In and Against the State

By John McDonnell MP

In this period of heightened political instability anything can happen. The May administration could collapse. There could be an early general election, giving Labour the opportunity to form a government. Nothing is impossible and everything is possible.

So it’s important that Labour campaigners and supporters have clarity about the nature of a Labour government under a socialist leadership and the preparations that are needed both to achieve and sustain that type of socialist government. This means appreciating how socialists understand what winning power means and view their approach to the use of the state.

The underlying theoretical premise of the approach of many modern socialists to the state is summed up in the expression “in and against the state.” This explains that the state is of course a set of institutions but it is also a relationship between the state and the individual.

Within a capitalist state that relationship is for working class people one of dominance. The state controls and dictates behaviour, determines the limits of a person’s influence over decisions and can inflict sanctions.

The theory of “in and against the state” was developed from a discussion in the 1980s of how socialists can go within the state institutions to change the state relationship from one of dominance to democratic control.

Many socialists sought to put the “in and against the state” theory into practice by working within the state as members of the local and national civil service bureaucracy of the state. Others sought to influence the state’s behaviour by lobbying and campaigning, while others tried to secure election to the decision making structures of the state at both the local and national levels.

With the opportunity of Labour to secure national office at the next general election, a large part of Labour’s current preparations for government is to address this challenge of transforming the state relationship. We must attempt to learn the lessons of past experience in the UK, gained largely in local government but also in government office within past Labour governments, and also more recent experience of interventions in other countries such as Syriza in Greece and elsewhere.

Step by step of course we are now campaigning to win elections nationally and locally to go within the state in order to transform the state relationship. We can only secure the level of support we need by building a majoritarian consensus for our policies and programme. Part of that process of consensus building means that in the campaigns to achieve the election of a Labour government we need to be consistently clear that we only seek power to empower.

Every policy must display that it has passed the test against the question: does it give people a greater democratic say over their lives and the lives of their community? The transfer of power from state to people can take many forms, especially extending the way that people can participate in decision-making.

In the past local government has provided a vehicle for the transfer of power from the central state to the local state and then on to the community. This requires freeing up the role and powers of local councils, but also ensuring that they are fully resourced with access to a solid local tax base foundation.

Ownership entails power. As public ownership within our economy is extended under Labour, the structures for managing and operating the services brought back into public ownership will reflect the transfer of power from corporations to the workers within these industries, the consumers of these services and representatives of the communities these services serve.

Within the wider economy the legally enforceable representation of workers on company boards, the development of collective share ownership by workers, and the large scale extension of co-operative ownership will all spread democratic economic power.

In central government there is a need to throw open the doors of government departments and government agencies to secure representation from the community on advisory and decision-making bodies and to use new mechanisms for community engagement, including, for example, community budgeting.

To sustain the momentum of democratising our society we need also to sustain a thorough going democratisation process within our own party. This includes maintaining effective accountability of those party members we elect to representative positions to the wider membership and movement, and ensuring that the movement is engaged in a continuous process of intellectual renewal.

The key is that whenever the opportunity comes to turn these ideas into reality, we are ready.

This article is reproduced from Labour Briefing Magazine, where John McDonnell writes a regular monthly column.   Click here for details of how to subscribe.