Evgeny Pashukanis

The General Theory of Law and Marxism

Introductory Note

Pashukanis’ place in the history of legal philosophy and legal practice is secure primarily due to his treatise The General Theory of Law and Marxism. This small book, first published in 1924, has now been translated into several Western and Eastern languages, but the English translation of the first edition appears for the first time below.

When General Theory first appeared it is doubtful that anyone, least of an Pashukanis himself, could have foreseen its immediate success and the meteoric rise of its author within Marxist legal philosophy and the Soviet legal profession. Pashukanis was merely one of a dozen authors in the Soviet Union to publish on the Marxist theory of law and state during the years 1923 to 1925. In fact, he was one of the less well-known authors whose works appeared during this early flowering of Soviet legal philosophy. It was a crowded and distinguished field which included the Marxist philosopher Adoratsky; the pupil of Petrazhitsky, M.A. Reisner; the jurist and civil war hero Nikolai Krylenko; and of course Piotr Stuchka, an Old Bolshevik and the Soviet Russian founder of Marxist legal philosophy. Nonetheless, Pashukanis’ General Theory was feted by the reviewers and quickly came out in successive editions which included several printings. Few other authors in this period had their books reprinted, let alone issued in a new edition.

No one was more forthcoming in his praise of the young Pashukanis than Stuchka. Stuchka had pioneered the post-Marxian critique of bourgeois jurisprudence, postulating that law is a class concept with an empirical basis in social material interrelationships. With the publication of Pashukanis’ critique of bourgeoisjuris prudence, Pashukanis recognized him as a comrade-in-arms in the “revolution of the theory of law”. Stuchka’s praise thrust Pashukanis from academic obscurity to the forefront of the “revolution of the law”. Stuchka readily conceded that Pashukanis’ commodity exchange theory of law supplemented and generally superseded his own “incomplete and greatly inadequate general doctrine of law”.

Nevertheless, in the first edition of General Theory, Pashukanis was critical of Stuchka’s definition of law, arguing that the effect of Stuchka’s perspective was that legal relationships were indistinguishable from social relationships in general. In the second edition of General Theory, published in 1926, Pashukanis reiterated this criticism, insisting that “the elements which chiefly provide the material for the development of the legal form can and should be segregated from the system of relationships which are responsive to the dominant class ...”.

Pashukanis had resolved the problem of Stuchka’s definition by specifying that the fact of equivalence, based on commodity exchange, was the distinctive characteristic of the legal relationship and that it was this which distinguished law from all other social relationships. The second edition of General Theory was met by an equally positive reception. A reviewer in the newspaper Izvestiia, in particular, credited Pashukanis with the perfection of Stuchka’s initial definition. Pravda’s reviewer of the second edition essentially subscribed to Pashukanis’ theory as well. These favourable reviews, among others, were particularly important, moreover, because they appeared in the political press and therefore implicitly signified formal and authoritative approval of Pashukanis’ theory.

The second edition of General Theory appeared in a more attractive format reflecting the new prestige that the author and his book had acquired. This was a corrected and supplemented edition which entailed raising some material from footnotes to text, and which generally clarified certain parts of the text through brief emendations. For instance, on the state – an underdeveloped topic in the first edition – Pashukanis added:

Even if legal intercourse can be conceived in terms of pure theory as the reverse side of the exchange relationship, its practical realization nevertheless requires the presence of general patterns more or less firmly established, the elaborate formulation of rules as applied to particular cases, and finally a special organization [the state] which would apply these patterns to individual cases and guarantee that the carrying out of the decisions would be compelled.

Elsewhere in the second edition, Pashukanis refined and sharpened his statements on the relationship between law and feudalism declaring, for instance, “explanation of the contradiction between feudal property and bourgeois property must be sought in their different exchange relationships”. The third edition of General Theory appeared in 1927. It entailed only marginal changes of the revised second edition, and served as the basis for the first translation into English of Pashukanis’ General Theory. [1*]

The third edition of General Theory subsequently encompassed several printings, and eventually foreign translations, whereby its author and his commodity exchange theory of law entered and acquired their place in the history of legal philosophy.




1*. See J. Hazard (ed.), Soviet Legal Philosophy (1951), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, translated by H. Babb, pp.111-225.



LCW: V.I. Lenin, Collected Works (1960-70), Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 45 volumes.

MESW: K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works (1970), Progress Publishers, Moscow, 3 volumes.

Sochinenii: Vladimir Il’ich Lenin, Sobranie Sochinenii (1920-1926), Moscow, 20 volumes in 26 books.

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Last updated on 11.5.2004