Gentiles and bureaucrats


Marx’s bromancer Friedrich Engels further developed Marx’s theory of the state.

Engels, in his 1884 “The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State,” wrote that the state emerged on top of the decay of the “gentile constitution” (or tribal social rules), which was organized in territorially and demographically homogenous groups and where no formal law existed.[i] Increased division of labor and commerce breaks up this traditional order, and people are divided into classes. The classes would either be in “continuous, open struggle”, or “under the rule of a third power which, while ostensibly standing above the classes struggling with each other, suppressed their open conflict and permitted a class struggle at most in the economic field, in a so-called legal form.” (Engels, 2004, at 156-157)


The state is therefore a “product of society at a certain stage of development,” which arises out of society but is increasingly alienated from society so that the classes do not destroy themselves or each other. Unlike tribal society, it organizes across territories, and has a “public power” component of armed military and police, which “grows stronger… in proportion as class antagonisms within the state become more acute, and as adjacent states become larger and more populous.” (Engels, 2004, at 157-158) In other words, the size of the state is endogenously influenced by class struggle, and exogenously influenced through freestanding militaristic calculations. Another distinguishing feature of the state is the system of taxation necessitated by military endeavors.  “Officials” standing above society with special taxation privileges require “exceptional laws” to enforce their will but which they do not have to follow. The price of these privileges is a loss of legitimacy relative to the tribal chiefs.


While “as a rule”, the state is “of the most powerful, economically dominant class”; “periods [exceptionally] occur in which the warring classes balance each other so nearly that the state power, as ostensible mediator, acquires, for the moment, a certain degree of independence of both.” (Engels, 2004, at 159) In other words, the state under capitalism can never be wholly independent of the capitalists, but there is some space for autonomy at moments of working class ascendancy.[ii]


Engels writes that the identification of states with ruling classes is particularly obvious in societies where the property-less have no political rights. But even under a democracy, “which under our modern conditions of society is more and more becoming an inevitable necessity, and is the form of state in which alone the last decisive struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie can be fought out,” the wealthy exercise their power indirectly, such as through corruption, bond markets, and the granting of voting rights to workers. Worker oppression leads them to believe that capitalism is inevitable, and as such, their political parties “will form the tail of the capitalist class.”[iii] However, at some point, the channel of universal suffrage will lead the working class to express its will, at which point (echoing Marx), Engels believed the state would “inevitably fall.” (Engels, 2004, at 160)


[i] Engels wrote that, “And a wonderful constitution it is, this gentile constitution, in all its childlike simplicity! No soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits – and everything takes its orderly course. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole of the community affected, by the gens or the tribe, or by the gentes among themselves; only as an extreme and exceptional measure is blood revenge threatened-and our capital punishment is nothing but blood revenge in a civilized form, with all the advantages and drawbacks of civilization. Although there were many more matters to be settled in common than today – the household is maintained by a number of families in common, and is communistic, the land belongs to the tribe, only the small gardens are allotted provisionally to the households – yet there is no need for even a trace of our complicated administrative apparatus with all its ramifications. The decisions are taken by those concerned, and in most cases everything has been already settled by the custom of centuries.” (Engels, 2004, at 95-96)

[ii] Engels does not here analyze the potential for conflict between the working class and state officials that could conceivably come from its independent features, i.e. territorial subdividing, militarism, or taxation powers, or the special legal regimes granting it nominal independence.

[iii] Engels has a curious intersection here with later Austrian thinkers, who believe that exceptional complexity makes rationality impossible or unlikely, respectively. Austrian thinkers believed that this complexity was insurmountable, and that the spontaneous order that served everyone’s interest emerged precisely because of non-purposive interactions of individuals. Nonetheless, highly disciplined individuals like judges or economists could be able to see the mechanisms at work. (Hayek, 2012) Marxists believed that there was an order that no individual capitalist created, but which served their interests and could be detected through class consciousness.  





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