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State

Marxist Dictionary

The state is a social apparatus which appears with the division into classes in order to keep society constrained within the prevailing social relations and prevent it from collapsing as a result of class struggle. It is therefore fundamentally conservative and will present itself as “neutral”, above the classes in conflict, even though it cannot be anything other than a tool of oppression and exploitation of one class by another.

Origins

The state is the direct product of the fracture of society into classes.

A society had just emerged which, by virtue of the general economic conditions of its existence, had had to divide itself into free men and slaves, into rich exploiters and poor exploited ones; a society which not only could not reconcile these antagonisms, but was instead forced to push them to their extreme limits. A society of this kind could exist only in the midst of an open and ceaseless struggle of these classes against each other or under the domination of a third power which, placed apparently above the classes in struggle, suppressed their open conflicts and allowed class struggle only in the economic field, in the so-called legal form.

Frederick Engels. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, 1884

But the fact that it comes forward and places itself “above” the class conflict does not mean that it is not part of it. The state is an instrument of exploitation and class oppression.

Because the state was born out of the need to curb class antagonisms, and because, at the same time, it was born in the midst of class conflict, it is, as a rule, the state of the most powerful class, of the economically dominant class, which, with its help, also becomes the politically dominant class, thereby acquiring new means for the repression and exploitation of the oppressed class. Thus, the ancient state was, first and foremost, the state of the slave owners to keep the slaves in bondage; the feudal state was the organ used by the nobility to keep the peasants in bondage, and the modern representative state is the instrument used by capital to exploit wage labor.

Frederick Engels. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, 1884

The state is not a mechanical and blind tool of the ruling class. It is, above all, a protector of the social order whose main mission is to constrain the permanent struggle that tightens the seams of a society torn by the existence of classes and exploitation. Its first objective is to hold those seams together to ensure the preservation of the order of exploitation and with it the state’s self-preservation. This gives it a certain autonomy even from the ruling class, especially in those periods when the class struggle stagnates without losing virulence and threatens to produce what the Manifesto described as “the collapse of the classes in conflict”. For this reason, Engels continues the previous paragraph by pointing out that…

However, by exception, there are periods when the classes in struggle are so balanced that the power of the State, as an apparent mediator, acquires a certain momentary independence from one or the other. In this case we find the absolute monarchy of the 17th and 18th centuries, which maintained the balance between the nobility and the bourgeoisie.

Frederick Engels. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, 1884

Periods of open struggle between two historic exploiting classes, one decadent and one ascending, are a struggle for the state, to take control of it, not to destroy it. Both classes are interested in keeping the social whole dominated and cohesive for exploitation, albeit under different social and legal relations. To destroy the state would be tantamount to destroying the conditions under which it plans to build the forms of its own domination. To the exploiting classes the state thus appears as “power” itself and that is why, at least in the moments before and after the great revolutions, the struggle between the new and old masters is preceded and followed by a guerrilla war, a game of positions within the state itself. The same state then appears, when the economically ruling class is also politically ruling, as the terrain of a bureaucratically muffled struggle between the old class resisting the surrender of political power and the new class waiting or having already taken its place.

The Proletariat and the State

To the bourgeoisie as a class for much of its historical life, the state presented itself as an organism at some point external to itself precisely because it was necessary to exercise its social domination. That appearance vanishes when the leadership of the class struggle is taken over by the proletariat, the first non-exploitative class that aspires to take political power and that therefore…

…cannot simply take possession of the State machine as it is and use it for its own purposes.

The centralized state power, with its omnipresent organs: the standing army, the police, the bureaucracy, the clergy and the judiciary -bodies created according to a plan of systematic and hierarchical division of labor-, comes from the times of absolute monarchy and served the nascent bourgeois society as a powerful weapon in its struggles against feudalism. (…)

As the progress of modern industry developed, widened and deepened the class antagonism between capital and labor, state power increasingly acquired the character of the national power of capital over labor, of a public force organized for social enslavement, of a machine of class despotism. After every revolution, which marks a step forward in the class struggle, the purely repressive character of the state power is increasingly accused.

Karl Marx. The Civil War in France, 1871.

Forms and Objectives of the Workers’ State

With the entry of capitalism into its imperialist stage first and its decadence almost immediately afterwards, the forms of the workers’ struggle are transformed. The mass strike appears and with it the workers councils or “soviets”, organization of the whole class that, in the course of the revolution, become the form of that “transitional state” through which the working class imposes, that is, exercises its dictatorship, over the logic of capital.

The Soviets of workers’ deputies, soldiers, peasants, etc., are misunderstood not only in the sense that the majority do not see clearly their class significance and role in the Russian revolution; they are also misunderstood in the sense that they represent a new form, or more exactly, a new type of state.

The most perfect, most advanced type of bourgeois state is the parliamentary democratic republic. Power belongs to Parliament; the state machine, the apparatus and the organs of government are the usual ones: permanent army, police and a bureaucracy practically immovable, privileged and situated above the people.

But since the end of the nineteenth century, revolutionary times have brought about the emergence of a superior type of democratic state; a state which, in certain respects, is no longer, in Engels’ words, a state. “is no longer a state in the true sense of the word”. We refer to the State of the type of the Paris Commune, which replaces the army and the police, separated from the people, with the direct and immediate arming of the people. Herein lies the essence of the Commune, slandered by the bourgeois writers, and to which, among other things, they wrongly attributed the intention of “implanting” socialism at once.

The Russian revolution began to create, first in 1905, and then in 1917, a state precisely of this kind. The Republic of the Soviets of workers’ delegates, soldiers, peasants, etc, gathered in the Constituent Assembly of the representatives of the people of all Russia, or in the Council of Soviets, etc. : This is what is already embodied in the life of our country, now, at this moment, on the initiative of a people of millions and millions of men, who are creating democracy, without prior authorization, in their own way, without awaiting that the democrat-constitutionalist professors write their bills to create a bourgeois parliamentary republic, and without waiting either for the pedantic and routine of petty-bourgeois “social democracy”, like Mr. Plekhanov or Kautsky, to renounce their distortions of the Marxist theory of the state. (…)

The bourgeois parliamentary republic hinders and stifles the independent political life of the masses, their direct participation in the democratic building of the whole state, from the bottom up. The Soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies do the opposite.

The Soviets reproduce the type of state that was forming the Paris Commune and which Marx called “the political form at last discovered to carry out within it the economic emancipation of labor.

“The tasks of the proletariat in our revolution.” Lenin, 1917

With the “semi-state” of the workers’ councils, this new form of dictatorship that is nothing but the imposition of the satisfaction of generic and universal human needs, can face the law of value and begin the decommodification of society, that is, take the first steps towards socialism from the first phases of its globalization. That is its essential objective.

The revolution will be a social revolution in the very place where it arises and not simply a political one (the seizure of power by the proletariat). A workers’ state, let us stress, cannot be maintained in any case if the international revolution does not take place, and therefore socialism cannot be established in a single country. Let us add to this that the suppression of capitalist relations is in no way equivalent to socialism (or communism!!) but only – and in all this we take for granted that it is a destruction carried out by the working class itself – a step towards socialism. But this step, we assert, must be taken as quickly as possible by the immediate attack on and suppression of wage labor even before the proletariat takes power on an almost global level. Without this, however proletarian the power, it will become the opposite, as the devastation of the revolution is not a clear and immediately perceptible cut.

Even if it takes place only in a single industrial district, a social revolution is situated in the point of view of the totality because it is a protest by man against dehumanized life, because it starts from the point of view of each real individual, because the collective being from which the individual strives not to remain separate is the true collective being of man, the human being. On the contrary, the political spirit of a revolution consists in the tendency of the classes without political power to suppress their isolation from the being of the state and from power. Their viewpoint is that of the state, an abstract totality that exists only through separation from real life, which would be unthinkable without the organized contradiction between the general idea and man’s individual existence. In accordance with its limited and ambiguous nature, a revolution with a political spirit thus creates a dominant sphere in society at the expense of society itself…Every revolution dissolves the old society: in this sense it is social. Every revolution overthrows the old power: in this sense it is political.

Marx in The King of Prussia and Social Reform by a Prussian

“Letter to the Third International Conference of ‘Communist Left’ Groups”, FOR, 1980.