The Capitalist State: Instrument of Repression

Spartacist Canada

The daily police attacks and mass arrests during the Quebec student strike show vividly the purpose of the bourgeois state, including the cops and courts: to protect the rule of the capitalists against those whom they oppress and exploit. We print below excerpts from a section titled “The Capitalist State” in The ABC of Communism, a 1919 pamphlet written by Bolshevik leaders Nikolai Bukharin and Evgeny Preobrazhensky. The October 1917 Bolshevik-led workers revolution overthrew Russia’s repressive bourgeois state machine, replacing it with the rule of the working class in the interests of the vast majority.

As we have seen, capitalist society is based upon the exploitation of labour. A small minority owns everything; the working masses own nothing. The capitalists command. The workers obey. The capitalists exploit. The workers are exploited. The very essence of capitalist society is found in this merciless and ever-increasing exploitation.

Capitalist production is a practical instrument for the extraction of surplus value.

Why has this instrument been able to continue in operation so long? For what reason do the workers tolerate such a state of affairs?

This question is by no means easy to answer at first sight. Speaking generally there are two reasons for it: in the first place, because the capitalist class is well organized and powerful; secondly, because the bourgeoisie frequently controls the brains of the working class.

The most trustworthy means at the disposal of the bourgeoisie for this purpose is its organization as the State. In all capitalist countries the State is merely a union of the master class. Let us consider any country you like: Britain, the United States, France, or Japan. Everywhere we find that the ministers, high officials, members of parliament, are either capitalists, landowners, factory owners, and financial magnates, or else the faithful and well-paid servants of these—lawyers, bank managers, professors, army officers, archbishops, and bishops, who serve the capitalists, not from fear but from conviction.

The union of all these individuals belonging to the bourgeoisie, a union which embraces the entire country and holds everything in its grasp, is known as the State. This organization of the bourgeoisie has two leading aims. The first and most important of these is to suppress disorders and insurrections on the part of the workers, to ensure the undisturbed extraction of surplus value from the working class, to increase the strength of the capitalist means of production. The second aim is to strive against other organizations of the same kind (that is to say, against other bourgeois States), to compete with them for a larger share in surplus value. Thus the capitalist State is a union of the master class, formed to safeguard exploitation….

Against the working class, the State can employ measures of two different kinds, brute force and spiritual subjugation. These constitute the most important instruments of the capitalist State.

Among the organs of brute force, must first be enumerated the army and the police, the prisons and the law-courts. Next must be mentioned accessory organs, such as spies, provocative agents, organized strikebreakers, hired assassins, etc….

The administration of justice in the bourgeois State is a means of self-defence for the bourgeois class. Above all, it is employed to settle with those who infringe the rights of capitalist property or interfere with the capitalist system. Bourgeois justice sent [German Communist leader Karl] Liebknecht to prison, but acquitted Liebknecht’s murderer. The State prison service settles accounts quite as effectively as does the executioner of the bourgeois State. Its shafts are directed, not against the rich, but against the poor.

Such are the institutions of the capitalist State, institutions which effect the direct and brutal oppression of the working class.

Among the means of spiritual subjugation at the disposal of the capitalist State, three deserve especial mention: the State school; the State church; and the State, or State-supported, press.

The bourgeoisie is well aware that it cannot control the working masses by the use of force alone. It is necessary that the workers’ brains should be completely enmeshed as if in a spider’s web. The bourgeois State looks upon the workers as working cattle; these beasts must labour, but they must not bite. Consequently, they must not merely be whipped or shot when they attempt to bite, but they must be trained and tamed, just as wild beasts in a menagerie are trained by beast-tamers. Similarly, the capitalist State maintains specialists to stupefy and subdue the proletariat; it maintains bourgeois teachers and professors, the clergy, bourgeois authors and journalists. In the State schools these specialists teach children from their earliest years to obey capital and to despise and hate “rebels.”…

In this manner the capitalist system ensures its own development. The machine of exploitation does its work. Surplus value is continually extracted from the working class. The capitalist State stands on guard, and takes good care that there shall be no uprising of the wage slaves.

—N. Bukharin and E. Preobrazhensky, The ABC of Communism (1919)

Editor’s Note: This quote dispels the myth that the capitalist State is a neutral arbiter in any situation. It will always seek to defend the rule of the capitalist class. As such, efforts to expand the size and scope of the State must be opposed. We must be especially vigilant when these efforts are aimed at controlling people’s private lives or are proposed under such righteous banners as “protecting children.” Only when those who labor rule can the State serve the interests of the vast majority and defend the oppressed against their oppressors.

— Nina Westbury


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