Marx's theory of the state

Karl Marx's ideas about the state can be divided into three subject areas: pre-capitalist states, states in the capitalist (i.e. present) era and the state (or absence of one) in post-capitalist society. Overlaying this is the fact that his own ideas about the state changed as he grew older, differing in his early pre-communist phase, the young Marx phase which predates the unsuccessful 1848 uprisings in Europe and in his mature, more nuanced work.

Bourgeois state

In Marx's 1843 Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, his basic conception is that the state and civil society are separate. However, he already saw some limitations to that model, arguing:

By the time he wrote The German Ideology (1846), Marx viewed the state as a creature of the bourgeois economic interest. Two years later, that idea was expounded in The Communist Manifesto:[2]

This represents the high point of conformance of the state theory to an economic interpretation of history in which the forces of production determine peoples' production relations and their production relations determine all other relations, including the political.[4][5][6] Although "determines" is the strong form of the claim, Marx also uses "conditions". Even "determination" is not causality and some reciprocity of action is admitted. The bourgeoisie control the economy, therefore they control the state. In this theory, the state is an instrument of class rule.

The Communist Manifesto

The Communist Manifesto was a short polemical work; more detail on the theories concerned can be obtained by going back to The German Ideology.[6][7]


By the early 1850s, political events in Europe, which he covered in articles for the New-York Daily Tribune as well as a number of more substantial pieces, were forcing Marx to modify his theory to allow considerably more autonomy for the state. By 1851, the mid-century rebellions had all given way to conservatism the principal countries of Europe had autocratic or aristocratic governments, namely Napoleon III in France, Frederick Wilhelm IV in Germany and in England a parliament populated mainly by members of the aristocratic class, whether Whig or Conservative. Yet at the same time, the bourgeoisie had economic power in places. For Marx, this was clearly an anomalous situation and gave it considerable attention.[8]

His solution is what Jon Elster has described as the "abdication" or "abstention" theory.[9] It contends that the bourgeoisie found that the advantages of wielding direct power were under the circumstances outweighed by various costs and disadvantages, so they were willing to tolerate an aristocratic or despotic government as long as it did not act too detrimentally to their interests. Marx makes several points. Regarding England, he says of the bourgeoisie that "if the aristocracy is their vanishing opponent the working class is their arising enemy. They prefer to compromise with the vanishing opponent rather than to strengthen the rising enemy, to whom the future belongs".[10]

Marx also suggests that it would be better for the bourgeoisie not to wield power directly because this would make their dominance too obvious, creating a clear target for proletarian attack.[11] It is better to make the workers fight a "two front war" (Elster) against the aristocracy in government and the bourgeoisie in the economy. Among other things, this would make it difficult for the proletarians to form a clear conception of who was their principal enemy. Regarding France, he suggests that the bourgeoisie recognized that they had been better off under the monarchy (1830–1848) than during the brief period when they wielded power themselves (1848–1851) "since they must now confront the subjugated classes and contend against them without mediation, without the concealment afforded by the crown".[12]


  1. Separation but with limitations: Evans, p 112. The quote is from the Critique, p 115, in Evans, p 112.
  2. Marx, Karl; Engels, Friedrich (1848). The Communist Manifesto. "Chapter I. Bourgeois and Proletarians". Marxists Internet Archive. Retrieved 10 August 2019.
  3. The sentence is about a quarter of the way through Chapter I: "Bourgeois and Proletarians".
  4. Marx, Karl; Engels, Friederich. "The German Ideology: Chapter 1 - On Feuerbach". Retrieved 2 October 2018.
  5. Marx, Karl. "Economic Manuscripts: Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy". Retrieved 2 October 2018.
  6. Marx, Karl. "The German Ideology. Chapter Three: Saint Max". Retrieved 2 October 2018.
  7. Blunden, Andy. "MECW File Not Found". Retrieved 2 October 2018.
  8. Evans, p 126: "for Marx the failure of the bourgeoisie to act as a ruling class, to give their economic power political substance, was one of the major features of the post-1848 situation, as true of England and France as of Germany."
  9. Elster, Chap 8.
  10. "The Chartists", New York Daily Tribune, 25 August 1852; in Evans, p 126.
  11. Evans, p 116. He cites Eighteenth Brumaire of Lous Napoleon.
  12. Marx, Karl (1852) [1963]. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York: International Publishers. p 49. In Elster, p. 147.


  • Evans, Michael (1975). Karl Marx. London.
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