Anarchist FAQ/Why do anarchists oppose the current system?/2.6

B.2.6 Can the state be an independent power within society?Edit

Yes it can. Given the power of the state machine, it would be hard to believe that it could always be simply a tool for the economically dominant minority in a society. Given its structure and powers, it can use them to further its own interests. Indeed, in some circumstances it can be the ruling class itself.

However, in normal times the state is, as we discussed in section B.2.1, a tool of the capitalist class. This, it must be stressed, does not mean that they always see "eye to eye." Top politicians, for example, are part of the ruling elite, but they are in competition with other parts of it. In addition, different sectors of the capitalist class are competing against each other for profits, political influence, privileges, etc. The bourgeoisie, argued Malatesta, "are always at war among themselves . . . Thus the games of the swings, the manoeuvres, the concessions and withdrawals, the attempts to find allies among the people against the conservatives, and among the conservatives against the people." [1] This means that different sections of the ruling class will cluster around different parties, depending on their interests, and these parties will seek to gain power to further those interests. This may bring them into conflict with other sections of the capitalist class. The state is the means by which these conflicts can be resolved.

Given that the role of the state is to ensure the best conditions for capital as a whole, this means that, when necessary, it can and does work against the interests of certain parts of the capitalist class. To carry out this function the state needs to be above individual capitalists or companies. This is what can give the state the appearance of being a neutral social institution and can fool people into thinking that it represents the interests of society as a whole. Yet this sometime neutrality with regards to individual capitalist companies exists only as an expression of its role as an instrument of capital in general. Moreover, without the tax money from successful businesses the state would be weakened and so the state is in competition with capitalists for the surplus value produced by the working class. Hence the anti-state rhetoric of big business which can fool those unaware of the hand-in-glove nature of modern capitalism to the state.

As Chomsky notes:

"There has always been a kind of love-hate relationship between business interests and the capitalist state. On the one hand, business wants a powerful state to regulate disorderly markets, provide services and subsidies to business, enhance and protect access to foreign markets and resources, and so on. On the other hand, business does not want a powerful competitor, in particular, one that might respond to different interests, popular interests, and conduct policies with a redistributive effect, with regard to income or power."


As such, the state is often in conflict with sections of the capitalist class, just as sections of that class use the state to advance their own interests within the general framework of protecting the capitalist system (i.e. the interests of the ruling class as a class). The state's role is to resolve such disputes within that class peacefully. Under modern capitalism, this is usually done via the "democratic" process (within which we get the chance of picking the representatives of the elite who will oppress us least).

Such conflicts sometimes give the impression of the state being a "neutral" body, but this is an illusion—it exists to defend class power and privilege—but exactly which class it defends can change. While recognising that the state protects the power and position of the economically dominant class within a society anarchists also argue that the state has, due to its hierarchical nature, interests of its own. Thus it cannot be considered as simply the tool of the economically dominant class in society. States have their own dynamics, due to their structure, which generate their own classes and class interests and privileges (and which allows them to escape from the control of the economic ruling class and pursue their own interests, to a greater or lesser degree). As Malatesta put it "the government, though springing from the bourgeoisie and its servant and protector, tends, as with every servant and every protector, to achieve its own emancipation and to dominate whoever it protects." [3]

Thus, even in a class system like capitalism, the state can act independently of the ruling elite and, potentially, act against their interests. As part of its role is to mediate between individual capitalists/corporations, it needs sufficient power to tame them and this requires the state to have some independence from the class whose interests it, in general, defends. And such independence can be used to further its own interests, even to the detriment of the capitalist class, if the circumstances allow. If the capitalist class is weak or divided then the state can be in a position to exercise its autonomy vis-à-vis the economically dominant elite, using against the capitalists as a whole the tools it usually applies to them individually to further its own interests and powers.

This means that the state it not just "the guardian of capital" for it "has a vitality of its own and constitutes . . . a veritable social class apart from other classes . . . ; and this class has its own particular parasitical and usurious interests, in conflict with those of the rest of the collectivity which the State itself claims to represent . . . The State, being the depository of society's greatest physical and material force, has too much power in its hands to resign itself to being no more than the capitalists' guard dog." [4]

Therefore the state machine (and structure), while its modern form is intrinsically linked to capitalism, cannot be seen as being a tool usable by the majority. This is because the "State, any State -- even when it dresses-up in the most liberal and democratic form -- is essentially based on domination, and upon violence, that is upon despotism -- a concealed but no less dangerous despotism." The State "denotes power, authority, domination; it presupposes inequality in fact." [5] The state, therefore, has its own specific logic, its own priorities and its own momentum. It constitutes its own locus of power which is not merely a derivative of economic class power. Consequently, the state can be beyond the control of the economically dominant class and it need not reflect economic relations.

This is due to its hierarchical and centralised nature, which empowers the few who control the state machine -- "[e]very state power, every government, by its nature places itself outside and over the people and inevitably subordinates them to an organisation and to aims which are foreign to and opposed to the real needs and aspirations of the people." If "the whole proletariat . . . [are] members of the government . . . there will be no government, no state, but, if there is to be a state there will be those who are ruled and those who are slaves." [6]

In other words, the state bureaucracy is itself directly an oppressor and can exist independently of an economically dominant class. In Bakunin's prophetic words:

"What have we seen throughout history? The State has always been the patrimony of some privileged class: the sacerdotal class, the nobility, the bourgeoisie -- and finally, when all other classes have exhausted themselves, the class of the bureaucracy enters the stage and then the State falls, or rises, if you please, to the position of a machine."


This is unsurprising. For anarchists, "the State organisation . . . [is] the force to which minorities resorted for establishing and organising their power over the masses." It does not imply that these minorities need to be the economically dominant class in a society. The state is "a superstructure built to the advantage of Landlordism, Capitalism, and Officialism." [8] Consequently, we cannot assume that abolishing one or even two of this unholy trinity will result in freedom nor that all three share exactly the same interests or power in relation to the others. Thus, in some situations, the landlord class can promote its interests over those of the capitalist class (and vice versa) while the state bureaucracy can grow at the expense of both.

As such, it is important to stress that the minority whose interests the state defends need not be an economically dominant one (although it usually is). Under some circumstances a priesthood can be a ruling class, as can a military group or a bureaucracy. This means that the state can also effectively replace the economically dominant elite as the exploiting class. This is because anarchists view the state as having (class) interests of its own.

As we discuss in more detail in section H.3.9, the state cannot be considered as merely an instrument of (economic) class rule. History has shown numerous societies were the state itself was the ruling class and where no other dominant economic class existed. The experience of Soviet Russia indicates the validity of this analysis. The reality of the Russian Revolution contrasted starkly with the Marxist claim that a state was simply an instrument of class rule and, consequently, the working class needed to build its own state within which to rule society. Rather than being an instrument by which working class people could run and transform society in their own interests, the new state created by the Russian Revolution soon became a power over the class it claimed to represent (see section H.6 for more on this). The working class was exploited and dominated by the new state and its bureaucracy rather than by the capitalist class as previously. This did not happen by chance. As we discuss in section H.3.7, the state has evolved certain characteristics (such as centralisation, delegated power and so on) which ensure its task as enforcer of minority rule is achieved. Keeping those characteristics will inevitably mean keeping the task they were created to serve.

Thus, to summarise, the state's role is to repress the individual and the working class as a whole in the interests of economically dominant minorities/classes and in its own interests. It is "a society for mutual insurance between the landlord, the military commander, the judge, the priest, and later on the capitalist, in order to support such other's authority over the people, and for exploiting the poverty of the masses and getting rich themselves." Such was the "origin of the State; such was its history; and such is its present essence." [9]

So while the state is an instrument of class rule it does not automatically mean that it does not clash with sections of the class it represents nor that it has to be the tool of an economically dominant class. One thing is sure, however. The state is not a suitable tool for securing the emancipation of the oppressed.


  1. Anarchy, p. 25
  2. Turning the Tide, p. 211
  3. Op. Cit., p. 25
  4. Luigi Fabbri, quoted by David Berry, A History of the French Anarchist Movement, 1917-1945, p. 39
  5. The Political Philosophy of Michael Bakunin, p. 211 and p. 240
  6. Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 328 and p. 330
  7. The Political Philosophy of Michael Bakunin, p. 208
  8. Evolution and Environment, p. 82 and p. 105
  9. Kropotkin, Evolution and Environment, p. 94