Base/superstructure and the State

Charles Brown CharlesB at
Fri Apr 20 12:22:59 MDT 2001

>>> amandatatts at 04/20/01 12:26AM >>>

In refering to Lenin theories on the state, I am arguing that his conception
of the bourgeoise state tends to rely on the conception of the state as
simply a "committee of the ruling class."  To me, that seems to be an
expression of the base/superstructure metaphor that holds the state not
simply produced or determined by economic relations (or say, class
conflict), but determined directly by the ruling class.  Such a perception
of the state, I would argue, does not allow an analysis of the State as an
institution produced by class relations, but as an institution controlled
simply by the ruling class.  I would argue that the same criticisms noted by
Clarke et al in relation to the limits of Milliband's theory of the state,
could be argued against Lenin's concption of the state (in State and

It is not so much that Lenin talked about how he wrote about
base/superstructure, but that such an conclusion can be made from his work
on the state.

Consequently I do not take the group of people that I am refering to (eg
Gramsci, Milliband, Poulantsaz etc) as having similar theories on the state
(because clearly their work is very different), but rather I argue that
their work can all be discussed in terms of the different ways their works
relate to the base/superstucture metaphor.


CB: Marx , Engels and Lenin did not use a base /superstructure metaphor vulgarly as this idea is used in many critiques by the intellectual left. This whole criticism is a serious canard and diversion when applied to them.

Juan has pointed it out in one way, and it really is rather easy to see that the Marxist conception of the state, as especially articulated by Engels in _The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State_ and Lenin in _The State and Revolution_ is saturated with the role of the state in class relations, relations between irreconcilibly antagonistic, oppressing and oppressed classes. It takes almost wilful blindness not to see this in reading Engels and Lenin, not to mention historical amnesia about who it was who focussed everybody on "class relations" and class struggle in the first place.  It is sort of like claiming that Einstein didn't pay enough attention to relativity in his analysis of physics.


>From _The State and Revolution_

The State: a Product of the Irreconcilability of Class Antagonisms
Special Bodies of Armed Men, Prisons, etc.
The State: an Instrument for the Exploitation of the Oppressed Class

....Let us being with the most popular of Engels' works, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, the sixth edition of which was published in Stuttgart as far back as 1894. We have to translate the quotations from the German originals, as the Russian translations, while very numerous, are for the most part either incomplete or very unsatisfactory.

Summing up his historical analysis, Engels says:

"The state is, therefore, by no means a power forced on society from without; just as little is it 'the reality of the ethical idea', 'the image and reality of reason', as Hegel maintains. Rather, it is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms, these classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power, seemingly standing above society, that would alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of 'order'; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state."

(pp.177-78, sixth edition)

This expresses with perfect clarity the basic idea of Marxism with regard to the historical role and the meaning of the state. The state is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. The state arises where, when and insofar as class antagonism objectively cannot be reconciled. And, conversely, the existence of the state proves that the class antagonisms are irreconcilable.

....Engels continues:

"As distinct from the old gentile [tribal or clan] order, the state, first, divides its subjects according to territory...."

This division seems "natural" to us, but it costs a prolonged struggle against the old organization according to generations or tribes.

"The second distinguishing feature is the establishment of a public power which no longer directly coincides with the population organizing itself as an armed force. This special, public power is necessary because a self-acting armed organization of the population has become impossible since the split into classes.... This public power exists in every state; it consists not merely of armed men but also of material adjuncts, prisons, and institutions of coercion of all kinds, of which gentile [clan] society knew nothing...."

Engels elucidates the concept the concept of the "power" which is called the state, a power which arose from society but places itself above it and alienates itself more and more from it. What does this power mainly consist of? It consists of special bodies of armed men having prisons, etc., at their command.

We are justified in speaking of special bodies of armed men, because the public power which is an attribute of every state "does not directly coincide" with the armed population, with its "self-acting armed organization".

Like all great revolutionary thinkers, Engels tries to draw the attention of the class-conscious workers to what prevailing philistinism regards as least worthy of attention, as the most habitual thing, hallowed by prejudices that are not only deep-rooted but, one might say, petrified. A standing army and police are the chief instruments of state power. But how can it be otherwise?

>From the viewpoint of the vast majority of Europeans of the end of the 19th century, whom Engels was addressing, and who had not gone through or closely observed a single great revolution, it could not have been otherwise. They could not understand at all what a "self-acting armed organization of the population" was. When asked why it became necessary to have special bodies of armed men placed above society and alienating themselves from it (police and a standing army), the West-European and Russian philistines are inclined to utter a few phrases borrowed from Spencer of Mikhailovsky, to refer to the growing complexity of social life, the differentiation of functions, and so on.

Such a reference seems "scientific", and effectively lulls the ordinary person to sleep by obscuring the important and basic fact, namely, the split of society into irreconcilable antagonistic classes.

Were it not for this split, the "self-acting armed organization of the population" would differ from the primitive organization of a stick-wielding herd of monkeys, or of primitive men, or of men united in clans, by its complexity, its high technical level, and so on. But such an organization would still be possible.

It is impossible because civilized society is split into antagonistic, and, moreover, irreconcilably antagonistic classes, whose "self-acting" arming would lead to an armed struggle between them. A state arises, a special power is created, special bodies of armed men, and every revolution, by destroying the state apparatus, shows us the naked class struggle, clearly shows us how the ruling class strives to restore the special bodies of armed men which serve it, and how the oppressed class strives to create a new organization of this kind, capable of serving the exploited instead of the exploiters.

In the above argument, Engels raises theoretically the very same question which every great revolution raises before us in practice, palpably and, what is more, on a scale of mass action, namely, the question of the relationship between "special" bodies of armed men and the "self-acting armed organization of the population". We shall see how this question is specifically illustrated by the experience of the European and Russian revolutions.

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