According to Hegel, the State is ‘the image and reality of reason’. Faced with a civil society in which there are classes with different economic interests, the State is an impartial and reasonable entity that aims to avoid the rupture of that society.
Hegel’s viewpoint here could be seen as idealistic, and should probably not be taken as a realistic assessment of the time in which he lived. He recognises that the differences in society are real, but suggests that the State aims (or perhaps should aim) to resolve these problems in an omniscient and benevolent way. In this statement, he does not consider the link between the State and economic or class interests that may influence the behaviour of that State. There is no real analysis or criticism of the status quo.
Marx, on the other hand, takes a different approach to his predecessor. According to Lenin, Marx says that “the State is an organ of class domination, an organ of oppression of one class by another, [and] is the creation of ‘order’ that legalises and consolidates this oppression…” (Lenin: The State and Revolution).
In contrast to Hegel’s view, Marx provides a much more realistic and critical assessment of the State. For him, the State is the defender of oppression rather than a benevolent body aiming to dispense justice in an unjust nation. In this assessment, the State is not impartial, and uses force and deception to ensure that the interests of the dominant class are protected.
Many people in formal democracies may, while recognising the existence of inequality, believe the claim of the ruling classes that, without the State, there would be chaos and lawlessness. This view would fit in neatly with Hegel’s assessment of the essentially positive force exercised by the State. The State is a doctor, compassionately trying to heal the surface wounds of a terminally ill patient. We don’t attack the doctor because he is not seen as part of the problem. He is directly responsible neither for the terminal illness nor the surface wounds.
However, in a world where we have recently witnessed almost total impunity for financial crimes committed by global banking institutions, and an attack on the living standards of the working population of the world, Marx’s analysis seems incredibly accurate. The State, bailing out banks rather than imprisoning the criminals at the heart of the financial crisis, is condoning and consolidating the actions of those who produce nothing but still sit at the top of society. That is the true nature of the capitalist State, no matter which bourgeois political party we ‘vote’ for.