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Marxist Theory of State

Marxism is a critique to liberalism, hence Marxist theory of the state is a critique of the liberal capitalist theory of the state.

Origin of the state.
Force theory – state is not the result of the contract but state is the result of the subjugation of weak by the strong.

Functions of the state.
Instrument of coercion. It works in the interest of capitalist class.

Nature of the state.
State is not neutral but class institution. It protects the interest of the dominant class.

Theories of State in Marxism

1] Instrumentalists (Marx, Lenin, Ralph Miliband).
2] Structuralist / relative autonomy (Marx, Gramsci, Althusser, Nicos Poulantzas).

1] Instrumentalists theory


Marx has analyzed the nature of state in the advanced capitalist society. e.g. Britain.  In the word of Marx “State is the executive committee of the capitalist class.” Executive committee shows that state implements the order. It means state does not even make laws. 
State in capitalist society represent the dictatorship of minority and in socialism, the dictatorship of majority. Thus state is a class institution. State exists so long classes exist. State ‘withers away’ when classes end.
In the words of Lenin ” State represent irreconcilability  of class antagonism.”

It implies that state is not neutral arbitral, it is an instrument of dominant class.  So long classes exist, state exist. The very existence of state show that class conflict cannot be resolved. Hence the only way to get justice is by revolution, capture the capitalist state.

Ralph Miliband

He has analyzed the nature of the state in ‘post capitalist societies’. laissez fare capitalism is capitalism whereas, welfare state capitalism is post capitalism. Thus Miliband has analyzed the nature of welfare state. THE NATURE OF STATE IN CAPITALIST SOCIETY
He wanted to enquire whether welfare state has brought any significant change in the lives of poor/ working classes. He found that there is no qualitative change in the lives of poor even after the introduction of the welfare state. He analyzed western liberal democracies and found that despite welfare state, there is a inequitable distribution of wealth. Wealth remains concentrated in the hands of few. Hence the class which controls the economic structure, continues to control the political structure.
According to him bureaucracy, judiciary in these states continue to be highly elitist. Hence the decision making continues to be in favor of rich. He has exploded the myth of ‘managerial revolution’.
Managerial revolution is a concept given by James Burnham which suggests that the nature of capitalism has changed. Originally power was with the capitalist class, but now the decision making power in the industry has shifted to the managerial class. It is an open class. Persons belonging to any social background can become managers. Even the son or daughter of working class can be a manager, hence all the decisions in the industry are not necessarily only in the favor of capitalists.
According to Miliband, managerial revolution is a myth. It is extremely difficult for the sons and daughters of working classes to become managers until and unless they are exceptionally talented. Thus there is no change in the nature of capitalism, no change in the nature of state.

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2] Structuralist theory

State is not just the reflection of the base, state is also a structure in itself. It means state is not just an instrument, it may have relative autonomy from the base. It is not completely independent, only relatively independent. It suggests that, there are instances when a state may not act on the instructions of the capitalist classes.
Marx has given the relative autonomy theory in his book THE 18TH BRUMAIRE OF LOUIS BONAPARTE. (Nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte). In this book, Marx has given the concept of Bonapartism: the state where executive is strongest.

Marx’s thesis of relative autonomy

Nature of the state will be determined by the historical conditions.  When capitalism is advanced, capitalists are organized, state becomes their instrument.  However in some societies, a single class may not be controlling the entire basic structure e.g. Strong feudal class exists. Strong capitalist class exists. Workers are also organized. In such situations single class will not dominate. State ceases to be the instrument of a particular class.  State becomes equilibrium maker among competing classes.  Power will get tilted to whichever class state joins. It gives lot of bargaining power to the state.


When a single class is not dominant, multiple classes are existing, it gives rise to Bonapartism. In such situation, no class alone is able to dominate the economic structure e.g. a country may have strong capitalist class, feudal class as well as organized working class. In this situation, single class will not be able to dominate.
In such situation, state gets leverage. State gets bargaining power over the classes. Since state gains bargaining power, it does not act as an instrument of a particular class. It goes for making strategic equations with different classes at different times. It gives the illusion of autonomy which means neutrality. State appears to be a equilibrium maker. [ Relative autonomy theory brings Marx’s theory near to the liberal view on the state. ]

Why state is not completely autonomous and only ‘relatively autonomous’.
Here comes the basic difference between Marxism and Liberalism. Marx continue to believe that economic structure is the basic structure. It implies that state is not fully autonomous. In normal situations state will appear neutral, but in crisis situations state will always intervene on behalf of the rich. Ex1. The state in West Bengal led by communist party, projected itself to be the protector of the interest of poor, however in case of people’s protests against Nano project, state ultimately used force on the people. The consequence has been communist party losing power and Mamata Banerji, could project herself as the protector of masses. Ex2. State under Obama in USA. Democrats are supposed to be pro-poor, however at the time of global financial crisis, state had bailed out the bankers whereas used force against people protesting against rising inequalities, in the form of the protest movement known as ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement.


He has analyzed the nature of states in western liberal democracies and concluded that welfare state in general does not exist as a instrument of a particular class because of,
1) Introduction of universal adult franchise i.e. Right to vote for poor.
2) Competitive party system – there is a cut throat competition in politics and each party has to maximize its support. Hence the manifesto of each party has something for every class.   However Poulantzas also believe that state is only ‘relatively autonomous’. Why? Because in crisis situations state will ultimately favor the rich.


Althusser has added multi-structural approach considered state as a structure. He gives the concept of interpellation, which is done through ‘ideological state apparatus’. There is a least resistance because of invisibility.

Studies for this topic should be combined with studies from
1. Karl Marx ( Topic 10, western thinkers).
2. Gramsci (Topic 10, western thinkers).
3. Marxism (Topic 8, political ideologies).

Test Your Knowledge!

1] Which of the following statements is NOT correct regarding Marxist theory of state?
a) State is a result of subjugation of the weak by the strong
b) It was established after a contract between capitalist and working class
c) It works in the interest of the capitalist class
d) “State is the executive Committee of the capitalist class”

Show Answer

Ans: b) It was established after a contract between capitalist and working class

2] Who believed in the structuralist theory of state?
a) Gramsci
b) Marx
c) Lenin
d) Miliband

Show Answer

Ans: a) Gramsci

3] While analysing welfare state capitalism, Miliband found
a) There is qualitative change in the lives of poors in welfare state
b) Children of working class could influence decision making as managers
c) Equitable distribution of wealth
d) The concept of ‘managerial revolution’ is a myth

Show Answer

Ans: d) The concept of ‘managerial revolution’ is a myth

4] Marx’s theory of relative autonomy of state is applicable when
a) Capitalism is at an advanced stage
b) Feudalism is at an advanced stage
c) Socialism is at an advanced stage
d) No single class dominates

Show Answer

Ans: d) No single class dominates

5] Which of the following statements is correct?
a) Lenin is the author of ‘The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’
b) Managerial revolution refers to shift in decision making powers ro the working class
c) According to Poulantzas, competitive party system prevents state from becoming instrument of any one class
d) Gramsci believes in instrumentalist theory of state

Show Answer

Ans: c) According to Poulantzas, competitive party system prevents state from becoming instrument of any one class

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