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September 1975

Oppenheimer, “The State”

Rothbard reviews a classic now more than a century old and as relevant as ever.

For centuries, the State and its intellectual apologists have propagated the myth that the State is a voluntary instrument of society. Essential to that myth is the idea that the State arose on a voluntary, or at least on a natural, basis, arising organically out of the needs of society. For if the State arose naturally or voluntarily, then it probably follows that it fulfilled and still fulfills a vital societal function. Two major variants of the myth of State origins are the idea that the State arose out of a “social contract” entered into by all members of society. Throwing over theories of how the State should have arisen for a realistic historical inquiry of how it actually arose, the late-nineteenth century Austrian sociologist Ludwig Gumplowicz pointed out that, in fact, states were born of conquest and coercion of one ethnic or “racial” group over another.

Inspired by Gumplowicz’ researches, the German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer systemized his mentor’s work in his brief and beautifully written book The State (1908). Oppenheimer pointed out that all states have arisen through conquest. His paradigmatic history of the State began with nomadic tribes conquering the non-state peasant societies. At first, the conquerors usually looted and murdered their victims and then went on to find others. After centuries, however, the conquering tribes decided to settle down among their victims; instead of killing them, they regularized and rendered the loot permanent, settling down to rule their victims on a long-range basis. The annual tribute became “taxes,” and the land of the peasants was parcelled out among the warlords to become subject of annual feudal rent. In this way, a state and a ruling class emerged form previously stateless societies. Thus, Oppenheimer analyzes the State as 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, the dominion had no other purpose than the economic exploitation of the vanquished by the victors.” Oppenheimer then goes on to show the ruling-class attitudes and ideology which emerged from the attempt of the conquerors to fasten their exploitative rule upon their subjects.

In contrast to Gumplowicz, who cynically saw nothing wrong with this tooth-and-claw process, Oppenheimer, as a libertarian, went on to a scintillating and brilliant analysis of the State as a parasitic and antisocial institution. The State is unsurpassed in its analysis of the State as parasite and exploiter. Thus, Oppenheimer points out that there are two and only two ways by which men can acquire income and wealth: One is through production and voluntary exchange, what Oppenheimer calls “the economic means” to wealth, the means consonant with human nature and with the prosperity of mankind, the means which benefits all parties to the market and exchange process. The other means is robbery, the coercive looting and expropriation of someone else’s production. This is the parasitic means, which not only violates the nature of man, but imposes a crippling burden on the victims and on production and economic growth. This path to wealth Oppenheimer called “the political means.” Oppenheimer then goes on to define the State, on the basis of his historical researches, as the organization, the regularization, of the political means. It was this analysis of the essentially coercive and exploitative nature of the State that was the major inspiration for the libertarian theories of the American Albert Jay Nock.

In contrast, then, to the Marxian theories of the ruling class, which includes the capitalist as “exploiter” and ruler of the workers he hires, Oppenheimer’s ruling class is whatever group has managed to conquer others, and thereby to create or to get control of the coercive apparatus of the State. Oppenheimer’s history and analysis thus becomes one of the most devastating and thorough-going critiques of the State ever penned.

 

An important question for us is: how does Oppenheimer’s historical analysis of the origin of the State hold up after all these decades? The answer is: very well. The analysis of the “political” vs. the “economic” means is of course timeless. As to the history of the origin of the State, the latest anthropological researches have modified, but not changed the essence of, the conquest theory. We now know, more than ever, that no State ever emerged out of the family or by social contract. The latest modification is that many states emerged typically, not so much out of the conquest by one tribe of an entirely different tribe, but by central villages conquering neighboring villages of the same tribe, as population grew and pressed on limited geographical space, and then imposing continuing rule and tribute over the conquered villages. Thus, we see that many states arose, not simply out of conquest of one tribe by another, but also by some villages conquering others within the same tribe. But the Oppenheimer vision of the State as always emerging from conquest and violence remains solidly intact, to strip away our last illusions about its alleged natural “beneficence.”Reviewed by Murray N. Rothbard / Political Philosophy / LR Price $3.95