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)

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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.