Howe Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Irving Howe

Book Review

The Withering Away of the State

(October 1946)

From New International, Vol. XII No. 8, October 1946, pp. 253–254.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Withering Away of the State
by Solomon Bloom
A pamphlet, reprinted from the Journal of the History of Ideas, Winter, 1946

In this essay, Professor Bloom, who has acquired something of a reputation as a critic of Marxism, attempts to demonstrate what he considers the varying conceptions on the theory of the state held by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. His thesis is that Engels made greater concessions to the “anarchist conception of the state” than did Marx; and that Marx, on the contrary, really was “closer to the liberal tradition than to formal anarchism.” Bloom reaches these conclusions by means of an examination of one of the crucial conceptions in the Marxian system: the “withering away” of the state during the epoch of communism and its replacement by a classless “administration of things.”

Bloom begins by describing the traditional version of the Marxian conception. He quotes Marx:

“The abolition of the state has meaning only for Communists, as the necessary result of the abolition of classes with which the necessity of the organized force of one class for the suppression of other classes falls away of itself.”

According to the commonly accepted Marxian schema, capitalism is overthrown by the working class, which replaces it by a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat which, in turn, serves as the transition to a classless communist society. Once this classless society is approached, the state – by definition having as its purpose class exploitation and hence by now without function – commences to “wither away.”

This idea received its classical formulation in a letter which Engels wrote to August Bebel:

“As soon as there is no longer a class of society to be held in subjection; as soon as, along with class domination and the struggle for individual existence based on the former anarchy of production, the collisions and excesses arising from them have also been removed, there is nothing more to repress which would make a special repressive force, a state, necessary.”

What this new “administration of things” is, as opposed to a class state, writes Bloom, is “nowhere in Marx or in Engels ... discussed directly and comprehensively. We may get some answers, however, from Engels’ accounts of the emergence of the state, for he gave at least two accounts. One was that after society had become split into classes their conflicts became so severe that they endangered the existence of society itself. In order to save it by allaying the conflict, a public power became necessary: this power was the first state ...”

The other explanation was that the state existed before the division of society into classes. As Engels wrote in Anti-Dühring:

”The state, which primitive communities had at first developed only for the purpose of safeguarding their common interests ... and providing protection against external enemies.” (My emphasis – I.H.)

Bloom then proceeds to examine the much more crucial question of Marx’s conception of the future “withering away of the state.” He quotes from Marx’s major work on this subject, The Critique of the Gotha Program:

“The question then arises: what changes will the state organization undergo in a communist society? In other words, what social functions still remain there which are analogous to the present functions of the state?

“Between the capitalist and the communist society lies the period of revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. To this there corresponds also a political transition period, whose state can be nothing else than the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”

“The (Gotha) Program deals neither with the latter nor with the future state organization of the communist society.”

It is on this latter phrase (“the future state organization of the communist society”) that Bloom bases most of his contention that Marx believed that even under communism the state would continue to exist. Accordingly, he continues, Marx used the term “state” in two different ways: “In class society, the state is the tool of the ruling class .... in the absence of classes, the state is properly the responsible agent of society.”

Bloom’s conclusion js that “the weight of the evidence is rather against an anarchist interpretation of the doctrine of Marx” since Marx “insisted on the need of centralization and authority and indeed implied the possibility of a state organization” under communism.

* * *

To this reviewer, Bloom’s essay seems an ingenious but unsuccessful attempt to construct, by the method of quotation, the thesis that Marx’s theory of the state does not have the ultimate libertarian perspective usually attributed to it.

The aid which such a construction would give to the current anti-Marxian offensive is not difficult to see. A brief refutation involves the following points:

1) The argument from Engels’ statements about primitive society seems irrelevant to the question of the future “withering away of the state.” Its use involves an unwarranted identification of “primitive communism” with the future communism based on a high productive level. For if a state did exist in a classless “primitive communism,” it had as its purpose the mere mutual protection of the tribe against enemy groups and functioned on a social level lower than that of even simple slavery. What relevance such hypothetical “states” in the hypothetical society known as “primitive” communism have to the problem of the existence or non-existence of the state in a highly advanced communist society is not clear to this reviewer.

2) The crux of the question, however, is the by-now famous quotation from the Gotha Critique. Bloom is not the first to have offered this quotation as being contradictory to everything else that Marx and Engels wrote. In a footnote, Bloom writes that Lenin too was perplexed for a time by this quotation and that he, Bloom, finds Lenin’s analysis of this matter unconvincing. Bloom does not, unfortunately, offer any reasons for finding Lenin’s analysis of this matter unconvincing, but this reviewer believes that Lenin’s remarks on the matter are, when considered within the framework of the entire Marxian system, thoroughly satisfactory. Lenin attempts to make clear what Marx meant when writing about the “future state organization of communist society” by quoting from a further section of The Critique in which Marx distinguished between two stages of communist society (which Lenin was subsequently to characterize as socialism and communism.) In the first stage, writes Marx:

“What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus, in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges ... these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society.”

And Marx continues:

“In a higher phase of communist society ... the narrow horizon of bourgeois right (can) be fully left behind and society (can) inscribe on its banners: from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”

Since, says Lenin in his fascinating notebook on The Critique, “semi-bourgeois rights would still exist” in the first stage of communism, so too “the semi-bourgeois state” has still not fully disappeared. And in State and Revolution, Lenin repeats the same idea in slightly different language: “Consequently, not only bourgeois right but even the bourgeois state for a certain time remains under communism, without the bourgeoisie.” In other words, Marx’s reference to the “future state organization of the communist society” upon which Bloom rests his entire, case is merely a reference to the process of the “withering away” of the state which begins, according to the Marxian conception, approximately when the dictatorship of the proletariat slides into the “first phase of communism.”

3) Now all this may seem rather casuistic and Talmudic. But it is necessary to refute attempts, such as those of Bloom, to give Marx an authoritarian emphasis which does not really apply. Once that is done, we can proceed to the interesting question: just what would the actual development of this “withering away of the state” entail? Did Lenin foresee a situation in which the state had already withered away by the time the dictatorship of the proletariat slides into socialism (or, as he calls it, “the first phase of communism”) or a situation in which the “withering away of the state” begins with socialism? In the latter case, Marx’s phrase about “the state organization” of communist society is perfectly comprehensible.

The basic trouble with an approach such as that of Bloom is that it views the whole matter most mechanically, as if it were a mere question of constructing conceptualized categories which had Chinese walls between them. I doubt very much if the future workers’ state will proclaim, say, on January 1, that “as of today” it is no longer a workers’ state but rather the “first phase of communist society.” The categories of distinction set up by Marx and developed by Lenin are categories whose purposes are largely useful in terms of goals and processes of development toward which to strive; and aids to future historians who will be able to check back on the actual development of a free society to compare it with the Marxian forecast.

Bloom’s attempt to blow up an entire theoretical structure by pitting quotation against quotation may earn him a pat on the head in the artery-hardened circles of American bourgeois sociology, but cannot be taken very seriously by Marxists.

Howe Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 15 March 2017