Marxism and state theory

by Colin Barker • Published 20 July 2019


Colin Barker: A socialist for life
by Bill Roberts

Colin Barker died on February 4, 2019, five months before his eightieth birthday. His contributions, both practical and theoretical, will certainly be missed. Fortunately, he leaves behind a written and recorded legacy that will continue to inform a new generation of socialists.

Colin was working almost up to his last precious breath (he suffered from emphysema brought on by, as he put it, “a nasty habit of inhaling smoke”) to guide whomever might follow up on some of his unfinished writing projects. In a touching last note to friends near and far on the eve of his death, he expressed surprise at his continued existence, but wanted it remembered that his “lodestone” remained Marx and Engels’ observation that “the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class itself”. Furthermore, though maybe only a few would agree, “what a measure they provided for grasping the movement of popular history up to the very present moment. Time and again, those ideas have surfaced, and been knocked back. They will revive again, and again. The wager – that they can win out in practice – has given meaning to my life”.

Colin was never more alive than when he was sharing his ideas with an audience – the size did not matter. A Marxist activist since his university days, he revelled in finding the kernel of insight in the quest for self-emancipation and especially in the context of social movements. Furthermore, he didn’t believe it was one-man’s province. In his last speaking engagement at the July 2018 Socialism conference in Chicago, he began by letting the audience know he was only delivering “exploratory remarks”, thus inviting full audience participation in shaping and bringing to the surface the dynamics of social movements. He had some ideas, but he was never so dogmatic as to believe he had a corner on them. He was a facilitator, a true teacher. He always believed he would learn something in such exchanges.

In Colin’s contribution on state theory below we are introduced to his grasp of the debates that arose in the 1970s in a period of radicalisation, and in particular the debate between Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas. These debates were renewed with new contributors in the late 1990s as resistance movements – often characterised as anti-capitalist – emerged. While noting the problems raised by state theorists, Barker returns to Marx, showing that he had left clues, but never got around to writing the “Book on the State”. What characterises this piece, and really much of Barker’s work over a long period, is his willingness to engage with the arguments and to look for clues in Marx’s examination of political economy for possible ways of undoing problems that Colin identifies in others’ approaches. Indeed, he notes that “the ‘force’ that maintains capitalist property relations is more complex than simply ‘the state’ (night watchman or not)”. In conclusion, he suggests that workers have no states, but a world to win.

Colin was not only a Marxist theorist but also an activist of the most practical kind. After his university days he landed in Manchester where he systematically set about to build a branch for the International Socialists (later the Socialist Workers Party). He was successful in gathering around him a number of impressive militants who along with students and teachers built a strong presence in the struggles of the sixties and seventies in the Manchester region.

Besides his branch-building work, Colin also served as the editor of reviews for the International Socialism journal. In his tenure in that role he authored over 70 book reviews. In one notable example, under the headline “Fog at Fawley”, he dissected a book on industrial relations that focused on the strategy of employers in the sixties to squeeze more production out of workers. From that critical review emerged a group of collaborators, including Tony Cliff, who produced a book: The Employers’ Offensive: Productivity deals and how to fight them. One of the most successful books ever produced by the IS, with thousands of copies snapped up by union militants, it played an important role in the struggles of that period. Colin also collaborated with Cliff in producing another successful book, Incomes Policy, Legislation and the Shop Stewards’ Movement.

Colin is, perhaps, best known for another collaboration, namely, the collection of essays he drew together in Revolutionary Rehearsals. This collection examines the upheavals from below that erupted in the last period of radicalisation from France in 1968 to Poland in 1980-81. As he noted in summing up the collection, “The events in this book reveal the continuing and developing revolutionary potential of the working class, its capacity to make great creative leaps in consciousness and organization and to offer fundamental challenges to the existing structures of power”.

Colin brought first-hand knowledge of the Polish rehearsals for workers’ power from his many trips to Poland with his Polish-born partner, Ewa. With her language skills, they were able to dive deeply into the struggles of Polish workers and their organisation Solidarity (Solidarność). From this experience, Colin produced Festival of the Oppressed: Solidarity, Reform and Revolution in Poland. In this volume the reader gets to the heart of Solidarity, its relationship to the Catholic Church, and the post-Stalinist state.

The Barkers were also frequent travellers to the US, where Colin was a favourite on the lecture circuit for the International Socialist Organization (ISO). His ability to bring workers’ struggles to life in all their complexity inspired many.

Colin left the SWP in 2014, to join others who had left the party over a poorly handled rape charge, to set up the Revolutionary Socialists of the 21st Century (rs21). But there was another compelling reason for Colin to leave the organisation he had devoted his life to for nearly 50 years. For some time he had felt that the party was deficient in advancing theory on the questions of the day: the long downturn in workers’ struggles, the kind of organisation needed to advance a socialist alternative in such a period, and closer to his passion, a lack of interest in social movements.

Colin Barker was a revolutionary socialist activist and one of the sharpest and most productive of his generation. As his close friend and comrade, John Charlton noted, “He kept on asking questions even when satisfactory answers did not seem in reach”.

Colin wrote several articles on the question of the state, including “A note on the theory of capitalist states”, (Capital and Class 4, Spring 1978); “The state as capital” (International Socialism 2:1, July 1978); and “A new reformism? A critique of the political theory of Nicos Poulantzas” (International Socialism 2:4, Spring 1979). The following is a public lecture on the state he delivered in Ljubljana, Poland, on April 10, 2015. All of these writings can be found at



Marxist theorizing about “the state” has made some progress over the past half-century, but many problems remain. At stake is not simply the understanding of “The State in Capitalist Society” (the title of Ralph Miliband’s 1969 book) but equally what “Marxism” is, or should be.

The debates of the 1970s

Debate about “state theory” revived in the early 1970s. One place to begin is where the organisers of this event suggested, with the debate between Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas.

Ralph Miliband took his key arguments from radical elite theory. (His 1969 book The State and Capitalist Society was dedicated to the memory of C. Wright Mills, author of The Power Elite.) Modern industrial societies are marked by persistent inequalities between the owners of business on the one hand and the working class on the other. The ruling elites in capitalist countries form cohesive groups, whose power rests on their possession of the greater part of private property. This cohesive ruling elite enjoys overwhelming influence over the state and over political institutions generally, including the military, the law, the media, the education system, churches, etc. This overwhelming influence derives from its unequal access to controlling positions in all these fields. The members of the ruling elite go to the same exclusive schools and universities, they have privileged access in all spheres. Through this continuing control they have succeeded in preserving the predominance of private property.

There are several problems with this schema:

Miliband provides a very conventional sociological conception of class: some individuals have more wealth than others. The focus in this account lies on the distribution of things and money, rather than on class as a social relation. If we could ask Miliband how feudalism is different from capitalism, he’d be compelled to reply that in the former system most of the wealth took the form of land while in capitalism it takes the form of factories and banks. His conception offers no insight into the social dynamics of capitalism.

The working class plays no active part in his account. It’s the class that gets least, suffers most, but it plays little part in the constitution of society. It’s politically socialised and ideologically subjected. Its “struggle” hardly appears in Miliband’s account. This is uniformly the case across the different sectors he explores. Even Miliband’s account of education presents the same picture, despite the fact that his book appeared in 1969, during an important wave of student revolt. (To his credit, Ralph Miliband supported the student struggle at his own institution, the LSE, but he never mentions it.)

The cohesion of the ruling elite is a vital element in Miliband’s analysis. Here there is a problem. Marx’s account of the bourgeoisie is very different: far from being “cohesive”, Marx’s capitalist class is riven by competition. In his phrase from Capital Volume 3, it is a class of “hostile brothers”. It is difficult to see how such a class could form such a cohesive bloc.[1]

Nicos Poulantzas suggested that Miliband lacked a “theoretical problematic” (which was not strictly correct). He himself offered a theory based on the ideas of Louis Althusser. Althusser provided a very peculiar “reading” of Marxism, based on a concern to remove all traces of “humanism” in the name of a science of structures. As some critics pointed out (including Poulantzas himself, but see also papers by Simon Clarke and others), the Althusserian system had – with some “Marxist” decoration – quite a lot in common with the theory of structural-functionalism in sociology associated with the far from radical figure of Talcott Parsons. Onto this system Poulantzas sought to map a theory of classes.

Miliband had one great advantage over Poulantzas, in that he was readable!

Like Miliband, though, Poulantzas did not begin with Marx’s understanding of the “social relations of production” as more than “economic.” (I will return to this.)

And, like Miliband, he had nothing significant to say about popular movements. He provided a “relational theory” of the state which was actually one-sided. He made reference to “the class struggle,” but didn’t explore it from the side of the active, creative struggle of the working class.

Both Miliband and Poulantzas arrived at rather similar political conclusions in the later 1970s; Miliband from somewhere “left of Labour” and Poulantzas from “euro-communism”. They developed ideas about strategies for moving towards socialism not that dissimilar to those popular among proponents of the “pink tide” in Latin America in the 2000s, or among leading thinkers and supporters of Syriza in Greece.

The advent of parliamentary democracy means that the capitalist state is open to influences from the class struggle. In Poulantzas’ phrase, it is a “condensate of class forces”. Left governments can be elected, and with “help” from social movements they can begin the process of transforming society. Both thinkers reveal a degree of ambivalence about the active role of social movements alongside transformations in the state. The main action lies within the state apparatuses themselves. Direct popular assaults on the state are ruled out.

These ideas are not dissimilar from those proposed by Karl Kautsky within the SPD in the years before 1914. The state should not be “destroyed” but changed from within.[2]

There was a third, perhaps slightly less noticed, strand in Marxist state theory in the 1970s, in the “German state debate”, which was also continued in some work within the Conference of Socialist Economists in the UK.[3] The various authors who contributed to these debates did not arrive at shared political conclusions.

Central to the concerns of these writers was an effort at re-reading Marx’s Capital not simply as a work of “economic theory” but as a theorisation of capitalism as a system of social relations that is simultaneously a theorisation of law, politics and the state. In a sense, they set out to answer a question posed by the Soviet theorist of jurisprudence, Evgeny Pashukanis, in the 1920s.[4]

Friedrich Engels, in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, had theorised the state as a necessary product of class society. However, Pashukanis suggested, he had not explained its form under capitalism. Why doesn’t the modern state take the form of the subordination of one part of society to another (as was the case in slave and feudal societies)? Why, rather, does the capitalist state take the form of “an impersonal mechanism of public authority isolated from society”?

This was a question that Miliband and Poulantzas had ignored. Among those seeking answers to this general problem, some sought to place their main focus on the social relations of commodity production and exchange (the opening chapters of Capital Volume 1 and the concept of “value”), while others suggested that the proper “starting point” should be the peculiarities of capitalist exploitation and domination (the subject matter of the larger part of Capital Volume 1 and the concept of “surplus value”). Additionally, a few writers, notably Claudia von Braunmühl, began to explore the role of states within the capitalist world economy.[5]

By the 1980s, though, it seemed that the “state debate” was dying off. Poulantzas committed suicide in 1979. Miliband ended up making an uneasy peace with the Labour Party after issuing several calls for the formation of some kind of new socialist party in Britain (his sons were to assume leadership positions within “New Labour”). There was a decay of interest in Marxism, in response to major defeats suffered by workers’ movements in a number of countries and the rise of “identity politics”. The onset of the “neoliberal” period meant that radicals spent most of their energies defending state provision against cuts and privatisation rather than developing further critiques of its forms.

If there has been a small revival of interest more recently, impulses from real world struggles have provided the motive. From the mid-1990s we have witnessed the growth of anti-capitalist and environmental movements, anti-imperialist movements provoked especially by the attack on Iraq, the “war on terror” and the continuing onslaught against the Palestinian people, and movements against austerity in the wake of the 2008 world banking crisis. Activists in these movements have been looking for answers to general questions of explanation, and some have again begun to explore some of the potential riches of a Marxist theory of capitalism and its states.

Marx against the state

If we are, again, to return to Marx, what kinds of questions should be focused upon?

In the famous Preface to his 1859 book, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx writes that his studies of jurisprudence in the 1840s led him to the conclusion that legal relations and forms of state were rooted in the material conditions of life, or in what Hegel had termed “civil society”. The key to the anatomy of civil society, he continued, is to be found within political economy. This is very familiar. What is sometimes not noticed is that he says nothing about the content of those early studies of law and state. The Preface also says nothing about the class struggle or about Marx’s communist beliefs! The reason is simple: Marx had to get his manuscript past the Prussian censors.

If we ignore the Althusserians, and take those early writings seriously, what we find is a revolutionary critique of the modern state.[6] In his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, which he treats as the very acme of liberal theorisation of the modern constitutional state, Marx criticises every aspect of Hegel’s effort to treat the state as the summation of reason and universalism and the solution to the problems of modern life. Each aspect of the constitutional state – the monarchy, the bureaucracy, the parliament – is a manifestation of the separation of politics from the people. Taken together, they are the antithesis of Marx’s key value: democracy. Changing the state or the government changes nothing fundamental: society remains divided against itself, estranged from its own potential power, ruled by the principle of private property. A merely “political revolution” (e.g. the American or French Revolutions) is insufficient to address the key problems of modern society: what is needed is a thoroughgoing social revolution. The state, despite all its pretensions, cannot solve social problems like poverty, indeed the best thing the state can do to assist society is to commit suicide. Throughout, Marx appears as a resolutely anti-state thinker.

In the same process of developing his critique of the modern state, Marx sees the solution to modern social ills in the growing power of the working class. In short, through his early investigations, Marx became a communist.

Marx did not return, in any systematic fashion, to the discussion of “state theory.” It seems that he considered the question largely solved. According to Teeple and others, he kept his 1843 manuscript of the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (written while on his honeymoon!) by him for the rest of his life. He found occasion to restate its core principles in 1871, when he celebrated the brief and tragic life of the Paris Commune. In a draft of his Civil War in France, he described the Commune as “a revolution against the state”. He celebrated above all its radically democratic character. In a new Preface to the Communist Manifesto, he and Engels remarked that if the Commune proved one thing, it is that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the existing state machinery and wield it for its own purposes”. Some years later, Engels wrote that if you want to understand “the dictatorship of the proletariat” you need only to look at the Paris Commune.

Nothing suggests that Marx ever changed his mind about the question. Nor did Engels. When Marx died, Engels celebrated his life-long comrade by saying that he was a “man of science” but first and foremost he was a “revolutionist”. In his Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, published the year after Marx’s death, Engels looked forward to the day when all the trappings of the state would belong in “the Museum of Antiquities” along with the bronze axe.

The “Book on the State”

In the 1859 Preface, Marx announced his intention to produce six books: on capital, landed property, wage labour, the state, foreign trade and the world market. (In the 1857 Grundrisse he laid out similar schemes.)

He never completed this plan. What we have, in the shape of the three volumes of Capital, could be said to cover the first three topics, though even that is in doubt.[7] So far as I am aware, not even a brief outline survives of what the scope of the planned “Book on the State” might have included. And we are thus left with an interesting question: what might such a “Book” have looked like, had Marx ever succeeded in writing even part of it? How might he have proceeded?

In the 1850s and 1860s, the question might well have seemed less urgent. But had Marx been writing in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, he might have felt that the matter of “the Book on the State” was more pressing. For this has been the age of great and immensely murderous imperialist wars, of the expansion and then the break-up of empires, of the spread of parliamentary democracy and of the suffrage, and of a huge growth in the everyday involvement of states in the management of domestic economies and in organising a whole series of aspects of social, cultural and economic life. The case for such a “Book” seems more pressing today.

Even if Marx had limited himself to mid-nineteenth century materials, a putative “Book on the State” would have likely provided a substantial volume. In a very speculative fashion, I want to consider a few of the themes that, perhaps, Marx might have considered, and indicate some potential problems and issues.

1. Marx began Capital, not with the exploitation of the working class through the sale and purchase of labour-power and the production of surplus-value, but with the commodity, with exchange, with value, with money. In so doing, he posed a question which classical political economy did not ask: what kind of society is it that requires that its products take “the form of value”? Since classical political economy took the fundamental social relations of production for exchange for granted – as rooted in “nature” and as “eternal” – it only asked questions about the quantitative relations between commodity products in exchange, but not the qualitative social relations obtaining between producers. For Marx, these relations are historical, and capable of being transcended. For Marx sought to draw out the political character of apparently “economic” social relations. Thus on the one hand he describes the jurisprudential assumptions of market exchange as “liberty, equality, property and Bentham”, while on the other hand he goes on to argue that these assumptions are negated in the relations between capital and labour in the actual production process, where “despotism” reigns.

“The Book on the State” could very likely have returned to further explore the political and legal aspects of the same social relations briefly explored in the opening chapters of Capital. In the “state of nature” that underpins commodity production and exchange, human beings are competitors, enemies, isolated and antagonistic individuals, separated from each other by the institution of private property at the same time that they depend materially on each other for the satisfaction of their wants. For Marx, this condition is not “natural” but historical.

Private property and commodity exchange depend upon (“entail”) the development of a conception of “rights” – a legal-political notion – which must be respected if the whole mechanism of commodity exchange is to operate successfully. These rights, however, have to be enforced, for they contradict people’s needs. So there’s a question that needs to be thought through: how are “rights” enforced? How are the “separations” between people and the means to satisfy their needs maintained?

Most theorists immediately turn to discussion of “the state” to answer this, for the state is regularly presented as the ultimate guarantor of private property. But that is actually too simplistic. There is another possibility, which needs to be explored. Marx refers to it in passing in the Introduction to the Grundrisse, where he calls it “club law”. It has other names: the principle that might is right, self-defence, self-help. We might ask, for example, whether locks, fences, security systems and the like are not mostly rather more effective in protecting “our property” than the police and the judicial system. We might note that the number of people employed as private security guards is much larger than the number of state police. We might also note that the need for “self-defence” is a necessary additional, if “unproductive” element in the market cost of commodities, so that “self-defence” has an “economic” dimension. We might note that the “means of self-defence” are themselves subject to processes of technological development, as both “thieves” and “property owners” develop their skills, technological means, etc.[8]

Perhaps the point about “club law” seems trivial – until we come (a little later) to attempting to theorise the relations between states, a central issue in capitalist politics.

In summary, though, the “force” that maintains capitalist property relations is more complex than simply “the state” (nightwatchman or not).

2. One of the things that marks states, considered here as “economic actors,” is that they do not rely simply on exchange relations in their transactions with other economic actors. They collect tribute – taxes in various forms – from those they govern. Although Marx mentions tax at various points, he does not develop any discussion of what we might term “the tax form” (alongside the “value form”). The collection of taxes does not presume “liberty, equality, property and Bentham” as its basis, for it is rooted in relations of compulsion, not the apparent exchange of equivalents. Every state stands over and outside the piece of “civil society” that it governs, and demands tribute from its citizens as the price of being governed.

In terms of the broad categories developed in Capital, I think we would need to say that state tribute (taxation) comes out of “surplus value.” If that’s correct, then it’s rather noticeable that, in Volume 3 of Capital, where Marx discusses the various forms that surplus-value assumes – as profit of production, commercial profit, interest, rent – he says nothing about tax. A “Book on the State” could hardly ignore this matter. Overall, the broad tendency in capitalist development has been for the proportion of “GDP” that passes through the hands of states to rise over the past two centuries and more.

The taxation-powers of states, in turn, underpin their capacity to borrow on financial markets. Marx does briefly discuss this matter in the final section of Capital Volume 1 (on “the so-called primitive accumulation of capital”) when he observes how, at the end of the seventeenth-century in England, a complete “system” was established involving, among other things, the Bank of England, which was empowered to borrow on the promise of repayment from taxes. Matters to do with “state debt” – always connected to state taxation – are very prominent in the politics of the world crisis today, but they have always been of major consequence for capitalist states throughout their history.[9]

3. Far from being simply “nightwatchmen” protecting private property, capitalist states have developed a whole variety of forms of “intervention” into just about every aspect of “civil society”. The subject-matter is complex, and includes on one side state provision for capital of essential parts of the production and circulation process which, at different times, it lacked the capacity to develop itself, up to and including the state management, control, and development of whole industries, even whole national economies. On the other side, it includes all manner of state measures sometimes summed up as “state welfare policy”. Here I will focus chiefly on the second type.

By way of illustration, states have developed legislation to limit capital’s powers to exploit workers, as in legislation limiting factory hours, controlling aspects of work safety and the like; they have developed measures to deal with “pauperism” out of which have developed systems of state pensions, unemployment pay, various forms of social security payment; they have developed national primary, secondary, and tertiary education systems; they have concerned themselves with matters concerning public health (from sewerage and clean water provision to the control of epidemics) and the availability of medical treatments to those requiring them; they have legislated a variety of measures for working class housing provision. If in the nineteenth century the largest part of national state budgets was spent on the military, the twentieth century saw this proportion shrink as “social” spending of all kinds came to dominate state budgets.

The main discussion of these matters in Capital occurs in the chapter on “The working day” in Volume 1, where Marx considers the long campaign in nineteenth-century Britain to secure some limit to the hours worked in factories. What his argument shows is that “reforms” can be won through the action of popular movements: the capitalist state can be “pressured” to make concessions. What Marx does not explore, though, are the limits to this. He praises the factory inspectors, especially Leonard Horner, but doesn’t comment on the fact that these men were appointed officials. Nor does he explore the way in which, during the same period and afterwards, the expansion of “state welfare” was accompanied by a vast elaboration of state bureaucracy and of administrative controls. States became involved in developing complex webs of enumerations and classifications of their subjects, developing rules and regulations to limit and contain the scope of “welfare”, encouraging the growth of what Foucault termed “disciplines”. On the one hand, modern capitalist states were involved in more than repression (something rather missed in Engels’ and Lenin’s classic treatments of the state), but always working to contain any “social improvements” within limits set by states’ continued subjection to the need to pursue capitalist accumulation, and to contain also any potential for “democratisation” of control over policy. This process of state elaboration would, in turn, set up dilemmas and limits for all manner of popular movements demanding additional rights and improvements across every sphere of social life.

The growth of state intervention provided a focus for class struggle, and shaped its development. In crucial respects, the modern capitalist state creates a framework for an overall politics of reformism. In Gramsci’s term, the modern bourgeois state is “integral” as the “castal” states of the past were not: it is at once open to impulses from below for alteration and assimilation and simultaneously a set of agencies energetically containing and controlling those impulses. The “hope of improvement” dangles always on movement horizons.

4. A good deal of the theorising on “the state” in the 1970s and later, whether in Miliband, Poulantzas or the “German” and CSE writers alike, rested on a dubious assumption: namely, that there is a potential object for analysis called “the state”. But in reality there is no such object taken by itself. Rather there is a multiplicity of states, whose relationships among themselves are very thinly theorised within Marxism. Indeed, this was one point of attack on Marxist theory generally, from various authors who offered a kind of “neo-Weberian” alternative (e.g. Theda Skocpol, Michael Mann, Anthony Giddens and others). The general point was already made in the 1970s, but not very much developed.[10] Only in the 2000s, in a series of debates in the Cambridge Review of International Affairs and elsewhere, was the question further addressed among Marxists seeking to recover the field of “international relations” from the predominant influence of “Realism”.

We might note in passing that, in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (or anyway in the manuscript that has survived) Marx missed a trick. Hegel, who was concerned to reveal the universal reason embodied in the modern constitutional state, remarked in the Philosophy of Right that national governments are “in a state of nature in relation to each other,” since their “rights are actualised only in their particular wills and not in a universal will with constitutional power over them”. There is no “universal state”, only a set of essentially local and partial bodies claiming “sovereignty” over pieces of territory and parts of the world’s peoples. Marx doesn’t comment on this passage: had he done so, he might have developed further grounds for criticism of Hegel’s attempts to find the resolution to humanity’s social problems in these mutually antagonistic bodies.[11] Between themselves they do not rise above the sorts of antagonisms and divisions that mark “civil society.”

There are several implications and problems arising from the “many states” nature of capitalist political economy.

Firstly, in this world of inter-state relations, the implications of “club law” as a solution to the problem of force within political economy come very much to the fore. Alongside the processes of “market” competition that govern the exchange of commodities we must posit a distinct set of processes of “non-market competition”, ultimately based on the relative military strengths of the contending states between which the territories and populations that constitute the world economy are divided. This requires theorising. A beginning to such theorisation was attempted by the revolutionary Marxists of the early twentieth century, most notably by Rosa Luxemburg, Nikolai Bukharin, V. I. Lenin, and Leon Trotsky, who grappled with the significance of imperialist war.

Secondly, the theory of competition itself requires enlargement from a set of processes of a purely “economic” character to encompass competitive struggles up to and including warfare. (It might be noted in passing that Marx did not write very much about the concept of competition, indeed referring in his manuscripts to the need to further develop this category.)

Thirdly, consideration of this question throws into doubt what is often assumed: namely, that the distinction between the concepts of “capital” and “state” is one between two absolutely distinct forms, like chalk and cheese. (A good deal of the underlying assumptions of twentieth-century “socialism” – of the social democratic, Stalinist and “orthodox Trotskyist” varieties alike – rest upon this distinction.) Already in the later nineteenth century, both Marx and Engels criticised the assumption that “nationalisation” of the means of production was in any way intrinsically connected with socialism. In the twentieth century, that assumption provided an ever larger blockage to the understanding of how capitalism actually developed, whether in “the West”, “the East”, or “the South.”

By way of a conclusion, we might rewrite slightly the final words of the Communist Manifesto:

The working people have no states. They have a world to win. (Or perhaps, in the light of capitalism’s impending climate change catastrophe, we should say, they have a world to save.)

[1] This brief summary rests on my paper, “Miliband and the State: A Slightly Different Critique”, Northern Association for Politics and Sociology, Manchester, November 1979. Available at my website:

[2] I offered critical reviews of Miliband’s Marxism and Politics and Poulantzas’ State, Power, Socialism, in “Muscular Reformism” (on Miliband), International Socialism, first series, 102, 1977 and in “A ‘New’ Reformism? A Critique of the Political Theory of Nicos Poulantzas”, International Socialism, second series, 4, 1979.

[3] A collection of articles from Germany was translated in John Holloway and Sol Picciotto (eds), State and Capital: A Marxist Debate, Edward Arnold, 1978. Simon Clarke edited a later collection: The State Debate, Palgrave Macmillan, 1991. A pdf can be found here:

[4] Evgeny B. Pashukanis, Law and Marxism. A General Theory, Pluto Press, 1978.

[5] Claudia von Braunmühl, “On the analysis of the bourgeois nation state within the world market context” in Holloway and Picciotto 1978. I made a couple of contributions: “The State as Capital,” International Socialism, second series, 1, 1978; and “A Note on the Theory of Capitalist States”, Capital and Class, 4, 1978, pp118-126.

[6] There are two particularly good introductions to these writings: Lucio Colletti’s “Introduction” to the Penguin Books edition of Marx’s Early Writings, 1975; and Gary Teeple, Marx’s Critique of Politics, 1842-1847, University of Toronto Press, 1984.

[7] Michael Lebowitz has argued an interesting case that Marx’s planned volume on wage labour was hardly even begun: Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class, 2nd edition, Palgrave, 2003.

[8] Marx offers some satirical remarks about crime and the like in Theories of Surplus Value, 1, pp387-8.

[9] There are some very stimulating materials on this question in Charles Tilly (ed.), The Formation of States in Western Europe, Princeton University Press, 1975. See also David McNally, “The Blood of the Commonwealth: War, the State and the Making of World Money”, Historical Materialism 22.2, 2014, pp3-32.

[10] See for example Barker 1978 and von Braunmühl 1978.

[11] In his Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx does record the multiplicity of states and the differences between them, but does not explore their inter-relationships.

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