Marx and the state: the politics of philosophy

by Sadia Schneider • Published 12 July 2016

Where the political state has attained its true development, man – not only in thought, in consciousness, but in reality, in life – leads a twofold life, a heavenly and an earthly life: life in the political community, in which he considers himself a communal being, and life in civil society, in which he acts as a private individual, regards other men as a means, degrades himself into a means, and becomes the plaything of alien powers.

– Karl Marx, On the Jewish Question[1]

The state mediates the social, political and economic relations of capitalism. Every struggle, once it reaches a particular scale, must figure out how to relate to it. The rise of far left and left populist electoral formations such as Syriza and Podemos, and the resurgence of radicalism in the British Labour Party with the ascension of Jeremy Corbyn, lend the question particular resonance. The purpose of this article is not to chart new territory but to excavate some of Karl Marx’s theoretical work on the topic, explore the historical context of the development of his ideas and show the connection between his early works and later insights. It highlights Marxism’s inheritance of and rupture with the Enlightenment project understood in terms of the abolition of heteronomy and the development of true autonomy.

The development of the capitalist state is an important moment in the development of human freedom. Marx was acutely aware, however, that the state and bourgeois politics operate on alienated terrain. Marx’s dialectical method allowed him to develop a political strategy that orients to, and beyond, the reality of that terrain. In grappling with the contradictions of bourgeois politics, he argued for a new kind of politics that can overcome alienation and usher in a world of human freedom. He sought to bring “heaven” down to “earth”, to overcome the divided existence of humanity and make politics imminent to social life. Three key themes emerge from Marx’s writings. The first is his philosophical argument conceptualising the state as the alienation of civil society. The second emerges in his historical works on French history, in which he concretely analysed the development of the state as an instrument of class rule. The third is a strategic perspective for the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is crucial to understand this perspective as the logical corollary of his previous insights and conclusions.

The argument presented here challenges several dominant narratives: one, the “break” theory, according to which Marx’s works prior to 1845 (around the time of The German Ideology) are the product of a Hegelian, humanist and immature Marx preoccupied with philosophical concerns that later become irrelevant. Louis Althusser, Nicos Poulantzas, Bob Jessop and Hal Draper among others hold to varying degrees this basic premise.[2] I do not argue that Marx did not develop his theories throughout his life, but rather that his early philosophical arguments remain relevant throughout his work. Second, Marx is said to have had no theory of politics and the state; Noberto Bobbio for example argues that Marx had little useful to say on the state. He prosecutes a case in defence of maintaining the state and representative democracy under socialism. In a slightly different vein Hannah Arendt argued that Marx both reduces politics to the sphere of the social and negates its utility by relying on the “laws of history”.[3] Third and, most important, is the idea that Marx’s arguments about the need to smash the bourgeois state are at best a tangent, at worst a departure from the emancipatory heart of Marxism. Poulantzas is paradigmatic in this regard. He argues in “Towards a Democratic Socialism” that workers taking power leads to authoritarianism; there is no higher universalism than the structures of representative democracy in the preserve of which he urges us to “keep quiet and march ahead under the tutelage and the rod of advanced liberal democracy”.[4] I will argue that any perspective for radical or “true” democracy, in order for it to overcome the limitations of bourgeois institutions, must take a standpoint that proceeds from the possibility and necessity of the working class taking power.

The politics of modernity

Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (PoR) occupies a central place in the development of Marx’s theory of the modern state. As Shlomo Avineri points out, despite its disorganised nature, Marx’s 1843 Critique of the Philosophy of Right (hereafter 1843 Critique) is his most systematic work on political theory.[5] Marx’s engagement with German philosophy generally, and Hegel’s PoR specifically, was premised on his understanding that what Germany lacked in social and economic development it made up for in philosophical innovation. The German society that Marx critiqued as a journalist was relatively underdeveloped. While real social and political advance had been made in France, advance in Germany had been made only in the heads of the philosophers. In his Introduction to the 1843 Critique he wrote: “German philosophy of right and state is the only German history which is [on par] with the official modern present.”[6]

German idealist philosophy articulated the concepts that characterised the capitalist era and Hegel’s PoR described one of the key features of modernity: the division between state and civil society. Hegel argued that the atomisation and egotism of civil society, premised on individual freedom and property ownership, prevents the emergence of an authentic “universal” social/human interest. He took for granted the need for an external authority to prevent civil society from consuming itself in conflict. Such authority is ideally composed of people who rise above sectional interests: the state bureaucracy. Hegel lauded the civil service as the “universal class”, which embodied the interests of all of society. He counted on the fact that citizens can be trusted and expected to defer to the state because, as rational beings, they have the capacity to overcome or suppress their particular desires in the interests of universal well-being.[7]

Taking his cue from Hegel, and not unlike modern day liberals, Marx began his career trying to reform the state. He accepted the dominant Hegelian conception that the state, in essence, represented the universal interest against the individualism, particularism and anarchy of civil society. His journalistic pieces in 1842-3 for the Rheinische Zeitung on the wood theft law, the plight of the Moselle peasants and freedom of the press reveal his frustration with the schism between his philosophical position and the reality of the state and its limitations vis-à-vis civil society.[8] At this stage, Marx was mainly concerned with the influence of the propertied classes on the state. But his thoroughgoing commitment to democracy, and his observation that the state acted in unjust ways, resulted in a radicalisation and transformed his understanding of the relationship between state and society. In 1843, he developed the radical proposition that to rid the state of its deficiencies would mean abolishing it.[9]

Marx’s transformative method

Marx’s 1843 Critique was an attempt to become more Hegelian than Hegel, who he thought failed to deliver on the promise of his own dialectic. Instead of revealing the real and ceaseless movement of history, Hegel provided an ahistorical rationale for the Prussian state as it already existed.[10] According to Marx, the state (and its apparent limitations) could not be grasped without an understanding of the totality of social relations that produced it. This approach revealed that there is no essential “universalism” within the state and that it is incapable of permanently abolishing or reconciling the contradictions and conflicts of civil society.

While Marx had not yet fully developed a theory of the self-emancipation of the working class, his method remained consistent throughout his life. The question in all his work is how to penetrate beneath the abstract categories of political economy and social science to the human relationships underlying them. The question is also how to explain the meaning of these apparently self-subsistent spheres and categories in terms of human activity. This methodological breakthrough Marx owed to Feuerbach. Elaborating on Feuerbach’s argument that religion is humanity’s projection of itself, Marx added that humanity is shaped socially and historically. The symbols and structures we worship, be they religious or secular, god or state, do not tell us something eternal, but about humanity at a distinct historical point. “Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.”[11]

Marx does not just adopt Feuerbach’s method but transforms it using Hegel’s logic. Drawing on Feuerbach’s approach of looking at the material basis of alienated institutions, Marx was able to draw out the human content of Hegel’s abstractions to explain the specific contradictions that led to the political sphere gaining real and apparent autonomy. He argued that emancipation involved the elimination of false gods, be they the church or the state. Revealing his debt to the Enlightenment project, he wrote in the 1843 Critique:

The task of history, therefore, once the world beyond the truth has disappeared, is to establish the truth of this world. The immediate task of philosophy, which is at the service of history, once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked, is to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms. Thus the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of the earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.[12]

This perspective grounded his critique of the modern state – estrangement in its “un-holy” form. He reiterates: “Thus, for instance, after the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must then itself be destroyed in theory and in practice.”[13] He recognised that the appeal of and deference to the state had its basis in the social relations of capitalism. Individuals live their “real” lives in civil society, where they are pummelled by anarchic and destructive economic processes. Yet they imagine their “ideal” lives as equal citizens under the state. Humanity is reduced to mutual hostility in civil society and is therefore incapable of finding universal human solidarity within it; instead, we turn to the state as the guarantor of universal liberty.[14] Deference to the state, whether it be enthusiastic or begrudging, is the consequence of the individual standpoint in civil society.[15] Most people, whether they regard the state as fundamentally good or bad, deem it necessary.[16] But because the state is intimately connected to civil society, its ideal is constantly vanishing. In the 1843 Critique, Marx argued that the abstract universality of the state under capitalism obscures a crude material end: it reinforces social division by being blind to it. For example, in “The King of Prussia and Social Reform”, Marx notes how the different political systems operating in the United States and Prussia have little impact on property law, poverty and other aspects of the social world.[17]

The bulk of the 1843 Critique is a discussion of the bureaucracy. This is because it played a central role in the consolidation of the bourgeois order in both France and Germany. In France, arguably also in Germany, bureaucracy developed as a result of the impasse in class conflict, whereby no single class could impose its rule on society. The modern bureaucracy has its roots in the project of a bourgeoisie that was still developing. Marx writes, “To the eye of the uninitiated it appeared only as the victory of the Executive over the Legislative… But in fact it was only the last degraded and only possible form of that class ruling, as humiliating to those classes [the bourgeoisie] as to the working classes which they kept fettered by it.”[18] To the extent to which the particular interests of the bourgeoisie could appear “universal” or “general”, they required the separation of the “political” from the “social” and the reification of the “general interest” in the form of bureaucratic systems that could “manage” civil society. In this way, the bureaucracy secured the rule of the bourgeoisie. For Marx, the bureaucracy represents the illusion of the universality of modern political life, and on account of this Marx calls it “theological” and “Jesuitical”. Under feudalism the church embodied an apparent higher interest – God – allowing it to regulate and enforce public morality.[19] With the onset of capitalism and modernity, the state steps in to play this role. Religion is “secularised” and “public good” as opposed to “God’s will” becomes the catchcry that justifies an unequal status quo. State officials – bureaucrats, politicians and legislators – not unlike the feudal priests, preach the virtues of the public good while working to preserve their own privilege and the stability of a grotesquely unjust society. In Avineri’s words, “[b]ureaucracy is the image of prevailing social power distorted by its claim to universality”.[20] Nevertheless, there is an important element of truth to this claim. Within the confines of capitalism, a rational system of abstractly equal rights and laws is the highest universalism we can hope for. Gillian Rose points out that according to Hegel, under feudalism, there was no universal law; it was a time of lawlessness in the sense that each petty lord was his own law. The universal existed beyond society, in heaven. Bourgeois society on the other hand creates a real, secular universality in the form of the state and a universal, rational law.[21] It is in this way that the modern state constitutes an important moment in the development of human freedom. The bureaucrats may have tickets on themselves, but with good reason. A higher “true” universalism requires a reorganisation of society.[22]

The state generally, and the bureaucracy more explicitly, exists to manage and stabilise contradictions of a civil society that is ruled by the dictates of economic life. This task is an incredibly arduous one given the limited power of the state vis-à-vis the social forces underlying it. The contradiction expresses itself in a desire to control and suppress all the qualitative/variable aspects of existence. A drive towards enforcing and stabilising the status quo develops organically, regardless of the political sympathies of the people that staff the offices. Marx sums this up candidly in his 1843 Critique. His insight here reveals the mindset of the bureaucrat and the tendency towards the instrumentalisation of public office as private property. The phenomenon he describes is all too familiar.

The bureaucracy has in its possession the affairs of the state, the spiritual being of society belongs to it as its private property. The general spirit of bureaucracy is the official secret, the mystery… Conducting the affairs of the state in public, even political consciousness, thus appears to the bureaucracy as high treason against its mystery. Authority is thus the principle of its knowledge, and the deification of authoritarianism is its credo. But within itself this spiritualism turns into coarse materialism, the materialism of dumb obedience… As far as the individual bureaucrat is concerned, the goals of the state become his private goals: hunting for higher jobs and the making of a career… The bureaucrat sees the world as a mere object to be managed by him.[23]

Marx shows that bureaucracy exists on the basis of the suppression, not the representation, of “real political life”. As Kouvelakis puts it, “the bureaucracy represents a permanent factor which tends to devalue public opinion and political spirit as a manifestation of the life of the people; it is, in short, the negation of everything that is democratic”.[24] This is not a characteristic of the bureaucracy alone, which is just one aspect of the state apparatus. Bureaucracy is characteristic of most modern institutions under prevailing conditions of alienation.[25] More and more, the spirit of bureaucracy dominates “democratic” political institutions and representatives. In this way, commodity fetishism is to economics what bureaucracy is to politics.[26]

Bureaucracy can be abolished only when political life expresses real social need, rather than an abstract “general interest” divorced from it. In true democracy, the state disappears. This, Marx emphasises, is possible only through one particular interest becoming truly universal. This required the identification of a class within civil society whose liberation necessitates the abolition of the source of social and economic contradictions – commodity production. As he put it in the introduction to his 1843 Critique, concrete universalism would come with

[t]he formulation of a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, an estate which is the dissolution of all estates, a sphere which has a universal character by its universal suffering and claims no particular right because no particular wrong, but wrong generally, is perpetuated against it; which can invoke no historical, but only human, title; which does not stand in any one-sided antithesis to the consequences but in all-round antithesis to the premises of German statehood; a sphere, finally, which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all other spheres of society and thereby emancipating all other spheres of society, which, in a word, is the complete loss of man and hence can win itself only through the complete re-winning of man. This dissolution of society as a particular estate is the proletariat.[27]

Human freedom was now a matter of the promotion, rather than the suppression, of the particularity of civil society – at least a section of it.

On the Jewish Question

On the Jewish Question was one of Marx’s first and most significant works on the relationship between the social and the political, between the state and society and, most importantly, between political and social emancipation. It developed many of the themes laid out in the 1843 Critique. The pamphlet was a response to Bruno Bauer’s polemics against the political emancipation of Jews. A manifesto for democracy, it also highlighted the limitations of political democracy. Marx recognised modern political freedom as an advance on the bonds of feudal society. Political emancipation introduced the idea of an equal, universal realm in which each individual has self-determination. This was an important development historically because it introduced the concept of collective self-determination, albeit in a limited and abstracted sphere – the political realm. In becoming citizens, we establish ourselves as part of a collective capable of self-government. As Marx emphasised in a letter to Arnold Ruge, “Man’s self-esteem, his sense of freedom, must be reawakened in the breast of these people. This sense vanished from the world with the Greeks, and with Christianity it took up residence in the blue mists of heaven.”[28] Yet this is an abstract, alienated freedom that disregards social existence and thereby reinforces it:

The state abolishes, in its own way, distinctions of birth, social rank, education, occupation, when it declares that birth, social rank, education, occupation are non-political distinctions, when it proclaims, without regard to these distinctions, that every member of the nation is an equal participant in national sovereignty, when it treats all elements of the real life of the nation from the standpoint of the state. Nevertheless, the state allows private property, education, occupation to act in their way – i.e. as private property, education, occupation, and to exert the influence of their special nature. Far from abolishing these real distinctions, the state only exists on the presupposition of their existence.[29]

Further, the state takes for granted that citizens are atomised and alienated, which leads to at best an abstract universalism. Marx observed: “In order to behave as a real citizen, to attain political meaning and actuality, [man] must get out of civil society, abstract from himself, withdraw from the whole organisation into his individuality… His existence as a citizen is an existence that lies outside communal existence, it is hence purely individual.”[30] On the one hand the state creates a shared reality and the basis for nationalism – common education, healthcare, cultural constructions and political systems. Yet we experience these institutions, and their limitations, as individuals, which reinforces a fragmented existence and a general sense of disempowerment: we apply for welfare and healthcare as individuals, go to school, university and into the labour market as competitors, etc. Marx writes:

[In] political democracy…man, not merely one man but every man, is considered a sovereign being, a supreme being; but it is uneducated, un-social man, man just as he is in his fortuitous existence, man as he has been corrupted, lost to himself, alienated, subjected to the rule of inhuman conditions and elements, by the whole organisation of society – in short man who is not yet a real species-being.[31]

This perspective offers a radical critique of liberalism: political emancipation can only offer freedom divorced from social existence. Political freedom is built on the foundations of a civil society in chains. The most rigorous democratic structures, even the best constitution – which socialists support – presume separation of the social from the political. We participate in the state, even the most democratic state, as atomised individuals. This very process of participation then often reinforces the passivity of the atomised social being. Yet this separation of social and political life makes sense because our civil, social lives are shaped by forces outside of our control. Participating in electoral politics, while a key aspect of democracy, is at the same time a disempowering process as we number a few boxes every few years and get on with life. Upon the atomised pillars of civil society tower the reified institutions of class power turned into political apparatus.

For and against politics

From his early works, Marx is shown to be the biggest advocate and harshest critic of politics. He traversed its contradictions through many polemics against fellow socialists. In The Poverty of Philosophy, he took Proudhon to task for his apoliticism, emphasising the political nature of the class struggle.[32] Similarly, contra the “true socialists” such as Moses Hess, he argued that it was impossible to transform bourgeois society without a strategic orientation to the state.[33] While Marx stood with the anarchists on the necessity of smashing the state, he pointed to the limitation of posing this demand as an abstract “anti-statism” that disregarded the material basis of the institution’s authority and legitimacy. Max Stirner received considerable scorn on this account in The German Ideology. Stirner argued: “[T]he state owes its existence only to the contempt which I have for myself…with the disappearance of this disdain it will totally die out.” Stirner counterposed “ego” and radical individualism to subservience to the state.[34] The limitations of this perspective, as Marx and Engels pointed out, is that the actual powerlessness of the individual cannot be overcome by rhetoric or will-power.

Instead of abstractly opposing state power, Marx wanted to push bourgeois politics to its limits. While he was an advocate of political democracy and universal suffrage, he was cognisant that even the most democratised parliamentary republic relies on the cleavage between civil society and the state. Representation of the general interest remains illusory while society is atomised and divided by class. As C.J. Arthur points out, this explains why the unrepresentative character of representative institutions “cannot be explained by the most minute examination of the constitutions, which unanimously declare every citizen of equal worth. It can only be explained by accepting that the state does not stand above society, but is of society; and this makes it necessary to analyse social life.”[35]

Marx’s critique of politics is important because it is the pre-requisite for a genuinely emancipatory politics. The task of criticism is to unveil the tendencies within an existing reality, which also point beyond it. So Marx was interested in political revolution in order to grasp the dynamics that pointed to social revolution. It is in this spirit that Marx critiques the “unholy forms” that stand in the way of freedom. This was put poetically in the Introduction to the 1843 Critique: “Criticism has torn up the imaginary flowers from the chain not so that man shall wear the unadorned, bleak chain but so that he will shake off the chain and pluck the living flower.” What is the “living flower” that Marx was about to pluck? A new kind of politics. As an active participant and keen observer of workers’ struggle in France, Marx developed a theory of the self-emancipation of the working class. The central concept of this theory was “praxis”. If the obstructionary nature of the German state had convinced Marx of the need for revolution, he now found an added philosophical impetus that consolidated his political perspective: the transformative nature of struggle.

Marx’s “philosophy of praxis”, most succinctly laid out in the Theses on Feuerbach, was a new conception of politics, breaking away from bourgeois politics tied to state forms. He noted that the potential bonds of solidarity within civil society were obscured by the nature of the modern polity. Solidarity, which provides the basis for collective power, has the capacity to cut against the alienation on which the legitimacy of the state depends. Marx’s conclusion from his analysis of politics in bourgeois society was that there was a need for a politics that could weaken the hold of alienation rather than reinforce it. An orientation to the struggle of the working class, out of which collective power and solidarity could develop, was therefore decisive. However, the nature of the period in which Marx worked limited the extent to which such theory could be developed. Workers’ struggle was in its infancy. This was the age of the bourgeois revolutions, which provided a perfect way for Marx to sketch the historical narrative for what he had described abstractly.

The Class Struggles in France: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”[36]

It is common to draw a sharp distinction between Marx’s early writings on the state, using philosophical terms such as alienation, universalism etc., and his later historical and political arguments describing the state as an instrument of class rule. In fact, the two are not only connected – their connection is central to his work as a whole.

What Marx sketched out abstractly in the 1843 Critique and On the Jewish Question is fleshed out with a masterful and often dramatic historic narrative in his essays on France. In these, he traced the process by which the bourgeoisie rose, developed instruments of class power, established hegemony, aspired to universalism and, just as quickly, conspired against the promises of its own revolution. In so doing it revealed the limitations of its class project. Like his contemporaries, Marx praised the French revolution, calling it the “greatest revolution of all time”. He pointed to the role of the revolution in ushering in the new bourgeois order: “In these revolutions, the bourgeoisie gained the victory; but the victory of the bourgeoisie was at that time the victory of a new social order, the victory of bourgeois property over feudal property, of nationality over provincialism.”[37] In its battle against feudalism, the early bourgeoisie was able to gain the support and sympathy of other classes. As Marx pointed out, this “hegemonic moment” is decisive for the victory of any rising class:

No class of civil society can play this role without arousing a moment of enthusiasm in itself and in the masses, a moment in which it fraternizes and merges with society in general, becomes confused with it and is perceived and acknowledged as its general representative, a moment in which its claims and rights are truly the claims and rights of society itself, a moment in which it is truly the social head and the social heart. Only in the name of the general rights of society can a particular class vindicate for itself general domination.[38]

But the bourgeoisie’s ostensible “universalism” quickly collapsed into the Terror, then bureaucratic authoritarianism. This “second act” of the dramatic march of modernity is the playing out of what Marx described in On the Jewish Question: “The whole of the French terror was nothing other than a plebeian manner of dealing with the enemies of the bourgeoisie, with absolutism, feudalism and parochialism.”[39] Here, he offered a perspective that explained the Terror in terms of the growing autonomy of the political sphere, which came into sharp conflict with civil society. He observed:

Political life seeks to suppress its prerequisite, civil society and the elements composing this society, and to constitute itself as the real species-life of man devoid of contradictions. But it can achieve this only by coming into violent contradiction with its own conditions of life…the political drama necessarily ends with the re-establishment of religion, private property, and all the elements of civil society.[40]

The Terror was a product of two of the state’s fundamental characteristics. First, the Jacobin project that drove it expressed the “idealism” of the state. The ideals of the French revolution – liberty, equality and fraternity – were utopian in the sense that an adequate social base for such a transformation was lacking. Second, its infamous violence was a product of the limitations of the state vis-à-vis civil society, from which it was becoming increasingly alienated. For this reason, in The German Ideology Marx described the Terror as the manifestation of the “vigorous liberalism of the bourgeoisie”.[41] As Löwy notes: “Jacobinism seems to be a vain and necessarily abortive attempt to confront bourgeois society in a strictly political manner by use of the state.”[42] In turn, the bourgeoisie became even more fearful of the masses they had mobilised, and more timid. In this situation they practically handed power to Napoleon. Twice!

Two of Marx’s most significant works on France – The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and The Class Struggles in France – explore the contradictions of the 1848 bourgeois revolution which ended with Louis Bonaparte (“a grotesque mediocrity”, in Marx’s words) taking power. The Eighteenth Brumaire refers to the date in 1799 when Napoleon Bonaparte (Louis’ uncle) took power in the wake of the defeat of the 1789 revolution. Marx was scathing of the achievements of 1848, deriding the limited freedoms guaranteed under the new constitution. He pointed out that the protections offered to the propertied classes in the name of “legality” and “public safety” made a mockery of any actual freedoms. In practice, it meant only the safety and the freedom of the bourgeoisie. In his words, “each paragraph of the constitution contains its own antithesis, its own upper and lower house, namely, liberty in the general phrase, abrogation of liberty in the marginal note… Such was the Constitution of 1848, which on December 2, 1851, was not overthrown by a head, but fell down at the touch of a mere hat; this hat, to be sure, was a three-cornered Napoleonic hat.”[43]

The period between the French revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte was characterised by the declining “universalism” of the bourgeoisie’s project. The conquests of Napoleon and Louis Bonaparte contained a moment of revolution and counter-revolution, and the balance tipped toward the latter the second time around. French history, from Robespierre’s Terror to the Napoleonic bureaucracy, was the playing out of all the contradictions of the bourgeoisie’s project that Marx elaborated philosophically in his early works.

In periods of heightened instability and class struggle, the state increasingly extricates itself from civil society in an attempt to maintain itself, and, ironically the status quo of civil society, the contradictions of which it is driven to contain by any means necessary. The more severe the contradictions, the more the state reflects them in its own crisis of legitimacy. Yet the sharpening of the contradictions renders the state more necessary. As a result, its repressive capacities are strengthened; “the parasitical excrescence upon civil society grows to its fullest development”.[44] Marx noted that, in France, even “the parliamentary republic, in its struggle against the revolution, found itself compelled to strengthen the means and the centralization of governmental power with repressive measures”.[45] A familiar dynamic played out in the twentieth century: often, the legislative branch of the state increasingly strengthened (paradoxically) the executive arm of the state to the point of strangling itself. This is the origin of many of the century’s dictatorships – most notoriously the Third Reich.

Bonapartism, as Marx defined it, is inseparable from the question of the bureaucracy and the problematic relation of the state to civil society. For Marx it was “the only form of government possible at a time when the bourgeoisie had already lost, and the working class had not yet acquired, the faculty of ruling the nation”. The bourgeoisie delegates its power to “an apparatus incarnating a simulacrum of the general will”. Bonapartism was the only form possible in order for the bourgeoisie to continue its domination of the producing classes. Marx did not doubt that these developments epitomised the consolidation of the bourgeois order. Stressing the continuity of the period, he wrote:

The centralised state machinery which, with its ubiquitous and complicated military, bureaucratic, clerical and judicial organs, encoils the living civil society like a boa constrictor, was first forged in the days of absolute monarchy as a weapon of nascent modern society in its struggle of emancipation from feudalism… [The French revolution] was… forced to develop, what absolute monarchy had commenced, the centralization and organization of state power, its tools…and its supernaturalist sway over society which in fact took the place of the medieval supernaturalist (theological concept) heaven, with its saints.[46]

The “general interest” thus becomes the private property of the state, as such concealing the particularity of the interests that inform and give life to it.

Marx regards the tragedy of French history between 1789 and 1848 as evidence of the cowardice, timidity and therefore inability of the bourgeoisie to bring about the promised liberty, fraternity and equality. His search for a new agent of human emancipation begins with this disappointment. The state’s crises reflect key moments of the revolutionary movement itself and the rise of a new contender that could claim the mantle of the “universal class”: the proletariat. At a certain height, when the struggle between classes becomes political, the conflict manifests in the battle between counterposed political forms: the apparatus that historically and contemporaneously coheres the bourgeoisie – the capitalist state – versus the political forms that grow out of the struggle of the working class to cohere itself as a unified historic agent.[47] The political form of this challenge, in Marx’s time, was the Paris Commune, which “appeared precisely in the eyes of Marx as the critique in action of the bureaucratic state and as the particular interest becoming effectively the general interest”.[48]

The Paris Commune and the dictatorship of the proletariat: a conception of hegemony

Marx was not the first to talk about the plight of the workers. His significance lies in the fact that he recognised the proletariat as a potential political subject that could transform society as a whole. The working class is the true universal class because it cannot liberate itself without abolishing the conditions of modern society and enslavement as a whole. For Hegel, the particular and the universal could be reconciled through a particular class that could perform functions in the name of a general interest. The limitations of this have been addressed. For Marx, reconciliation occurs via the emancipation of the working class.

Marx stripped Hegel’s concept of “universal class” of its metaphysical content and gave it explanatory power in terms of the competing class projects in different historical periods. In this light, class hegemony is not a mechanical guarantee arising out of a particular mode of production but a political possibility.[49] It is no wonder that Marx first uses the term “proletariat” in the Introduction to his 1843 Critique. The relationship between hegemony and class power was also referred to there and again in The German Ideology: “For each new class which puts itself in the place of the one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aims, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality.”[50]

Having understood the importance of the state and politics at a particular point in the bourgeoisie’s rise to dominance, Marx grasped the importance of a similar moment in the rise of the proletariat. Any strategy for socialism must consciously orient to this moment. Marx’s argument about the need to smash the state and replace it with institutions of workers’ power – a dictatorship of the proletariat – is his attempt to do so. A few qualifying comments are required regarding this oft-misunderstood concept. Marx first used the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” in The Class Struggles in France: “there appeared the bold slogan of revolutionary struggle: Overthrow of the bourgeoisie! Dictatorship of the Working class!”[51] In this work and others after it (The Communist Manifesto and the Critique of the Gotha Programme), he employed the terms, as Hal Draper argues, to emphasise that the “political power gained in a socialist revolution must be exercised by the workers as a class democratically organised, as against the Blanquist conception of a revolutionary dictatorship by a band of conspirators over the proletariat”.[52] There is ample evidence as to the connection between the Commune, the lessons Marx drew and his strategic perspective towards proletarian dictatorship.[53] Draper also highlights how Marx understood the term “dictatorship”: Marx thought of class dictatorship “in terms of the class nature of political power, rather than in terms of special governmental forms”. That is to say, the exercise of political power by a class is necessarily dictatorial because opposing classes cannot share power.

Marx’s perspective for the dictatorship of the proletariat was the consequence of the hard-learned lessons of the Paris Commune. The Commune lasted only six weeks. Nevertheless, it was decisive because it was the first time the working class had attempted a revolutionary reorganisation of society. It ended the Second Empire of Louis Napoleon by eliminating the standing army; stripped the police force of its political powers; enacted the formal separation of church and state; organised the production and distribution of food and other goods through democratically organised bodies of workers; and arranged for municipal officials to be democratically elected and subject to immediate recall. Marx recognised it immediately as “[t]he political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour”.[54] Marx’s study of the Commune highlighted a process as much as an event, which offered important answers to a series of the challenges he had been wrestling with regarding the distinct political potential of the proletariat vis-à-vis the capitalist state.

The struggle of the working class in the political form of the Commune manifested itself as a permanent struggle against state power. Marx argued that what made the Commune different in character was that it was “a revolution not against this or that legitimate, constitutional, republican or imperialist form of state power”, but was “a revolution against the state itself”. Marx described the experience of the Commune in terms of “the reabsorption of the state power by society as its own living forces instead of as forces controlling and subduing it”.[55] Paul Thomas articulates the importance of this development: “[T]he most positive feature of the Commune, according to Marx, was precisely that it de-institutionalised political power, and in so doing re-politicised society.”[56]

The phenomenon Marx describes as the “dictatorship of the proletariat” entails a revolutionary dynamic very different to that of a traditional state. Whereas the bureaucracy’s self-realisation is its own preservation, the proletariat’s self-realisation is its own dissolution. The bureaucracy is its own end. The proletariat is its own negation in that through its political dominance the working class cannot preserve its own subjugation. The bureaucracy cannot let the political apparatus – its source of life – wither away, whereas the proletariat must. Thus, the proletarian dictatorship is both a non-state and anti-bureaucratic.

The Commune was a project that could draw in other class forces, securing for the working class a hegemonic role with the promise of a new society. It was “the first time in history the petty and middling middle class has openly rallied round the workmen’s revolution, and proclaimed it as the only means of their own salvation and that of France!… This was not the only reason for rallying behind the workers, for they ‘felt there was but one alternative’ – the Commune, or the empire.”[57] Marx had ceaseless praise for the initiative, creativity and bravery of the communards. He concluded his address to the First International enthusiastically: “Working, thinking, fighting, bleeding Paris – almost forgetful, in its incubation of a new society, of the Cannibals at its gates – radiant in the enthusiasm of its historic initiative!”[58]

Alas the Commune was defeated. Marx did not shy away from drawing the necessary conclusions. The key lesson he drew from the experience was the necessity to smash the state apparatus, that the proletariat “can not simply lay hold of the ready made state machinery”. The necessity of smashing the state was already outlined in the Eighteenth Brumaire.[59] But the Commune led Marx to conclude, more explicitly than ever before, that the state is not a neutral instrument that could be used to wrest power from the oppressors. Its very form is despotic. This was an important political breakthrough. It was implicit in his early work, however, if we take his arguments about the relationship between the state form and civil society content seriously. The state is a distorted and alienated outgrowth of the social relations of capitalism that reflects and reinforces its central dynamics. There would be no basis for an alienated “political heaven” without material hell on earth.[60] The modern political state is antithetical to the content of an unalienated self-governing society.

The Critique of the Gotha Programme

Marx soon realised that few had drawn the lessons of the Commune. Just four years later the Gotha Program was forged out of unity negotiations between Germany’s two largest socialist organisations. The program carried all the hallmarks of Ferdinand Lassalle’s pro-state and reformist politics. It said nothing of revolution or the transformation of the relations of production. The emphasis was on the “fair distribution of the proceeds of labour”.[61] The question of the distribution of the means of production and the alienated nature of labour under conditions of commodity production were not addressed.

Marx’s most strident objections to the Programme were directed against its orientation towards the state. The Programme spoke of the state “building socialistic productive establishments”.[62] For Marx, the idea of the state “building” socialism was nothing short of utopian. “Instead of arising from the revolutionary process of transformation of society”, he wrote, “the ‘socialist organisation of the total labour’ ‘arises’ from the ‘state aid’ that the state gives to the producers’ co-operative societies and which the state, not the workers, ‘calls into being’. It is worthy of Lassalle’s imagination that with state loans one can build a new society just as well as a new railway!”[63] The German party claimed to be fighting for a “free State”. Marx’s critique of this is reminiscent of his early work, particularly On the Jewish Question. One of the definitive characteristics of the modern capitalist state, Marx noted, is that it is “free” (liberated, divorced) from civil society. Political emancipation, while an important demand, is a characteristic of a fully developed bourgeois society, not a socialist one. It was this fundamental relationship between the organisation of society and its political forms that the German party did not comprehend:

The German Workers’ party – at least if it adopts the program – shows that its socialist ideas are not even skin-deep; in that, instead of treating existing society (and this holds good for any future one) as the basis of the existing state (or of the future state in the case of future society), it treats the state rather as an independent entity that possesses its own intellectual, ethical, and libertarian bases.[64]

Marx was familiar with this line of thinking. It is one he had dissected thoroughly in his 1843 Critique. It was not a question of state form but of essence. Attaching desirable terms that hint at democracy does not address this fundamental problematic. Marx concluded, “one does not get a flea-hop nearer to the problem by a thousand-fold combination of the word ‘people’ with the word ‘state’.”[65] His critique of the party’s abstruse conception of democracy is also highly revealing:

“Democratic” means in German “Volksherrschaftlich” [by the rule of the people]. But what does “control by the rule of the people of the toiling people” mean? And particularly in the case of a toiling people which, through these demands that it puts to the state, expresses its full consciousness that it neither rules nor is ripe for ruling![66]

This formulation puts the question of direct control and class consciousness at the forefront. Returning to the conclusions of Marx’s early work, the proletariat’s deference to the state was theorised in terms of the disempowering conditions of its own subordination. A strategy that puts state reform at the centre of socialism fails to challenge this subordination in any serious way. Taking these insights Marx insisted:

Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.[67]


So, politics is central to Marx’s thought. Marx begins his career as strident advocate for democracy and political emancipation. This is driven by a concern for the plight of the oppressed. His radical breakthrough is his conclusion that politics must be liberated from the logic of the political state. This differentiated Marx from his predecessors, who regarded political problems as the essential property and adjunct of modern state forms within the nation state.

In recognising the revolutionary potential of the self-activity of the working class, Marx “discovered” a historic subject that was capable, through the pursuit of its “particular” interests, of liberating the whole of society. The struggle of the proletariat was, for Marx, a concrete “universal” project. Connected to the development of a truly emancipatory politics emerges a new conception of radical democracy. Numerous authors have emphasised the “democratic heart” of Marxism and the analysis of this article substantiates this point. Marx was a democrat before he was a Marxist and even before he was a revolutionary. His wholehearted and unflinching commitment to democracy spurred the latter developments. The polemic against reified forms of political power such as bureaucracy runs like a red thread throughout Marx’s work from his 1843 Critique to the Critique of the Gotha Programme and Capital. Radical or “true democracy” has to have a conception of abolishing the material basis of alienated existence both in its economic (commodity production) and political form (the capitalist state). Unsurprisingly, the same “Marxists” that deny the necessity of insurrection dismiss the concept of alienation.

This article is titled “the politics of philosophy” in an attempt to emphasise the political significance of Marx’s overtly philosophical works. Politics was, after all, Marx’s starting point as a young journalist frustrated with the lack of political progress. Marx’s interest in philosophy, history and economics was politically motivated. It could have been called “the philosophy of politics”, emphasising an equally pertinent point. Philosophy is important to politics. The function of philosophy is to illuminate truth beneath and beyond the reified empirical facts of capitalism. This is essential for political perspectives not to fall prey to the fatalism of the given. It is crucial for orienting to a set of institutions as reified as those of the capitalist state. The seeming necessity of bourgeois parliamentary democracy for those who take for granted the atomised nature of civil society, because they cannot imagine the working class constituting itself as a true universal class, is a case in point.

The themes discussed here echo in the work of later Marxists. Marx’s analysis of the state as the hegemonic apparatus of the bourgeoisie elaborates a perspective that grasps the class content of institutional forms. This puts Marx very much in line with the later thinking of Antonio Gramsci who was similarly interested in the “hegemonic moment” of the emerging Italian bourgeoisie. Marx’s argument that bureaucracy and the political institutions are founded on the alienated terrain of social and political life foreshadows Georg Lukács in History and Class Consciousness. The case for smashing the capitalist state is forcefully put by V.I. Lenin in his seminal State and Revolution. Nevertheless Lenin’s text has little to say about the material basis for the consent on which the state relies, probably because the tsarist state relied predominantly on force. On this account Marx’s early writings add considerably to the strategic arguments that Lenin recounts.

Nevertheless Lenin was an important figure in the only workers’ revolution in history to smash the state and replace it with institutions of workers’ power. The final words of this piece, which succinctly sum up my argument, are therefore his:

Those who recognise only the class struggle are not yet Marxists; those may be found to have gone no further than the boundaries of bourgeois reasoning and bourgeois politics. To limit Marxism to the theory of class struggle means curtailing Marxism, distorting it, reducing it to something that is acceptable to the bourgeoisie. A Marxist is one who extends the acceptance of class struggle to the acceptance of the dictatorship of the proletariat.[68]

Althusser, Louis 1969, For Marx, Allen Lane.

Arendt, Hannah 1998 [1958], The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press.

Avineri, Shlomo 1968, The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx, Cambridge University Press.

Bobbio, Noberto 1978, Which Socialism? Marxism, Socialism and Democracy, University of Minnesota Press.

Draper, Hal 1962, “Joseph Weydemeyer’s Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, Labor History, 3 (2), May.

Draper, Hal 1977, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution: State and Bureaucracy, Monthly Review Press.

Hegel, G.W.F. 1820, “Philosophy of Right”

Johnstone, Monty 1971, “The Paris Commune and Marx’s Conception of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, The Massachusetts Review, 12 (3), Summer.

Jessop, Bob 1978, “Marx and Engels on the state” in Politics, Ideology, and the State, Lawrence and Wishart.

Kouvelakis, Stathis 2003, Philosophy and Revolution: From Kant to Marx, Verso.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich 1917, State and Revolution,

Löwy, Michael 1989, “‘The Poetry of the Past’: Marx and the French Revolution”, New Left Review, 1 (177), September-October.

Marx, Karl 1842a, “On the Freedom of Press”, Rheinische Zeitung, May,

Marx, Karl 1842b, “Debates on the Law on the Theft of Wood”, Rheinische Zeitung, May,

Marx, Karl 1842c, “The Supplement to Nos. 335 and 336 of The Augsburg Allgemeine Zeitung on the Commissions of the Estates in Prussia”, Rheinische Zeitung, December,

Marx, Karl 1843-44 Critique of Hegel’s “Philosophy of Right”,

Marx, Karl 1844a, “On the Jewish Question” in Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, February,

Marx, Karl 1844b, “Critical notes on the article ‘The King of Prussia and Social Reform’ by a Prussian” in Vorwärts!, 63, August 7.

Marx, Karl 1845, Theses on Feuerbach,

Marx, Karl 1850, The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850,

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Marx, Karl 1871a, The Civil War in France – First Draft,

Marx, Karl 1871b, “The Paris Commune” in The Civil War in France,

Marx, Karl 1871c, “Marx to Dr. Kugelmann concerning the Paris Commune”, Marx and Engels Correspondence, April 12th,

Marx, Karl 1875, “Critique of the Gotha Programme”, Die Neue Zeit, 19 (18), 1890-91,

Marx, Karl 1887, Capital: Volume I,

Marx, Karl 1948 [1848] “The Bourgeoisie and the Counter-Revolution”, Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 169, December,

Marx, Karl 1963 [1847], The Poverty of Philosophy, International Publishers.

Marx, Karl 1992, Early Writings, Penguin Books.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels 1986 [1932], The German Ideology, ed. C.J. Arthur, International Publishers.

Mehmet, Tabak 2000, “Marx’s Theory of Proletarian Dictatorship Revisited”, Science & Society, 64 (3).

Poulantzas, Nicos 1978, “Towards a Democratic Socialism”, New Left Review, 1 (109), May-June.

Poulantzas, Nicos 2000 [1978], State, Power and Socialism, Verso Books.

Rose, Gillian 2014, Hegel contra Sociology, Verso Books.

Roso, Darren 2016 [manuscript from forthcoming book], From the Actuality of Revolution to the Melancholic Wager: For a Politics of the Oppressed, Verso.

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Thomas, Paul 1994, Alien Politics: Marx’s State Theory Retrieved, Routledge.


[1] Marx 1844a.

[2] Althusser 1969; Poulantzas 1978; Poulantzas 2000; Jessop 1978; Draper 1977.

[3] Bobbio 1978; Arendt 1998.

[4] Poulantzas 1978. Political currents such as Stalinism, eurocommunism and reformism have in common the rejection of the arguments for smashing the state.

[5] Avineri 1968, pp8-10.

[6] The Introduction was written after the body of the Critique was completed and reflects considerable political advance, most significantly in Marx’s first ever reference to the “proletariat”, as opposed to “toiling/working masses”. Marx 1843-44, Introduction.

[7] “This is the contradiction contained in caprice. Ordinary man believes that he is free, when he is allowed to act capriciously, but precisely in caprice is it inherent that he is not free. When I will the rational, I do not act as a particular individual but according to the conception of ethical life in general. In an ethical act I establish not myself but the thing. A man, who acts perversely, exhibits particularity. The rational is the highway on which every one travels, and no one is specially marked.” Hegel 1820, § 15.

[8] Marx 1842a; Marx1842b; Marx 1842c.

[9] Marx already hinted at this conclusion, albeit rather abstractly, in 1842: “In a true state there is no landed property, no industry, no material thing, which as a crude element of this kind could make a bargain with the state; in it there are only spiritual forces, and only in their state form of resurrection, in their political rebirth, are these natural forces entitled to a voice in the state.” Marx 1842c.

[10] Marx 1843-4.

[11] Marx 1845, Thesis VI.

[12] Marx 1843-4, Introduction.

[13] Marx 1845, Thesis IV.

[14] Marx 1844a.

[15] See Marx 1845.

[16] This perspective is strengthened when society seems more disorderly and “dangerous”. Law and order hysteria is particularly useful in this regard. Here we witness the collaboration of state institutions. The media whips up a moral panic about criminality and the police step in to restore “public safety” and “order”.

[17] Marx 1844b.

[18] Marx 1871a.

[19] Backed up by the violence of the monarch and the lords.

[20] Avineri 1968, p51.

[21] Rose 2014, pp84-97.

[22] Consider how pre-modern societies expressed their aspirations for humanity almost always in religious terms. When the state fails to deliver on its universalist promises, people can still fall back on religion. The rise of the religious right in the United States is a case in point.

[23] Indeed, Marx’s analysis could easily be extended to politicians who behave more and more like bureaucrats. Marx 1843-4.

[24] Kouvelakis 2003, p294.

[25] This basic premise can be extended to a much more general theory of bureaucracy – that bureaucracy is characteristic of all social organisation under conditions of reification. Think of trade union bureaucracies, corporations. It also indicates why projects for “radical democracy” tend to be short-lived.

[26] Avineri 1968, p49.

[27] Marx 1843-4.

[28] Marx 1992, p201.

[29] Marx 1844a.

[30] Marx 1843-4.

[31] Marx 1844a.

[32] Marx 1963.

[33] Marx and Engels 1986, pp119-121.

[34] Stirner quoted in Marx and Engels 1986, p387.

[35] Marx and Engels 1986, editor’s Introduction, p10.

[36] Marx 1852.

[37] Marx 1948.

[38] Marx 1843-44.

[39] Quoted in Löwy 1989, p117.

[40] Marx 1844a.

[41] Marx and Engels 1986, p178.

[42] Löwy 1989, p116.

[43] Marx 1852.

[44] Marx 1871a. The importance of state violence in the transition from feudalism to capitalism is similarly emphasised in volume 1 of Capital: “But they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.” Marx 1887.

[45] Marx 1852.

[46] Marx 1871a.

[47] For more on the difference between the nature of class hegemony for the working class in contrast to the bourgeoisie and how Lenin’s theory of the party answers this problematic, see Roso 2016, forthcoming.

[48] Daniel Bensaïd quoted (and translated) in Roso 2016.

[49] This puts Marx very much in line with the later thinking of Antonio Gramsci.

[50] Marx and Engels 1986, p59.

[51] Marx 1850.

[52] Draper 1962, p213.

[53] See Johnstone 1971 and Mehmet 2000.

[54] Marx 1871c.

[55] Marx 1871a.

[56] Thomas 1994, p93.

[57] Marx 1871a.

[58] Marx 1871b.

[59] In a letter to Kugelman after the Commune, Marx boasted: “If you look at my Eighteenth Brumaire, you will see that I declare the next attempt of the French revolution to not merely hand over…the bureaucratic state machine…but to shatter it.” Marx 1871c.

[60] Marx’s commentary on the theological character of the state/political sphere is a fascinating theme throughout his work. In On the Jewish Question he says: “The relation of the political state to civil society is just as spiritual as the relations of heaven to earth” and in The Civil War in France he describes the state in terms of “its supernaturalist sway over society which in fact took the place of the medieval supernaturalist (theological concept) heaven, with its saints”. In the letter to Kugelmann in 1871 he speaks of the Communards “storming heaven”. Marx 1844a; Marx 1871b; Marx 1871c.

[61] Marx 1875.

[62] Socialist Workers Party of Germany 1875.

[63] Marx 1875.

[64] Marx 1875.

[65] Marx 1875.

[66] Marx 1875.

[67] Marx 1875.

[68] Lenin 1917.

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