Hal Draper

The Death of the State in Marx and Engels


From Socialist Register 1970, pp.281-307.

The article is available in PDF format at Socialist Register Website.
Starred [*] notes are footnotes, the others give sources.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
THE aim of this essay is to survey the thinking of Marx and Engels on the “dying-away” of the state [1*] in socialist (communist) society. By passing in review what they wrote on the subject, to the extent practical without getting into ramifying issues, we will also consider how their understanding of the question developed through three fairly distinct periods.
Marx did not begin by deducing the end of the state from any theory of his own. In point of fact, he found this concept ready-made. Its relation to Marxism will be clarified by a glance at its pre-Marxian background.

1. Anti-statism as Aspiration

The “abolition of the state” is one of the oldest ideas in the history of social dissent, older and more primitive than either socialism or anarchism as ideology or movement. An obvious speculation is that anti-statism would naturally arise with the beginnings of the state itself, in reaction to its new pressures, and that it would long survive as a reminiscence of a Golden Age. In any case, it is already found at least in ancient Greek and Chinese philosophy.
All through the history of class society, from the angle of the little man on bottom, the state appears mainly as a grasping, oppressing force. To the tiller of the soil, the state takes form in the person of the tax collector, or tribute-gatherer, with armed men at his back. “When the French peasant paints the devil, he paints him in the guise of a tax collector,” wrote Marx. [1] The peasant sees the wealth of society, as he knows it, produced out of the act of his labour on the breast of nature; what he sees about the state is that, after he has produced the wealth, there comes this outstretched hand from the outside to take it away.
Anti-statism in general (like the later anarchism) has flourished best among individual and isolated producers, like peasants and handicraftsmen and home workers, who do not readily see the connections between their own personal labour and the work of society. In this limited framework, the state is only an alien intruder. By the same token, the hoped-for “abolition of the state” appears to be a matter only of will and force: one flourish of the knife and the useless cancer is lopped off the body of productive society.
In this way, the aspiration for the “abolition of the state”, which appears to most men today as one of the wildest of all fantasies, arose as a simple, direct, easily grasped, commonsense idea. (For Marxism, it is neither fantastic nor simple).
Anti-statism appears also in less generalized form as blanket hatred and distrust of laws (even more of lawyers and law-men) and of officialdom, the representatives of the alien state. Away with laws, down with oficials, abolish the state – these are the oldest slogans in the class struggle.
While many states have been overthrown, the state has never been “abolished”. From the Marxist viewpoint, the reason is clear: the state has been a social necessity. Primitive discontent is unable to offer any substitute for the state’s indispensable positive functions, no matter how strong a mass movement it gathers or how often it wins. The state conquers its conquerors as long as society cannot do without it. (The so-called “iron law of oligarchy” is a statement about most of the past; it has nothing to say about the future).
As soon as primitive anti-statism ceases to be merely negative, as soon as it even raises the question of what is to replace the state, it has always been obvious that the state, “abolished” in fancy, has to be reintroduced in some other form. It is sometimes amusing and always instructive to see how true this is even of “anarchist” utopias, where the pointed ears of a very authoritarian state poke out as soon as there is a hint about the positive organization of society.”
The same was true to a degree of the early socialists. A deep animus against the state as such was common among them, as a part of the oldest radical tradition; and therefore even Fourier and Saint-Simon are described by some modern writers as “anarchist”. Yet they envision thoroughly authoritarian states (without the label) when they get down to their own alternatives. [2*] Thus, in a saying often quoted by both anarchist and Marxists, Saint-Simon looked forward to the replacement of the government of men by the administration of things. This is usually taken to be a laudable sentiment meaning the abolition of the rule of man over man; but in fact Saint Simon’s highly despotic schemes showed him to mean, in his governments, something quite different: the administration of men as if they were things. Thus when Marx and Engels first became aware of socialism and communism in the 1840s, the notion of the “abolition of the state” was the veriest commonplace of radicalism, even of pink radicalism. Proudhon’s What Is Property? (1840) had just given this ancient idea a new tag: “anarchy”. Wilhelm Weitling, the first widely known German communist of the period, advocated both a messianic dictatorship of his own and “abolition of the state”, without conscious contradiction. “Abolition of the state” was being drawn as a “logical” consequence of the dominant Hegelian school of German philosophy even by thinkers who accepted the bourgeois social order. In fact, it was true more often than not that this anti-statism did not entail anti-capitalism. [3*]

2. Marx and Engels’ Early Anti-Statism

Marx and Engels went through this development before they had much idea about “Marxism”. As Engels reminisced in a later letter:
... “the abolition [abolizione] of the state” is an old German philosophic phrase, of which we were making use when we were simple youngsters. [2]
However, Marx did not make use of it while he was still a leftliberal democrat associated with the Rheinische Zeitung. It was Moses Hess among the left-Hegelians who, in the Rheinische Zeitung itself, raised the question of the disappearance and decentralization of the state; and in May, 1842 Marx started writing what was obviously to be a polemic against this viewpoint. He did not get far with the manuscript before breaking it off, and the fragment is too short to make clear what his line of argument was going to be. [3]
But when Marx becomes a socialist in 1843. the idea of the disappearance of the state is taken for granted as a staple idea. It is found already in Marx’s 1843 manuscript notes criticizing Hegel’s theory of the state. [4*]
Engels indeed was converted to socialism (communism) by Moses Hess, who combined sentimental “True Socialism”, essentially reformist, with advocacy of a Proudhonist anti-statism. (He ended life as a Lassallean state-socialist). In 1843 the dewy-eyed convert Engels was writing an article singling out Proudhon’s “anarchy” as an example for socialists – the socialists being philosophical intellectuals from the “educated classes”, recruited “from the universities and from the commercial class”, who join because of their “love of abstract principle” and “disregard of reality”. [4]
Even in mid-1844 Marx was still making no distinction between transformation in society and elimination of the state. He complains:
Far from perceiving the source of social defects in the principle of the state, the heroes of the French Revolution rather saw the source of political evils in social defects. [5]
This primacy of “the principle of the state”, however, is accompanied by recognition that a political revolution must have a “social soul”. We get the following transitional formulation:
Revolution in general – the overthrow of the existing ruling power and the dissolution of the old conditions – is a political act. Without revolution, however, socialism cannot come about. It requires this political act so far as it needs overthrow and dissolution. But where its organizing activity begins, where its own aim and spirit emerge, there socialism throws the political hull away. [6]
In other words, both Marx and Engels, independently, absorbed this “anarchist” anti-statism from their first acquaintanceship with socialism, and briefly accepted it until they had worked out their own historical method of understanding society.
By the autumn of 1844 they had just begun to understand, as they wrote in The Holy Family, that it is not the state which creates the social order but the social order which underlies the state. [7]
In The German Ideology (1845-46) they ridicule “the old idea that the State collapses of itself as soon as all its members leave it” ... “this proposition reveals all the fantasy and impotence of pious desire”. Rather, “the communist revolution, which removes the division of labour, ultimately abolishes [beseitigt, removes] political institutions”. [8]
This is their first clear statement of a break with primitive antistatism (which later congealed into anarchism), and its replacement by a specific anti-state theory of their own. The key word here is “ultimately”. “Abolition of the state” is no longer the first word of the revolution but one of its last. This should be linked with the fact that it is in this work that Marx and Engels first clearly enunciated the thesis that the revolutionary proletariat must seek to conquer political power, i.e. establish its own workers’ state.
When, many years later, they met the “abolition of the state’’ notion in its late Bakuninist incarnation, it was not news for them.

3. The Second Period: 1847-1851

From the beginning, then, the “workers’ state” theory of Marx and Engels – conquest of political power by the working class as the first stage of the revolution – developed as much in conflict with primitive anarchism as with bourgeois-democratic liberalism. Indeed, the two latter were not then as distinct from each other as they usually are now. After The German Ideology, statements of this view appeared in the two major works they wrote just before the 1848 revolution.
Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy (a critique of Proudhon, 1847) ends on this note, after invoking the principle that “The emancipation of the oppressed class thus implies necessarily the creation of a new society”:
Does this mean that after the fall of the old society, there will be a new class domination culminating in a new political power? No.
The condition for the emancipation of the working class is the abolition of every class, just as the condition for the liberation of the third estate, of the bourgeois order, was the abolition of all estates and orders.
The working class, in the course of its development, will substitute for the old civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power so-called, since political power is precisely the official expression of antagonism in civil society. [9]
Although Marx was later to refer back to this more than once as being identical with his “workers state” view, it is obviously still ambivalent. The idea which in The German Ideology had been carried by the word “ultimately” is here represented by the qualification “in the course of its development”. It is not even entirely clear that this means “in the course of its development’’ after the revolution; but it happens that precisely the same phrase is used in the corresponding passage in the Communist Manifesto, this time in a clear context.
This passage comes right after the Manifesto’s ten-point programme, discussing how “the proletariat will use its political supremacy”:
When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organize itself as a class; if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished [hebt auf (aufheben)] its own supremacy [Herrschaft, rule] as a class.
In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. [10]
“Abolition of the state” is no longer a slogan; it is, and will continue to be, posed as an ultimate aim of the social revolution. Then, in the course of the revolution of 1848, Marx’s emphasis is more immediate: shattering the existing reactionary state and establishing by revolution a new democratic political power.
In his 1850 summary of the revolution in France, Class Struggles in France 1848-1850, [5*] he returns to the connection between the immediate and the ultimate aim. Revolutionary socialism means –
the declaration of the permanence of the revolution, the class dictatorship of the proletariat as the necessary transit point to the abolition of class distinctions generally, to the abolition of all the relations of production on which they rest, to the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production, to the revolutionizing of all the ideas that result from these social relations. [11]
This summary look into the future includes abolition of classes but does not specifically mention elimination of the state. [12]
However, at just about the same time Marx published an interesting article on a contemporary variety of bourgeois anti-statism, in which he discussed both the nature of the capitalist state and the perspective of abolishing the state. It reviewed a book on socialism and taxation by Emile de Girardin, an early French Hearst then going through a “socialistic” period.
Girardin proposed a scheme for solving the social question by allegedly abolishing taxation and the state, through a “mutual insurance” scheme. We have pointed out the historic link between the aspiration to abolish the tax-collector and to abolish the state. Girardin represented this link between primitive-anarchism and bourgeois radicalism very plainly. He recommends his scheme because it means “the revolution without the revolutionary”, and abolishes the state not only “without any shock” but also without abolishing the social relations of capitalism. He is all for “the harmony of labour and capital”. Marx comments:
Tax reform is the hobbyhorse of all radical bourgeois, the specific element of all bourgeois-economic reforms. From the oldest medieval philistines to the modern free-traders, the main fight revolves around taxes ...
Reduction, or fair assessment etc. etc. of taxes-this is ordinary bourgeois reform. Abolition of taxesthis is bourgeois socialism. [13]
It is also an aspect of bourgeois anarchism. By “abolishing” taxes (Marx shows the scheme amounts to a single-tax capital levy) Girardin thinks he abolishes the state too, for his scheme replaces the state power with an “administrative commission”. It is the usual replacement of the state with a mere label, while the real state returns by the back door.
In the following passage, Marx goes from the present nature of the capitalist state to the morrow’s elimination of the state, and in-between shows how Girardin has reintroduced the state under another name:
“The bourgeois state is nothing else than a mutual insurance [6*] for the bourgeois class against its own individual members as well as against the exploited class, an insurance which must become more and more expensive and apparently more and more autonomous with respect to bourgeois society, since the suppression of the exploited class becomes more and more difficult. Changing the names changes not the least bit in the terms of this insurance. The apparent autonomy which Mr. Girardin momentariIy ascribes to the individual with respect to the insurance he must himself immediately abandon. [The following now refers to Girardin’s plan:] Whoever evaluates his wealth at too low a figure incurs a penalty: The insurance office [Girardin’s state-substitute] buys out his property at the value set, and even invites denunciations by offering rewards. More: whoever prefers not to insure his wealth takes a place outside the society and is directly declared an outlaw. Society can naturally not tolerate that a class should form within it which rebels against its conditions of existence. Coercion, authority, bureaucratic intervention, which Girardin wants to eliminate, get back into society. If he has abstracted himself momentarily from the conditions of bourgeois society, it has happened only in order to come back to it by a detour.” [14]
Marx then adds:
Behind the abolition of taxation is concealed the abolition [Abschaffung] of the state. The abolition of the state has only one meaning to the Communists, as the necessary result of the abolition of classes, whereupon of itself the need for the organized power of one class for the suppression of another ceases to exist.
In this formulation, then, the state eventually “of itself ... ceases to exist” [von selbst ... wegfallt, lit., falls away].” [7*]
Marx and Engels had now arrived at a new approach to the old “abolition of the state”. That they themselves considered it distinctive is evidenced by a letter of Engels to Marx in 1851, commenting on the new book by Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution in the 19th Century. Although Proudhon had already brought up the general idea of “anarchy” in 1840, the social theory behind it was left vague. In the new book Engels found a more sophisticated theory and he thought he knew where it came from:
... I am convinced that Herr Ewerbeck has furnished him [Proudhon] with his translation [into French] of the Manifesto and perhaps also, privately, translations of your articles in the Revue. [8*] A number of points are unquestionably stolen from there – for example, that the governement is nothing but the power of one class for the suppression of the other, and disappears [verschwindet] along with the disappearance of class antagonisms. [15]
This is, I think, the last mention of the “abolition of the state” idea for two decades, [9*] that is, till the Paris Commune and its aftermath raised the whole question again. As it happens, this is just about the same hiatus as is encountered with the “dictatorship of the proletariat” formula-in part for the same reason, viz. disinclination to speculate about future states until experience set the agenda.

4. The Third Period: Impact of the Paris Commune and Anarchism

The Paris Commune re-raised all the questions about the state in theory because it raised them in practice. Furthermore, about the same time and a little before, the Russian agitator Michael Bakunin put together the three ingredients which went to make the modern anarchist movement (which starts with Bakunin and peters out by the First World War).

These three ingredients, Ioosely and not always consistently mixed, were:
  1. the anarchist social theory suggested in Proudhon, with a dash of Stirner;
  2. an economic programme, a version of anti-capitalist collectivism taken over from socialism, with eclectic borrowings from Marxism; and
  3. in political strategy, the conspiratorial putschism of the left-Jacobin tradition plus a Russian-accented terroristic nihilism.
In any case, the old slogan of immediate “abolition of the state” had just taken on a new lease of life when Marx and Engels recurred to it from 1871 on. [10*] It was, then, in their most mature period that they refined their conceptions on the “abolition of the state”.

No theoretical shift can be claimed; but, pushed into a closer examination of the question and confronted by a more definite anarchist theory and practice, they came up with some new aspects and emphases. We take these up in the next sections:
  1. The relation between the state and any “authority”.
  2. Instant abolition or Workers State? First act of the revolution or ultimate end?
  3. What is left after the state disappears?
* * *

Just as anarchism was theoretically hostile to any “authority” in revolution, even more basically it rejected any “authority” in society after the revolution. Rejection of the state is, after all, only a special case of the anarchist total rejection of authority as such, in principle. This rejection extends also – even especially – to the most genuinely democratic authority that can be conceived. In spite of standard rhetoric about “control from below”, anarchism is as opposed on principle to the authority of a government which is democratically controlled from below however ideally as it is to a despotic government.

Hal Draper: The Death of the State in Marx and Engels (1970)