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Marxism and the problem of the state

Marxist theories inherit from their namesake a range of criticisms of the state. In general, we can understand the project of Marxism as advocating at first the transformation of the state, and eventually the dissolution of the state altogether. In capitalist societies, the state is seen as the political manifestation of the demands of capital, defending its interests against the working class. So for Marxists, the state is something that first must be transformed and eventually overcome. This poses two problems: first, how can the state be transformed such that it will serve the working class, and then eventually disappear? And second, how can Marxists account for a society without state power?

First I wish to elaborate why the state is seen as a problem for Marxists. In a capitalist society, the state is seen as inherently bourgeois. The state is bourgeois in principle insofar as it embodies and enforces bourgeois laws, in particular those that protect private property. In so doing it secures inequality of production under the law of abstract equality (Bonefeld, 2002: 129). Marx made a critical distinction between political emancipation, involving universal suffrage (as we understand it in Britain, i.e. a vote in representative democracy for all), and real emancipation, which goes beyond mere political representation to include an account of alienation, exploitation and commodification. The distinctive achievement of the capitalist state, according to Marxism, is its mystification of equality, creating an 'illusory community of equals' (Bonefeld, 2002: 130).

The state can be seen as bourgeois in practice as well. The centre of state power, according to Mandel (2004), is not the elected representatives but the civil servants, the police, the judicial system and all other servants of the state who are permanent. This permanency of centralised power serves the interests of the political class - the bourgeoisie - rather than the working class that is supposedly being represented. We can see this in Britain and the USA, where the vast majority of elected politicians are lawyers or other professionals. Even taxation, seen as an instrument of social justice by means of economic redistribution, becomes a form of political repression. Taxation is representation for taxpayers, and given that the bourgeois will pay more in taxes than the working class, and the latter are forced to pay taxes even when they are being exploited and perhaps even immiserated by the bourgeoisie, taxation becomes representation for the bourgeoisie (Mandel, 2004).

An important feature of the Marxist account of the state is that it 'is the product of irreconcilable class conflict within the social structure, which it seeks to regulate on behalf of the ruling class' (Mandel, 2004). Rather than the state determining the social structure and the nature of the class conflict by supporting and protecting their origins, it is the material conditions of production that give rise to the nature of the state. 'The principal factor in determining the character of the state is not its prevailing form of rule, which can vary greatly from time to time, but the type of property and productive relations that its institutions and prime beneficiaries protect and promote' (Mandel, 2004). This is important because it means that the modern capitalist state can be seen as impermanent and fallible, such that if the property relations - and the material conditions of production to which they give rise - can change, then so can the nature of the state. If, on the other hand, we assume that the state is theoretically independent from the prevailing property relations to any extent, then Marxists must (also) focus their attention on state mechanisms as a goal as much as the property relations themselves.

Given this brief account of the problem of the state, I shall look at  how convincing accounts of Marx's solution, or alternative, are. As I wrote in the introduction, his project is one ultimately of the abolition of the state. But this would not happen immediately. He saw a transition to social democratic state that will manage the means of production not for the taxpayers but according to socialist principles. In time, this state would inevitably dissolve, leading to a 'withering away of the state' to leave citizens engaged in direct democracy, and then in stateless communism.

How can we move to a stateless society? We must first overcome the 'illusory community of equals' (Bonefeld, 2002: 130), created by an abstract, formal equality in law and democratic elections, to establish a socialist state concerned with material equality. To achieve this, the working class would have to overcome the division between the members of civil society and their political representatives. Marx saw a model for this transition in the Paris Commune of 1871, which was governed by councillors elected by universal suffrage who were subject to recall at short notice. The ideal socialist state, similar to the experiences of 1871, would need to consolidate executive and legislative powers to bridge the perceived and real gap between the impermanent and permanent branches of power; it would need every official, from politician to civil servant, from police officer to education supervisors, to be elected; and the elected officials must have salaries no higher than a skilled worker. With this set-up, the state would inevitably wither away because those in positions of power would no longer be privileged in relation to the rest of society (Mandel, 2004, Pierson, 1986: 23). I shall address this conclusion shortly.

It was in his study of the Paris Commune that Marx came up with his problematic term, 'the dictatorship of the proletariat'. Interpretations of this phrase are as varied as any term in the Marxist canon, but one of the most influential interpretations came from Lenin, who was concerned with the mechanisms of a working class revolution. The Paris Commune failed because it couldn't overcome the bloody hand of state power. Marxists have since recognised that the proletariat doesn't wield any real political power, whilst all previous changes in the political power structure have been preceded by changes in economic, intellectual and moral 'power' (Mandel, 2004). To transform the state, many Marxists argue, the working class must seize control of the state. Lenin took this to mean that the working class must take over the state and use it to advance the cause of socialism, in a dictatorship of the proletariat (over the bourgeoisie).

The object of revolutionary socialism, according to Lenin, was therefore to seize control of bourgeois state power. His strategy was plain: 'by educating a workers' party, Marxism educates an advance-guard of the proletariat, capable of assuming power and of leading the whole community to Socialism' (Lenin, 1960: 170). This capability would inevitably entail a violent element, as witnessed in the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917. Only by developing an advance guard of the Marxist bloc could Lenin foresee socialists overcoming the permanency of the centre of state power.

Of course this leads to a question of legitimacy. Though it may be an incorrect interpretation of the less radical, or less violent, Marxists who were more interested in the experiences of the Paris Commune, it seems fair to ask whether such an advance guard could be credited with working - and fighting - in the interests of the working class. A central part of the Marxist critique of the bourgeois state seems to be that it is self-serving, given no connexion - in terms of its material conditions - to the working class that it claims to represent. The importance of universal suffrage and elections for all public officials, and of the economic status of public officials, are disregarded in Lenin's account, which is informed by a somewhat patronising but possibly realistic assessment of the fact that the working class will not, by itself, rise up in situ against the oppressive bourgeois state. Only the merging of civil and political power can be preserved in his account, if we assume that Marx's 'dictatorship of the proletariat' could be taken to legitimise a limited cadre of Marxists wielding total state power.

Lenin believed that once state power had been seized, the cadre could decentralise power into a system of Soviets, which would be drawn up along radically democratic lines. Taking cue in part from Marx's conception of alienation as regarding, in part, the lack of social management of work, the Soviets could begin to transform the type and relations of property to favour the working class. For some Marxists, this transformation should also involve the (relative) punishment of the bourgeoisie, though whether Marx intended for them to be brought down or even to below the material conditions of the working class is unsure.

Lenin's Soviets would begin to manage the nation according to his interpretation of the principles of socialism. This would have two main features: first, the class divide would transform into one single class, the working class. This is contentious, because some Marxists argue that by classless society Marx intended for there to be no homogenising class identity, for emancipation to entail a personal freedom of identity, allowing a society of heterogeneous identities to develop within the context of homogeneous material conditions. For Lenin, a classless society would be a wholly working class society, organised to produce according to socially managed goals. Such a society, Lenin suggested, would develop habits that would gradually made political representation unnecessary, as the radically democratic nature of the Soviets would lead citizens to come to agree with the representatives' style of management. Only in this environment, Lenin suggested, could the state wither away, ushering in a period of stateless communism.

It is this feature of communism - the non-totalitarian state managed communism that we recognise in the early years of the Russian experience - that most disgusts many Western observers. Lenin's habit-forming regime would amount to little more than a 'capitalist factory discipline' imposed on the whole of society (Bonefeld, 2002: 131), leading not to emancipation but to a kind of self-imposed class slavery. Lenin's system thus constitutes a generalisation of the misfortunes felt by the working class under capitalism to the whole of society under communism (Bonefeld, 2002: 129). State nationalisation merely changes the political class such that only one exists, and it is subsumed by the same means of production as under capitalism. Anti-Leninists have convincingly argued that one must change the worker's relation to the means of production to emancipate society, rather than trying to change the state as a vehicle for a change in property and productive relations.

As happened in Russia, it is unlikely that those wielding power would truly represent the interests of the working class, whether because they begin to govern in their own interests whilst deceiving the working class into thinking otherwise, or because they promote an ideologically driven, and mistaken, conception of (broadly speaking) material and (narrowly speaking) political progress. It seems doubtful that either Lenin's (1960) or Mandel's (2004) accounts of the ruling bodies' allegiance to the working class would last long. Or at least there is little in the way of precedent to give Marxists hope on this point.

But even if we  assume that the state will disappear as a result of revolutionary changes in property and productive relations, we must still account for certain features, or functions, of the state that seem necessary. To begin with, a revolution could not remove a state overnight, since there would still be a partial scarcity of goods, poverty and massive material inequality. Only a state can regulate social conflicts, making Marx's transitionary state absolutely necessary  (Mandel, 2004).

The socialist state is also necessary to 'exercise state power against all those who might wrest power from it' (Mandel, 2004). We can see this, for example, in Chavez's revolutionary government in Venezuela and in Castro's socialist Cuban state, both of which has been subjected to attempted coups and intense financial pressure. In the case of Venezuela, was a counter-coup led by loyal armed forces, with the support of the proletariat, that kept Chavez in power. Without the full power of the state, both of these revolutions would have come to abrupt halts.

A feature of this is that the socialist state is necessary to protect a communist society from outside threats, particularly other capitalist states who find themselves threatened by the expansionist tendencies of Marxist politics, or by the economic consequences of the nationalisation of key industries (such as the oil industry in Venezuela, or the sugar beet industry in Cuba). This of course raises a further question of how the state can best defend itself, and how such a strategy would fit into Marx's internationalist theory. The main competing theories advocate permanent (expansionist) revolution (Trotsky), or the hand of a strong isolationist state (Stalin). While I won't analyse either of these theories, their existence serves to demonstrate the theoretical problems created by international relations; unless Marxism were to sweep over the entire population of the world, so that there were no antagonists, there would always remain the need for a Marxist state.

To get to the crux of the problem, then, Marxists need to account for the transitionary state, both to regulate social conflicts, reshape the material and political conditions of society to be more conducive to socialist principles, and to protect nascent communist states from their antagonists. But in any revolutionary account, the state either seems to lose many of the key principles and consequences of Marx's elusive emancipation, or it seems fragile and unequipped to meet the aforementioned challenges. And given that Marx's deterministic historical materialism has fallen short, insofar as nations like Germany and Britain haven't undergone revolutions, Marxists can find little comfort in Marx's confident tone when discussing the transition from capitalism through social democracy to communism.

Another move open to Marxists is a reformist compromise. Keane, for example, has advocated a gradual transition to a socialist state through the decentralisation of power to a plurality of public spheres, to make public life increasingly autonomous (Pierson, 1986: 147-148). The reformist approaches vary from the radical - such as Keane's - to the pragmatic, such as those found in mainstream left wing parties in Europe. They advocate a gradual reform of capitalist states, transforming them over time according to socialist principles. For some, the goal is simply to achieve some of the features of emancipation that Marx discussed, whilst the goal of stateless communism is dismissed or put aside as being utopian. Habermas and Offe, members of the Frankfurt School, have gone so far as to suggest that the rise of the welfare state has made it more important than relations of production in determining the material conditions of people's lives, and so Marxists should be concerned with reforming and extending the welfare state, rather than seeking a revolution in the relations of production.

Of course both approaches still ultimately concern relations of production, and should, if true to Marx, advocate the elimination of private property altogether. There arises a tension then in reformist Marxism between the pragmatic and the ideologically sound. For many Marxists, such reformism is ideologically unsound, conceding too much ground to the bourgeoisie in the name of political expediency.

Of course the state isn't the only problem that Marxism faces. The failure of historical materialism, as I have already eluded to, undermines Marxism's deterministic presentation of history and the social sciences. And related to this failure is the inaccuracy of Marx's empirical economic claims, such as absolute immiseration. Finally, the total failure of any state to make the transition to a Marxist state without lapsing into totalitarianism or economic ruin has left Marxists with the question of whether or not their canon is realistic or even based upon an accurate assessment of the social psychology of society. But each of these problems can be more easily circumvented. The determinism of historical materialism isn't a necessary component of a Marxist - or Marxian - theory, since one can retain the notion that the material conditions and relations of production and property determine the nature of political and economic systems; one can reject the mechanical interpretations and inherit the critical techniques that historical materialism provides. Likewise one can simply replace absolute immiseration with a theory of relative immiseration. These problems can be overcome without losing the essence of Marx's work: the emancipation of the working class.

The state, on the other hand, seems an intractable problem. One cannot, it would seem, preserve the project of emancipation as Marx conceived it without accounting for a permanent state that would resolve and regulate social conflicts and protect the nascent state from antagonists. Nor can one give any wholly convincing account of how such a state would wither away leaving society with stateless communism. Therefore the state is the most intractable problem for Marxism, with no convincing solutions forthcoming.


Bonefeld, W (2002). 'State, Revolution and Self-Determination, in <em>What is to the Done? Leninism, Anti-Leninist Marxism and the question of revolution today</em>, ed. Bonefeld and Tischler, London: Ashgate

Lenin (1960). 'The State and Revolution', in <em>The Essential Left: Four Classic Texts on the Principles of Socialism</em>, London: Unwin Books

Mandel, E (2004). <em>Marxist theory of the state</em>, Marxists Internet Archive, http://www.marxists.org/archive/mandel/1969/xx/state.htm

Pierson, C (1986). <em>Marxist Theory and Democratic Politics</em>, Oxford: Polity Press