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Franz Oppenheimer on the origin of the state in conquest and subjection by one group over another (1907)

The German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer (1864-1943) developed a theory of the “class-state” or the “wolf state” which had its origins in the “conquest and subjugation” of one group of powerless people by a more powerful one:

What, then, is the State as a sociological concept? The State, completely in its genesis, essentially and almost completely during the first stages of its existence, is 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, this dominion had no other purpose than the economic exploitation of the vanquished by the victors.

No primitive state known to history originated in any other manner.

As a matter of fact, however, for centuries past, in all parts of the world, we have had a class-state, with possessing classes on top and a propertyless laboring class at the bottom, even when population was much less dense than it is to-day. Now it is true that the class-state can arise only where all fertile acreage has been occupied completely; and since I have shown that even at the present time, all the ground is not occupied economically, this must mean that it has been preëmpted politically. Since land could not have acquired “natural scarcity,” the scarcity must have been “legal.” This means that the land has been preëmpted by a ruling class against its subject class, and settlement prevented. Therefore the State, as a class-state, can have originated in no other way than through conquest and subjugation.

This view, the so-called “sociological idea of the state,” as the following will show, is supported in ample manner by well-known historical facts. And yet most modern historians have rejected it, holding that both groups, amalgamated by war into one State, before that time had, each for itself formed a “State.” As there is no method of obtaining historical proof to the contrary, since the beginnings of human history are unknown, we should arrive at a verdict of “not proven,” were it not that, deductively, there is the absolute certainty that the State, as history shows it, the class-state, could not have come about except through warlike subjugation. The mass of evidence shows that our simple calculation excludes any other result.

The Sociological Idea of the State

To the originally, purely sociological, idea of the State, I have added the economic phase and formulated it as follows:

*What, then, is the State as a sociological concept? The State, completely in its genesis, essentially and almost completely during the first stages of its existence, is 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, this dominion had no other purpose than the economic exploitation of the vanquished by the victors.

No primitive state known to history originated in any other manner.** Wherever a reliable tradition reports otherwise, either it concerns the amalgamation of two fully developed primitive states into one body of more complete organization; or else it is an adaptation to men of the fable of the sheep which made a bear their king in order to be protected against the wolf. But even in this latter case, the form and content of the State became precisely the same as in those states where nothing intervened, and which became immediately “wolf states.”

About this Quotation:

Oppenheimer’s theory of the origin of the state in conquest and subjection was shared by several other late 19th century sociologists both classical liberal and not. On the classical liberal side there was Gustave de Molinari (1819-1912) in France, and Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) in England; and Ludwig Gumplowicz (1838-1909) in Poland/Austria among the German historical school. Franz Oppenheimer (1864-1943) was influenced by Gumplowicz and he in turn had a profound influence on American libertarians of the inter-war period, like Albert Jay Nock (1870-1945) in his book Our Enemy, the State (1935), and then Murray Rothbard and Walter E. Grinder in the post-war period. Oppenheimer is interesting for basing his critique of the state on the idea that there were only two ways of acquiring wealth, either the “political means” (such as coercion and taxation) or the “economic means” (through peaceful and voluntary exchange). In his sociological and historical view, the state had been and continued to be the organisation (or even the institutionalisation) of the political means of acquiring wealth, which was quite different from free market, economic ways of acquiring wealth. Oppenheimer repays deeper reading with his thoughts on other concepts which he develops at greater length in his considerable body of work which has not been translated into English - such as “class-state” and “wolf-state”.

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