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

For most of its history, the Marxist tradition as we know it has lacked a single unified theory of the state. In large part this state of affairs can be explained by the somewhat contradictory legacy left by Marxism’s two main founding figures. Marx’s early forays into the subject in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts and The German Ideology stand at a considerable theoretical distance from the general argument outlined in The Communist Manifesto, the contours of which, in turn, differ quite noticeably from the theories presented in Marx’s later works, most notably “The Civil War in France” and “The Critique of the Gotha Programme”, not to mention Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.

And yet, as with liberalism and positivism, Marxism would not be called a tradition if the thinking of its later exponents did not tend to gravitate towards some kind of consensus. Ever since Lenin’s landmark The State and Revolution [1], the general consensus among most mainstream Marxists has been that: firstly, a true revolution can never take place without triggering a fundamental reorganisation in the basic structure of the state as a socio-economic phenomenon; and, secondly, a communist revolution, in particular, can only take place through and as a result of the categorical elimination of the state as a feature of the general political structure of the respective society.

Over the years, as the awareness of the relative achievements and failures of the Soviet Revolution spread and increased, an important pattern of disagreement arose across various segments of the Marxist community with regard to the immediate details of Lenin’s broader argument. What role should violence and armed struggle play in the practice of Marxist politics? Can communism be achieved peacefully? Can the cause of a socialist revolution be advanced through the limited and temporary (how limited? how temporary?) use of the standard apparatuses of liberal democracy, such as, for instance, parliamentary elections or local government politics?

If, as Lenin himself argued, the road from capitalism to communism does not follow a straight linear trajectory that leads “directly and smoothly towards ‘greater and greater democracy’, as the liberal professors and petty-bourgeois opportunists would have us believe” [2], but requires instead an inevitable detour through a forcefully imposed dictatorship of the proletariat–because the “resistance of the capitalist exploiters cannot be broken by anyone else or in any other way” [3]–and “[t]he supersession of the bourgeois state by the proletarian state is impossible without a violent revolution” [4], what implications does this have for MTS in its politico-instrumental dimension, in particular its ability to equip the budding discipline of Marxist state-building with the necessary analytical apparatus and policy toolbox?

Even more importantly, given the uniqueness of the immediate historical conjuncture in which Lenin originally developed his arguments, how useful can his ideas about revolutionary strategy and his version of MTS be today? How applicable are his insights and conclusions from the standpoint of those societies in which the current prospects of a successful proletarian uprising seem dim or virtually non-existent? How valid, more generally, has his broader vision of politics been, given the fundamental transformations that have taken place in the structural organisation of the modern capitalist state after his death, including the rise of the various administrative state apparatuses inaugurated since the interwar period and the emergence and proliferation of such complex international regimes as the GATT and the European Monetary Union?

Most of the debates that have consumed MTS over the last century have developed within an analytical space that is constituted and demarcated by these questions. Over time the history of these debates has itself become an important point of contention for MTS specialists, a fact whose loose geopolitical over-determination has seemed at times to be no less visible than its apparent ideological stakes.

Until the end of the Cold War, for most Soviet and many East European scholars, The State and Revolution remained a de facto unsurpassable theoretical horizon. This is not to say, of course, that the terms of the debate had been frozen completely or that no heterodox interpretations or alternative readings were ever attempted. But time and again Lenin’s argument continued to be confirmed and reiterated as the singularly admissible and scientifically correct position. Any departures from it would either have to earn the formal imprimatur of the ruling regime of the day–as was the case, for instance, with Khruschev’s doctrine of the post-Stalinist state as a state free of any vestiges of class struggle–or would need to be safely hidden and submerged within texts and conversations ostensibly dedicated to the discussion of a decidedly different set of theoretical questions–as was the case, for example, with Vladimir Shkredov’s Economy and Law [5] or Evald Ilyenkov’s Marx and the Western World [6].

In the Western Marxist tradition, the dynamics of theoretical contestation played out in a somewhat different fashion. “There can be little doubt”, noted Giovanni Arrighi, “that a huge gulf separated Marx’s theory of capital from the Marxism of Fidel Castro, Amilcar Cabral, Ho Chi Minh, or Mao Zedong”. [7] There can be even less doubt, one might add, that an equally huge gulf separated the Western Marxist approach to MTS from the MTS traditions developed in the socialist East. A number of reasons could be cited for this radical divergence. For one thing, Marxist parties never truly came to power in the West, other than through wielding a degree of marginal influence within left-liberal coalitions. As those familiar with the history of British Marxism will recognise, they never achieved the kind of unchallengeable monopolistic position enjoyed almost as of right by communist parties in the East. Hence, official party lines proposed with regard to the question of state theory always existed only in name rather than in practice. No form of ideological or theoretical orthodoxy was ever imposed or induced. At the same time, as various commentators have noted, the theoretical problématique traditionally developed within Western Marxism has always been influenced by various philosophical disciplines–from semiotics and phenomenology to cultural criticism and psychoanalysis–to a greater degree than the more conventionally Marxist fields of “social science” and political economy. [8]

The two most significant episodes in the history of MTS debates in the West after the end of the Second World War were the so-called Poulantzas-Miliband debate, an episode of intense scholarly exchange that unfolded in Western Europe from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s [9], and the relatively short-lived but impressively acute controversy that erupted more or less across the entire geographical space of the Marxist tradition in the wake of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s epoch-closing book Empire, published at the turn of the century. [10] Different lines of genealogy connected these two theoretical events, opening, respectively, different points and angles of entry. One of these lines led via the Italian traditions of autonomia and operaismo. [11] Another line led via Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy [12]–a highly innovative but also highly divisive work published in the mid-1980s, whose basic aim seemed to be the fusion of a neo-Gramscian theory of ideology with French post-structuralist philosophy–through what increasingly came to be described as the “post-“, rather than “neo-“, Marxist tradition of political theory. [13] In parallel, but not quite moving along the same ideological vectors or borrowing from the same set of theoretical influences, there also unfolded the traditions of French régulation theory [14], Bourdieusian field sociology [15], Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory [16], and so on and so forth.

Post-Cold War history has not been kind to Soviet Marxism. Few scholars today will know the names of Shkredov or Ilyenkov, let alone have read any of their works. But while the intellectual legacy of the Soviet and East European traditions seems at this point to have been abandoned, the Western tradition of MTS continues in all its merry fragmentation, even if not with the same intensity of commitment. As Göran Therborn notes, compared to the heyday of the 1970s and the early 1980s, in the last twenty years Marxist scholars in the West “have played truant” from MTS. [17]

Lenin, Luxemburg, Miliband, Poulantzas, Luhmann, Mouffe, Negri–each of these figures has left their indelible impact on the contemporary Western Marxist debate about the nature, role, and historical significance of the late capitalist state. And yet even if the general horizon of the broader conversation generated by this problématique remains by and large the same as it has been since the turn of the millennium, the distribution of accents and nodal points across it has certainly changed quite noticeably–and so too have the corresponding vocabularies.

Much water has flowed since the heyday of Negrian neo-Spinozism and Laclau and Mouffe’s attempts to blend Gramsci, Derrida, and, later, Carl Schmitt. Among Marxist scholars there seems to be greater recognition today than in the past of the intricate relationship between law and the legal system, on the one hand, and the contemporary capitalist state and its day-to-day practical realities, on the other. In particular, there seems to be much greater awareness of the absolutely crucial role played in this relationship by the international legal system. [18]

The recognition of international law (as opposed to, say, the “world market” or the “international system” more broadly) as a distinct component of what in Althusserian terms one would once have called the “structure in dominance” [19] has certainly become significantly more common in contemporary MTS. So too has interest in the broader Marxist legacy within the various segments of the international law academe. [20]

One of the inevitable consequences of this “rediscovery” of international law and the attendant recalibration of prevailing analytical frameworks has been a growing awareness in different contexts of the essential need for the Marxist theory of the state to reconnect with its closest sibling, the Marxist theory of imperialism. A 2004 essay by the Indian Marxist legal scholar B. S. Chimni on the nascent “global” state and its dynamic relationship with “national” state apparatuses, illustrates one potential way in which this task may be undertaken. [21]

[1] V. I. Lenin, “The State and Revolution”, in V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 25 381 (4th edn.; 1964); also available at

[2] Ibid., 461.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 400.

[5] В. П. Шкредов, Экономика и Право (1967).

[6] Эвальд Ильенков, «Маркс и западный мир» (1965), original Russian text available at

[7] Giovanni Arrighi, Adam Smith in Beijing 19 (2007).

[8] See Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (1976); Göran Therborn, “After Dialectics”, 43 New Left Review 63, 67-9 (2007).

[9] The key texts here are Nicos Poulantzas, “The Problem of the Capitalist State”, 58 New Left Review 67 (1969); Ralph Miliband, “The Capitalist State–Reply to Nicos Poulantzas”, 59 New Left Review 53 (1970); Ralph Miliband, “Poulantzas and the Capitalist State”, 82 New Left Review 83 (1973); Nicos Poulantzas, “The Capitalist State”, 95 New Left Review 63 (1976). For the legacy of the Poulantzas-Miliband debate for contemporary political theory, including Marxist theory, see Stanley Aronowitz and Peter Bratsis (eds.), Paradigm Lost: State Theory Reconsidered (2002); Clyde Barrow, Towards a Critical Theory of States: The Poulantzas-Miliband Debate after Globalization (2016). See also Bob Jessop, “Dialogue of the Deaf: Reflections on the Poulantzas-Miliband Debate”, in Paul Weatherly et al. (eds.), Class, Power and the State in Capitalist Society: Essays on Ralph Miliband 132 (2007).

[10] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (2000). For some of the fallout from Empire, see Gopal Balakrishnan (ed.), Debating Empire (2003).

[11] The locus classicus of the operaismo tradition is commonly identified as Mario Tronti, Operai e Capitale (1966). A post-scriptum to the second edition has been translated into English as “Workers and Capital” (published in Telos No. 14 (1972)), available at For further background on operaismo, see also Steve Wright, Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism (2002).

[12] Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985).

[13] For a general overview of the transition from “neo-Marxism” to “post-Marxism”, see Therborn, op.cit.; Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff (eds.), New Departures in Marxian Theory (2006); Stuart Sim, Post-Marxism: An Intellectual History (2000).

[14] For background on the French régulationist tradition, see generally Robert Boyer and Yves Saillard (eds.), Régulation Theory: The State of the Art (1995). For an interesting illustration of the régulationist work on the theory of the state, see also Bruno Theret, Régimes économiques de l’ordre politique: Esquisse d’une théorie régulationniste des limits de l’Etat (1992).

[15] See, e.g., Pierre Bourdieu, “Rethinking the State: Genesis and Structure of the Bureaucratic Field”, 12 Sociological Theory 1 (1994); Pierre Bourdieu, The Social Structures of the Economy 89-122 (2005).

[16] See, e.g., Niklas Luhmann, Social Systems (1995) [1984]. See also Gunther Teubner (ed.), Global Law without a State (1997).

[17] Therborn, op.cit., 93.

[18] For various examples and illustrations, see B. S. Chimni, International Law and World Order: A Critique of Contemporary Approaches (2nd edn.; 2017); Mark Neocleous, “International Law as Primitive Accumulation”, 23 European Journal of International Law 941 (2012); Robert Knox, “Marxism, International Law, and Political Strategy”, 22 Leiden Journal of International Law 413 (2009); Bill Bowring, The Degradation of the International Legal Order? (2008); Susan Marks, “International Judicial Activism and the Commodity-Form Theory of International Law”, 18 European Journal of International Law 199 (2007); China Miéville, Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law (2005).

[19] See “Glossary”, in Louis Althusser, For Marx 249, 255 (1969); also available at

[20] See, e.g., Susan Marks (ed.), International Law on the Left: Re-Examining Marxist Legacies (2008).

[21] See B. S. Chimni, “International Institutions Today: An Imperial Global State in the Making”, 15 European Journal of International Law 1 (2004).

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

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