[ENGLISH-COURSE] The Origins of the State and State-building - Marxist Approaches to the State

*Written by Bob Jessop, ‘The State and State-Building’, on The Oxford Handbooks of Political Science, 2006


State formation is not a once-and-for-all process nor did the state develop in just one place and then spread elsewhere. It has been invented many times, had its ups and downs, and seen recurrent cycles of centralization and decentralization, territorialization and deterritorialization. This is a rich field for political archeology, political anthropology, historical sociology, comparative politics, evolutionary institutional economics, historical materialism, and international relations. Although its origins have been explained in various monocausal ways, none of these provides a convincing general explanation.

Marxists focus on the emergence of economic surplus to enable development of specialized, economically unproductive political apparatus concerned to secure cohesion in a (class-)divided society (see, classically, Engels’ (1875) Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State); military historians focus on the role of military conquest in state-building and/or the demands of defense of territorial integrity in the expansion of state capacities to penetrate and organize society (Hintze’s (e.g. 1975) work is exemplary; see also Porter 1994). Others emphasize the role of a specialized priesthood and organized religion (or other forms of ideological power) in giving symbolic unity to the population governed by the state (Claessen and Skalnik 1978).

Feminist theorists have examined the role of patriarchy in state formation and the state’s continuing role in reproducing gender divisions. And yet other scholars focus on the ‘‘imagined political communities’’ around which nation states have been constructed (classically Anderson 1991).

The best approach is multicausal and recognizes that states change continually, are liable to break down, and must be rebuilt in new forms, with new capacities and functions, new scales of operation, and a predisposition to new types of failure. In this context, as Mann (1986) notes, the state is polymorphous—its organization and capacities can be primarily capitalist, military, theocratic, or democratic in character and its dominant crystallization is liable to challenge as well as conjunctural variation.

There is no guarantee that the modern state will always (or ever) be primarily capitalist in character and, even where capital accumulation is deeply embedded in its organizational matrix, it typically takes account of other functional demands and civil society in order to promote institutional integration and social cohesion within its territorial boundaries. Whether it succeeds is another matter.
Modern state formation has been analyzed from four perspectives.

First, the state’s ‘‘historical constitution’’ is studied in terms of path-dependent histories or genealogies of particular parts of the modern state (such as a standing army, modern tax system, formal bureaucracy, parliament, universal suffrage, citizenship rights, and recognition by other states).

Second, work on ‘‘formal constitution’’ explores how a state acquires, if at all, its distinctive formal features as a modern state, such as formal separation from other spheres of society, its own political rationale, modus operandi, and distinctive constitutional legitimation, based on adherence to its own political procedures rather than values such as divine right or natural law.

Third, agency-centered theorizations focus on state projects that give a substantive (as opposed to formal) unity to state actions and whose succession defines different types of state, for example, liberal state, welfare state, competition state.

And, fourth, configurational analyses explore the distinctive character of state–civil society relations and seek to locate state formation within wider historical developments. Eisenstadt’s (1963) work on the rise and fall of bureaucratic empires, Elias’s (1982) work on the state and civilization, and Rokkan’s (1999) work on European state formation over the last 400–500 years are exemplary here.


Marx’s and Engels’ work on the state comprises diverse philosophical, theoretical, journalistic, partisan, ad hominem, or purely ad hoc comments. This is reflected in  the weaknesses of later Marxist state theories, both analytically and practically, and has prompted many attempts to complete the Marxist theory of the state based on selective interpretations of these writings. There were two main axes around which these views moved. Epiphenomenalist accounts mainly interpreted state forms and functions as more or less direct reflections of underlying economic structures and interests.
These views were sometimes modified to take account of the changing stages of capitalism and the relative stability or crisis-prone nature of capitalism. Instrumentalist accounts treated the state as a simple vehicle for political class rule, moving as directed by those in charge. For some tendencies and organizations (notably in the social democratic movement) instrumentalism could justify a parliamentary democratic road to socialism based on the electoral conquest of power, state planning, or nationalization of leading industrial sectors. 

Others argued that parliamentary democracy was essentially bourgeois and that extra-parliamentary mobilization and a new form of state were crucial to make and consolidate a proletarian revolution. Frankfurt School critical theorists examined the interwar trends towards a strong, bureaucratic state—whether authoritarian or totalitarian in form. They argued that this corresponded to the development of organized or state capitalism, relied increasingly on the mass media for its ideological power, and had integrated the trade union movement as a political support or else smashed it as part of the consolidation of totalitarian rule.

Marxist interest revived in the 1960s and 1970s in response to the apparent ability of the Keynesian welfare national state to manage the postwar economy in advanced capitalist societies and the alleged ‘‘end of ideology’’ that accompanied postwar economic growth. Marxists initially sought to prove that, notwithstanding the postwar boom, contemporary states could not really suspend capital’s contradictions and crisis tendencies and that the state remained a key factor in class domination.

The relative autonomy of the state was much debated in the 1970s and 1980s. Essentially this topic concerned the relative freedom of the state (or, better, state managers) to pursue policies that conflicted with the immediate interests of the dominant economic class(es) without becoming so autonomous that they could undermine their long-term interests too. This was one of the key themes in the notoriously difficult Miliband–Poulantzas debate in the 1970s between an alleged instrumentalist and a purported determinist, respectively. This controversy generated much heat but little light because it was based as much on diffrent presentational strategies as it was on real theoretical differences.

Thus Miliband’s (1969) work began by analyzing the social origins and current interests of economic and political elites and then proceeded to analyze more fundamental features of actually existing states in a capitalist society and the constraints on its autonomy.

Poulantzas (1973) began with the overall institutional framework of capitalist societies, defined the ideal-typical capitalist type of state (a constitutional democratic state based on the rule of law), then explored the typical forms of political class struggle in bourgeois democracies (concerned with winning active consent for a national-popular project), and concluded with an analysis of the relative autonomy of state managers. Whilst not fully abandoning his earlier approach, Poulantzas later argued that the state is a social relation (see above).

The best work in this period formulated two key insights with a far wider relevance.

First, some Marxists explored how the typical form of the capitalist state actually caused problems rather than guaranteed its overall functionality for capital accumulation and political class domination. For the state’s institutional separation from the market economy, a separation that was regarded as a necessary and defining feature of capitalist societies, results in the dominance of different (and potentially contradictory) institutional logics and modes of calculation in state and economy. There is no certainty that political outcomes will serve the needs of capital—even if (and, indeed, precisely because) the state is operationally autonomous and subject to politically-mediated constraints and pressures. This conclusion fuelled work on the structural contradictions, strategic dilemmas, and historically conditioned development of specific state forms. It also prompted interest in the complex interplay of social struggles and institutions.

And, second, as noted above, Marxist theorists began to analyze state power as a complex social relation. This involved studies of different states’ structural selectivity and the factors that shaped their strategic capacities. Attention was paid to the variability of these capacities, their organization and exercise, and their differential impact on the state power and states’ capacities to project power into social realms well beyond their own institutional boundaries. As with the first set of insights, this also led to more complex studies of struggles, institutions, and political capacities (see Barrow 1993; Jessop 2001).

Next Post »