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Colin Sparks

Towards a police state?

(Autumn 1984)

From International Socialism 2 : 25, Autumn 1984, pp. 69–90.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Open any Labour left publication these days and you will find an article about the powers of the police. In part this is a correct and justified response to the policing of the miners’ strike, which has been very heavy indeed. The New Statesman, for instance, has taken to running a regular column about the extent of the police operation, in which we learn that, up to the time of writing (17 August) there had been 5,503 arrests and that out of 750 cases already heard in court a grand total of 65 persons (nine per cent) had been acquitted. [1]

But there is something more substantial in these articles. They are not just lists of facts: even the New Statesman column which is mostly facts is linked into various campaigning bodies like the GLC Police Committee Support Unit. The articles have behind them theories and organisations.

At its most general, the argument of the Labour left is that a fundamental change is going on in the nature of the British state, which is taking more and more executive powers on itself and rendering the processes of democratic control more and more irrelevant. The Labour Party itself has launched an official campaign called the ‘Civil Rights Appeal’, which, while in reality is nothing more than a piece of recruiting and fundraising, makes the claim that ‘not a lot’ has changed since 1834. It is only being partly humorous when it draws the comparison with the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

Within this more general agreement, there are differences of emphasis. Three different strands of interpretation stand out: claims that Britain is going fascist, claims that it is becoming a ‘police’ or ‘strong’ state, and claims that we are witnessing the first signs of Bonapartism.

The evidence which is called up to support these claims tends to be very similar, and we can summarise it more or less thus: behind the heavy policing of the miners’ strike there is a continual expansion of police powers of which the creation of a nationally directed police force independent of local control and armed with new powers under the forthcoming Police Bill is the summation. We will soon be faced with a centralised armed police force outside of democratic control or investigation, possessed of wide and more or less arbitrary powers and controlled by a group of highly politicised and extremely reactionary senior police officers of which the Manchester Chief Constable Anderton is the most notorious example. These people view the control of internal political opposition rather than common or garden crime policing as their main role. [2]

At the same time there are new emergency measures, increasing use of the Official Secrets Act to gag public servants, anti-trade union laws, the abolition of local democracy via the destruction of the Metropolitan Counties and the imposition of rate capping. The tendency is for a greater and greater authoritarianism on the part of the central state apparatus and for greater and greater powers to be concentrated in the hands of the Prime Minister, who becomes a virtual dictator.

This state is further equipped with increasingly sophisticated devices for the surveillance of the population and with better weapons to attack and destroy opposition. Much of this technology has been developed and tested in Northern Ireland and is now being brought back home.

Much of the evidence is true, if sometimes overstated. There is a problem for the Labour Party in arguing that all of these developments are part of some nasty Tory plot to establish some form of dictatorship. As many critics have pointed out, almost all of these developments can be traced back to the Labour governments of the past. [3] An obvious example is the Official Secrets Act, used to howls of Labour outrage against leakers like Sarah Tisdale; the Act was also used liberally, against Aubrey, Berry and Campbell for example, in the notorious ABC trial. Like so many of these inconvenient little facts, Labour leftists have now learnt to cope with this charge, admitting their party’s past sins and promising to do better in the future.

Beyond that, however, there is the much more fundamental question of what these developments, whether of Labour or Tory inspiration, really amounts to. Are they a fundamental change in the nature of the state and the way that Britain is governed? Or are they evidence of something different? Let us look at the theories used to make sense of these changes.

A ‘Fascist’ Britain?

The idea that Thatcher is introducing fascism to Britain is the most dramatic of the explanations. Its most famous, if least theoretical, exponent is Neil Kinnock, who claims that Thatcher represents ‘stocking-footed fascism’. In general, the proponents of this view do not bother to spell out their theoretical position too clearly, relying on the black magic of the working class folk-memory of fascism to cover up any possible objections.

There are numerous historical examples of fascism, all of which display different national characteristics but we can certainly generalise from these instances to the essential features of that political form. Fascism depends upon the mobilisation of a mass extra-parliamentary movement, led by the middle class but sometimes towing parts of the working class behind it. This mass base is what makes fascism a particularly deadly enemy of the working class movement. The fascist party builds its mass base out of opposition to the organised labour movement; it mobilises those who believe that the origins of social evils can be traced to the activities of ‘Marxists’ or other working class activists.

Although racism was an important element in the German version of fascism, it is not an essential ingredient (as the example of Mussolini’s fascisti in Italy makes clear). But it is fair to say that any serious contender for a mass fascist party in Britain would almost certainly be a racist organisation since racism is so deeply bedded in British society and is such a convenient mechanism for mobilising reactionary opinion.

The fascist mass movement is steeled and tested in physical confrontations with the left, and to the extent that it is able to win these contests – to control the streets, in Goebbel’s phrase – it comes to be an important political factor. It may or may not win votes and seats in parliament but its political importance lies in its military prowess, for this can be used to provide scabs, to break pickets, to root out militants.

In those cases in which fascism comes to power the mass base, or at least part of it, is incorporated into the fascist state machine, providing both the official personnel of the fascist mass organisations and the spies in every factory and housing estate. It is this ability to provide an organisation which penetrates every aspect of the life of the working class and thus to snuff out any stirrings of working class opposition before it takes off, that makes fascism a particularly stable form of rule.

The German example is the one nearest to our own experience since, despite important differences, Germany in 1933 was much more like modern Britain in terms of being a developed industrial state than any other example of successful fascist movements. The Nazis did come to power by means of building a mass movement dedicated to smashing all forms of working class organisation: it was their mass following rather than their voting strength which allowed the Nazis to take over the state machine. Once having done that they strengthened it and used it to smash all political and social organisations, starting with working class organisations but going on to take over all areas of social life. But they did not just sweep away the trade unions, they also replaced them with the Nazi-run ‘Labour Front’, which bound workers to the dictates of the employers. The hundreds of thousands of active Nazis meant that the Labour Front, and the dozens of organisations set up in other areas of social life, could be tightly controlled. [4]

If we look at modern Britain it is difficult to find any serious evidence of fascism. Certainly there are fascist organisations, like the National Front and many others. These however are small and marginal organisations which have still not recovered from the defeat inflicted upon them by the Anti Nazi League in 1979. It is certainly not the case that they count their followers in the hundreds of thousands and they are not on the brink of power. No one has suggested that Thatcher or McGregor have had secret talks with Martin Webster about the ways in which his organisation can play a key role in smashing the miners’ strike. The fascists could, indeed almost certainly will, pick up support in the future as the class struggle ebbs and flows, but at the moment they are marginal.

Proponents of the ‘fascist Britain’ thesis, however, believe that the real menace is the Tory Party, which is changing into a fascist organisation, or secretly introducing fascism. The Tory party is certainly an extremely nasty and very right wing organisation. By European standards it is so right wing that the other EEC Conservative parties refuse to let its members in the European Parliament join their group. No doubt there are many in the Tory Party who would like to ban everything from the Labour Party to the SWP, lock up all trade union leaders including Bill Sirs and Frank Chapple in concentration camps, and generally stomp on all opposition. But they are constrained by the social forces at their disposal: they do not have a million stormtroopers to carry out their dreams. The Tory Party has a million members. Many of them are much nastier even than the MPs who they select and whose campaigns they finance through their activities. But these million members are organised for right-wing parliamentary activities, not for smashing up meetings of dockers or murdering sellers of Labour Weekly and Socialist Worker.

The Tory Party is what it has always been: a right wing parliamentary party. This gives it considerable strengths – it can posture as the defender of freedom and democracy, for example. But it does not have the strength that a fascist organisation derives from its mass base and therefore has to behave accordingly.

At the moment of writing the miners’ strike is in its sixth month. One of the key points of confrontation throughout the strike has been the struggle to stop the steel works. Just now, there is a ship laden with coal for the Ravenscraig plant lying off the Hunterston terminal. It is important to the ruling class and the Tories that this ship is unloaded. It is important to the miners that it is not unloaded. It is one of those moments in which the stakes in the class war can be seen very clearly through the lens of a single instance.

I do not know what the Tories are planning to do. By the time this is published they will have made their move. A fascist government would smash union organisation and send black-shirted scabs to move the coal. The Tories will not do that. They will rely upon Bill Sirs, a trade union leader, to swing strike-breaking with his ISTC members. The Tories will do this because that is how their actual organisation constrains them to act. However much they might privately despise Bill Sirs and however much they may have wanted to smash him and his organisation back in the steel strike, they need him now. That is why they are not a fascist government.

The claim that Britain is, or will immediately become, a fascist state is thus at best the result of an honest confusion as to the nature of fascism and at worst an example of cheap demagogy. It shares with all of these positions a danger, expressed here in extreme form: the abuse of a term makes it that much more difficult to discern the genuine development when and if it does arise and thus makes fighting it that much more difficult.

The ‘strong’ state

The claim that Britain is becoming a ‘police’ or ‘strong’ state needs to be taken rather more seriously. It is certainly very much the most prevalent current charge and is the particular property of that section of the Labour Party which can be termed without too much inaccuracy the ‘Bennite left’. A recent example is the book by Peter Hain Political Trials in Britain [5] which concludes by arguing that:

Looking back at the industrial revolution in the early nineteenth century, we can see that it produced a requirement for new laws and new state agencies, notably the police, to manage its socially disruptive results. It would appear that as the economic system is restructured in the 1980s – this time partly by a technological revolution – the agencies responsible for law enforcement and administration will be required to perform an even more powerful political function. If that occurs – and the development of the law and order state suggests that it has already begun – then there is every prospect of political trials becoming the norm rather than the exception. [6]

The thrust of Hain’s arguments, and it is fairly typical of this strand of thinking, is that the state machine is increasingly sophisticated, that it pursues its own ends independently of democratic control, that it has more and more resources, and that it has managed to win ‘popular consent for its increasingly repressive policies. Each of these is a discrete claim, and rests on other more extensive theoretical foundations.

The notion that the state machine disposes of more and more resources is in general true. Although the Tories are making a substantial effort to limit the overall powers of the state and the areas in which it functions, there seems to be a long term tendency this century for the state to intervene more and more in social life. In one form this is well-known as the development of state capitalism, but even where the pressure of the world market seems to push in the opposite direction, the state retains important functions in providing the human and material infrastructure which is needed as the basis for profitable exploitation.

More narrowly, in Britain it is certainly the case that the law-enforcing aspects of the state have shown a considerable growth over the last few decades. For instance, in 1961 there was only one police officer for every 602 inhabitants of the United Kingdom; by 1982 it was one to 394. [7] Expenditure on ‘law and order’ has doubled under the Tories, and they have been very careful to make sure that police pay grows very quickly indeed: no question of productivity dealing here since reported crime has increased while the clear-up rate has fallen ever more sharply. The same picture of growth is repeated in the more narrowly focussed area of directly political policing between 1958 and 1978 the Special Branch grew from 200 to 1,259. [8]

This increase in police strength is certainly worrying, and it is something to which revolutionary socialists are firmly opposed. We do not believe for one moment that the police force in a capitalist society can ever be anything other than a brutal instrument for the maintenance of class rule, but we do believe that the fewer number of cops, and the more restricted their powers and equipment, the better for us. So we join with Hain and others in opposing things like the new Police Bill.

That, however, is not the central question. That remains: does this increase in police powers mean a change in the nature of the state? The first step towards answering that depends upon a sense of proportion: despite the recent increases, it remains true that Mitterrand’s France has roughly twice as many cops per head as Thatcher’s Britain. Indeed, many of the things which seem so much the most odious examples of the creeping police state are really only horrifying from a parochial British perspective. The most obvious is the question of a centralised police force. It is certainly true that Britain used to have a patchwork of local police forces, reflecting the relative strength of the local ruling class in the nineteenth century and its suspicion of the land-owner dominated central state’s willingness to do what industrial capitalists wanted. It is also true that since the 1960s there has been a tendency towards amalgamation and the reduction in the number, and increase of the size, of police forces. It is further true that since the 1972 miners’ victory there has been the construction of a sophisticated national command centre for the police. We have seen, in the current miners’ strike, what is in fact, if not in title, an integrated national police force at work.

This is dangerous and we are against it because it makes it is more difficult for us to win, but it does not represent an example of the way in which Britain is becoming a police state. Sweden, for example, acquired a national police force a couple of decades ago and, whatever fictional accounts may say, it is not a police state.

More generally, the increasing size and activity of the state machine, even of its repressive arm, is not evidence of the nature of the state. In order to answer that question we need to know something about the social and political relations which surround the state.

The same problem confronts us when we consider the implications of the increasingly sophisticated means at the disposal of the state. In its popular form, this takes the form of the belief that the equipping of the police force with computers makes them all-powerful in ‘the struggle against subversion’. In a more sophisticated form, this has been used as the basis for a theorisation of the notion that there is a global dynamic towards a ‘strong state’. Its most prominent British representatives wrote:

... a Strong State need not come about through one sudden catastrophe. The repressive capacity of the state can increase gradually over a long period in ways which may not be apparent to its citizens. The changes can be made in small steps ...

‘Small steps’ are most easily taken when hidden from public view, so as they increasingly become the province of the state bureaucracy, rather than the legislature, they become easier to execute. [9]

The technology of repression is not what decides the class character of a state: the difference between the Inquisition and the Gestapo was not determined by the respective technologies of thumb screws and electric generators. Our attitude to these developments is similar to the previous issue: we are very much against the development and deployment of these new techniques of repression, but we do not imagine that they are decisive. In this case, however, the argument carries with it greater dangers: if the technology available to a state is what makes it strong and if the technology of repression is getting better all the time, then the enemy is getting harder and harder to beat and we might as well pack up because we have no hope of victory.

The notion that a state is ’strong’ because of the technology at its disposal is clearly nonsense: compare the fates of the Shah, the Polish Communist Party and Mrs Thatcher. The Shah fell, despite the very advanced technology of repression he both owned and used. The Polish CP was shaken despite its massive (and probably rather less advanced) technology of repression, but was able to survive. Thatcher rules relatively untroubled despite not having used repression on anything like the scale of the other two cases. The difference lies in the sets of social relations and the balance of class forces operating in the three situations: the strength of a state is decided by the social forces which support it, not by the number of computers and machine-guns it has.

The point can be best illustrated by thinking about a state which had all sorts of very unpleasant repressive devices at its disposal: Tsarist Russia. Technically, no doubt, this was by the standards of its day a ‘strong state’. But socially it was weak: the working class could lead the mass of the peasantry in successful opposition to the state. The deciding factors were economic, social and political.

Because the working class succeeded in overthrowing this monstrous tyranny, they were able to explore the workings of the Tsar’s secret police, the Okhrana, in rather more detail than that possible to the investigative journalist of contemporary Britain. What they discovered is the subject of an interesting little book by Victor Serge. The Okhrana did not have computers, but they seem to have had a fairly good substitute for most of the techniques that the modern proponents of the police state argue are making it stronger. Near the end of his study Serge points to the obvious fact that the secret police failed to protect Tsarism. He wrote:

The Okhrana was unable to prevent the fall of the autocracy ...

The Russian autocracy in fact fell rather than being overthrown. A shaking was all that it took. The old, dilapidated building whose demolition was wished for by the great majority of the population came tumbling down. The economic development of Russia meant the revolution was required. What could the secret police do about it? Was it up to them to solve the conflict of interests of the opposing camps of deadly enemies, desperate to escape from a situation with no way out other than the class war – the industrial and financial bourgeoisie, big landlords, the nobility, the intellectuals, the declassés, the proletariat, the peasant masses? Their actions could only gain the ancien regime a limited reprieve, and that on condition that it agreed to certain appropriate measures of general policy. How absurd was this thin line of policemen and agents provocateurs, working blindly to turn back the beating of the waves against the old, cracked, shaking cliff, ready to crumble and engulf them! [10]

The next argument put forward is that the state machine is independent of democratic control, pursuing interests of its own. There is a very large element of truth in this claim, and it is not one that surprises Marxists. Hain in particular devotes a large part of his book to showing how the police are a closed professional force with their own internal structure of command pursuing ends defined by their senior officers; how the judiciary is a highly selected and unrepresentative body quite immune from any control other than their own whims: it even took the judiciary itself years to remove the obviously gaga Lord Denning; how the courts are class biased; how the state bureaucracy is designed to take major decisions on its own. The list goes on and on: it defines the state machine as a body which is quite untouched by changes of government. This, of course, is what we have always argued and is one of the major reasons why there is no possibility of a parliamentary road to socialism. Changing the government does not mean changing the state.

But this is not the conclusion that Hain and others on the Labour left wish to draw from their own analysis. Their view, of course, is that all that is needed is a little more determination on the part of the next Labour government, a little more will to extend democracy, and the whole monstrous machine can be brought under democratic control. This view they share with those reformist thinkers who reject the notion that Britain is a police state. For example, Colin Leys wrote in a recent issue of New Socialist that:

... a substantial democratisation of the state is also essential, which means some major political reforms. The permanent threat to civil liberties comes from secret, centralised bureaucracy, sheltered by effectively non- accountable cabinets and from equally non-account able and secretly selected judges, commissioners of police and prison governors ... [11]

It is important for us to welcome statements of this order: they represent an important advance on some of the cruder forms of state-worship that have been an important part of the Labour Party at least since Sidney Webb. The extent to which these criticisms of the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the British state machine is subject to public criticism is an important political question. We have to welcome any left-wing critics of the state, even when we are not convinced that they fully appreciate the logic of their own position, or where what they have to say about how to change things is patently silly.

The vice which tends to beset such people is that they see the democratisation of the state as possible without any fundamental restructuring of society. Leys, for example, explicitly argues that ‘serious anti-authoritarian socialism’ has to come to terms with the fact that people do not want to run their own lives, that there will always be a police force. For him: ‘…the state is complex and democratisation is not a one-dimensional matter. There are many options, many possible ways of recruiting, training, promoting, organising, circulating, advising, monitoring, publicising, reviewing, checking, disciplining and replacing public officials. Elections are only one device, and not necessarily the most useful or desirable.’ [12]

This rather pathetic set of proposals is the key to the thinking of the Labour left on these questions. On the one hand there is an admirable analysis of the role of the state machine, on the other what amounts to a set of petty-fogging little tinkerings. That, essentially, is the trap of reformism: they see the role of the state, but believe that it can be turned round and used for their own ends. What they do not see is that the state has to be an instrument of class dictatorship: that is its nature. It exists to maintain the rule of one class over another. We want to smash this state because it is the instrument of the dictatorship of the capitalist class. The state we want to replace it with will be much more democratic than the current set up, but it will also be a dictatorship: the working class will dictate to the capitalists.

The final prop in the argument that Britain is becoming a ‘strong state’ is the belief that there is massive popular support for ‘law and order’. This view is best theorised by Stuart Hall in the book Policing the Crisis, and in numerous subsequent articles. [13] Again, the point from which Hall begins has much to recommend it. He argues that the development of capitalism means that the state is called upon to perform more functions in society. Besides its role of maintaining class rule, it also has to make sure that the conditions for profitable exploitation exist. This means providing education, social services, etc. It therefore follows that the state has to intervene in more and more areas of social life. The ultimate sanction of the state is that it is the vehicle of law, and therefore the extension of the role of the state means that law becomes ever more a political issue.

However, Hall argues, no state rules for very long by means of terror alone; there is always an element of consent involved in class rule. One of the things the state always tries to do is to win this consent: borrowing a term from Gramsci it attempts to secure a hegemonic domination over the working class. This hegemonic domination is never complete and static; as the circumstances of class rule shift so there is a need for shifts in the nature of the hegemonic order. There occurs what Hall calls ‘hegemonic thrusts.’

Hall locates one such key element back in 1972 with the popularisation of the term ‘mugging’ and its use to justify a massive range of aggressive developments of police power. Subsequently, he has widened this analysis into an account of how the Thatcher governments have been able to mobilise right-wing popular support for their tough policies.

There is obviously much to commend in this analysis, and unlike the other strong state theorists it at least has the merit of starting from a consideration of the class forces at play. It is, however, some distance from revolutionary Marxism.

We can see how far by asking why it is that 1972 is selected as a key date. For Hall this was the date upon which a new term, ‘mugging’, was widely popularised in Britain. For us, 1972 is above all significant for the massive struggles culminating in Saltley and Pentonville. It is good to be reminded that there were other, extremely reactionary currents at work at that time since we too easily slip into a romanticism about the period, but the divergence is important. Hall acknowledges the working class as one force among several, he does not start from it. We acknowledge the importance of ‘mugging’ as a banner for all manner of official and unofficial reactionaries and racists, but we do not start from this term.

The fact is that consent and hegemony are, for Marxists, ultimately exercised in control over the social surplus: they are about the exploitation which is the corollary of wage labour and the ways in which it is made to seem natural and eternal. For Hall, all of this is secondary and so he argues that there was a shift in the nature of ruling class power. A Marxist account, indeed almost any account, would be puzzled by this: after all 1974 to 1979 was the period in which class collaboration in the form of the Social Contract was the major instrument of state policy.

Failure to observe this very large fact is not just staggering in itself; it leads to mistakes about the present as well. If we ignore the rhetorical claims of the Tories, of the capitalist press, of the left and not so left leaders of the movement, and most of the left press, what is the reality of the way in which Thatcher rules? There can be no doubt that while there is no Social Contract, there are deals with the trade union leaders. The miners’ strike has proved a perfect example, trade union leader after trade union leader has used the possibility of generalising the struggle to extract a bit more by way of a pay deal for his or her members.

Certainly, Thatcher rules through harsher deals than did the preceding Labour government. In a number of areas, notably excepting wages where the Tories have been much softer, there has been heavy pressure on the trade union bureaucrats, but there have also been settlements. The major exception, of course, is the banning of trade unions at GCHQ, where there was no deal. But the point must be repeated: this was an exception, not the norm. The deals may have been made with gritted teeth elsewhere, but they have been made.

The second major problem with the Hall position is that it assumes a monolithic and systematic notion of ideology. Essentially, this notion of the nature of ideology is derived from that of Althusser. As has been pointed out in the pages of this journal before, that tradition of thinking derives from the linguistic theories of Saussure, which turn upon the recognition of the systematic character of language. Ideology, structured in the same way, is thus seen as a coherent whole, and if you buy one part of it, then you must buy the lot. Now, it is of course true that there are systematic attempts to construct ideologies as coherent and logical systems – religion, sociology and economics are three very obvious examples. But it does not at all follow from that that the consciousness of anyone, even the professional ideologists themselves, is entirely exhausted by such systems. Rather people carry around with them different ideological systems, or different fragments of ideological systems, which are brought into play when they are doing different things (engaged in discrete practices, in the jargon).

This means that consciousness is necessarily split. That workers have, and act on, different sets of ideas, is the consequence. So that we can find at one and the same time the most backward and the most advanced ideas co-existing not only in the same class but even in the same person.

What Hall has got hold of is one side of working class consciousness. It is true that there is a ‘popular authoritarianism’ and it is true that this can be mobilised around questions of individual crimes, by all sorts of reactionaries. But it does not follow that just because that particular example of an alien and reactionary ideology takes hold that it drives out all possibility of other, more progressive, ideologies also operating. It is quite possible for the Guardian reader to hold the impeccably progressive view that capital punishment should be finally abolished and to hold the impeccably reactionary view that miners mass pickets should be stopped: certainly, Guardian leader writers hold those views. And it is also possible for Sun readers to have strong and backward views on hanging while at the same time happily chucking rocks at policemen and scabs outside an NCB facility.

The belief that ideologies are complete and systematic and that any acceptance of an aspect of ideology means that the whole of the system has been accepted too, allows Hall and his co-thinkers to claim that since there is undoubtedly support for some aspects of ‘law and order’ ideology then it follows that the ruling class has won the acceptance of workers to the whole of their package. This allows support for some, admittedly very nasty, bits of the Tory programme to be interpreted as a new mechanism of hegemony.

The reality, even six years later, under Thatcher is clearly quite different. If we look at the struggle which has gone on around the interpretation of ‘law’, ‘violence’ etc, during the miners’ strike we can see that the ruling class attempt to put all sorts of violent activity into one box labelled ‘criminal’ and thus to legitimise a high level of repression against it has clearly failed. Certainly, the violence argument has been an important one; but it has been an argument. The possibility of winning the argument, and winning support for the miners, has fluctuated depending upon who has been winning the overall political arguments about the strike as a whole.

Overall, the flaw in the Policing the Crisis argument lies in its failure to recognise the terrain upon which the decisive ideological battle has to be fought out. In order to continue, the ruling class needs to naturalise and universalise its rule: that is certainly true. But it needs to do this much more in certain social locations than in others. Above all it needs to make sure that its ability to continue to expropriate the social surplus, to make profits from the labour of others, is widely accepted. The ruling class may or may not control the streets of Derry or of Brixton all the time; that is not vital to it. But it must control the sale of labour power and the use to which labour is put and the product of that labour.

Essentially it can control that process by terror, as it did in the early days of the industrial revolution and still does to some extent today in less well-organised plants. Or it can control that process by consent. That, overwhelmingly, is what the British ruling class does. It does it by means of a series of deals and compromises with the trade union bureaucracy. So long as it does that, there is no decisive shift in the nature of the British state, no development of a ‘strong state’ or ‘exceptional state’.

There are certainly shifts in the degree of force employed to maintain capitalist rule in Britain, but force remains a back-up, plays a supporting role, in the decisive business of ruling. That starring role is played by consent.


The third major strand or argument is that Britain is developing towards ‘Bonapartism’. This term is derived from the Marxist tradition and those who use the term usually claim at least some relationship to that line of thought. For the last decade the term has been widely used by one of the more theatrical trends of British Trotskyism, but recently the supporters of the newspaper Militant have begun to flirt with the idea, and they deserve rather more serious attention.

In two recent major articles in the Militant [14], Lynn Walsh, one of the major theoreticians of the tendency, has argued that:

Thatcher’s methods indicate a tendency towards parliamentary Bonapartism where behind the forms of parliamentary democracy the premier, using her control of the state apparatus, exercises increasingly autocratic control. (Militant, 6 July 1984, original emphasis)

Having made this claim in both of the articles, Walsh then retreats and claims that the full establishment of Bonapartism is not possible in Britain for the time being. This is because, in order for such a regime to flourish, there must be a major defeat of the working class organisations. Since, according to Militant the present period is characterised by the reverse trend, it follows that Bonapartism is not possible.

This account uses the language of Marxism, but a closer examination reveals it as having many of the same fatal flaws as the Bennite theory we have been examining. The term ‘Bonapartism’ has a long and complex history, but none of the uses to which it has been put in the past bear any relationship to that proposed by Walsh. [15]

Marx first developed the theory of Bonapartism in response to the victory of Napoleon III in France in the years following the 1848 revolution. He argued that the development of the revolution had resulted in the defeat of the working class, but that the ruling class itself was deeply split between different political factions. In these circumstances, the ‘ordinary bourgeois’ was quite prepared to see the bourgeois politicians swept from the stage, provided that the person who did so could offer a guarantee that the working class would be kept firmly in check. Bonaparte ‘the Little’, nephew of the great Bonaparte who had stabilised the gains of the French revolution for the bourgeoisie and guaranteed the land settlement won by the peasants, filled that role. He and his entourage of semi-criminal elements, what Marx called the ‘lumpen-proletariat’ provided the focus for the peasants, unable to organise themselves but firmly on the side of order. The rule of Bonapartism was marked by repression of the working class, and indeed often of bourgeois politicians, and the use of the state machine as an independent instrument of policy. [16]

As the term was subsequently developed in the Marxist tradition it did indeed tend to be used to characterise political regimes and movements which relied very heavily on the state machine and which utilised a large measure of repression against the working class: in general independent working class activity was illegal or only semi- legal in such regimes. These factors were not, however, the essential features of Bonapartism: the Marxist tradition, as one would expect, tended to locate these in the balance of class forces.

For a Marxist, of course, the personal role of one woman cannot be a serious factor in determining the nature of a regime. Indeed, Trotsky specifically argues that this was not a central element of the form: ‘The role of the all-powerful arbiter can be filled by a clique instead of a person.’ [17] What was important for Trotsky, and what emerges from all of the Marxist accounts of Bonapartism, is the conditions which allow the state to assume such a big role. These were found in the fact that Bonapartism arose in those circumstances in which there was a balance between the working class organisations and the fighting organisations of the bourgeoisie – the fascists. It was for this reason that Trotsky used the term to describe Germany immediately before the Hitler seizure of power, Austria in 1934 and France in the same year. In all of these cases there were periods during which the forces of the working class and those of the reactionary petty bourgeoisie were mutually balanced and temporarily exhausted, and it was the resulting paralysis of the ‘normal’ political processes of bourgeois democracy that led to the unusual freedom of the state machine. As Trotsky put it, Bonapartism was a:

... regime of military-police dictatorship. As soon as the straggle of the two social strata – the haves and the have-nots – reaches its highest tension, the conditions are established for the domination of the bureaucracy, police, soldiery. The government becomes ‘independent’ of society. Let us once more recall: if two forks are stuck symmetrically into a cork, the latter can stand even on the head of a pin. That is precisely the scheme of Bonapartism. To be sure, such a government does not cease being the clerk of the property owners, yet the clerk sits on the back of the boss, rubs his neck raw, and does not hesitate at times to dig his boots into his face. [18]

It is clear that there is a distance of some miles between Trotsky and Walsh on the nature of Bonapartism. Much more importantly, there is also a great distance between Bonapartism as a scientific term and the current reality of the class struggle.

There is no evidence of there being a deadlock between the working class and a mass fascist movement, or any substitute for it, resulting in a paralysis of the political process and an elevation of the state machine. There is no evidence of the Thatcher government being particularly independent of the bourgeoisie, or ‘rubbing its neck raw’. Quite the contrary, although there are at times strains and tensions over matters of policy, the miners’ strike is clearly not one of them. The CBI and the Institute of Directors are united with the Tory government in standing against the miners. There is a unanimous chorus of support for Thatcher from the ruling class press. Nothing in the present situation resembles any Marxist account of Bonapartism.

Now if it were just a matter of terminology, then it would not matter too much: Walsh is at liberty to use whatever rhetorical terms he chooses. But once again we have to look to the political consequences. One feature of Bonapartism, which arises from the fact that it can only exist in situations of class balance, is its extreme instability. As Trotsky put it:

... we are obliged to repeat what the Bolshevik-Leninists said at one time about Germany: the political chances of present French Bonapartism are not great: its stability is determined by the temporary and, at bottom, unsteady equilibrium between the camps of the proletariat and fascism. The relation of forces of these two camps must change rapidly, in part under the influence of the economic conjuncture, principally in dependence upon the quality of the proletarian vanguard’s policy. A collision between these two camps is inevitable ... A stable regime could be established only after the collision, depending on the results. [19]

In other words, if the term Bonapartism is to have any serious content it is to describe an extremely transitory regime which is rapidly about to be transformed into something else. The very situation which leads to the rise of Bonapartism demands a confrontation and conclusion: one of the tasks of Bonapartism is to help to make sure that it is not the working class that determines the nature of the new stable political form. It follows, then, if revolutionaries are serious in terming a regime Bonapartist then they are also claiming that a class confrontation of decisive proportions is on the immediate agenda.

This brings us back to Walsh. He claims that this is not the immediate situation. In order for such a situation to arise he claims that there would have to be major defeat of the working class. Since this has not happened, he says, we do not need to worry. As we have seen, the exact opposite is true of Bonapartism: it does not depend upon the defeat of the working class but upon its relative strength. In the instance to which Trotsky referred in the quote above, the French working class was able to defeat the fascists and make substantial gains: it was brought up short not by Bonapartism but by the actions of reformism.

The outcome of Walsh’s rather confused account is not only to mis-educate people but to stop any serious discussion of what is actually going on in the movement. Walsh is like the man who says that if the lion comes we will all get eaten, but never mind, the lion is not coming. Meanwhile, he does not notice the rather hungry-looking wolf ...

Consent and the trade union bureaucracy

What, then is going on? If none of the more alarmist accounts of the reformist and centrist left hold much water, it is still important for us to have something better to say.

The starting point we need to take is to distinguish between the state machine and the political set-up prevailing at any one time. The state machine in capitalism is a professionalised and bureaucratised machine which operates to a great extent independently of temporary political arrangements. Even in an advanced bourgeois democracy like the USA, where all sorts of people like judges and police chiefs get elected and there is a developed ‘spoils system’ of appointing your political friends to government jobs, the core of the state machine and in particular the armed forces, have their own internal structure of command and discipline.

It is precisely this feature, of course, which makes the reformist project so unrealistic: the state is designed to have an existence independent of any governmental form. It is an organisation which can exist in various different political regimes, since it is designed to maintain a set of social relations. An example is the fascist state constructed by Franco. This highly repressive machine was constructed and staffed with loyal fascists. It has, however, survived more or less intact the transition from Francoism to bourgeois democracy.

The state machine is authoritarian both in terms of its own internal structure, which is one of a rigid hierarchy, and in its relationship to ‘its’ population. This massive chunk of anti-democracy accompanies even the most through-going bourgeois democracy. Changes to the way in which this state is organised, equipped or run are not essential to deciding what the nature of a given capitalist society is.

When we use the terms ‘bourgeois democracy’ or ’fascism’, or police state’, we are taking as read the existence of this state machine, and referring to the political relations within which such a state operates.

Bourgeois democracy is not necessarily the normal, or preferred, method of capitalist rule: it is one among several. But it does have its own distinctive features which make it, from our point of view, the best terrain upon which to wage the class war. The problem facing the ruling class is that they need to find some sort of social support for their rule: they are numerically so few in a developed capitalist state, and the working class is so large, that sheer terror is inadequate as a means of class rule over any protracted period. In bourgeois democracy, the capitalist class makes a series of deals with the working class organisations, over the terms on which they are to be exploited. It agrees to negotiate over wages and conditions, etc, and allows the appropriate organisations to exist to allow such a bargaining process to take place. It also allows political discussions and organisation, and at least some sense that the majority have a say in how society is run.

This is a very advantageous form of rule for the capitalists. It allows them to use fraud, the belief that the existing society is a freely chosen one, to a much greater extent than force. It allows for different factions to debate and argue about how best to run capitalism: although the bourgeoisie allows political freedoms, it tries very hard to make sure that it dominates and leads all of the major political organisations. The USA is a good example, where despite a long tradition of free political organisation the capitalist class completely dominates the main parties in the electoral machine. Elsewhere, as in Britain, they have to make do with slavish reformists like Neil Kinnock. It is because of this room for the capitalists to change course without having to have some major political upset that in advanced capitalist countries in periods of relative social peace, bourgeois democracy is such an attractive form of rule to the capitalists.

But from our point of view also bourgeois democracy is a very advantageous situation. While the ruling class will make every effort to ensure that all political and economic organisations are kept under their direct or indirect domination, the very forms of bourgeois democracy allow for the possibility of independent working class organisation. This provides the possibility both for the working class to gain experience, organisation and self-confidence by means of regular negotiations with the capitalists, sometimes spilling over into open class conflict, and it allows the revolutionary movement to engage in open propaganda and organisation for the overthrow of capitalism. It is for this reason that we are both the most determined defenders of bourgeois democracy and those who wish to extend it as far as possible.

Nothing in this, however, shows that bourgeois democracy is not capable of using force against its opponents. Externally, that is obvious, but it is also true internally as well. Many of those who claim that Thatcher is moving away from bourgeois democracy have an idyllic picture of what bourgeois democracy is actually like. In reality, bourgeois democracy can be very nasty indeed. As Jeffrey and Taylor in their book States of Emergency have recently shown, the construction of emergency forces designed to smash strikes has a long tradition in Britain, and one shared by both Conservative and Labour governments. [20]

Bourgeois democracies can be very nasty indeed. There is nothing incompatible in the existence of a bourgeois democracy and the existence of a political police (Britain all this century), use of troops to break strikes (Labour 1945–51), shooting on workers (Britain 1910–14, most notably Tonypandy), the mass arrest of political opponents (the bulk of the central committee of the British Communist Party were arrested and imprisoned for from 6 to 12 months in the run up to the 1926 General Strike). The list can be protracted for Britain and many other bourgeois democracies.

What is essential to bourgeois democracy is that because it allows the freedom of association, it makes deals with the working class and thus receives social support from the trade union bureaucracy. That is the core of bourgeois democracy, and because that continues to be the central characteristic of the British state it remains a bourgeois democracy.

It is quite true that there have been changes and shifts inside the framework set by bourgeois democracy. There is a long term tendency for the state to become more and more involved in all areas of social life as the scale of capitalist production, whether private or state in form, increases. That is a development which has been going on for at least this century. There is also a tendency of rather shorter span, concentrated in the last twenty years or so, much of it initiated by the first and second Wilson governments, which involves ‘modernising’ and centralising the British state. Much of this is a direct response to the shift from boom to slump, but part at least, like the centralisation of the police force, is really an attempt to ‘bring things up to date’. Finally, there is the relatively short term response of the Thatcher government, which is to rely more upon force than did the immediately preceding Labour government, but still force within the framework of consent. To repeat: the decisive factor in the current miners’ strike is the attitude of other workers and their leaders rather than the role of the police, who have a secondary role to play.

It is important to keep these distinctions clearly in mind because we are here discussing developments which have different origins, and thus do not provide any ammunition for those who want to see some vile capitalist conspiracy to destroy British liberty or whatever. There is no such plan: there is a crisis and the ruling class and their state are groping for an answer to the generalised class struggle that comes in its wake.

In conclusion

Three dangerous consequences follow from the argument that Britain is becoming a police state. The struggles against such encroachments on liberty is often diverted into what may be termed a ‘popular front’ type campaign. [21] This is the clear intention of the current Labour official campaign: at the same time as the party is shifted to the right and the miners are denounced for violence, all right thinking people will be called upon to defend civil liberties. And in order not to harm that alliance against the developing tyranny of Thatcher, it will become more and more important to win as many votes as possible. And in order to win votes it will be necessary to distance the Labour Party from ‘totalitarianism of the left’: mass picketing, violent picketing should be stopped, and if it cannot be stopped, then it must be roundly denounced in order not to frighten off the respectable middle class.

The second danger is that while cries of ‘police state’, ‘1984’, ‘Bonapartism’ or whatever, might give the faithful a catchword to hang on to, they are so obviously out of step with reality that they are no good for winning the support of the uncommitted. And because they are out of touch with reality, sooner or later the faithful see through them and become demoralised. Alarmist talk either breeds passivity or it breeds paranoia: neither are any use for combatting the real developments.

Lastly, and most seriously, the arguments can be used as an alibi for inaction. If we can blame any setback on the omnipotent state, then that lets everybody else off the hook.

Take the example of the current miners’ strike. If is clear that the police operation has been massive and very repressive. But if we take every key instance in the strike we can see that it was only a contributory factor to the outcome of the struggle, not the decisive one.

Stopping the Notts coalfield was a problem from early on, and there is no doubt that the police mobilisation made it more difficult to picket the pits out. But the central problem was the scabbing of the Notts miners and the failure of their area union leadership (some of them Broad Left) to win them to strike action. The police state argument lets the scabs and the reformist leaders off the hook.

Stopping the steelworks was undoubtedly made more difficult by the action of the police and the law. But the central problem has been that ISTC and TGWU workers were prepared to handle scab coal and that ISTC officials have been prepared to orchestrate that scabbing. And the central failures on the miners’ side have been the reluctance of the area officials to organise genuinely mass pickets to stop the steel works. Concentrating on the cops lets all of those people off the hook.

Lastly, there is no doubt that the police have been very effective in forcing a pathway through for the scabs, but the centre of the problem is the scabs themselves. And the relative lack of success so far in scabbing operations means not that the cops are backing off but that there have been larger than normal pickets involved in these battles. Again concentrating on the cops misses the central political lesson of this phase of the dispute.

Against these misconceptions, we have to repeat the basic elements of Marxism: that Britain remains a bourgeois democracy, albeit one in which the balance between force and fraud is changing in the direction of force. And while we warn against the alarmists and the manufacturers of excuses, we also have to be in the forefront of resisting attempts to infringe the gains of the working class.

Against those who argue that in the face of the strong state, we must move to the right, we have to say that the best, indeed the only, defence against the erosion of liberties is the strength of the working class. If the miners win, we can gain more liberties; if they lose then the cops and the Tories will go forward with renewed confidence.

Against those who scream against Bonapartism and the like we have to say that there are real and present dangers that need opposing, but the state is not all powerful: we need to stress the ways in which it can and has been fought and beaten both in the past and today.

Against those who manufacture excuses out of the violence of the state, we have to argue that the real problems of the class war in Britain today are the weaknesses of working class solidarity and the treachery of the bureaucracy and we have to argue for the ways in which those problems can be overcome. And we also have to point out that the violence of today is not an exceptional aspect of the bourgeois state, but a normal and central part of it. The consequence of that is that we can’t wish away the state. To win the class war we have to fight and beat the state; we have to smash it.

* * *


1. See New Statesman, 17 August 1984. Other popular accounts are to be found in most of the left press. See for example Bob Clay MP in Labour Briefing National Supplement, No. 10, August 1984 and London Labour Briefing, No. 42, August 1984. Issue 41 contains more in the same vein.

2. See for instance, P. Hain, Political Trials in Britain (London 1984), Chapter 2.

3. For example M. Kettle, The Drift to Law and Order, Marxism Today, October 1980.

4. Anyone interested in following my views on fascism further are referred to the widely-remaindered Never Again (London 1980).

5. This is a remarkable book in that half of it is attributed in the acknowledgements to one Phil Kelly. The other half contains much about the trials of Peter Hain. Since his name is on the cover, I have labelled the book as his.

6. Ibid., pp. 289–290.

7. See R. Reiner, Is Britain turning into a police state?, New Society, 2 August 1984. This article is a good example of how the use of wild arguments can provide right-wingers like the author an easy target. Reiner’s answer is: No.

8. See State Research, No. 6, June/July 1978. This publication was an early product of the state-obsession industry.

9. C. Ackroyd and others, The Technology of Political Control (Harmondsworth 1977), pp. 70–74.

10. V. Serge, What Everyone Should Know About State Repression, trans. J. White (New Park 1979). The title of the original French edition, is properly translated as What every revolutionary ... Can it be that the popular front has gripped the WRP?

11. C. Leys, Watching the State, New Socialist, No. 18, July/August 1984.

12. Ibid.

13. S. Hall and others, Policing the Crisis (London 1978). Hall has developed the theme in many articles, for example in New Socialist. Recently Hall has had a change of heart, and in the August/September 1984 issue of that magazine has discovered Ken Livingstone as a countervailing force.

14. 6 July and 13 July centre spreads.

15. Bonapartism is a very complicated term indeed. The standard account of Marx and Engels on the issue, marred only slightly by the author’s Bureaucratic Collectivism is Hal Draper’s Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. i (New York, 1977), chaps. 15–18. It is convenient to divide Bonapartism into that of the early phase of capitalism and that of its decline. That of the early phase was much more a stable formation than that of the decline; my remarks about the instability of the formation refer to the latter form.

16. The classic account of course is in The Eighteenth Brumaire, in Collected Works, vol. xi. Marx’s account is very much more complicated than my little summary.

17. L. Trotsky, The German Puzzle in The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (Harmondsworth 1975), p. 255.

18. L. Trotsky, The Only Road in ibid., p. 263.

19. L. Trotsky, Bonapartism and Fascism in Writings of Leon Trotsky 1934–35, (New York 1971), p. 54.

20. See Jeffery and Hennessy, States of Emergency (London 1983). On secret policemen etc., see T. Bunyan, The Political Police in Britain (London 1976).

21. The same train of thought can lead to even worse things, for example the struggle to strengthen the police as in Lea and Young, What is to be done about Law and Order (Harmondsworth 1984).

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