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Alienation and the proletarian state

Though Marx himself had little to say about what a communist society would actually look like, his critique of capitalism implicitly calls for a world quite different from ours. Historically, Marxists have read in his call for communism a call for the abolition of class, of the state, of property, of bureaucracy, of markets - of all sorts of things. Again, Marx pointedly refused to detail any of this, and had nothing but contempt for those who expected him to write "recipes for the kitchens of the future."

There are, nevertheless, two points that Marx is quite clear about:
Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.
Between capitalism and communism, there will be a state. There is no way around this. Capitalism has reshaped our society into a massive, extraordinarily complex apparatus of oppression and exploitation; only the awesome power of the state, wielded by the proletariat, can dismantle this. It will be a multi-front war, demanding offensives against every pathology of capitalism you can name; absolutely nothing in the Marxist tradition suggests that we can somehow wipe them all out simultaneously, and without a role for the state.

I'm spelling this out to make a simple point: until the state withers away, it will continue to play a basic role in mediating economic relations. It will for example define basic roles in control of the means of production, specifying who gets to control it, what control means and does not mean, what is being controlled, and so on. The proletariat needs a state to do this so that the bourgeoisie doesn't seize control right back. The proletarian state will also mediate economic transactions for all of the same reasons: if the state doesn't play an active and intermediary role in all of this, capitalist forms can survive and metastasize. It is this weed-like tendency of capitalism to sprout up anywhere it can that demands what Marx called a dictatorship of the proletariat; to wipe out capitalism, the proletarian state's economic jurisdiction and ambit must be absolute (even if, in practice, the proletariat forbears from intervention).

This is Marxism 101, and yet it is directly at odds with a persisting form of criticism on the left which insists that any role the state plays in governing or facilitating economic relations is alienating, and thus "reformist" or "counterrevolutionary".

To be clear, the error here is not that the state plays an alienating role in its mediation of economic relations - of course it does. If my community lives in an area of the world that does not have arable land, and the socialist state intervenes to ensure that we have a reliable supply of produce, shipping in some minimum quota on a regular basis from some distant farming community - in this case, it is absolutely true that my community is alienated from the farmers who have grown our food. We have not developed personal, human relationships with each other; our exchange emerges not as an organic expression of our social life, but as the result of a bureaucratic process administered by third parties.

And yet historically, Marxism has not regarded this sort of arrangement as "reformist" or "counterrevolutionary," even though it is indeed alienating. There are many reasons for this, but ultimately they all come down to a simple point: the dictatorship of the proletariat is not communism. Even if you expect full communism to abolish entirely things like state-managed trade, it does not at all follow that the dictatorship of the proletariat will do this, and in fact it would be both theoretically inexplicable and practically shocking if it somehow did.

None of this, of course, is an argument that Marxists should dismiss the problem of alienation in their fight for socialism. There is, however, a genre of critique that, in the guise of criticizing "alienation", is ultimately criticizing any role whatsoever for a proletarian state. In response to any set of laws or policies that the socialist proposes to mobilize as a weapon against capitalism, the critic can always reply: this system you want to set up stands between the worker and worker, and between workers and the means of production; these rules, administrators and enforcers are your substitutes for voluntary, direct, and human relationships, and are therefore alienating. But clearly, this is not simply an argument against alienation - it is an argument against socialism, and should be regarded as such.