Monday, 7 September 2009

Marx and the State

I wrote this in the Autumn of 1990. I remember it being envisaged as a companion piece to my previous effort on Lenin's politics. Looking at it now, two points come to my mind.

First, I'm not sure how a programme that envisaged large-scale state control of the economy would go down these days with the working class(es), particularly with the Twentieth Century experience of professedly Marxist regimes pushing through large-scale programmes of state ownership. Where Marx's vision is superior to later attempts in the name of Marx to nationalise the economy is the fact that Marx wanted democratic bottom-up working class control of the economy, as opposed to it being run from high by The Party. I will always prefer Marx's belief that the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class alone to Trotsky's belief that 'no one can be right against the party' (Geoff Hodgson, The Democratic Economy, p.164).

Second, the model of the 1871 Paris Commune which Marx supports as an example of how post-revolutionary society could be run. It seems in revolutionary situations (ie Russia 1905 and 1917, Germany 1918, Spain 1936-7, Hungary 1956, France 1968, Portugal 1974, Poland 1980-1) power often flows goes to workers' councils. However, these are revolutionary situations. What happens when 'normality' returns? If the revolutionary bodies save the revolution, what then? Can workers councils', however representative of society as a whole and aware of their wider place in society, totally replace other representative institutions? Do the workers councils' come to run the enterprises they represent or do they subordinate themselves to the wider goals of society as a whole? If Big Business and Big Government are dissolved in the revolution what sort of economic enterprises and civic bodies emerge from their ashes? Marx never had to really answer these questions, but after the experiences of the last century of so, those who consider themselves to be his political heirs need to have some answers.

However, without further ado (apols for all the footnotes!):

‘Marx’s objections to the state rest upon the entirely groundless conviction that a “stateless society” is possible.’ Discuss.

Marx, as Ralph Miliband points out, never put forward a systematic theory of the state [1]. When he did write about in any detail, it was basically to either understand the role of states in crisis situations, such as France between 1848 and 1851, or to criticise other thinkers on the subject, such as Bakunin, Bauer, Hegel and the drafters of the Gotha programme. It is also important when talking about Marx’s view on the state that one distinguishes his views from those thinkers often lumped together with him. For instance, it is Engels, not Marx, who speaks of the state eventually ‘withering away’ [2] and Lenin’s State and Revolution is arguably a selective interpretation of Marx’s views. [3]

It is a common interpretation of Marx that he objects to the state primarily because it ‘is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’, [4] which ‘is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another’ [5] and is used ‘mercilessly and ostentatiously as the national war-engine of capital against labour.’ [6] I would argue, however, that Marx’s real objection to the modern state is one that runs through his writings, namely its alienating, particularistic nature. This alienation can only be overcome if the state is made universalistic in its interests via universal suffrage. For a long period after the overthrow of capitalism, according to Marx, functions corresponding to that of the capitalist state, albeit in a different context, will be necessary. I will conclude by making some remarks on Marx’s views.

For Marx, what makes politics and the state so alienating and distant for the ordinary person in bourgeois society is the complete appropriation of political functions by the state at the expense of civil society. The feudal system, even though it ‘excluded the individual from the state…as a whole’, had a civil society with ‘a directly political character’, and ‘the vital functions and conditions of life in civil society was still political…’ [7] The overthrow of feudalism by the bourgeoisie ‘turned state affairs into affairs of the people’ and ‘unfettered the political spirit that had…drained away into the various cul-de-sacs of feudal society.’ [8] Through the bourgeois state politics became ideally independent ‘from the other particular elements of civil society’- ‘the emancipation of civil society from politics.’ [9] In bourgeois society, says Marx, man has a dualistic nature; ‘on the one hand…a member of civil society, an egoistic and independent individual, on the other…a citizen, a moral person.' [10]

Under capitalism, says Paul Thomas, ‘Citizenship and private life became exclusive spheres of activity for the first time…vocation and political status were no longer linked organically…while he formally belonged to the state (as its citizen), actively participated only in civil society.’ [11] This lack of activity in the affairs of the state shows, believes Marx, that man is being alienated from his species-being in such a political system, for in fact ‘the affairs of the state…are nothing but the modes of existence and activity of the social qualities of men.’ [12] Under capitalism man’s ability to be a citizen in the interests of his fellow men in distorted, in Marx’s eyes, by the selfish particularism of his private interests, which makes him see the rest of society as unimportant to him. The result for Marx is that ‘real man is the private man of the present constitution of the state.’ [13]

The state in bourgeois society, says Marx, claims to be above the narrow particularistic interests of men in civil society, Indeed, Hegel describes the bureaucracy that accompanies the state as the ‘universal class’, which benevolently has the interests of society in general at heart- ‘the paradigm of mediation between the particular and universal’, as Avineri comments. [14] The problem, says Marx, is that the state cannot be ‘universal’ in a capitalist society. There are several reasons for this.

Firstly, the existence of the state by definition is evidence that there is a difference between the ideal postulate of universality and the actual existence of particularism within society. This is due to the state existing in only one part of actual life, while other spheres of life lie open to penetration by civil society. [15] If the state attempts to appear more aloof and independent from society, says Marx, the state is further removed from its professed raison d’etre, universalism. [16]

Secondly, the state is presented as being ‘universal’ just at the stage of the development of capitalism when it becomes more and more under the particularistic influence of the bourgeoisie. [17] Following the collapse of feudalism, civil society is freed from politics, and so capitalist property relations are able to penetrate the supposedly independent political realm of the state, [18] and the latter ‘can do, and may do, only what the prevailing mode of production…permits.’ [19]

Thirdly, the existence of bureaucracy says Marx is the institutionalised form of political alienation, and behind the facade of universalism it supports sectional interests. [20] Under capitalism ‘bureaucracy identifies the interests of the state with particular private goals in such a way as to make the interests of the state into a particular private goal opposed to other private goals.’ [21]

In fact, the state and the capitalists are similar alienating forces for Marx, says Thomas: ‘Before the capitalist…the…worker is powerless, and lacks substance; before the alien state and…bureaucracy, society itself is powerless.’ [22] Society ‘abdicates all will of its own and submits to the order of an alien will,’ [23] even when it thinks it controls the state via elections. This is because ‘the participation of civil society in the…state’ is 'through deputies’- an 'expression of the…separation and merely dualistic unity’ of the universalistic, citizen and particularistic bourgeois. [24]

Marx says in The Civil War in France that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.’ [25] At the same time, though, Marx scathingly criticises the Anarchists, especially Bakunin, for believing that the destruction of the capitalist state is the main priority of revolutionaries. [26] There seems to be a contradiction between these two views, but this contradiction can be resolved by taking into account Marx’s statement in the Critique of the Gotha Programme that ‘Freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinated to it…’ [27] The function of the state in capitalist society must, believes Marx, become the functions of all society, which would be achieved by overcoming the alienation of the state from civil society, and civil society from politics.

In On Bakunin’s ‘Statism and Anarchy’ Marx says that ‘when class rule has disappeared, there will no longer be any state in the present sense of the word…’ [28] Phrases like this are often taken to mean that Marx believes in a ‘stateless society’ without qualification. In fact, Marx believes something not dissimilar to the state, to say the least, would be necessary in the post-revolutionary period. For instance, in The Communist Manifesto, Marx says that the communications, financial and transport systems, along with ‘all instruments of production’, should be put ‘in the hands of the State’. [29] Avineri says that works such as The German Ideology, The Eighteenth Brumaire and Das Kapital suggests that ‘even in its higher stage socialist society will require direction and planning at least in economic production.’ [30] Would this not require a state? Jon Elster refers to the ‘crude communism’ of the 1844 Manuscripts, which is the first stage of the transition to communism in Critique of the Gotha Programme, as ‘a form of state capitalism’. [31] Indeed, it is hard to see a state not being in existence to regulate a society where everyone works for society on an equal basis.

Marx, however, defines the state differently for the capitalist and post-capitalist periods. Under capitalism, the state is ‘the government machine’ which ‘forms a special organism separated from society'; [32] while after the revolution, it is ‘the proletariat organised as the ruling class’ [33] or alternatively, ‘nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat’. [34] For Marx, the state will be different after the revolution because it will be used by what he sees as the true ‘universal class’, namely the proletariat. Since the functions of the present state will be run by the proletariat directly- and not through the alienated, and alienating, forms of a bureaucracy ‘usurping pre-eminence over society itself’- the interests of the ‘universal class’ will be genuinely synonymous with the universal interests of society. [35]

For Marx, it is essential that if the state is to disappear in the form it takes in capitalist society, after the revolution, democracy and elections are essential. In his Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’ Marx says that ‘In democracy the formal principle is at the same time the material principle…it is…the true unity of universal and particular.’ [36] Democracy is important as well for not only bringing together man’s dualistic nature in society, but for dissolving the society that brings about such a dualism in man. He believes that ‘Within the abstract political state, the reform of voting advances the dissolution of this political state, but also the dissolution of civil society’ [37] and ‘in true democracy the political state disappears.’ [38] As Thomas notes, this belief in democracy as being the antidote to the state is a recurring theme in Marx’s works. [39]

The Paris Commune of 1871 is for Marx by far the best example, if not the only example, of how it is possible to have ‘the reabsorption of the state power by society as its own living forces instead of as forces controlling and subduing it, by the popular masses themselves…’ [40] The Commune had in this context, says Marx, several positive features. Universal suffrage was used to choose the members of the Commune, who were also made accountable by being ‘revocable at short terms’, [41] and being paid workmen’s wages. All other functions, including the judiciary, were likewise made to be ‘elective, responsible, and revocable.’ [42] The coercive arms of the state, the standing army and the police, were replaced by a National Guard, ‘the bulk of which consisted of working men’ [43] in effect an ‘armed people’ [44] with ‘an extremely short term of service’ to prevent an anti-democratic coercive force appearing in the Commune. [45] The Commune also attempted to break down ‘the spiritual force of repression’ by relieving the churches of their property, and opening ‘The whole of the educational institutions…to the people gratuitously.’ [46]

The Commune, says Marx, was also ‘a working, not a parliamentary, body, executive, and legislative at the same time.’ [47] This breaking down of the division of labour, so common in the Commune, is for Marx its most positive feature. The Commune showed that it was possible to contemplate ‘the destruction of the State power which claimed to be the embodiment of that unity independent of, and superior to the nation…from which it was but a parasitic excrescence…the repressive organs…were to be amputated, its legitimate functions to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society.’ [48] The Commune, with its breakdown of the division of labour, democratic accountability and genuinely universalistic goals showed for Marx that the state could be ‘transcended’. [49] There would not be a ‘stateless society’, but a society that consciously controls the present functions of the state.

It has been fashionable ad nauseum to criticise Marx’s vision by citing the ‘Actual Existing Socialist’ societies of the Twentieth Century. It has also been said more than once that Marx does not understand bureaucracy. This is nonsense, considering that Hegel’s view on bureaucracy was one of the reasons that Marx broke intellectually with the former, except on one count. Marx says more than once about France that the state bureaucracy ‘originates from its days of absolute monarchy’[50] and ‘the decay of the feudal system.’ [51] He also though that the existence of bureaucracy in Germany was the result if its backwardness. [52] Marx does not seem to regard bureaucracy as a modern institution, let alone the wave of the Twentieth Century future. Marx’s views on bureaucracy can partly be blamed for the often disastrous inability of socialists since Lenin to understand bureaucracy.

Avineri suggests another flaw with Marx’s vision of post-revolutionary society. ‘Marx’s vision of revolution is based on universal criteria’, he says, ‘yet its realisation ultimately depends on historical circumstances that by nature vary from one place to another’, and this ‘may…frustrate attempts to achieve his universalistic postulates.’ [53] If Avineri is correct, and the success of Marx’s vision of a future society depends on a virtually simultaneous worldwide socialist revolution, I fear that his seemingly plausible post-revolutionary societal order will remain a vision.


1. R. Miliband ‘Marx and the State’ in T. Bottomore Karl Marx, p.128
2. S. Avineri The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx, p.202
3. C. Hitchens Karl Marx: The Paris Commune 1871, p.19
4. K. Marx ‘The Communist Manifesto’ in D. McLennan, ed., Karl Marx: Selected Writings, p.223
5. Ibid, p.238
6. K. Marx ‘The Civil War in France’, in ibid, p.540
7. K. Marx ‘On the Jewish Question’ in ibid, p.55
8. Ibid, p.55
9. Ibid, p.56
10. Ibid, p.57
11. P. Thomas Karl Marx and the Anarchists, p.67
12. Quoted by Miliband in Bottomore, op cit, p.130
13. Ibid, p.131
14. Avineri, op cit, p.23
15. Ibid, p.203
16. Ibid, p.203
17. Thomas, op cit, p.69
18. Ibid, p.68
19. Ibid, p.78
20. Avineri, op cit, p.48
21. Ibid, p.24
22. Thomas, op cit, p.100
23. Ibid, p.100
24. K. Marx ‘Critique of Hegel’s “Philosophy of Right”’ in McLellan, op cit, p.33
25. Marx ‘Civil War in France’ in ibid, p.539
26. Avineri, op cit, p.239
27. K. Marx ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme, in McLennan, op cit, p.564
28. K. Marx ‘On Bakunin’s “Statism and Anarchy”’, ibid, p.563
29. Marx ‘Communist Manifesto’, ibid, p.237
30. Avineri, op cit, p.202
31. J. Elster Making Sense of Marx, p.449
32. Marx ‘Critique of Gotha Programme’ in McLennan, op cit, p.566
33. Marx ‘Communist Manifesto’, ibid, p.237
34. Marx ‘Critique of Gotha Programme’, ibid, p.565
35. Marx ‘Civil War in France, ibid, p.555.
36. Marx ‘Critique of Hegel’s “Philosophy of Right”, ibid, p.28
37. Ibid, p.35.
38. Quoted in Thomas, op cit, p.59
39. Ibid, p.75
40. Marx, ‘Civil War in France’ in McLennan, op cit, p.555.
41. Ibid, p.541-2.
42. Ibid, p.542
43. Ibid, p.541
44. Ibid, p.541
45. Ibid, p.542
46. Ibid, p.542
47. Ibid, p.542
48. Ibid, p.543
49. Avineri, op cit, p.203
50. Marx ‘Civil War in France’, in McLennan, op cit, p.539
51. K. Marx ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ ibid, p.316
52. Avineri, op cit, p.49
53. Ibid, p.20


S. Avineri, (1968) The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx
T. Bottomore, ed, (1979) Karl Marx
J. Elster (1985) Making Sense of Marx
C. Hitchens, ed, (1971) Karl Marx: The Paris Commune 1871
D. McLennan, ed, (1988) Karl Marx: Selected Writings
P. Thomas (1980) Karl Marx and the Anarchists
B. Wolfe (1967) Marxism: One Hundred Years in the Life of a Doctrine

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