Voyou Désœuvré

Moll on the difficulties facing Evo Morales in Bolivia. What I find particularly interesting is the overlap between, for want of better terms, ethical and tactical questions. Moll is worried about Evo sending in the troops against the rich, racist protesters in Santa Cruz; both because if it worked it would reinforce the power of the state (the ethical concern) and because it might not work (the tactical one), fatally weakening the revolution/reform process currently underway. These concerns might look like they’re in tension with one another, if not flat-out contradictory, but I think they’re actually two sides of the same coin, an illustration of the difficulty of understanding the role of the state in revolution.

Well, not that I know enough about the specifics of the Bolivian situation to say anything definite about what Morales should or shouldn’t do. But the question in general of how the revolution should relate to the state is always an interesting one. I’ve been reading The Civil War in France, which is Marx’s attempt to address the question of state power. Sometimes nowadays Marxists adopt Weber’s definition of the state (well, Weber did attribute it to Trotsky), perhaps adding a quick reference to the class nature of the state. One of the things that’s particularly interesting about The Civil War in France is that it’s a mature work by Marx that maintains the very clear rejection of the state from his earlier works, because it rejects this way of understanding the state. Marx says that the state “inmeshes the living civil society like a boa constrictor” (162); aside from the vitalism of this phrasing (which is another link to the early Marx), the metaphor suggests the alienation of the state that, Marx thinks, is a fundamental part of class rule. This is why revolution can’t just involve taking over the state, replacing a bourgeois state with a workers’ state (a phrase which, as far as I know, Marx never used positively). Now, that’s not to say that the revolution shouldn’t or can’t use coercion, but violence doesn’t necessarily make for a state (contra Weber and Schmitt); what matters is whether the means of coercion are directly employed by the whole mass of the people, rather than being organized in an alienated form.

Given this, it’s odd that Marx says so little in The Civil War in France about the actual means of organization of the Commune. He writes much more about the composition of the ruling class, and the maneuvers of individual ruling-class statesmen. It’s possible that this is because Marx thinks that, with the abolition of alienated power, politics becomes transparent; there’s no need for the kind of tea-leaf reading and scrutinizing of political machinations that you get in a state. This seems like some kind of hippie-Rousseauianism to me, in which unalienated organization is simply natural; I don’t think this is Marx’s view. Another possibility is that Marx’s main concern is in the tactical room for maneuver opened up by fissures within the ruling class. But this would suggest that Marx held a surprisingly bourgeois understanding of political agency, with the working class figured as a unified agent, with its freedom to act a matter of a lack of restraints, a negative freedom. Neither of these strike me as satisfying interpretations of The Civil War in France.


  1. geo, 6:38 am, September 26, 2008

    for lenin, this is still a state, however necessary. he adopts the weberian definition to help illustrate the withering away of the state: the proletarian state (or “semi-state”) is a state because it’s a (necessary) instrument of class repression. such instruments will become less and less necessary as the revolution progresses and classes are eliminated.

    this silly moll person shows what funny things happen when anarchists see real revolutions (read: seizures of power by the poor). lenin saw this perfectly in State and Revolution, arguing that anarchists will ultimately become enemies of the people through their failure to act when necessary.

  2. voyou, 9:19 am, September 26, 2008

    Lenin is pretty clear (at least in The State and Revolution) about the alienated character of the state, and therefore the (maybe only tendential, rather than actual) difference between proleterain and bourgeois rule. Without that clarity, I think using Weber’s definition can be misleading, because it minimizes the way in which “seizeure of power” must mean “constructing new forms of power,” rather than “seizing the state.”

    And if I read moll right, she is in favor of Morales using violence to crush the revolution’s enemies, she’s just worried that, by taking over rather than transforming state power, Morales might have put himself in a position where the realpolitik considerations of being a state prevent him from doing so effectively, while also limiting the kind of revolutionary transformations are possible.

    I don’t think that’s a silly concern, indeed, it’s not a million miles away from your own concerns about the right vs the left wings of Chavez’s government. Though it might be better to frame the question not, as moll does, as one about whether or not Morales is doing the right thing, but rather as being about political struggle within the movement around Morales.

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