The State

Socialism encompasses two quite different theories of the state, one Marxist and the other social democratic.


Marxists aim to overthrow the state

Social Democrats aim to change the state from within.

Revolutionary socialists see the state as a tool of the bourgeoisie, which reinforces the inequality and selfishness of capitalism. Most revolutionary socialists follow the lead of Marx and Engels, who believe that the state will no longer be needed once the communist revolution is complete.

● Conversely, democratic socialists like Beatrice Webb argue that an expansion of the state is needed to plan and enforce reforms such as equality of opportunity, equality of outcome and redistributive economic policy. Capitalism would gradually be replaced by socialism.

● Social democrats argue that the role of the state is to reform capitalism.

● Social democrats like Anthony Crosland argued that it is the state’s job to deliver social equality and social justice.

● Social democrats argue that the state, utilising Keynesian economics, will manage the economy to ensure continual high employment, low inflation and growth. They argue that the state will use the proceeds of its wise economic management to counter capitalism’s inequality via a redistribution of wealth through equality of welfare.

● Third Way socialists like Anthony Giddens argue that citizens should be stakeholders within society and that the state should undertake ‘social investment’, investing in social infrastructure such as education and training.

● The Third Way argues that the state should not do too much as it will create a dependency culture. Therefore citizens have a responsibility to take advantage of what the state is offering.

● The Third Way argues against ‘top-down’ state intervention, preferring free-market participation in the delivery of public services.

 Marxism offers an analysis of state power that fundamentally challenges the liberal image of the state as a neutral arbiter or umpire. Marxists argue that the state cannot be understood as separate from the economic structure of society: the state emerges out of the class system, its function being to maintain and defend the oppression and exploitation. The classic Marxist view is expressed in Marx and Engels’ often-quoted dictum from The Communist Manifesto (1848; in Engels, [1848] 1976):

 ‘the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’. 

Lenin, in The State and Revolution (1964), emphasized that the state is merely a tool for the oppression of the exploited class. If the state is biased towards capital, political reform becomes pointless. Universal suffrage and competitive elections are seen as a facade to hide the reality of class power. The working class must overthrow the bourgeois state through revolution to build socialism. The choice between revolutionary and insurrectionary means has significant implications for socialism. Revolution allows for the creation of a new social system, but it can also lead to dictatorship and political repression. Social democrats, on the other hand, believed that political democracy could change the nature of state power, allowing all social classes to influence the state. They advocated for gradualism and evolution towards socialism, a view associated with the Fabian Society in the UK. 

If the state is a ‘bourgeois state’, inevitably biased in favour of capital over labour, political reform and gradual change are clearly pointless. Universal suffrage and regular and competitive elections are, at best, a façade, their purpose being to conceal the reality of equal class power and to misdirect the political energies of the working class. A class-conscious proletariat thus has no alternative: to build socialism it has first to overthrow the bourgeois state through revolution. The choice of revolutionary or insurrectionary political means had profound consequences for socialism. For instance, the use of revolution usually relates to the pursuit of fundamentalist ends. Revolution has the advantage that it allowed the remnants of the old order to be overthrown and an entirely new social system to be constructed. Capitalism could be abolished and a qualitatively different socialist society established in its place. Socialism, in this context, usually took the form of state collectivisation, modeled on the Soviet Union during the Stalinist period. The revolutionary ‘road’ was nevertheless also associated with a drift towards dictatorship and the use of political repression.

Social democrats, by contrast, came to believe that the spread of political democracy would fundamentally alter the nature of state power, allowing all social classes, and not merely the ruling bourgeoisie, to exercise influence through the state. They thus adopted an essentially liberal, or pluralist, theory of the state. Indeed, they concluded not only that socialism could be brought about through evolution, or gradualism, but that this process would be inevitable. Such a view was closely associated in the UK with the Fabian Society, formed in 1884. The Fabians, led by Beatrice Webb and her husband Sidney Webb (1859–1947), and including noted intellectuals such as George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) and H. G. Wells (1856–1946), took their name from the Roman general Fabius Maximus, who was noted for the patient and defensive tactics he employed in defeating Hannibal’s invading armies. In their view, socialism would develop naturally and peacefully out of liberal capitalism through a combination of political action and education. Fabian confidence in what they called ‘the inevitability of gradualism’ was rooted in the belief that the progressive extension of the franchise would eventually place power in the hands of the numerically dominant class, the working class, and thereby ensure the electoral success of socialist parties. Once in power, these parties would be able to carry out a fundamental transformation of society through a process of social reform. In the Fabian view, the advance of socialism was linked to the progressive expansion of the state, allowing a class of experts and technocrats, who had been ‘permeated’ with socialist ideas, to manage society for the benefit of the working classes.