Engels and the Secret of the Socialist State

I am always amazed by what careful study of texts does to you. Even if you have read the same text over and over, thinking you know what it says, a patient rereading leads you along new paths.

This is precisely my experience at the moment as I work through Engels’s texts on the state from the 1880s. Many of them remained unfinished, due to the onerous task of editing Marx’s scattered notes into the second and third volumes of Capital. But the material that he did write is rich indeed.

It seems to me that the secret of the socialist state, or rather, one crucial element, can be found in these texts. Now, it may seem strange to speak of a ‘socialist state’, since Engels insists again and again that a state is a ‘public power [öffentliche Gewalt]’ that is ‘separated [getrennte]’ from the people. The origin of this idea I have still to find – Hegel held to it, but it is older than Hegel. Engels sees it appearing with the emergence of classes, economic exploitation and so on.

So much is reasonably well-known. However, when we look at his considerations of pre-state formations, we find two important features. The first is that such formations have quite complex forms of ‘social organisation’ (Engels’s term). These include councils, which either included the whole adult population or were representative, elections, leadership roles (even the early Greek basileus and the Roman rex) and multiple organisational functions for the ordering and governance of society. The best term for these functions is an apparatus, albeit one that works within the social fabric. All of this, insists Engels, is not yet a state – assuming the earlier definition.

Why not? The reason – and this is the second point – is that the whole apparatus is enmeshed with the people. Social structures and mores, policing, war, marriage, burial, inheritance, religious practices and ritual – these and more were ordered through this enmeshed system. Engels can even describe this system as a ‘sovereign power [Gewalt]’.

How does all this provide a crucial angel into the socialist state, or should I say the communist state? Engels is famous for coining the phrase, in the third edition of Anti-Dühring, of the state ‘dying away’, or ‘withering’ as it is often translated in English. By this he means the notion of a separated power (Gewalt). Fair enough. But he and Marx are also quite clear that many functions of social organisation would continue, indeed that they would need to continue. This is where his proposals concerning pre-state formations come into play. I mean not the idea of some restored ‘primitive communism’, but rather a dialectically transformed situation in which the apparatus of governance is enmeshed with the people in a new way. Obviously, any idea of ‘bourgeois society [bürgerliche Gesellschaft]’, which is the German original of what is called ‘civil society’, has no place within this enmeshed system.

Two caveats are in order. First, socialism is clearly a transitional period, as Lenin was the first to point out. That it is an exceedingly long period Lenin already began to see, with Stalin then providing a rather robust theoretical foundation. Such a transitional period, which is really a phase in its own right, has forms of governance which may be seen as hybrid. Here a state as a separated power may continue, although it will do so in hitherto unforeseen ways. It will already exhibit many of the features of an enmeshed system that I have outlined all too briefly.

The other caveat concerns the tradition of Chinese dialectics (for I have Chinese socialism also in mind). This is a rich tradition indeed, including the complex philosophical dimensions of the yin-yang, the military insights of Sunzi’s The Art of War, let alone the original breakthrough of Mao Zedong’s ‘On Contradiction’, which was itself an intersection between Marxist and Chinese dialectics, transforming both in the process. This tradition is another key to understanding the socialist state, although my research concerning it is ongoing.

Can we indeed speak of a socialist state? I think we can, although it may be better to speak of an enmeshed state, which we already find in many ways in China.

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