In what sense did Marx propose to “break [brechen] the state”?

It is well known that one of the formative political experiences of Marx’s life was his effort to mount a public defence of the Paris Commune of 1871. The Commune was the most dramatic and, to Marx, the most inspiring anti-capitalist revolt of his time. As the Franco-Prussian War wound down, the workers of Paris rose up and deposed the French State’s authority, replacing its rule with a new form of popular self-organization that, in Marx’s memorable phrase, did not reproduce or reorganize the state, but “smashed” it.

But what did Marx mean by “smashing the state”? And what was the nature of this Commune that he held up as a model for anti-capitalist revolution?

Should we think of the Commune, as some do today, as a “workers’ state”? Or should we think of it as, on the contrary, a form of participatory-democratic, specifically anti-statist, community-based working-class self-organization?

Defender of the Commune, Paris 1871

Defender of the Commune, Paris 1871

Here, Marx and Engels actually make it hard to say quite which interpretation they would endorse, because sometimes they use language encouraging the statist interpretation of the Commune, and sometimes they deny outright that it was a state, “in the proper sense of the word.”

A typical statist reading can be found in a comment by Engels, in 1891, that the Commune “shattered” the “former state power,” and “replaced” it with “a new and truly democratic one” (628; page #s refer to Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed.). But this suggestion, that the Commune created a “new and truly democratic” state, seems to contradict something Engels said in 1875, when he asserted bluntly that the Commune “was no longer a state in the proper sense of the word.” Indeed, so insistent was he that the Commune was not a state in the proper sense, that he proposed, speaking on behalf of Marx and himself, that socialists should “replace [the word] state everywhere by Gemeinwesen [community], a good old German word which can very well convey the meaning of the French word, commune” (Letter to Bebel, 1875).

For his part, Marx also seemed ambivalent. On the one hand, he seemed to be alluding to the state when he called the Commune “a working-class government” (634). On the other hand, he regarded the most important lesson of the Commune to be the insight that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes” (629). This insight, that we can’t just “take power” by putting the workers’ movement at the helm of the administrative, coercive and legislative apparatuses of the capitalist state, was in fact the only correction to the argument of the Communist Manifesto that he ever explicitly proposed. The Manifesto had failed to insist that a working-class revolution would have to smash the state, rather than taking it over, Marx concluded.

Rather than getting bogged down in verbal technicalities about the meaning of the word “state,” let’s look at what Marx thought the Commune was doing, and try to see, substantively and concretely, what he meant when he said that it smashed rather than taking over the state.

To save time, I’ll get right to the point: As Marx says, “While the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society” (633). In other words, the state power, exercised from above, was replaced by community control from below. Thus, the Commune “got rid of the standing army and the police,” according to Marx (632). “The whole of the educational institutions,” he adds, “were cleared of the influence of…the State” (632). “Judicial functionaries,” he tells us, “were divested of” their “sham independence,” and placed under community control. Or, as he vividly puts it, “like the rest of public servants, magistrates and judges were to be elective, responsible, and revocable” (632). Moreover, and also like all other public servants, they were to be paid an average worker’s wage (632). Both the legislature of professional politicians and the administrative branch of government were to be fused (632) into the Commune’s democratic assembly, delegates to which were, once again, “elective, responsible, and revocable,” and paid the prevailing worker’s wage.

The basic idea of smashing the state, as Marx uses this term, is evidently quite clear from these passages, and countless others like them in Marx’s main work on the Commune, and his main contribution to so-called “state theory,” The Civil War in France. What he means by “smashing the state” is that the various elements of state power – the coercive apparatus; the administrative apparatus; the legislative-executive apparatus; and the judicial apparatus – this whole system of state power is either (a) abolished outright (“amputated”), or (b) in cases where it has what Marx calls “remaining legitimate functions,” these are placed under direct community control by the working class, from below.

Community control, as Marx understands it, includes four elements: that all functionaries are paid the prevailing wage in the community, and are elected by, accountable to, and removable by, the community. Thus, smashing the state, for him, means two things: abolition of all illegitimate functions, and subordination of legitimate functions to direct popular control from below.

Now, every reader of Marx will agree that he regards this process as a “conquest of political power” by the working class, or as some now say, the 99%. But is it a state? Certainly workers were governing; they were “dictating” the terms of social cooperation. Workers ruled Paris for the two months that the Commune lasted. But all of this is consistent, perhaps most consistent, with Engels’ formulation: that the Commune was “no longer a state in the proper sense of the word,” but a form of community-based working-class self-organization, or what Marx called “the proletariat organized as the ruling class” (490).

Dictatorship, yes; state, no.  Conquest of (social) power, yes; conquest of state power, no.

2 thoughts on “In what sense did Marx propose to “break [brechen] the state”?

  1. This sounds like the kind of social organisation I would support. However how would this apply across wider geographical areas, whether known as nations or regions, or even internationally? One of the problems for the Paris Commune was that its model was not adopted in other areas so being isolated it could be eventually defeated. If indeed communities across, say, the whole of France (as in this example) did form into Paris Commune style organisations- how would they co-ordinate decisions ? some things like, for example, tackling climate change, or transport, presumably need agreement not just on a local level- and how would a future society ensure that workers/ and community members, had roughly equitable incomes and conditions across wide ares?

  2. It’s a bit strange to call the Paris Commune “formative” for Marx, since he was already 51 years old when it happened, although I would more or less agree that this (and the events of 1870-1871 generally) was one of the several points at which his ideas changed quite drastically – and then they changed again in 1872, during and after the Hague Congress.

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