Today we face the power of the state when we engage in class struggle, fight back against the system or threaten the capitalist order. It is police who guard our demonstrations closely, arresting us when we don’t play along or become too militant. It is the courts who sentence climate activists to prison. It is the prisons that hold mass numbers of young black people on trumped up charges, such as minor drug possession. And it is the government bureaucracies that administer these laws that we are subjected to.
What’s key, is understanding the nature and origins of the state. Our lives under capitalism are shaped by class and class distinctions. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ famous lines in the Communist Manifesto are, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” This includes exploited classes fighting back—whether that’s slave rebellions in the Roman Empire, peasant uprisings in medieval Britain, or working class people taking to picket lines today.
However, the ruling classes’ struggle to keep down the exploited classes is also a constant in class societies. They’ve used different tools to achieve this through history. Today they can rely on propaganda through the media to divide people. But the ruling class continues to use force and coercion to keep the working class in its place.
The state is a product of those class antagonisms. It is, as the revolutionary Frederick Engels first stated, made up of “special bodies of armed men”. These are the forces of the state—the prisons, the police, the army and its unelected bureaucracies such as the courts. The state holds a monopoly on “legitimate force”. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act is one example of the state strengthening this monopoly, trying to reduce the impact and size of demonstrations. The Tories’ new Public Order Bill now seeks to strengthen the authoritarian clampdown.
Even in liberal democracies, such as Britain and the US, the state uses violence when it deems it necessary. We saw this violence come from the British state during the vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common, south London, in March 2022. Police, who wore the same uniform as her murderer, were unleashed upon peaceful mourners. They wielded truncheons and handcuffs as they broke up the crowd.
Far from an aberration, it was part of a long line of British police and state violence against ordinary people. The state was brutal when anti-fascists were fighting the Nazi National Front (NF) in Britain during the 1970s. A special branch of the police murdered the socialist, anti-racist teacher Blair Peach. And, after such instances, the bureaucracies of the state try to conceal and change the narrative of events.
And across the world, ruling classes use the power of the state to further their imperialist interests. The state takes on a specific brutality in Palestine, where the Israeli settler colonial forces are armed to the teeth to oppress the Palestinians and act as a watchdog for the US imperialist state’s interests.
Has the state always existed?
For many it seems logical to say that the state has always existed. After all, throughout human history people have been organising themselves, whether that be in a primitive form of the family or in clans. Is this not a state? And Karl Marx and Engels stated in the Communist Manifesto, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. Doesn’t that mean there was always a state for the domination of one class by another?
By “existing society”, they were talking about class societies—there is a footnote explaining they mean “written history”. There were societies before classes emerged. Marx called this “primitive communism”, however it is easier to call them “pre-class society”. We should not idolise these societies, but they do show us that a more egalitarian society without class, exploitation and oppression is possible. Women’s oppression did not exist, with no anthropological evidence to support that being the case, and sexuality and gender identity weren’t repressed.
Fundamentally, there was no oppression of one class over another, as there were no classes. We find at no point, as the revolutionary Vladimir Lenin put it, a “special category of people who are set apart to rule others and for the sake and purpose of rule”. So, there was no need to suppress one class by another and, therefore, the state did not exist. There were no instruments such as prisons, the police or other instruments used to keep a lower class obedient as there was no lower class.
The state as a special apparatus for control and coercion arose only after class divisions began to emerge. Engels, in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, maps out the development of the state. He describes how the development of settled agriculture allowed for the production of a “surplus” in society. The new production methods required greater planning, meaning some people were separated off from back-breaking labour.
Over time, those who controlled the surplus formed into a class. We see a small section of society that could live off the labour of others and “required special bodies of armed men”, or, put simply, a state. As Lenin describes, the state is the “product and manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms”.
The state has changed form over the eras just as classes have changed. In slave societies, such as the Greek city states and Roman Empire, the fundamental division was between slaves and slaveowners. In feudal societies, it was lords and peasants—first with waring lordships, then with centralised absolutist states. Whatever the structure, the ruling class used the state as their instrument to uphold class rule.
The capitalist state
Feudalism began to give way to capitalism, another form of class society based on class exploitation and with a state stronger than ever. The French Revolution of 1789—what Marxists would call a “bourgeois revolution”—swept away the old absolutist state that had become a bloc to further capitalist development. It paved the way for capitalism to grow and take hold across Europe.
The Industrial Revolution, massive trade expansion and imperial endeavours aided in the crystallisation of a new class. This group we now call the “bourgeoise” or simply the capitalist class. But, as Marx and Engels wrote, capitalism was creating its own potential “gravedigger”. The working class, the source of the bosses’ profits, was drawn together in huge urban centres and had begun fighting back. The bourgeoisie needed a powerful state to uphold its rule at home and abroad. For example, from the beginning of the 19th century in Britain, we see the development of a permanent police force as a new instrument of coercion and control.
Today, no place on Earth is left untouched by capitalism. While states take on different forms, such as liberal democracies and authoritarian states, they’re all for the rule of one class over another.
From the 20th century in Britain, the capitalist state proclaims itself to be democratic, with universal suffrage meaning government is “of the people, for the people”. But spending 15 minutes to put an X in a box every five years is a highly limited form of democracy. Parliamentary democracy leaves the major economic decisions in the control of big business, not working class people. There is little accountability to the voters by the British parliament. And, aside from MPs, most of the positions within the state from judges and generals to police chiefs are part of vast unelected and powerful bureaucracies. We do not vote for positions within civil services which time and time again work hand in glove with big businesses.
After the Second World War, the state greatly expanded social provisions. Movements from below and the horrors of war caused the state to expand the role of healthcare, welfare and education. A senior Tory warned in 1943, “If you don’t give the people social reform, they will give you social revolution.’
However, these functions of the state can still serve capital accumulation. Universal healthcare means that workers are healthier, and therefore more productive and efficient. The education system helps to ensure a skilled and educated workforce that’s required by modern capitalism. It also serves an ideological role for our rulers, bolstering capitalist ideology and narratives about British history and so-called “British values”. While workers benefit from these reforms, they don’t alter the class nature of the capitalist state.
Some states have taken on a more liberal veneer. The “special bodies of armed men” became special bodies of armed men and women. Our states may look more progressive, but when we challenge their power, it is the state’s instruments that clamp down upon us. The president of the US might say, “Black Lives Matter,” but at the same time sanction the bombing is black people abroad. It remains an instrument for the rule of one class over another.
Marx’s changing views on the state
Many argue that society needs a state to maintain social order. The early bourgeois philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries would put this down to “human nature”. This was a common argument during the time Karl Marx was alive, and is still popular today.
When Marx began writing in the 1830s, he saw the state as standing above the conflicts in “civil society” and representing the “common interests” of citizens. He was influenced by the ideas of the philosopher GWF Hegel and was one of his more radical followers, known as the Young Hegelians. Marx lived within a feudal Germany, controlled by absolutist monarchies. And he looked towards the French Revolution, and in its shadow wished to create a democratic republic in Germany.
But Marx’s understanding of the state changed as his class analysis of society deepened. In the 1830s he was in alliance with liberal capitalists, pushing for democratic reforms. But he soon saw that the old landowners, and the new industrialists, had a class interest in preserving private property. This means that the working class cannot simply use the state to implement a socialist transformation of society.
Marx’s views on the state were influenced by the Paris Commune of 1871, when workers briefly took power and created the first workers’ government. He said the Commune showed that the “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes”. “The next attempt of the French Revolution will no longer be, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another,” he argued. It will be “to smash it”.
In revolutions, workers class people have set up their own democratic bodies that can become alternative organs of political rule. In Russia, it was the soviets (workers’ councils), set up in the course of the revolution. The same was seen momentarily during the Iranian revolution in the 1970s with workers’ “shoras”. These were based upon workers controlling their workplaces democratically. We are starting to see the same in Sudan today with resistance committees.
These councils are the first step in workers seizing control of their workplaces, or as Marx put it, “seizing the means of production”. They are the first steps in creating a better society. And, if they come together and seize power like in Russia, they can be the basis of a workers’ state.
Why will we need a workers’ state?
We must ask, “What is the role of the state beyond capitalism?” Immediately after a socialist revolution, we do not fall into a communist society without class. A revolution would deprive capitalists of their social power after workers seize the means of production from them. But we would still have to deal with the disgruntled capitalists who would be desperate to retake control, and capitalist classes in other states where revolution hasn’t succeeded yet. We saw this bitterly after the Russian Revolution of 1917 in the “civil war”. Fourteen imperialist armies from across the world, including Britain and the US, invaded and fought alongside the “Whites” to regain control. So, simply put, we’ll need a way of fighting this counter-revolutionary force.
The rule of one class over the other will continue, but it will be the rule of the workers over the remaining capitalist class. In a capitalist state, violence and force is exercised by a minority of professional killers over the majority. Cops, for example, are trained to obey the orders of the capitalist state, riddled with ruling class ideas such as racism and taught to see working class communities as “suspect”. In a workers’ state, there wouldn’t be armed groups separated off from the mass of workers. And any workers’ militia would be run by directly-elected representatives of the mass of workers, not an unaccountable officer corp.
This new state is based upon workers’ democracy, using the organs of workers’ power that we see before the revolution. Without workers’ democracy, it cannot be a workers’ state. We saw that with the Stalinist counter-revolution in Russia, which abolished workers’ control and turned Russia into a state capitalist society.
What we must stress is that the worker’s state does not need to exist permanently, instead it will “wither away”. The old ruling classes will disappear as socialism takes hold of the world, with internationalism and the rule of workers replacing the previous order. The tools employed by the worker’s state to repress the counter-revolutionary forces will fall into irrelevance, as there will eventually be no counter-revolutionary forces to repress.
This is what Marx and Engels called the “withering away of the state”. Engels wrote, “State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies out of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things.” There wouldn’t be any need for coercion, just mechanisms for the workers’ councils to decide how to produce and allocate to meet human needs.
Crime will fall sharply under socialism, as people will have their needs met. With full employment and essentials, there will be no need to steal or commit robbery. Other crimes will also decrease such as reckless driving and vandalism as there will be more fulfilling activities that people can enjoy without cost. A socialist society would remove the social roots of other violent and oppressive crimes.
With over abundance and equal distribution money itself will disappear, however as Karl Marx says this will most likely be the last thing that withers away. Fundamentally we won’t need money as everything will be available to us immediately and at the point of access.
Marx wrote that a socialist society will be “to each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. This is our aim, a society based on justice and freedom that abolishes exploration and tears out the roots of oppression.
However, he also tells us there are “no ready-made utopias”—this is something we must forge ourselves from below. None of this will not be immediate but as the state withers away and the conditions of socialism advance, it will become a reality.
The state was born thousands of years ago. It gained power and today is the rifle on the back of capitalism. It will fight tooth and nail to stop workers from taking power. We will smash this state, then too when the antagonisms of class society are reconciled, the worker’s state will wither away and die. Vladimir Lenin puts it best, “So long as there is a state there will be no freedom. When there will be freedom, there will be no state.”
Vladimir Lenin, The State and Revolution and The State, a lecture. You can find links to both on the Ideas & Theory section of our website.
Tony Cliff, Lenin 3, The Revolution Betrayed
John Molyneux, Anarchism a Marxist Criticism
John Molyneux, The Future Socialist Society
Gareth Jenkins, The Worker’s State, Socialist Review