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The Statist Conception of Politics

Tanv Skillen
philosophically sanctified. Moral and Political Philosophy
are taught as separate fields: evidently the problems of the
politician (the Statesman) are not the problems of the ordinary
chap, save at such times when the ordinary chap goes to the
po:ls or lobbies his M.P. (the Citizen) or marches to the
trenches (the Subject). (And throughout, the reality of
political conflict in society and the fact that the political
dominance of the .state is maintained through struggle, in fact
the whole fact of politics, is masked by the bland and brainwashing use of “we”:

“Why would we refuse to call this a
case of legitimate use of force?” “Why, in punishing people,
do we consider the criminal intention so central?” ask our
phantasy philosopher-kings. Our political philosophers are
all good first-person-pluralists).

Statism in its fullest sense is what Marx called the
superstitious worship of the state. This sort of statism
does flourish, with due Anglican moderation, in our departments
of Political Philosophy. But the following essay does not
take this as its prime target.

It is not a critique of the
state so much as a critique of conceptions of “the political”
which define it in terms of the state. The anarchist who says
he is “anti-political” is a victim of this “statist” notion
of politics, as are the Marxist-Leninists who deride his
“apoliticalify”. I try to show the thread of conceptual
statism in Marx and Engels and counterpose a more implicit,
non statist, materialist, view of politics that can be read
in Marx’s account of capitalism. I argue that a richer
conception of politics enables Us to appreciate more concretely
the political movements of our time. People may find this
essay peculiarly full, on one hand of empirical claims’, on
the other of verbal recommendations. But this, and a certain
indefiniteness, may be a function of the sort of project
attempted, which is to advocate a shift of emphasis in
political thought and thus to assert the importance of
“reclassifying” our experience so as to conn,?ct things in
a substantially different way.

This sort of situation is not peculiar to “Political
Philosophy”. Higher entities have abounded in all areas of
thought (theology, psychology). And “Philosophy of Education”
is largely the ideology of a specific institution: the school.

Like the state, and unlike God or the soul, the school is real
enough. What is mythical is its presentation. It becomes
difficult, then, for a student to even entertain the proposition
that these institutions, far from resolving the issues of
freedom and reason in society, are themselves an important part
of the political and educational problem.

Political Philosophy and Political Movements
Academic political philosophers take it more or less
for granted that their duty is to justify the nation state
(“Why ought I obey the State?”). They seldom encumber their
political heavens with the empirical practices of earthly
states, with chaos, oppression and war, attention to which
might subvert our awe at the State’s a priori achievements:

order, liberty and peace. For academic as for governmental
purposes the state is, by definition, the saviour of its lost
and sinful people, and history is the exception which proves
the rule. The English Idealists, such as Bosanquet (The
Philosophical Theory of the State) used to say that they were
speaking of the state only in so far as it matched its Idea.

In fact they spoke as if this match could be assumed. But
statism minus the high flown rhetorio has survived the death
of official idealism. Benn and Peters (Social Principles and
the Democratic State)think of governments as the expression
of philosophical “principles”. And all academic phi losophers
seem to assume that the state institution constitutes the
subje~t of political philosophy’s ell4uiries.

Thus A.M.Quinton
writes: “The central concept of politics is that of the
State”,l and D.D. Raphael tells us that “the political is
whatever concerns the State”, .. so the State makes water holy
just by brewing its afternoon tea.

But even our philosophers cannot freeze concepts forever,
and the whole myth of logically proper channels of political
life is in question. People are acting, consciously politically,
outside the officially marked zones. Young people and women
especially are making schools and families centres of direct
political struggle, workers are getting rid of their phobias
about seeing their strikes and occupations as pOlitical acts.

It is now six years since Prime Minister Wilson rounded with
proprietary jealousy on a “tightly knit group of politically
motivated men” who, he claimed, were trespassing on his
professional territory during the 1966 British seamens strike.

(Politicians need to claim to be above pOlitics. At least as
important is that the masses should see themselves as below
politics) .

Our political monopolists are having increasing
difficulty in maintaining the illusion that politics is their
proprietary right to be conducted in their proprietary way.

Since statism involves not only appropriation of special
“political matters” but the promulgation of special “political
matters” too, the liberation of politics from the state
involves political practices appropriate to issues which the
state,”with the best will in the world”, could hardly deal

According to this conception, the state is the one locus
of politics. A gesture in the direction of a parliamentary
building or ministerial office block is thought sufficient
to ostensively define this entity, minimally conceived as a
special institution standing over and above society and if not
“running” it, at least “umpiring” it (Benn and Peters: Social
Principles and the Democratic State). In the style of ~
Teleological Argument, then, this institution is that-whichbrings-about-the-social-order.

Thus, for example, when
students write essays on the idea of equality they are asked
to enquire into principles whereby the state “treats” people the inequality of this very welfare-dispensing situation not
being at issue.

This breakthrough is not universal, nor is it stable.

A statist conception of politics is by no means still confined
to academic and other upholders of the status quo. It continues
to infect the practice and thinking of dissidents and revolutionaries even when they are opposing or debunking the state.

“Marxist-Leninists” preoccupy themselves with strategies for
“capturing state power”, form specialised “political parties”
consisting of people who are “political” and depict, often to
deride, all other forms and goal s of acti vi ty as apoliticaL “4

What we have then, is the ideological representation of
a central empirical fact of modern social existence, political
monopolization by the nation-state bureaucracy, in the timeless form of an abstract philosophical category. By thus
treating the state as the “internal nominative” of politics
they make it seem that the state has politics all to itself
by logical necessity. Hence, the (very political) tendency
to de-politicize social life, already rationalized in “modern
democratic” theories of “apathy”, 3 is reinforced and

Editorial introduction to “Political Philosophy:

Oxford Readings 1967″, page 3.


Problems of Political Philosophy, Macmillan 1970,
page 27.


See Carole Pateman’s Participation in Democratic Theory
for a critique of these theories. Pateman develops the
idea of the “participatory society”.


Two examples from this week’s Marxist-Leninist press in

(i) From a Trotskyist report of an L.S.E. occupation:

“A series of activities were announced by the
union council; on the Saturday these consisted
mostly of “alternative education” classes, “radical
psychology” etc. No political meetings were
arranged . . . . ” (Red Mole, February 7,1972).


(ii) From a Leninist account of “The Economic Struggle”:

The author quotes Lenin (1914):

“Unlike Europe, which has enjoyed political freedom
for a long time (?TS) the strike movement in Russia
in 1912-14 extended beyond the narrow trade union
and continues himself:

“The reactionary laws against workers in Russia

In modern times statist conceptions have dominated
both official and radical thought, both the proponents and
opponents of the bourgeois state. Thus we can schematically
see that the antitheses referred to in the first part of this
article has a history. The outcome of the French Revolution,
with its utopian project of a “political”, that is, state,
solution to social antagonisms provoked among radical liberals
what was expressed as a revulsion from politics.

Among those
who did not retreat into private spirituality the anarchists
gave clearest voice to this identification. Bakunin, though
‘~ere writing in the 1870s (to criticize precisely Marx’s
“statism”) gives a good example of a well established “antipolitical” tradition.

These groups “in theory and in practice” are tending, even
against tendencies within themselves, to bolster the departmentalism which is such a keystone of bourgeois political
practice. Their antithesis are all those “Anarchists” and
libertarians who turn bourgeois political thought directly on
its head, deriding “politics” as the manipulative practice
of power-mongering “politicians” and “politicos”, projecting
social evils and their own guilts onto the bureaucracy, and
thus failing to develop a serious libertarian view of
politics. S In their different ways, then, the “politicos”
and the “anti-politicos” reinforce and rationalise the retreat
into the passive political practice of “apoliticality”. They
deserve each other.

Common to both these orientations are central elements
in the conventional statist ideology. Both conceptually
capitulate to the state’s a priori claim to determine the
channels of political life. Both accept that politics is for
professional politicians.

But to the extent that radicals
respect this (reified, dualistic) form of the distinction
between “politics” and other aspects of social life, they are
hampered in breaking down social divisions. Either they will’

scorn or “instrumentalise” struggle in key political areas
(factories, schools, families, “communities”) in favour of an
effectively militaristic strategy for a smash and grab raid
on the bourgeois state, or at the other end they will be
active where they are, but inconsequently, often at the level
of the intermittent theatre-politics, disorganised and without
strategy. In either case the ready-made packaging of “the
political” and the “non-political” preempts exploration of
the actual pOlitical relations within and among social
institutions. In either case the development of understanding
of the balance and movement of social forces is held up, making
it more difficult to work our priorities in political struggle. 6
We are seeing political struggle breaking out in all areas,
including the bourgeois bedroom; it is crucial to overcome
ideological inhibitions against a full political life.

” … the workers of Germany and not their leaders
will finish by joining us in order to demolish these
prisons of peoples that are called states and to
condemn politics which is indeed nothing but the
art of dominating and fleecing the masses.” 8

And Sorel, in Reflections on Violence,counterposes the “antipolitical” syndicalist form of struggle to the “political”
social-Democratic form in which “the politicians” would seek
to climb on the backs of the rank and file to grab at state
power for themselves. (See especially Chapters 4 and 5).

Now, in their struggle with the Proudhonists and
Bakuninites ~larx and Engels accepted the terms in which Bakunin
presented the attack on Marxian “politicians”. Engels, for
example, spoke of Bakunin’s “complete abstention from all
politics,,9 and, indeed, he and ~larx fairly consistently
identified politics and political struggle, in capitalist
society at least, with activity centring on the state; whether
this was state activity itself or activity oriented towards
legislative change, or the revolutionary capture of state

For them “Economic” struggles are not necessarily political:

“For instance, the attempt in a particular factory or even a
particular trade to force a shorter working day out of the
individual capitalists by strikes etc. is a purely economic
movement. On the other hand, the movement to force an eight
hour day etc. law is a political movement. “10

Classical Anarchism and Classical Marxism
The reign of the “statist” view has been a long one, in
some ways, an ancient one. The Greek polis,as every good
student knows, cannot be simply translated by state in the
modern sense. It is important however to stress, against
any tendency to think of Athens as some sort of ideal community,
not only that membership of the “political community” was
narrowly restricted, but that so too was the area of life
thought worth dignifying as “political”. “Politics”, then
as now, officially picked out a circumscribed field of ruling
class concern. Slavery, for example is presented by Aristotle,
not as itself a political fact, but as a pre-condition of
political life. And the household “economy” is treated as
an autonomous sub-political entity. Indeed, Hannah Arendt,
with her characteristic love for the ancient ways, criticizes
the modern confusion of polity, society and economy, of public
and private, and criticizes the Roman and Medieval Christian
translation of Aristotle’s zoon politiken as Animal socialis.

See The Human Condition Chapter 3. (Ironically, W.G.Runciman,
while referring to Arendt’s discussion does not notice that
he is contradicting her when he writes that “a distinction
between the political and the social is still recent in the
history of ideas”, Social Science and Political Theory
(page 22). 7

For Marx, politics is a phenomenon of pre-history, of
the epochs of oppression, not a permanent category of life.

In communist society, he wrote, when “state power disappears
and governmental functions are transformed into,.simple
administrative functions.” ” … there will no longer he any
state in the present pOlitical sense of the h’ord.”ll
That Marx puts it this way, rather than saying there
will be no politics in the present statist sense is not a
merely verbal matter. For it goes with the utopian idea that
social authority could be merely administrative, non-political
(compare here Engel’s On Authority) and with the omission of
any notion of a radically democratic political life that
would be characteristic of a communist society.

Marx’s analysis of capitalism stresses the “superstructural” place of politics and of the state as an “organ” of
class domination. Thus pOlitics becomes one, more or less
central, historical form or means of the class struggle. In
a sense, then, I·larx did not propose a “materialistic” account
of politics; precisely contrasting material life with its more
or less obscuring “pOlitico-spiritual” (- the expression is
Chris Arthur’s, Radical Philosophy I p.27), forms and manifestations. Thus “political” power can be contrasted with
“social” or “economic” power, and “political” freedom and
equality can conceal “social” oppression and inequality. Now
obviously this base/superstructure idea does not entail a
purely “statist” understanding of politics. But by stressing
more or less official and superficial forms of politics, it
certainly goes with such a view. This I hope, will emerge by
contrast when I try to show how, if we do break from a “statist”
definition of politics we are naturally forced to locate
politics in the depths of “concrete material life”, and in a
way which, I claim, is implicit in Marxian thought.

“impelled” the workers economic struggle into the
sphere of politics. But spontaneously this politics
could only be trade-unionist politics, the struggle
for reforms. Strikes always take place under
definite political conditions (whether it is laws
protecting or suppressing union activity) and so
have effects within bourgeois politics. The slogan
‘make the strike political’ is empty in that it is
already political – but in a bourgeois sense.

Similarly to say that “all strikes are political”
is merely tautalogous (i.e. presumably that they
occur like everything else under definite political
conditions T.S.). Graham Burchell, 7 Days, Feb 9,
1972 .


Until recently this line of thought was a standing
feature of the “underground” press, e.g. OZ and IT
in Britain.


For example we need broad political terms to examine
the question of the validity of the Radical Philosophy
group, of its potential significance or insignificance
at different political levels, of the politics (academic,
national, etc.) of “radical” “philosophy”.


Runciman goes on to follow the emplicitly statist
definition of politics given by Weber and accepted by
most “political scientists” – see for example,
J.D.B. Miller’s “The Nature of Politics”. So called
“pressure group” analysis common in political science
departments is still focused on pressures on government.



Marxism, Freedom and the State, Freedom Press, U.K.,
1950, page 44. Bakunin’s main theme is that the state
cannot be seen as a passive organ of class rule, that
it has its own way of working which will catch up
movements that seek to work through it. In other
words to borrow Chris Arthur’s metaphor (Radical
Philosophy I, p27) Bakunin denies that “the problem
of the State comes out in the wash”.


Engels to Cuno, January 24, 1872.


Marx to Bolte, November 23, 1871.

however be read as a whole.


“The alleged splits in the International” 1872 and “Marx
on Bakunin 1875,” extracts most available in D.McLellan’s
The Thought of Karl Marx,page 194-5.

This letter should

In Marx’s early thinking politics (= the State), like
religion, is an alienated and “abstract” domain, a partial,
deluded and destructive expression of man’s human, social
essence. In On the Jewish Question, the limitations of
citizenship and of “political emancipation” (= legal, civil
rights) are exposed. Marx writes

Certainly Marx, in Capital I, stresses the primacy of
state-political force “itself an economic power” (Ch.13, page
751) in “midwifing” capitalist society. Its “rosy dawn”
“presupposed” laws whereby “the agricultural people were
first turned into vagabonds, and then whipped, branded,
tortured by laws grotesquely terrible into the discipline
necessary for the wage system.” Thereafter

“Only when the actual individual man has taken back
into himself the abstract citizen and in his everyday
life, his individual work and his individual relationships, has become a species-being, only when he has
recognized his own powers as social powers so that
social power is no longer separated from him as
political power, only then is human emancipation
complete.” 12

“the dull compulsion of economic relations completes
the subjection of the labourer to the capitalist.

Direct force, outside economic conditions, is of
course still used, but only exceptionally. In the
ordinary run of things, the labourer can be left to
the “natural laws of production”, i.e. to his
dependence on capital, a dependence springing from,
and guaranteed in perpetuity by the conditions of
production themselves.” (Ch.28, page 737).

The position is, if anything, more clearly put in Marx’s
critical notes on Arnold Ruge’s “The King of Prussia and Social
Reform”, a superb attack on statist panaceas which ought to
disturb many Leninist voluntarists today. I will quote two

Significantly, pOlitics having been cast in a secondary
role for the playing through of Capitalism’s tragedy, abruptly
re-occupies the centre of the stage at its revolutionary

Indeed especially in the Communist Manifesto
the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, achieved through the
capture of State Power is spelled out in totally statist
terms. IS

“The more powerful the state and hence the morel3
political a country is, the less it is inclined to
seek the basis and grasp the general principle of
social ills in the principle of the state itself,
thus in the existing organisation of society, of
which the state is the active, self-conscious, and
official expression. Political thought is political
precisely because i t takes place within the bounds
of politics.

The more acute and vigorous it is,
the more it is incapable of comprehending social

The principle of politics is will .

. The
more one-sided and thus the more perfected political
thought is, the more it believes in the omnipotence
of will, the blinder it is to natural and spiritual
restriction on the will, and the more incapable it is
of discovering the source of social ills.”
Op.cit., p.350.

Is politics then secondary in capitalist society to
become crucial in its overthrow? Clearly, since I am taking
issue with Marx’s dominant idea of politics, this is not a
‘question that can be confronted in a” simple empirical way.

Nonetheless it is important to state that, even at the
empirical level without a fundamental break from the
conventional view of politics, we can see that the ways in
which the capitalist order diverges from the Communist
Manifesto presentation 16 are too many and too important to
be thought of as “aberrations”, “survivals” etc.

Accepting a crude equation of state agency and political
agency, and accepting the “economists” myths about a selfregulating market society, Marx and Engels presented society
as abandoned to naked economic struggle. It then appears
“anomalous that the British State, for example, developed
precisely in capitalism’s nineteenth-century heyday, penetrating not only heavy industry17 but all areas of social life.

The State police force emerged to contain the working class,
whole sections of which threatened precisely not to be subjected to the “dull compulsion” of market forces. Nor is it
sufficient to see this police force simply as a brute coercive
power. From the very beginning with striking success it
orientated itself towards winning the ideological support of
the “honest public”,18 and towards reinforcing the ideological
isolation of the “enemies” of “honest folk”. To stress, thus,
the central role of culture is already to widen the vision of
political life, – to think in terms of the “political order”.

In this wider context the political importance and character
of the family (including the Royal Family), the school, the
trade unions (stress their cultural aspect), the newspaper not
to mention the churches can be assessed in their own rights as
well as in their broader connections. Certainly Engels
especially wrote about these institutions and their changes
but always in “economistic” terms. He ignores, for example,
the political importance of the family, not only in the
bourgeoisie, but in the working class, where the family
developed, not only as a defence against bourgeois domination
at work, but, contradictorilY, as a vehicle of bourgeois
rule, as a principal organ for reproducing class membership. 19
Engels thought the ;TIonogamous family irrelevant to the working
class and in effect redundant, since proletarians had no
property to pass on. (See The Origins of the Family etc.)

“We have seen that a social revolution involves the
standpoint of the whole because it is a protest of
man against dehumanised life even i f it occurs in
only one factory district, because it proceeds from
the standpoint of the single actual individual, because
the community against whose separation from himself the
individual reacts, is the true community of man, human

The political ~ of a revolution on~
other hand consists in the tendency of politically
uninfluential classes to end their isolation from the
state and from power.

Its standpoint is that of the
state, an abstract whole, which exists only through
the separation from actual life and which is unthinkable
without the organized antithesis between the universal
idea and the individual existence of man. Hence a
revolution of the political soul also organizes, in
accordance with the narrow and split nature of this
soul, a ruling group at the expense of society.”
Op.cit., p. 356.

From his early period, then, Marx tends to present
politics, not only as a partial, but as a surface feature
(“expression”) of bourgeois society. “The capitalist economy”
is presented as autonomous in its dynamics, clearly visible
beneath the thin political-ideological veil in all its ugliness
(one hand only is invisble). Thus the famous passage in the
Communist Manifesto:

“The bourgoi::ie, whenever it has got the upfer hand
has put an eni to all feudal, patriarchal idyllic
relation,. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley
feudal ties that bound man to hi.” “natural superiors”
and has left no other nexus between man and man than
naked self-interest, than callous “cash-payment”. It
has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious
fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine
sentimentalism in the icy water of egotistical

It has resolved personal worth into
exchange value, and in place of the numberless
indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single
unconscionable freedom-Free Trade.

In one word, for
exploitation veiled by religious and political
illusion it has substituted shameless, direct, brutal
exploi tation.” 14


Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society,
C.D. Easton and K.H. Guddat Doubleday Anchor 1967.

Original italics.


A central thesis of the present article could be hinted
at by substituting, for this “more”, its opposite.


Marx and Engels Selected Works, Vol.I, page 36. Make
reference to Smith’s “Invisible Hand”.



But see The Civil War in France (Part Ill) where Marx
recognised that “the working class cannot simply lay
hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it
for its own purposes” and notes the proposal that “the
Commune was to be the political form of even the
smallest country hamlet.” And also the Critique of the
Gotha Programme.


It would be dishonest to deny the extent to which Marx and
Engels qualified this presentation. But it remains ad hoc
qualification which, I suggest, never led to a “revision”.


See e.g. the indignant and oversimple depiction of the
movement to “collectivism” in the laissez-fairist Dicey’s
Law and Opinion.


See Reith The Police, A New History.


Thus I would argue that just as the working class had
historically to be forced into existence as we have seen
Marx stressed so each individual has to be forced into his
class role. Thus the perpetual politics of “education”
in class society.

In short, Marx and Engels hugely underrated the
capitalist political order’s mode of preserving itself and by
implication of preserving the sheer existence of the proletariat
as a productive force through the prolonged periods of transformation, war, crisis and recession that have characterised
capitalist society from its birth. Despite their natural eye
for politics seen most clearly in their empirical’studies of
French and German struggles Marx and Engels’ way of thinking
pushed them to seeing the political structure of capitalist
society as a surface “superstructural” feature and to underestimate its depth. Bourgeois “civil society” is by no means
the proper and exclusive field of Economic Science.

Burke, whose insight Harx certainly respected, wrItIng
of a time when accordinR to Marx and Engels political ideology
was in the process of annihilation, was able to present clearly
and prophetically what classical Marxism was constantly tempted
to play down. He reveals not the conscious politicking of
the executive committee of the bourgeoisie, but the deep
networks of oppressive structures which prop up and conceal
domination and exploitation.

“Good order is the foundation of all good things.

To be enabled to acquire the people, without being
servile, must be tractable and obedient.

magistrate must have his reverence, the laws their
authority. The body of the people must not find the
principles of natural subordination by art rooted out
of their minds. 20 They must respect that property of
which they cannot partake. They must labour to obtain
that which by labour can be obtained, and when they
find, as the commonly do, the success disproportioned
to the endeavour, they must be taught their consolation
in the final proportions of eternal justice.”

Reflections on the Rev in France,
(Pelican Classics edition, 1970, p.372).

There deep habits of thought and practice are transmitted
and articulated so that every situation appears as a microcosm
of the totality “community”.

“In this choice of inheritance we (the British) have
given to our frame of policy the image of a relation
in blood; binding up the constitution of our country
with our dearest domesticities; adopting our fundamental laws into the bosom of our family affections;
keeping inseparable, and cherishing with the warmth
of all their combined and mutually reflected charities,
our states, our hearths, our sepulchres, and our
altars. 2l

Now we could here follow Nicos Poulantzas (“The Problem
of the Capitalist State” New Left Review No. 58, 1969) and,
maintaining the idea that the state is the institution of
political rule, widen the notion of the-state to include all
the institutions which maintain the social formation. Thus
Poulantzas presents trade unions, the mass media, the churches,
the family as part of the state apparatus.

But, as Milliband himself pointed out in reply, identifying
conservative social institutions as the state makes it difficult
to see the specific process whereby the state, in its narrow
sense, fattens itself by incorporating such institutions, as in

It is clearer to maintain the analytic distinction
between the state and its allies and lackeys. Whereas I am
also contending that if we operate with a broader conception
of politics we are then able to examine the specific nature
of the state’s way of working in relation to other pOlitical
forces in society,22 and to understand what it means for
political movements to work through the state.

I am well aware that I have pushed a tendency in Marx’s
thought. This will emerge more clearly later. But I think it
important to insist, not only that vulgarmarxism involves
vulgar politics, but that it has the most respectable authority
– Marx and Engels themselves. The problem of vulgarmarxism
here might be abstractly expressed thus: on one hand it asserts
a one-way causality of base to superstructure. On the other
hand its “base” (technology) is so inadequate to support let
alone burst the superstructure that “political will” in the form
of the state or Party has to be magically re-introduced to bring
stasis or movement into society. What will be proposed is that
a richer conception of politics and a richer conception of

It is to be doubted whether the implanting of such
principles is entirely to be left to artless nature.


Bruke op.cit. p.120. The British New Left Review writers,
Anderson and Nairn have stressed these things often, to
be accused of “idealism”. They appeal to Gramsci’s
notion of “hegemony”.


Here John Anderson’s “The Servile State” (Studies in
Empirical Philosophy), and Rush Rhees’ “SOCIal EngIneering”
(Mind, 1947), and “Science and Politics” (Aristotelian
Society, 1949), are useful works by philosophers.

productive relations bring politics into the centre of the
picture. This after all is implicit in the whole Marxian idea
of class domination,class rule, a political idea if ever there
was one.

Now we can see how the kind of perspective being advocated
here presents problems for our understanding of what politics
is. I hope that further work will clarify these problems
further than I can. They are problems for anyone who, seeking
to break from state fetishism, has to anchor the political in
such a way as to preserve a distinctive and thus useful idea of
‘~hat politics is about.

I have been arguing that politics
cannot be defined in terms of a proprietary entity, but should
be thoughtof in terms of social relations. But what aspect of
social relations?

Two immediate problems present themselves:

1. Problems of relating politics to, for example,

2. Problems connected with the claim that political
relations exist at all levels, “macro” and “micro”.

1. Politics and Economics
We have seen how normall y, and in the “ordinary
language” of radicals too, “political” is contrasted with
“economic”. Thus people write of “the relation of economic
to political power”, of “economic, political, and ideOlogical
struggle” “practico-economic and pOlitical struggle” (Engels,
Lenin)23 of “economic, political, ideological and theoretical
practice” (Althusser).

In these formulations the suggestion is hard to avoid,
even if avoidance were intended, that these notions pick out
discrete types of activity, as if we could say “This is a
political, that an economic institution”, “This is a political,
that an economic struggle (practice, relation, etc.)”.

this is no good. Think of the ideological-political-economic
activity involved in the maintenance of such ideologicalpolitical-economic 24 institutions as the British Royal Family
Think of the religious santification of the state, the pompous
rituals in law courts and the whole ideology of respectable
business. Clearly it would be a crude view, that seriously
attempted to split the world up in this fashion.

How about “economics” and “politics”, especially if
one wants to claim that struggles in factories are political
and that the characteristic of “economism” is poverty of
political goals and methods rather than absence of politics.,
It seems to me most satisfactory to say that the social
relations of production are political and economic relations,
and that these concepts pick out different aspects of the
“social totality”. Thus, to speak of “the economy” is to
abstract,is not to be dealing with a discrete “part” of
society. It is not, then, as if the social relations of
production “give rise to” something else, namely political
relations. Rather these productive relations are political
relations, which in capitalist society are relations of
domination by the capitalists over the workers. This I take
to be implicit i~ Marx’s analysis.

Marx says in Wage


and Capital:

“In production, men not only act on nature, but
also on one another. They produce only by cooperating in a certain way and mutually exchanging
their activities. In order to produce they enter
into definite connections and relations with each
other and only within these social connections and
relations does their action on nature, does production
take place.” (Section III)

The suggestion seems to be the functionalist one that
the division of labour-rs-a purely natural politically neutral
one given by the “need to produce”. But this is obviously not
Marx’s view: “relations of production” are relations among more
or less antagonistic social forces. Both in Capital III and in
the Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy Marx
stresses that just as the wage contract presupposes the
dominating social force of capital, so capital itself presupposes
a “distribution” of forces of production, especially the expropriation of the masses and the concentration of control

e.g. Lenin in What is to be Done? “The economic
struggle of the workers against the employers for
better terms in the sale of their labour-power, for
better living and working conditions … Lending
“the economic struggle itself a political character”
means, therefore, striving to secure satisfaction of
these trade demands by means of “administrative and
legislative measures.” (p6l Moscow edition).


Here I have the production of tourist particularly
in mind.


Marx and Engels Selected Works, Moscow, VOl.l, page 89.

over instruments of production in the capitalist’ grip. 26
The “politics” of capitalism, the conflict of social forces,
then, is basic to it, (Marx even goes so far as to say that it
looks lik~pre-economic fact” (Critique) and is structurally
inextricable from its “economics”.


on a pedestal).

Official descriptions of laws and the
“appropriate” departments are a poor guide to the political
powers of the state. For, apart from the unstatesmanlike
conduct of states, we have to take into account also the
degree of de facto grip it has on different sections of
society, and them on it.

From an “economic” standpoint, then, the focus is on the
“division of labour” in so far as it “co-operates” in production.

From this standpoint the worker is simply a productive unit,
more or less productive. His rebelliousness, under this aspect,
is an economic variable like his physical strength. Power and
authority relations are subsumed under the terms of “economic
organization” (We can see here the technocratic thrust of
Stalinist vulgarmarxism, reflected in the fact that “politics”
is not an index entry in the Moscow Selected Works of Marx and

The politics of the situation, however, involves a
different, though not incompatible characterization. (This is
not to say there is not a structural tension between “the
economic” and “the political”, that there are not “contradictions”
here). This is a situation of domination and of more or less
open struggle. Even a simple exchange situation presupposes
that one party has control over some good, “over and against”
others. From a political standpoint then the “economic” need
of the worker to produce his means of existence gives the
controllers of the means of production power over him. Thus,
just as “force is itself an economic power” (Marx) so wealth
is itself a political power, an instrument of domination. 27
(To assert that, not only are production relations
political, but that politics is a fundamental aspect of them
is not to reduce these relationships simply to authority
relationships within the factory (a tendency in syndicalism).

For these authority relationships cannot be assessed in
isolation from the class and state power which capital means to
the bosses. Thus the inadequacy of “workers control” within
a capitalist society.)
2. The Levels of Politics
The “state machine” and the conscious pOlicies of those
who work through it do not exhaust the political forces in
society. State legislation, say to bolster up parental
authority by a Children’s Bill, far from constituting parental
authority a political matter, far from simply giving it a new
political significance, expresses the recognition of its
national political consequences as well as of its intrinsic
political character. The political activity of the ruling
work itself through the state. But it may not. It
may work through campaigns to demoralise and discredit
militants through the media, or through the development of
industrial relations” institutes with or without state
support. 28 “Direct action” need not be foreign to the
capitalist class – from assassinations to finance strikes
it has its unofficial weapons of political struggle; its
ways of maintaining its ways of maintaining its position,
its ways of managing the masses it needs to exploit. If
this is the bourgeois state’s official full-time job, it
does not follow that it does the whole job. To try to make
it do the whole job is to end up with the a priori view of
all bourgeois societies as “fascist” which I argued
Poulantzas is landed with.

But despite the political activity of women, and young
people especially in opposition to the structures of everyday
life and experience (one Women’s Liberation article is entitled
“The Personal is Political”), many strongly resist the idea
that such small-scale, even “private” things as families or
even factories and schools could be the arena of politics.

(“Where do you Stop? Is every hOld-up a political coup?”)
In this connection it is striking that all the so-called
classical questions of “political philosophy” apply to factories,
schools and families, indeed to any social relation: questions
of obedience to authority, of freedom, justice, democracy,
of “sovereignty”, of “the social contract” and “the common
interest”. Production for example can be more or less free,
more or less democratic, more or less just in its forms. It
is not a good sign that The State alone fills the category
of The Political when “the sorts of things we can say about
it” can be said about so many things, let alone their interrelationships.

Horeover, the idea common in academic thinking, that
the state itself (or political parties) can be understood
solely in terms of the official activities of people in
official positions is obviously mistaken. Not only are
different sections of the state often in open conflict.

Bureaucratic departments constantly clog up themselves
and each other, finding themselves powerless to achieve
even their official objectives. This clogging, moreover,
notoriously penetrates the minds of officials, at all levels,
blinding them to possibilitie~ even when their institutions
could deal with them. On the other hand, positions within
the state, or in any bureaucracy generally determine the
degree of informal unofficial influence, legal or illegal,
that can be exercised, through personal contacts, through
“turning a blind eye”, through all kinds of patronage.

State apologists characteristically write as if the state,
whose “function” is to regulate civil society were above the
uncivilized practices characteristic of civil society. This
fantasy is nowhere more powerful than in England. (Like all
fetishism Statism lacks a true grasp of the object it puts

Capital Vol. Ill, Chapter 51 ‘~istribution Relations
and Production Relations”, p. 877 Moscow ed. Introduction
to Critique, Part 2, p. 295 ff. N.I. Stone translation
or p. 139 The~ Ideology etc. edited by Chris
Arthur. By expressing this in the “economic” terminology
of “distribution” Marx to some extent covers the
political character of the analysis.


Here c.f. Jerry A. Cohen’s Critique of Acton and
Plamenatz (Aristotelian Supplement 1970) and note that
he analyses relations of production as power relations.


In advertizing vacancies for such positions, companies
have no hesitation in stressing the “political aptitudes”
required. A cursory check will confirm this in any
“management” journal.

Following the statist lead, we have so far focussed
on the national level, the state’s domain par excellence, and
the near exclusive object of “political philosophy” and
“political science”. But we get a more realistic grasp of
the world if we insist that this is only one level of
politics. At one extreme “international relations” cannot
be tacked on to political theory as if states had as much
relation to each other as bourgeois neighbours in suburbia.

The atomistic idea of independent “sovereign” states has
always been inadequate.

But this inadequacy is especially
obvious now when states of western Europe are moving to a
“common market”, “internationalizing” official politics
even as big firms have internationalised. (“Nationalism” in
these circumstances becomes politically ambiguous, threatening
to efficiency yet favourable to a divide-and-rule strategy nations may yet become to be the politics of late imperialism
what tribes were to the politics of early imperialism.)
“Below” the national level, within any society, there are
political tensions in provinces, in towns, and within specific
institutions, like universities. 29
Although these institutions
are a more or less integral part of the national political
infrastructure, conflict within them can have considerable
autonomy from national alignments. We all know the international leftist academics who are conservative straights
in their jobs, and that people who vote conservative, belong
to the church etc. can be radically militant in the local
politics of their daily life and work situation making a
mockery of the baptismal jargon of “politicization”. What
this implies is that education, for example, is political
not just because it has key consequences for national
politics. The struggles in a school are themselves political.

And the same is true of conflicts in a particular family or
factory. What is at issue then is not a simple dichotomy:

political or non-political but understanding of the political
complex, and of the consistency, breadth and depth of people’s
politics as they act in that complex.

By breaking from a
simple political/a political polarity we are able to grasp the
politics of the “unpolitical” (including the “purely
economistic” worker) and to see that it is not so much a
question of lack of politics but of political confusion,
resignation or even positive but unadmitted acceptance of
the status quo. Here the “political” psychoanalysis of Reich,
especially in What is Class Consciousness?(Agitprop) and
Character Analysis is especially relevant on getting behind
“political” consciousness.

By calling a social structure “political” one stresses
the tension and at least potential conflict among the activities
and interests that make it up. That these structures persist
amounts to the continuation of “co-operation” among the
different forces within it, a co-operation given sometimes
literally on pain of death. The carrying on of activities
in society requires the continuing support, co-operation,
acquiescence, submission, or at an extreme the destruction of
other activities. These activities then can interrelate in a
more or less free, more or less democratic, more or less just
way, and how activities interrelate will obviously depend
partly on what these activities are (some of their very nature
require dominance/submission relations). These are the
political parameters of social life. In capitalist society,
as is being increasingly realised, the domination of human by
human characterizes not just the relation of capitalist to
proletarian, but the whole fabric of life. Therefore the
option is a political practice which takes all aspects of our
oppression into account, or a one-track politics which leaves
much of that fabric intact.



Why do left academics who have no hesitation in speaking
of their petty “department politics”, become so upset
at the thought that strikes are a form of politics?

Is it that politics is for the “conscious”‘?

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