Marxist Perspective

  • Class perspective on the state is associated with Marxism. According to the class theory, the state comes into existence when society is divided into two antagonistic classes, one owning the means of social production and the other being constrained to live on its labour.
  • In other words, it is the emergence of ‘private property’ that divides society into two conflicting classes. Those owning the means of production acquire the power to dominate the other class not only in the economic sphere but in all spheres of life. There are two perspectives on state in Marxism :
    1. Instrumentalist (Marx, Lenin, Ralph Miliband)
    2. Structuralist or relative autonomy (Marx, Gramsci, Althusser, Nicos Poulantzas)


  • Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: The Marxist theory of the state originated from the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, particularly in their seminal work, “The Communist Manifesto” and “Capital.” They analyzed the role of the state in capitalist societies and its relationship with the ruling class.
  • Historical materialism: The Marxist theory of the state is rooted in historical materialism, which asserts that social change is driven by material conditions and class struggle. Marxists argue that the state emerges as a result of the contradictions and conflicts inherent in the capitalist mode of production.

The concept

  • State as an instrument of class domination: According to Marxists, the state is not a neutral entity but rather an instrument of class domination, serving the interests of the ruling class and maintaining the existing social order.
  • Reflection of the economic base: The Marxist theory of state posits that the state is a reflection of the economic base of society, meaning that the structure and functions of the state are determined by the dominant mode of production and the class relations within it.
  • Class struggle and revolution: Marxists argue that the state arises from class struggle and is maintained through the use of force and coercion. They believe that the ultimate goal is to overthrow the capitalist state through revolution and establish a classless society.
  • Dictatorship of the proletariat: The Marxist theory of state envisions a transitional phase after the revolution, known as the dictatorship of the proletariat, where the working class holds political power and uses the state apparatus to suppress the bourgeoisie.
  • Withering away of the state: Marxists believe that in the long run, as class distinctions disappear and a communist society is achieved, the state will gradually wither away as it becomes unnecessary for the functioning of society.
  • Economic determinism: The theory emphasizes the primacy of economic factors in shaping political and social structures, arguing that the state is ultimately a product of the economic relations and contradictions within a given society.
  • Critique of bourgeois democracy: Marxists criticize bourgeois democracy as a form of political rule that masks the underlying class inequalities and perpetuates the dominance of the bourgeoisie.
  • 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.

Instrumentalist Perspective

  • State as a tool: The instrumentalist model views the state as a tool or instrument used by the ruling class to maintain their power and control over society. The state is seen as a means to achieve the interests and goals of the ruling class.
  • Economic determinism: According to this model, the state’s actions and policies are determined by economic factors. The ruling class uses the state to protect and promote their economic interests, such as ensuring a favorable business environment and protecting private property.
  • Class struggle: The instrumentalist model emphasizes the role of class struggle in shaping the state. The state is seen as a battleground where different classes compete for power and influence. The ruling class uses the state to suppress the working class and maintain its dominance.
  • State autonomy: While the instrumentalist model recognizes the state as a tool of the ruling class, it also acknowledges that the state has a certain degree of autonomy. The state can act independently and make decisions that may not always align with the immediate interests of the ruling class.
  • State’s role in crisis: The instrumentalist model argues that the state plays a crucial role during times of crisis or instability. In such situations, the state may intervene in the economy, regulate markets, and implement policies to stabilize the system and protect the interests of the ruling class.
  • State’s role in maintaining legitimacy: The state also plays a role in maintaining its own legitimacy and the stability of the ruling class. It uses various mechanisms such as propaganda, ideology, and repression to ensure that the working class accepts the existing social order and does not challenge the ruling class.

Structural Perspective

Karl Marx

  • In his book ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, Marx has given the structural perspective. In this book, Marx give the concept of ‘Bonapartist state’. The term has been used more generally for a political movement that advocated a dictatorship or an authoritarian centralized state, with a strongman charismatic leader based on anti-elitist rhetoric, army support, and conservatism.
  • Marxism and Leninism developed a vocabulary of political terms that included Bonapartism, derived from their analysis of the career of Napoleon Bonaparte.
    • Karl Marx was a student of Jacobinism and the French Revolution, and was a contemporary critic of the Second Republic and the Second Empire.
    • He used “Bonapartism” to refer to a situation in which counterrevolutionary military officers seize power from revolutionaries, and use selective reforms to co-opt the radicalism of the popular classes.
    • Marx argued that in the process, Bonapartists preserve and mask the power of a narrower ruling class.
  • Marx believed that both Napoleon I and Napoleon III had corrupted revolutions in France. Marx offered this definition of and analysis of Bonapartism in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, written in 1852. In this document, he drew attention to what he calls the phenomenon’s repetitive history with one of his most quoted lines, typically condensed aphoristically as: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.”
  • Marx believed that a Bonapartist regime could exert great power, because there was no class with enough confidence or power to firmly establish its authority in its own name. A leader who appeared to stand above the class struggle could take the mantle of power. He believed that this was an inherently unstable situation, as the apparently all-powerful leader would be swept aside when the class struggle in society was resolved.
  • In his book ,’The Civil war in France ’, Marx writes that Bonapartism is the only form of government possible at a time when the bourgeoise have already lost and the working class has not yet acquired the faculty of ruling the nation. Engels also noted elsewhere that time comes when warring classes balance each other so nearly that state power acquires a degree of independence . These formulations provide the background for the relative autonomy theory.

Antonio Gramsci

  • Antonio Gramsci , a neo-Marxist, was first to concede relative autonomy of the state in the tradition of Marxist thought. Gramsci made a clear distinction between two levels of superstructure:
    • (a) political society which represented state power and relied on force for exercising its domination; and
    • (b) civil society which was closer to the base and relied on consent for exercising its domination.
    • While political society or ‘the state’ exercised ‘direct domination’ or command through the institution of ‘juridical’ government, civil society exercised ‘hegemony’ throughout society which represented a web of beliefs and institutional as well as social relations. In effect civil society legitimized the rule of the bourgeoisie so that nobody would challenge its supremacy.

Louis Althusser

  • Louis Althusser (on Interpellation, and the Ideological State Apparatus)
    • One central concept in Althusser’s writings is ideology. In his ‘Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays’ published in 1970, Althusser viewed ideology as inescapable, he also came to argue that it is realized in real actions and behaviors.
    • Within this framework, Althusser introduces the concept of interpellation, which offers a particular identity, which people accept as “natural” or “obvious.” In this way, the dominant class exerts a power over individuals that is quite different from abject force. According to Althusser, individuals are interpellated from the day that they are born—and perhaps even before, since parents and others conceive of the role and identity that their child will assume.
    • With this concept of interpellation, Althusser implies that there is no inherent meaning in the individual. There are no individuals: only subjects, who come into being when they are hailed or interpellated by ideology. Instead, the subject exists only as he or she is recognized in a specific way that has a social structure as its referent. The subject is thus preceded by social forces, or “always-already interpellated.”
    • This act of hailing the subject is effected by what Althusser terms “Ideological State Apparatuses” (ISAs). While Repressive State Apparatuses (RSAs), such as the police force and military, function primarily by repression, ISAs are churches, schools, families, religion, and other entities in the private domain and function primarily by ideology. RSAs show themselves rarely; ISAs are commonly accepted features of a society. ISAs reinforce the hegemonic rule of the dominant class by replicating its dominant ideology.
    • According to Althusser, schools are a particularly important ISA because teachers hold captive the undivided attention of their students in what is supposedly a neutral environment, thus rendering the content taught “obvious.”
  • To summarize:
    • “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence”
    • “Ideology has a material existence”
    • “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects”.
    • “individuals are always-already subjects”

Miliband–Poulantzas Debate


  • Ralph Miliband has accepted the unity of state power and class power. His view is described as ‘instrumentalist theory of the state’. He adheres to the classical Marxist position that the state is invariably an instrument of class power.
  • When Miliband ,in 1962 conceived The State in Capitalist Society to show the continuing power of big business both inside and outside of the state, he was challenging the hegemony of both the pluralist theory of politics (that power in Western societies was competitive, fragmented, and diffused) and of post-war Keynesian economic theory (that public policy was autonomous from capitalist interests).
  • Miliband’s writings are most notable for re-establishing an instrumentalist theory of the state. Miliband suggests that Marx provided a conceptual foundation for the socioeconomic analysis of capitalist societies, Lenin provided guidance for a political analysis, and Gramsci supplied the conceptual apparatus for a cultural and ideological analysis of capitalist societies. Miliband was convinced that the central thesis and conceptual structure of Marxist political theory was effectively in place and therefore what Marxist political theory needed was more empirical and historical analysis to give concrete content to this thesis and its associated concepts.
  • One of the most direct indicators of ruling-class domination of the state is the degree to which members of the capitalist class control the state apparatus through interlocking positions in the governmental, administrative, coercive, and other apparatuses. Miliband emphasizes that: “It is these institutions in which ‘state power’ lies, and it is through them that this power is wielded in its different manifestations by the people who occupy the leading positions in each of these institutions”
  • The statement made in the opening sentence of Miliband’s concluding chapter — that “the most important political fact about the advanced capitalist societies . . . is the continued existence in them of private and ever more concentrated economic power”.
  • Despite crude charges of instrumentalism, Miliband’s book in fact articulated very clearly his awareness that the dominant classes “are not solid, congealed economic and social blocs,” and he explicitly argued that it was precisely for this reason that they “require political formations which reconcile, coordinate and fuse their interests.”


  • Poulantzas (‘Political Power and social class’), on the other hand, has drawn a clear distinction between the position of the capitalist class and the state power . His view is described as ‘structuralist theory of the state’.
  • He has conceded the relative autonomy of the state, He has argued that class domination is not automatically translated into state power and the state cannot properly be regarded simply as the instrument of a class. The state enhances its legitimacy by ‘invoking the authority of’the people’.
  • The capitalist class enhances its legitimacy by dissociating itself from state repression. Relative autonomy of the state helps in improving its economic performance on the one hand and promoting capitalist interests on the other. Rejecting Miliband’s concept of the unity of class and state power, Poulantzas treats the state itself as an arena of class struggle.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments