Book Outline: Friedrich Engels and the Basis of Socialist Governance

This work began as a chapter in my book, The Socialist State: Philosophical Foundations, but it eventually became a monograph in its own right. Why? Engels provides some of the key bases for understanding later developments of socialist governance. This is the outline of the book:

Friedrich Engels and the Basis of Socialist Governance

The argument of this book is that Friedrich Engels (more than Marx) provides the philosophical seeds for understanding the later development of socialist governance, if not the socialist state as such. The process of discovering these insights moves from reasonably familiar texts concerning states as they have existed thus far to quite unfamiliar and unstudied texts – especially from Engels’s later writings. The book covers the following topics: the state as a ‘separated public power’; socialist force (Gewalt) and the dictatorship of the proletariat; from abolition to the dying away of the state; the enmeshed apparatus of socialist governance.

The proposed work is significant not only because it will assist in identifying the philosophical origins of the historical reality of socialist governance, but also because such a detailed analysis of all the relevant texts by Engels has not – surprisingly – been undertaken before now. The closest that one finds is Hal Draper’s somewhat biased and incomplete five-volume work, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution (1977-2005). While Draper’s work is the most thorough in relation to textual analysis (as such material was available at the time), it is driven by an agenda that not only dismisses actual historical socialist states, from the Soviet Union to China, but also by a studied avoidance of important features of the texts. It also has a tendency to downplay the contribution of Engels and thus material that actually provides the philosophical basis for such forms of governance.

Other works on Marxist approaches to the state not only focus on Marx and largely ignore Engels, but do so with an agenda that stresses the Paris commune and ignores material on dictatorship of the proletariat and the use of force. Further, many such works assume – based on partial and selective reading – that both Engels and Marx held to the view that immediately after a communist revolution, the state would wither or ‘die away’, with the consequent assumption that the historical development of socialist governance goes against the theoretical view of Marx and especially Engels. This book begins to show that such a view is partial and thus mistaken.

The method deployed is simple but profound: careful and close attention, in original languages and translation, of all the relevant texts. Only by this method is one able to develop a complete analysis.

Chapter Outline


The introduction has two main tasks. The first is to provide an overview of Marx’s reflections on the Paris Commune and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Based on an earlier study (Boer, ‘Marx’s Ambivalence: State, Proletarian Dictatorship and Commune’. International Critical Thought), it presents a tension in Marx’s thought between the two, a tension he began to resolve in terms of a narrative from the dictatorship of the proletariat to the commune. He began to do so, but never resolved it, so the task fell to Engels. The second task of the introduction outlines the argument of the four chapters of the book.

Chapter 1: From ‘Separated Public Power’ to Gewalt

The first chapter deals initially with Engels’s programmatic observations on hitherto existing states, which would set the subsequent agenda not only for Marxist studies of such states, but also the Weberian tradition (Weber’s definition of the state borrows heavily from Engels). Apart from noting the key features of this analysis, which involves the core idea of the state as a ‘separated public power’, the chapter focuses on Engels’s shifts between seeing such states state as semi-autonomous, as instruments of a particular class in power, or as shaped in their very nature by the class in question. Engels moves between these three overlapping approaches, depending on the point he seeks to make, but he tends in more detailed work to opt for the third: that the nature of the state is determined by the class in power. This position emerges particularly in a relatively ignored work, ‘The Role of Force in History’. Here Engels offers an analysis of Bismarck in Germany that is a close companion to Marx’s ‘Eighteenth Brumaire’, with the specific point that the bourgeoisie was able to shape the state in its image indirectly, even when it did not hold the reins of power. Even more important is the emergence of a core category, Gewalt. The word is difficult to translate, so a study of Engels’s texts reveals the senses of force, power and violence. This provides a rather new angle, not only on his proposal that hitherto existing states may be defined as a ‘separated public power [Gewalt]’, but that ‘The Role of Gewalt in History’ is vitally important.

Chapter 2: Socialist Gewalt and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

The key finding of this chapter is Engels’s emphasis on proletarian Gewalt, in both the revolutionary process and in the early stages of the construction of socialism when power is gained through a revolution. The concrete manifestation of this socialist Gewalt is the dictatorship of the proletariat, which Engels (like Marx) defines carefully not as an individual dictatorship (as with Bakunin) or by a small band (Blanquist), but as a collective dictatorship by the majority, the workers. On this basis, Engels’s important contribution was to go beyond Marx in identifying the Paris commune with the proletarian dictatorship. Although suggested in the early 1870s, he does so clearly in the 1890s. The context was a struggle with the moderates of the increasingly large German Social Democratic Party, which tried to dispense with the dictatorship of the proletariat in its program and work within bourgeois democracy. In light of later tendencies in European communism to downplay the proletarian dictatorship and idealise the Paris commune (for example, with ‘Eurocommunism’ and the tendency among some European Marxists), Engels explicit argument that the commune was the exercise of the proletarian dictatorship, even that it did not go far enough in exercising such a dictatorship, is a timely warning. The chapter concludes by analysing Engels’s explicit usage of ‘socialist Gewalt’ itself, both before and after a revolution. Crucially, Engels points out that political power also has economic influence and potency (Potenz).

Chapter 3: From Abolition to the Dying Away of the State

Engels is responsible – in the third edition of Anti-Dühring – for coining the phrase, ‘dying away’ of the state (often translated as ‘withering away’). This chapter analyses how this emphasis arose, an emphasis that is also described as the eventual dissolution or gradual disappearance of the state as a spearated public power. The chapter has three parts. To begin with, it examines how Engels (like Marx) shared the view of ‘primitive anti-statism’: the idea that the state would need to be actively ‘abolished [abschaffen]’ as one of the first acts after a revolutionary seizure of power. The second part analyses the life-and-death struggle with Bakunin and the Anarchists, whose position was clarified only in the 1870s. A key component of their platform was the abolition of the state as the first revolutionary act, which Bakunin attempted in Lyons in 1870. Indeed, the incident at Lyons – in which Bakunin decreed the abolition of the state only to be arrested shortly after and bundled out of town – was a key moment when both Engels and Marx realised that such abolition was futile. Thus, the third part of the chapter examines how the emphasis on the dying away of the state arose, with Engels clearly indicating that it would be one of the final outcomes of socialism in power, after the proletarian dictatorship had transformed economic and social structures. Only then – eventually and gradually – would the state as a separated public power dissolve as a natural process. This may take a long time indeed.

Chapter 4: The Enmeshed Apparatus

The final chapter analyses how Engels envisaged the construction of socialist governance – with the caveat that he had never experienced this process directly and could draw only from the brief experiment of the Paris commune. It begins by studying Engels’s extensive work on ‘pre-state’ formations, where he identifies complex structures of governance, elections, representative bodies, sovereignty and Gewalt. Further, the chapter offers a careful analysis of the important text, ‘The Mark’, which dealt with the German tradition of the Markgenossenschaft. This tradition influences German law today, in which common rights still apply to farmland. For Engels, this practice is a relic of ‘pre-state’ formations, in which land was held in common, although it was modified in light of subsequent developments. The important argument – directed at peasant farmers – is that the communism of the future would entail a dialectical transformation (Aufhebung) of what is sometimes called ‘primitive communism’. But what should this organisation of the future be called? Given Engels’s definition of the state as a ‘separated public power’, he cannot call it a ‘state’. Instead, he uses the terminology of ‘social organisation’ and ‘administrative functions’, which may also be called the ‘enmeshed apparatus’. In other words, many functions of governance would be needed, a situation that can be described as the need for the apparatus of governance without separation from society. Or, as Engels puts, the organs of social organisation and governance ‘stand in the midst of society [steht eben mitten in der Gesellschaft]’. This means that a socialist state would not be alienated from society but thoroughly enmeshed within it, so much so that one cannot speak of ‘state’ and ‘society’ as distinct elements. In this light, the term ‘socialist governance’, or perhaps ‘enmeshed state’, are to be preferred.


The conclusion to the book outlines the way Engels’s contribution provides the philosophical basis for future developments of socialist governance, or what is now called the ‘socialist state’. This process entails drawing out philosophical insights from historical and anthropological studies, which has been the concern of the book as a whole. These insights include: the need for socialist Gewalt (dictatorship of the proletariat, which is one with communist society) in constructing socialist society and economics; the dying away of the state as a long-term and gradual process; the enmeshment of the apparatus of governance within society, so that it is no longer possible to distinguish state from society or indeed from the economy. Implicit in these points is a progression, with a strong socialist Gewalt as the means for transforming economic and social realities, as well as providing the basis for beginning the process of the dying away of the state as a separated public power. This process is gradual and long-term, entailing that as hitherto known forms of the state fade away, new types of governance arise, types that are enmeshed within society rather than separated from it. This may be seen as a socialist Aufhebung of the state. Subsequent historical developments in actual constructions of socialism – from the Soviet Union to China – would be faced with new problems, for which new solutions were and are needed. But Engels’s contribution was to provide some important bases for such developments. Or, as Engels put it in 1890, ‘So-called “socialist society” is not, in my view, to be regarded as something that remains crystallised for all time, but rather being in process of constant change and transformation like all other social conditions’.

Important Texts by Engels

Note: For the sake of rapid identification, English titles are provided here, although the book works with original texts.

1872. ‘The Congress of Sonvillier and the International’. MECW 23: 64-70.

1872. ‘The General Council to All Members of the International Working Men’s Association’. MECW 23: 205-10.

1872. ‘The Congress at The Hague (Letter to Enrico Bignami)’, MECW 23: 271-76.

1872-1873. ‘The Housing Question’. MECW 23: 317-91.

1873. ‘On Authority’. MECW 23: 422-25.

1873. ‘The Bakuninists at Work: An Account of the Spanish Revolt in the Summer of 1873’. MECW 23: 581-94.

1873-1874. ‘Varia on Germany’. MECW 23: 599-610.

1877-1878. Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science. MECW 25: 3-309.

1880. ‘The Socialism of Mr. Bismarck’. MECW 24: 272-80.

1880. ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’. MECW 24: 281-325.

1882. ‘On the Early History of the Germans’. MECW 26: 6-57.

1882. ‘The Frankish Period’. MECW 26: 58-107.

1882. ‘The Mark’. MECW 24: 439-56.

1883. ‘Engels to Philipp Van Patten in New York (Draft). London, 18 April 1883’. MECW 47: 9-11.

1883. ‘On the Death of Karl Marx’. MECW 24: 473-81.

1884. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. In the Light of the Researches by Lewis H. Morgan. MECW 26: 129-276.

1884. ‘The Decline of Feudalism and the Emergence of National States’. MECW 26: 556-65.

1887-88. ‘The Role of Force in History’. MECW 26: 453-510.

1891. ‘Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Civil War in France’. MECW 27: 179-91.

1891. ‘A Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Programme of 1891’. MECW 27: 217-32.

1894. ‘On the Association of the Future’. MECW 26: 553.

1894. ‘The Peasant Question in France and Germany’. MECW 27: 481-502

1895. ‘Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Class Struggles in France’. MECW 27: 506-24.

Works by Marx and Engels:

1872.  ‘Preface to the 1972 German Edition of The Manifesto of the Communist Party’. MECW 23: 174-75.

1872. ‘Fictitious Splits in the International. Private Circular from the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association’. MECW 23: 79-123.

1872. ‘To the Spanish Sections of the International Working Men’s Association’. MECW 23: 211-13.

1872. ‘Resolutions of the General Congress held at the Hague from the 2nd to the 7th September, 1872’. MECW 23: 243-253.

1873. ‘The Alliance of Socialist Democracy and the International Working Men’s Association. Report and Documents Published by Decision of The Hague Congress of the International’. MECW 23: 454-580.