The Marxist view of the state

A common anarchist misconception about Marxism is that socialists are "pro-state."

THOUGH HOSTILITY to state power precedes anarchism, the idea of a society without a state has now (wrongly) come to be associated exclusively with anarchism. Conversely, Marxism is almost universally identified (again wrongly) with the idea of state ownership of the economy, and, by extension, with strengthening the state, rather than doing away with it.

Columnist: Paul D'Amato

Paul D'Amato Paul D'Amato is managing editor of the International Socialist Review and author of The Meaning of Marxism, a lively and accessible introduction to the ideas of Karl Marx and the tradition he founded. Paul can be contacted at

This mistaken idea that Marxism is somehow pro-state comes first from the development of reformist Social Democratic parties after Marx and Engels' death that indeed argued that the path to socialism led through the existing state institutions. In particular, Social Democracy of the early 20th century envisioned socialism as something to be achieved by gaining a majority within the representative institutions of the state, and then using its electoral conquests to implement a series of social reforms, leading to full socialization of production.

These ideas--which were practically discredited by the fact that this particular brand of social reformism tended to adapt to capitalism rather than transform it--became associated, wrongly, with Marx.

There was a brief revolutionary hiatus in which the Russian revolutionary Lenin rescued from oblivion the original ideas of Marx and Engels on the state--that it was an instrument of class oppression and, therefore, could not be used by the working class to change society. When Lenin began to argue that the state should be "smashed" and on its ruins new organs of workers' democracy erected, his fellow revolutionaries accused him of a lapse into anarchism.

The degeneration of the Russian Revolution--a process inescapable once the revolution became isolated and encircled by hostile powers--and the rise of Stalinism on its ruins once again entrenched a conception of socialism as statification of the economy.

Marxism and anarchism do have different conceptions of the state, and, therefore, of what should be done about it. Both anarchists and Marxists seek a stateless society--the anarchists because in the state they see the root of all oppression and exploitation, and the Marxists because the state, as the instrument for the maintenance of class rule, must fall away when class rule is done away with.

Frederick Engels expressed the difference well in a letter to an Italian anarchist on Mikhail Bakunin, a contemporary of Marx and Engels:

Bakunin has a peculiar theory of his own...the chief point of which is in the first place that he does not regard capital, and therefore the class contradiction between capitalists and wage earners which has arisen through social development, as the main evil to be abolished--instead, he regards the state as the main evil.

While the great mass of the Social Democratic workers hold our view that state power is nothing more than the organization with which the ruling classes, landlords and capitalists have provided themselves in order to protect their social prerogatives, Bakunin maintains that it is the state which has created capital, that the capitalist has his capital only by favor of the state.

As, therefore, the state is the chief evil, it is above all the state which must be done away with and then capitalism will go to hell of itself. We, on the contrary say: do away with capital, the appropriation of the whole means of production in the hands of the few, and the state will fall away of itself.

Bakunin's own writings, I believe, misconstrued the differences between the two doctrines. "They [Marx and his followers] are worshippers of state power, and necessarily also prophets of political and social discipline and champions of order established from the top downwards," he wrote. No doubt there were socialists who worshipped state power and top-down control, but neither Marx nor Engels were one of them.

In his pamphlet, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels explicitly rejects the notion that state ownership equals socialism:

Certainly, if the taking over by the state of the tobacco industry is socialistic, then Napoleon and Metternich must be numbered among the founders of socialism.

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MARX AND Engels were opposed to the idea that revolutions could be made by minorities on behalf of the working class.

Marx, for example, rejected the politics of the German socialist Ferdinand Lassalle, who viewed the working class as a sort of stage army that would help him into office, after which he and his cohorts would implement socialism from above.

"He behaves," Marx complained of Lassalle, "with an air of great importance, bandying about phrases borrowed from us--altogether as if he were the future workers' dictator. The problem of wage-labor versus capital he solves like 'child's play' (literally). To wit, the workers must agitate for universal suffrage and then send people like him 'armed with the unsheathed sword of science' into the Chamber of Deputies. Then, they form workers' factories, for which the state advances the capital, and these institutions by and by embrace the whole land."

Though they admired his devotion and courage, Marx and Engels were critical of the politics of the French revolutionary Auguste Blanqui, who, according to Engels, believed "that a small and well-organized minority...could carry the mass of the people with them...and...make a victorious revolution."

Engels also criticizes the Blanquists for seeking a "dictatorship, not of the entire revolutionary class, the proletariat, but of the small minority that has made the revolution, and who are themselves previously organized under the dictatorship of one or several individuals."

The last point is important, because the standard anarchist critique of Marxism is that it stands for "dictatorship," and what Engels' makes clear here is that by this loaded word, they did not mean the rule of a minority, but the rule of the majority (the working class) over its former exploiters (the minority).

An anarchist might argue that it is still an argument for an authoritarian state of some sort, even after the revolution. And they would be right.

Anarchists and socialists both agree that we need to do away with unaccountable authority, and all forms of authority that are deployed to maintain the current relations in society of exploitation, inequality and oppression. Beyond that however, the agreement begins to break down.

In his essay, On Authority, Engels wrote:

All socialists are agreed that the political state, and with it political authority, will disappear as a result of the coming social revolution, that is, that public functions will lose their political character and will be transformed into the simple administrative functions of watching over the true interests of society. But the anti-authoritarians demand that the political state be abolished at one stroke, even before the social conditions that gave birth to it have been destroyed.

Engels concluded by arguing that revolutions are, by definition, authoritarian, because they involve one part of society (the majority of oppressed and exploited) imposing its will on the other (the minority of exploiters and their supporters). The question then arises: how can a new society be built if the new revolutionary power refuses to establish a new power, i.e., a state, to prevent the old order from regaining its foothold?

Lenin put it this way: "We do not at all disagree with the anarchists on the question of the abolition of the state as an aim. We maintain that, to achieve this aim, temporary use must be made of the instruments, means and methods of the state power against the exploiters, just as the dictatorship of the oppressed class is temporarily necessary for the annihilation of classes."