Right and Force: A Marxist Critique of Contract and the State

  • Geoffrey Kay


The idea that government involves a contract between ruler and ruled reaches back to classical antiquity. In the feudal period it was evoked by the church to define the limits of secular power. In the sixteenth century it was appealed to by Catholics here and Protestants there to assert the interests of minorities against authority. But its greatest influence came in the following centuries, particularly in the hundred years which separate Hobbes from Rousseau, when it was coupled to the idea of natural right to provide an account of the emerging state. Insisting that the basis of political society is will rather than force, philosophers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries attempted to reconcile the sovereignty of the state with the rights of citizens through the concept of a social contract. At the end of the eighteenth century, in response to the forces unleashed by the Industrial Revolution, the tradition of natural law focussed on civil society, creating the school of political economy which gave Marx the starting point for his later writings. ‘Smith and Ricardo’, he wrote on the first page of the Introduction to the Grundrisse ‘still stand with both feet on the shoulders of the eighteenth-century prophets’.


Civil Society Eighteenth Century Private Property Social Contract Liberal Theory 
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© Michael Williams 1988

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  • Geoffrey Kay

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