29 11 2013

In what sense did Marx propose to “smash the state”?

It is well known that one of the formative political experiences of Marx’s life was his effort to mount a public defence of the Paris Commune of 1871. The Commune was the most dramatic and, to Marx, the most inspiring anti-capitalist revolt of his time. As the Franco-Prussian War wound down, the workers of Paris rose up and deposed the French State’s authority, replacing its rule with a new form of popular self-organization that, in Marx’s memorable phrase, did not reproduce or reorganize the state, but “smashed” it.

But what did Marx mean by “smashing the state”? And what was the nature of this Commune that he held up as a model for anti-capitalist revolution?

Should we think of the Commune, as some do today, as a “workers’ state”? Or should we think of it as, on the contrary, a form of participatory-democratic, specifically anti-statist, community-based working-class self-organization?

Defender of the Commune, Paris 1871

Defender of the Commune, Paris 1871

Here, Marx and Engels actually make it hard to say quite which interpretation they would endorse, because sometimes they use language encouraging the statist interpretation of the Commune, and sometimes they deny outright that it was a state, “in the proper sense of the word.”

A typical statist reading can be found in a comment by Engels, in 1891, that the Commune “shattered” the “former state power,” and “replaced” it with “a new and truly democratic one” (628; page #s refer to Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed.). But this suggestion, that the Commune created a “new and truly democratic”state, seems to contradict something Engels said in 1875, when he asserted bluntly that the Commune “was no longer a state in the proper sense of the word.” Indeed, so insistent was he that the Commune was not a state in the proper sense, that he proposed, speaking on behalf of Marx and himself, that socialists should “replace [the word] state everywhere by Gemeinwesen[community], a good old German word which can very well convey the meaning of the French word,commune” (Letter to Bebel, 1875).

For his part, Marx also seemed ambivalent. On the one hand, he seemed to be alluding to the state when he called the Commune “a working-class government” (634). On the other hand, he regarded the most important lesson of the Commune to be the insight that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes” (629). This insight, that we can’t just “take power” by putting the workers’ movement at the helm of the administrative, coercive and legislative apparatuses of the capitalist state, was in fact the only correction to the argument of the Communist Manifesto that he ever explicitly proposed. The Manifesto had failed to insist that a working-class revolution would have to smash the state, rather than taking it over, Marx concluded.

Rather than getting bogged down in verbal technicalities about the meaning of the word “state,” let’s look at what Marx thought the Commune was doing, and try to see, substantively and concretely, what he meant when he said that it smashed rather than taking over the state.

To save time, I’ll get right to the point: As Marx says, “While the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society” (633). In other words, the state power, exercised from above, was replaced bycommunity control from below. Thus, the Commune “got rid of the standing army and the police,” according to Marx (632). “The whole of the educational institutions,” he adds, “were cleared of the influence of…the State” (632). “Judicial functionaries,” he tells us, “were divested of” their “sham independence,” and placed under community control. Or, as he vividly puts it, “like the rest of public servants, magistrates and judges were to be elective, responsible, and revocable” (632). Moreover, and also like all other public servants, they were to be paid an average worker’s wage (632). Both the legislature of professional politicians and the administrative branch of government were to be fused (632) into the Commune’s democratic assembly, delegates to which were, once again, “elective, responsible, and revocable,” and paid the prevailing worker’s wage.

The basic idea of smashing the state, as Marx uses this term, is evidently quite clear from these passages, and countless others like them in Marx’s main work on the Commune, and his main contribution to so-called “state theory,” The Civil War in France. What he means by “smashing the state” is that the various elements of state power – the coercive apparatus; the administrative apparatus; the legislative-executive apparatus; and the judicial apparatus – this whole system of state power is either (a) abolished outright (“amputated”), or (b) in cases where it has what Marx calls “remaining legitimate functions,” these are placed under direct community control by the working class, from below.

Community control, as Marx understands it, includes four elements: that all functionaries are paid the prevailing wage in the community, and are elected by, accountable to, and removable by, the community. Thus, smashing the state, for him, means two things: abolition of all illegitimate functions, and subordination of legitimate functions to direct popular control from below.

Now, every reader of Marx will agree that he regards this process as a “conquest of political power” by the working class, or as some now say, the 99%. But is it a state? Certainly workers were governing; they were “dictating” the terms of social cooperation. Workers ruled Paris for the two months that the Commune lasted. But all of this is consistent, perhaps mostconsistent, with Engels’ formulation: that the Commune was “no longer a state in the proper sense of the word,” but a form of community-based working-class self-organization, or what Marx called “the proletariat organized as the ruling class” (490).

Dictatorship, yes; state, no.  Conquest of (social) power, yes; conquest of state power, no.

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8 responses

29 11 2013

Again a great piece on how the ideas of Marx and Engels on the political organization of the worker society have been totally disdained and forgotten by nearly all their self-proclaimed heirs, be them Leninists (in their various flavors) or Social-Democrats. Only Autonomists, a relatively new current, are truly loyal (always critically) to the original Marxism.

I want to make however a lesser correction. You say: “the working class, or as some now say, the 99%”. However, for what I have seen, using US figures (I don’t have European ones, so feel free to illustrate me), is that the bourgeoisie seems far more prevalent in numbers, at least in “affluent” countries. In the USA, the 1% “only” owns 22% of the GDP and you need to count the topmost 10% to include the property 73% of the nominal yearly produced wealth.

While the categorization I deduce from these figures can just be approximate, I’d say that that 10% of US-Americans are great bourgeoisie, owning collectively about 1/7 of the global wealth (and being just ~0.5% of Humankind). Then follows another 30% that are still pretty well off ($33,000 per capita, yearly), that I would consider petty bourgeoisie and assimilated (very well paid professionals and such). So the working class properly speaking is only around 60% or so (of which the lower 2/3 are in quite bad situation), always in the case of the USA. I imagine that in Europe the trend would be quite similar and just slightly less extreme, after all the GDP of the EU is slightly larger than that of the USA, although the population is also significantly, but not dramatically, larger. Countries like England or Germany could well have very similar figures.

So I’d say that, we can only equate the working class to the 70% or maybe the 80% (now thinking in Europe), we can maybe talk of the 90% if we are so keen to attempt to co-opt the lower bourgeoisie in our discourse but never the 99%. The bourgeoisie, even the great bourgeoisie alone, does have some numbers.

29 11 2013

Reblogged this on Absence of boredo.

30 11 2013

Marx was not just ambivalent about the state,but also inconsistent. In the early writings such as the king of Prussia and social reform (1844),critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right 1843 and the Jewish question 1843 his position on the state does not differ from the Anarchist one. So this is a fairly typical comment :” Even the radical revolutionary politicians look for the cause of evil not in the nature of the state,but in a specific form of the state” The state and parliaments substitute for the self government of the producers. The state is an abstraction : the heaven to the earth of civil or bourgeois society.

However,later he followed the Chartists line of democratising the state.The Communist Manifesto calls for state socialism or (state capitalism) centralise all production in the hands of the state. There are measures to reform the state. At the time in Britain Marx criticised the view that the right thing to do is to seek to break up the representative system. This was his previous position. While in the 1850′s in relation to France he stood for the smashing of the State,but this was the military bureaucratic state. He advocated a peaceful or state/parliamentary road to socialism in Britain and Holland where there was capitalist democracy of a kind.

In the first draft of the Civil War in France, he returns to his early view of the state. So we have the following conclusion on the Paris Commune : “this was therefore a revolution not against this or that legitimate constitutional republican or imperialist form of state power. It was a revolution against the state itself” As for parliaments : they were not the real life of the ruling class, but only the organised general organs of their domination.

But, in his exchange of views with Bakunin shortly after the Commune there is some ambiguity. In his response to Bakunin’s question : will all forty million (Germans) be members of the government? He replies’s “Certainly since the whole thing begins with the self government of the producers” This was the position of the early writings and the Commune. But, we also find a different response to this question : Will the entire proletariat perhaps stand at the head of government? Marx asks rhetorically : will the whole union form it’s executive Committee? Given the development of trade unions and their nature, and the history of the Russian Revolution this is a very weak retort from Marx on the problem of bureaucracy.

In his critique of the Gotha Programme, a few years after the Commune, which he kept private for a number of years, rather than publically criticise the leaders of German Social Democracy,he returns to some ambiguous formulations which support the peoples state interpretation. There is a theoretical concession to the State Socialism of Social democracy. The old society gives way to the new society in a period of transition in which ” the state can be nothing but the Revolutionary Dictatorship of the proletariat” It is “precisely in this last form of the state in bourgeois society(democratic republic) that the class struggle has to be fought to a conclusion”. Marx tends to lose sight of the self government of the associated producers.

The history of the struggle against Capitalism supports the anti state views of Marx,rather than the workers state view.A Revolution can only be a revolution against the horrid machinery of the State.


30 11 2013

What you comment, commie46, is very interesting and, I guess, a good synthesis of the ambiguity and relative lack of a strong position on the political form of Marx and Engels.

In this sense, I think it is interesting to re-read the fiery criticism of Engels to Spanish Anarchists re. the Cantonal Uprising of 1873, just two years after the Paris Commune and one after the division of the International, but a movement lead by the bourgeoisie instead (however fully supported by the Anarchists): https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx//works/1873/bakunin/index.htm

I would say that there are strong contradictions in how communists in general contemplate the political self-organization of the workers. Possibly the best approach ever were the 1917 soviets, however the single-party authoritarian (and eventually totalitarian) regime emerged after the revolutionary war cannot be considered, as the Krondstadt uprising underlined with blood, anymore representative of the workers but a sui-generis dictatorship by a restricted bureaucratic elite.

In this sense, I wonder if the term “Marxist-Leninism” is not an oxymoron.

2 12 2013

Yes Maju. Lenin’s theoretical perspectives for the Russian Revolution, in the impending Catastrophe, in September 1917, was for a Bolshevik government of national salvation to save Russia. It might use similar methods to the capitalists and reactionary politicians,but with the Bolsheviks in charge the future interests of the working class would be preserved.(Jacobin Solution) Socialism was the next step up from state monopoly capitalism. The economy was seen as separate from society as a technical issue.Technology could be used and developed on a capitalist basis.

As he wrote in the State and revolution,”we the workers shall organise large scale production on the basis of what capitalism has already created” Lenin’s State Socialism can be seen in his comment in the State and Revolution that the transition to Socialism would be “to organise the whole economy on the basis of the post office” As for abolishing state bureaucracy, this was utopia,unless it was seen as long drawn out historical process.

It followed, as he put it, that even in the transitional society there would be a bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie. The state was not smashed and in so far as it was damaged it was reconstructed. Once the initial resistance of the state bureaucrats was overcome, they remained part of the new regime. In early 1918, he put a state capitalist way forward, in the Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government. The offensive against Capital was suspended, and the logic was this: if it is to be capitalism the Bolshevik leaders will run it.

The true path to Socialism was labour discipline to raise productivity on a capitalist basis for a prolonged period. The Revolution demanded “the absolute submission of the masses to the single will of the man who directed the labour process”. Lenin’s criticism of the communist opposition, in Left Wing Childishness,in April 1918, was that state capitalism was a step forward compared with the then circumstances. The creativity and initiative of working people was not trusted.

Old Bolshevism prior to 1917 had a perspective of a democratised State,but a bourgeois revolution without the bourgeoisie. The Red Jacobins,would be the custodians of the Socialist future. Meanwhile the working class would limit it’s demands until the capitalist democratic republic was consolidated and the Bolshevik party leadership decided it was time to advance working class interests to the point of overthrowing Capitalism. The July days in 1917,demonstrated that the Bolsheviks had not done the political groundwork for a mass revolution against the state.

Lenin was always ambivalent about the nature of the Russian Revolution :was it proletarian or bourgeois ? There was a great deal of theoretical confusion about Soviets and the Constituent Assembly in 1917. In any event, the Bolsheviks rooted their regime in the party leadership and the State they built around them. As the ICC put it in their pamphlet, The Russian Communist Left 1918-30,(2005) “the Bolsheik Party, by identifying itself with the State that was to become the internal agent of Counter Revolution-itself became an organisation of the revolution’s demise”

2 12 2013

Maju- Yes Engels view of the uprising in 1873 has a different perspective to Marx’s view of the Paris Commune of 1871. I do not know anything about this uprising,but I do recognise the hall marks of distorted polemics. There seems to be dubious polemical points about the crime of not seeking a parliamentary majority or influencing different parliamentary factions, And the sneering at the aim to abolish the state and so on. There were a lot of wrong tactics and political confusion in the Paris Commune, but Marx’s criticism is in the context of general sympathy with the insurgents. This seems to be a very nasty attack on the Anarchists. How accurate is it?

2 12 2013

“How accurate is it?”

I do not really know. The whole First Republic episode is extremely confuse. Queen Isabel, who had grown very unpopular, was overthrown by a Liberal coalition, who summoned a new monarch from Italy (Amadeo of Savoy) but this one found himself upon his arrival without his main mentor, Gral. Prim, who died of natural causes, and soon resigned claiming that Spaniards were “ungovernable”.

This led to the establishment of the Republic almost by lack of other options (but also there were republican uprisings leading to it). This Republic lasted less than two years and was shattered by all kind of conflicts: Carlist War in the Basque Country (in essence a war for traditional self-rule, which the Liberals denied), Cantonalist uprising in the South, Independence War in Cuba and several uprisings in the Catalan Countries (Carlists in the rural areas, Anarchists in Barcelona, etc.), while the Republic swang from Federalist (but not quite as much as the Cantonalists demanded) to Centralist in just months. A military coup ended it, bringing a second restoration of the Bourbons.

I mentioned the article because it does seem related and also because it is one of the first pieces of Marxist though I read, as it was part of my father’s domestic library for some odd reason. But I feel a bit unable to criticize it constructively.

Instead I found this: http://www.punkerslut.com/critiques/marx/bakuninist.html

Where the author claims that Engels’ and Marx’ attacks are rather unfounded, suggesting that they confuse apples with oranges.

“… the Cantonalist armed insurrection in the south was led by different people and attitudes than those of the Anarcho-Syndicalists who declared a General Strike” [in Barcelona].

Also that:

“To state that there would be no reason or purpose to cooperate with these other movements, if there would be promising results, is simply overly fanatical”.

It’s very possible that we have to read this fiery and extremely negative attack by Engels on the light of the recent division within the First International, just one year earlier. In this sense I suspect that the developments in Spain are of particular interest because it was one of the very few areas where the Anarchists were dominant.

At about that time, Marx (or the International) sent his son-in-law, Paul Lafargue (author of the great book: “The Right to Be Lazy”, co-founder of the Spanish and French socialist parties and first socialist member of the French Parliament), with the mission of founding a branch of the “Marxist” branch of the International in Spain. Part of the arguments of Engels seem based on what these early Spanish Socialists told him, it seems.

It is a bit ironical that when Lafargue and Laura Marx exerted their right to suicide many decades later, in order to spare themselves the worst of elder age, they were criticized by everybody except the Anarchists. Anselmo Lorenzo (the most notable Spanish Anarchist ideologue, probably) considered Lafargue “Anarchist by heart”, even if “enemy of Anarchism” by alignment.

3 12 2013

Thanks for the link. I think Punkerslut’s critique of Marx and Engels– Bakuninists at Work– has some very good points. His comment that “Marx would have wrote anything if it had discredited the Bakuninists does reflect the harsh, ultra negative polemic with Bakunin’s followers. You do get the feeling from the writing that whatever they did they were to be denounced.

The State is not elections is a point well made. The Republic seems to have been unstable and pulled in various directions. The Republic continued to act against workers including military action.Whether the workers could have identified with the Republic for a few reforms is debatable.


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