We Need a New State Debate (Part Two) — Chris O’Kane

[This is the second in a series of two posts reevaluating Marxist state theories and debates by Chris O’Kane. The first post is available here.]

The State Derivation Debate [1]

The so-called second generation of Frankfurt critical theorists, Jürgen Habermas and Claus Offe, had formulated social-democratic theories of the state. They had argued that capitalism’s crisis tendencies had been overcome and that the working class had been integrated into contemporary society. All struggles were thus political struggles over the state’s management of economic relations, and social democracy represented the road to human fulfilment.

Johannes Agnoli had critiqued Habermas and Offe’s theories. For Agnoli the state was the political form of capitalist reproduction, not something to be understood as separate from economic relations. Keynesianism, moreover, had not overcome class struggle, but rather “statified” it by incorporating the working class into a vast bureaucracy. All struggles should thus be outside of and against the state in order to abolish it outright, and with it the whole of capitalist society.

Habermas and Offe thus represented the parliamentary wing of the German New Left, Agnoli the extra-parliamentary wing. The election of a social democratic–liberal coalition in the wake of the student movement was a litmus test for these theories. The ensuing crisis, which the coalition was unable to manage, called Habermas and Offe’s theories into question and marked the occasion of Wolfgang Müller and Christel Neusüss’ “The Illusion of State Socialism and the Contradiction between Wage Labour and Capital”, which launched the derivation debate. [2]

As the terminology of “derivation” indicates, the conceptual framework of this debate was influenced by the New German Reading of Marx and the later rediscovery of Soviet legal scholar Evgeny Pashukanis. The former was developed within the subterranean lineage of the Frankfurt School. [3] In contrast to traditional interpretations, the New German Reading argued that Marx’s theory of value was a theory of social forms that compelled individuals on both sides of the capital relation. Pashukanis’ theory had differentiated itself from Marxist theories of the content of the state and come to focus on why the dominance of the capitalist class takes on the form of official state domination; it had done so by deriving the form of capitalist law and the capitalist state from commodity exchange. Contributions to the derivation debate that ensued focused on explaining the necessary functions of the capitalist state, and its limits, by deriving the form of the state from the dynamic of capital accumulation.

Drawing on John Holloway and Sol Picciotto’s introduction to their translations of the contributions to this debate, we can identify three waves. [4] The first took issue with theories such as those of Pollock and Horkheimer, and argued that the state’s institutional separation from capitalist economic relations was key to understanding its role in accumulation and reproduction processes. This approach held that the form of the state was necessary for the continued existence of capitalist society, since it stood above the competition of individual capitals in order to guarantee the system’s reproduction. [5]

The second wave focused on providing a logical derivation of the state form from the method of presentation in Capital, the necessity of which was likewise established on this basis. This approach systematically derived the necessity (and possibility) of the state from the forms of appearance of capitalist social relations, in which all members of society seem to have common interests, thus rendering an autonomous state necessary in order for these common interests to be realized outside the sphere of competition. 

The third moved from these forms of appearance to capitalist social relations themselves. In contrast to the first two approaches, which can be seen to establish the necessity of the state as an ex post facto functional supplement to a fully articulated account of the valorization process, Joachim Hirsch argued that a “theory of the bourgeois state” is “a matter of defining the bourgeois state as the expression of a specific historical form of class rule and not simply as the bearer of particular social functions”. [6] This led Hirsch to derive the “possibility” and “general necessity” of the state from the capital relation, arguing that the particular form of the state abstracted “relations of force from the immediate process of production, thus constituting discrete ‘political’ and ‘economic’ spheres”, which were integral to reproducing this relation. [7] In so doing, Hirsch’s “elements of a theory of the bourgeois state” also addressed the shortcomings of the other types of contributions, namely the separation of the state form from the capital relation, while also pointing to the importance of analyzing the state and processes of social reproduction in the context of the world market.

Despite these different points of emphasis, the state derivation debate thus yielded a theory of the state that broke with instrumentalist models. Participants in the debate mounted convincing arguments against a conception of the state as a formless instrument that directed the economy, and they conceived the state’s impersonal form and separation from the capitalist economy to be necessary for the reproduction of capitalist society. 

The World Market Debate

Drawing on and advancing elements of Hirsch’s work, the German “world market debate” revolved around the issue of grounding a form-analytic conception of the state in the concrete context of the world market. Contributions to this debate from Neusüss, Klaus Busch, and Claudia von Braunmühl thus drew on Marx’s comments in the Grundrisse that the “tendency to create the world market is directly given in the concept of capital itself” [8], and developed accounts of how the law of value operated through the world market. In so doing, they relied on a conception of valorization as a process that “impose[s] a particular logic upon people”, while also echoing insights from the state derivation debate that capitalism’s crisis tendencies can only be regulated if “the capitalist state is able to form and survive as a separate and relatively autonomous instance”. [9]

Yet in contrast to these approaches, the contributions to the world market debate assumed, as a methodological premise, a plurality of states in a “multipolar” world capitalist system. Neusüss and Busch’s interventions applied their interpretation of Marx’s theory of value to the world market, which was conceived as a mixture of nationally delineated spheres. In contrast to the state derivation debate, they held that “an analysis of the world-market motion of capital could not be derived seamlessly from the inner nature of capital”, but had to occur in “modified forms”. Of the two, Neusüss focused with particular energy on the state, which she understood to be a sphere of social relations “that rests on a capitalist base, but is also ‘beside and outside it'”. She argued that the state was responsible for creating the “general material preconditions for production” and an “internal sphere of circulation” for national total social capital by enabling “primitive accumulation”, thus guaranteeing the movement of capital and labour and facilitating the imposition of the law of value.

Von Braunmühl attacked Neusüss and Busch’s ideas of “modified forms”, contending that value always appears in such a manner. She also held that the state could not be regarded as external to value theory. Von Braunmühl thus argued that the world market was “the appropriate level from which to observe the motion of capital and the effect of the law of value in general”, and that it was not the capitalist state as such that should be conceptualized but “the specific political organisation of the world market in many states“.

Consequently, in opposition to the state derivation debate, von Braunmühl made the case that “the form of the state as a political organisation of ‘separate and distinct relations of reproduction’ cannot be ‘derived from the merely internal dimensions of a commodityproducing class society alone’–the role of the state in question in its specific relationship with the world market and with other states must always be included in the analysis from the outset”.

These premises led von Braunmühl to argue that on a theoretical level the state should be conceived from the perspective of the internal dynamic of national capital and the external dynamic of the world market. In her view, “political and economic rule by internationally competing ruling classes” was achieved through the political functions of a sovereign state, which could secure the necessary conditions within the nation-state framework.

The CSE State Debate

The CSE (Conference of Socialist Economists) state debate integrated insights from the Poulantzas–Miliband debate, the state derivation debate, and the world market debate in an effort to answer the question of how to conceive the capitalist state within the context of the crisis of Keynesianism and the rise of monetarism in the United Kingdom. At the same time, participants in this debate sought to address the shortcomings of earlier debates in two ways–by developing a theory of capital and the state as forms of class struggle, and by refining and integrating this theory into a Poulantzasian framework.

Simon Clarke distinguished the former from the latter by critiquing what he understood to be the neo-Ricardian and bourgeois sociological dimensions of Poulantzas’ theory, which he regarded as severing the domains of structure and action: social form and class struggle. In contrast to the ahistorical and functionalist accounts of the derivation debate, the contributions of Clarke, Holloway, and Piccotto stressed the centrality of the historically specific dynamic of class struggle as the means by which the state and economy are constituted and developed as dominating forms of unity in difference. In their view, this conception of class struggle thus aligned form and content in a way that could also explain the limits of state interference and the historical trajectory of Keynesian and monetarist state policies. 

Joachim Hisrch and Bob Jessop attempted to address the shortcomings of previous theories within a framework that drew on Poulantzas and “regulation theory” while branching out to develop concepts of its own. Hirsch developed the idea of the Fordist state, which he argued had encompassed the political and economic, setting the stage for the Fordist period of regulation and the ensuing argument that political struggles were now over the state. Jessop argued that the value form provides the structural framework of accumulation but that its trajectory is determined by class struggle. This necessitates the need for something to regulate accumulation: the state. Yet regulation does not occur within a vacuum but in a particular conjuncture in which an hegemonic “accumulation strategy” comes to arise from a number of limited options. 

The CSE Recomposition Debate

Following the election of the New Right, participants in the CSE recomposition developed accounts of the restructuring of the British state that built on their contributions to the original CSE state debate.

In response to the election of a conservative German government in 1982, Hirsch developed an analysis of the crisis of the Fordist state and the rise of the post-Fordist state. Hirsch argued that the crisis of Fordist production had led to the rise of new social movements, the erosion of the the Fordist class compromise, and thus a general crisis of the Fordist state. He argued further that the state responded by restructuring social relations in a form appropriate to the post-Fordist state, which regulates social relations through the “commodification of society”. In contrast to later prevalent interpretations, Hirsch did not argue that the post-Fordist state withdrew from society. Rather, as Clarke put it, he argued that it offered new, “highly differentiated and flexible forms of state regulation, appropriate to the segmentation of the working class and the greater degree of flexibility characteristic of neo-Fordist accumulation”. [10] Yet Hirsch’s analysis was symptomatic of the regulation analyses and other periodizations  of neoliberalism that followed, which viewed the former as a discreet accumulation strategy within a new conjuncture. Clarke, Holloway, and Werner Bonefeld offered critiques of the theoretical bases of this structuralist approach and the periodizations of Keynesianism and neoliberalism. Jessop defended this approach and developed his own theory of the state, post-fordism, and Thatcher that mirrored Hirsch. [11]

In the years following, Clarke, Bonefeld, and Holloway developed their own accounts of the recomposition of the British State and the global economy. [12] Clarke’s Keynesianism, Monetarism, and the Crisis of the State drew on the CSE state and value debates to develop an interpretation of Marx’s theory of value as encompassing private property, money, and law as forms that mediated the class struggle qua the crisis-prone dynamic of accumulation and reproduction on the world market. [13] This approach informed Clarke’s ensuing history of the British state as a particularly resilient recomposition in response to this dynamic. In his view, monetarism did not represent a new type of post-Fordist or neoliberal political economy, but a somewhat different means of enforcing private property, money, and law through monetarist (and Keynesian) fiscal, monetary, and social policies. These policies were directed toward the same goal: the recomposition of class relations into relations between individual citizens and the perpetuation of the contradictory crisis-ridden dynamic of capitalist accumulation.  

Bonefeld’s The Recomposition of the British State During the 1980s, published in 1993, drew on Agnoli and the New German Reading of Marx and the world market and CSE debates. [14] It argued that the capital relation constitutes a contradictory unity of capitalist political economy in which labour persists “in and against capital”. The state is thus conceptualized as a “distinct moment of the class antagonism between capital and labour, a moment within which the contradictory unity of surplus value production exists as a political relation, complementing the economic”. Yet “the constitution of the state”, which occurs “within a multiplicity of nation states”, is “displaced to the world market as the most concrete development of the presence of labour in and against capital”. Finally, “[t]he development of the state is mediated by the global power of money which confines the state within limits imposed by the contradictory form of global capitalist accumulation”. On this basis, Bonefeld analyses Keynesianism and monetarism as political and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to manage the contradictions of capitalist reproduction. He argues that the Keynesian crisis was a result of the integration of labour through social reform; monetarism is depicted as an attempt to “recompose the form of the state by bringing about the subordination of social relations to the ‘dictates’ of the market, i.e., money-in-command”. However, “this attempt to reimpose the limits of the market precipitated a potential destruction of the market itself, leading to a shift from a policy of state austerity to a policy of deficit financing, reintroducing an integration of labour on the basis of deficit financing of demand”. This led not to a return to Keynesianism but to a policy of austerity that mirrors the contemporary moment, which is reflected in Bonefeld’s analysis of the Thatcher government. In a telling parallel to the present day, Bonefeld focuses on how Thatcher’s policies were designed to make the working class pay for the crisis through “the extension and intensification of coercive forms of social normalisation, individualising forms of debt which thereby became the means of imposing work, and the use of the welfare state as an instrument of imposing, and monitoring the acceptance of, poverty”.

In the intervening years, prior to the 2007 crisis, Bonefeld, Clarke, Holloway, and Jessop continued to develop their ideas in response to theories of globalization and neoliberalism, with notably fewer Marxian interlocutors. [15]


The revival of interest in Marxism that followed the crisis has led to a return to some, but not all, of these themes and debates. As this overview has indicated, many perspectives on questions of reform and revolution are reflected in a number of current debates about political strategy. [16] But as far as I have seen, none of these approaches have taken into consideration any of the debates about the state that followed the Poulantzas–Miliband debate. More importantly, they have not taken into consideration critiques of the state that stress its specific form, limits, and recomposition. [17] This is all the more worrying in light of the intensification of climate change, the precariousness of growing numbers of refugees, and the widespread construction of border walls. If Trump is an authoritarian neoliberal climate-change denier, can we simply enact the Green New Deal by voting the right leader into office? Can Brexit be a “Lexit” if we elect Corbyn’s Labour Party? Are neoliberalism and Keynesianism qualitatively different, or are they two types of state capitalism that inhibit emancipation, albeit in somewhat different ways? Is the state really a neutral instrument for the wielding of “right” or “wrong” policies, or a semi-autonomous entity that might implement social-democratic reforms? Or is it the political form of capitalism and thus inherent in its reproduction? Should it be seized or abolished? How and for which ends? These are some of the important questions that should be debated in our crisis-ridden era. We can draw upon the resources of previous struggles and debates for this purpose. But most importantly, we need a new state debate.  

[1] Many of the contributions to this debate, as well as Holloway and Picciotto’s important introduction, are available in John Holloway and Sol Picciotto (eds.), State and Capital: A Marxist Debate (London: Edward Arnold, 1979); also available at https://libcom.org/library/state-capital-marxist-debate-john-holloway-sol-picciotto

[2] Wolfgang Müller and Christel Neusüss, “The Illusion of State Socialism and the Contradiction between Wage Labour and Capital”, 25 (1975) Telos 13.

[3] See Riccardo Bellofiore and Tommaso Redolfi Riva, “The Neue Marx-Lektüre: Putting the Critique of Political Economy back into the Critical Theory of Society”, 189 (2015) Radical Philosophy 24, available at https://www.radicalphilosophy.com/article/the-neue-marx-lekture.

[4] Holloway and Picciotto, “Introduction”, in Holloway and Picciotto, State and Capital, 1.

[5] Wolfgang Müller and Christel Neusüss, “The ‘Welfare-State Illusion’ and the Contradiction between Wage Labour and Capital”, in Holloway and Picciotto, State and Capital, 32.

[6] Joachim Hirsch, “The State Apparatus and Social Reproduction: Elements of a Theory of the Bourgeois State”, in Holloway and Picciotto, State and Capital, 63.

[7] Holloway and Picciotto, “Introduction”, 24.

[8] Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin Nicolaus (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973 [1857–58]), 408 (original emphasis); also available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch08.htm.

[9] Oliver Nachtwey and Tobias ten Brink, “Lost in Transition: the German World-Market Debate in the 1970s”, 16 (2008) Historical Materialism 37, at 45. In the paragraphs that follow I quote extensively from this article.

[10] Simon Clarke, Keynesianism, Monetarism and the Crisis of the State (Aldershot: Edward Elgar, 1988), 10; also available at https://libcom.org/library/keynesianism-monetarism-crisis-state-simon-clarke.

[11] See Bob Jessop, Kevin Bonnett, Simon Bromley, and Tom Ling, Thatcherism: A Tale of Two Nations (Cambridge: Polity, 1988) and Bob Jessop, State Theory: Putting the Capitalist State in Its Place (Cambridge: Polity, 1990).

[12] See Werner Bonefeld and John Holloway, Global Capital, National State and the Politics of Money (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1995).

[13] Clarke, Keynesianism.

[14] Werner Bonefeld, The Recomposition of the British State During the 1980s (Aldershot: Dartmouth, 1993). This title is sadly out of print and not available online. In what follows I rely on Derek Kerr, “The Recomposition of the British State During the 1980s”, 20 (1996) Capital & Class 155.

[15] Bonefeld, Clarke, and Holloway developed their ideas in a number of edited collections. See, e.g., Werner Bonefeld et al. (eds.), Open Marxism, three volumes (London: Pluto, 1992–95), and Werner Bonefeld and Kosmas Psychopedis (eds.), The Politics of Change: Globalization, Ideology and Critique (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2000). However, Clarke increasingly focused on the development of capitalism in the former Soviet Union, while Holloway turned from the British state to the autonomous zone of the Zapatistas and to the anti-state theory of “Change the World Without Taking Power”. Jessop’s work on the state incorporated Gramsci and Foucault in a series of increasingly complex theories of the state: see Bob Jessop, The Future of the Capitalist State (Cambridge: Polity, 2002), Bob Jessop and Ngai-Ling Sum, Beyond the Regulation Approach Putting Capitalist Economies in Their Place (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2006), and Bob Jessop, State Power: A Strategic-Relational Approach (Cambridge: Polity, 2007). For the context and influence of non-Marxian critical theory on these issues, see Peter Burnham, “Globalization, Depoliticization and ‘Modern’ Economic Management”, in Bonefeld and Psychopedis, The Politics of Change, 9.

[16] See, for instance, the recent exchange in Jacobin over Kautsky: James Muldoon, “Reclaiming the Best of Karl Kautsky”, Jacobin, 5 January 2019, available at https://jacobinmag.com/2019/01/karl-kautsky-german-revolution-democracy-socialism?fbclid=IwAR3z6h0Xf99cTkbeTcfrlbnu7JBcLOPcTN6I-Hk_yZLr8bKBlqxajF2rFoo; Charlie Post, “The ‘Best’ of Karl Kautsky Isn’t Good Enough”, Jacobin, 9 March 2019, available at https://jacobinmag.com/2019/03/karl-kautsky-socialist-strategy-german-revolution; Eric Blanc, “Why Kautsky Was Right”, Jacobin, 2 April 2019, available at https://jacobinmag.com/2019/04/karl-kautsky-democratic-socialism-elections-rupture. See also Camila Vergara, “The Materialist Constitutional Thought of Rosa Luxemburg”, Legal Form, 2 February 2019, available at https://legalform.blog/2019/02/02/the-materialist-constitutional-thought-of-rosa-luxemburg-part-one-camila-vergara/, https://legalform.blog/2019/02/12/the-materialist-constitutional-thought-of-rosa-luxemburg-part-two-camila-vergara/, and https://legalform.blog/2019/02/25/the-materialist-constitutional-thought-of-rosa-luxemburg-part-three-camila-vergara/. See also David McNally, “Should Marxists Want to Keep the State?”, Socialist Worker, 11 March 2019, available at https://socialistworker.org/2019/03/11/should-socialists-want-to-keep-the-state.

[17] For a recent article on the relevance of Poulantzas’ work, see David Sessions, “Nicos Poulantzas: Philosopher of Democratic Socialism”, (2019) Dissent, available at https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/nicos-poulantzas-philosopher-of-democratic-socialism. See also Rafael Khachaturian, “The Loss of Nicos Poulantzas: The Elusive Answer”, Legal Form, 7 December 2017, available at https://legalform.blog/2017/12/07/the-loss-of-nicos-poulantzas-the-elusive-answer-a-translation-by-rafael-khachaturian/.

Chris O’Kane is Adjunct Assistant Professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.