The State and the Ruling Class[1]

Teo Velissaris

May 20, 2022

Marxologists today tend to respect Marx’s critique of political economy more than his critique of politics. Anecdotes prove nothing, but it was very telling for me when, several years ago, I encountered John Holloway in a university building occupied by anarchists in Thessaloniki, Greece, where he was invited to speak. I asked him about Marx’s political writings, and he replied that they were stupid whereas his political economic ones were brilliant. Ever since then, I have wondered whether this underestimation of Marx’s politics is not an index of the Left’s growing political irrelevance, not to mention a case of “sour grapes.”


I want to examine one question regarding Marx and Engels’ writings on the problem of the state: Is it an instrument of the ruling class? This necessitates a detour into Marxology. I wish I could say that such an article addresses the “burning questions of our movement” and that it is a significant practical intervention through theory, as was, most obviously, Lenin’s State and Revolution. But even if reality thwarts such ambitions, the question has its own relevance as a means of tracking regression on the Left.


Rethinking Marxism’s understanding of the state is especially timely given the gigantism of the state in recent years, a trend the Left has largely ignored if not enabled. In the face of recent phenomena—ranging from the huge bank bailouts to the massive green-transition subsidies; from the draconian COVID response and rescue packages, and the colossal budget bills and budget deficits, to the growing militarism, rearmament, and the accompanying military spending—one wonders whether Marx’s formulations such as the following even make sense today: “The Commune made that catchword of bourgeois revolutions—cheap government—a reality by destroying the two greatest sources of expenditure: the standing army and state functionarism.”[2]


What underlies the Left’s response to this hypertrophy of the state? The pattern that characterized the 20th century still persists—socialism is widely conflated, not only on the Right but on the Left, with statism. Instead of attempting to facilitate the working class’s assumption of political responsibility for the problem of the state through its independent organizations, the Left has taken to pushing capitalist parties to adopt or oppose specific state policies. Consequently, it is increasingly difficult to even recognize how Marxism understood itself, not only as distinct from other flavors of socialism and from anarchism, but also from statist liberalism. It is revealing that criticisms of the state, or even of the “deep state,” come today from the Right more than the Left. So, is Marxism different from progressive liberalism?


It is commonly thought today that Marxism regards the existing state apparatus as neutral and, thus, as amenable to socialist ambitions. But Lenin in his State and Revolution praises Marx and Engels for grasping the experience of the Paris Commune, that it showed that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.”[3] Lenin quoted Marx to this effect: “the next attempt of the French Revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it, and this is the precondition for every real people's revolution on the Continent.”[4]


How can the state be conceived as a “ready-made machine”? Only as a tool. An axe, for exampl