Marxism and the Extinction of the State

Camillo Berneri

Guerra di classe, 9 October 1936

In the camp of the Italian anti-fascist emigration it has become common for some time now to hear anarchists attribute to Marxism, both during public meetings and in the context of friendly discussions, a tendency towards State-worship, which is indeed found in certain currents of social democracy which claim to be Marxist, but cannot be ascertained when one goes right back to Marxist socialism.

The disappearance of the State is clearly prophesied by Marx and Engels and this explains the possibility that, within the First International, there was political coexistence between Marxist socialists and Bakuninist socialists, a coexistence that would not have been possible without that theoretical concurrence.

In The Poverty of Philosophy Marx wrote:

The working class, in the course of its development, will substitute for the old civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power properly so-called.

Engels, in turn, stated in Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State:

The State will inevitably disappear along with classes. Society, which will reorganise production on the basis of a free and equal association of the producers, will put the whole machinery of State where it will then belong: into the museum of antiquities, by the side of the spinning-wheel and the bronze axe.

And Engels did not postpone the extinction of the State to a final phase of civilisation, but presented it as closely connected to the social revolution and inevitably arising from it. In fact, he wrote in an article from 1873:

All Socialists are agreed that the political State, and with it political authority, will disappear as a result of the coming social revolution, that is, that public functions will lose their political character and will be transformed into the simple administrative functions of watching over the true interests of society.

The State is equated by Marxists with government and they place that before a system in which “the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things”, which for Proudhon constituted anarchy.

Lenin in The State and Revolution (1917) reaffirms the conception of the extinction of the State, noting: “We do not after all differ with the anarchists on the question of the abolition of the State as the aim.”

It is difficult to discern the tendentiousness from the tendency of the aforementioned statements, given that Marx and Engels had to struggle with a strong Proudhonian and Bakuninist current and that Lenin in 1917 saw the political necessity of an alliance between the Bolsheviks, the Left Socialist Revolutionaries (influenced by maximalism) and the anarchists. It seems certain, however, while not excluding bias in the form and timing of those statements, these corresponded to a real tendency. The affirmation of the extinction of the State is too closely connected, too inevitably derivable from the Marxist conception of the nature and origins of the State, to attribute an absolutely opportunistic character to it.

What is the State for Marx and Engels? It is a political power in the service of preserving social privileges and economic exploitation.

In the preface to the third edition of Marx’s work The Civil War in France, Engels wrote:

According to the [Hegelian] philosophical notion, the State is the “realisation of the idea” or the Kingdom of God on earth, translated into philosophical terms, the sphere in which eternal truth and justice is or should be realised. And from this follows a superstitious reverence for the State and everything connected with it, which takes roots the more readily as people from their childhood are accustomed to imagine that the affairs and interests common to the whole of society could not be looked after otherwise than as they have been looked after in the past, that is, through the State and its well-paid officials. And people think they have taken quite an extraordinary bold step forward when they have rid themselves of belief in hereditary monarchy and swear by the democratic republic. In reality, however, the State is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and indeed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy; and at best an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worst sides the proletariat, just like the [Paris] Commune, cannot avoid having to lop off at the earliest possible moment, until such time as a new generation, reared in new and free social conditions, will be able to throw the entire lumber of the State on the scrap heap.

Marx (in The Poverty of Philosophy) says that, after the abolition of classes has been accomplished, “there will be no more political power properly so-called, since political power is precisely the official expression of antagonism in civil society.“

That the State is reduced to a repressive power over the proletariat and to a conservative power is a partial thesis, whether we examine the State anatomically or we examine it physiologically. In the State, the government of men is linked with the administration of things: and it is this second activity which ensures its permanence. Governments change. The State remains. And the State is not always a function of bourgeois power: as when it imposes laws, promotes reforms, creates institutions at odds with the interests of the privileged classes and supports, instead, the interests of the proletariat. The State is not only the gendarme, the judge, the minister. It is also the bureaucracy, as powerful, and sometimes more powerful, than the government. Today in Italy, the fascist State is something more complex than a police body and guardian of bourgeois interests, because it is linked by an umbilical cord to a group of political and corporatist cadres having their own interests, which do not always and never entirely coincide with the class that brought fascism to power and which the fascist dictatorship serves to stay in power.

Marx and Engels faced the bourgeois phase of the State and Lenin faced the Russian State in which the game of democracy was minimal. All the Marxist definitions of the State give an impression of being partial; the structure of the contemporary State cannot enter the framework of traditional definitions.

Marx and Engels also formulated a partial theory of the origin of the State. Expressed in the words of Engels, it goes like this: “At a certain stage of economic development, which was necessarily bound up with the split of society into classes, the State became a necessity owing to this split. We are now rapidly approaching a stage in the development of production at which the existence of these classes not only will have ceased to be a necessity, but will become a positive hindrance to production. They will fall as inevitably as they arose at an earlier stage. Along with them the State will inevitably fall.” (Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State)

Engels reverted to Hobbe’s philosophy of natural law, adopting its terminology and merely substituting for the necessity to tame homo homini lupus the necessity to regulate the conflict between classes. The State would have arisen, according to Marx and Engels, when classes had already formed and it would have been born as a class organ. Arturo Labriola (Au-delà du capitalisme et du socialisme, Paris 1931) says on this issue:

These issues of “origins” are always very complicated. Common sense would advise throwing some light on them and tracing the materials that concern them, without deluding ourselves that we will ever be able to solve them. The idea of being able to have a theory of the “origins” of the State is a fiction. All that can be expected is to indicate a few elements which in historical order probably contributed to creating it. That the birth of classes and the birth of the State must have a relationship between them is obvious, especially when we remember the predominant role that the State had in the rise of capitalism.

According to Labriola, the scientific study of the genesis of capitalism “confers a truly unsuspected character of realism to the anarchist theses on the abolition of the State.” And again:

The extinction of capitalism as a result of the extinction of the State seems far more likely that the extinction of the State as a result of the extinction of capitalism.

This seems evident from research by Marxists themselves when they are serious studies, like that of Paul Louis in Le travail dans le monde romain (Paris, 1912). It is clear from this book that the Roman capitalist class was formed as a parasite of the State and therefore protected by the State. From brigand generals to governors, tax gatherers to wealthy families, custom officials to army suppliers, the Roman bourgeoise was formed through war, State interventionism in the economy, taxation, etc. far more than by other means. And if we examine the interdependence between the State and capitalism, we see that the latter has profited largely from the former for State and not clearly capitalist interests. So much so that the development of the State precedes the development of capitalism. The Roman Empire was already a very large and complex organisation when Roman capitalism was still managed by the family. Paul Louis does not hesitate to proclaim: “Ancient capitalism was born from war.” The first capitalists, in fact, were generals and tax collectors. The entire history of the formation of fortunes is a history in which the State is present.

It is from this conviction that the State was and is the father of capitalism, and not only its natural ally, that we derive the belief that the destruction of the State is the prerequisite for the disappearance of classes and their non-reappearance.

In his essay on The Modern State, Kropotkin noted:

To ask an institution which represents a historical growth that it serves to destroy the privileges that it strove to develop is to acknowledge you are incapable of understanding what a historical growth is in the life of societies. It is to ignore this general rule of all organic nature, that new functions require new organs, and that they need to develop them themselves.[1]

Arturo Labriola, in the book cited above, observes in turn:

If the State is a conserving power with respect to the class that dominates it, it is not the disappearance of this class that makes the State disappear but it is the disappearance of the State, which is specific to the anarchist critique, which, from this point of view, is much more accurate than the Marxist critique. As long as the State conserves a class, that class does not disappear. The stronger the State becomes, the stronger the class protected by the State, that is to say, the more powerful its life-force becomes and the more secure its existence. Now a strong class is a class more highly differentiated from other classes. To the extent that the existence of the State depends on the existence of classes, the very fact of the State – if Engelsian theory is true – determines the indefinite existence of classes and therefore of itself as a State.

A grand, decisive confirmation of the accuracy of our thesis on the State generating capitalism is offered by the USSR, where State socialism promotes the emergence of new classes.

End Notes

[1] “Can the State be used for the Emancipation of the Workers?”, Chapter XI, Part IV, Modern Science and Anarchy, 352. (Translator)