations, on the economic interrelations of the voters; and as soon as the functions have ceased to be political, there exists (1) no governmental function; (2) the distribution of general functions has become a businesslike matter entailing no rule; (3) the election has none of its present political character.

    In response to Bakunin’s argument that a worker, once elected to a post, ceases to be a worker and becomes only a bureaucrat seeking his own aggrandizement, Marx refers to “the position of a manager in a workers’ cooperative factory”, which should rid him of his nightmares about the dangers of such an election. In the context, Marx is plainly assuming a situation where the workers in this cooperative factory elect and depose administrators by their votes. Further down, Marx adds:

    MARX: He should have asked himself: what form can the administrative functions take on the basis of this workers’ state [Arbeiterstaat], if one wants to call it that? [my emphasis]


  4. Marx: “The character of an election does not depend on this name but on the economic foundations, on the economic interrelations of the voters; and as soon as the functions have ceased to be political, there exists (1) no governmental function; (2) the distribution of general functions has become a businesslike matter entailing no rule; (3) the election has none of its present political character.”

    Marx here is discussing elections in a classless communist society, not during the “dictatorship of the proletariat” phase. Under the DoP, the state is subordinate to society and is radically democratic — but it still exists.

    Since we’re discussing Draper, it might be worthwhile to look again at Draper’s critique of anarchism, Proudhon in particular. Draper obviously doesn’t believe that the workers’ political revolution destroys the state per se. And rightly so. Because it is literally impossible. Anarchists may believe that it’s possible to immediately abolish classes, the state, markets, money, etc. — but Marxists don’t. And we’re right not to.

    Draper: “Marx used the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in exactly the same way as he used ‘rule of the proletariat’ and the other labels for a workers’ state.” [http://marxmyths.org/hal-draper/article2.htm]


  5. On the first para, I don’t see why there’s even a prima facie problem for the use of ‘ruling class’ to describe the proletariat, as long as we accept that the capitalists can exist as a historical class once the large part of economic power is no longer theirs – through military means, etc. (Which I think yer average trot overemphasises, but there you are.) Exploitation is not a necessary relation of a ruling class to a ruled class. (Not least because “exploitation” in the Marxist sesense depends on “value”, which itself is specific to capitalism.)

    … and I think I’m not decontextualising the Marx. I see the significance of the phrase you emphasise to be this. That Bakunin “may call it that”, though it is in fact, Marx says, not a state, because the it in question is not society during the revolutionary transformation, but society after it – i.e. communism, when there is (according to Marx) no “state”. But Bakunin is calling it a state, and if you look at the Bakunin statement Marx is responding to, you’ll see it’s about the administration of communist society in general, there’s no indication that it refers specifically to the period of open class war prior to communism. So Marx argues that Bakunin is confused becaues he – Bakunin – is saying that Marx thinks there will be a state under communism.

    By asking “what administrative function…” Marx is asking Bakunin to differentiate his conception of communism, in concrete structural terms, from Marx’s. This is because he sees that Bakunin will fail to be able to differentiate on the substantive question (what could he say?) and hence have to drop his substantive argument with Marx.

    I think if you read the next few paras of Draper closely it supports what I’m saying – though it’s unclear at first:

    Then Marx goes on to say that the class rule of the workers “can last only as long as the economic basis of the existence of classes had not been destroyed.” He adds:

    MARX: Since, during the period of struggle for the overthrow of the old society, the proletariat still acts on the basis of the old society, and hence still operates in political forms which belong to it [the old society] more or less, it has not yet attained its final structure during this period of struggle, and employs means for its emancipation which pass away [wegfallen] after its emancipation.

    From all this, we see the following. Marx is thinking about the administration of social functions when “there will be no state in the present political sense”. Once again, there is no use inventing a “state” with some non-political sense in order to account for his language. As he puts it, one can call it an Arbeiterstaat if one insists, provided it is understood that this social authority has transcended the political forms of the old society, viz. class rule and coercion. But he himself continues to use the formulation that there will be “no governmental function”, no “political character” to the administration.

    As further evidence for my position, go back to the first two paras in the Conspectus. Bakunin has written:

    Marx, which recommends to the workers, if not as final ideal then at least as the next major aim — the foundation of a people’s state, which, as they have expressed it, will be none other than the proletariat organized as ruling class.

    How does Marx respond? Does he say, “no, actually I’m not reccomending a ‘next major aim’ to be ‘the foundation of a people’s [sic] state’ – i.e. the ‘proletariat organised as a ruling class’. What I’m actually reccomending is…”?

    He says nothing like this. What he says is:

    It means that so long as the other classes, especially the capitalist class, still exists, so long as the proletariat struggles with it (for when it attains government power its enemies and the old organization of society have not yet vanished), it must employ forcible means, hence governmental means. (My emphasis)

    Another position, for interest, though… http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/2419/marxstat.html


  6. Under the DoP, the state is subordinate to society and is radically democratic — but it still exists.

    To be picky, the state must be subordinate to the working class. Not ‘society’.


  7. Also, when you say it ‘still exists’, you imply that it is the same state that existed before, or has anything in common with it. As if the proletariat were to get their party elected, or get their party to mount a putsch, and then make it ‘radically democratic’, and then use it to suppress the bourgeoisie. There is no reason to suppose it would have any institutional or organisational continuity with the bourgeois state. It is also a ‘state’, by definition, but it has nothing in common with the bourgeois state.


  8. Well, I think that is a rather rigid understanding of a Marxist understanding of exploitation, obviously my comment was not definitional and I did not say wage labour is a constant in class societies (hence: “it would of course not hire wage-labour or establish any similar relationship in the means of production”). There’s a saying by Marx, “the walls of the stomach of the feudal lord is the limitation of the exploitation of the serfs”.

    The other point I guess you could make (i.e. the capitalist class has residual power even once it has begun to be expropriated, thus those who suppress this are a state “armed bodies of men…”) doesn’t really wash with me either. A militia is not as such a state form in any meaningful sense, and I don’t see why being tied to a soviet would make it more or less so. The armed workers’ councils which have existed in various dual power situations, e.g. spring-summer 1917 in Russia were not “states”, so why having displaced the central bourgeois authority should they become so?

    My reading of the Marx is that once the old order is broken up and admin/decision-making are democratised and placed under direct working-class power, that is no longer a state. I am wary of the word “government” – we might refer to a fully free communist society with no money, wage labour etc. as “self-governed” or “self-managed”, without implying institutions and hierarchy, still less “states”.

    I think Marx’s conceptions, in particular in the Civil War in France, are of self-governed communes rather than the people’s state, even in the immediate situation in France almost 140 years ago. The arguments are both semantic and not, I am not as interested in the semantic argument, although in another sense think terminology is important since people who popularise terms like “workers’ state” mean something very different from the society we want to create.

    On the other point on the other LRC thread, Dan from PR said that workers have no control in Cuba and don’t run the economy, in which case it is meaningless for him to insist on calling it a workers’ state on “semantic grounds”… unless PRmactually do mean something else, e.g. extending some degree of support for the status quo, as shown by their points on centralisation and planning and the ortho-Trot “defend the gains” position as regards the Stalinist bureaucracy.


  9. As regards Tom’s last comment, posted after I started writing mine: I think the Trot position for a “workers’ goverment” could only make sense if you believed you can take over the state as is but change its character from above, by a workers’ government, e.g. introducing the workers’ wage for representatives, instant recallability, various democratic measures, breaking up the police and army (not that any of the current raft of transitional programmes I’ve seen call for workers’ militias), widespread nationalisations and enactment of workers’ controls etc.


  10. Tom: “To be picky, the state must be subordinate to the working class. Not ’society’.”

    Marx: “Freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it [society].”

    Was Marx not picky enough?


  11. Wriitng to August Bebel about a party platform four years after the Paris Commune, Engels advised: “The whle talk about the state should be dropped, especially since the Commune, which was no longer a state in the proper sense of the word”. Engels meant by this that the working class government had immediately “lopped off” a host of the features hisytorically associated with the nature of the state.
    To the degree that it is necessary for the Commune or any working class government to establish organs of authority, not directly concerned with self-management in producton, but to repress its class enemies it may seem in some measure legitimate to compate it to a state power – as I said before borowing from Marx’s critique of the Gotha Programme, it may be required to perform certain “social funtions analogous to the present functions of the state”.

    The point is as soon as the working class steps forward to depose the rulin class and begin to uproot capital and establish social ownership, the state has begun to “die out”, and is replaced by a working class self-government that is “not a state in the proper sense of the word”. To restate the essence of the argument – the communist revolution from the START in establishing the workers self-government – “abolished the state as state” . The lower phase of communism, in my view is a dialectical revolutionary process, a movement of ‘negation of the negation’, from state to a stateless, from a class to a classless society. I dont accept this undefind transitional period period of god knows how long degerate workers states and all sorts of abortions.


  12. States exist in class societies to defend the property forms which provide the material basis for the existence of the ruling class. The forms of those states, and the means by which they carry out that function are diverse, and even take the form of measures that actually appear to be detrimental to the ruling class itself – for example various types of Bonapartism or Caesarism.

    Unless, you beleive that it is possible to go straight from Capitalism to Communism – and Marx certainly didn’t, in fact in the Critique of the Gotha Programme he says he doesn’t even know whether Communism is possible i.e. a society in which bourgeois Right has disappeared – then it is clear that a period of transition is inevitable.

    A working class that does what you say – “The point is as soon as the working class steps forward to depose the rulin class and begin to uproot capital and establish social ownership” – by definition asserts its position of ruling social class, as against other classes, and the institutions by which it effects the uprooting of Capital and establishment of social ownership can be described in no other terms than State. Yes, we might wish to decribe that State as being a semi-state, as beginning to wither away etc., but it is no less a State. The degree to which it does wither away depends upon the extent to which the working class is able to entrench its role as ruling class, to defeat its class enemies and to begin the process of transforming economic and social relations in order to be able to transcend bouregois Right.

    There is no contradiction in Marxist terms in defining societies in which the old ruling classes have been uprooted, where the forms of property on which those classes based their power have been replaced by social property – i.e. the form of property on which the social power of the working class rests as workers states. Sociologically, that is what they are. That has nothing whatsoever to do with the political superstructure which stands on top of those material relations, which has frequently throughout history been out of synch with the economic and social foundations of society until such time as the new ruling social class is sufficiently developed and class conscious to carry through a political revolution. The capitalist state in Britain and France existed long before the political revolution of the bourgeoisie – the 1832 Reform Act, and the establishment of the Third Republic.

    The problem with your formulation in retaining the Leninist view of socialist revolution is that you put the cart before the horse. You are unable to see the possibility of an economic and social revolution that establishes the working class as ruling class prior to the carrying out of a political revolution – which throughout history has always occurred after not before such a transformation. You see the “establish(ing) (of) social ownership” as something to be effected after this revolution or as you put it after the working class has stepped forward.

    But, Lenin saw the problem with this in the terms you want to present it. In order for the working class to “step forward” as a class conscious revolutionary and transformatory force, it must first achieve that level of class conscioussness, and lenin following Marx recognised that ideas are a function of material conditions. The working class in its vast majority cannot become fully class-conscious until those material conditions are changed. Consequently, only a vanguard can make that leap. The revolution is then made by this vanguard utilising the revoluitonary energy of the masses. But, as Gramsci points out in a number of his writings there is a considerable difference between the kind of workers conscioussness that recognises the need to struggle against the bosses – in essence as he points outsuch a class conscioussness remains nothing more than a Trade Union conscioussness – and the kind of conscioussness that recognises the need to transform society, to build something different. It is only workers self-activity in building those new forms, co-operatives and so on, that can instill in workers that kind of class conscioussness.

    Without that kind of conscioussness being developed within the working class, a conscioussness which can only arise by workers developing their own co-operative forms, and which simultaneously builds the workers own economic and social power, any political revolution can only result in the rule not of the working class, but of initially its vanguard, and subsequently the bureaucracy which will inevitably arise within the workers organisations and in the State itself, a bureaucracy which arises because the working class at the time of the revolution was not itself class conscious, and as a result not only does not assume its position as democratic masters, but inevitably finds itself coming into conflict with its own vanguard. It is in essence no different from the way in which workers do not participate currently in their own organisations.

    Socialism will only be possible when the vast majority of workers take on responsibility for their lives themselves rather than delegating that responsibility to others. But, that transformation itself is only possible when workers see the need to do that, when having created their own co-operative for instance, they are forced to participate in its decision making, administration and so on, by the logic of its very existence.


Comments are closed.