I.3 The Critique of the Content of the State

Engel’s theoretical statements concerning the state in ‘The Origin of the Family’, ‘Ludwig Feuerbach’, ‘Anti-Dühring’, as well as in his critique of the Erfurt draft program of the SPD from 1891 constitute the source of the traditional Marxist conception of the state: In ‘Ludwig Feuerbach’, Engels states that the fact that all needs in class societies are articulated through the will of the state is “the formal aspect of the matter — the one which is self-evident”1. The main question of a materialist theory of the state, however, is “what is the content of this merely formal will — of the individual as well as of the state — and whence is this content derived? Why is just this willed and not something else?”2 The result of this purely content-based question concerning the will of the state is for Engels the recognition “that in modern history the will of the state is, on the whole, determined by the changing needs of civil society, but the supremacy of this or that class, in the last resort, by the development of the productive forces and relations of exchange.”3 Furthermore, in his deliberations in ‘The Origin of the Family’ Engels works with universal-historical categories into which modern designations like “public authority” are projected, and constantly assumes “direct relations of domination, immediate forms of class rule”4 in order to explain “the” state, which is consequentially understood as a mere instrument of the ruling class. From this content-fixated and universal-historical way of considering the state, it can be deduced that Engels loses sight of the actually interesting question, namely as to why the class content in capitalism takes on the specific form of public authority.5 The personal definition of class rule extracted from pre-capitalist social formations ultimately leads to reducing the anonymous form of class rule institutionalized in the state to a mere ideological illusion, which, in the manner of the theory of priestly deception, is interpreted as a product of state tactics of deception. Engels in any case attempts to make the class character of the state plausible by referring to “plain corruption of officials” and “an alliance between the government and the stock exchange”. 6 Nonetheless, in Engels’ work there still exists, despite the predominance of the instrumentalist/content-fixated perspective, an unmediated coexistence between the determination of the state as the “state of the capitalists” and of the state as “ideal total capitalist”.7 The last definition conceives of the state “not as a tool of the bourgeoisie (…) but rather as an entity of bourgeois society”,8 an “organisation that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the general external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists.”9 But the specific formal aspect of modern statehood is not yet explained by this reference to functional mechanisms. Engels also paved the way for the theory of state-monopoly capitalism.10 In the Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Program of 1891 he writes: “I am familiar with capitalist production as a social form, or an economic phase; capitalist private production being a phenomenon which in one form or another is encountered in that phase. What is capitalist private production? Production by separate entrepreneurs, which is increasingly becoming an exception. Capitalist production by joint-stock companies is no longer private production but production on behalf of many associated people. And when we pass on from joint-stock companies to trusts, which dominate and monopolise whole branches of industry, this puts an end not only to private production but also to planlessness.”11 Finally, in Anti-Dührung Engels writes of the state as real total capitalist: “The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit.”12 Here Engels reveals a limited understanding of private production and a tendency to equate state planning and monopoly power with direct socialization,13 reinforced by Engels’ construction of the fundamental contradiction and his tendency to identity the division of labor within a factory and the division of labor in society. Engels does note that “the transformation, either into joint-stock companies, or into state ownership, does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces,”14 but nonetheless sees an immediate transition to socialism setting in as a result, whereas the concepts of monopoly and state intervention remain “economically completely undetermined.”15 Engels thus suggests that the workers movement merely has to take over the forms of corporate bookkeeping in joint stock companies and the comprehensive planning by monopolies developed in capitalism. For Engels, the bourgeoisie has already become obsolete through the separation of ownership and management functions.16 The “transformation of the great establishments for production and distribution into joint-stock companies and state property” demonstrates according to Engels “how unnecessary the bourgeoisie are for that purpose”, i.e. for managing “modern productive forces”. “All the social functions of the capitalist are now performed by salaried employees. The capitalist has no further social function than that of pocketing dividends, tearing off coupons, and gambling on the Stock Exchange, where the different capitalists despoil one another of their capital. At first the capitalist mode of production forces out the workers. Now it forces out the capitalists, and reduces them, just as it reduced the workers, to the ranks of the surplus population, although not immediately into those of the industrial reserve army.”17

In consideration of this reception history (only roughly outlined here), one could claim that Marxism in the form presented here was a rumor about Marx’s theory, a rumor that was gratefully taken up by most critics of “Marx” and merely supplemented with a minus sign. In fact such an assertion – as accurate as it may be overall – makes things too easy, in that it disregards certain deviations from the dominant doctrine that also understood themselves to be Marxisms, as well as regarding the above misinterpretations as being completely external to Marx’s own theory, thus excluding the possibility of any inconsistencies or theoretical-ideological ambiguities in Marx’s work. To clarify this question, a glance at the differentiated reading of Marx’s texts worked out in the so-called “reconstruction debates” will be useful.

In this respect, traditional Marxism should be understood here rather as an elaboration, systematization and assumption of dominance of the ideological content of Marx’s work – within the framework of a reception by Engels and his epigones. Practical influence was almost exclusively allotted to these restricted and ideologized interpretations of Marx’s theory, as historical determinism or proletarian political economy.

  1. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1886/ludwig-feuerbach/ch04.htm []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. Ibid. []
  4. Schäfer 1974, XCVII []
  5. Compare Pashukanis: „why is the apparatus of state coercion created not as a private apparatus of the ruling class, but distinct from the latter in the form of an impersonal apparatus of public power distinct from society?” []
  6. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/origin-family/ch09.htm No wonder, then, that Lenin refers affirmatively to this “explanation”, with its theory of agents and influence. []
  7. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch24.htm [Translator’s Note: The official translation of “ideeller Gesamtkapitalist” in the Marx-Engels Collected Works renders this unsatisfactorily as “the ideal personification of the total national capital”, when in fact “ideal total capitalist” is more accurate. The latter English term can be found for example here: http://www.marxists.org/archive/mandel/1980/xx/hismatstate.htm ] []
  8. Busch-Weßlau 1990, 84. []
  9. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch24.htm []
  10. See Paul 1978, 51-54 []
  11. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1891/06/29.htm []
  12. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch24.htm []
  13. Schäfer 1974, CXXXI []
  14. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch24.htm []
  15. Schäfer 1974, CXXXIV []
  16. This old chestnut will later be presented by Wolfgang Pohrt and others as a deep insight about “late capitalism”. []
  17. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch24.htm []