Midway upon the journey
Public Lecture by Michel Feher

Thoughts on Marxism and the State, Part 3

by David McNally on April 16, 2019

The Bureaucratic-Military State vs. Radical Democracy and the Socialist Commons

So diminished have become the political horizons of much of the left in the neoliberal era that many have become captives of what Engels once called “a superstitious reverence for the state and everything connected with it” (Preface to Marx’s The Civil War in France, 1891). This is expressed in a knee-jerk defense of all that appears “public” in capitalist society as if it represents anti-capitalist beachheads.

Here, a watered-down “left” thinking unwittingly joins hands with the mainstream media in identifying state services with socialism. A columnist in the Houston Chronicle, for example, intoned that “The United States has several socialist programs, including Social Security and Medicare.” The absurdity of this statement ought to be apparent. It seems, however, that this absurdity can no longer be taken for granted on the left.

For instance, in light of my critique of the state, one critic opined that I should logically oppose partially-socialised medicine under capitalism. Since that is a nonsense claim, let me state what should be self-evident. Every socialist worth their salt (critically) supports programs that make life in capitalist society any bit easier for poor and working class people. But we are entirely capable of doing so without confusing such programs with socialist achievements. We steer clear of such confusion by insisting on the inherently anti-democratic form of the modern state. This allows us to sharply differentiate real public control from state ownership and direction.

Here, we are following in the tracks of Marx’s insights in his 1852 text, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. This is a critically important work on many levels. But I want to focus on just one aspect of it: Marx’s analysis of the stiflingly bureaucratic nature of the modern state. Indeed, it is in the course of this analysis that Marx introduces the idea of “smashing” the capitalist form of political power.


In the seventh chapter of The Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx turns his sights to the character of the capitalist state in France—a state that had recently crushed a workers’ uprising (1848) and consolidated itself in the 1851 coup led by Louis Bonaparte (Napoleon Bonaparte’s grand-nephew). Marx points out how this state massively concentrates power in the hands of the executive. Marx then denounces this “enormous bureaucratic and military organisation, with its ingenious state machinery, embracing wide strata, with a host of officials numbering half a million, besides an army of another half million.” These troops and bureaucrats, he observes, are subject to no authority other than that of the president and his executive officers.

Marx declares that this state suffocates the social life of the people. He describes it as an “appalling parasitic body, which enmeshes the body of French society like a net and chokes all its pores.” Noting that these structures emerged under the absolute monarchy of the 18th century, he insists that the French bourgeoisie took over and “perfected” this bureaucratic-military form of state, adapting it to capitalist purposes.
Ah, but what of all the public works undertaken by this state—from schools and universities to bridges and publicly-owned railways? Surely Marx saw these as progressive? On the contrary. He argues that all these were formed by severing them from the common interests of the people–alienating them from the people by ensconcing them in the hands of the state bureaucracy. As a result, “Every common interest was straightaway severed from society, counterposed to it as a higher, general interest, snatched from the activity of society’s members themselves and made an object of government activity, from a bridge, a schoolhouse and the communal property of the village community to the railways, the national wealth and the national university of France.”

Rather than romanticise these “public” services and enterprises, Marx is scathing about their alienated form. These state operations have been “snatched from the activity of society’s members themselves.” Rather than communally-operated lands, schools, and universities—public services subject to democratic, community control—all these have been severed “from the common interests of the people.” Marx is here radically distinguishing between state ownership and communal ownership. The latter represents social property belonging to and regulated by the people. “Public” services and enterprises administered by the modern state, on the other hand, are merely controlled by a bureaucracy that chokes off the democratic life-blood of real communities of people.


It is in the context of analysing the alienated character of the bureaucratic machinery of modern government that Marx introduces the idea of “smashing” the state. Since 1789, he claims, “all revolutions perfected this machine instead of smashing it.” In the great uprisings of 1830 and 1848, all parties simply sought “possession of this huge state edifice.”

But because Marx’s conception of socialism was a radically democratic one, he knew that a workers’ revolution could not succeed if it simply sought “possession” of the bureaucratic state. The anti-democratic structures of such a state would undermine all efforts to radically democratise social and political life—if its military structures did not do so first. This is why the bureaucratic and military structures of the modern state would need to be dismantled, superseded . . . “smashed.”

Let me here add two quick points. First, as I shall explain in a forthcoming post, Marx’s metaphor of “smashing” must be read dialectically. There is nothing in it of a nihilist rage for destruction. Instead, what needs to be “smashed” are inherent obstacles to the construction of a democratic and communal form of social life. Marx imagines the dismantling of bureaucratic and military obstructions to a radical democratisation which will bring about the withering away of the political state.

It is absolutely true, secondly, that Marx did not lay out any clear program for such a smashing or dismantling in The Eighteenth Brumaire. It would only be in light of the uprising of French workers in 1871, and their creation of a new Paris Commune, that he would come to outline some basic principles of a workers’ state. But already, nearly twenty years prior to the Commune experience, he had identified the modern state as a suffocating, bureaucratic structure that undermines “the activity of society’s members themselves” and suppresses “the common interests of the people.” In so doing, he foregrounded the construction of the socialist commons rooted in the democratic self-activity of the people as fundamental to the political project of revolutionary socialism.

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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