This article was published in the Summer 1995 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation
The State:
Its History and Development Viewed Sociologically
by Franz Oppenheimer
Originally published in German, 1908
English translation reprinted
by Arno Press, 1972
reviewed by Candice I. Copas

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The Political Means and the Economic Means
The State Develops in Six Stages
Ancient Maritime States Experienced Different Economic Forces
The Primitive Feudal State
The Constitutional State and the Birth of Civil Liberties

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With the goal of the Free Nation Foundation being to analyze and challenge the evolution of the institutions of government, Oppenheimer's The State provides invaluable background.

Oppenheimer looks back in history. All primitive tribes, he tells, carry on without anything which we would call "state"; these tribes have no organized apparatus of coercion. They are too poor to support one. He examines how the accumulation of wealth begins to make it worthwhile for one people to dominate another people. While most present-day believers in the state will contend that the state originated to assure civil order and to protect the nation from invasion, Oppenheimer makes a chillingly clear case for a less flattering origin -- the state was born in plunder, conquest and subjugation.

Oppenheimer's goal is to trace the birth and development of the state from its sociological genesis to a current constitutional form, and to project certain inclinations forward to see where these trends may lead in the future. The State outlines through political and economic means, the components of the primitive and the advanced feudal states, the maritime states, and the constitutional states. Oppenheimer shows that all of these states fall short of the "freemen's citizenship," his ideal society.

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The Political Means and the Economic Means

Oppenheimer argues that there are two opposing means by which people try to satisfy needs, political means and economic means. One's own work and the fair exchange of one's work for the work of others is the economic means, while the forcible appropriation of the work of others is the political means. This is not a new idea. Philosophers have made this distinction for years.


"The state is an organization of the political means. No state, therefore, can come into being until the economic means has created a definite number of objects for the satisfaction of needs, which objects may be taken away or appropriated by warlike robbery," Oppenheimer claims. For this reason, primitive huntsmen and grubbers lived in practical anarchy. Huntsmen do not become part of a state structure until they find an evolved economic organization that they can subjugate. Most tribes of huntsmen had no chieftain, or if they did, the chieftain had no way of enforcing his wishes on the rest of the group. Therefore, political agendas were powerless, if they existed at all.

Grubbers were isolated farmers usually split up over disputes about property boundaries. At best they had loosely organized associations held together by oath. They were attached to the land, making it difficult to mobilize the group in warlike efforts. They had no legal system. Yet, theft was unheard of. What would the purpose be in stealing from a country of grubbing peasants? The thief would gain nothing that he didn't already have.

The herdsmen and Vikings, although preceding the state, possessed many state-like qualities. In fact, they possessed all the qualities of the modern state with the exception of a definite territory, as they were usually nomadic. In the case of the herdsmen, assuming that they each started out with an equal number of cattle, one group would become richer than another group in a short amount of time. One group might find ideal grazing conditions and breed quickly, whereas the other loses cattle owing to drought or disease. These distinctions in fortune bring about class distinctions. So long as this distinction is brought about through economic means, it operates in modest boundaries because class structure would be constantly changing, as new tribes arise or one begins to lose wealth owing to pestilence or natural disaster. Therefore, economic and social equality are most often restored.

Social and economic equality are destroyed when political means are involved. When war is invoked and greater distinctions in class arise, the first case of economic exploitation arises: slavery. In order to be protected from prey or enemies, the smaller tribes must join the larger to survive, each taking a place in the hierarchy relating to their wealth. The huntsman carried on wars and held captives, but never made them slaves. He either kills them or adopts them as equals in his tribe. Slaves are of no use to him because he is nomadic and constantly moving, making it is impossible to capitalize on the labor force of grounded slaves.

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The State Develops in Six Stages

Here we have the first stage in Oppenheimer's six-step development of the state: the ability to remain stationary. Endless combats strengthened by the duties of blood feuds perpetuate warlike customs. Even if the offenders are defeated at first they return with bigger, stronger armies. For the landed state, mobilization is too slow and it is too costly to take their supplies into battle fields the same reason the panther defeats the buffalo in battle (to borrow an example).

The second stage includes thousands of unsuccessful revolts until the peasantry accepts its fate and no longer tries to revolt. The landowners or herdsmen end violent punishments and substandard living conditions in their own best interest. Knowing that a dead slave can no longer work and produce for him, the landowner appropriates only the surplus to the peasants, usually enough to keep them going through the winter or until the next crop season begins. The landowner learns that to show some restraint now will help lead to future wealth. Oppenheimer claims, at this point, that a "semblance of rights" develops, the right to bare necessities of life; so it comes to be regarded as wrong to kill an unresisting man or to strip him of everything.

In the third stage peasants are allowed freedom, while still under the protection of the state. They are relieved of a few little irregularities of the former form of taxation, and there are fewer brutal outbreaks, such as the burning down of homes and public beatings. The first group of peasants then begins to subjugate other peasants, creating yet another class.

The fourth stage involves a territorial union in which different ethnic groups begin to relate. Whereas their relationship was once seen as international, they now become more intranational. This may be caused by foreign tribes or threats nearby. In the end the herdsmen stay near the peasantry. If it gets too large, the royalty settle in strategic sites. From the center, they control their subjects, but allow them to administrate their own affairs such as religion or settling disputes or having local internal economies.

In stage five, quarrels or fights break out among neighboring villages or clans, whereupon the lords preside over the conflict because if it were permitted to continue, the capacity for the peasants' "services" would be impaired. Therefore, the lords reserve the right to enforce their judgment.

The sixth, and final stage, concludes that for their subjects to be kept in order and working to their full capacity, the state acquires full intranationality. The need becomes more frequent to intervene, to punish, to coerce obedience; thus developing a habit of rule and the usage of government.

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Ancient Maritime States Experienced Different Economic Forces

In the ancient maritime state, bartering became the primary economic means. Oppenheimer argues that for the first time in history, we find economic means not the object of exploitation by political means, but rather as a cooperating agent in the origin of the state. Now, there is an economic incentive to have peaceful relations with neighbors, namely more trade markets. It also provides incentive for the robber-warrior not to interfere with such markets. The value gained by the victors consists of property that is unavailable for immediate consumption. Since there are only a few articles of value, and those articles exist in large number, the marginal utility of any one kind is very low. This includes the most important product of political means, slavery. For example, the herdsmen's need for slaves is proportional to the size of his herds. He's likely to exchange his surplus for objects of greater value to him than slaves. Oppenheimer claims that because of this, the herdsman is always a robber and always a merchant/trader simply protecting his market.

Whether the maritime state arose from merchant colonies or piratical territories, it is still "nothing more than the organization of political means." The master class still looks down on the subjects with the same contempt. They establish laws and a constitution because highway robbery cannot be tolerated in a merchant colony. And finally, it develops capitalistic slave-work.

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The Primitive Feudal State

In the primitive feudal state we find the same dominion and exploitation, maintained by a constitution and enforced when necessary. The lords claim the right of taxation, needing supplements to honor their duty of protection from foreign elements and from dangers within the state. Growth in itself conditions changes. The young state must grow and gain more power or be destroyed by the same forces that brought it into existence. The more it expands the more numerous its subjects and the denser the population. A political-economic division of labor develops further. More distinct economic and social class strata emerge. Oppenheimer calls this the "law of the agglomeration about existing nuclei of wealth." The growing differentiation becomes decisive for the growth of the primitive state and for the later growth of the feudal state.

From this, two opposing theories arise. In one case, the maritime state consists of movable wealth and property. In the other, the territorial state, consists of the development of landed property. The result of the first is economic exploitation by slavery, "leading not to the death of the state, but the death of the people because of consumption of the population." The result of the latter is the developed feudal state. "The growth of the feudal state is a continuation of the original trunk, and is therefore the origin for the further growth of the state. It has developed into a state governed by feudal systems; into absolutism; into the modern constitutional state; and will become a free citizenship." From this, Oppenheimer gathers, that the maritime state will remain centralized and tied up in money economies, owing to the basic conditions of trade, whereas the territorial state will continue to become more decentralized as it expands in size.

As the state expands, the central power must delegate responsibilities. Keep in mind that there is no money system at this stage, therefore no tax money collected by the general treasury to disperse over the state. If the state has any hope of collecting funds of any sort from the population, it must request that the counts and landlords collect cattle (or whatever the currency) from their territorial jurisdiction. The only way that the state can then pay for this service is to give the landlord more land, as it has no money. As the landlord's territory grows, he gains more power and more people, and more freedom from the central government. Of course, the same process is happening to all of his subjects. At this point, Oppenheimer argues that it is tempting to draw the conclusion that independence from the central masters is proportional to the distance from the central authority. Thus, the birth of provinces and more localized organizations, each with their own respective power.

The developed feudal state is the same as it was in the second stage of state formation. It is a form of dominion, with political exploitation of economic means, limited by public law, in which the master class feels compelled to protect the working classes as long as they continue to work and pay taxes. Essentially, government has not changed, it only develops more layers and the same applies to the "distribution of wealth."

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The Constitutional State and the Birth of Civil Liberties

Finally, civil liberties are granted. Not because the master class gives these privileges out of kindness, but rather they are forced to do so. The states become too large for the master to oversee. The cost of paying someone to oversee the operations is far too expensive. They then charge a fixed rent/tax on the subject class. Finally, the slave workers are making surplus from their land. This surplus then leads to local trade economies. The early industrial city is born, and soon develops its own money.

Suddenly money is the ideal form of wealth because it is more fluid. The feudal lord then must realize that the question is not how can I use my power and land to gain more slaves? but how can I use my land to get the most money? Obviously, he needs the minimum number of people to get the maximum amount of money from the land. This leads to the dependency of the nobility on the federal government, as he no longer has the following he once had, economically or militarily.

Also, the states grow until they eventually have to compete with other states for land, since growth would also lead to the downfall of the feudal state. Any good capitalist would realize that if they provided a state with more freedom, they would attract the somewhat oppressed laborers from other states. The prejudiced states that held on to their concepts of elitism would be driven out of business. When this happens, when the state is no longer founded on political means, but rather on economic means, we see the development of the "freemen's citizenship". Thus, the state of the future would be the one guided by self-government, until the state itself no longer exists only society. D


Candi Copas, of Durham, NC, working constantly for libertarian causes, has been elected Ballot Access Coordinator of the Libertarian Party of North Carolina and Director of the Free Nation Foundation. For a living she works at a computer consulting firm. She studies political science and philosophy as an undergraduate at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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