Friedrich Engels: The State as a ‘Separated Public Power’

A perfect society, a perfect ‘State [Staat]’, are things which can only exist in the imagination [Phantasie]. On the contrary, all successive historical states [Zustände] are only transitory stages in the endless course of development of human society (Engels 1886 [1990], 359, 1886 [2011], 126).

The following material comprises an initial draft concerning Engels’s thoughts on actually existing states. It will eventually form part of a chapter in a book called The Socialist State: Philosophical Foundations. Some of the material may be well-known, but other material I examine has often been ignored. Since what follows is a prolegomenon to Engels’s potential contribution to understanding the socialist state, I have shaped the analysis with this in mind.

Engels’s reflections on ‘the state’ can best be summarised as a series of theses, following which I provide analysis of the key points that are relevant for the focus on what might happen to the state after a communist revolution.[1]

1. Engels repeatedly asserts that the state is a ‘public power [öffentliche Gewalt]’ that is ‘separated [getrennte]’ from society (Engels 1884 [1990]-b, 201, 210, 213, 221, 269-70, 1884 [1962], 95, 103, 107, 115, 165-66). This definition is based on the assumption that political ideas and practices ‘in the final instance [in letzter Instanz]‘ (Engels and Kautsky 1887 [1973], 494) derive from economic conditions.[2] It determines all of his observations concerning the nature and history of the state, from the ancient Athenians to his own day, as well as his initial thoughts on the state under socialism.

2. Thus, it follows that the state is not imposed from without, but arises from a society riven with ‘irreconcilable opposites’, which are ‘classes with conflicting economic interests’.

3. So that society does not tear itself to pieces, a Gewalt is necessary to ‘alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of “order”’.

4. This Gewalt ‘alienates itself more and more’ from society, so that it becomes ‘separated’, ‘alienated’ and ‘above’ society.

5. While the initial manifestation of this Gewalt may be in terms of an armed force that is no longer coterminous with the people (as a militia), it is also comprised of ‘material adjuncts, prisons and institutions of coercion of all kinds’. In short, these are instruments of repression.

6. Alongside such institutions are what Engels calls ‘organs of society [Organe der Gesellschaft]’. These are not part of society, standing in its middle, but are ‘above’ and ‘alien [entfremdenden]’ and need to be asserted through a system of laws and sustained through taxes. Although he does not use the term ‘apparatus’, he here describes an apparatus that is both above society and mediates between state power and society.

7. Is the state an instrument of the ruling class, a structure determined by this class, or it is somewhat autonomous? The question arises from three different emphases in Engels’s text, emphases that set the boundaries of subsequent Marxist debate:

a. ‘As a rule’, Engels writes, the state provides the means whereby the economically dominant class also becomes the politically dominant class. Engels speaks of the state being a ‘means of keeping’ down the oppressed, an ‘instrument [Werkzeug]’ for exploitation.

b. At the same time, he speaks of the state as an ‘organisation of the possessing class [Organisation der besitzenden Klasse]’, so much so that we have the ‘state of slave owners’, the ‘feudal state [Feudalstaat]’ and the ‘modern representative state [Repräsentativstaat]’ or the ‘state of the capitalists’,[3] implying that specific states are imbued with and even determined by a specific nature.[4]

c. At times a state gains relative autonomy, especially when class conflict reaches a certain balance, with neither dominating. In this situation, the state acquires temporarily a ‘certain degree of independence of both’ classes. The pertinent example, in relation to Engels’s detailed study on the ‘The Role of Force’, is Bismarck’s Germany.

Since my concern with the state after a revolution and during the construction of socialism, I emphasise the following in relation to actually existing states. The crucial distinction is between separation and integration/ enmeshment. This distinction appears a few times in the points above, especially when Engels contrasts the nature of the military and the ‘organs of society’, which are different from the ‘organs of the gentile constitution [Organe der Gentilverfassung]’, or ‘organs of gentile society [Organe der Gentilgesellschaft]’ that stand ‘in the midst of society [eben mitten in der Gesellschaft]’ (Engels 1884 [1990]-b, 270, 1884 [1962], 166). Indeed, the definition of the state relies on this contrast, which runs through The Origin of the Family. Engels casts it primarily as a historical narrative, in which the unseparated or integrated nature of pre-state formations contrasts, but also provides the conditions for, the separated nature of the state that follows. While this is a rather standard narrative of differentiation,[5] moving from an undifferentiated state to one that is clearly differentiated (thus the Athenian state provides the pure form of this narrative[6]), it opens a theoretical possibility that is ultimately not reliant on the narrative: communism entails a de-differentiation, if I may put it that way. Or in terms of the distinction between separation and integration, communism is clearly closer to the integrated and enmeshed condition. The implications for understanding the state under socialism and indeed communism (to borrow Lenin’s distinction for a moment) are profound.

At the same time, the distinction produces some tensions in Engels’s presentation. He seeks to be sensitive to historical variations, which appear most obviously in the question I posed in place of thesis 7. Let me begin with the third answer to the question, concerning the autonomy of the state, even though Engels suggests that this situation is only temporary, found at certain moments when class conflict is evenly balanced. In some respects, this would seem to be the most logical outcome of his initial proposal that the state arises from irreconcilable class conflict and that a Gewalt is needed to ameliorate the conflict and keep it within bounds (so that the system is not torn apart).[7]

The first and second answers to the question are more intriguing. Is the separated state a relatively neutral ‘instrument [Werkzeug]’ in the hands of the dominant class? Engels tends in this direction with his comment, ‘as a rule [in der Regel]’.[8] Yet this position can slip into another: the ruling class may determine the nature of the state in question, shaping it into a particular form. One can see how the connection may be made, for an instrument may take on a distinct shape, having been constructed by its wielder. Yet an instrument and a distinct form are not necessarily the same: the former is more neutral – an instrument, means or tool – and the latter indicates a particular nature, determined by the ruling class in question.[9]

Engels’s text struggles with this distinction, at times seemingly connecting instrument and nature,[10] while at others suggesting that they are distinct. A notable example is the fascinating paragraph towards the close of The Origin of the Family,[11] where Engels explores the historical variations of distinct types of states. Here he writes of an ‘organisation of the possessing class [Organisation der besitzenden Klasse]’ for the sake of protection against the non-possessing class.[12] An organisation is already more than a mere instrument, suggesting structures, shaping and the nature of the state itself. It may take the form of property or wealth qualifications for the right to participate in the state (from Athens and Rome to the early parliamentary systems of his own day), or direct corruption of government officials, or an alliance between the government and stock exchange for the sake of building infrastructure. Tellingly, at each suggestion Engels notes that such mechanisms are actually not necessary for the ruling class to determine the state: neither property qualifications, nor corruption, nor alliances between government and stock exchange are needed. Why not? A crucial sentence indicates the direction of his thought, especially in light of the bourgeois state and its emerging practice of apparent universal suffrage. In this situation, how does wealth control the state? It ‘exercises its power indirectly, but all the more surely [seine Macht indirekt, aber um so sichrer aus]’. One may object that he writes only a few sentences later that the possessing class rules ‘directly by means of [direkt mittelst]’ universal suffrage. The initial impression is that he seems to slide back to an instrumental position. But he does not simply write direct, adding immediately afterwards mittelst, which indicates an intermediary, a ‘medium’ (as the MECW translation has it), through which direct rule must operate.

Let me press more heavily on the term ‘indirect’. To begin with, in a piece written with Kautsky called ‘Lawyers’ Socialism’, Engels observes that in the European transition from feudalism to capitalism, the Church was replaced by the state as the arbiter of all matters economic and social – or at least this was how people saw the situation. Crucially, it was the rise of a ‘legal world view’ that signalled such a shift. While we may quibble that the Church had developed its own complex legal system since the ‘lawyer popes’ of the eleventh century, the point I seek to draw out is that the bourgeoisie sought a legal system controlled not by the Church but by the state. The bourgeoisie’s battle cry was equality before the law, pressing more and more legal demands so that a new form of the state arose, the ‘classical one of bourgeoisie’ (Engels and Kautsky 1887 [1990], 598, 1887 [1973], 492). The clear implication is that this form developed without direct power held by the bourgeoisie, but rather as a process of transformation from without.

Further, in the paragraph I have been exegeting in the paragraphs preceding the last one, Engels mentions Bismarck as an example of the indirect rule of the bourgeoisie. Only a few years later, he would come to devote more attention to Bismarck in the extremely insightful (albeit largely ignored) work, ‘The Role of Force in History’.[13] This text is worthy of detailed study in its own right, not least because it offers a worthy complement to the myriad twists and turns of Marx’s ‘Eighteenth Brumaire’. While Marx deals with Louis Napoleon (III), Engels focuses on Bismarck’s rise to power and Germany’s dialectical leap into becoming a significant European power. Crucially, Engels argues that no matter how much Bismarck – like Louis Napoleon – may have sidelined the bourgeoisie from the reins of power, he enabled the very structures of a bourgeois state in political and economic terms. Since the bourgeoisie, especially since the 1848 revolutions, had expanded as never before the network of industry and international trade, it needed not the many individual states but a unified German state, with uniform laws and regulations and currency, to facilitate the process even further – including the easy mobility of labour.[14] Bismarck obliged, since he desperately needed for his own ‘Junker’ agenda all that the bourgeoise demanded, so much so that he shaped the new German state in their image. As Engels puts it, the ‘bourgeoisie triumphed without having to put up a serious fight’ (Engels 1887-88 [1990]-c, 472, 1887-88 [1973]-a, 423).[15]

While this argument reinforces Marx’s similar conclusion in ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire’, with the significant implication that the nature of a particular state is shaped and even determined by the dominant class even when it does not have direct political power, Engels also develops a unique insight of his own. It concerns Gewalt, a topic which I have belatedly left until now, since it will become important for Engels’s potential contribution to understanding the socialist state (and is central to the dictatorship of the proletariat in the work of both Marx and Engels). The semantic field of the term includes power, force and violence, although translators tend to shy away from the stronger senses. In analysing the term, I leave aside the vexed and well-nigh impossible task of determining what an author intended at a particular moment. Instead, I prefer to examine how Engels’s text elaborates on the term.

In the opening sentence of ‘The Role of Force’, Engels indicates that he seeks to analyse contemporary German history and its ‘Gewaltspraxis von Blut und Eisen’ (Engels 1887-88 [1973]-a, 407).[16] The practice of Gewalt entails ‘blood and iron’. It may be very well to speak in abstract terms of ‘power’ and even ‘force’, but the reality is clearly in the direction of the violence of weapons and blood spilled in conflict. The broader topic concerns Germany’s belated reunification under Bismarck, the class dimensions (see above) and ideological realities, let alone their dependence on the economic situation.[17] But the thread that weaves it all together is that of Gewalt in action. Let me backtrack a moment to set the context in terms of Engels’s writings. Already since 1842, military matters had been close to Engels’s thoughts and occasionally actions. In that year, he enlisted in the 12th Foot Company of the Guards Artillery Brigade in Berlin, to be followed by military action during the 1848 revolutions (at first in Elberfeld and Barmen and a little later with the militia in the Palatinate and Baden). These experiences, with their insights and disappointments, led him to deeply insightful articles as a military correspondent and then analyst of the history and present realities of all aspects of military forces, such as training, equipment, discipline, morale, fortifications, tactics and the first real contribution to the need for a good and decisive military force for any revolutionary movement.[18] Thus, it should be no surprise that, in his schematic depiction of the rise of the state as a ‘separated public power’, a military force distinct from the people should be the first sign of this development, or indeed in his reply to Dühring that he should dig into his knowledge of military matters (Engels 1877-78 [1987], 155-61, 1877-78 [1973], 155-61).

As for ‘The Role of Force’, military machinations constitute the line of blood that draws the many parts together,[19] defining the sense of Gewalt. While Engels invokes the full range of the term’s semantic field,[20] the weight of his usage falls on the hard edge of the term. It may be ‘forcible [gewaltsamen]’ Danification, or ‘forcibly [gewaltsam]’ dispelling liberal self-delusion, or keeping one’s subjects ‘forcibly [gewaltsam]’ in check, or Austria’s expulsion ‘with violent force [mit Gewalt]’, or doing ‘violence [Gewalt]’ with the truth, or simply ‘police power [Polizeigewalt]’ (Engels 1887-88 [1990]-c, 475, 477, 480, 495, 507, see also 476, 487, 1887-88 [1973]-a, 426, 429, 431, 432, 446, 459, see also 427, 438). Simply put, the emphasis is on ‘brute force [brutale Gewalt]’ as the guiding principle (Engels 1887-88 [1990]-c, 495, see also 494, 1887-88 [1973]-a, 447, see also 446). Thus, German political and economic unity had to be ‘won in struggle [erkämpft werden]’ against both external and internal enemies (Engels 1887-88 [1990]-c, 460, 1887-88 [1973]-a, 412). Externally, it required wars, realignment of alliances, temporary settlements and new wars.[21] The turning point – for Engels’s analysis – is when reunification takes the path of Prussian hegemony (in contrast to the two other possibilities of genuine abolition of differences between all the German states and Austrian hegemony). This process was kick-started by humiliation at the hands of Denmark in the mid-nineteenth century, which spurred Bismarck to undertake a wholesale reconfiguration of the armed forces, leading to decisive defeat of Denmark in a little over a decade. From there, the path led eventually to the conquest of France, at which point the new German empire became the ‘first power [erste Macht]’ in Europe, with all power (Macht) concentrated in the dictator Bismarck’s hands (Engels 1887-88 [1990]-c, 498, 1887-88 [1973]-a, 449). Internally, the first hint is provided by Engels’s use of ‘dictator’ to speak of Bismarck. In a crucial paragraph, he speaks of the tensions and collaboration between the bourgeoisie and Bismarck. The former demanded a revolutionary transformation of Germany, but this could be achieved ‘only by force [nur durch die Gewalt]’, which he immediately defines as ‘only by an actual dictatorship [nur durch eine tatsächliche Diktatur]’. Two types of Gewalt exist in the modern state, namely the ‘elemental power of the popular masses [elementare Gewalt der Volksmassen]’ and ‘organised state power [die organisierte Staatsgewalt]’. The latter is embodied in none other than the army. While the German bourgeoisie had grown deeply suspicious of the force of the masses, it also did not have the army at its disposal. ‘But’, Engels points out, ‘Bismarck had’ (Engels 1887-88 [1990]-c, 479, 1887-88 [1973]-a, 431).

The implications for insights into possible forms of the socialist state should be obvious. To begin with, the revolutionary process itself and the dictatorship of the proletariat entail the use of Gewalt – the meaning of which should be in no doubt. Further, if we assume Engels’s emphasis on the state as a ‘separated public power’, then the forms of governance – or apparatus – under socialism and communism will be of an unseparated or enmeshed form. To understand how this might work, I will in later parts of this study focus on Engels’s extensive work on ‘pre-state’ or ‘primitive communist’ formations. This task remains to be done, but we should also keep in mind Marx’s point that concrete research on these matters requires evidence and experience, for it can be done ‘only scientifically’.


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[1] The best summary may be found in The Origin of the Family (Engels 1884 [1990]-b, 268-72, 1884 [1962], 164-68), from which the quotations in the following theses are drawn.

[2] Engels stresses the economic determination of the state in his piece on Feuerbach (Engels 1886 [1990], 391-93, 1886 [1973]-b, 302-3).

[3] The final quotation comes from Anti-Dühring, where he adds by way of clarification, ‘the ideal personification of the total national capital [der ideelle Gesamtkapitalist]’ (Engels 1877-78 [1987], 266, 1877-78 [1973], 260).

[4] This tendency is expressed well in his comment in the introduction to Borkheim’s pamphlet concerning the 1848 revolutions: ‘the state is becoming more and more estranged from the masses of the people and is now well on the way to transforming itself into a consortium of landowners, stockbrokers and big industrialists for the exploitation of the people’ (Engels 1887 [1990], 450, 1887 [1973]-a, 350).

[5] The most sustained example of such a narrative of differentiation appears in the final section of The Origin of the Family, but this section also summarises the whole treatment of the state in this work (Engels 1884 [1990]-b, 256-76, 1884 [1962], 152-73, see also Engels 1877-78 [1987], 166-69, 1877-78 [1973], 166-69).

[6] With the rise of the Athenian state Engels finds various commercial, money and property relations that develop class relations and thereby the state, with the constitutions articulating the new conditions (Engels 1884 [1990]-b, 213-22, 1884 [1962], 107-16). While he is guilty of a classicist narrative in such a position, finding the Roman and especially the German situations less ‘pure’ (the latter taking full state forms only with Charlemagne and the rise of feudalism (Engels 1884 [1990]-b, 252-54, 1884 [1962], 147-49)), my focus is on the theoretical potential of Engels’s texts in relation to the socialist state. For this reason, it is beyond my remit to delve into Engels’s fascinating studies of the rise of the feudal state, both in his study on the Frankish period and Charlemagne and in his draft concerning the decline of feudalism (Engels 1882 [1990], 1882 [1987], 1884 [1990]-a, 1884 [1973]).

[7] Many subsequent Marxist analyses of the bourgeois state follow this line, offering a range of variations (Carnoy 1984, 50, Esping-Andersen, Friedland, and Wright 1976, Holloway and Picciotto 1978, Evans 1995, Offe 1984, 1974, Skocpol 1979, Evans, Rueschemeyer, and Skocpol 1985, Block 1980, Mann 1986-2013).

[8] A number of later Marxist analyses of the (bourgeois) state agree, suggesting that the concentration of capital in relatively few hands enables the ruling class to have material and ideological control over the levers of power (Sweezy 1942, Miliband 1969, Baran and Sweezy 1966, Domhoff 1979).

[9] I would also locate Lenin’s proposals in the tension between instrument and determined nature (Lenin 1917 [1964], 392-94, 1917 [1969], 7-9), but since a subsequent study will deal carefully with Lenin, I leave this analysis for later.

[10] So also Engels’s comment in Anti-Dühring, where he speaks of state-ownership (the example given in a footnote is to Bismarck’s nationalisation of the railways). He writes that the state is ‘the organisation that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the general external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists. The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine [kapitalistische Maschine], the state of  the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital’ (Engels 1877-78 [1987], 266, 1877-78 [1973], 260).

[11] The quotations that follow are drawn from this paragraph (Engels 1884 [1990]-b, 271-72, 1884 [1962], 167-68).

[12] In Anti-Dühring Engels sides more strongly with this position: the state is ‘an organisation of the particular

class which was pro tempore the exploiting class’ (Engels 1877-78 [1987], 267, 1877-78 [1973], 261).

[13] ‘The Role of Force in History’ was written in draft in 1887-1888 and was initially planned as the fourth and final chapter to a work with the same name (Engels 1887-88 [1990]-d, 1887-88 [1973]-b, 1887-88 [1990]-a, 1887-88 [1973]-d, 1887-88 [1990]-b, 1887-88 [1973]-c, see also Engels 1886 [1995], 529, 1886 [1973]-a, 574-75, 1887 [2001], 126, 1887 [1973]-b, 730, 1888 [2001]-a, 142, 1888 [1973]-a, 15, 1888 [2001]-e, 1888 [1973]-e, 1888 [2001]-b, 1888 [1973]-b, 1888 [2001]-d, 1888 [1973]-d, 1888 [2001]-c, 1888 [1973]-c). The preceding part was to include three chapters from Anti-Dühring on the theory of force (Engels 1877-78 [1987], 146-71, 1877-78 [1973], 147-71). As with a number of works in the 1880s dealing with the state and German history, ‘The Role of Force in History’ remained unfinished, with the draft chapter published as a stand-alone piece in 1894-1895.

[14] We may identify here the seeds of Wallerstein’s (2011 [1974]) later argument that capitalism needed strong states with unified economic and legal frameworks to ensure the passage of goods across borders.

[15] Or more dialectically, Engels later speaks of carrying out ‘the will of the bourgeoisie against its will’ (Engels 1887-88 [1990]-c, 480, 1887-88 [1973]-a, 431). In his draft on the decline of feudalism, Engels’s insightfully connects the rise of absolute monarchies with the rise of the bourgeoisie (Engels 1884 [1990]-a, 1884 [1973]) – a point I have argued in my own way (Boer In press). Perhaps the closest that subsequent Marxist analyses come to this approach to the bourgeois state is the proposal that such a state is a structure – divided between apparatus and power – that is shaped to provide a relatively stable environment for capital, which it does so by ameliorating and regulating class struggle, as well as the inherent crises of capitalist economics and its uneven development (Mandel 1975, Poulantzas 1978, 1980 [1978], Therborn 1978, Wright 1978, Jessop 1982, Przeworski 1985).

[16] Or, as Engels puts it in Anti-Dühring, ‘Force [Gewalt ], nowadays, is the army and navy’ (Engels 1877-78 [1987], 154, 1877-78 [1973], 154).

[17] In his polemic against Dühring, Engels stresses the importance of economic might (Macht) as a determining feature of political Gewalt. In this case, he sets out to undermine Dühring’s hypothesis that political Gewalt is primary and economic realities secondary (Engels 1877-78 [1987], 146-71, 1877-78 [1973], 147-71). ‘The Role of Force in History’ may therefore be seen as Engels’s answer at a more comprehensive level: this is what Gewalt really entails (and not the mythical tale of Robinson Crusoe and Friday, beloved by Dühring).

[18] This material is rarely appreciated, even though it forms a substantial amount of Engels’s published work. The items are too many to cite here, but an interested reader may consult frequent items on military correspondence from MECW 11 and MEW 11 onwards (from the 1948 revolutions to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71), as well as analyses of military forces in MECW 18-19 and MEW 14-15. In these cases, MEW generally has less articles than MECW.

[19] In his draft treatment of the decline of feudalism, Engels traces – among other elements – the changes in military technology and strategy (Engels 1884 [1990]-a, 562-64, 1884 [1973], 398-400).

[20] On a few occasions, he speaks of ‘executive power [Exekutivgewalt]’ and the strengthening of ‘state power [Staatsgewalt] (Engels 1887-88 [1990]-c, 499, 507, 1887-88 [1973]-a, 451, 459).

[21] Albeit not determinative, as Tilly’s selective approach would have it (Tilly 1985, 1990).


Flesh of Flesh and Bone of Bone: Engels on the First Bourgeois Statesman

I am thoroughly enjoying the study of Engels’s many important – but often ignored – works on the state from the 1880s. The most insightful is ‘The Role of Force in History’, which offers a worthy companion to Marx’s ‘Eighteenth Brumaire’. While Marx focused on France and Louis Napoleon, Engels deals with Bismarck and Germany’s belated dialectical leap. But Engels also has some wonderful insights into Louis Napoleon, such as the following:

Louis Napoleon was now the idol of the European bourgeoisie. Not only because he had ‘saved society’ on December 2, 1851, when he destroyed the political rule of the bourgeoisie, it is true, but only to save its social rule. Not only because he showed that, under favourable circumstances, universal suffrage could be turned into an instrument for the oppression of the masses. Not only because, under his rule, industry and trade and notably speculation and stock exchange machinations advanced to a degree previously unknown. But, first and foremost, because the bourgeoisie saw in him the first ‘great statesman’, who was flesh of their flesh, and bone of their bone. He was an upstart like every true bourgeois. ‘A dyed in the wool’ Carbonari conspirator in Italy, an artillery officer in Switzerland, a debt-burdened tramp of distinction and special constable in England, yet constantly and everywhere a pretender to the throne, he had prepared himself by his adventurous past and moral failings in all countries for the role of Emperor of the French and ruler of the destinies of Europe, as the exemplary bourgeois, the American, prepares himself by a series of bankruptcies, genuine and fraudulent, for the role of millionaire.

‘The Role of Force in History’ (MECW 26: 461-62).

Engels and the revolutionary potato

Every now and then you say or write something you may well come to regret. Engels was a mortal like the rest of us. As I have been rereading his flawed gem, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, I came across this gem:

Iron came to be utilised by man, the last and most important of all raw materials to play a revolutionary role in history, the last—if we exclude the potato (MECW 26: 262).

Of course, in the context of brutal British imperialism, especially in Ireland, the potato might have loomed larger in 1884 than it does now. Even so, I suspect he may have laughed at this had we been discussing it this evening.

Engels and the Secret of the Socialist State

I am always amazed by what careful study of texts does to you. Even if you have read the same text over and over, thinking you know what it says, a patient rereading leads you along new paths.

This is precisely my experience at the moment as I work through Engels’s texts on the state from the 1880s. Many of them remained unfinished, due to the onerous task of editing Marx’s scattered notes into the second and third volumes of Capital. But the material that he did write is rich indeed.

It seems to me that the secret of the socialist state, or rather, one crucial element, can be found in these texts. Now, it may seem strange to speak of a ‘socialist state’, since Engels insists again and again that a state is a ‘public power [öffentliche Gewalt]’ that is ‘separated [getrennte]’ from the people. The origin of this idea I have still to find – Hegel held to it, but it is older than Hegel. Engels sees it appearing with the emergence of classes, economic exploitation and so on.

So much is reasonably well-known. However, when we look at his considerations of pre-state formations, we find two important features. The first is that such formations have quite complex forms of ‘social organisation’ (Engels’s term). These include councils, which either included the whole adult population or were representative, elections, leadership roles (even the early Greek basileus and the Roman rex) and multiple organisational functions for the ordering and governance of society. The best term for these functions is an apparatus, albeit one that works within the social fabric. All of this, insists Engels, is not yet a state – assuming the earlier definition.

Why not? The reason – and this is the second point – is that the whole apparatus is enmeshed with the people. Social structures and mores, policing, war, marriage, burial, inheritance, religious practices and ritual – these and more were ordered through this enmeshed system. Engels can even describe this system as a ‘sovereign power [Gewalt]’.

How does all this provide a crucial angel into the socialist state, or should I say the communist state? Engels is famous for coining the phrase, in the third edition of Anti-Dühring, of the state ‘dying away’, or ‘withering’ as it is often translated in English. By this he means the notion of a separated power (Gewalt). Fair enough. But he and Marx are also quite clear that many functions of social organisation would continue, indeed that they would need to continue. This is where his proposals concerning pre-state formations come into play. I mean not the idea of some restored ‘primitive communism’, but rather a dialectically transformed situation in which the apparatus of governance is enmeshed with the people in a new way. Obviously, any idea of ‘bourgeois society [bürgerliche Gesellschaft]’, which is the German original of what is called ‘civil society’, has no place within this enmeshed system.

Two caveats are in order. First, socialism is clearly a transitional period, as Lenin was the first to point out. That it is an exceedingly long period Lenin already began to see, with Stalin then providing a rather robust theoretical foundation. Such a transitional period, which is really a phase in its own right, has forms of governance which may be seen as hybrid. Here a state as a separated power may continue, although it will do so in hitherto unforeseen ways. It will already exhibit many of the features of an enmeshed system that I have outlined all too briefly.

The other caveat concerns the tradition of Chinese dialectics (for I have Chinese socialism also in mind). This is a rich tradition indeed, including the complex philosophical dimensions of the yin-yang, the military insights of Sunzi’s The Art of War, let alone the original breakthrough of Mao Zedong’s ‘On Contradiction’, which was itself an intersection between Marxist and Chinese dialectics, transforming both in the process. This tradition is another key to understanding the socialist state, although my research concerning it is ongoing.

Can we indeed speak of a socialist state? I think we can, although it may be better to speak of an enmeshed state, which we already find in many ways in China.

Engels and the state

In my preparation for writing the second chapter of my book on the ‘socialist state’, I am rereading Engels very carefully. In the end, that is my method boiled down to its most basic: the old humanist adage to ‘go back to the texts’.

Given that there is always a tendency to jump to conclusions about someone’s position – especially if that person is Engels – I have been studying his many writings on the state from the 1880s, after Marx’s death. Plenty of themes here, including his efforts to construct full histories based on ‘historical materialism’ (Engels’s term) and the extraordinary work, ‘The Role of Force [Gewalt] in History’, where he offers a German companion to Marx’s ‘Eighteenth Brumaire’.

But for now, a couple of great quotations:

A perfect society, a perfect ‘State [Staat]’, are things which can only exist in the imagination [Phantasie]. On the contrary, all successive historical states [Zustände] are only transitory stages in the endless course of development of human society (1886, MECW 26: 359).

And in his preface to a revised edition of ‘The Housing Question’, where he analyses the bourgeois dream of ‘owning’ a home:

And with this the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois Utopia, which would give each worker the ownership of his little house and thus chain him in semi-feudal fashion to his particular capitalist … (1887, MECW 26: 433).

Engels and the Socialist State

As part of my preparation for the second chapter of my book on the socialist state, I am following good Chinese practice: to work carefully through the work of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, before dealing with Chinese developments. Having completed my study of Marx – with some real surprises (summarised earlier) – I am working through all of the relevant material by Engels. Apart from the usual stuff people quote, from Anti-Dühring and Origin of the Family, on the ‘dying away’ or ‘withering away’ of the state (the term was coined by Engels only late in the piece), I have been drawn to his material from the late 1880s on the role of force. He broached this topic in Anti-Dühring, only to feel the need to return to it. The term is crucial for a number of reasons: Gewalt means force, power and violence; it becomes more central as Engels’s approach to the state develops; and it is borrowed (unacknowledged) by Weber in his definition of the modern bourgeois state.

What does Engels have to say about Gewalt. The most insightful work is ‘The Role of Force in History’ (1887), which is a worthy complement to Marx’s ‘Eighteenth Brumaire’. Engels gives the German side of the story, focused on Bismarck, whom he constantly compares to Napoléon III (Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte). Here we find analyses of sovereignty in the modern bourgeois state; how such a state attains a distinctly bourgeois form even when the bourgeoisie does not have direct political power (so the state is not merely a somewhat neutral weapon in the hands of the bourgeoisie); and indeed how military matters are important, drawing from his earlier and insightful military analysis.

But for now I am interested in his observations concerning the developments of bourgeois democracy, with all its constraints and limitations:

If this demanded that the Prussian constitution be treated a bit roughly, that the ideologists in and outside the Chamber be pushed aside according to their deserts, was it not possible to rely on universal suffrage, just as Louis Bonaparte had done? What could be more democratic than to introduce universal suffrage? Had not Louis Napoléon proved that it was absolutely safe – if properly handled? And did not precisely this universal suffrage offer the means to appeal to the broad mass of the people, to flirt a bit with the emerging social movement, should the bourgeoisie prove refractory? (MECW 26, p. 477)

What do Friedrich Engels, Louis Althusser, Terry Eagleton, Kim Il Sung and Stalin have in common?

They all made the – often difficult – step from religious faith to Marxism. Engels, with his Reformed background and the strong religious commitment of his youth, set the initial example. In his footsteps followed Louis Althusser, Henri Lefebvre, Terry Eagleton and Kim Il Sung, to mention but a few. Crucially, they did not give up their interest in matters theological and ecclesiastical. Even if they had “lost” their faith (and not all did), they maintained a lively interest in, if not an insight into, the realities of belief, theology and the church. So also with Stalin.