Should socialists want to keep the state?

March 11, 2019

David McNally, a veteran socialist and activist and the author of numerous books, including Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance and Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism, looks at the background to a new discussion of Marxism and the state. This article first appeared as a series of Facebook post and has been edited for publication.

IT HAS become clear that the Marxist critique of the state is once again in disfavor in many parts of the left.

Sometimes this disfavor disguises wholesale political accommodation to the nation-state — e.g., with those on the left who oppose calls for open borders and smuggle in some kind of ostensibly “left” argument for “nicer” immigration controls.

But beyond this, there is a new “realism” on the left that accuses the Marxist critique of the state of being “utopian.” This line of argument often attacks the metaphor of “smashing” the state for not understanding that some state services ought to be preserved in a post-capitalist society.

In this case, we may be dealing with a genuine intellectual muddle about some fundamental concepts, rather than a bad faith attempt to discredit. In the spirit of engaging this debate in good faith, I’ve written the following notes on the theme of Marxism and the state.

Marx’s vision of democracy

Marx’s approach to the problem of the state is immersed in radically democratic commitments.

On the barricades during the Paris Commune
On the barricades during the Paris Commune

As early as 1843, in his critique of Hegel’s philosophy of the state, Marx informs us that authentic democracy (which is to say radical, direct, participatory democracy) “is the first true unity of the particular and the universal.”

In contrast to authentic democracy, the state in modern society is an abstracted social force, a power outside the control of the people, one that stands over and against it (in an authoritarian and anti-democratic relationship to the demos).

Anticipating his analysis of alienated labor (and of value in capitalist society), Marx focuses on how a human creation — the state — has come to dominate its creators. For this reason, he describes genuine democracy as the disappearance of the state. “In modern times,” he writes, “the French have understood this to mean that the political state disappears in a true democracy.”

Marx highlights the phrase “political state disappears” in his text. And that highlighting is at the heart of a genuinely revolutionary socialist approach to the state. The victory of the working class against capitalism means the dis-alienation of political power, its reconstitution as the power of the people. It means the end of the state as a power separate from, abstracted from, the people.

In short, “the political state disappears.” All talk of breaking and superseding the state is based on this conception: that the victory of revolutionary socialist democracy constitutes the transcendence of the state. This victory over the state is the defeat of political alienation — its breaking by the power of the people, the demos.

Preliminaries on colonialism and war

Marx’s theory of the modern state developed in its earliest stages by way of critical engagement with Hegel’s political philosophy.

Of course, the young Marx already understood that the modern state expresses the dominance of a new form of private property (see his articles on the Wood Theft Debates). But this insight did not yet constitute a theory of the modern state as such.

The importance of Hegel’s doctrine of the state had much to do with its sustained engagement with classical political economy. Through the latter, Hegel arrived at the conclusions that the modern capitalist economy systematically generates overproduction, poverty and an expansionary drive toward colonization (Philosophy of Right, section 2, part C).

Colonialism is for Hegel a product of the inherent contradictions and antagonisms of the capitalist economy. It is necessary to the modern state, rather than merely a particular policy choice.

In the final section of his text, Hegel then examines the “individuality” of the modern state, arguing that it contains no inherent drive toward universal law and world peace. Instead, each state asserts its independence in opposition “to other states” — which leads to the inevitability of war (Philosophy of Right, section 3, part Aii).

For Hegel, in other words, this is a constitutive feature of the state in a capitalist world system. It follows that the drives toward colonialism and war are inherent in the modern state as such (a recognition that is arguably fatal to all reformist approaches to the capitalist state).

In his existing commentary on Hegel’s theory of the state (1843), Marx does not deal with either of these sections of the Philosophy of Right. But he had certainly studied them, and there is little doubt that he was reflecting on them.

However, in 1843, he had not embarked on his critical encounter with classical political economy and was not yet in a position to systematically address these issues. By the time of The German Ideology (1846), we find him taking them up.

As he develops the materialist conception of history in Part One of The German Ideology, Marx briefly turns to the question of the state.

Here, he rehearses his earlier argument that a distinctive feature of the modern state is the form in which it becomes “a separate entity” that stands over and against society (which is why he had argued that true democracy will require the “disappearance” of such a state).

He then adds that bourgeois political power must organize itself in this way “both for internal and external purposes.”

We need to attend closely to what is being said here. The modern state, says Marx, organizes the social power of capitalist property against all subaltern classes within its territory and against all other states. The modern state expresses class domination and inter-state rivalry.

As Hegel recognized, states exist in a system of many states, and the relations among these states are inherently conflictual. External force and violence are thus as much inherent features of modern state power as are internal force and violence against subaltern classes.

Along these lines, in an earlier passage in The German Ideology, Marx had written that the system of modern private property “must assert itself in its external relations as nationality and internally must organize itself as state.” (The German Ideology, Part One: Feuerbach, sections 10 and 11)

In short, the modern state is a nation-state. It is a state that projects sovereign power within its territorial bounds, and one that asserts itself as “nationality” in opposition to other nation-states. It follows, as it did for Hegel, that militarism and war are inherent elements of modern power.

To be sure, Marx’s thinking about colonialism and war was quite undeveloped at this point. He was still in the early stages of developing his theory of capital, primitive accumulation and the world market.

After Marx’s death, Engels would start to discern the drive toward war among the European powers of his day. And notwithstanding a number of shortcomings in their theorizations, it was the merit of the likes of Luxemburg, Liebknecht, Lenin and Bukharin to understand that drives to imperialism and war were fundamental to capitalism as a world system.

For the moment, let us note that the most sophisticated case for left-reformism in the early 20th century broke with both sides of Marx’s argument. In that, it at least displayed a certain (reformist) consistency.

In arguing for the use of the institutions of the capitalist state for “socialist” purposes, Karl Kautsky, leader of the “center” current in German social democracy prior to the First World War, proclaimed that his party would eliminate “none of the political ministries” of the existing state (“The New Tactic”). In short, Kautsky argued that personnel change was required, not institutional transformation.

Consistent with this, he developed his theory of “ultra-imperialism,” according to which a drive toward world peace, not war, was the inherent logic of international capitalism. He argued that the call “workers of the world unite” could be joined to “Capitalists of all countries, unite.” (Der Imperialismus, 1913-14).

Ironically, his celebrated example of this trend was the United States of America. (A good summary of Kautsky’s arguments in this area is available in Massimo Salvadori, Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution, 1880-1938, pp. 170-200.)

I plan to examine these issues at more length. For the moment, however, it is important to recognize that no adequate theory of the capitalist state can focus on the national level alone. “The” state must be analyzed in terms of rivalry among *many* states. Precisely because it is organized “as nationality,” the capitalist nation-state expresses an antagonistic logic toward other states.

Of course, this logic is a highly differentiated one, based on the systematic relations of dominance and subordination that define a world of imperialism and (post-)colonialism. It follows that these relations are constitutive of the modern capitalist state, not accidental features that can be wished away on the road to a post-capitalist society.

The bureaucratic-military state vs. radical democracy and the socialist commons

So diminished have become the political horizons of much of the left in the neoliberal era that many have become captives of what Engels once called “a superstitious reverence for the state and everything connected with it” (Preface to Marx’s The Civil War in France, 1891). This is expressed in a knee-jerk defense of all that appears “public” in capitalist society, as if it represents anti-capitalist beachheads.

Here, a watered-down “left” thinking unwittingly joins hands with the mainstream media in identifying state services with socialism. Just last week, for instance, a columnist in the Houston Chronicle intoned that “[t]he United States has several socialist programs, including Social Security and Medicare.”

The absurdity of this statement ought to be apparent. It seems, however, that it can no longer be taken for granted on the left that the statement is absurd.

For instance, in light of my critique of the state, one critic opined that I should logically oppose partially socialized medicine under capitalism.

Since that is a nonsense claim, let me state what should be self-evident. Every socialist worth their salt (critically) supports programs that make life in capitalist society any bit easier for poor and working class people. But we are entirely capable of doing so without confusing such programs with socialist achievements.

We steer clear of such confusion by insisting on the inherently anti-democratic form of the modern state. This allows us to sharply differentiate real public control from state ownership and direction.

Here, we are following in the tracks of Marx’s insights in his 1852 text The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. This is a critically important work on many levels. But I want to focus on just one aspect of it: Marx’s analysis of the stiflingly bureaucratic nature of the modern state. Indeed, it is in the course of this analysis that Marx introduces the idea of “smashing” the capitalist form of political power.

In the seventh chapter of The Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx turns his sights to the character of the capitalist state in France — a state that had recently crushed a workers’ uprising (1848) and consolidated itself in the 1851 coup led by Louis Bonaparte (Napoleon Bonaparte’s grand-nephew).

Marx points out how this state massively concentrates power in the hands of the executive. Marx then denounces this “enormous bureaucratic and military organization, with its ingenious state machinery, embracing wide strata, with a host of officials numbering half a million, besides an army of another half million.” These troops and bureaucrats, he observes, are subject to no authority other than that of the president and his executive officers.

Marx declares that this state suffocates the social life of the people. He describes it as an “appalling parasitic body, which enmeshes the body of French society like a net and chokes all its pores.” Noting that these structures emerged under the absolute monarchy of the 18th century, he insists that the French bourgeoisie took over and “perfected” this bureaucratic-military form of state, adapting it to capitalist purposes.

Ah, but what of all the public works undertaken by this state — from schools and universities to bridges and publicly owned railways? Surely Marx saw these as progressive?

On the contrary. Marx argues that all these were formed by severing them from the common interests of the people — alienating them from the people by ensconcing them in the hands of the state bureaucracy. As a result, he wrote:

Every common interest was straightaway severed from society, counterposed to it as a higher, general interest, snatched from the activity of society’s members themselves and made an object of government activity, from a bridge, a schoolhouse and the communal property of the village community to the railways, the national wealth and the national university of France.

Rather than romanticize these “public” services and enterprises, Marx is scathing about their alienated form. These state operations have been “snatched from the activity of society’s members themselves.” Rather than communally operated lands, schools and universities — public services subject to democratic, community control — all these have been severed “from the common interests of the people.”[1]

Marx is here radically distinguishing between state ownership and communal ownership. The latter represents social property belonging to and regulated by the people. “Public” services and enterprises administered by the modern state, on the other hand, are merely controlled by a bureaucracy that chokes off the democratic lifeblood of real communities of people.

It is in the context of analyzing the alienated character of the bureaucratic machinery of modern government that Marx introduces the idea of “smashing” the state.

Since 1789, he claims, “[a]ll revolutions perfected this machine instead of smashing it.” In the great uprisings of 1830 and 1848, all parties simply sought “possession of this huge state edifice.”

But because Marx’s conception of socialism was a radically democratic one,[2] he knew that a workers’ revolution could not succeed if it simply sought “possession” of the bureaucratic state. The anti-democratic structures of such a state would undermine all efforts to radically democratize social and political life — if its military structures did not do so first.

This is why the bureaucratic and military structures of the modern state would need to be dismantled, superseded...”smashed.”

Let me here add two quick points. First, Marx’s metaphor of “smashing” must be read dialectically. There is nothing in it of a nihilist rage for destruction. Instead, what needs to be “smashed” are inherent obstacles to the construction of a democratic and communal form of social life. Marx imagines the dismantling of bureaucratic and military obstructions leading to a radical democratization which will bring about the withering away of the political state.

It is absolutely true, secondly, that Marx did not lay out any clear program for such a smashing or dismantling in The Eighteenth Brumaire. It would only be in light of the uprising of French workers in 1871, and their creation of a new Paris Commune, that he would come to outline some basic principles of a workers’ state.

But already, nearly 20 years prior to the Commune experience, he had identified the modern state as a suffocating, bureaucratic structure that undermines “the activity of society’s members themselves” and suppresses “the common interests of the people.”

In so doing, he foregrounded the construction of the socialist commons rooted in the democratic self-activity of the people as fundamental to the political project of revolutionary socialism.


1. Because of the inanity of some responses I have received to this line of argument, let me state that it does not follow that Marx wants to “smash” railways and schools. But it does follow that dismantling the bureaucratic-military state involves transforming all state institutions into genuinely public ones.
2. On the democratic character of Marxian socialism, see Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Volume One.

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