The withering away of the state is a concept that places classical Marxism in a differentiating position in socialist political thought from both the statism of other forms of socialism and the antistatism of anarchism.
Marxism views the state as an instrument with which one social class maintains its power over other social classes. A socialist revolution therefore requires the destruction of the capitalist state by the working class. However, the working class will need its own state (the “dictatorship of the proletariat”) to consolidate its power and move toward a communist society, but such a social order will abolish social classes and thereby undermine the need for a specialized state structure. As a result, the state will progressively “wither away,” as expressed by nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Engels in Part 3, Chapter 2, of Anti-Duhring:
The interference of the state power in social relations becomes superfluous in one sphere after another, and then ceases of itself. The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things and the direction of the processes of production. The state is not “abolished,” it withers away.
This concept of a withering away of the state reflects a tension within Engels’s and nineteenth-century German philosopher Karl Marx’s views between a deep antistatism and a belief that a state structure is needed in the transition from capitalist to communist society. The antistatism view is expressed throughout the philosophers’ work, taking its sharpest form in Marx’s writings on the French state. The latter view of a necessary state structure emerged whenever they outlined a concrete program for the working class, as in Marx’s 1848 The Communist Manifesto.
Marx and Engels attempted to resolve this tension: first, by insisting that the existing state had to be destroyed; second, by advocating its replacement by a workers’ “semistate” based on the model of the Paris Commune that minimized repressive functions and bureaucracy; and, third, by arguing that even this limited state form would eventually disappear. (This all depended on a major development of the productive forces and the collapse of the division between mental and physical labor—the social foundation of bureaucracy.)
The logic of this approach rests on two problematic assumptions: first, that the state is dominated by its repressive functions (and hence the need for it will decline once social conflict is marginalized); and second, that under socialism public functions can be reduced to “administration” based on rational calculus, without the intrusion of social interests and values. As several contemporary writers have pointed out, this is closer to the views of Engels (and, following him, Russian Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin) than those of Marx, but the issues seem not to have been explored sufficiently during their lifetimes to expose tangible differences.
This attitude toward the state differentiated Marxism sharply from anarchism, which shared Marxism’s hostility to the capitalist state. However, anarchists saw the repressive character of the state as inherent by its very nature rather than as a product of its connection to class society. Moreover, they believed that it was possible to move immediately to decentralized and cooperative social institutions once the oppressive state has been overthrown and were highly suspicious of any discussion of creating a postrevolutionary state, suspecting that it would recreate elitist institutions and new forms of exploitation.
Somewhat surprisingly, given the later development of the Soviet Union, Lenin vigorously embraced the concept of the withering away of the state. In his classic 1917 State and Revolution, Lenin emphasized the need to “smash” the existing state machine and replace it with a minimally bureaucratic state, also modeled on the Paris Commune. The actual development of the Soviet state followed a very different course, which its leaders justified both by the need for defense against internal and external enemies and the tasks of socialist construction. Lenin however continued to be concerned by the bureaucratization of the state and before his death tried to champion institutions like the Workers and Peasants Inspectorate as a counterweight. Despite the accelerating bureaucratization of Soviet society under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, the issue persisted in Soviet Marxist discourse. As late as 1939, in his “Report to the Eighteenth Party Congress,” Stalin found it necessary to argue against the idea that the socialist state should “die away,” justifying its role by the “capitalist encirclement” of the Soviet Union and asserting that under such circumstances the state would continue even into mature communism.
- Avineri, Shlomo. The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968.
- Bloom, Solomon F. “The ‘Withering Away’ of the State.” In Karl Marx’s Social and Political Thought.Volume VII:The State, Politics, and Civil Society edited by Bob Jessop, 131–140. London: Routledge, 1999.
- Ehrenberg, John H. “Dialectics of Dictatorship: Marx and the Proletarian State.” In Karl Marx’s Social and Political Thought. Volume VII: The State, Politics and Civil Society edited by Bob Jessop, 646–661. London: Routledge, 1999.
- Engels, Frederick. Anti-Dühring. Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science, 1996, marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring.
- Hunt, Richard N. The Political Ideas of Marx and Engels: II. Classical Marxism 1850–95. London: Macmillan, 1984.
- Lenin,Vladimir. I. State and Revolution. London: Penguin, 2009.
- Marx, Karl. “The Critique of the Gotha Programme.” In the First International and After: Political Writings Volume 3, edited by David Fernbach. London: Penguin, 1992.
- The First International and After: Political Writings Volume 3. Edited by David Fernbach. London: Penguin, 1992.
- Sawer, Marian. “The Genesis of State and Revolution” The Socialist Register 14 (1977): 209–227.
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