marx and engels on the state and society

by Ernie Haberkern

“The “New Question” posed by the experience of the Labor government is not, then, whether socialism can be established by parliamentary means or only by extra-parliamentary means. It is this: Can the working class reach socialism only by its own efforts, by its direct class rule over the economic and political life of the country, or can socialism be attained without workers’ control and simply by an expropriation of the bourgeoisie carried out, one way or another, under the control and direction of a more or less benevolent workers’ bureaucracy? The spread of Stalinism has raised the same question in one way; the Labourite government in another way. If it is not the most vital question of our time, it is certainly one of the most vital. Not a few Marxists have abandoned the basic convictions of the founders and teachers of scientific socialism by replying, in effect, in the affirmative: Yes, the road to socialism lies or may lie through the domination of society by a workers’ bureaucracy or a bureaucracy that arose out of the labor movement. They have concluded that the Stalinist revolution is the socialist revolution, that Stalinist society is progressive, that the Titoist state is socialist, and the like. As for ourselves, we remain unreconstructed in our belief that the emancipation of the working class, that is, socialism, is the task of the working class itself and no one else. The experience of the Labor government, especially when considered, as it must be, in the light of the social and historical significance of the rise of Stalinism, has not modified our belief in the slightest degree and we see no grounds in the realities of British society to warrant such a modification.”

Max Shachtman, The New International, January/February 1951

This article, in which the author repudiated his long-held position that nationalization by itself was a progressive step towards socialism, argues that nationalization of private capital by the state bureaucracy, even when carried out by a party based on the working class is not a step forward. The article even goes so far as to argue that the Attlee government, if it continued on this path, was heading towards a social system that would differ little, if at all, from Stalinism.

Shachtman was rediscovering Marx and Engels’ views on the subject of statification.


In 1856 they had their first opportunity to discuss the issue. In that year, Louis Bonaparte, alias Napoleon III, entered into a scheme with the Pereire brothers, former disciples of the utopian socialist St. Simon, who set up a holding company, the Crédit Mobilier, whose aim was to buy out large sections of French industry. Marx, in a series of articles in The New York Daily Tribune, took this experiment in “imperial socialism” very seriously. He saw it, like all of Bonaparte’s schemes, as an attempt to substitute a plebiscitarian proctectorate over the working class for the democratic movement of the workers themselves. In the event, Marx went further in theory than Louis Bonaparte was bold enough to go in practice. The Crédit Mobilier ended up another failed Ponzi scheme and was soon forgotten. But Marx’s essays are worth reading if you want to understand how hostile he was to statification schemes carried out by a state bureaucracy outside the control of the organized working class.


From the 1870s until Engels’ death in 1895 Marx and Engels had the opportunity to directly take on the issue of state socialism inside the German Social Democracy. Their one-time comrade and friend, Ferdinand Lassalle, sought to turn the workers’ movement and the Social Democratic Party into an ally of Otto von Bismark. The “peoples’ monarch” would protect his loyal and humble working class subjects from the greed of the capitalists. What Bismarck and the monarchy would gain from this arrangement would be a docile workers movement which could be played off against the capitalist class and its demands for more control over the bureaucracy.

Part of the problem, as Marx and Engels pointed out in their debates with Lassalle, was the elevation of “the state” into a supra-historical ideal. It was a simple inversion of the classic defense of laissez-faire capitalism against “big government”. But you have to ask yourself, what use is a concept that puts the Hohenzollern and Romanov absolute monarchies in the same category with bourgeois democracies? Or uses the same term to describe the Paris Commune and the Roman Empire?

In fact, the abstract concept of “the state” was rarely used by Marx and Engels. This was especially true after the experience of the Commune. It is interesting that one of the critics of the LRC resolution uses a quote from Marx, an address to a Congress of the International, that uses the term “political power of the working class” rather than “state”. And this was before the Commune.

What characterizes the “state”, even in its bourgeois democratic form, is an unelected bureaucracy that continues to manage the economic and political affairs of the country regardless of what party is in power. Party politics, electoral politics, is for all practical purposes a mime designed to distract the attention of the mass of the population from the real rulers. As the Wizard of Oz famously remarked “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”. Do we really want to give this class more control over the economy?


Engels, in his introduction to the 1891 edition of Marx’s Civil War in France which became a source of contention with the leadership of the German Social Democratic Party, summed up his and Marx’s views on the state as follows:

Society had created its own organs to look after its common interests, originally through simple division of labor. But these organs, at whose head was the state power, had in the course of time, in pursuance of their own special interests, transformed themselves from the servants of society into the masters of society. This can be seen, for example, not only in the hereditary monarchy, but equally so in the democratic republic. It is precisely in America that we see best how there takes place this process of the state power making itself independent in relation to society, whose mere instrument it was originally intended to be. . .

Against this transformation of the state and the organs of the state from servants of society into masters of society—an inevitable transformation in all previous states—the Commune made use of two infallible means. In the first place, it filled all posts—administrative, judicial and educational—by election on the basis of universal suffrage of all concerned, subject to the right of recall at any time by the same electors. And in the second place, all officials, high or low, were paid only the wages received by other workers.

Engels’ conclusion, for all practical purposes his last word on the question, was:

. . . the state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another. and indeed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy; and at best an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worst sides the victorious proletariat, just like the Commune, cannot avoid having to lop off at once as much as possible until such time as a generation reared in new, free social conditions is able to throw the entire lumber of the state on the scrap heap.


But today we are a long way from the Paris Commune. We are hardly in the position to overthrow the ruling class. (Although, at times it appears to be on the verge of overthrowing itself without much help from us.) Does that mean we have nothing to say, no demand to raise, in the current ongoing crisis of global capitalism?

There is an alternative to endorsing the various “bailout” nationalization schemes proposed by bourgeois politicians, especially bourgeois politicians who brand themselves “labourite”, “socialist” or “left”, on the one hand, and watching capitalist society disintegrate with a smug look on our face, on the other. In the crisis of the 1930s, an historical period we seem to be returning to, revolutionary socialists raised a number of “transitional demands”. That is, demands for various actions especially by Labour or Socialist governments which, if implemented, would ameliorate the situation of the working classes while undermining both the capitalist class and the state bureaucracy. Given their dependence on the existing state, left politicians would be hesitant to carry out such demands. But their failure to do so would increase the pressure on them from the ranks. And, if they were forced to carry out such demands, it would sharpen class conflict and drive the society closer to a final showdown.

In this short article even a bare outline of a “complete program” is not possible. But there is a current crisis in the US which we can use as a paradigm. That is the collapse of the Big Three auto companies.

The response of the Democratic Party, acting as spokesperson for the leadership of the United Auto Workers, is demanding a bailout similar to the one made by to the banks. But this time the Bush administration and the Republican party are demanding conditions of the auto workers and their unions which they did not make of their banker friends. The Republican hard right is explicit in its demands that the union be broken as a precondition for any action. They see it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The UAW leadership and the Democrats have given up on everything. Not only pensions and wages and working conditions but the fund designed to finance energy efficiency programs in the industry have been sacrificed. In return the Treasury Department is to appoint a czar (that’s the word they use) to restructure the industry. That is save the jobs of upper management and as much shareholder wealth as possible while breaking the union.

What should labor and socialists be demanding of the incoming “Change” administration?

In the first place, taxpayer money should go to the pension fund and to preserving the jobs and wages of the work force. That would include retraining for those workers who will lose their jobs because, like the banks, the companies cannot continue in their present form.

In the second place, the shareholders and management, not the taxpayers and the workers, should foot the bill. If a reorganization takes place that makes economic sense, then the taxpayers might want to invest in the reorganized industry. They should not be asked to take a risk that private capital doesn’t want to take.

Above all, any intervention by the government should be under open and public supervision by the congress. Economic thinkers and pro-capitalist politicians will argue that Congress and the public lack the “scientific” qualifications of, say, Alan Greenspan. But we, and increasingly the public, know better.

3 thoughts on “marx and engels on the state and society

  1. David,

    I’m not sure about what you say in relation to the State. I think Marx and Engels used it as a term plenty of times – Engels in “The Origin” certainly. But, they use terms differently than we do today. Even Marxists have grown up in a world in which if you use a term it has to have a fairly tightly limited definition. That was not the case in the 19th Century, and certainly didn’t fit with Marx and Engels method of Historical Materialism, and certainly not with the dialectic which requires that the truth is always concrete. If you look at Marx’s use of terms such as “Class” or “Forces of production”, you will see that nowhere does he give a precise definition. His definition of these terms is given in respect of concrete, historical applications of the terms, which is the only way that he can do that consistent with his method.

    I had a similar discussion with Mike McNair on this issue in relation to the State a short time ago. I think Mike has completely moved away from a Marxist view of the State. He too sees the State as arising within pre-class societies and then coming to dominate society. But, this I think undermines both the important aspects of a Marxist definition of the State, and undermines the importance of class analysis as an explanation of historical development. In fact, as I quoted to Mike Engels does speak about pre-class societies creating administrative type bodies to carry out the functions you speak of, but he does not describe these administrative bodies as “State’s”. At best he calls them proto states, the basis of what was to become the State. He also makes a distinction between the historical development of such bodies in those countries that were to adopt the Asiatic Mode of Production, and those that developed down the road of class society.

    In the former a dialectical intertwining of the State and a section of society that consolidates out of the bureaucratic function takes place. It is only the consolidation of a certain layer of society into a caste, and the sociological, legal, and moral changes that have to arise within these societies that creates a “caste-system”, which enables the State to arise above society in general, it is only the existence of this particular kind of state within the AMP, which enables this section of society to solidify into a caste, and which creates the social conditions for a caste-system. But, that is not at all true about class based societies. There rather it is the establishment of a dominant class, which enables it to create a State as its specific means of defence of its property and ruling position. To put the State in the position of some kind of autonomous body that rises up above society outside these social developments, and can thereby explain to some degree class or caste exploitation, is I think to fall into precisely that trap of seeing the State as some kind of supra-historical force separated from classes or castes. It is also to fall into the trap of Duhring as criticised by Engels, of seeing class rule and exploitation as being all based upon, and arising from force. But, as Engels demonstrates that is not at all the basis of class rule. Class rule is a function of the development of the specific means of production at any moment in history, and of the social relation that arise upon them, which for that specific period are entirely logical and consistent, and appear as timeless and rational to the vast majority of society during those periods. Only during specific crises when that rationality appears to break down is the State required to intervene by the use of force.

    I am also not convinced about the relevance of Transitional Demands during the current period. If you read Trotsky on the Transitional programme you will see that he does not put forward the whole Programme as being like some kind of Manifesto. In large part the demands listed there are only relevant in revolutionary or pre-revolutionary period as Trotsky makes clear in the quote I gave the other day about the nationalisation of the banks. Only progressive he says, if the workers actually also take hold of state power! Hardly, a likelihood at the moment.

    There are certain Transitional Demands in the current period such as the Sliding Scale of Hours, and of wages as inflation in the next couple of years soars, but in general I am very wary of the method of the TP. I think it amounts to conning workers into following a course of action that leads to political revolution, without the workers really understanding what they are doing, and where they are going. I think Marx’s method of saying up front, “struggle for this to defend your positions now if you must, and we will support you, but realise that Capitalism cannot offer you a solution. Only taking over the means of production and managing them yourselves can do that.”

    And its necessary to be honest with workers and say that in some instances there is no immediate perfect solution. US auto-workers are not under any conditions going to compete at current wages and conditions with auto-workers in China and other parts of Asia, or even Eastern Europe. However, as the Lucas workers demonstrated a Workers plan does not mean having to simply keep producing the same thing. US auto-workers could begin producing say solar panels or other forms of renewable energy solutions. But, I would disagree with US taxpayers financing such a development for the reasons Marx gave in opposing State aid. Ultimately, he who pays to piper calls the tune, and if the US state financed such a venture it would seek to control it. US auto workers could draw up plans for alternative production that they could produce competitively – though even then economic reality seems to dictate that the wages and conditions of US workers will fall or stagnate in a globalised market for Labour-Power. It may be that only a fraction of those currently employed could be employed in such a venture. But, I would rather be honest and up front with workers in advance about that, to mobilise workers Capital to develop a new efficient and competitive industry making products that are likely to be in increasing demand, and thereby to build up an important industry under workers ownership and management, than to sell those workers an illusion that there is some perfect solution available under Capitalism. There isn’t. No amount of militancy changes the laws of economics, and even – if you don’t believe in “Socialism in One Country” – would such solutions even be available if tomorrow the US became a Workers State.


  2. Not sure Arthur is actually answering Ernie Haberkern here.

    In relation to the usefulness or otherwise of ‘transitional demands’ in the present situation I agree broadly with Arthur. This crisis is more like 1873 than 1931, because of the low level of the independent workers’ movement. The first step is to rebuild the workers’ independent movement through limited *defensive* work but within the framework of recognition that without continental-scale action at the least a break beyond capitalism is not feasible and therefore it is unavoidable that we in the imperialist centres will all be made to some degree worse off by the crisis.

    On Arthur’s comments on what I have to say on the state, comrades can look at Arthur’s and my unfinished exchange on his blog, interrupted by pressure of my work & WW commitments. Contrary to Arthur’s opinion stated here, I do not hold Duhring’s view on the state (that coercion underlies class etc): I merely reject Arthur’s defining the state down to exclude the state regimes in the so-called AMP. He does this in order to be able to insist that the state cannot have prolonged ‘partial autonomy’, hence that the USSR ‘must’ have been either a capitalist state (which it obviously wasn’t) or a degenerated workers’ state, which he holds it was.

    To put my positive view in extreme outline in propositional form:

    1. the development of private property in prehistoric antiquity entails the aut sacrom aut poublicom (sacred-public) as its necessary negation. This is a development within the material division of labour, i.e. at the ‘base’. It entails the appearance of a class or caste, fed out of social surplus, which performs ‘public’ tasks. The initial forms (Mesopotamian, Pharaonic, Mesoamerican) do look like the AMP schema.

    2. Rising exploiting *classes*, which are based on new forms of private property, division of labour and exploitation, (slaveowners; feudalists; capitalists) necessarily come into conflict with existing states and are forced to overthrow them and create new state *forms* which are structurally subordinated to the new ruling class.

    3. At an early stage after this overthrow the new bureaucratic-coercive state is characteristically weak relative to the new ruling class. But as the ruling class and the technical and social division of labour on which it is based enters into decline, this class leans increasingly heavily on and is increasingly absorbed in the state which it has itself created: later Roman empire & Byzantium, European absolutism/ Tokugawa Shogunate, modern semi-statised capitalism.

    4. I characterise the pre-revolutionary Chinese regime as a late slaveowner state which – like Byzantium – long outlived the social relations of production on which it was originally based. The Indian and islamic cases are considerably more complex, since medieval ‘islamic society’ is a form of blocked transition between slavery and feudalism analogous to the shortlived Arian Gothic/ Vandal socio-political orders of the 5th-7th centuries. Ottoman Turkey, f.ex., comes pretty close to being feudal. So do *parts* of India, but brahman-revivalist movements drive back towards an antique (slaveowner) form of state, and eventually British colonisation blocks the internal forward development and overrides it with the creation of a subordinate capitalist state.

    5. Hence states are in the last analysis subordinate to economic formations and usually more immediately subordinate to the ruling classes which created them, even if these classes have more or less died out. But this in the last analysis does not prevent a high degree of state partial autonomy. Especially where old ruling classes are in decline/ new ruling classes are not yet strong enough to keep control of states they create, forms of “free state” which balance between the classes may appear and, though unstable, last for significant periods. I characterise the USSR after 1921 and a fortiori after 1928 as such a phenomenon.


  3. I think I may have been confused about the original post which for some reason I had taken to bef rom David quoting Ernie and Shachtman etc. rather than a post from Ernie himself.

    This is not the place to enter into a debate over Mike’s definition of the State, which I hope we can resume at some point, along with our wider discussion began earlier on the Nature of the USSR, on how to deal with skilled labour etc. However,

    1. I don’t exclude the State under the AMP as not being a State as I think what I said above demonstrates.

    2. I do believe that a State as understood in the Marxist sense only arises in societies that have either a ruling class or a ruling caste.

    3. Whether a society is a class based society or a class based society comes down to the method of appropriating the surplus product.

    4. Whether a ruling group is a ruling class or caste is dependent upon the Production Relations, and the social relations that rise upon them. In short a ruling class arises through ownership of property, a caste through control of property.

    5. Under the AMP what arose was a burueacracy which was able to merge its societal functions with the functions of a proto State. It becomes a ruling caste, because over time it is able to consolidate its position through a growing complex of social mores, culture and ideology which entrench social position based on birth. The Indian caste system is the most classical form of this. Under such systems the State arises symbiotically with the development of this ruling caste, and the State acts for this ruling caste in pretty much the same way that the State acts for a ruling class.

    6. Such states can and do last for considerable periods just as do States in class based societies. They do so precisely for the same reason. That it is that complex of social mores, of culture, of ideas that justify the existence of the ruling caste arising out of the productive relations on which its power actually rests, not the power of the State itself. But, the State under the AMP did not have partial autonomy from the ruling caste, for any prolonged period, anymore than does the State under a class based system. Every State has partial autonomy to some extent – as Marx says in his critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, from its inception the State is attempting to free itself from the control of the society out of which it arises. But, every ruling class which has consolidated its economic, social and ultimately political power is able under most conditions to reign in the attempts of the State to separate itself from its control.

    The point is that normally new ruling classes take some time to achieve that. As I said recently in a letter to the WW in relation to “The Devil’s Whore”, history seems to progress through new ruling classes staging premature political revolutions, led by a Vanguard that has some premonition of the future society, and leads a revolution based upon the ideas appropriate to it, more or less clearly defined – in the case of the English Civil War not at all clearly defined, hence the confused class lines involved, and the heavy refraction of class interests through what appears superficially a religious war – and which mobilises considerable social unrest within society at large. On this basis the economic and social foundation on which such revolutions take place is actually quite narrow, and lacking the necesary social support, Bonapartist States arise, often to be swept away within a matter of at most decades to be replaced by some form of restoration. That was true of England, of France, and of Russia. It was also true to some extent of the American Revolution. Only when a true social revolution is accomplished and the social foundation of the new ruling class is broad enough, its economic and social power secure enough, and its ideology clear enough can it secure hold on political power, and thereby exert its control fully over the State. 1832 Reform Act, establishment of the Third Republic, to some extent American Civil War.

    7. Partly for these reasons I DO NOT beleive the USSR was a degenerated workers state. I think it was a deformed workers state, because it was nevr a healthy workers state to begin with, and could not have been given the conditions udner which it came into existence.

    8. The USSR COULD – as Trotsky pointed out – have become a Bureaucratic Collectivist State rather like the State udner the AMP, if the Bureaucracy had consolidated into a fixed social formation i.e. into a caste. It didn’t, nor did any of the necessary laws, social mores, culture, ideology etc. come into existence which could have supported it. That is precisely, why this State needs to use force in order to maintain the position of the State bureaucracy.

    9. We can see in some parts of the world, for example in Somalia, ruling groups which use force to basically rob populations. I do not consider such formations States in the Marxist sense. Indeed, to some extent they can only maintain themselves because society itself in any meaningful sense has also ceased to exist.

    On Transitional demands I agree with Mike about where we are, and what needs to be done. I think calls for Workers Governments and so on at the moment just tell us that the peopler aising them have no real connection with the Labour Movement on Planet Earth. However, although clearly I think we should as far as possible build international working class action at least on a European level – I strongly favour trying to create European Trade Unions, and Workers Parties, I also think marxists should use the present crisis to argue that even on a Capitalist basis the establishemnt of a European State, the democratisation of European institutions etc. would be a rational and progressive step forward – I think its wrong to say that no solutions can be offered on a more limited basis.

    Clearly, I believe that workers could begin to mobilise the funds in their Pension Funds, for instance, to establish Co-operatives even on a national basis that would be a positive step forward. Certainly Housing Co-operatives would represent such a step, and would more than likely arise on a national or even local level – indeed some such local housing Co-opeatives already have. (NB. I saw yesterday that in the US 90 million people use Credit Unions). The important point should be that they are started at the cosncious intigation of workers, and preferably not just as a response to a proposed closure. The important point is not at what level such developments begin, but how effectively, and quickly they can be linked together with other such ventures, and the ability of marxists to intervene in such developments to draw out the political lessons.


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