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.