Most people assume that the state is a political body whose purpose is to mediate conflict and give everyone in society a voice. However, the conception of the state laid out by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and others holds that the opposite is true. In this essay, I will endeavor to explain what that means.
Marxists do not see the state as an impartial apparatus that is above class conflict. It does not exist to serve the population and is not, even in the most “democratic” society, accountable to the common people. The state is, writes Lenin in The State and Revolution, “A special organization of force; it is an organization for the suppression of some class.” Although Lenin never stated this outright, I argue that the “special” quality Lenin references here is a monopoly on the use of legitimate violence. My primary reason for arguing this is that it serves to further crystallize the Marxist concept of the state. If we define the state without this component, it would follow that Venezuela, for example, has two states. If the state is merely an organ of class rule, then both the Venezuelan government itself and the collectivos would constitute a state, since both act in such a way as to strip certain classes of their rights. The problem arises when we consider that in some cases, the government and the collectivos are opposed to one another. The notion that there can be two dueling states which both lay claim to one area is obvious nonsense. This muddying of the waters makes the Marxist idea of the state functionally useless. In order to effectively make use of Marxism, we must expand it in the way I have just described.
Regardless, the state is an organ of class rule. One class controls the state and uses it to repress one or more other classes.
Many anarchists would assert that this definition of the state is too narrow precisely because it focuses only on class. According to them, it ignores that the state often oppresses women, queer people, and people of color. These kinds of oppression are supposedly social in character rather than economic. Thus, the Marxist definition of the state is incorrect.
This analysis is based on a false dichotomy. The idea that oppression must be either social or economic is false. All oppression has both an economic and social component. Take racism, for example. It arose primarily as a justification for slavery. Pseudoscience such as phrenology was invented to separate black individuals from white individuals, and thus provide moral and legal justification for the former’s enslavement. The practice was seen as admissible because enslaved people were not regarded as human. Of course, slavery was a key part of the early American economy, and in some sense that is still true today. In modern times, the oppression of people of color still has an economic base. The Ferguson Report revealed a wide-reaching scheme of overcharging for traffic tickets and other forms of municipal plunder. Anti-black policing was and is an economic model. The war on drugs, which primarily targets people of color, serves the primary purpose of filling private prisons and providing cheap labor for major corporations. This reveals the economic component of an oppression which many people regard as being entirely social.
The same case can be made for marriage equality. It does not merely entail the right to embrace on the courthouse steps and pledge eternal love. It involves things such as tax breaks. Marriage discrimination is not bad simply because of the emotional harm it causes, though this is certainly a very important aspect of it. It is bad because it bars queer individuals from entering into a contract that protects the fruits of their labor. Again, we see that a supposedly social oppression has an economic facet.
In his book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Frederick Engels drew on the work of early anthropologists to show how women’s oppression developed in pre-history when communal, matrilineal societies were violently replaced with patriarchal societies in which individual wealth and private property were key. (Patriarchal, profit-driven societies became dominant by conquest and colonialism, though remnants of matrilineal culture survived in tribal societies throughout the world.) From a position of early leadership and respect, women became powerless domestic slaves. Engels describes this as “the world historic defeat of the female sex.” Marx and Engels viewed women’s entry into the paid labor force as the first step toward liberating women from stifling dependence on men, though it does not free them from the class oppression they share with male workers. To achieve the full liberation of women and of the multi-racial, working class of all nations, international socialism is necessary, which is in essence a return in modern form to the cooperative egalitarian foundations of early human existence. The oppression of women is inextricably bound up in the oppression of the laboring class. While it is distinct from this oppression, and thus deserves special attention (as do all other oppressions), we cannot draw a clear dividing line between them.
These examples illustrate that all oppression is in some sense economic. Thus, the mere fact that the state oppresses minorities as well as working class people (who are often one and the same) is not evidence that the state is not primarily an organ of class power.
Because all class societies involve repression, all class societies are dictatorships. Societies in which the capitalist class is the ruling class (that is, in which they control the state) are dictatorships of the bourgeoisie. Societies in which the working class controls the state are dictatorships of the proletariat.
In capitalist societies, the capitalist class uses the state to suppress the working class or proletariat. This is most obvious during strikes, in which police officers violently prevent the workers from organizing against the capitalists. We also witness this in situations when the state prevents starving people from taking food to feed themselves. In essence, the state exists in capitalist society to prevent the poor from seizing the property of the rich or bourgeoisie, the class which controls the state.
This is not to say that the capitalist state never gives into the demands of the working class. Popular movements can obtain reforms and concessions from the state. The capitalist class usually resists the demands of popular movements due to the fear that these reforms could go too far, infringe on property and threaten their rule. Sometimes the reformers push their agenda and unleash radical demands for change from below. In these cases, capitalists will seek to undermine them. Paradoxically, some of these reforms can help the state maintain order and social cohesion. The reforms can keep the masses loyal to the prevailing regime. Yet many reforms, even if they serve this ideological role, are not enforced by the state because they would deal too great a blow to the profits of the capitalist class.
However, it is true that these laws, such as those that determine environmental regulations, are often enforced to the detriment of capitalist profits. Opponents of Marxism often cite this as evidence that the state does not act in the interests of the capitalist class on all occasions. What this analysis ignores is that the driving force of capitalism is the profit motive. Capitalists will often work against their long term interests in order to satisfy this need in the short term. For example, capitalism exploits the planet for raw materials like fossil fuels. This drives the earth ever closer to its destruction. While this enriches the capitalists immediately, it is actually disadvantageous in the long term. This is because it will result in the planet becoming uninhabitable, and one cannot make profits as a capitalist if there is no planet on which to practice capitalism. This is where the state steps in with environmental regulations. They do not do this because they care about the environment, but because they wish to prolong capitalism. The fact that environmental regulations often cut into profits is a necessary evil, because without them, capitalism could not continue to exist. Environmental regulations are not antithetical to capitalism. On the contrary, they enable the capitalists to continue drawing profits from the planet for a longer period. Even when it appears that the state is acting against the interests of the capitalist class, this is not the case.
Thus the state is coercive. It maintains the dominant property relations through violence (army, prisons, police, and the CIA). More than maintaining internal cohesion, the state also seeks an international advantage. Imperialist states such as the US and the UK seek cheap labor, raw materials and hegemony from the third world. They also want to prevent the threat of a good example which would encourage dominated states to break with capital and follow a different path. This fear leads imperialist states to destabilize or destroy leftist governments, even moderate ones, in places such as Latin America. This can be seen happening at the time of writing in Brazil and Cuba.
However, the state is not wholly coercive. According to Gramsci, part of the way the state maintains its domination (or hegemony) is through consent. There is a process of legitimization involved. This is the role of culture, ideology and its various organs: political parties, churches, media, non-radical unions, and other associations. States adhere to and promote ideologies to maintain social cohesion. The American Dream is one such ideology. These systems of ideology push ordinary people to accept their subordinate status, to see it as normal and to not question it. The state ensures that capitalism becomes common sense to the masses.
The state in socialist society wins the masses over to socialism and develops their cooperative tendencies. This is most often accomplished through education programs and the financing of cooperative projects such as community gardens. It ensures that the material conditions for communism, such as an abundance of resources, exist. This occurs through increased funding to scientific firms and other groups that can innovate and develop the forces of production. Further, it protects burgeoning socialist countries from aggression by the aforementioned imperialist states through the use of the military. The state also provides material support to revolutionary movements (in the form of weapons, troops, food, and so on) in other parts of the world so as to hasten the downfall of global capitalism.
However, a socialist state’s primary function is to suppress the bourgeoisie, who will no doubt attempt to retake the property seized from them by the proletariat. The state will prevent capitalists from organizing demonstrations and amassing arms, and may even restrict their right to vote. While this may seem undemocratic, nothing could be further from the truth. It is the capitalists who want to restore an undemocratic system, in which power is concentrated in a small number of hands. In suppressing these anti-democratic elements, the State ensures that democracy will remain pure and free of corruption. It is also important to remember that this restriction will be carried out by the working class itself, through institutions of its own creation. These institutions, guided by the Party, will for the first time give the vast majority of people in society a voice.
It is vital that the proletariat does engage in the creation of new institutions. Marx stresses that the socialists cannot merely lay hands on the existing state machinery. This machinery was created by the capitalist class to serve its own purposes, outlined above. The socialists must smash the bourgeois state machine and substitute it for one of its own design. Marx upholds the Paris Commune as an example of such a state. The Paris Communards established their own state institutions in the capital, but did not fully smash the existing bourgeois state in France. The deposed capitalist class, therefore, was quickly able to regroup through the state and, as Marx put it, “drown the commune in [its] own blood.” The experience of the Paris Commune shows that if we want to establish socialism, we must break up the old state and create a new one in its place.
In this new state. writes Lenin, “All officials, without exception, [are] elected and subject to recall at any time, their salaries reduced to the level of ordinary ‘workmen’s wages.'” He continues: “The parliamentarians themselves have to work. […] and to account directly to their constituents.”
One example of these new institutions can be found in the Cuban electoral system. In Cuba, everyone elects local neighborhood officials. These officials then elect every other office. The neighborhood assembles, then, directly or indirectly every level above them. All parties-including the Communist Party-are unable to spend money to publicly campaign. They must win elections through word-of-mouth campaigns and the support of their neighbors. This inability to spend money serves as a dictatorship against the capitalists and in favor of the workers. The electoral system undercuts any capitalist who would want to use money to alter things. It ensures that the poor masses of Cuba have a say in their government.
Thus, although socialist states will always engage in suppression of class enemies, they can be considered more democratic than capitalist ones. Yet it is not the case that democracy and dictatorship are mutually exclusive. Marxists understand that, in capitalist societies, the owning class has near complete authority in decision making. In this sense, democracy exists for the capitalists. Workers, as I mentioned previously, are suppressed time and again by the police and other arms of the state. Workers, therefore, live under a dictatorship in capitalist societies. What differentiates socialist societies from capitalist ones is that the class in control of the state is for the first time the majority class. Although the capitalist class will be suppressed, the masses of people will be in power. Dictatorships of the proletariat, then, are true examples of democracy in the sense in which it is commonly used.
Once the socialist state completes these aforementioned functions, it has no material reason to exist and so withers away. The state “loses its political character,” as Marx put it, and becomes merely an administrative organ. This means that public functions similar to those performed by the state today, such as in the sphere of economic and cultural management, will be preserved under communism. However, their character will be radically different than under socialism. With time these institutions will become organs of public self-management. The whole of society will use them to participate in the running of society. The purpose of the state is to educate the masses until they are knowledgeable enough to do this.
It would be incorrect, however, to assume that this process will take place suddenly. Unlike anarchists, Marxists do not want to abolish the state all at once. For them, the withering away of the state is a long, gradual process covering an entire epoch of history. Stalin argued that the State must in some sense become stronger at the height of class struggle, so that the bourgeoisie can be adequately suppressed. In this sense, the withering of the state is not a linear process. It will occur in fits and starts, depending on the material conditions of society and the strength of the deposed ruling class and the revolutionary proletariat.
This fact leads many to assume that the state cannot wither away. After all, power has a tendency to corrupt those who wield it. Those at the head of the state will be unlikely to give up the power their positions grant them. They will do whatever they can to hold onto it. Marxists do not necessarily disagree. It is true that power can corrupt. Just because the state has the potential to wither away does not mean that a new capitalist class cannot arise within it. Like the withering of the state itself, however, this process is uneven. Some individuals will be corrupted, while others will not. One cannot expect every head of state to ‘go bad’ all at once. There will always be some political actors who recognize that the state under socialism is meant to serve the people. The masses are the only force that can identify these members. They alone can tell when a head of state is turning down the capitalist road, serving themselves instead of the people.
The solution is the cultural revolution: call upon the masses to “bombard the headquarters,” pulling out and denouncing all corrupt party members and other people in authority, as well as criticizing all aspects of culture that these authorities use to try to legitimize their corrupt power. The experience of the Chinese revolution has taught us that the state, while it can begin to wither away, will never completely end on its own. The people must help the process along. Cultural Revolution is a way of fostering that process by encouraging the masses to take initiative action and become emboldened to start running society themselves to an ever growing extent.
A state is still necessary during this time, and will be necessary until all the rest of the countries of the world have become socialist and no longer pose an external threat. Further, the internal economies and cultures of the world must be so transformed that “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” is a realistic material possibility. Once that occurs, the state will disappear and the masses will run society directly. No other method but Cultural Revolution will allow society to reach this point. Until then, the state must stay purely proletarian. Cultural Revolution is the process by which the masses purge the state of bourgeois elements and ensure that this is the case.
Many would assert that this is a pipe dream, because those in positions of power would never realistically call upon the masses to rebel against them. In fact, the argument goes, they will use all the power at their disposal to ensure that the masses remain docile and incapable of rebellion.
However, the Chinese Revolution disproves this theory. During the Cultural Revolution, the masses routinely used the Party’s own constitution to expose corruption. Their metric for what constituted a good Party member was how strictly they abided by the rules set forth in this constitution. It is important to remember that revolutions are carried out by the masses, and it is only after the revolutionary seizure of power that the masses tend to be superseded by capitalist-roaders. What this means is that the fundamental basis of the revolution, and indeed of socialism itself, will always be the masses. The historical memory of the revolutionary process is a weapon that the masses can wield against corruption in the Party.
Many Marxists, myself included, argue that the best substantiation of this conception of the state (as being a tool of class oppression that arises naturally from class antagonisms) can be found in the Anarchist movement as it has existed historically. It proves that the state arises naturally from class antagonisms.
As an example, let’s look at the Makhnovist movement of the 1920s. Despite an ideological opposition to the state, the revolutionaries set about creating institutions that accurately meet the definition of the state described above.
To begin, the Makhnovists engaged in political repression of counter-revolutionaries, such as the bourgeoisie from whom they expropriated land. They regulated the press. Except for the Makhnovists, parties were banned from organizing for election to regional bodies. They banned authority with which they disagreed to “prevent those hostile to our political ideas from establishing themselves.” (A Makhnovist bulletin stated: “…the cultivation, organization and erection by constraints on their part of any political authority hostile to the laboring people—which has nothing to do with the free expression of ideas—will in no ways be tolerated by the revolutionary insurgents.”) At various points, Bolsheviks and others were allowed to publish newspapers, but if they advocated specific policies with which the anarchists disagreed, they would be shut down. Whether one thinks this is valid is less important than recognizing that this behavior is “authoritarian” and “statist.” It clearly constitutes the suppression of a class (the capitalist owners) and the rule of another (the working class). This suppression and rule, as I said above, is the key component of a state in the Marxist tradition.
Further, they delegated broad authority to a “Regional Military-Revolutionary Council of Peasants, Workers and Insurgents.” This institution was the only one that was allowed to have a substantive number of weapons, and so had a functional monopoly on the use of violence. The Makhnovists used their military authority to suppress rival political ideas and organizations. Even the pro-anarchist historian Paul Avrich notes in his book Russian Anarchists, “the Military-Revolutionary Council, acting in conjunction with the Regional Congresses and the local soviets, in effect formed a loose-knit government in the territory surrounding Guliai-Pole.” (P. 214) It is telling that even anarchists admit that the Makhnovists built a state.
A similar situation occurred in Anarchist Spain, which lasted from 1936-9. On September 24, 1936 in a congress of the CNT’s Catalonia Regional Federation in which 500 delegates took part, the long debate in the anarcho-syndicalist movement between political and apolitical stance was for the first time clearly resolved in favor of the former. For the sake of antifascist war and syndicalist revolution, the congress decided to participate in the Generalitat cabinet. The Generalitat was the legislative power also known as the Parliament of Catalonia. The 1932 Statute of Autonomy granted Catalonia’s Parliament its own justice system with a High Court and its own police force. The Anarchists established a special body of armed men to carry out their will by force. What is this if not a state?
Indeed, the established liberal state volunteered to be dismantled. Leaders in the CNT-FAI were invited to a meeting with the head of the liberal government, who told them, “you have won and everything is in your power.” However, the anarchist’s nonsensical and idealist aversion to power caused them to refuse. The capitalist state was left intact with the hope that capitalism itself could be dismantled by ignoring the state and carrying out expropriation as if it did not exist. The fascists were able to take control of this state and use it to regroup, in remarkably similar fashion to the downfall of the Paris Commune in 1871. Juan Garcia Oliver, the Anarchist minister of justice, wrote that the anarchists would rather lose than establish the “anarchist dictatorship” of libertarian communism. It was precisely anarchist theory, with its idealist elevation of authority as the central evil, that lead to the ascendency of the fascists.
This is not simply a case of one historian or one anarchist having a subpar analysis. The leading Anarchist theorist Mikhail Bakunin said something similar about the Paris Commune of 1871. He wrote, “They had to set up a revolutionary government and army against the government and army of Versailles. In order to fight the monarchist and clerical reaction, they were compelled to organize themselves in a Jacobin manner.” (quoted lin Louis Michael, Rebel Lives, p. 73). Bakunin justified the need for a state in a revolutionary situation, which should lend credence to the Marxist conception thereof.
History shows that all prominent anarchist movements have built states. They did not do this because they had consciously betrayed their principles. They created states because they were in a hostile situation, surrounded by enemies both internal and external. They could not help but establish states and, in so doing, affirm the correctness of Marx’s teachings on the subject. States are not only a requirement for revolution, they are an inevitability. The question is not whether we will take state power, but what that power will look like and how it will be used.
Throughout this essay, I have continually counterposed the Marxist view of the state with the Anarchist view. Here, I want to examine that more directly. Anarchists agree with Marxists that the state is, to quote Kropotkin, “the chief bulwark of capital.” However, the state has an added dimension for anarchists. It is the originator of authority and hierarchy in an abstract sense. The state is, for anarchists, viewed as an abstract and external power standing above society. Like liberals, anarchists view the state as being separate from the rest of society. Unlike liberals, who assume that the state exists to mediate conflict, anarchists assert that the state is the source of conflict. Ultimately, both of these conceptions are idealist and at odds with the facts.
Marxists see the state, as I have explained, as a political superstructure that rests upon an economic base of exploitation and class domination. Anarchist thought generally inverts this formulation. It does not start from the material basis of society, but from the forms to which the base has given expression. In other words, anarchists see the state not as an expression of class domination, but as the idea from which authority and domination flow in general. The Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta states, “the state is the impersonal, abstract expression of that state of affairs personified by government.” He goes on to say that the abolition of the state is “the abolition of political order based on authority.” The state as a political form is confused, in anarchist thought, with the idea of authority itself.
Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin takes this concept even further than Malatesta, describing the state as “the historical cause of all violence.” He further writes, “the source of…misfortunes lie[s]…in the very principle and fact of government.” This misses the fact that the state does not exist for the sake of domination alone. The state does not perpetuate violence and misfortunes for the sake of authority itself, but for the sake of economic exploitation. The anarchists recognize that the state has a strong relationship to class domination, but they regard this relationship as being inverted. It is on the basis of the state, anarchists argue, that the basis of class domination rests. Domination, therefore, precedes inequality. This is because, for Bakunin, ideas precede history. Throughout his work, the state is depicted as both the material apparatus that metes out actual harm, and as the concept of authority that obscures the concept of liberty.
Bakunin’s conception of social revolution is similarly idealist. Bakunin argues that liberty, obscured by the state, is a necessary precondition for socialist revolution. Social revolutionaries, therefore, should immediately remove both the abstract and concrete authority of the state. Then, left to their own devices, humans would, “make the spontaneous organization of labor.” Once everyone is convinced of the nebulous, transhistorical idea of liberty, they will carry out remaking the world on their own. The only thing that is necessary for social revolution, in the anarchist view, is provocation to revolt. Bakunin writes, “we are convinced that the masses carry in their instincts…all the elements of future social organization.” For Bakunin, humans are already prepared to act in their natural state of total freedom. The only thing stopping them is the state.
This seems to be in contradiction to Bakunin’s own views. The state is seen an all-encompassing force that abstracts liberty. Paradoxically, the state has no lasting effects on human behavior. Despite its authoritarianism and “blunting of the general will,” the state has not removed or mitigated the ability of humans to act spontaneously in ways that are conducive to freedom. There will be no need for a transition period in which, as Lenin put it, “workers become accustomed to self-government.” By confusing the state with authority itself, Bakunin actually underplays the ways in which the state negatively affects society. For Bakunin, the state matters and is trivial all at once.
The state and capitalism are both, in the anarchist formulation, unnatural attachments from outside, rather than products of definite human development. Since the state is both the expression of an idea and the idea itself, there can be no anarchist explanation as to how the state arose. Anarchists, intentionally or not, see the state as simply having dropped from the sky. This serves only to disarm genuine revolutionaries. If we do not understand where the state comes from, we cannot effectively combat it, much less reach a society in which it does not exist.
This anarchist definition of the state is as two things at once: the actual, physical apparatus, and the very concept of authority. It is both real, material things: courts, police, prisons, etc, and the idea of authority that prevents humans from acting in supposedly natural, libertarian ways.
This conception of the state as the originator of authority misses the point that the state is a specific set of institutions. What matters is not the fact that a state exists, but what kind of state it is. Is the department of labor made up of economists and academics or by labor unions? Despite the obvious class differences of these two formations, anarchists would hold that both are the same. Anarchists talk about the Soviet trade unions being “sucked into the state” as though the Soviet state could have existed without the trade unions. It is as though there is some platonic ideal of the state that can be uncovered if we strip away the specific institutions that make up the state. At the same time, however, anarchists regard the state as a specific set of historically-contingent institutions. The state is both an abstract idea and a material force, in the anarchist model.
The contradictory nature of the anarchist model becomes very problematic when we look at how this theory of the state influenced anarchist praxis. Because of the supposed transhistorical nature of human liberty, the path from class society to classless society is one that is automatic, that can occur at any time. If ideas come before history, then we do not need to shape the world to change how we think, we just need to think differently. There is no need to learn anything new about how to create an entirely new society, because we already know how to do it. Bakunin argued along this line, stating that “it would be stupid” to teach the people, since “all we must do is incite them to revolt.”
There are two problems with this. The first is that, even if we know something, that does not mean that we are conscious of it. There are factors such as ideology that obscure even the most obvious truths. This is the issue with seeing the state as an abstract idea: it mitigates the effects that the state as an institution has on the material world, and thus cannot offer us a path to a stateless society. Anarchism, because of its idealism, is automatically limiting. This should be obvious since, as I described above, every self-described anarchist society has had a state.
The second problem is very much related to the first. It is that we would already be living in a classless society if this were the case. If the only thing stopping us from achieving communism is the idea of authority, we have we not already decided to change it? There are certainly enough people in the world who are dissatisfied with capitalism to make this possible, if anarchism holds true. The very fact that we do not live in a classless society proves that ideas are not enough to change reality. What we need is an organization that is capable of translating those ideas into the material world. What we need, in short, is a state.