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Full Marx What is the ‘withering away’ of the state?

Just as each country will find its own way to socialism along a path conditioned by historical and geographical circumstance, so, within socialism, each state will ‘wither’ in different ways, argues the MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY

MOST socialists will probably have wondered at some time or other what life would be like, what form society might take, in communism.  

Most of us also realise that we’re unlikely ever to know the answer.

Socialist states, past and present, were and are just that — socialist, not communist, although communist parties have generally played an important role in achieving them.  

Within socialism, a state is necessary to ensure that society functions “for the many, not the few” and to protect the gains of a revolution from still powerful internal and external forces that would seek to destroy them.  

The last century is littered with examples of the way that socialist administrations throughout the world have been undermined or destroyed by subversion, economic sanctions and direct military intervention.  

And things haven’t been helped by past mistakes and distortions within socialist states themselves.  

Marxists have always made a distinction between socialist and communist societies.  

Marx himself wrote that “the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production.”  

Class struggle, he argued, “necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat” — a state organised in the interests of the working class as a whole, ie socialism.  

But “this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.”

From their analysis of history and in particular from the experience of the French Revolution (1789-99), the defeat of the European “people’s spring” of 1848 and the collapse of the Paris Commune in 1871, Marx and Engels argued against both those who advocated a gradual or piecemeal transformation of the state and against anarchists who called for its immediate abolition.  

In both cases, they argued, powerful interests, internal and external, would subvert and destroy the revolution. Lenin, in his The State and Revolution (1917) made the same argument. 

All said next to nothing about what they thought a communist society might be like. As Engels declared, “A perfect society, a perfect ‘state,’ are things which can exist only in imagination.”

The distinctive contribution of Marxism has been not to sketch any “ideal” society but, rather, to analyse how society as it exists today is inherently exploitative and unstable and to show that another world is possible and how we can begin to secure it.  

That classless, communist society would be one in which the state would no longer be necessary — it would have “withered away.”  

The term was coined by Engels to emphasise that, with the realisation of socialism, the institution of a state and its coercive apparatus will become progressively obsolete and eventually disappear.  

Marx and Engels made a distinction between “state power in social relations” on the one hand and “the administration of things and the conduct of processes of production” on the other.  

It would be the former — “the government of persons,” including the Civil Service (with its close ties with economic elites), security services, the military, the legal system, and financial services — that would need to be transformed under socialism, eventually becoming “superfluous in one sphere after another and then cease of itself.”  

Other aspects of the state — the “administration of things,” national and local — would continue, but under democratic control in the interests of people as a whole.  

Since Marx and Engels wrote and particularly in the decades following the second world war, working-class struggles initially secured important growth in this area of state activity, including a National Health Service, education, pensions and welfare services, housing, water and energy supply, transport and environmental and consumer protection.  

It is precisely these public services, local and national, that have been constantly under attack by the representatives of capital, the political right who, at the same time as supporting the coercive aspects of state power, are so busy “shrinking the state” in the interests of power and profit.  

Where direct privatisation has proved impossible, obligations have been transferred to local authorities or unelected quangos and funding has simultaneously been cut.  

The Tories’ “bonfire of regulations” and regulatory capture, as monitoring and enforcement have been abandoned by statutory agencies, has taken on a new meaning since the Grenfell disaster.  

The new book Who Stole the Town Hall? by Morning Star contributor Peter Latham vividly demonstrates how the power of local government has been shrunk by the national state and hollowed out by the private sector.  

For Marxists, the “withering away” of the state means something quite different.  

It is at the same time both the most fundamental and the most speculative element of Marx and Engels’s work.  

It is to do with human nature and with the relations of humans to nature and to each other. It is to do with the potential of the human species once the distortions and limitations of class society have been overcome.  

These are topics we’ll examine in subsequent answers. Here, let’s let Marx and Engels speak for themselves. 

In 1844 a 26-year-old Marx wrote: “This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism and, as fully developed humanism, equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between humans and nature and between human and human … between the individual and the species. Communism is the riddle of history solved.” 

Forty years later, his colleague Engels wrote: “The society which organises production anew on the basis of free and equal association of the producers will put the whole state machinery where it will then belong — into the museum of antiquities, next to the spinning wheel and the bronze axe.”  

And their Communist Manifesto, written 160 years ago, announced: “In place of the old bourgeois society with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” 

Just as each country will find its own way to socialism along a path conditioned by historical and geographical circumstance, so, within socialism, each state will “wither” in different ways.  

In Britain the still strong trade union movement, our long traditions of political engagement, public participation, community involvement and voluntary action will be considerably expanded and could facilitate the progressive transition towards communism.

Dr Jonathan White will lead three fortnightly classes, starting Tuesday May 22 on Reading Capital at the Marx Memorial Library, which will provide an introduction to the book itself and how to read it. For more information visit


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