Work done in the last fifteen years or so by people writing within a broad Marxist perspective on the subject of the state in capitalist society now fills a great many bookshelves; and however critical one may be of one or other article, book or trend, it is undoubtedly very useful that this work should be available. There is, however, a very large gap in the literature, in so far as very little of it is specifically concerned with the question of the autonomy of the state.footnote1 How great a degree of autonomy does the state have in capitalist society? What purpose is its autonomy intended to serve? And what purposes does it actually serve? These and many other such questions are clearly of the greatest theoretical and practical importance, given the scope and actual or potential impact of state action upon the society over which the state presides, and often beyond. Yet, the issue has remained poorly explored and ‘theorized’ in the Marxist perspective.footnote2 The present article is intended as a modest contribution to the work that needs to be done on it.footnote3

In the first volume of Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Hal Draper very usefully sets out what Marx and Engels said on the subject of the autonomy of the state, and shows how large a place it occupied in their political thinking and writings.footnote4 It was also this that I was trying to suggest in an article on ‘Marx and the State’ published in 1965, where I noted, in a formulation which I do not find very satisfactory, that there was a ‘secondary’ view of the state in Marx (the first one being of the state as the ‘instrument’ of a ruling class so designated by virtue of its ownership or control—or both—of the main means of economic activity). This ‘secondary’ view was of the state ‘as independent from and superior to all social classes, as being the dominant force in society rather than the instrument of a dominant class’, with Bonapartism as ‘the extreme manifestation of the state’s independent role’ in Marx’s own lifetime.footnote5 On the other hand, I also noted then that, for Marx, the Bonapartist state, ‘however independent it may have been politically from any given class, remains, and cannot in a class society but remain, the protector of an economically and socially dominant class’.footnote6 Some years later, in the course of a review of Political Power and Social Classes by the late and greatly-missed Nicos Poulantzas, I reformulated the point by suggesting that a distinction had to be made between the state autonomously acting on behalf of the ruling class, and its acting at the behest of that class, the latter notion being, I said, ‘a vulgar deformation of the thought of Marx and Engels’.footnote7 What I was rejecting there was the crude view of the state as a mere ‘instrument’ of the ruling class obediently acting at its dictation.

However, it is undoubtedly to Poulantzas that belongs the credit for the most thorough exploration of the concept of the autonomy of the state; and it was he who coined the formulation which has remained the basis for most subsequent discussion of the subject, namely the ‘relative autonomy of the state’. In essence, the view that this formulation encapsulated was that the state might indeed have a substantial degree of autonomy, but that, nevertheless, it remained for all practical purposes the state of the ruling class.

There has been considerable discussion among Marxists and others about the nature of the constraints and pressures which cause the state to serve the needs of capital—notably whether these constraints and pressures were ‘structural’ and impersonal, or produced by a ruling class armed with an arsenal of formidable weapons and resources. But beyond the differences that were expressed in these discussions, there was also a fundamental measure of agreement that the state was decisively constrained by forces external to it, and that the constraints originated in the national and international capitalist context in which it operated. The state might be constrained by the imperative requirement of capital for its reproduction and accumulation; or by the pressure from lobbies and organizations and agencies at the service of capital or one or other of its ‘fractions’; or by the combined impact of these and international forces such as other capitalist states or the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. But these at any rate were the kind of factors which had to be taken into account to explain the actions of the state. As has occasionally been noted in this connection, this Marxist view of the state as impelled by forces external to it shares its ‘problematic’ with the liberal or ‘democratic pluralist’ view of the state, notwithstanding the other profound differences between them: whereas the Marxist view attributes the main constraints upon the state to capital or capitalists or both, the ‘democractic pluralist’ one attributes them to the various pressures exercised upon a basically democratic state by a plurality of competing groups, interests and parties in society. In both perspectives, the state does not originate action but responds to external forces: it may appear to be the ‘historical subject’, but is in fact the object of processes and forces at work in society.

It is this whole perspective which has come under challenge in recent years, not only from the right, which has long insisted on the primacy of the state, but from people strongly influenced by Marxism. Two notable examples of this challenge are Ellen Kay Trimberger’s Revolution from Above: Military Bureaucrats and Development in Japan, Turkey, Egypt and Peru,footnote8 and more explicitly Theda Skocpol’s much-acclaimed States and Social Revolution,footnote9 which is, however, not concerned with the contemporary state but with the state in relation to the French, Russian and Chinese Revolutions.footnote10