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Thoughts on Marxism and the State, Part 1

by David McNally on March 19, 2019
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It has become clear that the Marxist critique of the state is once again in disfavour in many parts of the left. Sometimes this disfavour disguises wholesale political accommodation to the nation-state (e.g., with those on the left who oppose calls for open borders and smuggle in some kind of ostensibly “left” argument for “nicer” immigration controls). But, beyond this, there is a new “realism” on the left that accuses the Marxist critique of the state of being “utopian.” This line of argument often attacks the metaphor of “smashing” the state for not understanding that some state services ought to be preserved in a post-capitalist society. In this case, we may be dealing with a genuine intellectual muddle about some fundamental concepts, rather than a bad faith attempt to discredit. In the spirit of engaging this debate in good faith, I begin today a series of reflections on the theme of Marxism and the state. This piece first appeared as a series of Facebook posts and has been edited for publication.

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I: On Hegel and the “disappearance” of the state

Marx’s approach to the problem of the state is immersed in radically democratic commitments. As early as 1843, in his critique of Hegel’s philosophy of the state, Marx informs us that authentic democracy (which is to say radical, direct, participatory democracy) “is the first true unity of the particular and the universal.” In contrast to authentic democracy, the state in modern society is an *abstracted* social force, a power outside the control of the people, one that stands over and against it (in an authoritarian and anti-democratic relationship to the demos). Anticipating his analysis of alienated labour (and of value in capitalist society), Marx focuses on how a human creation—the state—has come to dominate its creators. For this reason, he describes genuine democracy as the *disappearance* of the state. “In modern times,” he writes, “the French have understood this to mean that the political state disappears in a true democracy.” Marx highlights the phrase “political state disappears” in his text. And that highlighting is at the heart of a genuinely revolutionary socialist approach to the state. The victory of the working class against capitalism means the dis-alienation of political power, its reconstitution as the power of the people. It means the end of the state as a power separate from, abstracted from, the people. In short, “the political state disappears.” All talk of breaking and superseding the state is based on this conception: that the victory of revolutionary socialist democracy constitutes the transcendence of the state. This victory over the state is the defeat of political alienation—its breaking by the power of the people, the demos.

II: Preliminaries on Colonialism and War

Marx’s theory of the modern state developed in its earliest stages by way of critical engagement with Hegel’s political philosophy. Of course, the young Marx already understood that the modern state expresses the dominance of a new form of private property (see his articles on the Wood Theft Debates). But this insight did not yet constitute a theory of the modern state as such. 

The importance of Hegel’s doctrine of the state had much to do with its sustained engagement with classical political economy. Through the latter, Hegel arrived at the conclusions that the modern capitalist economy systematically generates over-production, poverty, and an expansionary drive toward colonisation (Philosophy of Right, Section 2, Part C). Colonialism is for Hegel a product of the inherent contradictions and antagonisms of the capitalist economy. It is necessary to the modern state, rather than merely a particular policy choice. In the final section of his text, Hegel then examines the “individuality” of the modern state, arguing that it contains no inherent drive toward universal law and world peace. Instead, each state asserts its independence in opposition “to other states”—which leads to the inevitability of war (Philosophy of Right, Section 3, Part AII).

For Hegel, in other words, this is a constitutive feature of the state in a capitalist world system. It follows that the drives toward colonialism and war are inherent in the modern state as such (a recognition that is arguably fatal to all reformist approaches to the capitalist state). In his existing commentary on Hegel’s theory of the state (1843), Marx does not deal with either of these sections of The Philosophy of Right. But he had certainly studied them, and there is little doubt that he was reflecting on them. However, in 1843 he had not embarked on his critical encounter with classical political economy and was not yet in a position to systematically address these issues. By the time of The German Ideology (1846) we find him taking them up.

As he develops the materialist conception of history in Part One of The German Ideology, Marx briefly turns to the question of the state. Here he rehearses his earlier argument that a distinctive feature of the modern state is the form in which it becomes “a separate entity” that stands over and against society (which is why he had argued that true democracy will require the “disappearance” of such a state).

He then adds that bourgeois political power must organise itself in this way “both for internal and external purposes.” We need to attend closely to what is being said here. The modern state, says Marx, organises the social power of capitalist property against all subaltern classes within its territory *and* against all other states. The modern state expresses class domination *and* inter-state rivalry. As Hegel recognised, states exist in a system of many states, and the relations among these states are inherently conflictual. External force and violence are thus as much inherent features of modern state power as are internal force and violence against subaltern classes.
Along these lines, in an earlier passage in The German Ideology, Marx had written that the system of modern private property “must assert itself in its external relations as nationality and internally must organise itself as state” (The German Ideology, Part One: Feuerbach, sections 10 and 11). In short, the modern state is a nation-state. It is a state that projects sovereign power within its territorial bounds, and one that asserts itself as “nationality” in opposition to other nation-states. It follows, as it did for Hegel, that militarism and war are inherent elements of modern power.

To be sure, Marx’s thinking about colonialism and war was quite undeveloped at this point. He was still in the early stages of developing his theory of capital, primitive accumulation, and the world market. After Marx’s death, Engels would start to discern the drive toward war among the European powers of his day. And notwithstanding a number of shortcomings in their theorisations, it was the merit of the likes of Luxemburg, Liebknecht, Lenin, and Bukharin to understand that drives to imperialism and war were fundamental to capitalism as a world system. I hope to return to these debates in a future post.

For the moment, let us note that the most sophisticated case for left-reformism in the early twentieth-century broke with *both* sides of Marx’s argument. In that, it at least displayed a certain (reformist) consistency.

In arguing for the use of the institutions of the capitalist state for “socialist” purposes, Karl Kautsky, leader of the “centre” current in German Social Democracy prior to World War One, proclaimed that his party would eliminate “none of the political ministries” of the existing state. Consistent with this, he developed his theory of “ultra-imperialism,” according to which a drive toward world peace, not war, was the inherent logic of international capitalism. Ironically, his celebrated example of this trend was the United States of America.

I plan to examine these issues at more length in subsequent reflections. For the moment, however, it is important to recognise that no adequate theory of the capitalist state can focus on the national level alone. “The” state must be analysed in terms of rivalry among many states. Precisely because it is organized “as nationality,” the capitalist nation-state expresses an antagonistic logic toward other states. Of course, this logic is a highly differentiated one, based on the systematic relations of dominance and subordination that define a world of imperialism and (post)colonialism. It follows that these relations are constitutive of the modern capitalist state, not accidental features that can be wished away on the road to a post-capitalist society.

David McNally
David McNally is the Cullen Distinguished Professor of History and Business at the University of Houston. He is a long-time activist in anti-racist, socialist, and anti-poverty movements. His books include Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance (winner of the 2012 Paul Sweezy Award) and Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism (winner of the 2012 Deutscher Memorial Award). His book, Blood and Money: War, Slavery, Finance, and Empire will be published in 2019.

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