The Origin of the Modern Approach to the State: Weber or Engels?

As part of my research on the socialist state, I have found that many indeed cite, rely upon and try to modify the influential definition given by Max Weber: ‘the state is the form of human community [Gemeinschaft] that (successfully) lays claim to the monopoly of legitimate physical violence [Gewalt] within a particular territory’ (The Vocation Lectures, p. 33). From Charles Tilly, through Norbert Elias, to Pierre Bourdieu, many assume that Weber inaugurated the modern tradition of the analysis of the state – in contrast to the classical tradition (Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau) that saw the state in quasi-theological terms as arising from a state of nature and providing the necessary limits on human society for the sake of the common good.

There is profound problem with this assumption. Weber is actually dependent on an even more influential definition that was first proposed by none other than Friedrich Engels. In a crucial section of The Origin of the Family, Engels writes of the state arising from within the dynamics of a society riven with class conflict (a point that would be taken up by Lenin) and that the state divides its subjects ‘according to territory’ and ‘establishes a public power [Gewalt]’ that is separate from the population organising itself as a military force (Origin of the Family, p. 269). Here are two crucial terms in Weber’s definition: power (or violence) and territory.

For some strange reason, Weber neglects to mention Engels. Is this a Foucault moment, when an influential thinker prefers not to refer to sources of thought since people will simply assume that the thought is new? Or did Weber forget, or perhaps even not know, that Engels had proposed this position first. Given the influence of Marxism at the time, Weber’s ignorance is really not an option.

The conclusion: the modern tradition of reflection the European nation-state (the limitation is deliberate) begins with Engels, as indeed does the Marxist tradition via Lenin.

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8 thoughts on “The Origin of the Modern Approach to the State: Weber or Engels?

  1. Thanks for this. It makes me wonder about Nietzsche’s scattered references to state in Zarathustra and On the Genealogy of Morals, and if/how they might relate to Engels. As someone who comes to thinking about the state through Deleuze and Guattari’s reading of Hobbes and Nietzsche, I have not spent much time with Engels (although I will now).

    1. He is usually left out of the accounts of theories of the state. Some move from scattered references in Marx to Lenin, while others simply trace a ‘classical’ position (Hobbes, Locke etc) before Weber’s ‘breakthrough’.

  2. Thanks for this Roland – I was not aware of the Engels quote in this connection. It’s uncanny how scholars continue to cite Weber as gospel truth, in much political theology it suits well the anti-statists.

    1. I am working more on this and it is becoming clear that Engels sets in train a double-sided tradition. One moves via Weber, who picks up some elements from Engels and leaves others; the other goes via Lenin into more recent Marxist deliberations, although they usually caricature Lenin’s as an instrumentalist approach.

  3. Weber (or Engels) is still the starting point for theories of the state. But the historical/archaeological record shows the seed-beds of states were not agglomerations of military force but sacred sites. I think one can tie this to the sociological fact that really only one-to-many hierarchy scales, and that such forms require a final decision point to function. It is not the god of war that hovers over the king in Sumerian steles, but the god of justice.

    In any vent, Weber is wrong historically, even in Europe. As Susan Reynolds observed, medieval rulers did not claim a monopoly of legitimate force. They did claim the right and duty of final arbitration.

    1. Indeed, a curious bifurcation in scholarship exists, whereby sociologists and political scientists focus on the modern (bourgeois) state, while archaeologists et al focus on the emergence of ancient states. This is a rather different and fascinating topic, although you will find that the god of war-and-justice appears among the Assyrians, along with extraordinary spin as to the extent of their wavering powers.

      1. I think political scientists take Weber for granted. Sociologists less so – they are more interested in how “legitimate” is constructed and “physical violence” perceived and defined. Neither discipline is particularly historically-minded, although that may be changing (slowly).

        One of Marx’ strengths was his ability to draw on the historical scholarship of his day, even if his categories look out-dated now. I wish his example were more followed.

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