The Relation between State and Society According to Karl Marx

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The Relation between State and Society According to Karl Marx

'The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.' (1)

This is the clearest assertion of the basic tenet of Marxist theory of the state. The state acts in the interests of the dominant class. Marx never elaborates on the topic of the state - the task of putting forward a full theory of the state was one the aims of the incomplete Das Kapital. In order then to find a Marxist theory of the state, modern scholars must piece one together from the references scattered throughout Marx's work. The above quote, however, is by far the most succinct way of putting forward the basic message of a Marxist theory of the state.

The question is in two parts. In answer to the first, the roots of Marxist theory of the state shall be found in Hegel's political philosophy. It shall be shown that although Marx's conception of the state is just an adaptation of Hegel's, the application of that conception in relation to society is more original. The second part of the question demands an examination into the defensibility of Marx's state theory. The fact that Marx never clarifies his theory gives modern Marxists a great deal of leeway in adapting Marxist theory to counter its critics. Several different ways of defending Marxist theory will be set out below.

In his Philosophy of Right, Hegel makes the important and influential distinction between Civil Society and the Political State. Briefly, the Political state is the total of the objective institutions of public authority, involving legislative, fiscal and supervisory powers, etc. There is also a degree of subjectivity, in the form of public opinion expressed t...

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... the causal relation between state and society is reversed. For Marx, the economic structure of society produces a dominant class, and the state reflects that dominance, and helps to reproduce it. In the final analysis, neo-Marxist scholars are able to form coherent and defensible positions on the state, while not betraying the essential Marxist nature of their theories.

Karl Marx, Manifesto of the Communist Party.

Z. A. Pelcynski, The Hegelian Conception of the State.

Karl Marx, review of Girardin's Le Socialisme et 'Impôt.

J. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.

Karl Marx, A German Ideology.

R. Miliband, Marx and the State.

N. Poulantzas, The Problem of the Capitalist State.

R. Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society.

C. Offe, Social Policy and the Theory of the State.

F. Parkin, Marxism and Class Theory: A Bourgeois Critique.
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