Administrative Tyranny: Marx’s Misguided View of the State

by Andrew Walker

Objection: Marxism believes in an all-powerful state. Having abolished private property, socialist revolutionaries will rule by means of despotic power, and that power will put an end to individual freedom. This has happened wherever Marxism has been put into practice; there is no reason to expect that things would be different in the future. It is part of the logic of Marxism that the people give way to the party, the party gives way to the state, and the state to a monstrous dictator. Liberal democracy may not be perfect, but it is infinitely preferable to being locked in a psychiatric hospital for daring to criticize a savagely authoritarian government.
– Terry Eagleton

Terry Eagleton’s project on Marx is ambitious and such ambition can only be met with the talent and erudition of an individual like Eagleton. Accolades aside, I am naturally predisposed to remain skeptical at singular attempts by lone individuals seeking to correct erring interpretations of the past. This does not mean, to the contrary, that Eagleton’s project is thus flawed, but that one must employ both charity and suspicion simultaneously. The project itself assumes that historical interpretations and applications on Marx, up to this point in time, have been skewed—as though Marx is in need of final vindication in the historical record. I’m left wondering: If Marx’s proposals were indeed right and historically verifiable, would Eagleton’s book not have been written?

Now, I must admit my own limitations and biases in this project: I am neither a Marxist nor am I particularly well read in Marxist literature or theory. From a professional standard, one may incline his or herself to label me a novice. So be it. Secondly, I write as an individual trained academically in Christian theology, albeit from a conservative and Protestant persuasion; and not as an economist or historian—though both, admittedly, are budding interests. This is significant as my own assumptions operate from a fixed standard of biblical anthropology. I mention anthropology, particularly, because reflection upon government and political economy is first a reflection upon human action and organization. Third, as no domain of existence escapes Christian reflection, I have particular interest in the design and function of the State. In this way, the “State” is not an amorphous entity which escapes Christian reflection, but a concrete institution given for a divine purpose. The State is thus not a sovereign entity according to my belief. In all of this, I must lay bare that my operating assumptions differ greatly from Marx.

I have been tasked with responding to Eagleton’s claim that Marx’s view and foretelling of the state has been misunderstood and was in fact correct. He frames his discussion around the long-held and incorrect caricature that Marx’s view of the state leads to tyrannical oppression.

According to Eagleton, “Marx was an implacable opponent of the state.” Eagleton’s chapter attempts to show that Marx did not believe in an all-powerful state, but was convinced that the power of the state would eventually “wither” or atrophy into an alienated entity. Atrophy, however, does not mean abolition in Marxist usage. In Marx’s view, the state would diminutively yield its own power to individuals infused by self-government. Self-government, Marx insists, would manifest itself in minimally regulated communes ruled by popular sovereignty, “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” The state Marx believed in, according to Eagleton, was an “administrative state” as opposed to the state “as an instrument of violence” or coercion.

In his own day, Marx saw the state representing an obstruction to human potential and achievement—an entity that sought to “defend the current social order against those who seek to transform it.” Surprisingly, Marx did not eschew the police powers of the state or object to the state being a force for good. Police powers to protect the innocent were acceptable insofar as the powers of the state were not used to protect the moneyed interests of the nobility or bourgeois against the proletariat. As well, a state, which protects women from abuse or rape, is well sanctioned, too. The wrong type of State power, for Marx, is one in which state power protects class privilege. According to Eagleton, “What Marx rejected was the sentimental myth of the state as a source of harmony, peacefully uniting different groups and classes.” Marx eschewed any naïve optimism in allowing the state to remain neutral. In the ideal, Marx’s vision for the state would eventually give way to popular sovereignty and popular sovereignty to self-rule. Eagleton casts Marx’s views as radically egalitarian and democratic. As a result, Marx can hardly be labeled an advocate for authoritarian rule.

Unfortunately, the minimalist state that Marx believed in and which Eagleton’s freely admits would exist, is the very state whose minimalism results in disastrous overreach. Why? As a political conservative, admittedly, Marx’s views are at first stimulating, and at end, ambiguous. If Marx began with the desire for the state to play a limited role, why has the state historically escalated itself to prominence? Why, if both the Founding Fathers and Marx sought a limited government and self-rule, has the American project resulted in an altogether different historical trajectory—where American forces are often called to liberate politically oppressed people blockaded under Marxist control? As I conjecture, Marx’s limited state imposed no limits on itself; whereas the American vision for government presupposed limits by a system of checks and balances due to an inherent distrust of human nature. Heirs of the Enlightenment and human progress they were, our Founders still reasoned—arguably due to the Christian understanding of humanity—that all systems of government ought to have imposed limits. Quoted as often as it is, Lord Action’s claim that “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” becomes acutely relevant to our dilemma. By lacking an inherent power-limiting mechanism, Marxism’s failure is subject to its design.

I take primary umbrage with Eagleton’s assertion that Marx’s view of the state defaults to an ambiguously referenced “administrative” state. This fairly innocuous term defines the problem that historic and contemporary models of Marxism have frequently exhibited. What does “administrative” mean?  Eagleton suggests that Marx foresaw the state playing a (somewhat) positive role in regulating national parks, orphanages and driving centers. If this were the extent of true Marxism, one would expect the Tea Party to exhibit far less suspicion towards Marx.

Eagelton’s understanding of Marx fails to provide a satisfying explanation of how a minimally administrative state does not become a maximally coercive state. Historically, Marx’s positive claim of an “administrative state” is unverifiable. One could assume that an “administrative state” is one in which driving laws are enacted for the common good. Unfortunately, the historical record never portrays the state limiting itself to this alone. Any existing “administrative state” today imbued with Marxist sentiment, manifests itself with administering pensions, healthcare, food supply, etc.

The “administrative” state Eagleton refers to, presumably, is some forerunner to the notion of central planning, the raison d’être of Marxist Socialism. As we’re all accustomed with hearing in civics classes, the resulting claim that an administrative state could be non-coercive is quite untrue. We’re left asking how could an “administrative state”—one in which central planning would eventually occur—not become coercive? If bureaucrats have been tasked with administering even a small segment of an economy, aren’t these individuals subjecting the market to their own controls? Coercion, by definition, requires that an individual submit to a higher authority under the threat of penalty or punishment. Construction of national parks seems fairly simple to construct, but Marxist nations regulating price control, wage, and supply has resulted in deadly consequence.

It’s no surprise that North Korea’s formal name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Yet, how could a country that enshrines the rights (and liberty, presumably) of the people in its name also be a tyrannical and draconian regime? Because, Ronald Reagan averred, “A government can’t control the economy without controlling people.” Here, Reagan’s claim broaches the subject of anthropology that I earlier addressed—any study of political organization is a study of economic behavior and economic behavior cannot be predicted as Marxist models assume. And Marxism fails to establish a credible anthropology in its impoverished and materialist worldview. Such economic clairvoyance on the part of Marxism is pure hubris.  Critics may object that automatically insinuating North Korea as a model Marxist state is too extreme. Rather, they may insist, attention ought to be focused towards Sweden—an “administrative state” that is both successful and affording its citizens with a high quality of life. My reply? There will always be particular models where socialistic models thrive. Their existence is the exception, not the norm. Why? Because, as National Review’s Kevin Williamson notes, the social conditions that allow Marxist models to thrive in one environment are not “transmutable.” That is, social conditions cannot be replicated from one cultural to the next. In the rare exception that Marxism provides its people with long term stability (and no such record exists), it can only do so according to cultural homogeneity.

It is Marxism, not Capitalism, which requires particular conditions and equilibria to exist. Capitalism, as its name suggests, strives toward growth based not on social conditions, but raw materials, human ingenuity, and capacious creativity. Sweden, even with its plush entitlements, still does not provide its citizens with the income of the average American. As Williamson notes, if Sweden were an American state, it would be the poorest. And, with several generations now reaping the lifestyle of a redistributionist ethic, the cultural behaviors like massive employee absenteeism suggest that Sweden’s economic future is reaping what past generation have sown. The long-term success of Sweden’s highly managed entitlements and economy is bleak and will remain bleak insofar as government control dictates human activity. Sweden may be relatively tranquil now, but the financial storm portending it will have been made by government design.

Eagleton’s interpretation of Marx omits any clear explanation of a state imposing limits on its own administrative reach. And there’s the rub: The fine line between central planning and soft tyranny is a tenuous distinction. Eagleton claims that Marx’s views entailed central planning, but then failed to discuss—as the historical record would question—how central planning or an “administrative state” would limit itself. I cannot but reflect upon the wise words of 20th century literary critic and famed Christian apologist C.S. Lewis who observed:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

Not surprisingly, Christian theology provides a helpful antidote to the excesses of Marx. Where Marx’s state is an undefined entity according to Marx and his commitment to materialism, the biblical portrait is one in which the State is ontologically defined and juxtaposed next to other divinely given institutions. Without prescribed limits, it’s not difficult to see how the state becomes its own monolith. For these reasons, Christianity has always held the necessity of the state in high regard, but has refrained from granting it sovereign authority.

The tendency in the human record has been for liberty to yield to tyranny as a vested political class plays an increasingly involved role in the administration of a state.  I have tried to remain charitable in my reading of Marx and Eagleton, but biases aside, observation prevents me from any positive conclusion to Marx’s claim. There’s a reason that Marxism is often labeled “Statism.” For Marxism to achieve its claim of unmitigated equality, it not only does, but is must cede primary control to the State to accomplish this measure. Attaining equality is a leveling wind of government instrusion and one person’s government-ascribed right is another person’s responsibility. As far as Eagleton’s reading is concerned, perhaps he has read Marx correctly, but a correct reading of Marx does not mean that Marx’s theories correspond to historical success. In the preface, Eagleton does admit that his attempt in this project is not to portray Marx’s ideas as perfect, but plausible. Is Marxism perfect? No. Is it plausible? Yes, if plausible means having been attempted. But, the question remains: Has Marxism benefited its citizens with the entitlements it promises? I would submit an answer in the negative.

After reading my assigned chapter, I am not compelled to believe that Marx’s view of the state was right. In fact, Marx may be more schizophrenic than right. Schizophrenic in the sense that Marx’s insistence on a minimalist administrative state requires his operative state to have more oversight than Marx would originally have granted. Maybe Marx was right and the instantiation of Marxism terribly wrong. I cannot tell. But if we’re still looking for demonstrably successful Marxism, history reveals its absence and for this reason, I cannot conclude that Marx was right.

Andrew Walker works at a public policy organization in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a contributor to Mere Orthodoxy. His writing has appeared in The City, The Kentucky Citizen, and The Louisville Courier-Journal. He holds degrees from Southwest Baptist University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This fall he begins a graduate degree in political science at the University of Louisville.

5 thoughts on “Administrative Tyranny: Marx’s Misguided View of the State

  1. Andrew: Your argument in this essay seems airtight. Here’s what I want to know. What accounts for Marx’s faith in “a minimally administrative state” that does not become “a maximally coercive state”? Perhaps the answer is this simple: Marx, being a man of his time, possessed an Enlightenment optimism about the goodness of human nature and its capacity for self-rule which now strikes us as remarkably naïve after the political violence of Marxism in the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, and elsewhere.

  2. Pingback: Who’s Afraid of Karl Marx? A Blog Discussion on “Why Marx Was Right” | Bensonian

  3. Pingback: Why Marx Was Right « Church Leaders Read

  4. Consider these simple questions:

    “If Marx began with the desire for the state to play a limited role, why has the state historically escalated itself to prominence? Why, if both the Founding Fathers and Marx sought a limited government and self-rule, has the American project resulted in an altogether different historical trajectory—where American forces are often called to liberate politically oppressed people blockaded under Marxist control?”

    The first is just bizarre. This is a question that would simply not even occur to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the history of Soviet, Leninist, and Maoist (etc) thought and their very serious divergences from Marx. Indeed, it is the kind of question you could only ask if you do not know any of the relevant history.

    The second is altogether more absurd. Only a moral lunatic could summarise the history of the Cold War as “American forces liberating oppressed people from Marxists.” Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs, Angola, Cambodia, Laos, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, El Salvador, Nicaragua— it really doesn’t matter what example you pick: there is nothing in the historical record to support this ideological delusion.

    If either question were in any way actually serious, the first place one should probably think to look is the modern American security state with its boundless bureaucracy, imperialist foreign policy, and lawless pursuit of security at all human costs. Pretty sure Christ had something relevant to say about logs in your own eye and splinters in the eyes of your brothers.

    A serious debate over Marx’s affinity or antipathy for the state is possible (as is a debate over Marxist anthropology), but it will need to taken up by someone less inclined to quote Reagan with intellectual reverence. This is the absolute worst article of this series.

  5. Pingback: Administrative Tyranny: Marx’s Misguided View of the State | Yale Press Log

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