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Excerpts from Hilferding’s Unfinished Project “The Problem of History”

31 March 2016

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posted by Jairus Banaji on Facebook, March 31, 2016

Rudolf Hilferding died in the Gestapo dungeon of La Santé in Paris in the second week of February 1941, two days after he was handed over to the Nazis by the Vichy Government. He spent the last months of his life in Arles, working on what he called a ‘critique of Marxism’ whose first and only draft survives as “Das historische Problem” (1940). The following extracts show that among other things Hilferding wanted Marxists to move towards a less passive, more dynamic conception of the state and its role in history. This is not a theory of the ‘relative’ autonomy of the state, but of the state as an independent power (eine Macht für sich) and actor in history. Hilferding saw the ‘interests of the state’ (das Staatsinteresse) as distinct from any specific set of class interests and noted that this ‘autonomization of the state interest’ occurs with peculiar intensity in crises involving foreign relations. Given the way the power of the capitalist state has grown in all societies worldwide in the last few decades especially, aided by the new technologies of communications and control, it’s worth taking this view with the same seriousness as one reads the brilliant Finance Capital.

Society’s political superstructure is a power of its own, with its own organs, tendencies and interests. The evolution of the state’s power (Staatsmacht) proceeds simultaneously with the evolution of modern economy. It is all too easy to overlook the constant growth of that power beyond the limits imposed on it either by the economy or by the legal rights of the individual. ..The power of the state was already objectively stronger in the heyday of Liberalism than it ever was in the age of Absolutism. In relation to the economy and the rights of individuals this was still a latent power, but its potential was constantly on the rise. (p. 296)

The state evolves into a power organization of its own, with its own organs. As a power organization, the state acquires a certain autonomy (Selbständigkeit) vis-à-vis society and its various components and has its own interests, viz. the preservation and expansion of its power both domestically and abroad, and encouraging all those tendencies in the non-state sphere that dovetail with its own interests while restricting the others….It is quite wrong to overlook the independent significance of the power of the state and treat it simply as a pure executive organ of some specific social group. We shouldn’t simply equate the interests of state-power with the interests of this or that social group, at least not in all societies or in ways that make the two overlap completely. The state’s power is to one degree or another, and with fluctuating intensity, an independent factor in historical events (p. 304)

The autonomization of the state’s power, its striving to realise its own specific interests in society, comes about most obviously when what is at stake is the preservation or strengthening of its own existence. The struggle against feudalism and the emergence of the absolute monarchies and, through them, of the modern state was a struggle of the state-power (Staatsmacht) against the ruling class. This struggle was supported by the bourgeoisie or, more correctly, by sections of it, when the latter was still a dominated class. Of course, a certain degree of economic development…is presupposed before the goal of centralizing the state’s power can be accomplished. The wealth of the bourgeoisie has to be able to yield the resources for the creation and maintenance of standing armies, of a modern bureaucracy, and of modern means of transport. Only with the development of this economic foundation was the creation of the modern state at all possible historically. But the latter was created through the power of states themselves and thanks to the interests peculiar to that power…The beginning and bearer of this political evolution, which was so decisive to the emergence of modern capitalism, was the autonomous potency of the state’s power which found its field of action magnified by economic development. The creation of the modern state, hence of the political and legal conditions indispensable for capitalist development was thus made possible by the way relations of production were themselves transformed. But the process itself was not the work either of the bourgeoisie or of its class struggle. It would be pure economic mysticism to suppose that the bourgeosie alone created the modern state or that it later made it into “its” state in the course of its struggles. (p. 316) Rudolf Hilferding, "Das historische Problem," Zeitschrift fur Politik 1, no. 4 (1954): 293-324 (Organ der Hochschule für Politik München. - Baden-Baden : Nomos, ISSN 0044-3360, ZDB-ID 2000945)