Marx: A Workers’ State, or a State not in the Present Political Sense

Following the abridged draft of an article on Marx and the state (I have now revised the first section), I have been able to do further work on what Marx says about the form of the state after a communist revolution. Fascinating stuff, which usually does not get much exposure. So here is the final section (with references and footnotes removed):

In light of Marx’s proposals for the dictatorship of the proletariat and the commune (which are tension), what happens to the state?

Many would be tempted to read back into Marx’s works the phrase coined by Engels, the dying away – or ‘withering’ – of the state. I deal with this matter fully in another study of Engels, suffice to refer here to a careful study by Draper (1970). He points out that Marx (and Engels) inherited a ‘primitive anti-statism’ that has a long history indeed in the history of social dissent. Later it would congeal into anarchism, but before it did so, Marx’s early statements reflect this position – de rigueur for any radical. Only when he introduces a sense of delay or ultimacy (already in 1846), does he signal the possibility of a somewhat distinct position. Developing such a position would have to wait some two decades, until the events in Paris.

In this situation in the 1870s, we find Marx struggling to articulate a position on the state after a revolution. The dictatorship of the proletarian was a relatively straightforward question, given that the ultimate moment entails a long in-between period. The proletarian dictatorship clearly exercises the activities or functions of what would normally be connected with a strong state. I think less here of the way it should use the mechanisms of existing state structures to prosecute its self-abolishing agenda. But distinct implications arise in light of Marx’s historical arguments that the nature of the state is determined by the class in control: if the workers and peasants are in control during a transitional period of proletarian dictatorship, does not the state begin to change its nature?

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’, being 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. This is the last outburst of the old and familiar anti-statist position in Marx’s texts. Notably, 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 certain 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.

In two other works from the 1870s, Marx offers a few intriguing suggestions along a similar line. Here we find him struggling to articulate a position concerning the nature of administration, if not governance, under communism. In ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, Marx tackles the question of the ‘free state’ proposed by the German workers’ party. I would like to highlight three features of Marx’s response. To begin with, he reiterates the thesis – well-established in his work by now – that ‘existing society’ is the ‘basis [Grundlage]’ of the existing state and that the state in question is not an independent entity. Here he adds a crucial parenthetical comment: ‘or of the future state in the case of future society’. In other words, any form of the state in future society would also be shaped by that society. Next, he points out that while present states manifest significant variety they have in common the fact that they are ‘based on modern bourgeois society [der modernen bürgerlichen Gesellschaft stehn]’. But what is the reason for the variety? They are ‘more or less capitalistically developed’, by which he means that they are ‘more or less free from medieval admixture’ and influenced by particular historical developments. Thus, even capitalist society, depending on the complexities of local histories, is in various stages of transition between feudalism and capitalism (in a European context). And this is so after hundreds of years of capitalist development. Will this also be the case in any future society, until at last the ‘present root, bourgeois society, will have died off [abgestorben ist]’? The final point returns to the state of the future. Marx asks: ‘what transformation will the state undergo in communist society [kommunistischen Gesellschaft]?’ One might be inclined to offer an anti-statist answer of the kind that Marx tended to invoke in earlier works. To forestall such an answer, he clarifies: ‘In other words, what social functions [welche gesellschaftliche Funktionen] will remain in existence there that are analogous to present state functions [jetzigen Staatsfunktionen analog]?’ These reflections are obviously in a similar vein to those of ‘The Civil War in France’ of a few years before. Even in a communist society, distinct social functions will be required that are analogous to present state functions. Or rather, Marx raises the question without offering an answer. The reason seems to be that he does not have the actual data, the experience of constructing a communist society after a revolution. As he observes, the question can be answered ‘only scientifically [nur wissenschaftlich]’. Now some ambivalence creeps into Marx’s text. Having raised the questions (above) and having refused an answer, he then mentions the transition period and the dictatorship of the proletariat. We are left wondering: when he mentions ‘communist society’ earlier, with its social functions analogous to present-day state functions, even hinting at some qualitatively different form of the state that arises from communist society, does he mean this first and transitional stage, however long it may be. Or does he mean the full realisation of communism, when bourgeois society has disappeared?

The other text is comprised of Marx’s marginal notes on Bakunin, where he deploys both the strongest language yet in terms of the proletarian dictatorship and a dialectical approach in which aforesaid dictatorship enables full communism. But I am interested here in his struggle to find an adequate terminology concerning the nature of the society that is to follow. The text is still close in spirit to his deliberations on the commune, but he finds that he must consider forms of organisation. In a series of responses to Bakunin’s questions, Marx makes the following pertinent points. In order to achieve ‘self-government of the communities’, one still needs an executive. Take the example of a trades union, where an executive administers the ‘common interests’. Obviously, such a situation entails ‘division of labour’. This not to say that a worker ceases to be a worker when elected to an executive, in the same way that a ‘factory owner today ceases to be a capitalist when he becomes a municipal councillor’. But what is the function of elections? They are not progressive in and of themselves, for they depend on the ‘economic foundations’, if not the ‘economic interrelations of the voters’. Thus, as soon as the ‘functions’ are no longer political, ‘1) government functions no longer exist; 2) the distribution of general functions has become a routine matter which entails no domination; 3) elections lose their present political character’. Clearly, Marx is struggling at this point, since he still seeks to assert the absence of ‘government functions’ and ‘political character’. At the same time, he has to admit that there is a ‘distribution of general functions’, if not division of labour, executives and the need to administer the new forms.

So he finds himself using two significant phrases. The first: there will be ‘no state in the present political sense [keinen Staat im jetzigen politischen Sinne geben]’. I hardly need to point out that Marx is leaving open the possibility of a state in a rather different political sense. The second: ‘what forms could management functions [Verwaltungsfunktionen] assume within such a workers’ state [Arbeiterstaats], if he wants to call it that?’ Well, says Marx, if you want to call this new formation anything, then perhaps ‘workers’ state’ will do for now, a placeholder for a better term.

Yet, Marx was also profoundly reticent to offer much in the way of concrete prognostication. This was not so much due to a wariness of blueprints, but rather to the knowledge that he had not experienced a successful revolution – one that had seen off the counter-revolution and had found some peace and space to begin constructing socialism. After all, one needs concrete evidence to be able to elaborate and develop theories that arise from the evidence. As I mentioned earlier, Marx points out that such a question can be answered ‘only scientifically’ [nur wissenschaftlich]’. To others would fall the experience and the consequent evidence, as well as the philosophical reflection necessary to understand what was happening, if not offer possible guides for action. That there would be unexpected turns and developments hardly needs saying.


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