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Theories of the state: Marxist

Marxist theory of state the most protruding theory. Marxist theoretical views challenges the basic concepts of liberal state as well as emphasises that it subjugates majority men of society to accomplish its objectives. It is to be abolished or smashed without which the emancipation of common men will never be possible. Though, a problem about academic analysis of Marxist theory of state is that nowhere Marx has systematically analysed the theory. Marx stated that every state is a tyranny. It is said that every state is forced by extra-moral, extra-legal force.

Marx (1818- 1883) and his colleague Engels (1820-1895) have distinct explanations and statements which established state theory. In the Communist Manifesto, 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 Upheaval explained that “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 description of Marxist state is not basically different from the definitions given by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto. The state is basically 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 mechanism for mistreatment. This idea has been expounded by Lenin.

Origin of State:

Marx, Engels and their supporters (particularly Lenin) had no faith on the social contract theory as the origin of state. They have observed the origin from a materialistic’ viewpoint which emphasises that though the state is the formation 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 requirement of a super power which could provide protection eventually.

  1. As soon as there was private property, two classes of men there appeared such as 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 formed a force within the society and this force ultimately assumed the status of state.

Marx and Engels have established 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 intricately analysed the origin and development of state. The state is not something originated from the society. It is the product of society. It is quoted that “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 living in society laid the foundation of state for the realisation of their class interests. Engels in this book has firmly stated that the interests of the owners of property are at completely opposite to those who are not the owners; because of this there were rattles of interests between these two classes and the interests were irreconcilable.

Simultaneously, there developed a hostility 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 only aims were to control the persons who were not the owners of property and to develop a mechanism to help the property owners. The state in this way was created as a public power.

The man-made state had two main functions that include 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 observed that though the state is the product of society, gradually but steadily it became the owner of huge power and it stood above society.

But though the state stood above the society, it was always responsive with the owners of property. It is to conclude that the state is the outcome of human contrivance and was made with specific aims. 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 from materialistic standpoint.

Models of the Marxist Theory of State:

The Marxists have revealed 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.

1. The Instrumentalist Model:

Marx and Engels stated that the state was created to defend 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 vital function of the state, the Marxists have inferred a particular model of Marxist theory of state which is called the instrumentalist model. The central ideology of this model is that the state is used as an instrument for the fulfilment of interests of a particular class or section of society. The chief representatives of this model are Ralph Miliband, Sanderson, and Avineri. There are many others who have lent their support to this model. Even Lenin recognized this model in his highly praised 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 highlighted 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 resentment. The bourgeoisie used the state to eloquent the interests of the capitalists. From historical review, Marx has revealed that without using the state as an instrument, the bourgeoisie could not survive because its survival depended upon its ability to amass and guard wealth.

Central Idea of Instrumentalist Approach:

Marx said that the state is of the most powerful, economically dominant class. It means that the bourgeois state is totally controlled by the dominant class. This economically influential and dominant class uses the state to serve its own purposes. This is the instrumentalist character of state. In a class society, this special role of the state is foreseeable and this can be elucidated in the form of the following points:

- 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).

- 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.

- Because of this, the interests are irreconcilable.

- 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.

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

- 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 huge political literature, Marx and Engels have expounded the instrumentalist idea of state but analysts of Marxism had opinion that in the Communist Manifesto and The German Ideology, the concept has importance. The bourgeois class gradually and steadily captured political power and finally established its authority over all aspects of governmental matters.

In Declaration, 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 and the economy has constantly transformed the industry, mode of production. The bourgeoisie did it by presenting 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”. It is assessed that the main aim of the bourgeoisie is to control all the divisions of government, the economy with all its ramifications and finally the world market. Marx had insistently 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 highlighted by Marx and Engels also has 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 efforts of Marx and Engels. They have said “By the mere fact that it is a class and no longer is an estate the bourgeoisie 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 limited within the local political arena but its influence spreads throughout the national politics. It can be said that the capitalist class is the regulator of both local and national politics. In the Manifesto, they expressed 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.

Marx and Engels denoted civil society as numerous organisations and institutions and the social, political, economic, cultural aspects of society. Marx and Engels have further perceived that if there were no classes which means no private property, there would not arise the necessity of any state system at all. There it can be concluded that the instrumentalist approach of Marxist political study is closely related with the development of private property and state structure.

Marx and Engels observed the entire episode from the viewpoint of exploitation inflicting untold miseries upon the workers and the capitalists overlooked it. Marx assessed the historical facts and specified 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.


  1. It is generally perceived 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 opponents further maintained that the state sometimes acts 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 considers that there is vagueness in devising instrumentalist approach. Jessop further said 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 unlucky that Marx has ignored this aspect.
  4. Jessop has observed that at different times, Marx and Engels have stressed other roles, but their supporters 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 signifies that though the capitalist state works as an instrument under the dominance of the dominant class that is the bourgeoisie, it exercises its power autonomously. 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. Therefore the words relative autonomy do not mean that the state always acts independent of dominating class.

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. The recent studies of Marxism have discovered that Marx and Engels did not repudiate the impartial role of state and this is evident in many literatures. Ralph Miliband is the supporter 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.

It is demonstrated in political studies that the state generally admits those policies and tries to implement schemes which will give constructive results in the long run and will serve the purpose of the state as well as that of the bourgeoisie in effective way. The state gives priority to long term interests over short term interests. Furthermore, 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 suggests 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”.

When investigating the causes, the state attempts to maintain neutrality or establish its autonomy, it is found that the 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 interrupt 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 gave 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 fact is that though the state acts as a tool, in numerous cases it tries to maintain its autonomous character and it does so to enhance its image.

Relative Autonomy in Marx’s writing:

Marx did not directly denote 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 characterized by the powerful bureaucracy. It acted on behalf of the class rule of bourgeoisie. In consequent regimes, the state as an instrument of exploitation did not diminished its importance. That is, the instrumentalist approach was quite valid. But, “only under the Second Bonaparte, the state seem to have made itself completely independent. As against civil society, the state machine maintained 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 that period, he observed the two opposite roles of state that included, as an instrument of exploitation and as an impartial organ of administration. The state amalgamated 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. Miliband stated that this would appear to suggest the complete independence of the state power from all social forces in civil society. 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.

In the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx further commented that, “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 emphasized that the state did not exist is mid-air or in vacuum. It will always signify 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 association of the state for a particular class or to any dominating group cannot be denied. Marx detailed that when the two dominant groups or classes are in perfect balance, in that situation the state might act autonomously. But this is a rare situation. In the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Marx had acknowledged 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 management. 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 abandon its own autonomy. Marx did not argue in clear and unambiguous language.

The State and the Ideology:

Though Marx and Engels have visualized the state from the background of materialism, they have never ignored the philosophical aspect of state. The ideology has an important role in the management of state. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels have emphasized that in every class state, the governing class always dominants in the economic, political, cultural and other aspects of state. This does not mean that the state will always denote a particular ideology. However, the state will represent the views and ideas of the economically dominant class. The German Ideology quoted the following:

“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 writing, Marx and Engels have emphasized many points that are mentioned below:

  1. A bourgeois state has always some philosophy.
  2. This ideology is supported or fostered by the reigning class.
  3. Ruling class is one 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 turns as a Defence:

Marx and Engels have focused on the importance of ideology. Though, they are not quite clear about it. The purpose of the ruling class is always to exploit the workforces and other susceptible sections of society. But the exploiting class cannot expose the real character. The ruling class always uses the dogma to masquerade its real objective to exploit other classes. If the despicable motives of the ruling class appear that may cause embarrassment or displacement of the class rule. In other words, destabilization may occur. To avoid any risk, 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 show that they rule not for their own benefits but for a dogma. To grab an ideology, the exploiters advance their explanation. 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 believed: “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 persuade the general people of the benefits of the bourgeois rule agitation is bound to arise.

State, Reform and Revolution:

The present structure of the state is to be transformed through reforms. Whether Marx supported reforms is not clear from his huge literature. Again there is a controversy on this issue. Interpreters of Marx’s thought had opinion that Marx thought that without revolution, fundamental change of society is not possible. But the success of revolution depends upon some prerequisites. The workers must be mentally and materially prepared for an uprising. They must form a well-organised and organized class. They must be conscious of the extent of the exploitation. The workers will appreciatively welcome all sorts of troubles and will make sacrifice needed for the success of revolution. Some criticizers 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. Improvements should not constitute the goals but they are temporary means to accomplish major goals. “As far as Marx is concerned it can be said that in his standpoint, the worker’s movement should indeed seek improvements within the limits 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 constantly whispered that the liberation of the working class is never possible without the appropriation of state power and this can be done through protracted class struggle leading to revolution. It can be said that revolution is the only resolution to all the problems that are found in a bourgeois state. Revolution will bring positive results. First of all, aim of revolution is to capture the state power from the bourgeoisie and to establish the complete authority of the working class which Marx and Engels have labelled as ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. After that the working class will proceed to change the bourgeois structures radically. Thus, it can be said that the chief objective of proletarians’ revolution is to seize state power, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin have stated that launching of a single revolution by the working class would not be sufficient to accomplish state goal.

Revolution should be enduring. Revolution would continue till the communism is achieved. Marxist theory of state and the theory of revolution are thoroughly connected concepts. However, Marx and Marxists have made differences between different types of revolution. These differences may have great significance in the field of comprehensive analysis of Marxist theory of revolution.

Marx, Engels and Lenin observed the state absolutely from different angle. They viewed the state not only a usurper of human independence but also an instrument of subjugating human beings. Such a state need not be eliminated forcibly. The state power should be detained compulsorily and at the same time, the supreme authority of working class should be established. At the same time, all classes would be abolished. When these two objectives are attained, there will be no importance of state because it was only the instrument of mistreatment.

Assessment of the Theory of State:

The theory of state stated and elaborated by Marx undergone criticism.

1. Marx and Engels foreseen that the proletariat class through protracted class struggle and permanent revolution would succeed in arresting 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. There were more matured capitalist states such as United States, Britain, France, and Germany. In these countries, working class has not been able to seize political power.

So the first calculation remains unsatisfied. In the second prediction, it can simply be observed that there is doubt about to what extent Russia had thrived in establishing socialism not to speak of communism. The “first socialist state” in the world shrunken 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 anticipated that state would weaken away. The huge state structure of former Soviet Union has falsified this tall claim of Marx and Engels. The Soviet state was as powerful as were Britain, United States during the prime of Cold War. Even after the recession of Cold War, the Soviet state was obviously the super power along with United States of America. China is another socialist state and today it is a huge economic power.

Though the orthodox Marxists interpreted the withering away of state and want to establish that Marxist idea is correct, it remains that, it is no longer a logical concept.

3. Marx and Engels believed that only the establishment of the autocracy of the proletariat would be able to liberate the working class. Today, the working class is not only joint, its bargaining power has improved several times. From time to time the worker’s demands have been met by the capitalists. It can be deduced that the workers are still browbeaten, 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 does not think of capturing state power for the fulfilment of the legitimate demands. It sits at a bargaining table and settles all the disputes.

The attitude of the workers and that of the capitalists have gone through major changes during the last century (from 1900 to 1999). Both the workers and capitalists have decided to avoid the conflicting situations and both feel that all the disputes can be politely settled. But in Marx’s time, the capitalists took stubborn attitude towards the workers and the latter retaliated it. In this way conflict increased.

4. There is a disagreement about the instrumentalist approach and the relative autonomy approach. If analysed the state structures of modern capitalist states, it can be established that the state acts on all important matters, independently. It is neither controlled nor dictated by the dominant class. There may be an immoral 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 opponents indicated that Marxist theory of state is not ideal. 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 strongly 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 has other limitation. He has said that the classless society will have no state, it will weaken away. If that was the case then which authority will settle the disputes in such a society? The classless society will not be occupied by gods. Conflicts in classless society must appear and for their settlement a sovereign body is essential. Marxist theory of state did not give solution to such cases. It is evaluated that Marx had opinion that the bourgeois was basically using the modern state for enhancing the lifestyle and prospects of the capitalist class of the society. One of the famous quotes from the Communist manifesto, Marx & Engels (1985. p.82) states “The executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”

Marx also supposed that communism was the best resolution for such a capitalist society. The conflict among the classes keeps increasing as the capitalism in the state develops, since the interests of the bourgeois are fostered by the state in capitalism. Additionally, capitalism also facilitates the bourgeoisie to give concessions to the proletariat, in scenarios where there is a social uncertainty. The welfare state of the Scandinavian regions had similar views to the Marxist view of the state. Concessions such as unemployment benefits, free education, and free health check and pension schemes are given by the bourgeois to the proletariat in certain Scandinavian states.

In short, Marx has been blamed of being a determinist and a reductionist. Many things are not related purely on economics, his awareness of the class system neglects to include the petty bourgeoisie, those who own small businesses and only employ themselves. He did not predict the improvements of living standards for all of society or the impact of the middle class. He did not include countries such as Russia and China who might revolt and denounce communism. He did not anticipate the fact that our society is a democratic one and that all have the right to equality and farness.

To summarise, the Marxist theory represented that the state serves as an instrument for the rich and the middleclass classes, who attempt continually to suppress the working classes or the public for its own personal welfares. The advocate of the Marxist theory, Karl Marx believed that most of the political power of the society is controlled by the bourgeois class. The modern state is also tremendously dependent on credits and taxes. Most of the credits and taxes are also borne by the bourgeois class. The media such as newspapers or television is also controlled by the bourgeois. This makes it easier for the bourgeois to enter politics and thrive in politics. The bourgeois state serves as a shared insurance pact which defends the interests of the bourgeois class at the expense of the exploited class (McLellan, 1971). Marx thought that politics is mainly a class conflict, and he explained that political relations can be renovated into economic ones. Marxists recommended that politics is mainly associated with the concepts of fight for power, however Weber differs with the standpoint of Marx. It is concluded that Marxism is a political theory that maintains that social revolutions comes about through economic class struggle. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels established the theory in the 19th century. Marxism formed the logical basis for the growth of communism in the early 20th century.