We should look to Marx on the class character of the government, and the infamous Miliband-Poulantzas Debate for insight.
Since AOC has been elected, there’s been a lot of morphing perspectives about her on the Left. A lot of leftists have criticized her voting record, and her reticence to condemn some things that she probably should condemn. If you came to this post under the political presumption that AOC is as far left as one can get, this post might confuse you. But it is undeniable that AOC has voted for some things that run counter to what leftists expected.
As for people condemning AOC, I understand and agree with the criticism. I also totally understand why a leftist would support AOC (as I do), because, even though she doesn’t embody some type of worker’s revolution, she has brought left-of-Democrats politics to a mainstream audience, and that alone is good.
I notice most criticisms of AOC comes from the “revolutionary Left” (not sure what else to call it), for not falling in line ideologically. This confuses me though, because I would have thought criticizing her in this way makes more sense coming from democratic socialists. Criticizing specific votes of specific members of congress is more in line ideologically with reformist, parliamentarian leftism. You would think that the more people see electoral politics as the primary way to achieve socialism, the more they would care about how representatives vote.
In this post, I will argue that criticizing and admonishing AOC is not an approach Marxists should take. I will justify that argument by looking into the Miliband-Poulantzas debate, a debate about the class character of state governments.
The answer to how the Marxist Left should relate to AOC relates to the government’s class character. A basic, simple tenet of Marxism is that every government has class character. The feudal societies that predated capitalism had a government with feudal class character. They existed to prop up the feudal economic system, and, in fact, can only exist intertwined with the economic system. When the capitalist revolutions of the late 1700s and 1800s happened, they weren’t keeping the same government, but “slotting in” a new economic system. They overthrew the feudal government, because that’s inextricably tied to the economic system. The same is true for capitalist governments.
If we look at this idea on face value, we can conceptualize two different camps. One is the generally Leninist camp, which entails usurping the capitalist state and replacing it with a transitional socialist worker’s state. The other camp is the generally Kautskyite camp, which entails infiltrating the capitalist state apparatus and incrementally taking over those institutions.
The strange thing, however, is I would expect the second camp to be more opposed to AOC than the first camp. If you genuinely A) want socialism and B) want to use congressional processes to achieve that, shouldn’t you be devastated that your greatest hope partakes in compromise-based politics?
I don’t think AOC’s values and positions have changed, but the capitalist-political machine requires this type of compromise. The state is designed to reiterate and reproduce itself, which naturally flattens any singular, radical, disruptive presence within its apparatus.
If AOC was able to quickly assimilate into the quote-unquote Realpolitik of the congressional process, then doesn’t that call into question the presupposition that the class character of a congress can change?
Ultimately, I think the question of whether to support AOC, and who should do it, is tied specifically to the Miliband-Poulantzas Debate. This was a debate between British Marxist Ralph Miliband and Greek Marxist Nicos Poulantzas about how the class character of a government can change.
I have read big chunks of their debate, but I would recommend this blog post instead of the source material. The reason is, I tried to mine their debate for passages, but the way both of them write doesn’t lend itself to excerpt. They both, frankly, exemplify the stereotype of Marxists writing in an inscrutable way. Mark Murphy, who wrote that post for Social Theory Applied does a good job of giving a cursory understanding of their debate.
To illustrate the basic idea, Miliband claims that the reason capitalist governments have capitalist class characters is because members of the government are always, or usually, members of an elite class, or because they have close ties with the capitalist elite. The individual people who make up our government are capitalists or capitalist-sympathetic, so our government is capitalist. Poulantzas claims that a capitalist state government is objectively a part of the broader capitalist apparatus. Independent of the specific members of government, the state government is designed to continue replicating the capitalist structure.
Murphy, the author of the above-linked blog post quotes Poulantzas:
If the function of the state in a determinate social formation and the interests of the dominant class coincide, it is by reason of the system itself: the direct participation of members of the ruling class in the state apparatus is not the cause but the effect.
In other words, Poulantzas claims the state, which works with the capitalist political economy, is a capitalist apparatus by design. This means that when our government consists of members of the capitalist class, it’s because the system is designed to favor the capitalist class. But, the system isn’t capitalist because it’s comprised of capitalists.
Think about Poulantzas’s perspective like this: capitalism is a giant machine of pipes, with levers, pulleys and valves. Money flows through those pipes. The capitalist state government’s duty is to be the central engineers and mechanics, pulling the levers and tightening the valves to manipulate where money flows, and how much.
If a bunch of social democrats and democratic socialists were elected to the U.S. government, this would, realistically, not result in a socialist political economy. But it certainly would manipulate the levers and valves to flow more money towards the working class. This is actually a problem to Poulantzas, because he considers this long-term maintenance of capitalism, rather than undermining capitalism, because socialist-leaning tweaks to capitalism reduces the contradictions inherent within Capital.
Overall, I think the truth lies somewhere between Miliband and Poulantzas. However, I also think Americans are much more ideologically aligned with Miliband, and so I, personally, advocate for Poulantzas much harder. I think it would be helpful for Americans to better understand how capitalism and capitalist apparatuses are structures. The fact that American socialists evoke the Nordic countries so much, and yet the Nordic countries have been liberalizing their economy validates Poulantzas’s claim that electing socialists is doing long-term maintenance on the capitalist machine.
But then the real question is: how does this is relate to AOC, and how should it impact how leftists feel about her? For one, I think if you agree with Poulantzas, even a little bit, AOC seems less directly implicated in the imagined socialist revolution. Even if you don’t agree with Poulantzas at all, it’s still probably useful for people to take a step back and look at how AOC actually relates to our political economy.
And none of this is to dismiss AOC either. This post is about why she should be supported. But rather, I think it’s easier, more realistic, and more practical to support AOC on what she actually represents to American discourse, rather than investing revolutionary potential into her and similar politicians. The simple truth is, in my opinion at least, if a socialist revolution were to happen in the U.S., it would require a lot more organizing, infrastructure, and power than we have now. And while revolutions are hard to predict – for example, many Bolsheviks were pessimistic about a socialist revolution happening, after the 1905 Revolution failed – I do feel confident the U.S. is not near this happening.
What AOC represents to the general American public is the “specter” of socialism embodied. This is also true for Bernie Sanders. Many times, what is said about AOC is meant to be said about socialism, but in the form of a human.
The goal of socialists should be supporting AOC and Bernie Sanders, whether they think they’re actually socialist or not. Personally, I don’t think either of them are, because even though they call themselves Democratic Socialists, they’re more accurately social democrats, ie they don’t want to abolish capitalism. But even though I think that, that doesn’t stop my support of either. As symbols in American discourse, they still represent socialism to most people.
So, what should not be done is turning on AOC when she inevitably votes against the socialist line. Instead, we should stand behind people who symbolize socialism to the general public, and do our best to expand those symbols, and push more socialist policies to the forefront, and through people like AOC, make the socialist platform bigger.
It’s always worth remembering that in his time, Marx saw himself as synthesizing the fragmented sects of socialist thought that came before him. He knew that socialism couldn’t be achieved with splintered factions arguing over the “best” way, it had to be achieved by a mass workers movement. Standing behind, and offering, at least, critical support, to AOC is part of building that mass movement.