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The Practical Justice of Marxism’s Vision for a Worker’s State

By Rainer Shea

The version of justice put forth by Karl Marx strikes a practical balance when it comes to the questions of capitalism and the state. It acknowledges the role that the state has in ensuring justice under the present conditions, while not viewing the state as something that will always be needed. Marx comes to this conclusion throughexamining the route that will have to be taken in order to eliminate capitalism, which he concludes is one where a workers state gets built, suppresses capitalism and its remnants, and then vanishes due to society’s newfound lack of need for any state.

The socioeconomic model that Marx sees as optimal for justice to be achieved is apparent from how he defines the version of “justice” which is tied in with the capitalist mode of production. In Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx defines the “bourgeois right” as one which “tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege.” By this, he means the ability for people to accrue wealth in unequal proportions, whether based on their differing socioeconomic positions or on their differing abilities to perform labor. 

Under fully developed communism, he writes, the capitalist productive model which allows for wealth to be distributed in this way will be over, and society will have reached what Marx sees as the truly just socioeconomic system. The system where, as Marx writes in Critique, communism has reached a point “after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly.”

The idea that Marx supported the use of the state in facilitating this process is supported by the fact that in Critique of the Gotha Programme, he also describes a transitional stage as being essential for communism’s end goal of a classless, stateless society. In Critique, he writes that during the stages of socialist development prior to that eventual scenario, “What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just 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.” Why does this entail the temporary use of a workers state? Because Friedrich Engels, the partner Marx had in formulating his theories, explained the necessity of such a state in keeping a workers revolution from being undone. In On Authority, Engels writes: “the anti-authoritarians demand that the political state be abolished at one stroke, even before the social conditions that gave birth to it have been destroyed.”

By “the social conditions that gave birth to it,” Engels means the paradigm of class struggle, where the bourgeoisie and the proletariat are engaged in a perpetual battle for dominance. The state is the instrument through which either class can enforce its dominance over the other. And for as long as the bourgeoisie exists, implies Engels, the proletariat will need to use the state to suppress the bourgeoisie. That is until the bourgeois mode of production is made extinct, and the bourgeoisie goes extinct along with it. In The Individual, Society and the State, the anarchist Emma Goldman argues that this isn’t true. That any state, even if it’s a workers democracy, will never simply wither away by its own accord. Goldman writes that “The State, every government whatever its form, character or color — be it absolute or constitutional, monarchy or republic, Fascist, Nazi or Bolshevik — is by its very nature conservative, static, intolerant of change and opposed to it.” By “it,” Goldman meant change.

On the one hand, Marxism acknowledges that Goldman is right about this; indeed, even a Bolshevik-style state won’t give up any control without being prompted by outside factors. But Goldman assumes that the only things which could make a Marxist-Leninist state grow weaker is a revolution, a mass movement against the state’s authority that resorts to violence if necessary. This is true for the capitalist state, but not the case for the socialist state. The difference is that the socialist state was created with the theories of Marx and Engels in mind, and was therefore set up to start giving away its control when prompted by a crucial factor: the shrinking of the power of the bourgeoisie. Because as the bourgeoisie and their instruments of reactionary violence grow weaker, the socialist state’s function—to suppress the bourgeoisie—becomes less needed. Eventually, when communism becomes fully developed, the state’s utility will be totally nonexistent, and the state will therefore vanish.

From the opposite end of the ideological spectrum compared to Goldman, Thomas Hobbes would argue against this idea. He would argue that the state’s extinction is incompatible with justice, because according to him the state is crucial for preventing individual misdeeds. In Leviathan, Hobbes writes that “the laws of nature (as justice, equity, modesty, mercy, and (in sum) doing to others as we would be done to) of themselves, without the terror of some power to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our natural passions, that carry us to partiality, pride, revenge, and the like.” He believed that human nature makes cruelty inevitable without a state around to punish cruel behavior, meaning the Marxist vision of the state’s demise is immoral.

In objecting to Hobbes’ argument is where the perspectives of Marxists and anarchists align. Both of these ideologies take it as a given that after the state is abolished, society will still have adequate ways to hold abusive and unethical individuals accountable. The basis for this idea is that the state is not synonymous with instruments for exacting justice. If someone in a community wrongs another person, that community could rehabilitate the perpetrator, or physically drive them out of the area, or arrange for a process of reconciliation with the victim. The state is not required for such measures. Neither is the “terror” which Hobbes claims to be essential for crime to be disincentivized. All that’s needed is a strong social bond, which is not synonymous with a state or with police.

Goldman and the anarchists recognize this flaw in the Hobbesian position that the state is and always will be indispensable for justice. But they assume that the state should have no role in the transition from capitalism to communism, believing the working class could defend a revolution from capitalist reaction without the help of the state. The analysis of Marx and Engels recognizes both that the state is dispensable when it comes to enforcing justice, and that the state is indispensable for maintaining working class gains for as long as capitalist restoration is possible.

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