Marxism and the State: Three Background Notes (Part One) — Akbar Rasulov

In one of the most easily Google-retrievable texts on the Marxist theory of the state (MTS), a 1999 essay written for an edited volume entitled Marxism and Social Science, Colin Hay, a former student of Bob Jessop, remarks that “Marxist state theorists–unlike, say, their feminist counterparts … –have rarely been called upon to offer … justification for their theoretical endeavours”. [1] The phrasing is unfortunate: the idea that the Marxist tradition enjoys some kind of relative intellectual immunity that has been unavailable to other traditions can at best be described as far-fetched. But the basic logic that informs Hay’s implied point of departure in this comment is certainly not without foundation: it does make sense to ask Marxist scholars to explain why they do what they do–to justify the basic course and form of their theoretical endeavours–in a way that would not make sense in the case, say, of a Kantian or Rawlsian liberal theorist.

To be sure, there is a long-standing internal consensus within the Marxist tradition that Marxism needs to have its own theory of the state. But what exactly are the reasons for this view? What is the actual point of MTS? What is MTS supposed to be able to do that other theories of the state cannot?

The answer to these questions is not hard to work out–at least in its general outline. Every theoretical project in the Marxist tradition is meant to be judged, ultimately, against the original benchmark set out in Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach–the point of all theoretical endeavours is to enable us to change the world–and Lenin’s ground-rule postulate about revolutionary theory being the indispensable prerequisite of revolutionary practice. [2] No branch of Marxist theory constitutes a self-contained, self-authorising enterprise. Theory in Marxism can never be understood as “just” a platform for pure thought, a space for serene, leisurely, politically detached intellectual exploration. The function of MTS, like that of Marxist economics and Marxist jurisprudence, is fundamentally organic and system-defined. Its sole purpose and reason for existence is to support, inform, and guide Marxist revolutionary practice.

All of this brings us, then, to an inevitable, though not very original, conclusion: to understand the theoretically specific character of MTS, to grasp the basic terms of its difference from all other traditions in the field of political theory, we have to approach it first and foremost as a practice-creating project. MTS is an activity that is essentially intended to facilitate the pursuit of another activity. It is an ideologically charged discursive intercourse whose principal aim and function is to help clear the ground for the realisation of a socially transformative, class-oriented, politically emancipatory intercourse.

What sort of revolutionary practices can MTS in its contemporary configuration best support and enable? Which emancipatory and transformative projects capable of being pursued in the current historical conjuncture may be most effectively advanced and facilitated by the critical insights of MTS? Whose work, whose actions, and whose struggles can MTS guide, inspire, and ideologically equip today?

None of these questions lends itself to quick or easy answers. One way to go about resolving them–a way that I believe is wrong but that is unfortunately not uncommon–would be to reduce them to a form of lazy sociology: to try to gauge, in a broadly empirical manner, “who reads what and how often”. How many members of which specific political movements, parties, trade unions, etc., in which countries and in which contexts, have recently drawn upon which particular elements of the broader Marxist legacy, under which circumstances and subject to which specific conditions? How many of them, say, have found inspiration in Lenin, how many in Rosa Luxemburg, how many in Mao’s Little Red Book? How often, when finding such inspiration, have they sought to combine whichever theoretical elements they drew from these sources with theoretical instruments and frameworks imported from elsewhere? What were the reasons they gave for doing so, how consciously and openly did they do it, etc.?

The reason why I believe going down this path would be a bad move is that as a theoretical strategy it is based upon a fundamentally untenable methodological assumption. Even if one discounts the possibility of faulty memory and inaccurate self-reporting, asking people which tools from a given toolbox they have recently been using the most can only tell us which tools currently happen to be used the most, nothing more. It cannot tell us which tools from that toolbox would actually be the best for someone in their position to use, or which tools objectively “have the greatest potential”. To presume otherwise would essentially be equivalent to declaring that there exists some kind of hidden providential mechanism that magically ensures that the fashionable is necessarily synonymous with the true and that the category of the “most popular” always coincides with that of the “most correct” (or that, in other words, the markets are always right and the best idea always wins and the idea that wins is always the best, etc.).

A much better way to go about resolving this challenge, I would like to suggest, would be to adopt a method of critical historical inquiry of a kind not dissimilar to that practised by the Marxist critique of classical German (idealist) philosophy. The basic plan here would be to try to map the internal potential of MTS as an ideological instrument onto the general structure of the surrounding social formation (and in particular its most prominent points of contradiction) by using the more general analytical tools and procedures of Marxist socio-theoretical inquiry, i.e. what in the old days used to be called the principles of historical materialism. The best way to begin this kind of endeavour would be to clarify the internal logic of the contemporary MTS debate as a historically determined discursive formation: to study, in other words, the general transformation of its structuring problématique and to map the evolution of its core theoretical framework by tracking the actual real-world developments and concerns in response to which it has taken shape.

[1] Colin Hay, “Marxism and the State”, in Andrew Gamble et al. (eds.), Marxism and Social Science 152, 156 (1999); also available at

[2] V. I. Lenin, “What is To Be Done?”, in V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 5 347, 369 (4th edn.; 1960); also available at

Akbar Rasulov is Senior Lecturer of Law at the University of Glasgow.

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