The Capitalist State: Marxist Theories and Methods

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The Capitalist State
Marxist Theories and Methods


This book has been an unconscionably long time in the making. My interest in theories of the state and state power dates back some twelve years or more and my interest in epistemological and methodological issues in theory construction is even longer-lived. But the immediate stimulus to undertake a theoretical investigation into recent Marxist analyses of the capitalist state came from two discussion groups in which I have been involved during the last five years: the Conference of Socialist Economists group on the capitalist state and the ‘Problems of Marxism’ seminar at the University of Essex. Some preliminary results of this investigation were published in the Cambridge Journal of Economics in 1977 and I have since published several other papers on various aspects of postwar Marxist theories of the state, law, and politics. Nonetheless the greatest part of the current book is newly published here and the book as a whole draws together for the first time the principal theoretical and methodological conclusions of my various studies to date on these matters.

In general terms the present study focuses on postwar European Marxist theories of the capitalist state and its middle chapters consider three major approaches to this topic. It is not concerned with earlier Marxist analyses of the capitalist state and politics, however significant they might have been at the time in theoretical discussion and/or political strategies, unless they have also been directly influential in the development of the postwar European work considered in this volume. Among the important studies that are ignored due to this self-imposed restriction are the work of Austro-Marxist theorists such as Max Adler, Otto Bauer, Rudolf Hilferding, and Karl Renner, German Social Democrats such as Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, advocates of council communism such as Anton Pannekoek and Herman Goerter, and leading communist theorists such as Karl Korsch, George Lukacs, Rosa Luxemburg, and Leon Trotsky. However,

since almost all self-professed Marxist theories seek some justification (if not the exclusive right to the mantle of Marxism) in their interpretation of the work of Marx and Engels and its continuation by such figures as Lenin or Gramsci, I devote the first chapter to a brief assessment of the contribution of the two founding fathers and also discuss the studies of Lenin and Gramsci in subsequent pages. In the first chapter I consider the work of Marx and Engels from two interrelated perspectives: its substantive content and its underlying theoretical method. In relation to the latter I argue that Marx provides the foundations for a realist scientific method in his 1857 Introduction and relates this to problems of state theory and political practice in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Programme. In order to distinguish this theoretical method from others, I refer to it as the ‘method of articulation’; but it is worth emphasizing at the outset that I believe this approach involves nothing more than the correct application of a realist scientific method to the field of political economy. In terms of its substantive content I deny that it is possible to distil a single, coherent, unitary Marxist theory from the various studies that Marx and/or Engels presented concerning the state and political action. Instead they offered a variety of theoretical perspectives which co-exist in an uneasy and unstable relation. It is this very plurality of viewpoints and arguments that provides the basis for the subsequent diversification of Marxist state theories.

In the three central chapters of this book I consider three recent Marxist approaches to the capitalist state. The discussion has a dual orientation. For, in addition to a critical review of the merits and demerits of the substantive arguments of these approaches, I also consider how far their proponents follow the methodological procedures specified by Marx. The order of presentation reflects this dual concern. For, although there is much to recommend in the substantive arguments of all three approaches (as well as more or less significant areas for criticism), the different methods of theory construction which are predominant in each approach are certainly not of equal merit. Thus I deal first with theories that resort to the unsatisfactory method of subsumption, proceed to theories that adopt the method of logical derivation, and conclude with theories that follow more or less closely the realist scientific method of articulation.

It is the orthodox communist theory of state monopoly capitalism that provides the focus of the second chapter. The preparation of these pages was particularly interesting because it forced me to rethink my own dismissive attitude as well as to question other, more widespread criticisms. For, although the great bulk of ‘stamocap’

analysis is dull and repetitive as well as being committed to untenable forms of economic reductionism, there is sufficient interesting and original work to merit an extended treatment. It is also worth noting that there are important parallels between ‘stamocap’ theories in their ‘monopoly-theoretical’ version and American analyses of the ‘military industrial complex’ or the ‘corporate state’ in the USA; and that major similarities can be found between ‘stamocap’ theories in their ‘capital-theoretical’ version and arguments such as those of Galbraith concerning the ‘technostructure’ in the ‘new industrial state’ or of James O’Connor concerning the sources of the ‘fiscal crisis of the state’ (Galbraith, 1967; O’Connor, 1973). This means that, although theories of state monopoly capitalism are nowhere near as influential in countries with a weak communist movement (such as the USA, Canada, and Britain) as they are in countries where communists are a significant political force (such as the Soviet bloc, France, and Italy), many of the criticisms levelled at these theories are germane to other theoretical and political analyses which emphasize the close links between monopoly capital and the state. Finally, because state monopoly capitalism theories enjoy significant political influence in several countries but are also deeply flawed theoretically, they have provided a major stimulus to the development of other approaches which aim to transcend these limitations.

One such approach is the so-called Staatsableitungdebatte or ‘state derivation debate’. This comprises the subject matter of the third chapter. Here I deal with the whole range of explicitly Marxist theories concerned with the logical derivation of the form and/or functions of the capitalist state. Although the main points of this approach are already familiar in Britain through the work of Holloway and Picciotto, the breadth of the debate and its recent development is less well-known. Nor is there much real appreciation of the precise methodological implications of the derivation approach among its opponents or, indeed, its proponents. More generally the substantive arguments of the Staatsableitungdebatte are almost wholly unknown in the USA and its methodological approach is quite alien to the empiricist tradition that dominates American Marxism as well as more orthodox, pluralist social sciences. Since there is much of real theoretical and methodological worth in this approach it is particularly important to make it accessible to a wider audience. Thus, in addition to considering the whole range of West German and British attempts at a derivation of the form and/or functions of the capitalist state, special attention is also paid to the method of derivation and its affinities with the method of articulation.

In the fourth chapter I deal with the theoretical and political work of Gramsci and the neo-Gramscian school. By far the largest part of this chapter is devoted to the contribution of Poulantzas but I also consider the ‘discourse-theoretical’ analyses of Laclau and Mouffe. A superficial familiarity with the early work of Poulantzas has bred a certain contempt among English-speaking readers  — especially those who interpreted it in terms of the sterile and misleading ‘structuralist-instrumentalist’ debate with Ralph Miliband. My own presentation attempts to bring out the real structure of Poulantzas’s argument and to trace his theoretical evolution. The critique of Laclau and Mouffe is necessarily provisional since the principal results of their enquiries have still to be published. But the ‘discourse-theoretical’ approach is so distinctive and important in its novel interpretation of Gramsci’s account of hegemony and has influenced my own approach to such an extent that a provisional review and assessment is required. Both Poulantzas and Laclau and Mouffe adopt the method of articulation in at least some respects and this chapter concludes with a brief account of its application in these and related analyses of the state.

The final chapter builds on the criticisms of the above-mentioned approaches and presents a set of guidelines for a theoretically-informed account of the state in capitalist societies. It begins with an extended discussion of articulation as the most appropriate method of constructing such accounts and relates it to the realist interpretation of scientific method. The bulk of the chapter then introduces in a preliminary and exploratory fashion some protocols for the analysis of the state as a complex institutional ensemble of forms of representation and intervention and of state power as a form-determined reflection of the balance of political forces. In this way I eventually return to the concerns of the first chapter and show how the methods of research and the methods of theoretical presentation advocated by Marx have continuing validity and provide the most appropriate basis for a fresh assault on the problems of constructing an adequate account of the state.

Even this brief outline shows that at least four possible topics are ignored. Firstly there is no extended criticism of the so-called ‘instrumentalist’ approach which has been so influential in Marxist work as well as more orthodox investigations. In its sociological version ‘instrumentalism’ establishes the nature of the state from the class affiliation of the state elite in its politological version it does so in terms of the immediate economic interests advanced by specific policy decisions and ‘non-decisions’. In neither version does instrumentalism offer a coherent account of the distinctive properties of state power nor provide an adequate explanation for its limitations. As a general approach it has been subject to extensive criticism elsewhere and it is also considered en passant below. Similar considerations led me to neglect the debate between ‘neo-Ricardian’ and ‘fundamentalist’ theorists over the nature and causes of state economic intervention. The basic terrain of this debate is economic rather than political and, in so far as it deals with the state apparatus and state power, it adopts an instrumentalist (‘neo-Ricardian’) or complex reductionist (‘fundamentalist’) view. Thus, although I do not deal with this debate directly, both sides are criticized by implication (for a useful review of the economic issues at stake in the debate, see Fine and Harris, 1979, pp. 3-92).

Thirdly, given that this book is concerned with postwar European Marxist analyses of the state, it might seem odd to have devoted so little space to Italian theorists. In a more general review of postwar Marxism this neglect would be unforgivable but it is justified in terms of the particular focus and ambit of the current work. For Italian contributions to Marxist political analysis are often very philosophical in character and/or strongly Italocentric in their theoretical and strategic concerns. It would certainly be desirable to discuss elsewhere Marxist solutions to the traditional problems of political philosophy, such as the nature of democracy, liberty, equality, constitutional rights, and the rule of law; and, in a work less concerned with abstract methodological issues and the general characteristics of the capitalist state, it would be appropriate to consider the attempts of Italian Marxists to update and apply the work of Gramsci to the current situation in Italy. But issues of political (as opposed to state) theory lie beyond the scope of the present text and the most original and far-reaching developments of Gramsci have occurred outside Italy (see chapter 4 below). Nonetheless I hope to settle accounts with Italian theories of the state and politics at a later date. (Meanwhile those interested in such matters should consult, inter alia, Altvater, 1977; Altvater and Kallscheuer, 1979; Bobbio et al., 1976; Critica Marxista, seriatim; Mouffe, ed., 1979; Mouffe and Sassoon, 1977; Negri, 1977; and Sassoon, ed., 1982.)

Finally it is worth recording that I deliberately ignore American contributions to the analysis of the state. Most of these theories are heavily imbued with instrumentalism and/or adopt crude forms of reductionism and thus merit no more attention than their European counterparts. Those few analyses that escape this criticism generally owe so much to the other European approaches considered here and/ or bear such marked similarities to them that a separate review is not // required. More generally it would be an interesting exercise to consider how far the absence of a well-developed ‘state tradition’ in Britain and the USA and the corresponding dominance of liberal, pluralist conceptions of government and citizenship has led to the extraordinary weakness of Marxist theories of the state in these countries.

In undertaking a research project of this kind one inevitably incurs a large number of intellectual and material debts. This particular study is no exception. It is impossible to mention all those who have influenced me in conferences, seminars, and personal discussion (let alone through the published word) but I am acutely aware of debts in this respect to David Abraham, Kevin Bonnett, Joachim Hirsch, John Holloway, Ernesto Laclau, David Lockwood, Sol Picciotto, Claus Offe, Nicos Poulantzas, Harold Wolpe, and Tony Woodiwiss. To Claudia von Braunmühl and Jutta Kneissel I would like to extend public thanks for their hospitality during a six-week visit to the University of Frankfurt to examine German state theory at first hand; and to Hans Kastendiek I would like to extend similar thanks for introducing me to the work of the Prokla group at Berlin. To the students in my seminars on theories of the capitalist state I offer my sympathies as the guinea pigs for the development of my approach over the last four years. Since the arguments presented here often differ from those held by friends and colleagues whose influence I have just acknowledged, it is particularly important to issue the usual disclaimers and stress that the ultimate responsibility for the study rests firmly with me. I would also like to thank Lawrence & Wishart for permission to use material from an earlier article on ‘Marx and Engels on the State’ in the book on Politics, Ideology, and the State, edited by Sally Hibbin and published in 1978. For those interested in such matters I did my own typing, xeroxing, collating, and so forth, and Janet Godden offered valuable advice at the copy-editing stage. My children and wife distracted me from these endeavours more than I should have allowed were I to meet the ever-retreating deadlines set by Martin Robertson and I would like to thank my publishers for their great patience and my family for reminding me that there is more to life than a concern with theories of the state. I have dedicated this book to the memory of Nicos Poulantzas whom I met for the first time some few months before his tragic death and who encouraged me to be critical in my approach to his work as well as that of others.

Bob Jessop
12 October 1981

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