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Karl Marx & the State — David Adam | With Sober Senses

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Source: Karl Marx & the State

Karl Marx & the State

by David Adam

In April 1917, the Russian anarchist Voline met Leon Trotsky in a New York print works. Not surprisingly, both were producing revolutionary propaganda. Discussing the Russian situation, Voline told Trotsky that he considered it certain that the Bolsheviks would come to power. He went on to say he was equally certain that the Bolsheviks would persecute the anarchists once their power had been consolidated. Trotsky, taken aback by Voline’s conviction, emphasized that the Marxists and the anarchists were both revolutionary socialists fighting the same battle. While it is true that they had their differences, these differences, according to Trotsky, were secondary, merely methodological differences-principally a disagreement regarding a revolutionary “transitional stage.” Trotsky went on to dismiss Voline’s prediction of persecution against the anarchists as nonsense, assuring him that the Bolsheviks were not enemies of the anarchists. Voline relates that in December 1919, less than three years later, he was arrested by Bolshevik military authorities in the Makhnovist region. Since he was a well-known militant, the authorities notified Trotsky of his arrest and asked how he should be handled. Trotsky’s reply was terse: “Shoot out of hand.-Trotsky.” Luckily, Voline lived to tell his tale.1

It is on the basis of the Russian experience that anarchists generally affirm that their ideas have been vindicated. Bakunin’s predictions about Marxist authoritarianism came true, or so it seems. Voline’s story is the perfect snapshot of the anarchist’s historical vindication.  Years later, another prominent anarcho-syndicalist emphasized the main lesson of the Russian experience:

In Russia… where the so-called “proletarian dictatorship” has ripened into reality, the aspirations of a particular party for political power have prevented any truly socialistic reconstruction of economy and have forced the country into the slavery of a grinding state-capitalism. The “dictatorship of the proletariat,” in which naïve souls wish to see merely a passing, but inevitable, transition stage to real Socialism, has today grown into a frightful despotism and a new imperialism, which lags behind the tyranny of the Fascist states in nothing. The assertion that the state must continue to exist until class conflicts, and classes with them, disappear, sounds, in the light of all historical experience, almost like a bad joke.2

Here, in brief, is the historical verdict passed on Marxism by anarchism. But does this verdict discredit the theories of the supposed originator of Marxism, Karl Marx himself?  This essay will begin with a look at Marx’s basic understanding of the bourgeois state and move on to consider his conception of the transition to socialism in order to demystify Marx’s political ideas.

The Bourgeois State

Marx’s critique of the bourgeois state, or his “critique of politics,”3 first developed out of a critical confrontation with Hegel. The best place to start is thus his 1843 Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, in which Marx challenges Hegel’s dialectical justification for the status quo. There are two main lines of argument that we should pay close attention to: (1) Marx’s conception of the political state as a separate sphere and (2) his radical conception of direct democracy as opposed to the democracy of the bourgeois state.

According to bourgeois theory, in “civil society” individual citizens pursue their own particular interests in competition with and at the expense of other citizens.4 In the state, on the other hand, only the general interest is pursued. The state stands above civil society both to act as a limiting force on competition (by declaring certain forms of competition to be illegal), and to provide the basic framework in which competition is to take place (through legal contract, property laws, and so forth). In this way, the state is supposed to guarantee the equal rights of all citizens.

Marx vehemently attacked this theory as it was found in Hegel. Far from seeing the state as a neutral arbiter that served to realize individual freedom, Marx considered the state to be a sphere of social life not only separate from, but also opposed to civil society. For Marx, this contradiction between the state and civil society is characteristic of a society divided against itself, in which the functions of government are administered against society. Marx writes, “The ‘police’, the ‘judiciary’, and the ‘administration’ are not the representatives of a civil society which administers its own universal interests in them and through them; they are the representatives of the state and their task is to administer the state against civil society.”Furthermore, the idea of the general interest of all citizens being realized within the bourgeois state was a fiction to begin with. Firstly, the “bureaucrats,” who perform state activities, use the general powers of the state to pursue their own particular interests within the state hierarchy. Marx writes, “As for the individual bureaucrat, the purpose of the state becomes his private purpose, a hunt for promotion, careerism.”6 Secondly, the participation of private individuals in state activities does not in fact shield those individuals from the class distinctions that constitute civil society. Instead, the individuals enter into political life with those class distinctions: “The class distinctions of civil society thus become established as political distinctions.”7

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