1990s >> 1995 >> no-1085-january-1995

Marx Against the State

In 1988 Alan Carter wrote a criticism of Marx’s views from what he called a “libertarian communist” position under the title Marx: A Radical Critique. His basic argument was that Marx’s theories of history, economics and politics all paved the way for the emergence, not of a stateless, classless communist society, but of a new class society ruled by a new exploiting class similar to what was then about to collapse in east Europe and the USSR. His conclusion was that radical critics of capitalist society should actively oppose Marx’s ideas.

Marx of course is not above criticism—and we have our own criticisms of some of the things he said and did—but to see him as nothing more than the precursor of a state capitalist society is inaccurate and unjustified.

Marx genuinely wanted to see established a stateless, classless society and the means he advocated to achieve this—democratic political action by a democratically-organised working class—are still relevant and valid. But how does carter reach the opposite conclusion?

Somewhat surprisingly, Carter gets Marx’s theory of the state more or less right. That, as a coercive institution standing above the rest of society, the state is a product of the division of society into antagonistic economic classes, and that, once these classes are abolished through the common ownership of productive resources, then the state will become redundant; its coercive features will be dismantled and its useful administrative functions merged into the democratic structure of classless society.

This was a position Marx reached in 1843 and maintained for the rest of his life. As he wrote at the height of his controversy with the anarchist Bakunin in 1874:

    “All Socialists understand by ‘anarchy’ this: the aim of the proletarian movement, the abolition of classes, once achieved, the power of the State, which serves to keep the great producing majority under the yoke of a small exploiting minority, will disappear and the functions of government will be transformed into simple administrative functions” (Conspectus of Bakunin’s ‘Statism and anarchy’).

So, how does Carter get round this? How does he turn Marx into an accomplice of Lenin and even Stalin? This is not an easy task since Marx never used the Leninist terms “vanguard party”, “professional revolutionary”, “workers’ state” or “socialist state”. He did unwisely once or twice use “dictatorship of the proletariat” but this was meant to be a contrast to dictatorship by a revolutionary elite as advocated by some other revolutionaries of his day.

This is recognised by Carter who doesn’t rest his case on Marx’s unfortunate use of this misleading term. What Marx had in mind was the working class winning control of the state and using it, for a relatively brief period, to abolish capitalists’ class monopoly over the means of production, thereby abolishing classes and so also the need for a state, which would then be dismantled.

Carter’s argument is that it is Marx’s theory that the existence of the state is in the end dependent on the economic structure of society that opens the way for Leninism:

    “Lenin did not build his theories on air: they arose on the basis of serious inadequacies in  Marx’s conception of the state and political power” (p. 218).

    “The perceived need for authoritarian and revolutionary organisation is sanctioned by Marx’s theory because his theoretical subordination of political power to economic causes apparently renders post-revolutionary political power unproblematic” (p. 231).

This is a very weak argument based not on what Marx actually said (Carter can’t produce any evidence that the supposed need for “authoritarian and revolutionary organisation” was “perceived” by Marx himself) but rather on what Marx allegedly omitted to say.

What Carter appears to be trying to say is that because Marx believed that the state would automatically disappear once economic classes had been abolished, he didn’t attach much importance to the form the state should take during the brief period when it would be being used to abolish classes. and that this allowed others to “perceive: that it needed to be controlled by an authoritarian vanguard during this period.

This is wrong on two counts. Marx did in fact have something to say about the form of the state during this period. He thought it should be thoroughly democratic, with mandated and recallable delegates. This, for instance, is what Marx write about the Paris Commune of 1871 which he then described (somewhat inaccurately, as he later conceded) as a government of the working class”, i.e. having the form the state should take while being used by the working class to abolish classes:

    “The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms  . . . Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible at all times revocable agent of the Commune. So were the official of all other branches of the Administration . . . Like the rest of public servants, magistrates and judges were to be elective, responsive and revocable” (Civil War in France, 1871, Section III).

But even if Marx had omitted to specify  this, this would not justify the inference that the state during this period could take any other than this ultra-democratic form and authoritarian or a one-party dictatorship. This has to be ruled out as incompatible with Marx’s aim of a stateless, communist society based on voluntary co-operation, which just could not be promoted by such means. How could people be forced to co-operate voluntarily? They can only do this if they want to, which means that socialism has, by its very nature, to be the outcome of a consciously expressed desire of the majority. Because socialism can only be a democratic society, it can only come about democratically. In the phrase Marx endorsed: the emancipation of the working class can only be the work of the working class itself.

So, Carter is factually wrong as to what Marx’s views on this subject were. He is also wrong in urging radical critics of capitalism to shun Marx’s ideas. Although Marx’s views, like anyone else’s should not be accepted uncritically and dogmatically, they are still relevant today. Among other things as a criticism of the sort of elitist and vanguardist ideas peddled by Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and the others.

Adam Buick