Marx on the State, Proletarian Dictatorship and the Commune

This engagement with Marx is part of a much longer study of what happens to the state under socialism in power. Initially, I did not give so much attention to Marx’s observations on the state, for I had been told that Marx does not have a systematic theory of the state. To some extent this is true, especially if one focuses on the forms of the bourgeois (capitalist) or even absolutist state. However, once I began to examine what Marx did say about states, I found much more than might be expected – especially concerning what may be the form of the state after a communist revolution. At the same time, I found very few adequate treatments of this material, treatments that engage carefully with Marx’s texts. Why? A major reason is that so many Marxist attempts focus on the bourgeois or capitalist state, neglecting to a large extent what might follow this state form. Obviously, this is a retreat from Marx’s texts, for various reasons (I have a sense as to why but will not elaborate here). So I undertake in what follows a relatively simple task: identifying Marx’s key points concerning the state, based on careful analyses of the texts. In presenting this material, I exercise a strict self-discipline: as far as possible, I avoid reading later positions (Lenin, Stalin and so on) back into earlier ones.

I have organised the material in sections. The first concerns his observations – usually brief and scattered – on the forms of the state that have hitherto existed, especially absolutist, bourgeois and imperialist forms (which he experienced directly in Prussia and England). The second part outlines his proposals for what may follow, focusing initially on the dictatorship of the proletariat. The third part deals with his thoughts on the commune, based on the experiment in Paris in 1871. The material on the proletarian dictatorship and the commune evinces not a few tensions, which Marx bequeathed to the subsequent tradition. But he also begins to offer a possible resolution. For the sake of clarity, I provide a schematic tabulation of the core ideas based on key texts: his critique of Hegel, sections of The German Ideology, ‘The Class Struggles in France’ along with a few texts from the same period, and a collection statements between 1871 and 1875, ending with ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’. Please note: since this a draft of an article that will be published, I have removed all references and footnotes and shortened some sections. I begin with his observations on the forms of the state that have existed thus far.

Hitherto Existing Forms of the State

  1. The state is produced out of the economic realities of mode of production, private property, division of labour and classes. Although Marx describes this ground as bürgerliche Gesellschaft (bourgeois society rather than ‘civil society’) in the critique of Hegel, already by the first rough outline of historical materialism in The German Ideology, a class-based economic analysis emerges.
  2. The dominant class determines the nature of the state in various ways. This determination may be more direct, as the manifesto puts it: the ‘executive of the modern State is but a committee [Ausschuß] for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’. Or the determination may be indirect, since the class in question may not be – due to internal contradictions and tensions – always in immediate control. Yet this class’s framework sets the terms for all actors. As The German Ideology observes, the ‘social power’ of a ruling class has ‘its practical-idealistic expression in each case in the form of the state’, meaning that ‘their power must be constituted as the state [als Staat konstituieren]’.
  3. The state is separated from and relates agonistically with society. This position already appears in the critique of Hegel: ‘In short, he [Hegel] presents everywhere the conflict between bürgerliche Gesellschaft and the state [Mit einem Wort: Er stellt überall den Konflikt der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft und des Staates dar]’.
  4. The state is semi-autonomous from social and economic forces, becoming the arena where class struggles can play out. The autonomy may be more or less, depending upon the particular situation. It is best encapsulated in two observations, one concerning the French absolute monarchy as an ‘executive power [Exekutivgewalt], with its enormous bureaucratic and military organisation’ that had complex forms of representation and transformation and the other concerning bourgeois or ‘vulgar democracy’ as precisely the ‘last form of state of bourgeois society [bürgerlichen Gesellschaft]’ in which ‘the class struggle has to be fought out to a conclusion’.
  5. Marx has a preference for historical narratives, which emphasise the increasing centralisation and repression of the bourgeoisie’s path to political and economic dominance. Even his more philosophical reflections tend to be historically situated.

Let me pause for a moment to highlight certain features. Of the few who have – some time ago now – actually engaged with Marx’s texts on the state, the overwhelming focus is on this material. It may be described as the period before October, before a communist revolution. If they do dare to explore what might happen after a revolution, they opt for the Paris commune (see below). Further, the points identified are not mutually exclusive. Thus, points 1-2 sit side by side, with one emphasising the production of the state from economic realities and the other the class-based determination of the nature of the state. And points 3-4 draw near to one another, for point 3 is an agonistic model while point 4 stresses the relative autonomy of the state. When Marx waxes philosophical, he assumes Hegel’s position of the conflict between bürgerliche Gesellschaft and the state (point 3), with the state thereby autonomous (point 4). At the same time, Marx is already keen to locate these reflections in specific historical contexts. Thus, he stresses that the state in question is the bourgeois state or – given the situation in Germany – the transitional context between absolutist and bourgeois states. Even bürgerliche Gesellschaft is not some universal ‘civil society’ but a distinct product connected with the rise of the European bourgeoisie and capitalism (so also in The German Ideology).

However, the historical narratives are more common, where we find modulations on each of the points noted above, depending on specific historical circumstances. I will not outline the historical arguments here (that is for the full article), although they appear in texts like ‘On the Jewish Question’, The German Ideology, the manifesto, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire’ and ‘The Civil War in France’. While these historical accounts move, with some variations, through each of the points identified earlier, the direction is clear: the bourgeoisie’s final ability to set the agenda for the state, thereby determining the state’s nature. This agenda is implicitly economic, securing the many dimensions of the state to ensure the dominance of capital, although Marx tends not to spell out the details. At the same time, this dominance is riven with contradictions, not only in terms of the bourgeoisie’s own tensions, but also in the sense that the bourgeoisie does not need to be in direct control at all times. What has happened to the state’s relative autonomy, if not alien nature? The narrative turns: the very nature of the bourgeois state is to exploit the working class, so much so that the latter ‘cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’.

Dictatorship of the Proletariat

How does one overcome these forms of the state after a revolution? On this matter, Marx offers two proposals that sit rather uncomfortably with one another. However, since he later hints as a narrative as to how they may be related, I begin with the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, as it appears in two groups of texts: one between 1850 and 1852 in relation to the 1848 revolutions, and the other group between 1871 to 1875.

  1. After a socialist revolution, a proletarian dictatorship should be established. This dictatorship is directly opposed to ‘bourgeois dictatorship’ or ‘bourgeois terrorism’, which perpetuates the ‘rule of capital’ and the ‘slavery of labour’. Hence the slogan: ‘Overthrow of the bourgeoisie! Dictatorship of the working class [Diktatur der Arbeiterklasse]!’ In other words, the proletarian dictatorship is the ‘revolt against the bourgeois dictatorship’ and thereby a ‘change of society’.
  2. The focus is both economic and political: the ‘appropriation of the means of production, their subjection to the associated working class’. This entails overcoming exploitation and ensuring the economic well-being for workers (and peasants), for the proletarian dictatorship is the means to achieve ‘the abolition of all the relations of production’ on which class distinctions rest, the ‘abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production, to the revolutionising of all the ideas that result from these social relations’.
  3. The dictatorship is repressive, ‘entailing the submission’ of the ‘privileged classes’ (and indeed the counter-revolution) to the ‘dictatorship of the proletarians by keeping the revolution in continual progress until the achievement of communism’. More sharply, the proletariat ‘as a ruling class violently abolishes the old conditions of production [als herrschende Klasse gewaltsam die alten Produktionsverhältnisse aufhebt]’.
  4. It is centralised. In a significant letter to the press from 1850, Marx connects his comments on the dictatorship of the proletariat with the measures outlined in the manifesto. Not only does the manifesto include repressive measures as a transition to removing the conditions for class society (see next point), but it also clearly stresses the need for centralised measures. Although all of its ten points require a strong government, I stress the centralisation and indeed monopoly of communication, transport and credit in a national bank, the abolition of private property in land and inheritance, the control and expansion of agriculture and industry as the instruments of production owned by the state, the ‘establishment of labour armies’ and the ‘equal liability’ of all adults to labour. In short, it entails the state’s centralised control over the means of production.
  5. This dictatorship is transitional: revolutionary socialism is ‘the declaration of the permanence of the revolution, the class dictatorship of the proletariat [Klassendiktatur des Proletariats] as the necessary transit point to the abolition of class distinctions generally’. Or as ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’ famously put it, between capitalist and communist society is also a ‘political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat [die revolutionäre Diktatur des Proletariats]’. This is the same as what Marx calls the first or initial stage of communism; no time is indicated.

Clearly, the dictatorship of the proletariat requires a strong, centralised and repressive mechanism for dealing with the counter-revolution, embodied in the ‘bourgeois dictatorship’. The latter will not disappear immediately, so the working class must seek to break it. The question arises, especially in light of Marx’s argument (noted earlier) that the nature of the state is determined by the class in power, as to whether the proletarian dictatorship can become a form of the state. Marx does not elaborate, but I will return to this question below. He also saw the proletarian dictatorship as transitional, albeit without specifying any time frame. This brings us to his observations on the Paris commune.

The Commune

  1. The very new form of the commune entails overcoming the old form of ‘state power’, which entails moving the functions or apparatus of governance from previous forms of the state to the communes. Marx repeatedly speaks of the ‘legitimate functions’, if not the ‘whole initiative hitherto exercised by the State’ being put in the hands of, ‘discharged by’ and ‘restored’ to the ‘responsible agents of society’.
  2. This appropriation has a number of levels, for example: a) moving from a misrepresentative (bourgeois) parliamentary system to a ‘working body, executive and legislative at the same time’, elected by local, direct and revocable universal suffrage; b) suppressing the standing army and substitution by the ‘institution’ of the National Guard; c) stripping the police of ‘political attributes’ and making them into responsible and revocable agents of the commune; d) divesting the judiciary of ‘sham independence’ and ensuring it is elected.
  3. Shifting such functions entails decentralisation: the old centralised government has to give way to the ‘self-government of the producers’ – a model to be replicated in even the smallest hamlet.
  4. It also entails breaking the mechanism of repression, whether police, army, judiciary or ‘spiritual force of repression’ (church and education).
  5. The economic element is muted, restricted to a general observation concerning a ‘working-class government’ for the sake of the ‘emancipation of Labour’, a ‘lever for uprooting the economical foundations upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule’. Since everyone becomes a worker (and the workers have the interests of peasants at heart), labour ‘ceases to be a class attribute’.

A significant distance separates the observations on the dictatorship of the proletariat and the commune: one draws together economic and political factors and is focused on appropriating the means of production, while the other treads lightly on economics; one is clearly centralised and repressive while the other seeks to overcome the centralisation and repression of ‘state power’. In short, one stipulates strong measures to overcome ‘bourgeois dictatorship’ and the expected counter-revolution while the other imagines a free association of equal workers (which was soon defeated by the counter-revolution). Apart from the fact that Marx would bequeath this tension to subsequent efforts to understand the socialist state, the question remains: was Marx aware of the tension, if not outright contradiction? He never equated the proletarian dictatorship with the commune, but a few hints suggest that he was aware of the problem and that he made some initial steps to develop a narrative as to how they might be related. The first appears in a reported speech – in paraphrase – at a celebration of the seventh anniversary of the International. Marx is reported as saying that while the commune sought to remove the conditions for oppression by transferring the means of production to the labourer (note the economic focus here) and thereby bring to an end class society, ‘before such a change could be effected a proletarian dictature would become necessary, and the first condition of that was a proletarian army’. Indeed, the ‘working c1asses would have to conquer the right to emancipate themselves on the battlefield’. While this text is a paraphrase of Marx’s speech, he seems to be suggesting here that the commune missed precisely this important step: a dictatorship of the proletariat is necessary before the aims of the commune could be achieved. A few months earlier, Marx had made a similar point in a letter to Ludwig Kugelmann. While full of praise for the initiative and bravery of the communards, he observes that it is no longer needed to ‘transfer the bureaucratic military machine from one hand to another, but to break [zerbrechen] it, and that is essential for every real people’s revolution on the Continent’. While this is what the commune was attempting to do, it made two mistakes: it did not march on Versailles immediately (and so deal with the counter-revolution) and the ‘Central Committee surrendered its power too soon, to make way for the Commune’. The hint in these pieces is that the commune forwent the necessity of the proletarian dictatorship. Indeed, I have organised the points above in terms of this narrative sequence, for it is suggested by Marx and is implicit in his idea that the proletarian dictatorship is a transitional phase. We may now understand Marx’s suggestions in his ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’ concerning a first and further stage of communism, without stipulating that it should be merely two. It seems that the dictatorship of the proletariat is coterminous with the first stage of communism and that the further stage would begin to see the unfolding of full communism.

A New State?

Further, what happens to the state in the proletarian dictatorship and the commune? Marx does not say explicitly that the former is a type of state, but it exercises the activities or functions of what would normally be connected with a strong state. And this point has implications in light of Marx’s assumption that the nature of the state is determined by the class in control. The commune is another matter, for Marx equivocates. Or at least he does so between the earlier drafts and the final form of ‘The Civil War in France’. In the first draft, he writes that the commune was not a revolution ‘against this or that, legitimate, constitutional, republican or Imperialist form of State Power’. Instead, it was a revolution against ‘the State itself, this supernaturalist abortion of society, a resumption by the people for the people, of its own social life’. The ‘state’ per se is ‘separate and independent from society’, the machinery of class domination by its very definition. In this light, it matters not which form of the state appears, for each is essentially the same, against which the commune becomes a Hegelian negation. However, even in the second and especially the final version of the text Marx drops this sentence and his writing is more considered, specifying ‘state power’ and delineating clearly the commune’s exercise of many functions of the state apparatus, which is directly responsible to the people. In fact, Marx also mentions in the first draft the ‘state functions reduced to a few functions for general national purposes’, but the point is muted. The final text would elaborate much further: the commune exercises not state power but the necessary aspects of its apparatus. To add to these intriguing possibilities, I add that the German word used when Marx discusses the transitional function of the dictatorship of the proletariat is none other than Aufhebung/aufheben (noun and verb). In the manifesto, he and Engels write that the old conditions of production, when the proletariat is the ruling class, are violently aufhebt, and in his letter to Weydemeyer of 1852 Marx writes that the proletarian dictatorship is a transition to the Aufhebung of all classes. This terminology is favoured by Marx at crucial turns in his argument in other contexts, with the distinctly Hegelian sense of sublation, of both abolishing what has gone before and transforming it into a rather different entity. The tantalising suggestion arises whether the conditions of production and classes will not simply be abolished and destroyed, but that they will be transformed and continue in hitherto unexpected forms. Does this also apply to the state, which would then continue in a way not seen before?

Finally, Marx stresses that both the proletarian dictatorship and the commune are very much works in progress. While one is transitional, he observes in relation to the commune that one should not ‘expect miracles’ or ‘ready-made utopias’, but rather be prepared to for long struggles, historical processes and the need to transform both circumstances and human beings. A crucial aspect of these struggles is dealing with counter-revolution. The proletarian dictatorship was geared to deal with such matters, but even with the commune Marx notes that it existed as a ‘besieged town’. The rest of the account of the commune, concerning the deception and savagery of the old order based at Versailles, shows how vicious the counter-revolution can be. It may well be the reason he began to consider a sequence of phases.

As mentioned at the beginning, I have restricted myself to Marx’s texts on the state, including those co-written with Engels. Above all, I have tried not to read later positions from a range of Marxist and indeed non-Marxist thinkers into Marx’s positions. Instead, I have sought to present Marx’s positions, exploring their tensions and – where appropriate – their implications. What others would do with approaches to the state, from Engels (after Marx’s death) onwards, is another question.


8 thoughts on “Marx on the State, Proletarian Dictatorship and the Commune

  1. Hello Mr. Boer, I really like your blog and I come to it a lot. I have a question, however. I have been told by a Hegelian friend of mine (as well as a few Marxists) that Marxist dialectics (and critiques of Capitalism) necessitate the Marxist view of metaphysics which is Substance Monism + Physicalism. This would cause problems for a belief in God. What would you say to this?

  2. With regards to the movie ‘Reds’ (1981), it’s a 3 hour epic film that is very well done and fun to watch.

    Here’s my favourite scene, it’s of the October Revolution

  3. “The tantalising suggestion arises whether the conditions of production and classes will not simply be abolished and destroyed, but that they will be transformed and continue in hitherto unexpected forms.”

    Marx explicitly says this, somewhere – German Ideology? Holy Family? when he talks about bourgeosie & proletariat as opposites, but notes how the transformed b & p are not the same as the old ones.

    Yes, imho it is very important to note that his use of “aufheben”. Imho by far the best English translation is “resolve”, which afaik Hegel scholars never, or hardly ever use, except often enough, interestingly, unconsciously when they explain what is meant. The only other one I like is Michael Inwood’s “kick upstairs”, which is fun, but obviously not usable. The common translation as “abolish” – which Marx himself unfortunately used – is horrible. The meaningless word “sublate” is only better because it has no (misleading) meaning to anyone, but is still bad – for the same reason.

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