A central concept in Marxism is the state, although Karl Marx himself did not set out a systematic theory of it. Marx’s basic view of the state is set out in the Communist Manifesto (1848) where he wrote, “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” For Marx, the state is an instrument for defending and promoting the interests of the ruling class, which in the case of capitalism is the bourgeoisie. The dominant economic class, the class that owns and controls the means of production, becomes the dominant political class by seizing control of the state.
   Marx’s view of the state gradually developed with his earliest discussion of it occurring in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843) in which Marx criticizes Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s conception of the state as representing the universal interest and promoting the common good. For Marx this misrepresented the nature of the state, which, according to him, always represented and promoted particular interests, at that time the interests of property. Marx at this point believed an extensive democratization of the state could transform it, but his views became more radical as his theory of historical materialism developed and he established a link between class society and the state. Marx developed the view that the state only exists in class society, and that in primitive, pre-class societies and in the future communist society there is no state because there are no classes locked in struggle and producing and needing a coercive body to maintain order. So in a free society, communism, the state would disappear or be abolished, in Friedrich Engels’ phrase, “wither away.” Marx talks of “governmental functions” disappearing and being replaced by merely “administrative functions,” though he does not make clear what these are. Before the complete disappearance of the state Marx says there will be a transitional state controlled by the proletariat, the dictatorship of the proletariat. Marx’s basic view of the state was modified in his examinations of specific societies, where circumstances are inevitably much more complicated. Marx, for example, notes the possibility of the state representing the interests of a section of the ruling class as happened in France when financiers within the capitalist class gained control. His analysis of France under the dictatorial rule of Napoleon III in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) pointed to the autonomy the state can develop. With no one class sufficiently dominant, no one class could seize control of the state, making it ripe for being taken over by a dictator. Under Louis Bonaparte’s rule the state was to a significant extent independent of classes, although Marx noted it did not have complete independence and remained linked to the peasantry. Furthermore, the Bonapartist state had a considerable bureaucratic and military organization, a state machinery with its own interest. A similar departure from the state as an instrument of class rule argument is suggested by Marx in his analysis of oriental despotism and the Asiatic mode of production. Here there is no private property or ownership of land, so the despot’s rule is independent and the despotic state is not the instrument of a class owning the means of production.
   Vladimir Ilich Lenin followed the basic viewpoint of Marx and offered his own definition of the state as “an organization of violence for the suppression of some class.” He was concerned to combat what he saw as reformist tendencies in the German Social Democratic Party which he believed was looking to achieve proletarian emancipation using the state. Against this he argued that the state is by its very nature a repressive organization and cannot be used by the workers or their representatives to create a socialist society. In The State and Revolution (1917), where he outlined this argument, Lenin concluded that the bourgeois state must be smashed. He also emphasized the importance of the dictatorship of the proletariat in a polemic against the anarchists. With the end goal of a stateless society shared by the anarchists it was important politically to stress where they differed. While Lenin stressed the coercive nature of the state, Antonio Gramsci highlighted the extent to which the state achieves its aims by consent using ideological means to create a hegemonic rule. Louis Althusser also gave attention to this point with his notion of the “ideological state apparatus” as playing a key role in class rule alongside methods of force.
   The Soviet state has also prompted developments in the Marxist theory of the state. Professing to be Marxist and with common ownership of the means of production the nature of the Soviet state raised serious issues for Marxist theorists. Josef Stalin described it as a new type of state representing the interests of the whole people, and as such was not a class state. Leon Trotsky viewed it as a “deformed workers’ state” controlled by a bureaucracy, and others have theorized the creation of a new class controlling the state.

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.


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