For Marxist theorists, the role of modern states is determined or related to their position in capitalist societies. Many contemporary Marxists offer a liberal interpretation of Marx’s comment in The Communist Manifesto that the state is but the executive committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.
Ralph Miliband argued that the ruling class uses the state as its instrument to dominate society by virtue of the interpersonal ties between state officials and economic elites. For Miliband, the state is dominated by an elite that comes from the same background as the capitalist class.
State officials therefore share the same interests as owners of capital and are linked to them through a wide array of interpersonal and political ties.
By contrast, other Marxist theorists argue that the question of who controls the state is irrelevant. Heavily influenced by Gramsci, Nicos Poulantzas, a Greek neo-Marxist theorist argued that capitalist states do not always act on behalf of the ruling class, and when they do, it is not necessarily the case because state officials consciously strive to do so, but because the ‘structural’ position of the state is configured in such a way to ensure that the long-term interests of capital are always dominant.
Poulantzas’ main contribution to the Marxist literature on the state was the concept of ‘relative autonomy’ of the state. While Poulantzas’ work on ‘state autonomy’ has served to sharpen and specify a great deal of Marxist literature on the state, his own framework came under criticism for its ’structural functionalism.’
While neo-Marxist theories of the state were relatively influential in continental Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, pluralism, a contending approach, gained greater adherence in the United States. Within the pluralist tradition, Robert Dahl sees the state as either a neutral arena for contending interests or its agencies as simply another set of interest groups.
With power competitively arranged in society, state policy is a product of recurrent bargaining. Although pluralism recognizes the existence of inequality, it asserts that all groups have an opportunity to pressure the state. The pluralist approach suggests that the state’s actions are the result of pressures applied for both polyarchy and organized interests.
Both the Marxist and pluralist approaches view the state as reacting to the activities of groups within society, such as classes or interest groups. In this sense, they have both come under criticism for their ‘society-centered’ understanding of the state by scholars who emphasize the autonomy of the state with respect to social forces.
In particular, the “new institutionalism,” an approach to politics that holds that behavior is fundamentally molded by the institutions in which it is embedded, asserts that the state is not an ‘instrument’ or an ‘arena’ and does not ‘function’ in the interests of a single class. Scholars working within this approach stress the importance of interposing civil society between the economy and the state to explain variation in state forms.
“New institutionalist” writings on the state, such as the works of Theda Skocpol, suggest that state actors are to an important degree autonomous. In other words, state personnel have interests of their own, which they can and do pursue independently (at times in conflict with) actors in society. Since the state controls the means of coercion, and given the dependence of many groups in civil society on the state for achieving any goals they may espouse, state personnel can to some extent impose their own preferences on civil society.
‘New institutionalist’ writers, claiming allegiance to Weber, often utilize the distinction between ‘strong states’ and ‘weak states,’ claiming that the degree of ‘relative autonomy’ of the state from pressures in society determines the power of the state—a position that has found favor in the field of international political economy.