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

Franz Oppenheimer

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.

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”.