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Essay: Essay on Marxism Communist Pluralism | Politics

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Essay on Marxism Communist Pluralism | Politics

The essay will compare two conceptions of statehood that have been formative for political thinking in the twentieth century. Marxism exerted a formidable influence upon politics insofar as it provided a blueprint for Communist regimes across the world and a set of ideological principles for building a new type of society. Pluralism on the other hand articulated a conception of statehood that, at times, even doubted the existence of an independent set of institutions called state (Vincent 187; Dunleavy 42).

Both conceptions of the state contain normative as well as descriptive elements (Vincent 183), and in the course of the essay we need to exercise some caution as to the exact thrust of the argument put forward by Marxists and Pluralists alike. The essay will first of all look at Pluralism and then at how Marxists theorise the state.

I Marxism

How do Marxists define the state? Traditionally Marxists prefer an interpretative approach to the state which owes much to Marx’s critique of capitalism as an unviable model of economic relationships. For Marx economic structure determine the nature of social economic and cultural relationships formed in society. The state was consequently seen as a vehicle to reinforce capitalist modes of production. Although Marx’s writings permit for some interpretation here (Dunleavy 203), there can be no doubt that Marxists would emphasise the repressive character of any state apparatus in society. The state was marked by its functional relationship with the bourgeoisie whose dominant position within society it was charged to uphold. Dunleavy distinguishes between three models of the Marxist theory of the state. The instrumental model runs fairly accurately along the general notion of the state as a executing agency of the will of the bourgeoisie as mentioned above. The arbiter model permits theorists to accommodate a more autonomous role for the state within society. Marx highlighted here the role of the state bureaucracy in particular as a group where autonomous actions could possibly originate.

However even so, the overall effect even of these attempts at formulating a set of interests that are specific to the bureaucrats of the state apparatus is still one of reinforcing the power of the bourgeoisie in society. (Dunleavy 210). The third model views the state in functional terms and stresses that it is best understood as a ‘means of co-ordinating the social organisation of the complex division of labour’ (Dunleavy 210). Given that the division of labour is a prerequisite for the maintenance of bourgeois dominance in capitalist society and economy, even this functional model retains it reference to Marx’s fundamental notion of the state as a repressive instrument in the ensuing class struggle between the antagonistic forces: the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.

The variety of approaches that found their expressions in Marxist thought over the decades leaves one with the impression that Marx failed to develop a ‘unitary theory of the state’ at all (Vincent 147). Any attempt to identify a consistent definition of statehood must fail since Marx uses an interpretative perspective which allows for no independent notions of what a state is. He frames the discussion about the essence of the state with the help of his theory of class struggle, subordinating any definitional attempt to his theory of historical development (Vincent 157). Although he does hint at the broad location of state within his conceptional framework and identifies it as a component of the superstructure, he at the same time, incongruently, asserts that there is no mediation between state and society (Vincent 158).

Marx’s theory of the state may have spawned a whole range of more elaborate versions, but Western scholars often dismiss the work of Communist historians and political scientists as ideologically motivated propaganda. Vincent opines:

‘The subsequent history of Marxist theorizing on the state resembles a form of late medieval scholasticism and appears to be a singularly unfruitful area of study…’ (Vincent 175)

Clearly, Marxism as a theory of society and state experienced a radical transformation as it was amended in order to be applied to Soviet Russia by Lenin. The most fundamental change concerned the idea that, as Marx stressed, the state would ‘wither away’ in a Communist society. This would be the logical consequence of the fact that the state manifested the repressive nature of bourgeois political, social and economic dominance, and once the antagonistic class struggle had been transcended by revolutionary change in the mode of production, states were no longer needed. Lenin however argued that the state would still be needed (at least in the transitional period of the dictatorship of the proletariat, a term that originates in Marx’s writings but was fleshed out by Lenin) in order to firmly establish the rule of the proletariat and eliminate any remaining resistance. In practice, if anything withered away it was the original notion of the state as a repressive instrument of the bourgeoisie; under the rule of the Communist party the state was a welcome vehicle for reinforcing their totalitarian regime.

There are few advantages of Marx’s theory of the state. Clearly since Marx tied the notion of the state so closely to his analysis of capitalist economy, little room for interpretative manoeuvre was left for theorists to develop his theory of statehood in more promising directions. Perhaps, the critical approach of Marx’s interpretation may be counted as a unique advantage: states very often exhibit a repressive attitude to societal conflict and are anything but neutral arbiters between the various social groups in society.


The pluralist concept of the state enjoys a long pedigree going back to liberal thinkers such as John Locke and his opponent in kind Thomas Hobbes. Locke argued that Hobbes’s notion of the state would necessarily lead to a unitary, absolutist form of regime and he attacked what he believed the monistic tendencies in Hobbes. Consequently Dunleavy remarks that

‘The rejection of absolute, unified and uncontrolled state power remains the hallmark of pluralism’ (Dunleavy 13)

In his book Two Treatises of Government Locke contrasted his theory of consent with that of Hobbes and disputed that there could be one singular origin of power in society and hence in the state apparatus. Locke, as a quintessential pluralist, therefore vehemently rejected the notion of sovereignty residing in a unified body or individual (Dunleavy 14).

Montesquieu developed this idea further and argued that a dissipation of power in society would produce the best conditions for social and political peace. He put forward the idea that a separation of the various branches of power, the legislative, judicial and executive, would guarantee a societal balance from which the public good would benefit. This idea found its most elaborate expression in the writings of the Federalists in the United States. Madison, concerned to reconcile the fact that any society contains social groups pursuing their own interest with the public interest, writes:

‘The inference to which we are brought, is, that the causes of faction cannot be removed; and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.’ (Federalists 45)

This combination of horizontal with vertical checks and balances has prompted some political theorists to speak of a tension that exists between the institutional version of pluralism and the non-institutional one (Dunleavy 14). In Madison it is the diversity of social groups that proves beneficial to the successful search of the public good; consequently it is the extension of the republic, that is to say the extension of civil and participatory rights, that is seen as instrumental in bringing about an effective government and a vibrant society (Dunleavy 14).

In his book Democracy in America Alexis de Tocqueville added to this that the intermediate associations in society play a crucial role in reconciling the interests of the individual with the general interest of society. Once again this emphasises the need for the dispersal of authority within society rather than its concentration in the hands of the few (Vincent 198).

The advantages of pluralism are more numerous than those of Marxism. Pluralism, again, can be viewed as a descriptive or as a normative theory and, in its normative version it articulates good reasons why political, social and economic power should not be converge in one particular social group of individuals. Pluralism links the enjoyment of civil and political rights and freedoms to the structure of the state institutions, and claims that the state as a set of discrete institutions tied into a framework of mutual checks and balances is the best guarantee for rights and liberties in modern society. However, in its rejection of monism and its emphasis on polyarchy, pluralism fails to see the state as anything but ‘discrete organisations’ (Dunleavy 42).


  • Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison. The Federalist. The Gideon Edition. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 2001
  • Patrick Dunleavy and Bendan O’Leary. Theories of the State. The Politics of Liberal Democracy. Basingstoke: MacMillan 1987
  • Andrew Vincent. Theories of the State. Oxford: Blackwell 1987
  • John Locke. Two Treatises of Government. Cambridge: University Press 1967
  • Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America. Edited by Richard Heffner. New York: Mentor 1956

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