Charles H. Hamilton, Introduction to Franz Oppenheimer, The State, 1975.



A small minority has stolen the heritage of humanity.

Franz Oppenheimer

The state is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently.

Gustav Landauer

The state affects the most mundane as well as the most important aspects of our lives. As a powerful, sprawling institution it shapes the other major institutions of our society and reaches into our most personal everyday affairs. As Robert Nisbet has written, “the single most decisive influence upon Western social organization has been the rise and development of the centralized territorial state.”1

But surprisingly, little of importance has been written on the state. In fact, a quick review of the books and articles reveals that most of them have been largely rationalizations of the coercion and force that all states practice. Such diverse people as George Sabine (a quite traditional political scientist) and Robert P. Wolff (a more radical and questioning political philosopher) have made this point.2

One exception to this tendency to rationalize is The State by Franz Oppenheimer. In this classic, he presents a strongly libertarian view of the state. He neither defends it nor condemns it out of hand. Rather, through his study of history and political economy, he seeks to understand its nature and development. His work leads him to conclude that:

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. Ideologically, this dominion had no other purpose than the economic exploitation of the vanquished by the victors.3

This may seem somewhat polemical, but I think he is essentially correct. I hope that this short introduction and especially the book itself, will reintroduce Oppenheimer’s conquest theory of the state and prove suggestive to others studying the state.

There is very little in English on Franz Oppenheimer’s intellectual and, for that matter, political development.4 He was the most Western-minded of the early German sociologists, rejecting racial interpretations of history while championing a Proudhonian ideal of a truly free society.5 But Oppenheimer did fall squarely within a German sociological tradition and he was one of its more important thinkers.

Sociology came to Germany at the beginning of this century. Rooted as it was in history, philosophy and political economy, sociology did not dissipate its energy in statistical minutiae and obscure topics. Reminiscent of Comte and Spencer, early German sociology was involved in the grand sweep of history and social life.

It is not surprising then that one of the first “schools” of German sociology was historical sociology. Oppenheimer certainly fit under that rubric, along with people like Alfred Weber, Karl Mannheim, Max Scheler and Max Weber. Concerned with “depicting individual instances,” with “interpreting historical evolution,” and with “collective realities” (culture and the state, for instance), they wrote in large strokes for the insight it gave into current life.

Sociology is conceived as being akin to a theory of universal history and as undertaking the tasks of the philosophy of history; namely, the provision of an answer to present anxieties out of the experience of the past.6

They also wrote with a clear and profound understanding of the crucial role played by conflict in every area of social life: hence, the importance of conflict theory for this group. The two greatest names in historical sociology are Karl Marx and Max Weber. Marx preceded the development of historical sociology as a distinct school and set the tone on a number of important points. As Randall Collins outlines it:

He brought together for the first time the major sources of the conflict tradition: the revelations of historical scholarship, the effort at a materialist theory of society, the iconoclasm of the freethinkers.7

Of particular importance was Marx’s emphasis on the material preconditions of human action and the importance of material factors in shaping human action (without, it should be noted, denying the crucial importance of thinking as an activity by human actors). This grounded philosophy in history and was an effective attack on pure idealism.

Max Weber was without a doubt one of the greatest sociologists and thinkers of recent times. Weber and Oppenheimer were contemporaries both in time and in intellectual pursuits. They were both deeply affected by Marx and clearly immersed in historical and empirical work. Randall Collins includes them all as thinkers in the tradition of the conflict theory. Weber and Oppenheimer, however, emphasized a different set of problems than did Marx, and developed a different theory. While Collins rightly includes Marx in his discussion of conflict theory, Anthony Giddeng is more correct when he emphasizes the importance of domination and subordination:

Oversimplifying somewhat, it might be said that Weber gives to the organization of relationships of domination and subordination the prominence which Marx attributes to relationships of production.8

In either case conflict is one of the important underpinnings of historical sociology.

The central focus is on the organization of material arrangements into a system of power which divides society into interest groups struggling for control.9

This dynamic of struggle and how it is handled offers a way of explaining the entire social structure so well that Randall Collins contends “that conflict theory has been vindicated by empirical evidence to an extent approached by no other sociological theory.”10 This view of the dynamic of conflict is not new. Not taking into account the political use to which this insight was put, the idea is evident in the Epicureans, in Ibn Khaldun, Machiavelli, Voltaire, Hobbes, Hume, Spencer and Lester Ward. Their ideas and the indigenous conflict theories of Ludwig Gumplowicz (who Oppenheimer acknowledges was very influential on his own thinking) and Gustav Ratzenhofer set the stage for the writings on conflict theory in this century.11

Oppenheimer’s emphasis, in the book at hand, is the state and its origin and development. It represents a major contribution to the theories of conflict and conquest. But who was Franz Oppenheimer?

Franz Oppenheimer was born in a suburb of Berlin on March 30, 1864. He became a physician in 1885, and practiced medicine for a decade. He was aware of and quite concerned about the social issues of his time and he became acquainted with many of the radical movements: the marxists and revisionists, the liberal socialists and land nationalizers, the federalists and anarchists. Influenced by all of these and yet not convinced by any, he went back to school in economics. He supported his wife and child by writing articles. In 1908, at the age of 44, he received his Ph.D. at the University of Kiel. The next year he became a privadozent (unsalaried lecturer receiving only student’s fees) of economics at the University of Berlin. During these years he was very involved in the cooperative and back-to-the-land movements that were common then.

During the First World War he was an economic counselor in the War Office. In 1919 he became ordinarius (full professor) of economics and sociology at the University of FrankTort. Ill-health forced him to retire in 1929 at the age of 65 (his chair, incidentally, was taken by Karl Mannheim), or the next four years he lived at a rural cooperative settlement near Berlin that he had helped form prior to World War I.

In 1933 Oppenheimer left Germany and taught in France and Palestine and then came to the United States. He continued to write and in 1941 was a founding editor of the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, a journal which followed the ideas of Henry George. He died in Los Angeles on September 30, 1943.

Oppenheimer always contended that the social sciences would affirm and support the search for justice. He combined his scholarship with a reforming zeal “which sometimes becomes an obsession [calling] forth alternately respect and irritation.”12 As Eduard Heimann said:

He was a liberal of that old, heroic, revolutionary brand which has otherwise died out long ago. .. . Oppenheimer calls himself a liberal socialist. He is a socialist in that he regards capitalism as a systen of exploitation, and capital revenue as the gain of that exploitation, but a liberal in that he believes in the harmony of a genuinely free market.13

In an article published after his death, Oppenheimer set down his long held belief that there is an alternative to the totalitarianism of Fascism and Bolshevism and the exploitation of the current amalgam of political democracy, which isn’t democracy at all, and capitalism, which is really just “the bastard offspring of slavery and freedom.”14

there is a third possibility: a perfect democracy, not only politically but also economically.. . . The first condition of perfect democracy is equal opportunity for all, or, which is the same, free untrammeled competition.15

That equal opportunity and free untrammeled competition seem so contradictory is indicative of the fact that we may still not have come to realize that “perfect democracy” is an alternative. But Oppenheimer believed that history and empirical work would prove these points.

It is the task of social science, especially of theoretical economics, to teach this gospel [of freedom] and spread the conviction that perfect democracy is more than a daydream of some utopianist outsiders.16

From 1893 until his death in 1943, Oppenheimer wrote hundreds of books, pamphlets, articles and reviews.17 These ran the gamut from economic theory to polemics about the major intellectual strains of his day. Very little of his major work is in English. His most important work is the four double volume System of Sociology. In 4500 pages Oppenheimer constructed a theory of general sociology and social psychology (Volume I), political theory (II), economic theory (III) and economic and social history (IV). One review referred to it as “by far the most elaborate system of sociology ever written.”18 Yet it is ironic that only an early, sketchy version of volume two has ever been translated into English: The State. Sketchy though it may be, there is much of interest and importance in it.

Positions of leadership are not much coveted by the Ik. They are backed by little power, and in so far as they confer any benefits (i.e., ngag, or food) upon the officeholder, that only serves to make him all the more edible.

Colin Turnbull in The Mountain People

There are many ways to look at the state. Since the early Greek philosophers there has been a tendency to view it as the ideal and/or the only important form of social organization.19 The state is given a pre-eminence and a universality that betrays a massive bias in favor of the state.

Some, like E. Adamson Hoebel, think that “where there is political organization there is a state. If political organization is universal, so then is the state.”20 This view dilutes any meaning the state might have. Others try to be rid of the concept altogether, an approach exemplified by the functionalists. Gabriel Almond and James Coleman feel that the “rejection of the ‘state and non-state’ classification … is a matter of theoretical and operational importance. … If the functions are there then the structures must be.”21 it does seem naive however to assume that any function must be met by a similar structure. In that case, we are confronted by an undifferentiated mass of information about different cultures and social institutions that can’t be meaningfully discussed.

Oppenheimer, on the other hand, correctly appreciates the state’s crucial importance, but he also emphasizes its distinctiveness. He does this by developing the distinction between the economic means and the political means. This is one of Oppenheimer’s most important contributions.

To talk about the economic and the political means is Oppenheimer’s way of emphasizing the actions and processes by which people seek to satisfy their common needs for material sustenance. There are two basic organizing principles of social life. One is essentially peaceful and is what Oppenheimer calls the economic means: “one’s own labor and the equivalent exchange of one’s own labor for the labor of others.” Life is based on peaceful existence, equality of opportunity and voluntary exchange. The other is the political means, which is based on domination and is essentially violent: “the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others.”22

The difference between the political and the economic means is similar to the probably better known distinction between state and society.23 In fact, Oppenheimer calls the state the “organization of the political means.” However, Oppenheimer’s choice of words constantly reminds us of the action and process involved in the distinctions. “Society,” for instance, is often seen as a static and monolithic term. It is not; nor is it some integrated whole as the functionalists, among others, suggest. It is, rather, a vast and fluid network of individuals and groups that interact voluntarily on the basis of shared economic interests or on the basis of feelings of identity and community. This is the economic means at work. It is unfortunate that we have become so jaded that we cannot see the effectiveness and importance of these voluntary interactions in our daily lives and in the larger social order.24

In earlier times this voluntary interaction was called “natural society.” It is in a real sense prior to the state. In fact it can be said that the state develops out of society as a secondary formation and is “the alienated form of society,”25 serving the interests of social classes unequally.

The state rises out of society when some people utilize the political means for their own advantage. Some individuals or groups are in a position to enforce actions upon others and by others. Relations become based on super- and sub-ordination. The state then “is first of all an apparatus of domination.”26

This distinction between the economic means and the political means or. society and state is a powerful tool in understanding the world that has past us and the world around us. While the two in fact flow into one another, at times, they are essentially separate and this should be constantly kept in mind. As Reinhard Bendix says in his article on “Social Stratification and the Political Community”:

The distinction refers to a universal attribute of group life in the sense that, however interrelated, these two types of human association are not reducible to each other. From an analytical viewpoint it is necessary to consider ‘society’ and ‘the state’ as interdependent, but autonomous spheres of thought and action which coexist in one form or another in all complex societies.27

This distinction between the two means of coordination is not merely an analytic nicety. In an admittedly simplified form it is the major dynamic of history, “the basic social struggle in human history.”28

We see the voluntary cooperation of the economic means every day, from our own personal friendships to the small-scale exchange of goods and services between individuals.29 But there have also been cases where these voluntary means were virtually the sole mechanism of coordination among groups of people. Often considered primitive by our patronizing language of progress, they were quite extraordinary societies. The study of these stateless societies (as they have come to be called) is important and interesting precisely because “one of the most essential things that we can learn from the life of rude tribes is how society can function without the policeman to keep order.”30 Studying stateless societies gives us a better perspective on the uses of the economic means and on those societies which have states.

Any group of people have to interact and that means some form of coordination must be effected. As we have seen, cooperation and domination are these ways. Within such a group there will also arise moments of conflict, and they must be mediated and resolved in some way. There is a view which holds that the minimal domain of the state is the protection and the provision of justice. Such a position is untenable in view of the numerous ways conflicts are resolved without the state. Stateless societies are important precisely because they show that non-state resolutions of conflict can encompass large social groups and continue for some time.

Stateless societies include many dissimilar types. It is only necessary to define them in a general way here. Stateless societies

have few or no roles whose primarily goal is the exercise of authority, authority and political action there are, but they are exercised through multipurpose roles in which they cannot be said to form the primary element.31

Stateless societies are not just a few geographically restricted and primitive societies. Most of the evidence is about primitive societies but this says more about the imperialistic nature of states than it does about the limitations of stateless societies. There is no inherent reason why we can not have and can not work for a stateless society in our own time. Some of these societies have included the Kung Bushmen of South Africa and the African Logoli, the Tallinsi and the Nuer, the Eskimos, the Ifugao of the Phillipines and the Star Mountain people of New Guinea.32 They have ranged from patrilineal to matrilineal and from pastoral to hunting. They have lived nomadically, in villages or confederacies. In fact until conquered by the Europeans, state organizations were exceptional in Oceania, sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas.33

It is held that the state is necessary for the integration of society. The modern state provides “a uniquely effective form of social integration.”34 Indeed terrifyingly effective! Compare this to the “remarkable spectacle of societies positively maintaining themselves at a high level of integration without any obvious specialized means of enforcement. .. .”35 We may say then that stateless societies achieve the same ends as states but through vastly different means.36 Aidan Southall sums this up beautifully when he says:

Stateless societies are so constituted that the kaleidoscopic succession of concrete social situations provides the stimulus that motivates each individual to act for his own interest or for that of close kin and neighbors with whom he is so totally involved, in a manner which maintains the fabric of society. It is a little like the classical model of laissez-faire economics translated into the political field … the lack of specialized roles and the resulting multiplex quality of social networks mean that neither economic nor political ends can be exclusively pursued by anyone to the detriment of society, because the ends are intertwined with each other and further channeled by ritual and controlled by the beliefs which ritual expresses.37

We need not look solely to so-called primitive societies for examples of stateless societies. Germany in the early middle ages “was in some ways the complete antithesis of the modern state.”38 Until the seventeenth century, Ireland had “no legislature, no bailiffs, no police, no public enforcement of justice…. There was no trace of State-administered justice.”39 And in
early America there were notable attempts to forge something anarchistic. Murray Rothbard has mentioned Albemarle, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.40

The point is not to suggest that the stateless and near stateless societies which have existed were in any way perfect. They were not, but they did exist and they did attempt to solve social problems in a way different from the usual reliance on force, centralization and the political means. Stateless societies have been remarkably viable.

Since his interest was specifically on the state, Oppenheimer spent no time on this larger discussion of the economic means and stateless societies. We have mentioned such societies because they suggest a breadth to the significance of the economic means.

Taking the State wherever found, striking into its history at any point, one sees no way to differentiate the activities of its founders, administrators, and beneficiaries from those of a professional-criminal class.

Albert Jay Nock

The first task Oppenheimer set himself was to trace the origins of the state. He saw the state rising out of conflict and out of the conquest of one group by another. Let us put this in context by briefly discussing other theories of the state.

The usual view of the origin of the state (when it is discussed at all) is that it rose spontaneously and naturally. People voluntarily gave up their sovereignty. This is known as the Social Contract, a convenient metaphor. It is an implausible theory and there is just no proof that such a thing ever really happened.

Others see the state rising rather naturally from economic surplus and the division of labor. R. H. Lowie and R. M. Maclver see the state as one association (albeit the most powerful) out of many that make up the larger society.41 While there is a definite validity to economic differentiation and
the state-like possibilities of primitive associations, they do not as Oppenheimer would be quick to point out, cause or lead naturally to the state. There is no discussion of what exactly would propel differentiation or association into the state.

Another view of the rise of the state sees the propelling force in the imperatives of technological centralization. This was most forcefully presented by Karl Wittfogel in his study of oriental despotisms.42 For him the material needs of an area and the solution (specifically large-scale irrigation) led to the formation of a central political unit: the state. While irrigation projects did significantly strengthen the state, they did not bring about its formation. As Jacques Gernet has pointed out:

historically, it was the pre-existing state structures and the large, well trained labor force provided by the armies that made the great irrigation projects possible.43


Furthermore, it is not clearly the case that the solutions to certain problems (that is to make progress in civilization) must come a priori out of or result in technological centralization. Clearly there is something else at work.44

This brings us to the conflict theory of the origins of the state.45 For as important as these previous theories are, they can not account for the “jump” from non-state to state. For Oppenheimer this rests on the point where the voluntarism of the economic means is subsumed under concerted and continuous use of the political means:

A close examination of history indicates that only a coercive theory can account for the rise of the state. Force, and not enlightened self-interest, is the mechanism by which political evolution has led, step by step, from autonomous villages to the state.46

The state rises out of a condition of statelessness or “practical anarchy.” In general, these are essentially societies of equals and there are no roles of authority and little social or economic differentiation. Certain economic inequalities do arise through luck, cleverness, etc. Oppenheimer explicitly recognizes these economic inequalities among herdsmen as an element of statehood. However, because of his Georgist view of the importance of land and his understanding of the dynamics of the economic means, he sees a tendency for these inequalities to remain modest and to be resolved. The condition of relative equality will be approximately restored. Thus, while he sees that differentiation can and does arise through economic means, he explicitly rejects that it is this primitive accumulation which results in the state.47

This condition of relative equality is permanently destroyed by the use of the political means by one group against another in the form of war or raiding. For Oppenheimer, the state rises through conquest. In fact

No primitive state known to history originated in any other manner. … Everywhere we find some warlike tribe of wild men breaking through the boundaries of some less warlike people, settling down as nobility and founding the State.48

Oppenheimer proceeds to mention examples from around the world. Lawrence Krader has more recently pointed out, “There is no doubt that conquest played a part in most if not all processes of state formation.”49

It is conquest, then, of one group by another that leads directly to the state. While this is a striking and important insight, it can not really be considered sufficient.

The conquest theory failed as a general theory of the origin of the state because it introduced only external factors and failed to take into account internal processes… .50

It would be helpful, then, to go back to the beginnings of economic differentiation and take another look at how conflict and the political means enter into the process of state-formation.

Morton Fried goes considerably beyond Oppenheimer in his discussion of inequality as a germ of statehood. In his discussion of the evolution of political society, he sees it going through stages from an egalitarian to a ranking to a stratified society. Society is still basically stateless at this point. In the latter case, access to basic resources is limited and there is clear economic differentiation. But rather than saying, as Oppenheimer does, that this situation will resolve itself back towards equality, Fried makes the point that stratification is unstable and must change -— there are two possibilities:

The state forms in embryo in the stratified society, which, by this reasoning, must be one of the least stable models of organization that has ever existed. The stratified society is torn between two possibilities: It builds within itself great pressures for its own dissolution and for a return to a simpler kind of organization, either of ranking or egalitarian kind. … On the other side, the stratified community, to maintain itself, must evolve more powerful institutions of political control than ever were called upon to maintain a system of differential ranking.51

Within this instability there are movements toward equality and the economic means and movements in the direction of the political means whereby some seek to rigidify their economic gains. However, the outcome seems depressingly clear according to Oppenheimer, that “wherever opportunity offers, and man possesses the power, he prefers political to economic means for the preservation of his life.”52

As the use of the political means of robbery and expropriation becomes more frequent and institutionalized, the state takes shape. Internally, although Oppenheimer is not concerned with this, war (or raids) leads to the centralization of the warring group. As Georg Simmel said, “war needs a centralistic intensification of the group form, and this is guaranteed best by despotism.”53

In fact there is some evidence that defense against external conquest led to the development of the state in Ancient Sumer.54 Booty from such wars certainly solidified class differentiation within an already hierarchical form. Randolph Bourne’s insightful comment that “War is the health of the State” certainly is true, even in our own time.55

Externally, which is Oppenheimer’s emphasis, the political means leads to the conquest of one group by another and to the genesis of the state. Oppenheimer distinguishes six stages in this process.

The first stage involves continuous raiding and killing between groups. But it is the second stage that exhibits two necessary elements that make the giant step from robbery to state robbery. The peasants cease to resist these incursions. They accept their fate and their subservience. The herdsmen no longer merely loot, rape and kill, though such violence is continued to the extent necessary to insure acquiescence, now they appropriate the surplus of the peasants, leaving enough for the peasants to continue producing so that the herdsmen may skim the top off the next harvest also.

The moment when first the conqueror spared his victim in order permanently to exploit him in productive work, was of incomparable historical importance. It gave birth to nation and state, to right and the higher economics, with all the developments and ramifications which have grown and which will hereafter grow out of them.56

Out of this ‘arrangement’ comes the beginning of the process of integration whereby both master and ‘slave’ recognize certain common interests and their common humanity. Customary rights begin to develop into the first threads of jural relations. Even though this internal

development begins and legal rights and wrongs become defined, it is important to keep in mind that these develop within the context of class interests and for class interests.

The third stage arrives when the peasants regularly bring their surplus as tribute. This is the beginning of taxation.

The next stage in the genesis of the state comes with the territorial union of the two groups. This allows the ruling group to “protect” its subjects and its economic base from external incursions. But it also permits the ruling group to better oversee internal affairs and smash uprisings against its hegemony.

In the fifth stage, the rulers assume the right to arbitrate. Thus the judicial function is taken out of the local and common law context. This gives the rulers much greater control to enforce their own interests and to mediate conflicts.

Finally the primitive state is complete. The last stage is the need to

develop the habit of rule and the usages of government. The two groups, separated to begin with, and then united on one territory, are at first merely laid alongside one another, then are scattered through one another … soon the bonds of relationship unite the upper and the lower strata.57

These stages, which Oppenheimer describes, are analytically useful. But Oppenheimer did not mean to have them rigidly regarded. Some states have developed through these stages; others, however, have skipped or combined stages. In any case, the state is formed.

The state then is the organization of the politick means. The state “can have originated in no other way than through conquest and subjugation.”58 For Oppenheimer, every state in history has been a state of classes; that is a polity of superior and inferior social groups, based upon distinctions either of rank or of property. The master or ruling class tries to maintain the “law of the political means” and is thereby conservative and even reactionary. The subject or the ruled class wants to substitute the “law of equality” for all inhabitants of the state, which makes for liberalism and revolution.

His emphasis on class, on the distinction between rulers and ruled, has led some observers, like R. H. Lowie, to claim that Oppenheimer’s theory

is properly not a theory of the State but a theory of caste. It explains the origin of hereditary classes, but it does not solve the more fundamental problem of all political organization.. .. Conquest led to complication and integration, but the germs of statehood antedated these processes.59

Of course, as we have seen, Oppenheimer agrees that the germs of statehood were there, but it was only with concerted use of the political means, the conquest of one group by another, that led to the actual formation of the state. While other factors are also involved, the state always retains its class characteristics.

Once Oppenheimer had made the distinction between the economic, means and the political means, described the genesis of the state and indicated its basic nature in the political means, conquest and class, he proceeded to outline the state’s further development. Oppenheimer’s own discussion of this is itself very short and often borders on the metaphorical. But there is significant material there. It is important to point out a few of the major points.

Whatever the further developments of the state are, Oppenheimer constantly repeats that its basic form and nature do not change. From the primitive feudal state through the modern constitutional state, it is still the institutionalization of the political means by one class to expropriate the economic wealth of another.

The development of the state beginning with the primitive feudal state brought two internal developments which had opposite directions: first, a continuing process of social integration, of breaking down the separate cultures of various groups within the state; and second, a process of social differentiation along class lines leading to class-consciousness.

A whole series of processes, ranging from the assimilation of languages and religions to intermarriage, lead to a “spirit of fraternity and of equity.” Ethnic differences and the mere recognition of physical boundaries produce a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality, along with a feeling of group solidarity. And internally, “A far stronger bond of psychical community between high and low … is woven by legal protection against the aggression of the mighty.” This is “a consciousness of belonging to the same state.”60

This pulling together is opposed by a pulling apart that is just as powerful. This is the development of class consciousness among both the upper strata (rulers) and the lower strata (ruled). Class consciousness through the development of class theories is the psychological dynamic in history, just as economic needs is the material dynamic. As the process of state consciousness proceeds, a class theory of the ruling group becomes necessary to direct, modify and sustain the state. Although approached from a somewhat different angle, this crucial point is admitted by most political philosophers.

As soon, however, as the psychic integration develops, in any degree, the community feeling of state consciousness, as soon as the bond
servant acquires ‘rights,’ and the consciousness of essential equality percolates through the mass, the political means requires a system of justification; and there arises in the ruling class the group theory of ‘legitimacy.’61

All questions of state legitimacy, then, can only be founded on or traced back to class and class theories. As Morton Fried so succinctly put it, “Legitimacy, no matter how its definition is phrased, is the means by which ideology is blended with power.”62

The final stage in the state’s development is what Oppenheimer calls the modern constitutional state. This is the most sophisticated level because domination and exploitation continue but are limited by public law and hidden by a complex ideological superstructure. As Oppenheimer says:

Its form still continues to be domination, its content still remains the exploitation of the economic means. The latter continues to be limited by public law which on the one hand protects the traditional ‘distribution’ of the total products of the nation; while on the other it attempts to maintain at their full efficiency the taxpayers and those bound to render service. The internal policy of the state continues to revolve in the path prescribed for it by the parallelogram of the centrifugal force of class contests and the centripetal impulse of the common interests in the state; and its foreign policy continues to be determined by the interests of the master class, now comprising besides the landed also the moneyed interests.63

It should be clear by now that in addition to the sameness that the state exhibits throughout ah its stages, Oppenheimer also sees a steady progress in the state’s development, This assumption of the inevitability of progress is problematic as there is little basis for believing it in this day and age. But for Oppenheimer it meant that the state culminated in what he called the freemen’s citizenship. In his last chapter he makes it clear that the state of the future will be society guided by self-government.64 Even though the state rises out of the political means and conquest, and is a class state, Oppenheimer sees the economic means eventually predominating and the class-state disappearing. Oppenheimer, however, is no anarchist. He was, as we have mentioned, quite the classical liberal “

No great Society can exist without a body which renders final decision on debatable issues and has the means, in case of emergency, to enforce decisions. No society can exist without the power of punishment of the judge, nor without the right to expropriate
property even against the wish of the proprietor, if the public interest demands it.65

Once the domination and administration of the ruling class and the economic monopoly of the land are removed from the class state, then we would have, according to Oppenheimer, a truly free society (perhaps a class-less state).

In such a society all political power would lie in the base of the pyramid: in the communitives [sic] and cooperatives. While the administrators on top, as I once wrote, would only have a power comparable let us say, to the one of the international geodetic committee.66

When the class-less society is reached it would rest in a steady state. For similar to his discussion of primitive accumulation earlier, he sees that it would be “impossible for any abuse of power to be introduced beyond the simple level of individual theft, which would be swiftly punished.”67

It is certainly shocking and unsettling to read his conclusion. After a sustained and remarkable discussion of the state as oppressive and class-oriented, it is difficult to see how we will be rather miraculously presented with a society somewhere between the anarchist ideal of free collectives and the classical liberal ideal of a neutral state. Certainly everything Oppenheimer has said and taught us shows the neutral state as contradictory. As C. J. Friedrich said years ago, “The ‘state’ as some kind of neutral god charged with looking after the national interest is so central in all dictatorial ideologies. . ,”68 This may be a little hard on Oppenheimer but it certainly is to the point.

Part of the context for Oppenheimer’s conclusion can be seen in the contrasts between the sociological optimism and pessimism of his day. The pessimists accepted the rise of the state and totalitarianism with either glee or regret. Those who were part of the ruled class saw, then, revolution as the only solution. This would, in Oppenheimer’s eyes, cause more problems than it would solve. He, on the other hand, was an optimist and his reading of history and political economy showed him that the class state would indeed evolve into a class-less state. He was one of the small fraction of social liberals, or liberal socialists who:

believe in the evolution of a society without class dominion and class exploitation which will guarantee to the individual, besides political, also economic liberty of movement, within of course the limitations
of the economic means. That was the credo of the old social liberalism of pre-Manchester days, enunciated by Quesnay and especially by Adam Smith, and again taken up in modern times by Henry George, and Theodore Hertzka.69

While his optimism and belief in evolution may be misplaced for us who live in an increasingly centralized and politicized world, Oppenheimer’s analysis can be very helpful as we try to understand and change our world. Oppenheimer’s optimistic conclusion that states will necessarily give way to what he termed freemen’s citizenship seems much less certain to us today. In a world dominated by war and the authoritarian state, our sense of inevitable progress has been shaken.

Oppenheimer’s historical discussion of the origins and rise of the state, however, is clearly very relevant. The element of conflict and conquest has played a part in the origins of most states. Together with the emphasis on the use of the political means and the class nature of the state’s interests, we can begin to see history a little differently. No longer can we say that states are benign in the process of history.

Any further judgement on the significance of The State can be made by the reader. Whatever its relevance Oppenheimer believed that the social sciences were important precisely to the extent that they valued and tried to extend human life and freedom.

C. Hamilton

Crompond, N.Y.

May 1975

Chuck Hamilton is an editor of Free Life Editions and was formerly on the editorial board of Libertarian Analysis.




1 Robert A. Nisbet, Community and Power (Oxford University Press, London, 1962), p. 98.

2 George Sabine, “State,” Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. 14 (Macmillan, New York, 1934), p. 331, and Robert Paul Wolff, In Defense of Anarchism (Harper & Row, New York, 1970), pp. 5, 8, 9.

3 Franz Oppenheimer, The State, p. 8. All page references to The State refer to this edition of the book.

4 Paul Honigsheim’s article is suggestive of some of these influences. “The Sociological Doctrines of Franz Oppenheimer: An Agrarian Philosophy of History and Social Reform,” Harry Elmer Barnes, ed., An Introduction to the History of Sociology (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1948), pp. 332-352.

5 Raymond Aron, German Sociology (Free Press, New York, 1964), p. 43.

6 Ibid., p. 37.

7 Randall Collins, “Reassessments of Sociological History: The Empirical Validity of the Conflict Tradition,” Theory and Society, Summer 1974, p. 159.

8 Anthony Giddens, Capitalism and Modern Social Theory (Cambridge University Press, London, 1971), p. 234.

9 Randall Collins, op. cit., p. 174.

10 Ibid., pp. 150-51.

11 See Howard Becker and Harry Elmer Barnes, Social Thought from Lore to Science (Dover, New York, 1961) for information on some early proponents of the conflict theory. See especially pp. 702-734.

12 Raymond Aron, op. cit., p. 43.

13 Eduard Heimann, “Franz Oppenheimer’s Economic Ideas,” Social Research, vol. II, no. l, Feb. 1944, pp. 27, 29.

14 Franz Oppenheimer, “The Idolatry of the State,” Review of Nations, no. 2, 1927, p. 26.

15 Franz Oppenheimer, “The Gospel of Freedom,” American Journal of Economics and Sociology, vol. 7, no. 3, April 1, 948, p. 353.

16 Ibid., p. 367.

17 See the useful though incomplete two part bibliography prepared by Felicia Fuss which appeared in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, vol. 6, no. 1, Oct. 1946, pp. 95-112, and vol. 7, no. 1, Oct. 1947, pp. 107-117.

18 Eduard Heimann in American Journal of Sociology, vol. 49, no. 3, Nov. 1943, p. 225.

19 See Robert M. Maclver and Charles H. Page, Society (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York, 1961), p. 591, and Robert M. Maclver, The Modern State (Oxford University Press, London, 1926), pp. 83-91.

20 E. Adamson Hoebel, Man in the Primitive World (McGraw-Hill, New York, 1949), p. 376

21 Gabriel A. Almond and James S. Coleman, eds., The Politics of Developing Areas (Princeton University Press, Princeton, I960) p. 12

22 The State, p. 12.

23 For some interesting discussion and history of the distinction between society and state, see Randall Collins, “A Comparative Approach to Political Sociology,” Reinhard Bendix et al., eds., State and Society (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1968), pp. 48-56, and W. G. Runciman, Social Science and Political Theory (Cambridge University Press, London, 1969) pp. 24-42.

24 For a brilliant, if sour, look at the decline of social power and the rise of state power in America, see Albert Jay Nock, Our Enemy the State (Free Life Editions, New York, 1974).

25 Stanley Diamond, In Search of the Primitive (Transaction Books, New Brunswick, 1974), p. 276.

26 Randall Collins, “A Comparative Approach to Political Sociology,” op. cit., p. 49.

27 Reinhard Bendix, “Social Stratification and the Political Community,” Peter Laslett and W. G. Runciman, eds., Philosophy, Politics and Society, Second Series (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1969), pp. 224-225.

28 Stanley Diamond, op. cit., p. 9. Also see The State, p. 27, and Morris Ginsberg, Essays in Sociology and Social Philosophy, vol. 1 (Heinemann, London, 1956-61), p. 131 ff.

29 For a fascinating view of some of the ways that free and voluntary actions creep into the interstices of our rigid and hierarchical society see Colin Ward, Anarchy in Action (Harper & Row, New York, 1974), and Richard Sennett, The Uses of Disorder (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1970).

30 Edward B. Tylor, Anthropology: An Introduction to the Study of Man (Watts, London, 1946), p. 134.

31 Aidan Southall, “A Critique of the Typology of States and Political Systems,” Michael Banton, ed., Political Systems and the Distribution of Power (Tavistock Publications, London, 1965), p. 121.

32 See M. Fortes and E. E. Evans-Pritchards, eds., African Political Systems (Oxford University Press, London, ]940), John Middleton and David Tait, eds., Tribes Without Rulers (Routledge, London, 1958), and Aidan Southall, “Stateless Society,” The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. 15 (Macmillan, New York, 1968).

33 Aidan Southall, “Stateless Society,” op. cit., p. 161.

34 F. M. Watkins, The State as a Concept of Political Science (Harper & Brothers, New York, 1934), p. 155.

35 Aidan Southall, “Stateless Society,” op. cit., p. 167.

36 Lawrence Krader, Formation of the State (Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, 1968), p. 110.

37 Aidan Southall, “Stateless Society,” op. cit., p. 167.

38 Joseph R. Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1970), p. 13. Also see The State, p. 106.

39 Joseph Peden, “Stateless Societies: Ancient Ireland,” The Libertarian Forum, April 1971, p. 3 ff.

40 Murray N. Rothbard, “Individualist Anarchism in the United States: The Origins,” Libertarian Analysis, Winter 1970, pp. 14-28.

41 See R. H. Lowie, The Origin of the State (Russell, New York, 1961), and R. M. Maclver, The Modern State, op. cit.

42 Karl A. Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1957).

43 Jacques Gernet, Ancient China, from the Beginnings to the Empire (Faber & Faber, London, 1968), p. 92.

44 It is relevant to mention here that when Oppenheimer died he was working on a manuscript about the similarities in the development of Japan and Western Europe along lines consistent with The State. Four articles entitled “Japan and Westem Europe: A Comparative Presentation of Their Social Histories” were published in The American Journal of Economics and sociology, vol. 3, no. 4, July 1944, pp. 539-551; vol. 4, no. 1, Oct. 1944, pp. 53-65; vol. 4, no. 2, Jan. 1945, pp. 239-244; and vol. 5, no. 1. Oct 1945, pp. 111-128.

45 For historical information see Howard Becker and Leon Smelo, “Conflict Theories of the Origin of the State,” The Sociological Review, vol 23, no. 2, July 1931, pp. 65-79.

46 Robert L. Carneiro, A Theory of the Origin of the State (Institute for Humane Studies, Menlo Park, n.d.), p. 6.

47 The State, pp. 6-15,33-36.

48 The State, p. 8.

49 Lawrence Krader, op. cit., p. 45.

50 Ibid.

51 Morton Fried, The Evolution of Political Society (Random House, New York, 1967), pp. 225-226.

52 The State, p. 22.

53 Georg Simmel, Conflict (Free Press, Glencoe, 1955), p. 93. See Lewis Coser, The Function of Social Conflict (Free Press, New York, 1956).

54 See Samuel N. Kramer, The Sumerians (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1963), pp. 73 ff.

55 See, for instance, the effects war had on centralizing American society, Ronald Radosh and Murray Rothbard, eds., A New History of Leviathan (E. P. Dutton, New York, 1972), and William E. Leuchtenburg, “The New Deal and the Analogue of War,” Braeman et al., eds., Change and Continuity in Twentieth Century America (Harper & Row, New York, 1966).

56 The State, p. 27.

57 The State, p. 31.

58 The State, p. 7.

59 R. H. Lowie, “The Origin of the State,” The Freeman, vol. 5, no. 123, July 19, 1922, p. 442.

60 The State, p. 35.

61 The State, p. 36.

62 Morton Fried, op. cit., p. 26. Also see John Schaar, “Legitimacy in the Modern State,” Philip Green and Sanford Levinson, eds., Power and Community in Political Science (Random House, New York, 1970).

63 The State, p. 96.

64 The State,p. 102.

65 Franz Oppenheimer, “Reminiscences of Peter Kropotkin,” The Roman Forum, vol. 2, no. 9, Dec. 1942, p. 11.

66 Ibid.

67 Ibid., p. 12.

68 C. J. Friedrich, “The Deification of the State,” Review of Politics, vol. 1, no. 1, Jan. 1939, p. 21.

69 The State, pp. 103-104.

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