To what extent can the state be used to advance leftist aims? This is one of the questions posed by the Greek crisis. But two things I've seen recently suggest the left in the UK should also be asking this.
First, Fraser Nelson points out that kids who attend schools in the poorest areas are significantly less likely to get five good GCSEs than those in better-off areas. In this sense, state schooling is inegalitarian. As Heather Rolfe says, poor white kids get a poor deal from education.
Secondly, the ONS says that in 2013-14 the poorest fifth of households paid a higher proportion of their income in tax than the richest fifth: 37.8% against 34.8%. The tax system is not progressive.
Of course, the state is a force for equality in other ways - there is still a welfare state. But these facts remind us that government is not that egalitarian and can actually be a force for increased inequality.
This will, of course, be no surprise to Marxists."The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie" wrote Marx and Engels: "The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes." There has always been a strong strand of libertarianism within Marxism.
A big reason for this is that the rich often have the power to ensure that the state operates in their own interests. The revolving door between Whitehall and big business ensures that policy favours the latter. The fact that the government wants to create jobs and a tax base makes in want to protect business confidence. And globalization and/or neoliberal ideology lead to a reluctance to tax the rich heavily.
In the face of pressures such as these, I fear that the statist left is often guilty of wishful thinking - of what I've called Bonnie Tyler syndrome, of holding out for a hero who can wield the state for egalitarian purposes.
Rather than merely hope that the state can be grasped by good people, the left needs to think differently. What we also need are horizontalism or what Erik Olin Wright has called (pdf) interstitial transformations - self-help groups independent of the state which can grow to supplant capitalism or at least act as a counterweight to capitalistic pressures.
Sadly, though, I'm not sure that much of the British left is thinking along these lines. Perhaps, though, real progress towards socialism will occur only when the left begins to question its love of the state.