Marxist Theory of State: Definition, Origin and Models

Marxist Definition of State:

Marxist theory of state, besides liberal state, is perhaps the most prominent theory. Marxist theory not only challenges the basic concepts of liberal state but also emphasises that it enslaves majority men of society for the realisation of its aims, it is to be abolished or smashed without which the emancipation of common men will never be possible. However, a problem about academic analysis of Marxist theory of state is that no where Marx has methodically analysed the theory.

Marx (1818- 1883) and his friend Engels (1820-1895) have made different comments and statements which constitute the fabric of state theory. We shall first deal with the definition of state. In the Communist Manifesto (it was written by both Marx and Engels) we find a simple definition of state.

They have said that the state is the “Political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another”. In the same book we find them saying, “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”.

Hal Draper in his Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution defines in the following words: “The state is the institution or complex of institutions which bases itself on the availability of forcible coercion by special agencies of society in order to maintain the dominance of a ruling class, preserve the existing property relations from basic change and keep all other classes in subjection.”

Draper’s definition of Marxist state is not basically different from the definitions given by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto. The state is fundamentally an instrument of class domination. In other words, the state is used by the bourgeoisie to exploit the common people and in that sense it is a machinery for exploitation. This concept has been elaborated by Lenin.

Origin of State:

Marx, Engels and their followers (particularly Lenin) had no faith on the social contract theory as the origin of state. They have viewed the origin from a materialistic’ standpoint which emphasises that though the state is the creation of man, behind this there is no emotion, idea but the influence of material conditions which they termed as economic conditions.

They have divided the development of society into old communist social system, slave society, feudal society and industrial society. In the old communist society there was no state because there was no existence of private property. The system of private property worked as a potential cause of the rise of state.

The owners of private property felt insecurity as to its protection and they felt the necessity of a super power which could provide protection ultimately. How the system of private property helped the creation of state?

(1) As soon as there was private property, two classes of men there appeared—one was the owner of property and the other was without property.

(2) The conflict between them became prominent. Property owners wanted to subjugate the other class.

(3) Property owners created a force within the society and this force ultimately assumed the status of state.

From the study of history Marx and Engels have concluded that the state—for all practical purposes—was set up in the slave society. Because in the slave society there were mainly two classes—the owners of slaves and the slaves themselves. The owners of the slaves required an organisation to control and dominate slaves.

Engels in his The Origin of Family, Private Property and State has elaborately analysed the origin and development of state. The state is not something coming out of the society. It is rather the product of society. Let us quote him. “The state is, by no means, a power forced on society from without… Rather it is a product of society at a certain stage of development”.

People inhabiting in society laid the foundation of state for the realisation of their class interests. What is the class interest and how could the state fulfill this? Engels in this book has categorically stated that the interests of the owners of property are at diametrically opposite to those who are not the owners; because of this there were clashes of interests between these two classes and the interests were irreconcilable.

At the same time there developed an animosity between these two classes and again this antagonism could not be settled. All these led to a situation which necessitated a state structure.

The owners of the property came to be regarded as a separate class whose sole aims were to control the persons who were not the owners of property and to devise a mechanism whose chief function would be to help the property owners. The state in this way was created as a public power.

The man-made state had two main functions—to provide security to the owners of wealth or owners of means of production and to collect taxes from the members of society. Engels has further observed that though the state is the product of society, slowly but steadily it became the owner of enormous power and it stood above society.

But though the state stood above the society it was always friendly with the owners of property. We, therefore, conclude that the state is the outcome of human contrivance and was made with specific aims. It is now clear that according Marx and Engels the origin of the state has nothing to do with the social contract or the divine right theory. They have analysed the origin purely from materialistic point of view.

Models of the Marxist Theory of State:

The Marxists have discovered two models of the Marxist theory of state. One is instrumentalist model and the other model is relative autonomy model which is in opposition to the other model.

Both the above mentioned models are discussed below in detail:

1. The Instrumentalist Model:

According to Marx and Engels the state was created to safeguard the economic interests (other interests are also included but economic interests are primary) and ultimately the state (along with its police, military and bureaucracy) was converted into an instrument used by the owners of property.

From this special role of the state the Marxists have deduced a particular model of Marxist theory of state which is called the instrumentalist model. The core idea of this model is the state is used as an instrument for the fulfillment of interests of a particular class or section of society.

The chief spokespersons of this model are Ralph Miliband, Sanderson, and Avineri. There are many others who have lent their support to this model. Even Lenin accepted this model in his highly eulogised famous work State and Revolution.

In Class Struggle in France, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the State, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Marx emphasised this aspect of state. On the eve of Bolshevik Revolution Lenin published State and Revolution and in this book he has said that the state is the result of the irreconcilability of class antagonism.

The bourgeoisie used the state to articulate the interests of the capitalists. Collecting materials from history Marx has shown that without using the state as an instrument the bourgeoisie could not survive at all because its survival depended upon its ability to accumulate and guard wealth.

Central Idea of Instrumentalist Approach:

We have already quoted a long passage from Origin of Family Private Property and State. He said: the state of the most powerful, economically dominant class. It means that the bourgeois state is completely controlled by the dominant class. This economically powerful and dominant class uses the state to serve its own purposes.

This is the instrumentalist character of state. Why the capitalist class uses the state? We have already said that without the help from the state it would be impossible for the bourgeoisie to keep its citadel of wealth intact.

In a class society this special role of the state is inevitable and this can be explained in the form of the following points:

(a) In any class state/society there are two main classes (there are also other classes but two classes are main. Marx and Engels came to know this from the study of history),

(b) Since the interests of these two main classes are opposite conflict between the two important classes is inevitable because the interests stand in direct opposition,

(c) Because of this the interests are irreconcilable,

(d) The two classes make preparations for aggravating the conflict. On the one hand there is the state and capitalist class and on the other hand there are workers,

(e) The capitalist class uses the state machinery (particularly the police and army) to control the revolt fuelled by the working class,

(f) If the state is not used as an instrument for dominating the working class, exploitation of the workers would not have been possible.

Manifesto and German Ideology:

In many of their writings Marx and Engels have elaborated the instrumentalist idea of state but analysts of Marxism are of opinion that in the Communist Manifesto (full name is Manifest of the Communist Party) and The German Ideology the concept has prominence. The bourgeois class gradually and steadily captured political power and finally established its authority over all aspects of governmental affairs.

In Manifesto Marx and Engels have said, “political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another”.

The bourgeoisie, in order to establish its full control over the industry in particular and the economy in general, has constantly revolutionised the industry, mode of production. The bourgeoisie did it by introducing new machineries and improved techniques of production into industries. By doing this the capitalist class has been able to articulate its full hold over all the branches of economy.

The bourgeoisie has not only controlled the domestic economy and internal market but also the world market. “The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption”.

In other words, the chief aim of the bourgeoisie is to control all the branches of government, the economy with all its ramifications and finally the world market. Marx and Engels have assertively said that the bourgeoisie has performed these tasks through state and in this way the state acts as an instrument.

The instrumentalist approach to politics emphasised by Marx and Engels also occupies an important place in The German Ideology (1846). This large book, consisting of more than 700 pages (Moscow edition), sporadically makes comments which throw light on the instrumentalist interpretation of politics.

This book is the joint product of Marx and Engels. They have said “By the mere fact that it is a class and no longer an estate the bourgeoisie is forced to organise itself no longer locally, but nationally and to give a general form to its average interests”. The control of the bourgeoisie class is not confined within the local political sphere but its influence spreads throughout the national politics.

In other words, the capitalist class is the controller of both local and national politics. In the Manifesto they uttered almost the same words. The state is the form in which the individuals of a ruling class assert their common interests—even the civil society is completely controlled by the bourgeoisie.

Here by civil society Marx and Engels have meant numerous organisations and institutions and the social, political, economic, cultural aspects of society. Marx and Engels have further observed that if there were no classes which means no private property there would not arise the necessity of any state system at all. So we can reasonably conclude that the instrumentalist approach of Marxist political study is intimately related with the emergence of private property and state structure.

Why did Marx Emphasise it?

A pertinent question which is generally raised ii why did Marx, Engels arrive at the conclusion that the state is the instrument of exploitation? Engels wrote a book— The Conditions of Working Class in England—in which he gave us a vivid pen picture of the pathetic conditions of workers in England and in that book he said how the capitalists used the state to exploit the workers. Not only Britain, France was also a capitalist country and the conditions of workers in that country were not better at all.

In these two capitalist states, the state was largely used as an instrument of exploitation. There is another reason. In mature capitalism almost all the members of the bourgeoisie came from the same socio-political-economic environment and while running and managing production and business their leitmotif is how to exploit the workers with the help of the state.

Naturally the exploitation and the instrumen­tality of the state both maintain their continuity. In the third place, the capitalists know it very well that in order to make the citadel of wealth a well-guarded one it is essential that the control over the citadel must be as perfect as possible and the help of the state is an indispensability.

Finally, Miliband (Marxism and Politics) is of opinion that certain structural constraints have forced the capitalists to use the state as instrument. Let us quote him: “The state is the instrument of the ruling class because given its insertion in capitalist mode of production it cannot be anything else”. What Miliband wants to say is that the environment around the capitalists was such that it was impossible for them to come out of that. Most of the capitalists were in favour of exploitation and naturally no one capitalist can go against that trend.

Robert Owen (1771-1858) was a Utopian socialist and also a great industrialist. He wanted to improve the economic conditions of the workers through reforms which he wanted to introduce. But due to the stiff opposition of other industrialists he could not succeed.

The three branches of government—the bureaucracy, the army, police— acted in tandem to exploit the workers and under such circumstances no particular industrialist could do anything against the combined anti-labour strategy.

It was also the question of survival and death. The capitalists must harvest maxi­mum amount of profit so that this profit could be converted into capital formation. In the days when Marx wrote his books there were not enough financial institutions, as they are today, to provide capital.

The prime or only source of capital was savings. The capitalists were determined to augment the quantum of savings/profit at any cost. So we find that maximisation of profit, capital formation, and exploitation, seeking the help of state machinery such as army, police and bureaucracy all are interlinked and there is no scope at all to delink one from the other.

Marx ad Engels viewed the entire episode from the standpoint of exploitation inflicting untold miseries upon the workers and the capitalists overlooked it. Marx gathered from the study of history that the state had always been used as an instrument of exploitation and he observed that during the epoch of industrialization this particular role of the state (that is as an instrument of exploitation) had earned additional momentum and it was so naked that it drew his special attention.

Assessment of Instrumentalist Model:

Critics have raised several objections against Marx’s instrumentalist interpretation of bourgeois state.

Some of these criticisms are:

1. It is generally observed that neither Marx nor Engels has stated clearly this concept. It is the interpretation of their followers. Their followers have thought that Marx and Engels might have thought on the line of instrumentalist approach.

2. The critics further maintain that it is true that the state sometimes arts as an instrument to favour the bourgeoisie but not all times and on all events. In order to establish its “neutrality” or impartiality it does something in favour of the workers which goes against the interests of the capitalists.

3. Bob Jessop believes that there is uncertainty in the formulation of instrumentalist approach. Jessop further says that state is a simple and ordinary organisation and to impose instrumentalism upon it is quite unjustified.

It is true that sometimes the capitalists use the state for the purpose of exploitation, but at the same time they use it for some other purposes. It is unfortunate that Marx has overlooked this.

4. Jessop has further observed that at different times Marx and Engels have emphasised other roles, but their followers have singled out this particular role and have over-emphasised it. This is not correct. In some countries the capitalists do not’ act as a dominating class. In those cases it is not applicable.

2. Relative Autonomy Model:


The relative autonomy model, in simple language, means that though the capitalist state works as an instrument at the hands of the dominant class that is the bourgeoisie, it very often exercises its power independently.

That is, the state is not always dictated by the capitalists or it does not discharge its functions at the behest of the bourgeoisie. The independent functioning of the state away from the influence of the economically dominant class is interpreted by the renowned Marxists as the relative autonomy of state. Hence the words relative autonomy do not mean that the state always acts independent of dominating class.

The word relative denotes that sometimes it acts without being influenced by the powerful class. Again, the relative autonomy status does not find its place in clear term in the writings of Marx and Engels.

In the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Marx made certain comments which have given rise to this controversial and much talked concept. A number of Marxists, Ralph Miliband being the champion of them, have stressed that though instrumentalist model occupied Marx’s mind considerably he thought of the other model.

The fact is that Marx had no intention to construct a well-knit logical theory of state. What he saw and what he gathered from history he has written. To sum up, Marx closely observed the functioning of the capitalist states of his time and after that he drew certain conclusions. The fact is that all the capitalist states of his time did not play identical role nor did they assume same character.

Explanation of the Concept:

The recent studies of Marxism have revealed that Marx and Engels did not deny the impartial role of state and this is evident in many writings. Ralph Miliband is the champion of relative autonomy of state. In Socialist Registrar (1965) Miliband has said that though the instrumentalist approach is very important, the relative autonomy model is not less important.

If we fail to realise the relative autonomy model of Marxist theory of state our understanding will remain incomplete. Elsewhere (Marxism and Politics) Miliband has said that there is powerful reason for rejecting this, particular formulation as misleading…… While the state does act on behalf of the ruling class, it does not for most part act at its behest. The state does not always act in accordance with the wishes of the ruling class.

The state has an independent character and image. If anybody says that the bourgeois state is always dictated by the ruling class that would be vulgar Marxism. Miliband argues that the activities of the state relate to the process of selections. Different schemes, policies, programmes etc. are placed before the state, and it selects some of them. It does not blindly follow everything.

The state generally adopts those policies and tries to implement those schemes which will produce favourable results in the long run and will serve the purpose of the state as well as that of the bourgeoisie in a better and effective way. The state gives priority to long term interests over short term interests. Moreover, in a pluralist society, there are a number of elite groups.

Sometimes these are involved in conflict and the state authority proceeds cautiously and judiciously. This implies that the state acts independently. The same point has been stressed by another critic, “The capitalist state, legislator of the Factory Acts, is, then, the eye of the otherwise blind capitalist, the stabiliser of a system capitalist activity itself endangers”.

For academic purposes it is necessary to investigate the causes why the state attempts to maintain neutrality or establish its autonomy. One such reason, generally advanced, is that in a pluralist society there are different groups and factions of the ruling class and they are sometimes involved in conflict. The state wants to cohere all the factions together. This aim could not be achieved without the autonomous or neutral stand of the state.

The different groups/factions of the ruling class are very powerful and active and of the interests of some groups are neglected that group will raise hue and cry and disturb the smooth functioning of the political system. The ‘authority of the state treats it as an unwelcome feature or development and will try to combat it. So the state tries to make balance among all the potential forces.

Schwarzmantel has offered another reason, “The state in a liberal democratic system must have some autonomy in order to preserve its legitimacy. If the state was seen to be too closely bound up with and dominated by one set of interests it would not be able to maintain the belief that it represents the general interests”. The mere fact is that though the state acts as an instrument, in numerous cases it tries to maintain its autonomous character and it does so to enhance its image.

Relative Autonomy in Marx’s Writing:

Like many other concepts such as concept of class, theory of rights, historical materialism etc. Marx did not directly refer to the relative autonomy of state, but. The German Ideology, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte contain sufficient hints about this. During Napoleon’s rule the French state was represented by the powerful bureaucracy. It acted on behalf of the class rule of bourgeoisie.

In subsequent regimes the state as an instrument of exploitation did not lose its importance. That is, the instrumentalist approach was quite valid. But “only under the Second Bonaparte does the state seem to have made itself completely independent. As against civil society, the state machine its position thoroughly that the chief of the society of December 10 suffices for its head”.

The Eighteenth Brumaire was written by Marx between December 1851 and March 1852 and during those days he observed the two opposite roles of state—as an instrument of exploitation, as an impartial organ of administration. The state consolidated its power against the civil society because in the latter there was dominating influence of bourgeoisie and other factions of capitalists.

Second Bonaparte took this drastic step not for the general betterment of civil society but for his own sake, to satisfy his own desire for more power. “This would appear”, says Miliband, “to suggest the complete independence of the state power from all social forces in civil society”. Elsewhere he has said that the state sometimes acts independently apparently to prove that it is not controlled by any class or group. Even in that situation an individual’s lust for power works.

Not Full Autonomy:

In the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Marx further makes the following comment, “And yet the state power is not suspended in mid air. Bonaparte represents a class and the most numerous class of French Society at that small holding peasants”.

Marx had stressed that the state did not exist is mid-air or in vacuum. It will always represent a class; it may be that the class is not well articulated or well organised. But its existence cannot be ruled out. Even when a state acts independently the weakness or affiliation of the state for a particular class or to any dominating group cannot be denied.

Marx has, however, said that when the two dominant groups or classes are in perfect balance, in that situation the state might act independently. But this is a rare situation. In the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Marx had admitted that the autonomy or the affiliation of state is not something fixed.

The state must study every situation and consider everything in the background of long term interests and smooth management of general administration. If it considers that these two purposes would be properly served by remaining neutral the state authority would do that.

But if it thinks that supporting the economically dominant class would be for the better interests of the governing elite or would be better for the sake of enhancement of its power it would abundon its own autonomy. Marx did not say these words in clear and unequivocal language. But various situations were active in his mind.


We have so far discussed the two models of Marx’s theory of state—the instrumentalist model and the relative autonomy model. The conflict between these two models cannot be denied. If the instrumentalist model is accepted the relative autonomy model becomes irrelevant. The question which disturbs the mind of the students of Marxism is which model is to be accepted. No definite answer can be provided to this vital question.

Marx and Engels have not stated anything clearly. It is clear from the analysis of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that though he depicted the state as an instrument of class rule, of class domination and exploitation, simultaneously he did not hesitate to announce that sometimes the state might act impartially. But what role the state will assume depends upon a particular situation.

Ralph Miliband has said that even though the state acts independently, the relative class character of the state does not vanish. We have already stated that the state must always represent a class or group or faction. If so it will take decisions for its benefits.

A state of the real world always takes decision in the background of circumstances which revolved around it. If prevailing forces compel it to support a particular class the state will do that or if the situation is otherwise it will act independently.

Miliband concludes that whatever the state does, its class character is never lost. We conclude that what exact character the state will assume-depends upon the extent of power and domination of the ruling class and also upon the mentality, attitude of the persons constituting the government. Marx has simply written what he saw. He did not enter into the depth of the issue.

The State and the Ideology:

Though Marx and Engels have viewed the state from the background of materialism, they have never overlooked the ideological aspect of state. The ideology or ideas play a very vital role in the management of state. In The German Ideology Marx and Engels have stressed the point that in every class state the dominant class always dominants the economic, political, cultural and other aspects of state.

This does not mean that the state will always represent a particular ideology. However, the state will represent the views and ideas of the economically dominant class. Let us quote from The German Ideology a large passage:

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling the material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, consequently also controls the means of mental production so that the ideas of those who lacks the means of mental production are on the whole subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relations”.

In this passage Marx and Engels have stressed several points, some of which are:

(1) A bourgeois state has always some ideology.

(2) This ideology is backed or fostered by the ruling class.

(3) Who is the ruling class? The class that controls the material forces of production.

(4) The ruling class through various means indoctrinates the common people. In other words, the ruling class converts the people in its favour and if it fails it tries to make them neutral. The ruling class adopts the methods of political socialisation.

(5) The ruling class gives stress on the civil society.

Ideology Acts as a Weapon:

Marx and Engels have paid special attention to the importance of ideology. Why? Though they are not quite clear about it, we can frame certain reasons. The purpose of the ruling class is always to exploit the workers and other vulnerable sections of society. But the exploiting class cannot expose the real character. The ruling class always uses the ideology to masquerade its real objective to exploit other classes.

If the nefarious motives of the ruling class come out that may cause embarrassment or displacement of the class rule. In other words, destabilization may be the consequence. To avoid this danger the ruling class uses idea, Schwarzmantel observes: “Even in a situation when the old order is about to be overthrown, the defence of interest and privilege is conducted under the banner of ideas”.

The capitalists want to prove that they rule not for their own benefits but for an ideology. In the garb of an ideology the exploiters advance their justification. The exploiters cannot openly declare their real motive or cannot say what they are doing. In this way ideology or ideas act as an instrument or masquerade.

In The German Ideology they have said: “For each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to present its interest as the common interest of all the members of society”.

The bourgeoisie universalises the objective and ideas and also rationalises them. The capitalist class is quite conscious of the fact that if it fails to convince the general mass of the so called benefits of the bourgeois rule agitation is bound to arise. That must be nipped in the bud.

State, Reform and Revolution:

One thing is quite clear from the analysis made so far — the state is an instrument of exploitation and if emancipation is not possible the state will be under the full control of the economically dominant class. The issue is the class character of the state is to be changed. That is the dominant class is to be thrown from power and this can be done through revolution. Besides revolution there is another way and it is reform.

The present structure of the state is to be changed through reforms. Whether Marx supported reforms is not clear from his vast literature. Again there is a controversy on this issue. Interpreters of Marx’s thought are of opinion that Marx believed that without revolution radical change of society is not possible. But the success of revolution depends upon some preconditions.

The workers must be mentally and materially prepared for a revolution. They must form a well-organised and cohesive class. They must be conscious of the extent of the exploitation. The workers will gladly welcome all sorts of troubles and will make sacrifice needed for the success of revolution. Naturally revolution is not an easy thing.

Some critics, for the above reason, have argued that Marx in various ways supported reforms. The purpose of the reforms would be to help the working class in its preparation for revolution.

Reforms should not constitute the goals but they are transitory means for arriving at goals. “As far as Marx is concerned it is right to say that in his perspective the workers’ movement should indeed seek improve­ments and reforms within the confines of capitalism but these reforms were to be stages on the way or means for achieving complete transformation”.

Seizure of State Power:

Marx and Engels have repeatedly said that the emancipation of the working class is never possible without the seizure of state power and this can be done through protracted class struggle leading to revolution. In other words, revolution is the only solution to all the problems that are found in a bourgeois state. What the revolution will do? First of all, the task of revolution or revolutionaries is to capture the state power from the hands of the bourgeoisie and to establish the complete authority of the working class which Marx and Engels have designated as ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

After that the working class will proceed to change the bourgeois structures radically. Thus, we say that the primary objective of proletarians’ revolution is to seize state power, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin (The Problems of Leninism) have said repeatedly that launching of a single revolution by the working class would not be sufficient for achieving the goal.

Revolution should be permanent. Revolution would continue till the communism is achieved. So we find that Marxist theory of state and the theory of revolution are closely connected concepts.

However, Marx and Marxists have drawn differences between different types of revolution. These differences may have full relevance in the field of detailed analysis of Marxist theory of revolution and here we are not concerned with that. Our point is—Marx and Engels did not lay any faith on reforms.

Again, they never thought reforms as alternative to revolution. The capitalists used the state as an instrument of exploiting the proletarians, and the latter would use revolution along with class struggle as an instrument of emancipation.

Withering Away of State:

Before entering into a detailed analysis about the withering away of state we want to quote two important and oft-quoted statements of Engels. The first is: “The state, then, has not existed from all eternity. There have been societies that did without if, that had no conception of the state and state power”.

The second statement of Engels runs as follows; As soon as there is no longer any social class to be held in subjection … as soon as class rule … are removed, nothing more remains to be repressed, and a special repressive force, a state, is no longer necessary…. state interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous and then dies out of itself … The state is not “abolished”. It dies out”.

The above two comments made by Engels are self-explanatory. In the first passage we find Engels to say that the- state is the product of class relations and more specifically class antagonisms. In the earliest phase of social development there did not exist any state because there was no necessity of state due to the non-existence classes, class antagonism and class relations.

Even the concept of state was unknown to the people of this phase. The state is associated with the appearance of classes and class relations. When the proletarians seized political power and did away the class structure and after that established a class-less society which is also called communism the utility of state as an instrument of class rule and exploitation ended. Engels has made a distinction between ‘abolished’ and ‘withers away’. Let us turn to that.

Not Abolished but Withers Away:

Lenin in his The State and Revolution (written in August-September 1917 and published in 1918) has explained the unexplained aspects of Marx’s and Engels’ concept of state and many Marxists hold the view that without Lenin’s The State and Revolution Marxist theory of state would create lot of confusion.

The bourgeois ideologists have picked up the two phrases—the state is not abolished and the state withers away—for their wishful interpretations of Marxist theory of state. Even they did not stop here. Proceeding further they argue that the whole theory of Marxian state/concept is full of number of inconsistencies. In the opinion of bourgeois ideologists the two phrases—not abolished and withers away-convey the same meaning.

Lenin writes: (Lenin: Selected Works II p. 315. Henceforth LSW will mean Lenin Selected Works): “Such an interpretation is the crudest distortion of Marxism, advantageous only to the bourgeoisie”. The bourgeois critics, Lenin has argued, have failed to go into the depth of Marx’s and Engels’ ideas and thought.

They have superficially seen the matter. According to Lenin there is considerable difference between the phrases. The state is not abolished is different from state withers away. The anarchist philosophers launched a movement for the abolition of state because they thought that the state was not only unnecessary but also a harmful political organisation and its main purpose are to curb liberty of individuals. Only the abolition of such a state (usurper of individuals’ liberty) could restore the liberty of the individuals.

Marx, Engels and Lenin viewed the state absolutely from different angle. They viewed the state not only a usurper of human liberty but also an instrument of enslaving human beings. Such a state need not be abolished forcibly. The state power should be seized forcibly and at the same time the supreme authority of working class (proletarians) should be established.

At the same time all classes would be abolished. When these two objectives are achieved there will be no importance of state because it was only the instrument of exploitation. According to Lenin the withering away of state is quite different from abolition of state.

Engels also speaks of another phrase. After seizing political power the proletariat “abolishes the state as state”. This is also a very significant phrase. The phrase ‘ state as state” needs interpretation.

The phrase state as state means the bourgeois state. Bourgeois state implies the police, military, bureaucracy, and other organs/branches of bourgeois state. The proletarians will smash this state. They will not use the police, military and other repressive machineries of the bourgeois state. It will be performed through class struggle and revolution.

Commenting upon Engels’ comment Lenin says that abolishing the bourgeois state is the state as state. But the words withering away refer to the withering away of the remnants of the proletarian state after the socialist revolution. According to Engels the bourgeois class does not wither away but is abolished by the proletariat in the course of revolution. What withers away after this revolution is semi-state or proletarian state.

Special Repressive Force:

Engels used this particular term to identify the role of the bourgeois state. The capitalist class used the state to oppress the working class. With the seizure of the state power this special role of the state will end. But with this the state as state would not abolish. After the revolution remnants of the bourgeois state would exist in the socialist state. (Marx calls socialism as the first stage of communism.

This he has stated clearly in his The Critique of the Gatha Programme). Naturally the socialist state is not the ultimate form of society’ desired by the proletariat class. All the rem­nants of capitalism and the vestiges of bourgeois rule and social structure must be abolished. Question is how could that be achieved? Engels has provided us with an answer; the proletariat class will use the state machinery to suppress the remnants of bourgeois. To put it in other words, the state machinery will be used as a machinery to combat the counter-revolutionary forces and will destroy all other systems and institutions which are anthemic to the interests of the proletarians.

Thus, according to Engels (Lenin also explained it) the state is being used by two classes for two purposes. In the communist society there would not be any class and the special role of the state would prove irrelevant. Finally, the state would wither away. There are also other meanings of the phrase. The state would cease to exist. There shall be no sign of state as a political institution. The political form of state would be superfluous.

Assessment of the Theory of State:

The theory of state stated and elaborated by Marx and Engels is not free from shortcomings.

Some are stated below:

1. Marx and Engels predicted (and confidently) that the proletariat class through protracted class struggle and permanent revolution would succeed in capturing capitalist state and establish its overall supremacy which would finally lead to the creation of a communist society. There are two predictions one is the bourgeois state would, one day, be seized by the working class.

The other is—communism would take the place of capitalism. Only in Russia the working class captured power. Even there is doubt to what extent Russia was a matured capitalist state. There were (and still are) more matured capitalist states such as United States, Britain, France, Germany and nowhere working class has been able to seize political power.

So the first prediction remains unfulfilled. As to the second prediction it can naively be observed that there is doubt about to what extent Russia had succeeded in establishing socialism not to speak of communism. The “first socialist state” in the world collapsed in 1991. Communist Party of China claims that China is a socialist state. But her acceptance of market economy casts doubt on that claim.

2. Marx and Engels predicted that state would wither away. The gigantic state structure of erstwhile Soviet Union has falsified this tall claim of Marx and Engels. The Soviet state was as powerful as were Britain, Unite States during the heyday of Cold War. Even after the recession of Cold War the Soviet state was unmistakably the super power along with United States of America. China is another socialist state and today it is a big power.

Her military strength is recognised by all big powers and she is a nuclear power. Though the orthodox Marxists try to interpret the withering away of state with the help of jugglery of words and want to establish that Marxist conception is correct, it remains that, it is no longer a valid concept.

3. Marx and Engels said that only the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat would be able to emancipate the working class. Today the working class is not only united, its bargaining power has enhanced several times. From time to time the workers’ demands have been met by the capitalists.

It may be that the workers are still exploited, but it is also a fact that the extent of exploitation is much less than it was in Marx’s time. Today’s workers are more interested, so far as the agitation is concerned, in democratic or constitutional methods than in revolutionary methods.

The working class today does not think of capturing state power for the fulfillment of the legitimate demands. It sits (along with the capitalists) at a bargaining table and settles all the disputes. We cannot, however, blame Marx and Engels.

The mentality of the workers and that of the capitalists have undergone sea changes during the last century (from 1900 to 1999). Both the workers and capitalists have decided to eschew the path of conflict and both sides feel that all the disputes can amicably settled. But in Marx’s time the capitalists took obstinate attitude towards the workers and the latter retaliated it. In this way conflict multiplied.

4. There is a controversy about the instrumentalist approach and the relative autonomy approach. If we look at-the state structures of modern capitalist states we shall come across the fact that the state acts on all important matters, independently. It is neither controlled nor dictated by the dominant class.

There may be an unholy nexus between the economically powerful class and the state. But bureaucracy, judiciary and legislature act in accordance with certain fixed principles laid down in the constitution of law book. The state gives priority to the general interests of the body politic.

5. Many critics say that Marxist theory of state is out and out Utopian. The proletarians would capture state power and would bring everything of the capitalist state under its supreme authority is nothing but a Utopian thought. The seizure of state power is definitely not an easy task.

The workers are united no doubt, but the capitalists are more united and would fight tooth and nail to resist all attempts of working class to capture state power. But a major part of his theory of state stands on the concept that working class through class struggle and revolution would seize state power.

6. Marxist theory of state suffers from another shortcoming. He has said that the classless society will have no state, it will wither away. If so, who will settle the disputes in such a society. The classless society will not be inhabited by gods. Conflicts in classless society must crop up and for their settlement a sovereign body is essential. Marxist theory of state does not make any provision for such an arrangement.

In spite of the above shortcomings we hold the view that today it may not have any relevance but in the days of Marx it had relevance. In those days the state was really an instrument of exploitation and the proletarians were severely tortured and exploited by the capitalists. This compelled Marx to think of abolishing the capitalist state and bring it under the supreme authority of the working class. Not only capitalism has changed, change has taken place in all spheres of society.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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