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Capitalism and Dictatorial Powers: A Marxist Critique

Chapter 6
Capitalism and Dictatorial Powers: A Marxist Critique

The growing resort to emergency powers and other authoritarian measures, at the cost of core legal and democratic rights and principles, points to the fact that the capitalist state is an instrument of class rule. Its powers and massive resources are employed to defend the material interests of a relatively small wealthy elite, amid mounting militarism and social polarisation. As the mass surveillance disclosed by intelligence agency dissidents such as Edward Snowden demonstrates, the preoccupation of this apparatus is not handfuls of terrorists but the danger of social unrest and an uprising from below.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels famously characterised the capitalist state as a ‘committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’ (Marx and Engels 1973, 110–11). Engels described the emergence, at the heart of the state, of bodies of ‘armed men’ alongside ‘material adjuncts, prisons and institutions of coercion’ (Engels 1942, 167). He warned that this apparatus of force grew stronger as class antagonisms within the state became more acute and as tensions grew between rival international powers.

Writing after the October 1917 Russian Revolution, Vladimir Lenin made a telling observation about the facade of democracy erected by the capitalist class. He insisted that the new workers’ state was far more democratic than the capitalist states that were organising military forces to overrun Soviet Russia. Drawing on the work of Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, he observed that behind the democratic face of modern capitalist states, with their formal undertakings to uphold freedom of assembly, freedom of the press and ‘equality of all citizens before the law’, there invariably existed provisions allowing for all these guarantees to be swept aside to suppress threats from below during periods of crisis:

There is not a single state, however democratic, which has no loopholes or reservations in its constitution guaranteeing the bourgeois the possibility of dispatching troops against the workers, of proclaiming martial law, and so forth, in case of a ‘violation of public order’, and actually in case the exploited class ‘violates’ its position of slavery and tries to behave in a non-slavish manner. (Lenin 1970a: 30–31)

Even as a matter of law, the capitalist elite reserves the right to sweep aside basic constitutional protections and procedures when it perceives ‘a clear and present danger’ (in the words of the US Supreme Court) to its fundamental class interests. One of many examples of constitutional norms and democratic principles being overturned occurred in Australia in 1975, when the elected Whitlam Labor government was ousted by the queen’s representative, the Governor-General.

As Engels, drawing on historical research, explained in The Origin of the Family, the state is not – as is traditionally presented – a neutral arbiter of social conflict. The very existence of a vast apparatus of control and repression testifies to the fact that society is split into irreconcilably antagonistic classes. The bourgeois state is an instrument that upholds the political and economic dictatorship of the capitalist class. In recent decades, the repressive mechanisms at the state’s disposal have been immensely extended and strengthened.

Thus the contemporary American state apparatus, to take the most significant instance, has the largest prison system in the world, with more than 2 million people behind bars. There are heavily armed police forces and National Guards, and a judicial system that processes over 14 million arrests annually and has the power to inflict capital punishment. Then there is a nuclear-armed and lavishly funded military force, and a giant ‘national security’ apparatus that has extraordinary powers to spy on the entire population. Since 2001, torture and drone assassinations, along with frequent declarations of states of emergency, have become state policy, as documented in this book.

For Marxists, therefore, analysis of emergency powers cannot be separated from an examination of the socio-economic and class character of the state and government exercising the powers. An aristocratic or capitalist regime seeking to maintain itself against a mass popular movement from below must be judged differently from a government, especially a working-class socialist government, that takes power as a result of such a movement and needs to defend itself against counter-revolutionary violence by the ousted ruling class.

As Leon Trotsky observed in Their Morals and Ours, writing of Abraham Lincoln’s use of the ‘severe means’ that were necessary to win the American Civil War and abolish chattel slavery:

History has different yardsticks for the cruelty of the Northerners and the cruelty of the Southerners in the Civil War. A slave-owner who through cunning and violence shackles a slave in chains, and a slave who through cunning or violence breaks the chains – let not the contemptible eunuchs tell us that they are equals before a court of morality! (Trotsky 1968: 32)

Democracy and Resort to Dictatorship

Marx and his close collaborator, Engels, made some pungent remarks about the kind of democracy and ‘rule of law’ established by the capitalist class. While capitalist social relations, based on the exploitation of the labour power of workers, were best served by the stability and appearance of fairness provided by a parliamentary order, that democratic facade was cast aside in times of political and economic crises.

In his early work The Conditions of the Working Class in England, Engels noted that legality was always reinforced, whenever required, by brute force, starting with police batons:

A word or two as to the respect for the law in England. True, the law is sacred to the bourgeois, for it his own composition, enacted with his consent, and for his benefit and protection. He knows that, even if an individual law should injure him, the whole fabric protects his interests; and more than all, the sanctity of the law, the sacredness of order as established by the active will of one part of society, and the passive acceptance of the other, is the strongest support of his social position. Because the English bourgeois finds himself reproduced in his law, as he does in his God, the policeman’s truncheon which, in a certain measure, is his own club, has for him a wonderfully soothing power. But for the working-man quite otherwise! (Engels 1976: 514–15)

Marx and Engels also drew lessons from the 1848–49 revolutions in Europe and the 1871 Paris Commune. In these convulsive events, when the rising bourgeoisie felt threatened by the emerging working-class masses, it undertook or collaborated in ferocious repression that resulted in the deaths of thousands of people, as discussed in Chapter 2. They concluded that, to end this oppression, the working class had no choice but to carry through revolutions, and that those revolutions could only succeed if they were prepared to defend themselves against the inevitably violent counter-attack by the old order. Drawing on the Roman republican conception of a temporary dictatorship to deal with existential threats to the republic, Marx and Engels explained the need for a transitional ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ (see below).

Lenin, who was to lead the October 1917 socialist revolution in Russia, further forewarned, in the lead-up to World War I, that the post-Paris Commune decades of history in which the capitalist classes of Europe’s leading powers, such as Britain and Germany, were able to rule reasonably peacefully by making economic and political concessions to the working class at home was coming to an end.

Several years before the outbreak of the ‘Great War’ between the major powers, Lenin warned, in an article analysing the evolution of German social democracy, that a ‘half-century phase’ in history, in which conditions of political legality predominated, was giving way to another phase. Lenin explained that the ruling classes of Germany, ironically, had created the ‘most stable constitutional legality’ but were now unmistakeably coming to the point where ‘this legality, their legality, will have to be shattered – so that the domination of the bourgeoisie may be preserved’ (emphasis in original). He foresaw that objective conditions were leading to ‘the destruction of all bourgeois legality’, the first signs of which were ‘panicky efforts on the part of the bourgeoisie to get rid of the legality which, though it is their own handiwork, has become unbearable to them’ (Lenin 1977: 310–11).

In June 1914, just weeks before the world war erupted, Lenin examined the relationship between the two methods of rule employed by the capitalist class against workers – repressive violence and parliamentary democracy. He referred to the experiences of 1848–49 and 1871, as well as to the repression conducted against the Chartist movement that demanded popular voting rights in Britain during the 1840s:

In all capitalist countries throughout the world, the bourgeoisie resorts to two methods in its struggle against the working-class movement and the workers’ parties. One method is that of violence, persecution, bans, and suppression. In its fundamentals, this is a feudal, medieval method. Everywhere there are sections and groups of the bourgeoisie – smaller in the advanced countries and larger in the backward ones – which prefer these methods, and in certain, highly critical moments in the workers’ struggle against wage-slavery, the entire bourgeoisie is agreed on the employment of such methods. Historical examples of such moments are provided by Chartism in England, and 1849 and 1871 in France.

The other method the bourgeoisie employs against the movement is that of dividing the workers, disrupting their ranks, bribing individual representatives or certain groups of the proletariat with the object of winning them over to its side. These are not feudal but purely bourgeois and modern methods, in keeping with the developed and civilised customs of capitalism, with the democratic system.

For the democratic system is a feature of bourgeois society, the most pure and perfect bourgeois feature, in which the utmost freedom, scope and clarity of the class struggle are combined with the utmost cunning, with ruses and subterfuges aimed at spreading the ‘ideological’ influence of the bourgeoisie among the wage-slaves with the object of diverting them from their struggle against wage-slavery. (Lenin 1972: 455–86)

Leon Trotsky, who led the Russian Revolution alongside Lenin and then led the Left Opposition against the degeneration of the Soviet Union at the hands of the Stalinist bureaucracy, later noted that in times of economic advancement, the capitalist class preferred, and could afford, to govern democratically, displaying tolerance toward political and industrial opposition in order to better stabilise and legitimise its rule. But in periods of economic stagnation or decline, such as the 1930s, the political ‘safety valves’ of democracy gave way.

In 1929, examining the breakdown of democratic institutions that was starting to unfold in Europe, giving way to fascism or dictatorship in major countries such as Italy, Germany and Spain, Trotsky explained that the move toward totalitarianism flowed from the fact that parliamentary democratic institutions could not stand the pressure of the class tensions internally, and the international political conflicts:

By analogy with electrical engineering, democracy might be defined as a system of safety switches and circuit breakers for protection against currents overloaded by the national or social struggle. No period of human history has been – even remotely – so overcharged with antagonisms such as ours. The overloading of lines occurs more and more frequently at different points in the European power grid. Under the impact of class and international contradictions that are too highly charged, the safety switches of democracy either burn out or explode. That is what the short circuit of dictatorship represents. (Trotsky 1997: 53–4)

In 1936, Trotsky again drew attention to the use of ‘detachments of armed men in defence of property’:

The bourgeoisie was able to tolerate the freedom of strikes, of assembly and of the press only so long as the productive forces were mounting upwards, so long as the sales markets were being extended, the welfare of the popular masses, even if only partially, was rising and the capitalist nations were able to live and let live. It is otherwise now. (Trotsky 1975: 15, 17)

Drawing on the work of Marx, Evgeny Pashukanis, perhaps the best-known early Soviet jurist, elaborated this conceptual framework. He contended that the capitalist state was bound up with the principle of commodity exchange, and hence the protection of dominant private interests (Head 2007). These interests required, as far as possible, limits on the power of the state, and an avoidance of dictatorial methods that could threaten personal and property rights. Thus, the character of the state as a seemingly independent apparatus standing above society was not a purely ideological construct for duping ordinary people; the appearance was rooted in the reality of maintaining an impersonal guarantor of personal rights. To best achieve that end, the state could not be the plaything of this or that tycoon or even dictator.

Pashukanis quoted Marx and Engels’ famous characterisation of the capitalist state as a ‘committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’ (Pashukanis 1978: 149). However in times of crisis, particularly when capitalist interests as a whole were threatened from below, the ideal of the constitutional state would be dispensed with:

For the bourgeoisie has never, in favour of purity of theory, lost sight of the fact that class society is not only a market where autonomous owners of commodities meet, but is at the same time the battlefield of a bitter class war, where the machinery of state represents a very powerful weapon … The more the hegemony of the bourgeoisie was shattered, the more compromising these corrections became, the more quickly the ‘constitutional state’ was transformed into a disembodied shadow, until finally the extraordinary sharpening of the class struggle forced the bourgeoisie to discard the mask of the constitutional state altogether, revealing the nature of state power as the organised power of one class over the other. (Pashukanis 1978: 149–50)

Pashukanis noted that in the face of exceptional revolutionary upheaval, the impersonal nature of public power could give way to the private or semi-private wielding of power, via the mobilisation of fascist and other violent militias:

In our times of heightened revolutionary struggle, we can observe how the official machinery of the bourgeois state retires into the background as compared with the volunteer corps of the fascists and others. This further substantiates the fact that, when the balance of society is upset, it seeks salvation not in the creation of a power standing above society, but in the maximal harnessing of all forces of the classes in conflict. (Pashukanis 1978: 139, fn 10)

Sovereignty and Capitalism

Marx and Engels also pointed out that the rising capitalist classes employed military and dictatorial force at critical stages to establish their socio-economic power in the first place. Notably, this occurred in (1) the primitive accumulation of capital; (2) struggles for state power such as the English, American and French revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; (3) the abolition of chattel slavery via the American Civil War; and (4) the worldwide expansion of their realms to colonise and encompass the globe.

In other words, sovereignty was established via violent operations with definite economic and class content.

In order for capitalist social relations, based on the extraction of surplus value by employers via wage labour, to gain ascendancy over the previous feudal relations of aristocrats, serfs and peasants, the rural populations had to be dispossessed of land and driven into the cities. Marx called this ‘the historical process which by divorcing workers from their means of production, converts them into wage workers’ (Marx and Engels 1975: 293).

This was by no means simply a violent dispossession. Primarily, it was achieved by economic means, based on the superior productivity and wealth generated by breakthroughs in industrial technology. Capital accumulation relied primarily on ‘the silent compulsion of economic relations [which] sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker’ (Marx 1993: 493).

In capitalist society – by contrast to earlier forms of class society, such as slavery and feudalism – the extraction of surplus labour does not take place through fixed status or political means, but economically. That is, while there were myriad laws in feudal society, which spelt out the obligations of the peasant, there are no such laws under capitalism. There is no statute that compels the worker to sell his or her labour power to the owner of capital. In the final analysis, he or she is forced to do so by the pressure of economic necessity. And that compulsion arises from the fact that, unlike the peasant or small producer in feudal society, who retains a relationship to the land, the worker in capitalist society has been separated from the ownership of the means of production.

Capitalism could only emerge once society’s technology and productive capacity – for example, steam power – had developed to the point where large-scale manufacturing could arise. Nevertheless, capitalism’s hegemony was accompanied, where necessary, by force. In Marx’s words:

[A]s soon as … adverse circumstances prevent the creation of an industrial reserve army, and with it the absolute dependence of the working class upon the capitalist class, capital … rebels against the ‘sacred’ law of supply and demand, and tries to make up for its inadequacies by forcible means. (Marx 1976: 794)

These processes were later extended around the world, as the capitalist profit system restlessly and relentlessly sought new sources of resources, cheap labour and markets, either through direct colonisation or integration into its orbit through puppet or comprador regimes. In Capital, Marx graphically described this violent expansion of primitive accumulation, summing it up as follows:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre … The different momenta of primitive accumulation distribute themselves now, more or less in chronological order, particularly over Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England. In England at the end of the 17th century, they arrive at a systematical combination, embracing the colonies, the national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system. These methods depend in part on brute force, e.g., the colonial system. But, they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition … The colonies secured a market for the budding manufactures, and, through the monopoly of the market, an increased accumulation. The treasures captured outside Europe by undisguised looting, enslavement, and murder, floated back to the mother-country and were there turned into capital. (Marx 1976: 918)