Sometimes, people who fight for social change feel dirty about particular work on reforms. Other times, so-called activists gloss over the need to have an understanding of the work that they do, and the institutions they are fighting for or within.
First, let’s come up with quick and simple definitions, since words should never be taken for granted:
The state is the organized monopoly of violence for the domination of a class over society.
Government is the system by which a state is governed for given periods of time.
So, for instance, the French state (laid over a nation, making a nation-state), can have successive governments that are empires, monarchies, and republics, but they each govern the same state. More particularly, successive administrations in power in the French Fifth Republic (the current one) may have different theories of governance, and therefore each successive administration may be understood as a different government.
In this way, the French state has always been an instrument of domination by either the feudal or capitalist upper classes against the exploited classes, including both those domestic and those in colonies or neo-colonial states. Therefore, the cause of the workers, women, and oppressed races and nationalities has always been to smash the state. But, different governments have existed that have had very distinct theories of governance, such that some have built institutions that serve the people and/or have been far more susceptible to pressure from the social unrest and organization of oppressed people. That leads us, I think, to suggest that the French Republic is preferable to monarchism or a Bonapartist empire for radicals, socialists, feminists, and anti-imperialists. The same could be said, for example, of the Spanish, Portuguese or German states, and their successive governments. We would be better to live and fight in a state governed by a liberal republican government than a fascist or monarchist government.
In this way, we can oppose the bourgeois state (a monopoly on violence for the domination of the bourgeois class), while fighting in our short-term work for more progressive governance and fighting in our long-term work for the abolition of the bourgeois state.
Two contemporary examples should best help us to express this on a practical level, social programs moderately, and Venezuela more radically:
Domestic Social Programs
Institutions of oppression can indeed change. The undeniably revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg begins the seminal pamphlet Social Reform or Revolution with a paragraph on how the two are a false dichotomy if they are understood at different levels: say, the first as means and the second as ends. A radical (most of whom are some form of socialist) should be understood to be one who does not confuse the two.
Outside of government, we can look at unionism or other efforts. The Community-Farmworker Alliance and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers can fight for Wendy’s or any corporation to pay Florida tomato pickers more, and those workers can be paid more. Aside from the lessons that collective social struggle makes social change, and the importance of cross-class and multi-racial coalitions in that change, there is another lesson. That is, that while no radical would argue for Wendy’s or Trader Joe’s to continue to exist, most radicals would agree that a change in their internal policies is better than a complete maintenance of the status quo. That lesson comes with the caveat that the change in policy cannot be the final goal of the social struggle, or it becomes a general maintenance of the status quo, but that it is nevertheless a step in a project with larger ambitions.
With the understanding that reforms within institutions of capital (i.e. businesses) are clearly more progressive than inertia or reaction, we can apply that lesson to institutions that serve capital, like the media or the government. The autonomy that institutions of government have from the state determines their level of progressivism. Their autonomy is generally related to the power that radicals have within civil society. So, we can oppose the state while fighting for a myriad of social programs and regulatory agencies. We can oppose the state while fighting for social spending to support non-profit or private entities that do important work (e.g. Planned Parenthood or PBS), or to fight for spending for and progressive administration of institutions like libraries, public schools, public utilities, state banks, fire departments, public transit, public hospitals, or what have you. We can also oppose the state, and sit in clear opposition to the imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal system, while demanding the government not neglect its role to regulate capital through the EPA’s regulation of the treatment of the environment, OSHA’s regulation of workplace safety, the SEC’s regulation of finance. All three of the types of things that those agencies regulate are exploitative, but we will not win a revolution if the Earth, workers, and civil society are all dead.
Liberalism is the idea that these reforms are the ends, even sometimes claiming that there are more radical but usually unspoken goals that we don’t need to mention in public. Liberalism, then, is conservative because in the end it seeks to conserve the state and capital’s hegemony. Sometimes, liberal sheep wear a radical wolf’s clothing to claim this is some evolutionary revolution. Liberalism also shies away from talking about the need for radical change, thus turning reforms into tools of the hegemonic power to maintain the consent of the masses. But left-wing radicalism (again, which is generally socialist) has no intention to stop there, either in word or in thought or in deed. Indeed, the best way for a radical to make sure their radicalism is more than skin deep is to have at least some theory of society, and some essence of that theory at work in their practice.
The record of socialist revolutionaries taking over the machinery of the state can best be described as two forms of failures: either they failed to maintain the monopoly of violence and were defeated (e.g. the 1973 coup in Chile or 1871 counterrevolution in Paris); or they failed to create the domination of society by the oppressed, instead creating a new oppressive class and system of exploitation (e.g. China or the Soviet Union). In each case, their failures were not necessarily predetermined, but were based largely on mistakes made in the act of experimentation in attempting something that had never successfully been done previously. Their failures are not to be dismissed, but to be learned from.
Many strongly interpret the process in Venezuela over the past 14 years (and increasingly in other Latin American countries) as another such experiment. The state in Venezuela is still very much one that secures bourgeois dominance of society. The Hugo Chavez-then-Nicolas Maduro government is one that is trying to transition out of that state, however awkwardly, into a socialist one built for, by, and of oppressed sectors of the society. For this reason, many communists and anarchists that fundamentally oppose the state are able to support and work for the government, and its participation with society in creating institutions that bring about popular power and social programs.
For this reason, we fight not only for Venezuela, but for its government and its Bolivarian-socialist process, in hopes that they are indeed in battle with the state’s preservation of capital.
I hope that this brief contribution has been in some way helpful to you, and that you consider it a tiny bridge in a longer path to understanding how to fight for a better world in the ashes of the old.