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)

Advertisements