A stateless society: a Marxist utopia?

Nowadays, the State  plays a central role in our societies, economy and daily life. However it wasn’t always the case. Different schools of thought have been thinking on the way to establish a society without state, like the anarchist. With the rise of the Marxism, another theory emerged, believing in the ideal of a society without state, at the proletariat’s hands.  The expression “withering away of the state” was created by Engels to explain his Marxist theory about the natural disappearance of the State, no longer useful in a society ruled by itself. But since its theorizing by the Marxist the “withering away of the state”’s theory had never been really achieved, despite several attempts.

One of the reasons is the necessary establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which has has been at the origin of many deviations, especially with Stalin’s Soviet regime. Which leads to the question of the credibility of this theoretical model and the viability of such a stateless society. The possibility of the natural establishment of a modern stateless society has been debated for a long time, including by materialist Marxist theorists, different interpretations and analysis have been proposed, but still represents a notorious challenge for the modern Marxist materialist state theory today.

One of the best-known attempts of Soviet socialist revolutions led to an authoritarian, even totalitarian regime (1929-1936), with an all-powerful state, controlling all aspects of the lives of its citizens, social, economic, political, and even religious, and imprisoning or executing its political detractors. Ultimately, the Soviet government is responsible during its 68 years of existence as head of the USSR for the death of about 15 million of its citizens.

Yet Marxist theory considers the state as an institution of oppression of the proletariat for the benefit of the bourgeoisie and believes in the inevitable emergence of a stateless social organization based on the abolition of private ownership of the means of production and exchange in favour of collective ownership and based on the pooling of the means of production. In order to achieve this final aim, the State should disappear : it’s the “withering away of the state”.

This expression was created by Engels to explain his Marxist theory about the natural disappearance of the State, no longer useful in a society ruled by itself : “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” 1(Frederick Engels, 1871). This -apparently – contradiction can only be understood and contradicted by a deeper examination of the theory of the “withering away of the state” and of the materialistic Marxist thought going in this direction.

Nowadays, the State plays a central role in our societies, economy and daily life. A stateless society would seem impossible to establish, let alone to maintain. Indeed, according to the Weberian definition of the state, it is a “human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence within a given territory” 2. By ensuring this monopoly, the State makes it possible to ensure the security of all these citizens, and thus enable a society to prosper. In view of the crucial importance of the state in relation to society, one can therefore question the credibility of the “withering away of the state”’s theory of and the viability of its implementation.

Does the theory of “withering away of the State” reflect only a materialistic Marxist utopia which is impossible to realize or is it a theory that can be thought of in the application to practice? The purpose of this work will be to analyse the theory of “withering away of the state” and to place it within the more general framework of the Marxist materialist vision of the relationship between society, classes and the state. Particular attention will be paid to the ideological dimension of the theory and its relationship with the fundamental writings of Marxism.

According to the Marxist theory, and especially Friedrich Engels, a society without state is completely possible and is actually the natural outcome of the class struggle. Engels had already in The German Ideology (1847) laid the foundations for a theoretical critique of the State, with a materialistic historical point of view, criticizing the existence of the state. On the basis of Engel’s theory, as described in particular in the Anti-Dühring, the post-revolutionary establishment of an extremely powerful state in the hands of the proletarians is part of a necessary step towards the disappearance of the state, those who can explain the apparent contradiction raised at the beginning (see above).

The proletariat takes over the power of state and its means of production, the classes are abolished and the Stats has no longer any role to play in the communist society : it disappears from itself (on the opposite of the anarchist theory, where the state disappearance results from a -most often – violent action). The “dictatorship of the proletariat”, is just a compulsory step of this process of transitory form between a society ruled by a (capitalistic) Sate to stateless society.

However, the total disappearance of the state has never been achieved, due to shortcomings, especially in previous attempts. If Engels provides for the suppression of the state, it is above all the suppression of the bourgeois state, as it is known today. Indeed, it would have become useless, no longer being able to perform its oppressive and coercive functions, because the population would have become self-managed. However, the theory seems to be based on a utopian, even naive, vision of this new society where evil and crime would seem to be banished seeming to discredit his theory, especially in regard of previous experience in the past.

Lenin’s belief of this perfect society, where “there will be need for any exact calculation by Society of the quantity of products to be distributed to each of its member; each will take freely according to his needs”. The right functioning of this new society should therefore be based on the goodwill and honesty of individuals. An alternative to the total disappearance of bodies ensuring the security and the functioning of society would have to be studied : the withering of the state should be limited to its function as a tool of capital and its nature as a centralized institution of power. A decentralization of power, the takeover of political life by civil society of the various political and administrative bodies, are essential3.

The different stages of the withering away of the state according to Engels and the “dictatorship of the proletariat”:   This “withering away of the state” can only take place in a society, after a socialistic revolution appears. A compulsory step of these processes is the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, a transitory form of State, who appears right after the victory of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie. Its role is to avoid any capitalistic counter-revolution and to turn the economy on socialism. Even if this “dictatorship of the proletariat” can appear extreme it has the justification of being democratic, because being supported by the majority over a minority.

This new form of state is not, as such, part of the communist program, it’s not an end in itself, deliberately create d: if there were only one class of proletarians in the society, the state would have any use, it wouldn’t be needed ; This last government is not a deliberate choice of the proletariat but a necessity imposed by the inevitable course of history. Faced with this fatality, the proletariat must adapt to it and use it in its favour, to lead the new proletarian society as it sees fit.

This new position must above all be reflected in the protection of the revolution against opponents of the proletariat, and therefore against the enemies of society : “As the state is only a transitional institution which is used in the struggle, in the revolution, to hold down one’s adversaries by force, it is sheer nonsense to talk of a ‘free people’s state’; so long as the proletariat still needs the state, it does not need it in the interests of freedom but in order to hold down its adversaries, and as soon as it becomes possible to speak of freedom the state as such ceases to exist. “ 4

The state is a necessary tool for the organization of the political life (Rosa Luxembourg) 5 : “by denying the representative bodies that have arisen in the general popular elections, Lenin and Trotsky installed the Soviets as the only ones authentic representation of the working masses. But with the suffocation of political life throughout the country, the lives of the Soviets themselves will not be able to escape widespread paralysis. Without general elections, unlimited freedom of the press and assembly, free struggle for various opinions, life is extinguished from any political institution and only the bureaucracy triumphs “.

There are many example in the history of communities who self-managed themselves without the existence of a state entity, where the authority was not very centralized, such as in Ancient Mesopotamia. In “Society Against the State”, the French anthropologist and ethnologist Pierre Clastres studied the South American rainforest natives and noticed that there weren’t any form of state among them, and even among their chief, and at no time does Clastres notice a physical constraint exercised by them (Clastres, 1974. Clastres thus demonstrates that these so-called “primitive” societies are in fact entirely directed in their social organization towards the desire for the absence of a State, which is why he speaks of “societies against the State” and not of “societies without a State).

But J.-W. Lapierre in 1977 contradicted him by noticing that there is no institutional violence in these societies because it is exercised in the daily life of social relationships. The coercive role of the state is internalized by the whole community/society, which thus exercises it outside any state apparatus.

In order to be able to answer the problem, a careful examination of the founding texts of Marxism will be carried out, paying particular attention to Engels’s texts. The materialistic notion of these writings, as well as the utopian dimension of the project, should be noted. The historical context (notably the Paris Commune) and the lessons that Marxism draws from it in terms of the durability of an attempt at a stateless society has its importance and will help in the processes of answering the problematic.

Thanks to Lenin’s analyses of Engels’s writing, a lead could be open to understand the emerging drifts (which will strengthen and reach their apogee under Stalin) of the attempt to establish a stateless society.  Thus, by having identified the different interpretations and visions of the theories of state decline, we will be better able to give a nuanced answer, by projecting ourselves into practice. Finally, we will attempt to establish correlations between the various current criticisms, in the light of past failures, in order to deduce a practical application, in the materialistic spirit of Engels’ early writings, but without the utopianism of the post-USSR period.