state authoritarianism and ontology

jwalker jwalker at
Tue Jul 4 07:35:17 MDT 1995


Thanks for the thoughts on authoritarianism.  I won't be able to equal
you in sheer prolixity (!), but here are a few questions about your post:

> My view is that after Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, to identify the three most
> prominent signifiers of the problem, anyone who identifies him/herself with
> the radical left must confront with utmost seriousness the problem of state
> authoritarianism and how it has developed in the name of the principles we
> uphold. This problem is first a matter of our own integrity. But I would go
> even further and say that our ability to mount any credible movement of
> social transformation from the left depends upon our ability to settle
> accounts on this question.

I presume one answer to the problem you raise here is to deny that it is
one, right?  After all, one might say that authoritarians and other nasty
people can take any old doctrine that suits their purposes and cloak
themselves in it, concealing all manner of unpleasantness behind it.
Such people are not acting in accord with, but are merely distorting and
turning to their own purposes what might be a perfectly good political

So in other words I don't see that there need by anything *in the
doctrine* that is used as a cover for authoritarianism that causes such
(ab)use.  It's happened to Marxism, democracy, the very idea of human
rights, you name it.

> My point is not that the particular historical circumstances in which there
> was an attempt to build communist societies are irrelevant, or that there are
> not significant differences (as well as points of commonality) between Marx's
> and Stalin's thinking. But these issues just do not go to the core of the
> problem -- which is, what in the Marxist tradition itself made it possible
> for these authoritarian/ totalitarian states to develop and rule in the name
> of Marxism.
> I believe that any reasonable interpretation of Marx's corpus (and some of
> the preceding political theorists such as Rousseau, for some of the same
> strictures apply to them) will conclude that his _intention_ was thoroughly
> democratic. The question that needs to be asked, therefore, is this: what are
> the unintended consequences of the structure of his theory which allowed it
> to be mobilized on behalf of state authoritarianism (and mass murder) of the
> worst sort?

So your idea, as I understand it, is that even if there need not be, in
fact there *is* something within Marxism which -- as you say below --
"lends itself to state authoritarianism".  And you think this is true of
political theories that are based on accounts of human nature as well --
am I getting this right?

Your supposition about Marxism in this connection is, to put it briefly,
that Marxism lacks developed accounts of the political party and of the
practice and institutions of democracy.  You also mention the "military
metaphors" present in Marxist theorizing.

I'm skeptical of the military language point, but let's suppose you're
right about the lacunae in classical Marxist texts.  What I don't see is
how this answers the question which (I take it) you're asking.  Even if
Marx had developed what you say he lacks, I don't see that this would
prevent the theory from being abused.  Consider the way the word
"democracy" is abused nowadays, in places like Central America, East Asia
and, some would argue, the US.

Furthermore, it seems to me that Marx was trying to articulate various
insights about the workings of capitalism as well as a vision for a
better society.  These are ideas at a high level of abstraction, and
questions about how to implement or achieve the theory are at a
different, more practical level.  So it doesn't seem to me a strike
against the theory that Marx didn't address them in detail.

> Finally, and I have to beg off of extended proof for some of these points if
> this posting is not to become a small essay in its own right, Marxism never
> grappled with what I would call the innate authoritarian tendencies of the
> modern state (understood, qua Weber, as "the compulsory association which
> organizes domination").In modern political discourse in the West,
> legitimation is internal to the state ('the people,' a subject created by the
> modern nation state, is the source of legitimation) and the state has, by
> defintion, a monopoly on the use of force. (With more space and time, I could
> show Foucault's analysis of normalization and knowledge as power reveals much
> of the form of these innate authoritarian tendencies.) Therefore, there are
> no intrinsic limits to authoritarianism in the modern state; it is only the
> power and organization of democratic forces which restrict its growth. Since
> the class essentialism of classical Marxist political theory would never
> allow it to come to grips with this dynamic, it could not address it. (In
> pre-modern political discourse in the West, legitimation was generally in the
> realm of the sacred, thus providing an intrinsic limit on the exercise of
> power, and there were competing armed forces. The pre-modern state thus
> contained its own internal limits.)

I want to get on to the human nature stuff -- so let me just register
some slightly shocked disbelief at the idea here that there's something
intrinsically less authoritarian about premodern states.  The entire
liberal project since Locke, certainly, and perhaps Hobbes, has been to
try to set some kind o fprincipled limit on state power...

 When the
> modern individual man is conceptualized as a pre-political and natural
> phenomenon, as modern notions of human nature do, his social existence and
> social unity can only be achieved through the state. But when the state is
> introduced into a picture so conceived, the 'natural freedom' of man
> immediately begins to dissipate and fade; for so long as atomized individual
> and the state are the only two terms of the equation, and the state is the
> second and dynamic terms, the rights of the individual exist at the
> sufferance of the state.

Here, with this comment....

> This is true not simply of those theories generally
> seen as absolutist, such as Hobbes, but also those commonly understood to be
> libertarian, such as Locke. The individual subject, Locke declares in Chapter
> IX of the Second Treatise, must "part also with as much of his natural
> liberty in providing for himself as the good, prosperity and safety of the
> Society shall require..."  From Hobbes and Locke to Hegel and Marx, the ideal
> state/society is understood to be the embodiment of Reason and the supreme
> arbitrator of what is rational (knowledge is woven into the fabric of power),
> and so it decides what constitutes the 'freedom" of its subjects.

And with this one, I've lost you entirely, I'm afraid.  In liberal
theory, the rights of the individual certainly do not "exist at the
sufferance of the state".  Not by a long shot -- instead they set limits
on permissible exercises of state power.

Perhaps you mean that as a matter of fact, once the liberal state gets
going, it will treat its subjects as it sees fit, removing their rights
when it desires.  But of course this would, again, be an abuse of liberal
theory, not an application.  So we need to separate the theoretical
question, what moral principles set limits on state poewr, from the
practical one, under what conditions will certain people run roughshod
over others.

> Once human beings are understood in terms of one arbitrarily given and
> invariable set of ascribed qualities, the political norms based on this set
> of qualities become equally homogeneous, as standards by which the actions of
> all political subjects can be judged. If there is only one human nature, one
> 'essence of man', then there can be only one state in which it is fully
> realized or protected.

Surely the question turns on what we take humna nature to be.  If, for
example, we have an essential interest in the development of our
individuality, or in exercising our capacities for rational choice, or
anything like that, then the just state will not be an authoritarian one
at all, but one which allows wide scope for free action.

You seem to have the idea that if human nature is X, then the just state
must be one which forces everybody to be as X as possible, which is
offensively authoritarian.  But I don't see that this follows at all --
the connection between human nature and the just state is surely more
complex than this!

I guess in the end I still don't see why Marxism, or
political theories based on conceptions of human nature, lend themselves
to authoritarianism more than any political theory.

John D. Walker
jwalker at

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