Term used intially by the German collaborator of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels (1820-1895).
After the seizure of power by the working class, the dictatorship of the proletariat will be used to abolish capitalism and, hence, classes.
Since states only exist to regulate class conflict, the state will thereafter be redundant and will wither away.
David McLellan, Marxism after Marx (London, 1980)
Origin of the phrase
The phrase was coined by Friedrich Engels in part 3, chapter 2, of Anti-Dühring:
The interference of the state power in social relations becomes superfluous in one sphere after another, and then ceases of itself. The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things and the direction of the processes of production. The state is not “abolished”, it withers away.
Another related quote from Engels comes from Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State:
The society which organizes production anew on the basis of free and equal association of the producers will put the whole state machinery where it will then belong—into the museum of antiquities, next to the spinning wheel and the bronze ax.
Although Engels first introduced the idea of the withering away of the state, he attributed the underlying concept to Karl Marx, and other Marxist theorists—including Vladimir Lenin—would later expand on it. According to this concept of the withering away of the state, eventually a communist society will no longer require coercion to induce individuals to behave in a way that benefits the entire society. Such a society would occur after a temporary period of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
It proceeds from the concept of the transformation of the state in the previous stage of society called socialism. Engels posits that—similar to the arguments made by Henri de Saint-Simon before him—in a socialist society public organization would become primarily concerned with technical issues such as the optimal allocation of resources and determination of production as opposed to drafting and enforcing laws and thus the traditional state functions would gradually become irrelevant and unnecessary for the functioning of society. Engels argued that the state transforms itself from a “government of people” to an “administration of things” and thus would not be a state in the traditional sense of the term.
This scenario depended on Marx’s view of coercive power as a tool of those who own the means of production, i.e. certain social classes (the bourgeoisie) and the capitalist state. In a communist society, the social classes would disappear and the means of production would have no single owner, hence such a stateless society will no longer require law and stateless communist society will develop.
The concept of the withering away of the state differentiates traditional Marxism from state socialism (which accepted the retention of the institution of the state) and anti-statist anarchism (which demanded the immediate abolition of the state with no perceived need for any “temporary” post-revolutionary institution of the state).
In the Soviet Marxism of the Soviet Union, Lenin supported the idea of the withering away of the state as seen in his The State and Revolution (1917). Joseph Stalin’s government mentioned it occasionally, but did not believe the world was yet in the advanced stage of development where the state could wither away. He believed that at least in the short term the state had to have enough power to strike back against those elements seeking to derail the ultimate victory of communism. Thus, the Stalin-era Soviet Union marginalized the notion of the withering of the state.