History and Development of the State

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* Book: The State: Its History and Development Viewed Sociologically. by Franz Oppenheimer, 1908. Republished by Andesite Press, August 8, 2015

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The author inspired Karl Polanyi. A classic of sociology from 1908.


Clyde Macalister:

"Oppenheimer shows that the analytic approach to sociology proper, and its relation to history, must transpire with the recognition that two forces, and the conflict between them, have shaped the progression of all of history heretofore: namely, the "economic means" of life, i.e., the peaceful means of improving one's standard of living through labor and exchange; and the "political means," i.e., the violent means of improving that standard through the parasitic exploitation of the labors of subordinates. It is, in brief, a history of the unceasing conflict between subjects and rulers.

Oppenheimer here demonstrates, first deductively and then empirically with supplementary historical evidence, the origins and essence of the State, its development, and his prognosis for its future. In particular, and by employing a comparatively simple mathematical deduction in the first chapter of the book, he demonstrates that all previous theories regarding the origins and essence of the State have failed to furnish adequate supporting evidence, whether deductive or empirical, to validate their claims. With these previous theories torn asunder and cast aside, Oppenheimer reveals conclusively that the State could have arisen in no other manner than through conquest and subjugation, through the violent imposition of dominion over peaceful tribes by violent tribes. To quote:

"The State, completely in its genesis, essentially and almost completely during the first stages of its existence, is a social institution, forced by a victorious group of men on a defeated group, with the sole purpose of regulating the dominion of the victorious group over the vanquished, and securing itself against revolt from within and attacks from abroad. Teleologically, this dominion had no other purpose than the economic exploitation of the vanquished by the victors."

He thereafter proceeds to cover the genesis of the State, involving a dynamic of interaction between peaceful primitive farmers, hunter and gatherer tribes, nomadic herding tribes, and the manner by which this gave rise to the slave trade, and thus, "the first seedling of the State, the first economic exploitation of man by man."

Henceforth, Oppenheimer traces the development of the State after its genesis through the "primitive feudal State," consisting of a simple caste system; into the "maritime State" wherever States arise near the sea and its necessary subsequent end; proceeding to the "developed feudal State," consisting of a far greater degree of complexity and hierarchy of castes than its "primitive" predecessor; thereafter arriving at the emergence of the "constitutional State"; and concluding the book with his deductive prognosis for the future, i.e., the advent of the "free citizenship," a social arrangement in which the State at last vanishes from existence and humans live amongst one another no longer as subjects and masters, but as free equals. In respect to this lattermost task, he states:

"The tendency of State development unmistakably leads to one point: seen in its essentials the State will cease to be the 'developed political means' and will become the 'a freeman's citizenship.' In other words, its outer shell will remain in essentials the form which developed in the constitutional State, under which the administration will be carried on by an officialdom. But the content of the States heretofore known will have changed its vital element by disappearance of the economic exploitation of one class by another. And since the State will, by this, come to be without either classes or class interests, the bureaucracy of the future will truly have attained that ideal of the impartial guardian of the common interests, which nowadays it laboriously attempts to reach. The 'State' of the future will be 'society' guided by self-government."