Wednesday, April 5th, 2017


As part of my research on the socialist state, I have found that many indeed cite, rely upon and try to modify the influential definition given by Max Weber: ‘the state is the form of human community [Gemeinschaft] that (successfully) lays claim to the monopoly of legitimate physical violence [Gewalt] within a particular territory’ (The Vocation Lectures, p. 33). From Charles Tilly, through Norbert Elias, to Pierre Bourdieu, many assume that Weber inaugurated the modern tradition of the analysis of the state – in contrast to the classical tradition (Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau) that saw the state in quasi-theological terms as arising from a state of nature and providing the necessary limits on human society for the sake of the common good.

There is profound problem with this assumption. Weber is actually dependent on an even more influential definition that was first proposed by none other than Friedrich Engels. In a crucial section of The Origin of the Family, Engels writes of the state arising from within the dynamics of a society riven with class conflict (a point that would be taken up by Lenin) and that the state divides its subjects ‘according to territory’ and ‘establishes a public power [Gewalt]’ that is separate from the population organising itself as a military force (Origin of the Family, p. 269). Here are two crucial terms in Weber’s definition: power (or violence) and territory.

For some strange reason, Weber neglects to mention Engels. Is this a Foucault moment, when an influential thinker prefers not to refer to sources of thought since people will simply assume that the thought is new? Or did Weber forget, or perhaps even not know, that Engels had proposed this position first. Given the influence of Marxism at the time, Weber’s ignorance is really not an option.

The conclusion: the modern tradition of reflection the European nation-state (the limitation is deliberate) begins with Engels, as indeed does the Marxist tradition via Lenin.

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By and large the Social-Democratic parties (and I include here the ‘socialist’ parties) in Europe support the EU. The reasons vary, but the underlying justification is that the EU is in part a social-democratic project. It seeks to encourage liberal economic policies, while trying to ameliorate some its worse effects – largely to keep the system running.

This position has certain implications in relation to Eastern Europe and ‘former’ communist countries.

  1. A wholesale denial that the economic situation in many Eastern European countries has become worse since 1989 rather than better. This entails a denial of systematic deindustrialisation and the resultant large-scale unemployment.
  2. A perverse suggestion that the EU’s free market means the free movement of manufactured products but not the commodity of labour power. That is, you call sell products on the capitalist market of the EU, but workers should not move to other countries. Why perverse? First, the movement of labour power is one of the commodities in a capitalist market. Second, one of the main aims of the EU is to drive down the cost of labour in Western European countries by employing lower-paid workers from Eastern Europe. This is to counter the law of the falling rate of profit.
  3. So you find social-democratic parties targeting ‘foreign’ workers so as to secure the wavering votes of workers in their ‘own’ countries.
  4. But why would workers from Eastern Europe move elsewhere for jobs? The only position remaining is the weak suggestion that ‘everyone seeks a better life’. Implicit in this suggestion is the agreement that matters have become worse in Eastern Europe since 1989.
  5. And you must – if you are of this persuasion – blame Putin, Trump and the ‘stupid’ Brexit voters in the UK for Europe’s current ills.