Marx’s Theory of the State

In recent years, I have oscillated between a garden-variety liberal egalitarianism and a more radical form of Marxism.Lately, I am leaning more towards the latter.  One of the reasons is that I find Marx’s theory of the state much closer to the truth than any liberal view of the state.  In what follows, I will summarize Marx’s theory of the state, as I understand it.  Much of this is indebted to the work of one of my former teachers at Wisconsin, Andrew Levine, who has written on this topic many times over the years.  My hope is that some people who generally disagree with Marx might find his theory of the state more congenial to their views than they would have expected.

According to Marx, every state is a dictatorship.  That is to say, every state is imposed by extra-moral, extra-legal force.  As I understand it, this is an explanatory claim.  Even if there is some kind of moral justification for the state, that plays no role in the correct explanation of the existence or nature of the state.  Rather, the correct explanation of the existence and nature of the state is that it is brought about by force, and maintained in the same way.  That is what Marx means when he says that every state is a “dictatorship.”  Now here is the element of the theory that is distinctively Marxian.  According to Marx, every state is a class dictatorship.  For Marx, the basic units of society, and the principal agents of change in human history are social classes, which are defined by their role in human production.  Moreover, in every class-divided society, one or more of these classes rules the other classes.  There is always a ruling class, and one or more subordinate classes.  Now, here is Marx’s theory of the state.  According to Marx, the state is the organizing committee of the ruling class.  It is the instrument through which the ruling class coordinates and exercises its rule of the other classes, and thereby maintains its status as the ruling class.  Through the state, the ruling class resolves intra-class conflicts, and creates and enforces the rules and policies that ensure their status as the ruling class.  That’s what the state does, and that’s what the state IS.  In a capitalist society, the ruling class is the capitalist class, who own the means of production, and they dominate the proletariat, who own no means of production.  So in a capitalist society, the state is the organizing committee of the capitalist class, through which they coordinate their rule.

At this point, notice the sharp contrast between Marxism and standard varieties of liberalism.  Liberalism has always been a philosophy of reform.  Liberals want to reform the state, and thereby reform society.  They want to use the state to socially engineer a better society.  Marx would say that in any class-divided society, that is impossible.  The reason is that in any class-divided society, the state is, and always will be the instrument of the ruling class.  Even when such a state makes concessions to a subordinate class, it is only because the ruling class deems this necessary to preserve its status.  So the difference between liberals and Marxists is really quite severe.  Where liberals are relatively optimistic about the prospects for reforming the state, Marxists are deeply skeptical.  For a Marxist, the only way to cure what ails us is to revolutionize our society, and the only way to do that is for the subordinate classes to take over the state, exercise their own class dictatorship, and ultimately eliminate class divisions in society.  Once classes are eliminated, there will be no more role for a state (since states are class dictatorships), and the state will “wither away.”  People sometimes forget that Marx’s final vision is actually anarchist — there will be no state.

Is there compelling empirical evidence for Marx’s theory of the state?  That’s a large question, and I can’t hope to answer it here.  But here are two pieces of evidence to add to the mix.

1. In his recent book, Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America (2012), the political scientist Martin Gilens adduces convincing evidence that the United States government is disproportionately responsive to the preferences of the most affluent members of American society, at the expense of both the poor and the middle-class.  This is based on a rigorous examination of the facts.  More precisely, Gilens’ research shows that “When less-well-off Americans hold preferences that diverge from those of the affluent, policy responsiveness to the well-off remains strong, but responsiveness to lower-income groups all but disappears.” (Gilens, 2012: 5)

2. The bailout that was initiated by the Bush administration, and then completed by the Obama administration.  Enough said.

4 thoughts on “Marx’s Theory of the State

  1. It’s been a long week, but I now finally have the chance to respond to this. I’m hoping that my comment pushes you back to your liberal-reformist self. So, a couple of objections to the Marxist view:

    (1) You describe the view as “explanatory,” but if so, its normative force is unclear. Suppose that the explanation works on actual capitalist states. That wouldn’t imply that the capitalist normative ideal had been impugned, only that no actual state had lived up to it. So in form, the argument misses its mark as a critique of liberalism or capitalism (or liberal capitalism). What a Marxist critique of capitalism needs is not an explanation of existing deformities of capitalist political economies, but an argument against the very possibility of the capitalist ideal (as defenders of capitalism have understood it). But I don’t see that offered here. Even if I grant what you say on explanatory grounds, there’s no reason to grant that any of it makes capitalism impossible, or even any less feasible than the ideal version of any other political ideal in the competition.

    (2) I think the Marxist view of “dictatorship” is an ideological solecism. Let’s grant (ex hypothesi) that all capitalist economies involve a ruling class whose policies marginalize some proletariat. It still wouldn’t follow that capitalism was a “dictatorship” on any recognizable understanding of that term. (And if Marxists want to use the term in radically revisionary way, that revisionary use would have to be defended on conceptual or semantic grounds.) Even if we grant that liberal-capitalist regimes rule by force, there’s either a basic difference of kind or a very large difference of degree between the quality and quantity of force imposed on people in liberal-capitalist regimes and that imposed on people in dictatorships in the conventional usage. In its haste to expose the ruling class, the Marxist usage blurs fundamental distinctions. On the Marxist view you’re defending, the Scandinavian countries are all dictatorships. So are Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Gaza (under Hamas). But even if it turns out that all six regimes are governed by a capitalist ruling class, “dictatorship” is a confusingly coarse-grained way of describing them. If you used it, you’d have to subdivide “dictatorship” into relatively benign and relatively malign forms, and that, it seems to me, defeats the very point of the term itself, which by definition refers to a malign form of government. As conceived by the view you defend here, “dictatorship” is not explanatory as regards the entire range of capitalist regimes (or regimes, as such).

    (3) I don’t think that the Marxist view is in fact particularly explanatory. I think it purchases its apparent explanatory power at the price of some serious omissions. Here are three:

    • The thesis implies that all capitalist regimes govern by “force,” but that doesn’t seem empirically plausible to me. Again, the Western European regimes, and especially the Scandinavian ones, are (perhaps ironically) the best counterexample: they are capitalist (they operate by market relations), but their regulatory and redistributive structures enjoy a great deal of public support. I take “public support” to be a proxy for consent. If a government is consented-to, then to that extent it doesn’t rule by force. One methodological problem that anyone faces here is that there is no actual mechanism of consent to government in any existing regime. But precisely for that reason, no one can confidently put a number on those who implicitly consent or hypothetically would consent to any given regime. The proper stance, then, is agnosticism, not the declaration that all governments govern by force. No one can know the latter claim, and on commonsense grounds, it seems obvious to me that many people (even many poor people) would consent to government if asked to. (The clearest cases are those poor immigrants who decide to become naturalized citizens of capitalist countries—including here not just the US and Canada, but the Western European countries and the so-called “Asian Tigers.” The same might be said of Israel, at least for Jews. Very poor Jewish immigrants to Israel very likely consent to the state. But Israel is clearly a capitalist state by your definition.)

    • The thesis can’t explain why capitalist regimes offer (any) benefits to the poor whose existence comes (or seems to come) at the economic expense of the better off, e.g., minimum wage laws, Medicaid, TANF, unemployment, disability, etc. At the macro level, I don’t see how it can explain the rise of the Great Society programs of the 1960s, or explain why the 1996 welfare reform didn’t lead to the wholesale abolition (as opposed to modification) of the welfare laws. And that’s just for the American case. A Marxist theory of the state would have to produce an explanation that worked across the entire spectrum of capitalist regimes, including the Western European ones. The problem is that the Marxist thesis seems to imply the non-existence of relief for the poor, but in fact relief is there. Whether the relief is adequate, etc. is a separate question. My point is that its very existence is an explanatory problem for the Marxist view.

    • I think we can only use the Marxist terminology of “classes” if we have clear empirical evidence against the possibility of class mobility in capitalist regimes. But if poor people can work their way out of poverty in sufficiently large numbers under capitalism (or even if they could or might be able to, after the enactment of the relevant reforms), the terminology of “proletariat” becomes problematic, even if the terminology of “ruling class” has application. That’s an empirical issue, and as stated, the Gilens thesis doesn’t have clear relevance to it.


    • Thanks for these great comments. They are extremely thoughtful and challenging, and I appreciate it. Let me start by saying that I only intended to present Marx’s theory of the state, together with two pieces of evidence to “throw into the hopper” in support of it. I did not intend to give anything like a proof of Marx’s theory. With that said, I will start with your first point, which gets right to the core of the matter. I agree that a compelling argument for Marx’s theory of the state would have to show that the liberal capitalist ideal is impossible, or at least extremely unlikely and / or unstable. Very roughly, here is an outline of an argument for that latter claim. It will make some assumptions that would require further argument, but at least it will give us a place to start. In a relatively unrestricted capitalist society, gains and losses are cumulative over time. Those who gain can use their gains to gain more, and those who lose are put in a position that makes it likely that they will lose more. Thus, over long periods of time, there is an inherent tendency towards growing inequality, and eventually that leads to very great inequalities. (Thomas Piketty’s latest book provides some very strong evidence for that conclusion.) Moreover, in a capitalist society, wealth is power. First of all, it gives you control over means of production, and that gives you control over all the people who need access to those means of production. As Alexander Hamilton said in Federalist 79, “In the general course of human nature, a power over a man’s subsistence amounts to a power over his will.” So the people who own the means of production have power over those who do not, since everyone needs access to the means of production in order to make a living and survive. Consequently, as wealth becomes more and more concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people, that power also becomes concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people. The result is that, at least in the economy, a few people have most of the power over everyone else. (According to some estimates, 8 banks currently own almost 60% of the entire U.S. economy.) Now, at that point, if we have a state, then how likely is it that the people who have all of the power economically will find some way to use that power to take control of the state? I think that the answer is “very likely.” There are ever so many ways to use wealth and the power to take effective control of the state. We can make laws to try to stop that, but history suggests smart people with power can find ways around the laws. So I think that capitalist societies are likely to have states that are controlled by the extremely wealthy.
      On the use of the word “dictatorship,” I meant to be offering a stipulative definition of how Marx uses that term. But with that said, I accept your objection to the use of the term. Certainly there are finer-grained, and important distinctions that one would want to make among various different “dictatorships” in Marx’s sense of the term. But I also think that this touches on a much deeper issue: in how many different ways is it possible to coerce someone? I am inclined to think that there are actually many different ways of coercing people, and some regimes do it in a way that masks its true nature as coercion. But that probably takes us too far afield for the moment.
      Your point about consent is important. Here is what I would say about it. Suppose that the majority of the people in a society consent to the government, or would give their consent under the appropriate conditions. That alone is actually consistent with Marx’s theory. The reason is that this actual or hypothetical consent might play no role in the true explanation of the existence or maintenance of the state. Imagine a slave who consents to being a slave. That doesn’t change the fact that he is owned, because his consent does not explain the fact that he is a slave. Marx’s theory is that the actual, correct explanation of the existence and maintenance of the state is not explained by anyone’s consent, whether actual or hypothetical. Now, that is still a point that can be disputed, but it is consistent with the mere fact of consent.
      I, myself, think that Marx’s theory can explain aid to the poor. Let’s look at the beginning of the welfare state in the U.S. It really starts with the New Deal. When did we get the New Deal? In the middle of the Great Depression, when unemployment was at an all-time high and, at the same time, socialism and communism were on the rise around the rest of the world. Why would we suddenly start making concessions to poor people at that particular time? A very plausible answer is that it was to avoid the obvious alternatives. When a large percentage of the population is in bread lines, and lots of people are screaming socialism, it makes good sense to start offering some concessions, not because you want to, but because you have to. (In fact, during the Depression, people like Huey Long and Father Coughlin exerted extreme pressure from the far Left. That would create the impression that concessions had better be made, or else the whole apple cart was going over.) Similarly, in the 1960’s there was a lot of rebellion in the air — the Civil Rights movement, the resistance to the Vietnam war, the student protests. And lo and behold, once again we get more programs to improve people’s lives, including aid to the poor. So I think that the historical record here actually supports Marx’s interpretation of the reasons for capitalist countries to give aid to the poor. They do it if and when it is necessary to remain in power at all. That is not to say that there aren’t any do-gooders who aim at it for good reasons, but they only succeed when the powers-that-be join them for less admirable reasons.
      On the issue of classes, the existence of classes is consistent with class mobility. Even if some people move out of a class, that does not mean that the class ceases to exist. What defines the class is their role in production, so as long as there are people who play a certain role in production, then that class exists, even if its membership changes. Of course, the extent of actual economic mobility is not entirely encouraging. According to some of the latest numbers, 43% of the people who were born in the bottom economic quintile remain in that quintile for the rest of their lives, and 70% of them remain below the middle. Only 4% of people who are born in the bottom quintile ever reach the top quintile. Obviously that means that there is some economic mobility, but not as much as one might like. But the more important point, in this context, is that at every given time, there are lots of people at the bottom, and many of them remain at the bottom. They are the people who are ruled by force in a capitalist society.


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