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Socialism and the Repressive State Apparatus

In my most recent post about Ferguson, someone in the comment string assumed (and probably with good reason) that I was talking about policing in general and so asked about my thoughts about the necessity of policing in a socialist context.  Actually-existing socialisms have possessed the institution of police, after all, and so it was assumed that my comments about policing applied to these contexts.  To be clear and extremely simplistic: they do not.

A following comment, most probably by a well-intentioned anarchist, demonstrated some understanding of where I stood on this issue and pointed out that while communists (at least of the Leninist/Maoist variety) often took a correct position against the police under capitalism, their theory of the dictatorship, if actualized, would produce "police states."  Although I disagree with a historical analysis that filters all successful revolutions through the hermeneutic of "totalitarianism"––and, in this vein, often feel that many of these anarchist critiques are hampered by bourgeois "common sense" ideology––it presents me with an opportunity to briefly unpack my thoughts about the necessity of some mechanism of state repression following a revolution and the distinction between the institution of the police in socialist and non-socialist contexts.

Let's begin with an axiom that should be treated as uncontroversial by the majority of marxists and many anti-capitalists: in a class-based society the institution of the police, along with the army, are a repressive state apparatus that exist primarily to defend the interests of whatever class is in command.  That is, the institution of the police primarily function so as to ensure the "social peace" of the ruling class.  Therefore, in capitalist modes of production the main function of the police (and the army) is to repress those classes that challenge the bourgeoisie, in whatever manner this challenge emerges, so as to secure the rule of capital.  In the context of Ferguson, as in the context of so many other examples, this function should be clear.  These are the moments where the confused complexity of social reality is stripped down to its essential basis and state repression, manifesting as phalanxes of riot cops, is brutally evident.

But if socialism is a social formation in which the proletariat is in command then, as Lenin argues in State and Revolution, the expropriated machinery of the state needs to be used against the defeated bourgeois class so as to ensure the dictatorship of the proletariat over the defeated, but always desperate to return, dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.  (Despite the arcane debates over the equivocation of the dictatorship of the proletariat with socialism, as evinced by the debates on this post, I side with Balibar's argument that the social formation of socialism is the dictatorship of the proletariat, a challenged transitionary period to communism.)  Hence the emergence of policing institutions that are not embedded in capitalism, the possibility and necessity of policing that is determined by the ideology of an ascendant proletarian class, where the repressive state apparatus is brought to bear against those who wielded it against the classes that challenged bourgeois hegemony.  This is because socialism is still a class-based society; toppling capitalism today will not suddenly produce the structures required to build a revolutionary society.  Moreover, to even topple capitalism requires a counter-hegemonic movement, and not movementism which has led nowhere due to its strategic deficiencies, that will produce its own militarization, i.e. the nascent seeds of a socialist repressive state apparatus.

To argue that the repressive state apparatus––that is, institutions designed for class pacification be they police or the army––is necessary for socialism is, of course, anathema to the average anarchist.  So it is here that I again part ways with anarchism, that utopianism of my past, a confused body of theory that was generally under the assumption that communism could be accomplished without seizing the state and repressing the bourgeoisie and its ideology.  Opposed to the idea of policing, and homogenizing capitalist and socialist policing, anarchism generally assumes that a post-capitalist utopia can be achieved without having to deal with the problem of state power and the appropriation of its repressive apparatus.  To be honest, this was one of the (many) reasons that I stopped being an anarchist: I began to think about what it would require to deal with all of the reactionaries who would never accept communism, particularly those who would be inclined to start a counter-revolution, and realized that anarchism, unlike the theory developed through world historical revolutions, lacked an answer.

(Even still, at least the serious and militant anarchists understand what it means to be anti-cop in the bourgeois context, unlike so many marxists who enjoy their cop-protected marches and spit on anything resembling militancy.  This is especially amusing in the case of Ferguson where the same organizations who argued against militancy, and a respect for bourgeois law, hypocritically critique the very policing institutions they have no problem implicitly defending in their day-to-day practice.  So in this context, up with militant anarchism.)

Invectives about socialist "police states", aside from their basis in a cold-war understanding of communism, are generally moralistic.  Based on an understanding of reality that locates capitalism's persistence in authoritarianism and hierarchy, a movement that develops from this understanding is usually incapable of understanding the necessity of organization, discipline, and what needs to happen if a revolution is to be sustained.  To correctly grasp the failures of actually existing socialism is to realize that these revolutions turned in upon themselves not because of authoritarianism and a totalitarianism that did not really exist but because of an inability to eliminate bourgeois ideology and thus the return of the bourgeois as a class.

The repressive state apparatus is not the mode of production itself, nor is it some authoritarian stand-in for a transhistorical state.  The police and the military of capitalist states are similar only in function to the police and military of pre-capitalist states: both exist to preserve class power but both are essentially different because of the class power they defend.  The former, once in power, brutally suppressed the defeated elements of the latter because a repressive state apparatus that defends a competing mode of production––that is, an entire social formation with another class in command––cannot be tolerated by a set of institutions who exist to defend that class which holds power.  This analysis, of course, is lifted right out of Althusser who argued, in On The Reproduction of Capitalism, "[w]ith possession of state power comes power over the state apparatuses [repressive and ideological], which constitute the very 'nature' of the state."  What class holds power is key, and the repressive state apparatus of capitalism will be similar to the repressive state apparatus of socialism only insofar as they exist to maintain the power of this class, beyond this they possess a different content.

(To be fair to those anarchists who do have a sophisticated analysis, such apparatuses ought to possess a different content and, as we know, what ought to be is not always the same as what actually takes place.  When state apparatuses are simply taken over rather than being smashed and replaced, all that happens is a red-washing of structures and institutions that were generated to protect the interests of the previous social order: that class hegemony will linger, its individuals still possessing a conscious counter-revolutionary subjectivity, and a counter-revolution in the form of a coup is likely.  Chile is a good example of this switching-up of state power without demolishing and replacing the mechanisms of repression with new ones developed through revolutionary struggle: Pinochet, we must remember, was a high-ranking army official before Allende was in power and, since this army was filled with people who thought similar to Pinochet, was promoted several times before the coup––it was not as if his politics were secret.)

The history of actually existing socialism teaches us that, following a revolution, the bourgeoisie will attempt to return as a class.  This is why socialism should be understood as the dictatorship of the proletariat since classes still exist and so the state will continue to exist, though under the command of the revolutionary class, until both it and classes are forced to wither away.  We have witnessed the return of the bourgeoisie, following the emergence of "capitalist roaders", first in the Soviet Union and then in China.  We cannot assume that the repression in the former USSR under Lenin and Stalin was simply a collection of baseless show-trials and megalomaniacal repression when even liberal scholars such as J. Arch Getty (who is recognized as one of the most important academic scholars on the former Soviet Union) have demonstrated that there were actual conspiracies to destroy socialism.  As I have noted before, reactionaries will continue to exist––we can't just assume that sexists, racists, homophobes, etc. will just change their mind––as will the lure of bourgeois ideology. [EDIT: just to be clear, the aforelinked article about "gulags" is mainly tongue-and-cheek because, as a Maoist, I actually do not think that the "Stalinist" way of repressing state enemies is a good thing.]

Of course, the way in which a socialist repressive state apparatus can and should exist needs to be understood as different from the way in which such an apparatus functions under capitalism.  Once again the experience of the Soviet Union can teach us about the way in which socialist repression erred and most probably helped promote the return of capitalism. Indeed, in the exchange of polemics between the Soviet Union and China during the 1960s, Chinese communists argued that the Soviet Union under Stalin: "confused two types of contradictions which are different in nature, contradictions between ourselves and the enemy and contradictions among the people… In the work led by Stalin of suppressing the counter-revolution, many counter-revolutionaries deserving punishment were duly punished, but at the same time there were innocent people who were wrongly convicted; and in 1937 and 1938 there occurred the error of enlarging the scope of the suppression of counter-revolutionaries."

If socialism is a social formation that is still defined by class struggle––but one in which the class terms of capitalism have been reversed––then this struggle will happen in every institution as well as the institutions designed to protect socialism.  For if the line struggle between the communist and capitalist roads happens in the revolutionary party itself, as history has shown us, then it will be reflected by those forces commanded by the party. Or perhaps the party will lose control of the repressive state apparatus, failing to put politics in command, and the gun will command the party rather than the party commanding the gun.

This last point about placing politics in command is essential to understand how a socialist repressive state apparatus should differ from the capitalist version.  A peoples police force, and a peoples army, that is ideologically educated according to socialist hegemony (and do not imagine that capitalist cops and soldiers do not receive a similar education––this is why their ranks are not easily split), and thus a force that is taught to actually serve the people, is essential.  This would mean a different detention system that focuses on rectification so as to cease existing altogether, as well as a different relationship between the police/army and the masses.  We saw this different relationship expressed during the Cultural Revolution, just as we saw a different relationship between the people's army and the people during the Chinese Revolution (despite the unsubstantiated claims of reactionary historians), where a mass-line between the people and the state was, however messily, applied.

I am not saying that the problem of policing socialism has been solved by the experience of the two great world historical revolutions of the 20th Century.  Such a claim would be absurd because, as we know, these states ultimately failed to police/protect socialism and it is worth studying their mistakes in this area to think about what it would take to produce the kind of socialist policing that would, if another dictatorship of the proletariat ever emerges, be capable of doing a better job protecting socialism with the aim of ending both itself and the state.  What is significant about these failures, though, is that they exist in the context of actually making revolution and so can tell us something, rather than baseless critiques delivered from a theoretical position of having done nothing to even warrant failure in the first place.  (As an aside, I make a similar point in my upcoming book and so I shall take this opportunity to plug it yet again.)

But if we are to learn anything from these failures we need to do in the context of the successes of these revolutionary experiences, lessons that may possess universal applicability.  Revolution teaches us about revolutionary theory, not theories that have stayed "pure" because they have failed to make revolution.  Most probably the institutions designed to protect socialism will be born in the revolutionary struggle against capitalism, in the peoples trials and peoples laws established in those base areas that offer an alternative to capitalism––places where people would seek justice from a revolutionary community instead of the still existent capitalist state.  For if the aim of socialism is the end of the state formation and classes, policing/repression under socialism must also aim at ending itself and all of its institutions––and this goal is what makes it, though the same in form, different in essence from capitalist policing.


  1. Excellent post JMP. I have a question that is fairly off topic- the brief Althusser quote aside. Having recently read some of your older posts on Gramsci and Althusser, as well as your mention that they compliment each other, I was wondering if you wouldn't mind putting together a brief reading guide for me to get introduced to their work. Much appreciated if you do!

    1. With Gramsci I would simply suggest reading the edited collection of his prison journals, which is well organized, published as *Selections from the Prison Notebooks*. Otherwise you'll be stuck going through the disorganized collection of his entire prison journals.

      With Althusser I would recommend reading his most popular essay "Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses" as well as *Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Sciences*. If you like the former, you should check out the recently published (finally in English) *On the Reproduction of Capitalism* though, I should warn you, it has its problems as well as its strengths: there are moments that are quite contradictory that feel like a knee-jerk need to defend PCF revisionism against his former students, and at these moments you can see why his former students became annoyed with him. Still, when he is not justifying economism (despite having critiqued it earlier in the same book) it has its strengths.

      Hope this helps.

    2. I'm also thinking about reading Althusser eventually, so that helped me. Is there anyone in particular I should read before starting him? For example, Lacan? Also, do you know of any convincing refutations of or responses to Kolakowski and E.P. Thompson's arguments from a structuralist perspective?

  2. What did the black bloc accomplish exactly at the G20? I'm genuinely interested to hear your opinion on this. There's a difference between violence deployed for specific revolutionary purposes and essentially symbolic gestures like breaking the window of a Starbucks or setting a police car on fire. Maybe some kid would be super-impressed by that and become an anarchist? Otherwise, all I'm seeing is little more than a demonstration of one's own frustration and powerlessness.

    Starbucks is going to get a new window. The cops will get another car. So what did those acts really accomplish, other than providing the bourgeois media with some good footage to play ad nauseum to smear the rest of the protesters and "justify" the police crackdown? How is this different, really, from the tactics of the Narodnaya Volya in pre-revolutionary Russia and their concept of the “propaganda of the deed,” which itself revealed a lack of faith in the revolutionary potential of the working class? You seem to be fetishizing ANY display of radical violence as inherently worthy of support while disingenously twisting any critique of those tactics as "arguing against militancy" itself.

    That's my main beef with this article, which is otherwise very cogent and well-argued (as your blog posts generally are). But I have another question: What are your thoughts on the concept of Bonapartism? That is, a situation in which the main opposing classes are weakened and the state apparatus establishes its dominance by balancing between the classes, even as it ultimately represents the interests of one or the other?

    Trotsky characterized the Soviet Union under Stalin as a form of proletarian Bonapartism, the result of the chaos and devastation following the Russian Civil War. Although I've been experiencing what I refer to as a "flirtation with Stalinism" in recent months, I've started to revert back to my old position after reading Ted Grant's book "Russia: From revolution to counter-revolution," and specifically the bit on the Purge trials of the 1930s. While there were very real threats to subvert the Soviet government from within, how can one possibly defend the version of history we're supposed to believe from those trials?

    If one takes the view of Stalin and his supporters, people like Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev et al were actively working with the Gestapo to overthrow the government of the USSR. Do you believe that almost all of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party in 1917 were secret fascist sympathizers? That the closest companions of Lenin, his fellow revolutionaries who sacrificed and struggled for years before they took power, would then spend years plotting to destroy the government they had spent their lives trying to establish and protect? By the standards of Occam’s Razor, is that more likely than, say, Trotsky’s explanation about the bureaucracy trying to protect its own power?

    You correctly note that “red-washing ... structures and institutions that were generated to protect the interests of the previous social order” will result in many of the individuals in those structures maintaining a “conscious counter-revolutionary subjectivity.” To what extent was that the case in the USSR, where the Red Army employed many Tsarist officers to win the Civil War and legions of “bourgeois specialists” in industry? When we talk about the repressive state apparatus of the USSR, then, wouldn’t it be correct to argue that Stalin’s government was essentially a form of Bonapartism that, while still ultimately representing the interests of the proletariat through its defence of the nationalized planned economy, often repressed proletarians just as much as it did remnants of the bourgeoisie because of the state raising itself above society?

    1. This is a besides the point argument. What did anyone accomplish in the G20? What did the IMT accomplish except for shitting all over militants and doing nothing? The black bloc has a tactical problem, of this we can agree, but militancy is important. You know my line on this because we've argued about it before on other points about militancy––go back and read them rather than bringing up the same points.

      Back to the G20, though, and militancy. First of all, the people committing violence were not just the black bloc. FIrst there were the masses who were angry: violence against the police will happen amongst the people, as will militancy, amongst those who possess an anti-state consciousness, the hard core of the proletariat. Groups that can organize that militancy into something not adventurist and disciplined without being anti-militant and "respectable"––who break from bourgeois legality (the old post I wrote on this)––are groups that will grow with the most advanced elements of the masses. The Red Bloc *did* do something in the G20: it had real targets, it impressed certain sectors of the masses, its respective organizations grew, the people involved demystified the police and grew in an understanding of how to become a fighting organization.

      As for your other point, I don't think the show trials should be defended, but we should learn why they happened so we can actually learn from them. Which is why I think Getty's book is very good in this regard.

    2. "It had real targets, it impressed certain sectors of the masses, its respective organizations grew, the people involved demystified the police and grew in an understanding of how to become a fighting organization."

      Yeah, I could say exactly the same thing about what the IMT accomplished at the G20 (and by your standards, Trotsky was merely "shitting on militants" when he wrote tracts like Why Marxists Oppose Individual Terrorism). But whatever -- I'm not interested in getting into a whose-tendency-is-better pissing contest because obviously we're not going to agree in that regard. I'll assume the fact that you didn't respond at all to the question about Bonapartism means you reject that interpretation of Soviet history.

      What's the name of that Getty book?

    3. Look, I broke my own rule here. I've been trying lately to have theoretical debates with communists from other traditions in a more comradely way, but the Internet seems conducive to snark somehow. I'm just sick of how every single tendency feels the need to build itself by tearing others down, rather than trying to make the criticism constructive. Maybe it's the theoretical tradition of Marxism, which from Anti-Dühring on down is full of no-holds-barred polemics dripping with sarcasm. But surely it's possible to correct a fellow communist when you believe they hold an incorrect political point of view (per "Combat Liberalism") without belittling or insulting the other group's work, calling them phony Marxists or otherwise adopting a sectarian approach.

      In the spirit of self-criticism, sorry I reacted so poorly in my initial comment. I've been trying to get past the ridiculous spectacle of tiny groups of Marxists concentrating their ire on each other rather than the common class enemy, but by taking political criticism personally I produced the exact situation I had hoped to avoid. I need to keep a cooler head about this kind of stuff.

    4. Line struggle is important, so I don't mind this. But I disagree, as you know, with your interpretation. And you are quite wrong if you think fight back conducted itself well in the g20. Not only was it not involved in any of the organizing it also alienated itself when many of its recognizable members argued that the names of militants should be given to the police. Ex fight back members I know cite the g20 as a reason why they left the org.

      Moreover as I noted above I agree that some tactics are adventurous. I have a serious problem though when a group argues that all militancy is adventurous and exists only as a talk shop without a strategy and, lacking a concrete analysis of their particular social formation cannot imagine would it would take to become a comprehensive fighting party. To cite that piece by Trotsky is thus a category mistake. It would be like a Bernstein calling Lenin an adventurous simply because Lenin wasn't an opportunist.

      But I've said all of this before.

    5. Connection timed out: shitty train interwebs on the way to Ottawa.

      The Getty book is "Origin of the Purges".

    6. "If one takes the view of Stalin and his supporters, people like Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev et al were actively working with the Gestapo to overthrow the government of the USSR. Do you believe that almost all of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party in 1917 were secret fascist sympathizers?"

      To my knowledge the only major defendant in all three trials who was said to have actually *sympathized* with fascism was Yagoda, who was portrayed as an opportunist perfectly willing to kill off the Left Oppositionists and put Bukharin in a subordinate position once Stalin was overthrown. Likewise Tukhachevsky (not one of the defendants in the three Moscow Trials but in a separate, military trial) was portrayed as an admirer of Hitler, and there are a number of sources on this independent of the trials.

      What was argued, in short, is that both the Left Opposition (represented by Trotsky, Zinoviev and the like) and the Right Opposition (represented by Bukharin, Rykov and the like), as well as sections of the military and security police and bourgeois nationalist groups, all opposed the leadership of the party and government. Seeing that it could not be overthrown by legal means, they collaborated together to overthrow it by force. They were willing to collaborate in many instances with foreign states (Nazi Germany, Japan, Britain, etc.)

      Since not every single defendant had the same political views, each gave different reasons. The view of the Trots at the trial was that the "Stalinist bureaucracy" was leading the country towards ruin and that it would almost certainly lose a war with the Nazis, who stood a good chance of annihilating all the gains of October. Thus only by carrying out the overthrow of said "bureaucracy" and at the same time by agreeing to a number of concessions to foreign states could they "save" the revolution.

      At no point in the trials was Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Radek, Bukharin, or anyone else you'd expect said to have admired, sympathized, or actually become fascists. It's quite easy to make the trials look silly when you don't actually understand the narrative, much like it's easy to portray communists as silly if you claim they want to collectivize women amongst the men or some such (as the reactionary press claimed the Bolsheviks were doing in the first few years after the October Revolution.)

  3. Don't want to be a nuisance, but I think you erroneously used "capitalism" as opposed to "communism" in the fifth paragraph where you write
    "I began to think about what it would require to deal with all of the reactionaries who would never accept capitalism, particularly those who would be inclined to start a counter-revolution, and realized that anarchism, unlike the theory developed through world historical revolutions, lacked an answer."

    Feel free not to post this comment. I don't know any other way to signal you and wanted to give you a heads up.

    1. Not a nuisance. Everything I write on here is rarely copy-edited and this is the kind of mistake that is glaring.


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