Is Marx right to think the state could ‘wither away’?
Marx states in The Communist Manifesto ‘State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous… The state is not ‘abolished’. It withers away.’ Here, Marx is describing the transition from bourgeois democracy to the communist ideal society. Marx’s own view of the developments in society arise from his historical materialism; according to this doctrine, all developments in society, politics, thought etc are mere outgrowths of the economic system of the time. In this context he describes the transition to modern day society as one of continual class struggle, in which the ruling classes in control of the political system have subjugated all other classes to their will through a variety of means.
Marx begins his analysis of class struggle in the middle ages with the feudal hierarchy. Here, Marx claims, the aristocracy used tools such as religion and morality to make the surfs subservient to them and allow them to maintain their political and economic hegemony. However, as humanity progressed and new technologies were developed and new continents discovered a new class came into existence who exploited such developments for profit, continually growing as the opportunities for investment increased, until all the wealth, property and land of the nation
Marx claimed, however, that this increasing wealth and the birth of a new political class came at the cost of the oppression and alienation of the majority of society; the proletariat. As technology and economics advanced, the idea of the division of labour allowed factories to produce goods more cheaply and efficiently; however, this necessitated fewer workers, creating large scale unemployment, and those who were employed were forced to work in miserable conditions with low pay and no job security. The exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie, clearly apparent in the seventeenth century when Marx was writing, was, according to Marx, making the position of the bourgeoisie in society untenable. This is because, like a ‘sorcerer who no longer has power over the forces of the netherworld he has called up’, the bourgeoisie no longer have control of the destructive force that is capitalism, as shown by the numerous economic crises which have plagued the world for centuries now. Marx claimed that capitalism would eventually come to destroy itself, by creating both the weapons of its destruction and the men who would wield them; the modern working class.
These are men who live only as long as they can find work, who sell themselves as commodities and, like all commodities are therefore subject to the fluctuations of the market. Technological advances have made work more and more menial, making the worker a ‘mere appendage of the machine’; and, as the price of labour is equal to the cost of production, the more wages are depressed by increases in efficiency, and the more alienating the work becomes, the less the worker is paid. Eventually, this position clearly becomes untenable, and the workers must rise up. At first, Marx claims, they will rise up against specific bourgeoisie in isolated incidents; at this point the workers are still an incoherent mass scattered across the country. Eventually, however, as industrialisation continues, some workers become more educated and all become more concentrated in urban areas. When this happens, and when wages become so low that workers are no longer competing against one another, but realise they are all equally as desperate, they will form one solid community and struggle as a class against the bourgeoisie.
At this point, the revolution will take place, and the whole proletariat will unite and rise up against the bourgeoisie, taking political power for themselves by force and creating a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. At first, the workers, on a national level, will take over the whole state, get rid of its bourgeoisie elements and simply use it to centralise all the means of production and completely rid society of both property and, consequently, the bourgeoisie. This will, at first, necessitate the use of force; Marx claims that bourgeoisie who do not cooperate can be killed, and peasantry (who Marx believes are too ignorant and selfish to follow the proletariat into the revolution) will be forced or given incentives to cooperate. In this sense, the first part of the revolution involves the use of the state by the proletariat to achieve their immediate goals Marx sees as essential to the establishment of true communism.
However, once all property has been centralised and the bourgeoisie have been completely removed, class distinctions will completely disappear and, rather than working to gain property which no longer exists, all will work towards the common good. Because Marx sees the definition of the state as the domination of one class over another, once class distinctions have been completely erased, he believed the state will simply ‘wither away’. It will no longer be necessary as a means of political power, because all will be united under the same goal; the people who would previously have been politicians would be controlling production and distribution to ensure maximum efficiency, and progress would be achieved even faster than under capitalism as academics and scientists work to create new ways of achieving happiness and prosperity for all of society. In this sense, the communist revolution would be different from every other past revolution; it would not be the passing of power from one faction to another, but the complete removal of class and class interests and thus, of the political hegemony of any single portion of society.
However, many writers criticised this idea of Marx’s, especially his anarcho-communist contemporaries, notably Bakunin. Bakunin’s claimed that ‘if there is a state, then there is unavoidably domination, and consequently slavery’. As an anarchist he believed in a communism without the Marxist ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, simply the removal of the state with all its institutions, and the establishment of autonomous communities based on communist principles. His main argument against Marx was that if the proletariat, or a selection of them, were given complete power over the running of the state, they themselves would become the new ruling class, and subject the rest of the nation to new oppression. Bakunin believed that Marx had not properly understood human nature, and that power necessarily corrupted anyone who wielded it, which is where his anarchist criticism of the state stemmed from. In this way, the proletariat, according to Bakunin and the anarchists the proletariat would not replace the bourgeoisie and dissolve all class divisions, they would simply take the current hierarchy and turn it upside down, creating a new ruling class equally as oppressive as the last.
This view seems to have support from an historical perspective; the experience of the Russian Revolution and the consequent consolidation of power by Stalin through the Purges, as well as the incredibly oppressive character of the 5 Year Plans, Collectivisation and the Secret Police, demonstrates the potential consequences of putting unrestrained power in the hands of one individual or group. In fact, many writers have criticised communism on the basis that it is simply impossible for the state to wither away; it is not conducive with human nature to willingly give up power, and by the time society might be ready, in Marxist terms, to be stateless, a new ruling class with its own institutions, bureaucracy and vested interests will have been formed making the transition effectively impossible. Bakunin explains this in his Statism and Anarchy:
“[W]orkers… as soon as they have become representatives or governors of the people, cease to be workers, and look down on the whole common workers’ world from the height of the state. They will no longer represent the people, but themselves and their pretensions to people’s government. Anyone who can doubt this knows nothing of the nature of men.”
Marx attempts to respond to this in the notes he made on Statism and Anarchy, however in doing so merely repeats his original argument. He claims that once the revolution has taken place the workers need to gain a monopoly on force and use it to crush any remainder of bourgeoisie opposition, or the revolution will simply be reversed. For example, after the October revolution the Bolsheviks continued to fight a bloody civil war against the Whites, composed mainly of the old members of the tsar’s army and foreign powers. Marx’s argument would have been that, had the Bolsheviks not used the state apparatus as a means of maintaining their hold on power, the revolution would simply have been reversed and the workers would be plunged back into their previous state of oppression. On top of this, he claims, when all means of production have been centralised, class distinctions will dissolve – there will no longer be any such thing as the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, so it would not be possible for one to dominate the other. Indeed, there would be no class, so none could dominate any other.
However, this argument is not convincing enough to counter Bakunin’s criticism. It may be true that if the proletariat did not take control of the state there would be a counter-revolution; but it is highly likely that the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ would be a far worse alternative. This is because Marx’s second response simply doesn’t hold; it is guess work based on what many have claimed is a flawed view of human nature and society. Class divisions will not dissolve, they will never dissolve because it is human nature to create hierarchies and for groups and individuals to attempt to dominate one another; there may no longer exist a bourgeoisie in opposition to the proletariat, but there will be a state in opposition to the people.
This is apparent from historical experience; wherever there has been a communist revolution and a consequent communist state, whether it is in China, Russia or Cuba there has been a vast amount of bloodshed from the outset, followed by years of brutal oppression and continual encroachment of human rights. It is true that Marx does not believe in human rights, and could attempt to ascribe such oppression to the continuing battle against the bourgeoisie, but the majority of those killed in Russia were the peasantry and they were killed in order to secure the power of the state over the people. Overall therefore, it is easy to see now from an historical perspective, what Bakunin realised when he was writing, that the state will not wither away. Instead, it will continually expand, generally under the leadership of a brutal dictator, until it effectively becomes its own oppressive class with its own interests, and those interests, unless they are made accountable to the people, will be directly opposed to those of the people.
Overall, therefore, it is clear that Marx was wrong to believe the state could wither away. This is because the workers’ state will become a class in itself with vested interests and its own forms of oppression. This was identified by Marx’s anarchist contemporaries and proven true by historical experience; human nature makes the Marxist view of the state untenable.