29 November 2021

Is a Strong State All that it Takes? The State, Coercion and Social Transformation

Panagiotis Sotiris1

One of the arguments that have appeared during the pandemic, especially during its early phase, was that the measures taken by governments, especially the forced suspension of economic activity, even at the danger of severe economic depression, offered proof of not only the crisis of neoliberalism2 but also of the possibility to use state power as a means to promote social change in a socialist direction.

In such a perspective, a strong state intervention, even in the sense of a government ‘by decree’ that could halt aspects of capitalist production, commandeer parts of the production apparatus and impose strict forms of regulation of everyday life, offers an example that it is possible to impose important changes, through a ‘strong state’. Even the more disciplinary aspects of ‘lockdown strategies’ have been, to a certain extent, embraced as aspects of this positive potential offered by a strong state intervention, as an example on how it is possible to actually halt capitalist production and disrupt the dynamics of capitalist accumulation.

This is also enhanced of the ‘return of the state’ debate, even among ‘organic intellectuals’ of capital, and all the references to entering a period where capitalist states intervene more in the economy, or undertake larger segments of social reproduction. This is also reinforced by the fact that this ‘return of the state’ seems like a negation of an earlier neoliberal ‘anti-statism’, which had indeed led social movements to wage important struggles in defence of state functions and against attempts to privatise them. And, of course, there have been voices in the global right and far right that have accused both the urgent measures to deal with the pandemic and climate change as ‘socialism’3 and, indeed, a certain far-right populism has attempted to appear as a defender of ‘liberties’ against pandemic restrictions. The fascination also exercised by the Chinese state’s intervention and handling of the pandemic4 also suggests a certain conception of the need for a stronger state intervention.

One way perhaps to deal with this problem is to remind ourselves that, in fact, there never was an actual ‘neoliberal anti-statism’, and that neoliberal states were indeed disciplinary and in a rather authoritarian way. Consequently, the actual history of neoliberalism is full of many forms of state intervention, even in the sense of states creating markets or quasi-markets, along with all the forms of increased authoritarian measures and expansion of the coercive apparatuses that has been a defining aspect of neoliberalism.

However, the crucial question is whether, indeed, we can think of social transformation as an expansion of state power and intervention, especially since the classical definition of the transition to communism includes a ‘withering away’ of the state.

It is true that the notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat includes a rather strong sense of coercion, especially in regards to the ‘violent’ re-appropriation of the means of production and the transformation of property relations along with other aspects of social reproduction, exemplified the Communist Manifesto’s call for ‘despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production’.5 And, even though one might get the idea that part of the beginning of the process of transformation includes a rather strong state apparatus gaining control over social life, in the sense of a ‘centralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly’, the ‘centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State’ and the ‘extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State’,6 at the same time there is a very specific reference that the state referred to is not just the existing state but rather it is something deeply transformed. This is very evident in the tension running through the tentative phrasing of the Manifesto and the reference to ‘the state, i.e., the proletariat organised as the ruling class’.

The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.7

And, even in a text by Engels that was to become a reference point for the Second International, there is a clear warning against any thinking of just using a strong existing state:

The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine, the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers—proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is rather brought to a head. But, brought to a head, it topples over. State ownership of the productive forces is not the solution of the conflict, but concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements of that solution.8

At the same time, one can point to the Civil War in France and how Marx there insists that we are talking about a different and transformed state apparatus and not just taking over and using the existing state apparatuses.

That passage would, in many respects, be very differently worded today. In view of the gigantic strides of Modern Industry in the last twenty-five years, and of the accompanying improved and extended party organization of the working class, in view of the practical experience gained, first in the February Revolution, and then, still more, in the Paris Commune, where the proletariat for the first time held political power for two whole months, this programme has in some details become antiquated. One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”. (SeeThe Civil War in France. Address of the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association, German edition, p. 19, where this point is further developed.)9

Moreover, as Rossana Rossanda stressed, this implies a radical socialisation of politics that moves beyond the notion of ‘withering away’ of the state: ‘

In the model of the Commune therefore, the revolution and the revolutionary society anticipated not only the withering away of the state, but, even more radically, the progressive disappearance of the political dimension as a dimension separate from (and opposed to) social being, reconstituted in its unity.10

And, of course, there is the strong critique of any simple use of existing state by Marx in the Critique of the Gotha Programme exemplified by his distrust towards‘education of the people by the state’.11 Moreover, Marx calls for a profound transformation, in the sense that the state ‘needs a very stern education by the people’12 which is presented by Marx as a process of historical experimentation:

The question then arises: what transformation will the state undergo in communist society? In other words, what social functions will remain in existence there that are analogous to present state functions? This question can only be answered scientifically, and one does not get a flea-hop nearer to the problem by a thousandfold combination of the word people with the word state.13

On the other hand, in the tradition of the working-class movement there was also a strong ‘statist’ line, associated with figures such as Lassalle and his conception of a socialism based on the expansion of the role of the state14 and, even more, a certain idealisation of the state as an agent of social rationalisation, that owes a lot to a certain conception of the state more associated with Fichte or Hegel, namely the state as culmination and condensation of humanity’s rational capacity, exemplified in Lassalle’s conception of the state as anethical whole’.15And, to a large extent, theCritique of the Gotha Programme refers exactly to ‘the Lassallean sect’s servile belief in the state’.16

However, such an emphasis on social transformation that is enhanced by a strong intervention from the part of the existing state apparatus was also present in various forms of the Marxism of historical social democracy, and, of course, it was stronger after the split with the Third international.

In contrast, in the original formulation by Lenin in State and Revolution and the accompanying material, one could see a more complex articulation of the what is defined as strong state and also about how this is combined with the emphasis on the soviets – a form of organisation but also of exercise of power that is presented indeed as an aspect of the withering away of the state.

The proletariat needs the state—this is repeated by all the opportunists, social-chauvinists and Kautskyites, who assure us that this is what Marx taught. But they “forget” to add that, in the first place, according to Marx, the proletariat needs only a state which is withering away, i.e., a state so constituted that it begins to wither away immediately, and cannot but wither away. And, secondly, the working people need a “state, i.e., the proletariat organised as the ruling class”.17

And it was Lenin indeed who offered a very important reading of ‘lessons of the Commune’ that at least provide the outlines of a definition of forms of power from below or counter-power that go beyond the simple ‘use of the existing state apparatus’.

The fundamental characteristics of this type are: (1) the source of power is not a law previously discussed and enacted by parliament, but the direct initiative of the people from below, in their local areas—direct “seizure”, to use a current expression; (2) the replacement of the police and the army, which are institutions divorced from the people and set against the people, by the direct arming of the whole people; order in the state under such a power is maintained by the armed workers and peasants themselves, by the armed people themselves; (3) officialdom, the bureaucracy, are either similarly replaced by the direct rule of the people themselves or at least placed under special control; they not only become elected officials, but are also subject to recall at the people’s first demand; they are reduced to the position of simple agents; from a privileged group holding “jobs” remunerated on a high, bourgeois scale, they become workers of a special “arm of the service”, whose remuneration does not exceed the ordinary pay of a competent worker.18

Leaving aside the fact that these might sound as schematic or even simplistic, they still point to the crucial question, namely that of the need for non-state autonomous organisations as part of the very exercise of power. Forms of political organisation that attempt to subsume the state, or exercise forms of transformative control upon it and at the same time enable a politicisation of the economic sphere without precedent, again as part of a transformative political dynamic.19 I think that it is here that we can find the revolutionary importance of the very notion of ‘dual power’, which, in my reading, points not to a ‘moment’ but more to an ‘organic’ aspect of any attempt towards revolutionary transformation.

What is the class composition of this other government? It consists of the proletariat and the peasants (in soldiers’ uniforms). What is the political nature of this government? It is a revolutionary dictatorship, i.e., a power directly based on revolutionary seizure, on the direct initiative of the people from below, and not on a law enacted by a centralised state power. It is an entirely different kind of power from the one that generally exists in the parliamentary bourgeois-democratic republics of the usual type still prevailing in the advanced countries of Europe and America. This circumstance is often overlooked, often not given enough thought, yet it is the crux of the matter. This power is of the same type as the Paris Commune of 1871.20

In the complex situation created by the realities and difficulties of the Russian Revolution and the Civil War, priorities seem to change, yet the question whether we are just dealing with an expansion of centrali,ed power and what the role of non-state entities would be re-emerges, albeit in an over-determined manner, in the debates and around trade unions21 and the critiques from various oppositionist currents.22 By itself, the debate on the role of trade unions is indicative of the centrality of this question and, despite the ‘canonisation’ of Lenin’s response, we should bear in mind that it was, after all, a very time-specific intervention, in a very peculiar conjuncture and not a strategic positioning. And, of course, one could point to the persistence of the councilist tradition outside the Soviet Union,23 within the various forms of left oppositions to the Communist parties.

The evolution of the Soviet state would again pose the problem, since it was obviously moving into the direction of a consolidation and increased strengthening of state power. One could point to the way that Gramsci treated the question of what he defined as ‘statolatry’. Gramsci, although he seemed to accept at least as a provisional or transitory condition a certain form of Soviet ‘Bonapartism’, at the same time offered clear warnings against such positions.

Some social groups rose to autonomous state life without first having had an extended period of independent cultural and moral development of their own (which in medieval society and under absolute regimes was rendered possible by the legal existence of privileged estates or orders; for such social groups, a period of statolatry is necessary and indeed appropriate. Such “statolatry” is nothing other than the normal form of “state life” or, at least, of initiation into autonomous state life and into the creation of a “civil society,” which historically could not be created before the ascent to independent state life. Nevertheless, this kind of “statolatry” must not be abandoned to itself, above all, it must not become theoretical fanaticism or come to be seen as “perpetual.” It must be criticized, precisely in order for it to develop and to produce new forms of state life in which individual and group initiative has a “state” character even if it is not indebted to the “official government ” (makes state life “spontaneous”).24

I believe that this stressing by Gramsci of the need for ‘statolatry’ to be criticised and the need to avoid it becoming ‘perpetual’ and also to avoid it becoming ‘theoretical fanaticism’ in order to move forward with the emergence of forms of political and state organisation that are based on subaltern initiatives, namely transformative political practice with a communist horizon, is very important, in the sense that it offers a dialectical way of moving beyond the identification of socialism with a strong state.25

The way the Soviet model was exported and put in practice did create a very strong sense of the ‘Socialist State’ as the agent of social transformation. State ownership and planning seemed to be the basic aspects of socialist transition and this would also be considered as an example for a ‘developmental’ state enhancing process of democratic modernisation in the context of anticolonial practices and decolonial practices.26

Questions of mass participation and mobilisation would, of course, re-occur and the same can be said about particular experiences such as the particular Yugoslav experiment with self-management (which was not combined with a similar emphasis on non-state political and organisational forms).

The Chinese experience was, at the same time, very important, especially since the first phase of the Cultural Revolution and the Shanghai Commune suggested the return to the logic of non-state independent political forms of organisation, even though this aspect was soon abandoned to a certain degree, and a series of compromises were introduced.27

In contrast, the ‘Western’ Communist movement, along with social democracy ,started to treat the state as inherently progressive, in the sense that a democratised state, implementing progressive reforms and engaging in forms of planning of the economy, along with an expansion of public ownership, was presented as a crucial aspect of the politics of a ‘democratic progressive government’. Moreover, the expansion of the role of the state along with the forms of ‘socialisation of production’ associated with ‘state-monopoly capitalism’ were presented as the ‘objective tendencies towards socialism’ in contrast to the way the ‘monopolies’ were trying to annul them. This ended up in certain idealisation of the state as an antechamber of socialism.28

Against such positions, one could point to the critique of the ‘welfare state’ offered by various forms of radicalism inspired by the Marxist tradition, from the critique of a technocratic society proponents of critical theory to the various radical critiques of the role of the state in social production and reproduction and a conception of the welfare state as an attempt to strengthen the rule of capital. And one could also point to how radical movements, within the context of the ‘Global 1968’, went beyond demanding just an expansion of state education and health systems, offering at the same time a criticism of how they also represented aspects of capitalist social reproduction.

Moreover, against the idea that social transformation will begin by electoral means, a democratic progressive government and the use of the state as a vector for socialist politics, many currents returned to a conception of ‘smashing of the state’ within a revolutionary process, however schematic such position might be at certain points and despite the lack of an elaborated strategy in that direction.

Moreover, movements and forms of organisation that were autonomous from the state were presented as a crucial aspect of social transformation. This was evident in the many varieties of experiments in self-management but also in more articulated conceptions of a dual power of long duration, as suggested for example by Christine Buci-Glucksmann.

In contrast to the contemporary soviet ‘model’ with its constant attack to freedoms, its psychiatric hospitals, its blocking of any real dialectic of the masses, we know that working class hegemony means the recognition of its parties, the autonomy of trade unions, the biggest possible degree of democratic expansion of the base, the highest degree of freedom. However, this hegemony […] also means the exit from a capitalist logic and to go beyond the strict framework of classical “bourgeois democracy”. In this sense we cannot pose within the democratic transition on the one hand the elected assemblies and the class struggle on the other. We must articulate, to think a constant rupture, a dual power of long duration.29

At the same time, such positions were also conditioned by different theoretical approaches to the state. Parts of the German critique of the welfare state30 were based on the particular conception of derivation of the state from social relations of the economy and the value-form.

‘Social policy’ (i.e. state activity intervening ex post facto in society and seeking to resolve its ‘social problems’) thus has the characteristics, down to its smallest details, of a process of paternalistic supervision, control or ‘welfare’ of the producer. (This is felt by every worker who has to wait in the work, who repairs his labour-power as quickly as possible). Hence, however much state social policy offers individual producers a certain security in the event of their partial or total inability to, work, social policy can never provide a conscious and planned care for the maintenance, renewal and improvement of the social working capacity of the collective worker, the associated producers themselves. In a communist society suchplanned care would necessarily be part of the collective social production process; it would be apublic responsibility of society and of its members, as would the rest of social subsistence, and not the object of the abstract bureaucratic activity of a particularpolitical organization31

Also in the 1970s, Louis Althusser’s calls for the need to have autonomous organisations and for the party not to be identified with the state, were based on his rather idiosyncratic conception of the state as a machine that transforms social force into political power and law. It is on the basis of such a conception that Althusser warned against every tendency to imagine a simple ‘democratisation’ of the existing state apparatuses.


Truly, and I ask that these words be carefully weighed, to ‘destroy’ the bourgeois state, in order to replace it with the state of the working class and its allies, is not to add the adjective ‘democratic’ to each existing state apparatus. It is something quite other than a formal and potentially reformist operation, it is to revolutionize in their structures, practices and ideologies the existing state apparatuses; to suppress some of them, to create others; it isto transform the forms of the division of labour between the repressive, political and ideological apparatuses; it isto revolutionize their methods of work andthe bourgeois ideology that dominates their practices; it is to assure themnew relations with the masses in response to mass initiatives, on the basis of a new,proletarian ideology, in order to prepare for the ‘withering away of the state’, i.e. its replacement by mass organizations.32

And even Poulantzas’s relational conception of the state as the condensation of a social relation of forces, sometimes misread as a call for struggles within the state, was also combined with an insistence on autonomous forms of organisations of the masses as part of his strategy for ‘democratic socialism.’ Poulantzas’s fear was that any call simply for awithering away’ of the state, interpreted as doing away with representative democracy in favour of rank-and-file direct participation would eventually lead again to technocracy and statism. However, Poulantzas himself admitted that ‘left to itself, the transformation of the state apparatus and the development of representative democracy would be incapable of avoiding statism’,33hence the need to combine ‘the transformation of representative democracy with the development of forms of rank-and-file democracy or the movement for self-management’.34

I would suggest that, in a certain way, the question of dual power constantly re-emerges whenever the dynamics of social movements and political contestation go beyond a certain threshold and challenge the existing configuration of power. And, in each case, the open question is what to do with those autonomous organisations that are not just ‘instruments of struggle’ but more like forms of counter-power or power from below. And this can explain why this question does not only arise as an ‘article of faith’ with regard to an insurrectionary conception of revolutionary process, but also as way to answer with political challenges in hand, in a spectrum from the Bolivia of René Zavaleta Mercado35 to the debates around ‘Left Eurocommunism’.

Althusser posed this as an open question in his intervention on the ‘Crisis of Marxism’, especially since, for Althusser, the crisis of Marxism had to do with the question of the state. For Althusser, the crisis of Marxism was the result of an inability to come in terms with the theoretical and strategic question facing us, especially in light of the open crisis of the Soviet social formations. And this meant how to think the question of the party and mass organisations and their relation to the state not just as theoretical questions but as a revolutionary practice and politics that started immediately. For Althusser, the process that can lead us to an actual withering away of the state starts from now, must be a defining aspect of our political practice long before the revolutionary process. The question is: ‘How can we grasp now, in order to spur on the process, the need for the “destruction” of the bourgeois State, and prepare the ‘withering away’ of the revolutionary State?’ 36 Therefore, the open questions coming from the crisis of “actually existing socialism” along with the new dynamics of the movements become, at the same time, the potential explanation for the crisis of Western Communism and Marxism and the testing ground for any proposition to exit this crisis. A new practice of mass politics is necessary both for the recomposition of the revolutionary movement but also for the transition process. That is why, noting the emergence of new mass popular movements that emerge outside the limits of the traditional party-form but also of the trade unions, Althusser insists that ‘the most important of questions for past and future—how can relations be established with the mass movement which, transcending the traditional distinction between trade union and party, will permit the development of initiatives among the people, which usually fail to fit into the division between the economic and political spheres.’ 37

The crisis of the Communist movement from the 1980s onwards and the fact that revolutionary politics seemed to be no longer part of the order of the day, led to certain disregard of such questions. However, such questions resurfaced in the context of movements in Latin America. From the way the Zapatistas chose to organize in opposition to the state to contradictions in the relations between the state and autonomous movements within the revolutionary process in Venezuela or Bolivia.

For example, in Bolivia, Álvaro Garcia Linera has referred to the creative tensions within the Bolivian revolutionary process, in the period that followed the failed coup of 2008, exemplified in the contradictory relations between the state and social movements, including the efforts of the state to take over some of the functions of social movements and community institutions. Linera has used Gramsci’s notion of theintegral state to describe this process. However, it is interesting – and very indicative of the actual contradictions of this approach – that this is described both as a ‘dilution’ of the state within society and as certain expansion of a democratised state.38

Or, equally, one could look at the problems and dynamics in the process of transferring power to the communes in Venezuela.39 Even the dynamics of social struggles in Greece in the first half of the 2010s and the emergence of an impressive variety of forms of self-organisation also posed, even in the form of an open question that was never answered what could be described as potential forms of dual power.40

So, it is obvious that we are dealing with an important question and, to a certain extent, an open debate running through the history of both Marxism and the working-class movement.

I think it is imperative to pick up this debate again. This, of course, requires a re-opening of the debate on the state. The denial of any instrumentalist theory of the state as a tool of the bourgeoisie, or of any crude class reductionism that disregards the relative autonomy of the superstructures, or indeed the relations and contradictory character of the very materiality of the state cannot lead us to idealisation of the state. In contrast, we need to rethink the state as the material condensation of a relation of forces, with the emphasis on ‘material condensation’ which suggest both a relational character, and the constant effectivity of class struggles and social antagonism, but also the fact that it is the materialisation of a relation of forces that enables bourgeois domination (and, to different extents, hegemony), hence, indeed, acting within the conjuncture as a ‘machine transforming social force into political power and law’. This means that the class character of the state is deeply inscribed in its institutional architecture, in the ways knowledge and information is circulates, in the different ways that  crucial aspects are insulated against any form of democratic control, a process enhanced by the constant transfer of authority to various levels of experts, the militarisation of the security and police apparatus and the widespread and pervasive logic of ‘independent agencies’ exemplified in the very notion of ‘Independent Central Banks’ but also in the increased autonomisation of the repressive apparatuses. In this sense, a certain suspicion, at the very least, of the state is always in the order of the day and we cannot suggest that just making this kind of state apparatus stronger can be the starting point of a process of social transformation. Consequently, the necessary clash with the ersatz ‘anti-statism’ of neoliberalism should not lead to a simple support or defence of the existing state forms without questioning the many ways that they are the actual materialisation of class strategies.

What about what we usually consider as ‘public services’, such as education, health systems and social services? It is obvious that we would prefer public services to private, but this does not mean that we are dealing with socially neutral institutions. Public education can also act a process for the reproduction of class hierarchies, the social division of labour and aspects of the dominant ideology, in short to act like an Ideological State Apparatus or a hegemonic apparatus. And there have been important critiques of the way the dominant conception of health and medicine can also be reproduced through a public health system, along with important contributions to how an alternative conception of a public health oriented towards social needs and not just the ‘repair of the labour power’ might be.

Moreover, sometimes we tend to forget that the crucial aspect that makes such state services ‘public’, in the sense of being oriented towards the needs of the subaltern classes, has also to do with the fact that there are important movements in them, movements that oppose aspects of their role in the reproduction of capitalist social relations of domination and exploitation, and, in a certain way, represent the interests, needs and aspirations of the subaltern classes. Étienne Balibar recently highlighted this point and the necessary contradictory (one might say dialectical) contradiction running through the very notion of the state as provider of ‘public services’

As a consequence, the “state” at the same time appears as a recourse, an agent of protection, and an object of critique and replacement, which is challenged by “counter-conducts” and “counterpowers”, in a fragile and problematic equilibrium. But perhaps we are not, in fact, talking of the same “state”? Or perhaps the state itself, in the process of the crisis, becomes divided between antithetic logics? It seems to me that a theoretical solution for this riddle, provisionally at least, could reside in deciding that it is rather the “public service” that harbors a unity of opposites, a dialectics of conflict and cooperation between the two logics which are also two “concepts of the political”, the logic of statist authority (rather than “sovereignty”), and the logic of horizontal commonality. The comprehensive notion of the “public” ranging from public governance and property to the responsibility of institutions before the public as enlightened multitude appears at the same time as a site of encounter between these two logics, and a stake at play in their competition. This is of course not an entirely new pattern of social and political agency, especially in periods of historic crises. But in the current situation it remains to be seen which intensity it will acquire and where it will lead our societies. This will largely depend on how the crisis affects the evolution of the current form of capitalism.41

One might say that the reason we indeed support and defend public services is exactly that, within the terrain of the state, it is possibly to have the intervention of movements that actually represent subaltern needs and aspirations. In this sense, the very notion of what belongs to the state is a terrain of struggle with regard to its very definition and the crucial aspect exactly has to do with a collective practice that redefines the very notion of a ‘public service’.

It is on the basis of the above that I would like to suggest that we can find in the Marxist tradition another theoretical and practical current that attempts to rethink social transformation as a process of experimentation and change that is based not just on the expansion of state power (especially if we think it as the expansion of the power of the existing state apparatus) but also on the emergence of different forms of popular power and counter-power from below, along with profound transformations of the state, a contemporary version of dual power. In such a perspective, autonomous movements and initiatives, from trade unions to forms of self-management and even forms of collective self-defence are crucial aspects even if the political representatives of the subaltern classes have indeed reached political power. At the same time, this requires a complete rethinking of the very notion of the state apparatus that goes beyond simply making it stronger or expanding its powers. In a certain sense, this requires thinking the state exactly as the condensation of a relation of forces but with a strong transformative dynamic. This will require both the existence of strong movements outside the state but also the strong presence and intervention of movements within the state by means of the expansion of forms of democratic control and accountability, but also in the sense of self-management and expansive forms of democratic autonomy.

In such a perspective, not all forms of a ‘stronger’ state can be treated as equally important and not all of them are positive or contribute to social change. It is one thing to use political power to promote important changes, even ‘institutionally violent’ in matters that refer to the expansion of public ownership or interventions that reduce the pervasive effectivity of market mechanisms (from price controls to raising the minimum wage) and another for example to treat as a form of a positively strong state aspects of what we have witnessed during the pandemic. Aspects that include the expansion of police power, the restriction of political freedom (such as the right to assembly), the new forms of supervision and surveillance and the increased authoritarian aspects of what can be described as the lockdown strategy (including the very problematic suspension of access to basic services included in some forms of ‘heath passes’42).

This is definitely not a ‘blueprint for the “despotic” aspects of the dictatorship of the proletariat’, rather this is authoritarian neoliberalism on steroids. One might even say that the very fact that we are in a conjuncture where neoliberalism has been dealt heavy blows, while, at the same time, no plausible alternatives have emerged, can explain why, in a certain way, this is compensated by the turn toward an increasingly authoritarian handling of social problems. Moreover, one might point to the fact that, at least in some countries, the pandemic and the exceptional measures associated with it have been used as a way to enforce large-scale forms of capitalist restructuring.

It is true that aspects of the ‘return of the state’ debate, such as the realisation of the limits of the markets, or of the inability of the markets to act as rational optimisers, are important and represent opportunities for the left to change the relation of forces in the public sphere and articulate aspects an alternative strategy. The same goes for the importance of the provision of public services and also the importance of having state agencies that indeed act to delimitate the private from the public, the market from the terrain of social needs and aspirations. These are surely crucial aspects.

But, at the same time, if we are still thinking in terms of social transformation, it is important to also think about ways to create and bring forward the initiative and ingenuity of the subaltern as a way to suggest that social organisation based on solidarity, collective discussion and decision and constant effort at transformation is possible. In a certain way, this can be the only attempt towards moving beyond the fetishism of the market and the fetishism of the state, which represent the double process of mystification of social relations of domination and exploitation. This is the only way to enable and enhance the emergence of antagonistic social practice, relations and forms.

This also entails another conception of the state itself. Even if we do want stronger state interventions, at the same time we struggle for a profound transformation of the state, in the sense of creating ways that social antagonism becomes more apparent and active within the state, forcing forms of openness and democratic accountability, putting crucial aspects under social control, reducing the size, power and opacity of the oppressive apparatuses of the state, introducing new forms of democratic participation at all levels, and, at the same time, expanding basic political freedoms against all forms of oppression, including the pervasive development of a surveillance state.

If we try and think about the main challenges facing us to today, from the pandemic to climate change, and the need to make again pertinent the need for a non-capitalist organisation of the economy, the necessity for a perspective that moves beyond the call for a ‘strong state’ becomes evident. In the case of the pandemic and the failure of the ‘lockdown strategy’ to deliver, it became obvious that the challenge has been not of suspending social life, but of collectively inventing ways and practices that make it safer, by redesigning production and reproduction on the basis of solidarity and collective mobilisation and not coercion enhanced surveillance. In the case of climate change, the extent of the need for changes in productive and consumer paradigms and the increased need for decentralisation and collective use of limited resources also entails a very wide spectrum of collective redesigning of production that goes beyond the scope of state coercion and have more to do with collective initiative and self-management.

In a similar manner, if we go back to the question of whether some form of ‘left governance’ is possible, in the way it came to the fore during the 2010s, we can see that it was never simply about a left government passing progressive legislation through parliament. If this were to be a socialist strategy, that is a strategy of ruptures with existing social configurations, it would also include a widespread unleashing of collective initiatives at all levels, both as pressure for change, but also as learning sites for new ways to organise schools or hospitals or to manage publicly owned enterprises. It is in this sense that we need to rethink the very notion of dual power as an integral and permanent aspect of any process of transformation.

Consequently, such a conception of transformative politics which is not limited to making good use of the coercive potential of the states should not be conceived as a simple implementation of a set of measures, or just as an institutional reform, even though profound institutional reforms are necessary. It should be thought of as process of transformation, for which, in a certain sense, only principles can be offered, especially if we going to think this as a process of socialisation of politics in the form of a re-absorption of political society into civil society to use Gramsci’s definition of the transformation of state and political forms in the transition to communism.

It is not possible to create a constitutional law of the traditional type on the basis of this reality, which is in continuous movement; it is only possible to create a system of principles asserting that the State’s goal is its own end, its own disappearance, in other words the re-absorption of political society into civil society.43

I think that this note from 1930 offers a necessary starting point for a relational and, to a certain extent, open and transformational political practice, treating the state as the terrain and object of this transformation, refusing any conception of the state as the locus of social rationality (although, at the same time, stressing its material efficacy) and indeed treating it as a relation of forces to be changed by means of a new and expansive subaltern politicity. The opposition between ‘constitutional law’ and ‘system of principles’ does not point towards some form of unrestrained revolutionary practice, or towards the simple substitution of the state by ‘soviet-type’ institutions, but rather towards the need to think of both the state and the movements inside and outside of it as parts of the same process of transformation and experimentation. At the same time, this passage suggests a new practice of politics that supersedes the division of the economic and the political within bourgeois society and attempts to create conditions for a subaltern universality, opposed to both the abstract universality of the state and the particularity of ‘corporate interests’ and thus opening the way for social transformation.44

To conclude: it is true that the idea that the state can be the main agency of social rationality and ‘represent’ the collective effort towards an emancipated and just society has a long history. In a certain way, this was the main question that the political philosophy of modernity faced. And some of the answers offered to that direction were indeed very elaborate, suggesting the complex interrelations and mediations between the state, civil society and the possibility of moving from particular interests towards a more universal conception of freedom and justice. If we go back to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, to give an example, we can find a very complex conception of an ‘integral state’, that leaving aside the shortcomings of some of Hegel’s ‘solutions’, such as the role of the sovereign or the reference to the estates system, is well beyond any liberal conception of the state, includes a conception of sovereignty that is really dialectical, and is based on a very complex articulation of civil society and the state.45 However, one of Marx’s actual epistemological breaks was exactly the idea that social emancipation was not only a process that would lead to the ‘withering away’ of the state, but also a process that will not be state-driven or limited to the state, it will not a self-transformation of the state. Not in the sense of a technocratic replacement of the ‘government of persons’ by the ‘administration of things’,46 but in the constant expansion of new forms of an agonistic democratic political participation at all levels, including that of the economy, of new forms of collective management, of new forms of political civility, and consequently of the emergence of new and original forms of institutionalization, in a process that is going to be both contradictory and experimental.

“A Boy Confronts Egyptian Military Police South of Tahrir Square – A Potentially Tragic Disparity of Power and Equipment.” byalisdare1 is licensed underCC BY-SA 2.0



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Althusser, Louis 1977, ‘On the Twenty-Second Congress of the French Communist Party’, translated by Ben Brewster, New Left Review 104: 3-22.

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Balibar, Étienne, ‘Living, Learning, Imagining in the Middle of the Crisis’, Crisis and Critique 7:3:10-24.

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  • 1. Paper presented at the 2021 Historical Materialism Conference.
  • 2. This usually takes the form of the ‘neoliberalism is dead’ approach. For a discussion of this position, see Duncan 2021. For a critique of this thesis in the context of the pandemic see Šumonja 2021.
  • 3. Cheryl K. Chumley, an American right-wing pundit has announced a book entitled aptly: ‘Lockdwon. The Socialist Plan to Take Away Your Sleep’.
  • 4. See for example Martinez 2020.
  • 5. MECW, 6, p. 504.
  • 6. MECW, 6, p. 505.
  • 7. MECW, 6, p. 504.
  • 8. MECW, 25, p. 266. For a reminder of Engels’ opposition to ‘state socialism’ see Pateman 2021.
  • 9. MECW, 23, p. 175. On the importance of this ‘rectification’ of the Communist Manifesto see Balibar 1974.
  • 10. Rossanda 1970, pp. 220-221.
  • 11. MECW, 24, p. 97.
  • 12. MECW, 24, p. 97.
  • 13. MECW, 24, p. 95.
  • 14. On Marx’s critique of the various forms of ‘State socialism’ see Draper 2011.
  • 15. Lassalle quoted by Edward Bernstein in Ostrowski 2021, p. 166.
  • 16. MECW, 24, p. 97.
  • 17. LECW, 24, p. 407.
  • 18. LCW, 24, pp. 38-39.
  • 19. Balibar has encapsulated this in the following manner: ‘1. The first condition is the existence, besides the state apparatus of political organizations of a new type, mass political organisations, political organisations of workers, which control and subsume the state apparatus, even in its new form […] 2. However, the second condition is even more important, because it is the condition of the preceding one: it is the penetration of political practice to the sphere of “labour”, of production. In other words, it is the end of the absolute separation, developed by capitalism itself, between ‘politics’ and economics’. Not in the sense of an ‘economic policy’ that has nothing new, not even by the transfer of political power to workers, but in order to exercise it as workers, and without stopping workers, the transfer, in the sphere of production of an entire part of political practice. Therefore we can think that work, and before it social conditions, become not only a ‘socially useful’ and ‘socially organised’ practice, but a political practice.’ (Balibar 1974, p. 96-97).
  • 20. LCW, 24, p. 38.
  • 21. See Lenin’s interventions in the relevant debates in LECW 32. See also Deutscher 1950.
  • 22. Allen (ed.) 2021.
  • 23. See for example Pannekoek 2003.
  • 24. Gramsci PN3, pp. 310-311, Q8, §130).
  • 25. As Francesca Antonini notes, Gramsci’s words ‘sound like an invitation to overcome the mere external or formal ‘adjustment’ of the masses to the new political, social and productive system (this adjustment is unavoidable, given the ‘premises’ of the Russian revolution) and to develop, as quickly as possible, a form of hegemony that will lead to the establishment of fully realised socialism. Therefore, Gramsci is warning against the dangers of ‘static’ situations and of the ‘lack’ of revolutionary pressure.’ (Antonini 2020, p. 182).
  • 26. Paul Baran (1973) offered the crucial arguments in favour of a strong planning socialist state offering the solution to the challenges of postcolonial growth and development. On the various forms and trajectories of the developmental state see inter alia Woo-Cumings (ed.) 1999 and Chatterjee 2010.
  • 27. On the complex dynamics the Cultural Revolution see Hongsheng 2014 and Russo 2020.
  • 28. For a critique of such positions, especially in relation the French Communist Party see Weber 1977. See also Théret at Wievorka 1978.
  • 29. Buci Glucksmann 1977, p. 153.
  • 30. Müller and Neusüss 1971
  • 31. Müller and Neüssus in Holloway and Piccioto (eds.) 1974, pp. 38-39.
  • 32. Althusser 1977, p. 17.
  • 33. Poulantzas 2000, p. 260.
  • 34. Poulantzas 2000, p. 262.
  • 35. Zavaleta 1974.
  • 36. Althusser 1978, p. 220.
  • 37. Althusser 1978, p. 220.
  • 38. Garcia Linera 2011.
  • 39. Cicciariello-Maher 2016
  • 40. Sotiris 2018
  • 41. Balibar 2020, pp. 19-20.
  • 42. Laumonier 2021.
  • 43. Gramsci 1971, p. 253 (Q5, § 127).
  • 44. In this context, the re-absorption of political society in civil society would constitute the foundation for the emergence of a “self-regulated society”, indicating not merely the relocation of the mechanisms of decision-making and governance from one (minoritarian) sphere to another (majoritarian), but the self-regulation of a society in which economics and politics, the kingdom of necessity and the kingdom of freedom, of external determination and selfdetermination, are no longer separated. More precisely, it would indicate a civil society that, in the midst of its divisive particularity and subaltern interpellation by the existing political society, assumes consciousness of its own contradictions; but not in order to cancel them in a universality that hovers above it in a political society, the “constitutional Right, of a traditional type”.’ (Thomas 2009, p. 190).
  • 45. On readings of Hegel that stress the complexity of his thinking of the state see inter alia Lefebvre and Macherey 1984 and Losurdo 2004.
  • 46. MECW, 25, p. 268.