"Identify, compare and contrast three different conceptions of the state and explore the conceptions of politics which underlie them."


The purpose of this essay is to identify, compare and contrast three different conceptions of the state - the Marxist, the pluralist and the Weberian. I shall also analyse the differing conceptions of politics which underlie these theories of the state.

The classical Marxist position on the state which I examine concludes that the state is merely the instrument of the bourgeois class which is used to oppress the proletariat and further its own interests. The pluralist conception differs clearly from this, since it asserts the relative neutrality of the state and stresses the various centres of power in modern society. Max Weber's definition of the state has two distinct premises - territoriality and violence. The modern state claims the exclusive right to use violence within its borders.

1. Marx

According to Marx, the bourgeoisie has essentially all political power in a capitalist society. The modern state is dependent on taxes and credit, which is provided by the bourgeoisie (McLellan, 1971; Miller, 1991). The bourgeoisie also owns the media, which is important for the careers of individual politicians (Miller, 1991).

Marx argues that the modern state is the instrument of the bourgeoisie, and the purpose of this instrument is to further the interests of the capitalist class (Wetherly, 1998; Taylor, 1995; 1). This is well illustrated in the famous words of the Communist Manifesto:

"The executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie." (Marx & Engels, 1985: 82)

Marx thinks capitalism is an inherently contradictory system, beset by class conflict. This class conflict gets worse as capitalism develops. The bourgeoisie therefore needs the state to ensure its grip on power. Marx wrote:

"The bourgeois state is nothing but a mutual insurance pact of the bourgeois class ... against the exploited class." (quoted in McLellan, 1971: 182)

The state furthers the long-term interests of the bourgeoisie. Thus, it is possible for the state to occasionally act against short-term capitalist interests and for the interests of the proletariat, if this helps in upholding the capitalist system. Thus, it is in the interest of the bourgeoisie to give concessions to the working class when the alternative is social instability or upheaval (Miller, 1991). One might explain the Nordic welfare state in this way. Numerous concessions - unemployment benefits, free health care and education, state pension schemes and so forth - from the bourgeoisie to the proletariat have resulted in some of the most stable capitalist systems in the world and have successfully "ensured" the bourgeois class against the working class.

Marx's conception of politics is clearly evident in his notion of the state. Marx defines politics as class struggle. As long as there are classes - i.e. as long as there is not a communist society - there will be struggle between classes, as they are unequal economically and therefore politically (Cloonan, 1997). The state is the major weapon of the bourgeois class in this struggle.

2. Pluralism

The pluralist conception of the state differs radically from the Marxist view. Unlike Marx (or Weber), the pluralists do not emphasize the coercive nature of the state. They see the state as relatively neutral, not advancing any definite interests, but open to the influence of different groups in society. The modern state is not the instrument of one class dominating another, but rather a framework wherein diverse interests in society can be reconciled (Schwarzmantel, 1994; Schwarzmantel, 1987; Dunleavy & O'Leary, 1987; 2). The purpose of the state is to keep conflicts of interest arising among different groups in society peaceful (Hall, 1984).

Underlying this conception of the state is a notion of politics which emphasizes the variety of sources of political power. The distinction with Marx is clear, since the pluralist position is that no group in society has a monopoly of power (Held, 1989; Schwarzmantel, 1987, Schwarzmantel, 1994). Even though the bourgeoisie might have an especially strong position in modern capitalist society, the working class can have considerable influence, for instance through trade unions. The capitalist class may have a monopoly on capital, but the working class has a monopoly on labour, which the capitalist class cannot do without (Schwarzmantel, 1987). The working class - and numerous different groups as well - has power. Thus, politics is about reconciling the diverse interests to be found in society (Schwarzmantel, 1994).

A pluralist model might be used to explain the relations of trade unions, employers' organizations and the government in Finland, for example. The ideal in the system is that the three parties agree on the level of wages and working conditions in all industries, and this indeed happens some times. It is quite clear that no party has a monopoly of power, since the trade unions can threaten the employers with a strike, the employers have leverage over the trade unions in that they might not agree to pay rises or might lay off workers, and the government has leverage over both parties since it can affect their financial interests through changes in taxation. Both the trade unions and the employers' organizations have power over the government, since they are both crucial to the functioning of the economy and therefore important for the government in gaining re-election. In addition to this, there is a further dispersal of power, since businesses, individual trade unions, and political parties, among others, try to influence the negotiations. Though an individual settlement might favour the employers, it might also favour the trade unions - the state is relatively neutral.

3. Weber

Max Weber wrote of the state:

"... the state is a relation of men dominating men, a relation supported by means of legitimate (i.e. considered to be legitimate) violence. If the state is to exist, the dominated must obey the authority claimed by the powers that be." (Weber in Gerth & Mills, 1967: 78)

This seems very different from the pluralist approach and similar to Marx's conception. The state is an instrument that some members of society use to control others. The crucial difference between Marx and Weber is also clear in the quote, however - Weber thinks the notion of legitimacy is central. The reason why people obey the rulers of the state is that they consider the state legitimate (Held, 1989). The state has a right to rule them. It is quite obvious that the state is in no way legitimate to Marx, since his goal is the abolishment of the state (Cloonan, 1997).

Weber's conception of the state is elitist - and therefore opposed to the pluralist model - in that he stresses the importance of bureaucracy in the modern state (Hall, 1984). Bureaucracy is the most efficient way of organizing the affairs of a modern state, and Weber thinks the rise of the bureaucracy to even more important a position is inevitable. In effect, the bureaucrats form an elite which is increasingly political - the more specialised the bureaucracy, the more it has power in relation to the government since it has specialist knowledge that the government does not have. Weber is also elitist in that he emphasizes the importance of political leadership (Held, 1989; Dunleavy & O'Leary, 1987).

The fundamental difference between on the one hand Marx and the pluralists and Weber on the other is the criteria by which the state is defined. To Marx and the pluralists, the state has a definite function - the oppression of the proletariat and the reconciliation of the interests of differing groups in society, respectively. Weber differs from this position in that he argues the state cannot be defined in terms of its ends because of the variety of tasks that states have performed and the lack of any specific task which all states have performed. For Weber, there are two characteristics which define the state: territoriality and violence. The modern state is sovereign over a defined territory. Within this territory, the state has a "monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force" (Weber in Gerth & Mills, 1967). This is what makes the state a modern state, since in premodern societies many different groups (clans, for example) have claimed the right to use force (Lassman, 2000). In the modern society, if there are any groups apart from the state with the right to use force, they have this right because the state has granted it (Weber in Gerth & Mills, 1967).

This formulation reflects Weber's notion of politics, which he defines in terms of power. He writes:

"When a question is said to be a 'political' question... what is always meant is... the distribution, maintenance, or transfer of power... He who is active in politics strives for power..." (Weber in Gerth & Mills, 1967)

To Weber, politics is about relations of power and the struggle for it, and he defines power as the ability to make someone do something he would not otherwise have done (Lassman, 2000; de Jasay, 1985). In the same way as Weber does not accept Marx's view of the state dominated wholly by the interests of the bourgeoisie, he rejects Marx's reduction of all political relationships to economic ones, and sees political power in many cases independent from economic factors (Evans, 1995). Thus, Weber does not accept Marx's assertion that politics is about class struggle - politics is about the struggle for power, but this is not limited to the struggle between economically determined classes (Mommsen, 1989).

4. Conclusion

The Marxist, pluralist and Weberian notions of the state arise from fundamentally different conceptions of politics. Marx thinks class conflict is the stuff of politics, and argues that all political relations can ultimately be reduced to economic ones. In Lenin's words, "politics is the most concentrated form of economics." I think the value of Marx's theory is that it recognizes the importance of economic factors in determining power relations in modern states, but it is problematic as it takes no other factors into account.

Weber, too, emphasizes that politics is about the struggle for power, but denies Marx's assertion that this struggle can be reduced to relations between classes or indeed to economics. Weber's conception of the state is much more balanced, since he accepts the importance of economic factors, but denies that they determine political relations. The strength of Weber's analysis of the state is also that it does not assume the state has any definite functions, but defines it in terms of territory and violence. This means that the validity of Weber's account has not fundamentally changed as the state has grown, nor indeed would a reduction in the role of the state refute his definition.

Both Marx's and Weber's conceptions of the state are to a certain extent elitist, a position which the pluralists clearly challenge. They deny that the state is controlled by one group, be it the bourgeoisie or the bureaucracy. They point out the numerous social groups which exist in modern societies, and the various sources of political power, asserting that these have an impact on the state. In this they resemble Weber, since they deny the Marxist position that economic relations determine political relations. The conception of politics as the resolution of conflicts of interest underlying the pluralist notion of the state is surely relevant to the analysis of modern states, but is perhaps, reflecting the strong normative element in pluralist theory, less realistic than the Marxist and Weberian conceptions which stress relations of power and domination.


1. Many authors recognize two conceptions of the state in Marx's writings (see, eg., Held, 1989). For the purposes of this essay, I shall concentrate only on the "classical" Marxist position put forward in the Communist Manifesto. It should also be noted that when I refer to the "Marxist" conception of the state, I am referring to Marx's own theory, not that of later writers described as Marxists.

2. In pluralist theory a number of different conceptions of the state may be distinguished (see, eg., Dunleavy & O'Leary, 1987). Because of constraints on the lenght of this essay, I do not distinguish between these different notions.


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Dunleavy, Patrick & O'Leary, Brendan (1994). Theories of the State: The politics of liberal democracy (London, Macmillan Education)

Evans, Mark (1995) 'Elitism' in Marsh, David & Stoker, Gerry (eds.) Theory and Methods in Political Science (London, Macmillan Press)

Gerth, H. H. & Mills, C Wright (eds., translation) (1967) From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul)

Hall, Stuart (1984) 'The State in question' in McLennan, Gregor; Held, David & Hall, Stuart (eds.) The Idea of the Modern State (Open University Press)

Held, David (1989) Political Theory and the Modern State (Cambridge, Polity Press)

de Jasay, Anthony (1985) The State (Oxford, Basil Blackwell)

Lassman, Peter (2000) 'The rule of men over men: politics, power and legitimation' in Turner, Stephen (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Weber (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press)

Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich (1985) The Communist Manifesto (London, Penguin Books)

McLellan, David (1971) The Thought of Karl Marx: An Introduction (London, Macmillan Press)

Miller, Richard W. (1991) 'Social and political theory: Class, state, revolution' in Carver, Terrell (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Marx (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press)

Mommsen, Wolfgang J. (1989) The Political and Social Theory of Max Weber: Collected Essays (Cambridge, Polity Press)

Schwarzmantel, John (1987) Structures of Power: An Introduction to Politics (Brighton, Wheatsheaf Books)

Schwarzmantel, John (1994) The State in Contemporary Society: an introduction (New York, Harvester Wheatsheaf)

Taylor, George (1995) ' Marxism' in Marsh, David & Stoker, Gerry (eds.) Theory and Methods in Political Science (London, Macmillan Press)

Wetherly, Paul (1998) 'A Capitalist State? Marx's Ambiguous Legacy' in Cowling, Mark (ed.) The Communist Manifesto: New Interpretations (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press)

This is another essay I wrote for a Politics course at the University of York. I am not very happy with it, but it does illustrate some basic themes in state theory, which is an interesting part of political science.