Will the State Wither Away?

Training for Vietnamese Translators in Social Sciences and Humanities,
a project funded by EUNIC Global.

A review of Miguel Abensour, Democracy Against the State: Marx and the Machiavellian Moment, Polity Press, 2011.

By Etienne Rolland-Piègue, Director of Institut français du Vietnam.

Originally published in French as: Miguel Abensour, La démocratie contre l’Etat : Marx et le moment machiavélien,  Presses Universitaires de France, 1997.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famously predicted that the state would wither away after the working class seized power, although we saw in real life that the « dictatorship of the proletariat » created a stronger and stronger state. That’s because Marx and Engels saw the state existing simply to regulate class conflict. Since class conflict was going to be gone — with the « working class » clearly in charge — there would be no state. That was a fantasy at the time, but the communist movement kept it alive as an empty promise for as long as it could survive. Now Marx and communism are gone; but is the state really going to stay?

Bringing Marx out of the Marxist’s closet

Miguel Abensour’s book, Democracy Against the State, allows us to consider this question from the point of view of political philosophy. This French philosopher who passed away in 2017 represents a strand of thought that is more Marxian than Marxist: as Karl Marx himself confessed, « All I know is that I am not a Marxist. » Or, as another commentator has it, « Marxism is the sum of all the misinterpretations that have been made about Marx. » Abensour brings Marx out of the Marxist closet, and allows us to rediscover Marx’s work beyond the veneer of commentary and dogma. His sources of inspiration are eclectic: Marx of course, but also Machiavelli and Spinoza, as well as some of Marx’s contemporaries (Max Stirner, Ludwig Feuerbach, Moses Hess) and a cohort of modern French thinkers (Claude Lefort, Jacques Rancière, Michel Henry). Beyond philosophy, Democracy Against the State borrows its title from a French anthropologist, Pierre Clastres, who passed away in 1977 after the publication of Society Against the State, the ethnographic account of his fieldwork among the Guayaki in the Amazonian forest. For Abensour, Clastres’s book represents a Copernican revolution, and we should still rejoice in the good news that he announced when he showed forms of societies built specifically to prevent the emergence of any statist type of authority.

According to Abensour, the thesis of the « withering away of the state » first emerged at a specific moment in Marx’s career: in the year 1843, and more specifically with Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law. This manuscript was only published in 1927 by David Riazanov, the founder of the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. In this text, the young Marx writes, rather obscurely: « The modern French have conceived it thus: in true democracy the political state disappears. » For Abensour, as for Michel Henry, this text is an extraordinary piece of thought, whose political implications are still with us. In emphasizing the 1843 breakthrough, they run counter to Louis Althusser’s thesis of the « epistemological break, » which the latter situates in 1845 with the writing of The German Ideology.

Uncovering a different Marx

By going back to earlier texts, Abensour uncovers a different Marx. The young Hegelian was sorely concerned with political philosophy, and left economics completely out of his purview. He was more involved with the national question that was breeding in central Europe than with the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and he still held a unitary view of society as the people or the plebs. He was also more pungent, and wrote vitriolic charges in the newspapers in which he tried to stir the Germans out of their political slumber. Witness his indignant reaction, published in the Rheinische Zeitung in 1842, to the passing of a law on thefts of wood by the Rhine Province Assembly. Marx made a characteristically wry comment that the law would cause « the rights of man to give way to the rights of young trees. » He reminded the forest owners that « compared to the state the greatest tree is hardly more than a chip of wood. » And should theft fail to be punished, « the world will not be unhinged on that account, nor will the state forsake the sunlit path of justice. »

By taking the side of the state over trees, Marx seemed to fall under the critique of another Young Hegelian, Max Stirner, who in The Ego and its Own (published in 1845) targeted the quasi-religious faith in state power held by his contemporaries. « State! State! so ran the general cry, and thenceforth people sought for the `right form of state,’ the best constitution, and so the state in its best conception. The thought of the state passed into all hearts and awakened enthusiasm; to serve it, this mundane god, became the new divine service and worship. » For Ludwig Feuerbach, writing The Essence of Christianity in 1841, the emancipation of the political from the religious realm is only the prelude to the elevation of the state as a new religion. By referring to « the modern French »–having in mind Victor Considerant, a utopian Socialist and disciple of Charles Fourier–, Marx takes his distance from the religion of the state and opens up a political space where the state could ultimately disappear.

Marx and the Young Hegelians

Both friendly and inimical commentators of Marx have generally agreed that he expected the state to wither away and to vanish as the result of the advent of the classless society. But according to Abensour’s interpretation of the young Marx, true democracy will come of age not as a result of the gradual erosion of the state, but through a struggle against statist forces. In its essence, democracy means the abolition of the distinction between the rulers and the ruled, between those holding power and those acted upon. It aims at a horizon where domination disappears and true equality prevails. For Abensour, the « democratic state » is a contradiction in terms. Its mirror concept, the `statist democracy’, sounds like a political nightmare, akin to the people’s republics that included democracy in their designation only to eliminate it in practice. Abensour equates Marx’s true democracy with Claude Lefort’s `savage democracy’ or, as he prefers to put it, `insurgent democracy’: « Democracy is the theatre of a `permanent insurrection’ against the state, against the unifying, integrating, organizing form of the state. » In the libertarian or anarchist worldview, where there is rule, there is no law: the `rule of law’ (in French: l’Etat de droit) disappears at the very moment it is proclaimed by the ruler. Rights and freedom are not granted as a favor by a domineering state or ruler: they are to be conquered and struggled for.

A Machiavellian moment in political thought

By linking democracy to resistance and to struggle, Marx enacts a « Machiavellian moment » in political thought. This expression, borrowed from French philosopher Eric Weil and from American historian J.G.A. Pocock, is not meant to refer to the cynical or manipulative view often associated with the name of Machiavelli. According to Pocock, there is an alternative paradigm to the dominant political philosophy of legal realism, a paradigm that finds its roots in Florentine political thought and that connects to the Atlantic republican tradition through its emphasis on civic engagement and republican humanism. The goal of this tradition, going back to Aristotle in opposition to Plato, is to affirm the fundamentally political nature of man and to stress the active participation of citizens in public affairs. Man was created to be a zoon politikon, a political animal, and he reaches his full potential through political engagement in a republic that exists as a specific historical community located in time and space, unlike the abstract and atemporal model presented in Plato’s Republic.

According to Abensour, Machiavelli prefigures Marx when he makes conflict the basis of political liberty, when he « makes discord and internal disunion–the struggle in Rome between the senate and the plebs–the origin and wellspring of Roman liberty. » Democracy marks the irruption of the people, the demos, on the political stage. By contrast, the `democratic state’–as it appears, for instance, under the pen of Tocqueville–puts liberty in a Procrustean bed, as it thrives on similarity and conformism. Similarly, references to `civil society’ and the reduction of politics to `governance’ confuse meaning by obfuscating the role of struggle and dissidence in the advent of liberty. The bureaucratic state is, in essence, an anti-political machine, it nurtures the feeling that politics is evil and that power is best exerted by the imposition of management techniques borrowed from organization science. The politics of consensus is statist, while the politics of struggle or `dissensus’ (in Rancière’s terms) is anti-statist. Hence for Abensour, the relationship between Marx and the Machiavellian moment is more important than the remnants of the `religion of the state’ he shares with Hegel and Feuerbach.

The French revolutionary tradition

In addition to Machiavelli and the Young Hegelians, another important reference in Abensour’s interpretation of Marx is the French Revolution of 1789 and the Paris Commune of 1871. Abensour finds his model of `insurgent democracy’ in the 1793 constitution of the French Republic, which recognized the right to insurgency, and in the food riots of 1795 when Parisians clamored for bread and for their rights. As we all know, America, too, was founded on insurgency, and periodic revolution, « at least every twenty years, » was deemed by Thomas Jefferson « a medicine necessary for the sound health of government. » Abensour reminds us that the right to insurgency is a useful remedy every time the will to power of the rulers prevails over the right to liberty of the people.

What came to light in the 1843 manuscript under the name of « true democracy » was not totally eliminated in Marx’s subsequent texts. It remained as an undercurrent or a hidden dimension, resurfacing when the spirit of the times required it. This is particularly the case in Marx’s later texts dealing with the Paris Commune, which exerted power in Paris for two months in the spring of 1871 as the result of an uprising by Parisian workers after France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian war. Marx sees the Commune as the emergence of a new political form, as government of the people, by the people, for the people. Victor Considerant, the « modern French » Marx alluded to in his 1834 text, also took part in the Paris Commune, along with various groups of anarchists, socialists, and libertarian republicans. Abensour shows that Marx’s texts on the Paris Commune radicalize the conclusion found in the 1843 Critique. For the « modern French » of 1871, the commune constitution shattered the political power of the state, and opposed all state apparatuses that denied it the right to existence.

A post-statist world

The Marxian view espoused by Abensour comes disturbingly close to libertarianism as it thrives in the political fringes in the United States. It reminds us that the state in not the one and only embodiment of the essence of the political, and that other forms of political organizations coexist with it. They may well supersede it one day, leading to a post-statist world that we can only dimly conceive. This is not to say, of course, that all governments are suddenly going to cease existing. To use an analogy, the « post-PC era » doesn’t mean we don’t use PCs anymore. PCs have become a component in a family of products that includes smart phones, tablets, and intelligent TVs. Similarly, the post-statist world predicted by some simply means we are going to see a flowering of creativity of governance that will blur the frontiers between categories of sovereignty. Planning the new alternatives and building them is the most exciting task that lays ahead of us. As Marx concludes his Theses on Feuerbach: « Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it. »

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