Marx’s ideas about government

Marx had something of a theory of politics and somewhat less of a theory of government. The slogan “the capitalist state serves as the managing committee of the bourgeoisie” represents the simplest version of his view of the state. He generally regarded government and law as an expression of class interests.

That said, Marx was not much of an organizational thinker. He had literally nothing to say about the workings of real governments — the British state or the French state, for example, and nothing to say about the ministries and bureaus through which the affairs of government worked. When he mentioned politicians in any European country it was as particular individuals rather than as functionaries. And yet it is crucial to understand government — including nineteenth century European governments — as bureaucracies organizing the flows of revenue, regulations, information, and coercion. Marx added essentially nothing to this task.

What Marx most likely would have asserted is that the existence of bureaucracy in government is a second-order factor, and that the main event is the existence and use of political power through the tools of state action. How precisely this is implemented was not of scientific interest to Marx, and he believed he had a more fundamental understanding of the orientation and workings of government. This is his view that political power derives from class privilege and state organs act in support of class interests.

Most of Marx’s ideas about the state and government were formulated during the years surrounding the revolutions of 1848. Here are a few important passages from Marx’s writings in the 1840s and 1950s. This is the full passage about the “managing committee of the bourgeoisie” from the Communist Manifesto:

Each step in the development of the bourgeoisie was accompanied by a corresponding political advance of that class. An oppressed class under the sway of the feudal nobility, an armed and self-governing association in the medieval commune: here independent urban republic (as in Italy and Germany); there taxable “third estate” of the monarchy (as in France); afterwards, in the period of manufacturing proper, serving either the semi-feudal or the absolute monarchy as a counterpoise against the nobility, and, in fact, cornerstone of the great monarchies in general, the bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway. The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels,Communist Manifesto

And here is his account of the establishment of the French “bourgeois republic” following the Revolution of 1848:

Upon the bourgeois monarchy of Louis Philippe, only the bourgeois republic could follow; that is to say, a limited portion of the bourgeoisie, having ruled under the name of the king, now the whole bourgeoisie was to rule under the name of the people. The demands of the Parisian proletariat are Utopian tom-fooleries that have to be done away with. To this declaration of the constitutional national assembly, the Paris proletariat answers with the June insurrection, the most colossal event in the history of European civil wars. The bourgeois republic won. On its side stood the aristocracy of finance, the industrial bourgeoisie; the middle class; the small traders’ class; the army; the slums, organized as Guarde Mobile; the intellectual celebrities, the parsons’ class, and the rural population…. 

The defeat of the June insurgents prepared, leveled the ground, upon which the bourgeois republic could be founded and erected; but it, at the same time showed that there are in Europe other issues besides that of “Republic or Monarchy.” It revealed the fact that here the BOURGEOIS REPUBLIC meant the unbridled despotism of one class over another. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, p. 10, 11

The view here is perfectly clear — Marx describes the Republic of 1848 as the naked expression of the economic interests of the bourgeoisie, imposed on the whole of society through control of the state.

The epoch between December 20, 1848, and the dissolution of the constitutional assembly in May, 1849, embraces the history of the downfall of the bourgeois republicans. After they had founded a republic for the bourgeoisie, had driven the revolutionary proletariat from the field, and had meanwhile silenced the democratic middle class, they are themselves shoved aside by the mass of the bourgeoisie, who justly appropriate this republic as their property. This bourgeois mass was ROYALIST, however. A part thereof, the large landed proprietors, had ruled under the restoration, hence, was LEGITIMIST; the other part, the aristocrats of finance and the large industrial capitalists, had ruled under the July monarchy, hence, was ORLEANIST. The high functionaries of the Army, of the University, of the Church, in the civil service, of the Academy and of the press, divided them selves on both sides, although in unequal parts. Here, in the bourgeois republic, that bore neither the name of BOURBON, nor of ORLEANS, but the name of CAPITAL, they had found the form of government under which they could all rule in common. Already the June insurrection had united them all into a “Party of Order.” Eighteenth Brumaire, p. 18

Significantly, Marx’s analysis of the few crucial years of French political history between 1848 and 1851 focuses entirely on segments of the propertied classes who vied for power in the National Assembly. Landowners want X, small owners want Y, large industrial owners want W, financiers want Z; and the individuals and parties representing these segments compete for power. And the actions of government reflect the goals and strategies of the strongest parties. Here is Marx’s description of the crucial manipulation of the Constitution’s election rules for the election of a president:

The law of May 31, 1850, was the “coup d’etat” of the bourgeoisie. All its previous conquests over the revolution had only a temporary character: They became uncertain the moment the National Assembly stepped off the stage; they depended upon the accident of general elections, and the history of the elections since 1848 proved irrefutably that, in the same measure as the actual reign of the bourgeoisie gathered strength, its moral reign over the masses wore off. Universal suffrage pronounced itself on.May 10 pointedly against the reign bourgeoisie; the bourgeoisie answered with the banishment of universal suffrage. The law of May 31 was, accordingly, one of the necessities of the class struggle. On the other hand, the constitution required a minimum of two million votes for the valid election of the President of the republic. If none of the Presidential candidates polled this minimum, then the National Assembly was to elect the President out of the three candidates polling the highest votes. At the time that the constitutive body made this law, ten million voters were registered on the election rolls. Eighteenth Brumaire, p. 39

And, significantly, Marx describes this period of government as representing a coalition of two major groups of property owners, landed property and manufacture:

The parliamentary republic was more than a neutral ground on which the two factions of the French bourgeoisie— Legitimists and Orleanists, large landed property and manufacture— could lodge together with equal rights. It was the indispensable condition for their common reign, the only form of government in which their common class interest could dominate both the claims of their separate factions and all the other classes of society. As royalists, they relapsed into their old antagonism: into the struggle for the overlordship of either landed property or of money; and the highest expression of this antagonism, its personification, were the two kings themselves, their dynasties. Hence the resistance of the party of Order to the recall of the Bourbons. Eighteenth Brumaire, p. 54

But the INDUSTRIAL BOURGEOISIE also, in its fanaticism for order, was annoyed at the quarrels of the Parliamentary party of Order with the Executive. Thiers, Anglas, Sainte Beuve, etc., received, after their vote of January 18, on the occasion of the discharge of Changarnier, public reprimands from their constituencies, located in the industrial districts, branding their coalition with the Mountain as an act of high treason to the cause of order. Although, true enough, the boastful, vexatious and petty intrigues, through which the struggle of the party of Order with the President manifested it self, deserved no better reception, yet notwithstanding, this bourgeois party, that expects of its representatives to allow the military power to pass without resistance out of the hands of their own Parliament into those of an adventurous Pretender, is not worth even the intrigues that were wasted in its behalf. It showed that the struggle for the maintenance of their public interests, of their class interests, of their political power only incommoded and displeased them, as a disturbance of their private business…. Business being brisk, as still at the beginning of 1851, the commercial bourgeoisie stormed against every Parliamentary” strife, lest business be put out of temper. Business being dull, as from the end of February, 1851, on, the bourgeoisie accused thee Parliamentary strifes as the cause of the stand-still, and clamored for quiet in order that business may revive. Eighteenth Brumaire, p. 58-59

Again, we find the same idea of the managing committee of (dominant factions of) the propertied classes.

This is a particularly reductionist interpretation of politics. It suggests a thoroughly mechanistic relationship between class interests and the actions of the state. Politicians are the creatures of various propertied interests, and their actions are dictated by their patrons. But towards the end of the Eighteenth Brumaire Marx gives a nod to the complexity and size of government:

This Executive power, with its tremendous bureaucratic and military organization; with its wide-spreading and artificial machinery of government — an army of office-holders, half a million strong, together with a military force of another million men— ; this fearful body of parasites, that coils itself like a snake around French society, stopping all its pores, originated at the time of the absolute monarchy, along with the decline of feudalism, which it helped to hasten. The princely privileges of the landed proprietors and cities were transformed into so many attributes of the Executive power; the feudal dignitaries into paid office-holders; and the confusing design of conflicting medieval seigniories, into the well regulated plan of a government, whose work is subdivided and centralized as in the factory…. Napoleon completed this governmental machinery. Eighteenth Brumaire, p. 69

This clearly presents a topic for study: how does this “machinery of government” work? What is the social ontology of the ministries, offices, and agencies of government? Further, Marx raises a point that Nicos Poulantzas eventually characterizes as the “relative autonomy of the capitalist state”:

Nevertheless, under the absolute monarchy, during the first revolution, and under Napoleon, the bureaucracy was only the means whereby to prepare the class rule of the bourgeoisie; under the restoration, under Louis Philippe, and under the parliamentary republic, it was the instrument of the ruling class, however eagerly this class strained after autocracy. Not before the advent of the second Bonaparte does the government seem to have made itself fully independent. The machinery of government has by this time so thoroughly fortified itself against society, that the chief of the “Society of December 10” is thought good enough to be at its head a fortune-hunter, run in from abroad, is raised on its shield by a drunken soldiery, bought by himself with liquor and sausages, and whom he is forced ever again to throw sops to. Hence the timid despair, the sense of crushing humiliation and degradation that oppresses the breast of France and makes her to choke. She feels dishonored. Eighteenth Brumaire, p. 70

According to this passage, the government of Napoleon III has a degree of autonomy from the propertied interests of his period. “The machinery of government has by this time … thoroughly fortified itself against society.” This idea too points to a more sophisticated understanding of the “machinery of government.” This opens the door to a more nuanced theory of politics, including the possibility that other groups in society (environmentalists, workers, right-wing nationalists) may position themselves in ways that have substantial effect on the actions of government.

Here is Robert Paul Resch’s description of Poulantzas’s theory of relative autonomy in Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory (329-330):

Poulantzas also seeks to explain how the capitalist state directly serves the interests of the capitalist class while being formally separated from the economy and from the direct control of the capitalists. Poulantzas’s concept of the capitalist state is premised on its relative autonomy with respect to the economy and the fact that “it is this autonomy which, as a constant invariant, regulates the variations of intervention and non-intervention of the political in the economic, and of the economic in the political” (Poulantzas 1973, 143). The general concept of a class state, Poulantzas reminds us, does not require that the state be the direct instrument of the dominant class but only that it legitimize and reproduce the conditions and relations of domination and exploitation by which the ruling class is constituted. In capitalist social formations these conditions are defined by the existence of surplus value and the irresistible impetus to accumulate it that occurs when private property exists and labor power is completely commodified. Furthermore, in capitalist social formations, the members of the dominant class are in economic competition with each other, and their competing interests render them incapable of governing directly or with unanimity. Their only common interests, Poulantzas concludes, are that the exploited class be politically fragmented and that the existence of propertyless laborers “free” to sell their labor power be perpetuated.

Poulantzas argues that the peculiar characteristics of the capitalist mode of production do not require a state that directly represents the economic interests of the ruling classes; rather, they require a state that represents their political interest. However democratic a capitalist state may appear to be, Poulantzas maintains that it always functions as “the dominant class’s political power center, the organizing agent of their political struggles” (Poulantzas 1973, 190). The state accomplishes this function by redefining agents of production, distributed in classes, as political subjects, distributed as individuals. The result is an effect of “individual isolation” that is then projected back, via the legal system, from the political realm into the economy to mask the existence of class relationships. The capitalist state is both the source and guarantor of the “rights” of isolated political subjects and thus of its own function of representing the unity of these isolated relations, that is, the body politic of “the people” and “the nation.” In other words, “the state represents the unity of an isolation which because of the role played by the ideological, is largely its own effect. This double function of isolating [individuals] and representing [their] unity is reflected in the internal contradictions in the structure of the state” (Poulantzas 1973, 134).

(Rereading The Eighteenth Brumaire creates a little bit of a sense of what Marx was getting at when he wrote in the first sentence of the essay that “Hegel says somewhere that all great historic facts and personages recur twice. He forgot to add: ‘Once as tragedy, and again as farce.'” The lawlessness and recklessness of the current US president resonates with Marx’s narrative of Napoléon le petit, in Victor Hugo’s phrase.)

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