The Origin of the Modern Approach to the State: Weber or Engels?

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.


The weirdly conservative world of J. David Schloen

As part of my sacred economy project, I have finally finished working through J. David Schloen’s The House of the Father as Fact and Symbol: Patrimonialism in Ugarit and the Ancient Near East (2001). It is eminently useful, obsessive, rambling, conservative, and ultimately flawed. The basic thesis is that Max Weber’s patrimonialism (patronage) is a valid category for understanding the politics and economies of pretty much every society in the ancient Near East, at least until the ‘Axial Age’ in the first millennium when ‘rationalisation’ began. He also deploys Paul Ricoeur for his theoretical armoury in order to provide what he feels is a ‘dialectic’ between fact and symbol (it is really more of a wooden correlation).

Useful: it is one of the few works on ancient politics, society and economics that is concerned also with theory. It also engages with the work of the heterodox Marxist of the USSR, Igor D’iakonoff, although it slips too quickly into the work of those who developed some of D’iakonoff’s ideas. And it supplies a wealth of data, even if the material leads to different conclusions than the ones Schloen wants to find.

Obsessive and rambling: it runs for over 400 large-format double-column pages, which would be well over 800 pages in a standard book. Endless pages are devoted to obscure Ugaritic terms, to discussions of architectural ground plans, to just about anything. In short, it is one of those books that took well over a decade to write, attempting to say everything. Where was the supervisor (it began as a PhD thesis) or editor? Where was the wise friend who could say, ‘David, drop that, that, and that’?

Conservative: the reading of Weber is a highly idealised one, with heavy emphasis on the force of ideas on history and a dismissal of any materialist analysis as ‘functionalist’. The choice of Ricouer is no accident in this respect, since that gentle conservative was able to wield a knife in such a way that you knew you’d been stabbed only when the blood began to flow. It is conservative on a historical register as well: Schloen accepts the hypothesis that the settlements in the Judean highlands during the prolonged economic crisis at the end of the second millennium BCE were Israelite, that one can speak confidently of the divided monarchy, that there are clear ethnic differences between Canaanites, Phoenicians, and Israelites (even though they could all speak their own dialects and understand one another). Above all, he attempts to wash away any form of social conflict. It matters not whether one is slave or free, rich or poor, exploited or exploiter, monarch or nomadic pastoralist, for we are all part of a patrilineal household, whether with our joint family, with our monarch, or with our god. There are no social contradictions, no reasons for conflict, but an over-arching social harmony in which everyone knows their place.

That last point leads onto the flaws, which are many. In his effort to paint a picture of patrimonial harmony, Schloen cannot deal with tension and conflict. That makes him curiously impervious to Marxist approaches, the discussions of which are among the worst in the book. To those approaches he attributes strange motives (a desire for a rigid sequence of modes of production), adduces strange arguments (Stalin was vitally concerned that scholars of the ancient Near East toe the party line), and simply misses the key points of Marxist analysis. He also makes the rookie mistake of announcing the next book, concerning the ‘Axial Age’, in some detail. You do that only when the manuscript is complete and with the press, not when it is an idea in your head and maybe a few notes. Why? Obsessive habits delay plans and thoughts shift. Basically, things change, don’t they?

But the main flaw is that he takes a particular feature and makes it the key to his argument. That is, he focuses on the specific institutional form of patronage and then universalises it as a template that explains everything. He thereby fails to see that it is but one institutional form among others – subsistence survival, kinship-household, state and estate, tribute-exchange, and credit-debt. The specific combinations and adjustments of these produced both the possibilities and fault-lines of the shifting economies of the ancient Near East.

Max Weber’s worst work?

I have been reading avidly piles of books on the Russian Revolution, one of which I acquired second hand some time ago: the collection of essays by Max Weber now called The Russian Revolutions. Apparently, Weber spent much time on these, learning enough Russian to read the papers and following affairs closely. The majority were written after the 1905 revolution and then some after the February revolution of 1917 (ie. before the Bolsheviks took over). My anticipation was matched by my profound disappointment.

Why? Weber completely misreads the situation. The key for him is the bourgeoisie, represented by the Cadets (Constitutional Democratic Party), so much so that he ignores the socialists, allocating but four misinformed and dismissive pages to them and Lenin. The reason is that, according to him, they are so marginal and extreme that they have no influence on events – which misses the massive popularity of both the social-democrats and socialist-revolutionaries. Weber’s political colours show through no better than in his assessment of Marxism: ‘Like the thoroughgoing Jesuit, the devout Marxist is imbued by his dogma with a blithe superiority and the self-assurance of a somnambulist’ (p. 69). Nice turn of phrase, even if Weber was a champion of the bourgeoisie. No wonder he completely missed the possibility of the commuists taking power. But in this work another Weber emerges: one who extremely pro-German in relation to Russia and in the context of the war. How can this policy benefit Germany? He asks. He constantly uses ‘we’ and seeks to forward the German cause.

Probably Weber’s worst work.

Max Weber, or the professorial wisdom of the cowardly bourgeoisie

In a scintillating lecture on the 1905 revolution, Lenin offers his usually genteel assessment of none other than Max Weber:

The bourgeoisie likes to describe the Moscow uprising as something artificial, and to treat it with ridicule. For instance, in German so-called “scientific” literature, Herr Professor Max Weber, in his lengthy survey of Russia’s political development, refers to the Moscow uprising as a “putsch”. “The Lenin group,” says this “highly learned” Herr Professor, “and a section of the Socialist Revolutionaries had long prepared for this senseless uprising.”

To properly assess this piece of professorial wisdom of the cowardly bourgeoisie, one need only recall the strike statistics …

Collected Works, vol 23, pp. 250-1.

Needless to say, Lenin too found academics a bunch of wankers.