The Socialist Welfare State: A Brief (and Intriguing) History

‘Do you think Europe – especially Scandinavia – is more socialist than China?’

This question used to be more common 7 or 8 years ago. But it came up recently while I was in Yunnan province, in the far southwest of China. It is of course connected with the impression that Scandinavia had a developed welfare system, which some seem to think indicates a socialist influence. And Scandinavians love to cite this one, although by now it is wearing quite thin.

The ‘Scandinavia had’ is quite deliberate in my earlier sentence, but to understand why requires a brief history.

The first country in human history to develop what I have elsewhere called a ‘domestic state’ was the Soviet Union. It happened under Stalin’s watch. In the 1920s, many regulations had been promulgated concerning education, healthcare, pregnancy preparation, maternity leave, childcare, divorce, guardianship and so on (although not unemployment benefits, since there soon was full employment) – the full gamut of matters that had been regarded until then as the domain of the ‘family’, no matter how extended it may have been. But it was only in the 1930s that they could be enacted in a realistic manner. Why? Only with the massive ‘socialist offensive’, with its twin programs of comprehensive industrialisation and agricultural collectivisation, did the Soviet Union have the economic resources to implement them in full. This is not to say that many problems did not happen, for the Soviet Union was making a tumultuous leap to becoming a superpower. As Mao put it later, ‘Progress and at the same time difficulties – this is a contradiction’ (1957). But the contradiction was a feature of a leap into the future.

What did some of the capitalist countries do? They realised that workers were increasingly drawn to the Soviet Union’s model. So the bourgeois governments borrowed some features and sought to institute what became known as the ‘welfare state’. But it was a warped version, predicated on the slogan, ‘from the cradle to the grave’. The state would take care of you, especially if matters beyond your control dealt you a bad hand.

Why warped? The way it was implemented in Europe (and even in the United States for a while with the ‘new deal’) was to neutralise any push by workers and peasants to alter the system itself. A bourgeois state would provide, so why bother with any revolutionary desires. Even more, it became a mechanism for ensuring that everyone in the state’s population remained – or could be retrained – to be productive, and thereby also remain consumers. Crucially, this altered form of the welfare state was restricted to full citizens, producing the framework for the xenophobic charge that ‘immigrants’ want to avail themselves of the benefits of a system to which they were not entitled.

This history has a further twist or two. After the symbolic ‘fall’ of the Berlin Wall in 1989, most countries that had a version of the bourgeois welfare state no longer felt the need to support it. The alternative model of the Soviet Union had imploded, so country after country systematically began to dismantle the ‘welfare state’. So-called ‘cheats’ became the target, such as the demonised ‘single mother’ with multiple offspring who ‘milked’ the system for her benefit. The rhetoric was relentless, ensuring that one plank after another of the bourgeois welfare state was removed. Even Scandinavia began to follow suit, albeit belatedly with the turn of the millennium.

Meanwhile, what was happening in China? Let us deal with the facts rather than mythology. After the communist revolution, a system had developed that may be called ‘Owenite’ (after Robert Owen’s model factories in the UK of the 19th century). Large conglomerates were established, around factories, publication houses, state-owned-enterprises (SOEs) and so on. In these conglomerates, people had everything: accommodation, jobs, dining halls, hospitals, shops, childcare facilities, funeral services … It was dubbed the ‘iron rice bowl’ – a term that originated outside China.

But they were grossly inefficient, sucking up resources, breeding familial corruption and giving little back to the overall system. In the 1980s and into the 1990s, Deng Xiaoping bit the bullet: the conglomerates would have to face the realities not of a ‘planned economy’ but of a ‘socialist market economy’ that has its own distinct Chinese articulation. Many went bankrupt, since they could not manage in the new order. Others thrived, like the Xinhua News Agency. In the process, mistakes were made: workers lost their jobs and were not compensated; farmers lost the healthcare to which they had become accustomed; retirees could no longer rely on the conglomerate to provide for them.

China first had to get its economic act together. As it did so and the resources became available, a whole new system began to be implemented. Farmers who had lost healthcare found a different model in its place. Retirees began to notice that the state was offering a leaner and more efficient system for their security. Workers who had lost their jobs were compensated. In short, a new model of the socialist welfare state was being systematically and carefully rolled out, with an eye on accountability and efficiency. But it goes much further, with a concentrated effort to lift the final 30 million people out of poverty. In short, it is clear that the socialist state has to ensure that it has the resources before implementing such policies.

The upshot: in the current situation we find ourselves at an important crossroads. As the neo-classical model of a capitalist market economy seeks to dismantle ever more vestiges of a bourgeois welfare state that was a response to the appeal of the Soviet Union (of increasingly distant memory), China is gradually and patiently implementing a whole new version of a socialist welfare state.

It should be no surprise that over 87 percent of people in China approve of the direction in which the most powerful socialist country in human history is headed, even while fully aware of the many problems they face.


Korea takes another step in solving its own problems

While the United States is looking increasingly desperate and floundering, the two parts of Korea have taken yet another step in solving their own problems – a long-standing wish and policy, as I have pointed out on a number of occasions.

Yesterday, Moon Jae-in ducked across the informal border for a candid and unannounced discussion with a new friend, Kim Jong Un. As one does in Korea!

No better source that Rodong Sinmun to report on it (KCNA carries the same report):

The top leaders of the north and the south open-heartedly listened to each other’s opinions on the crucial pending matters without formality, and had a candid dialogue. The meeting offers another historic occasion in opening up a new chapter in the development of the north-south relations.

In a little more detail:

At the talks there were in-depth exchanges of opinions to tackle the matters that should be resolved to quickly implement the Panmunjom Declaration agreed upon at the third north-south summit and to realize the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and achieve regional peace, stability and prosperity, and the matters the north and the south are now faced with, and the one of successfully holding the DPRK-U.S. summit.

Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae In shared the view that the two sides should trust and take care of each other and exert joint efforts to make sure that the Panmunjom Declaration reflecting the unanimous desire of all Koreans is implemented at an early date.

They agreed to hold the north-south high-level talks on coming June 1 and further accelerate the talks of various fields including the ones of military authorities and Red Cross.

They shared the opinion that they would meet frequently in the future to invigorate dialogue and pool wisdom and efforts, expressing their stand to make joint efforts for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula …

The fourth north-south summit held at Panmunjom, recorded in history as a symbol of national reconciliation and unity, peace and prosperity, will provide all Koreans with a new hope and vitality.

Or as Moon himself observed after the meeting: ‘I wish to place a great meaning on the latest talks that were held as if they were an ordinary event between friends. I am convinced that this is the way that South and North Korea must meet’.

Meanwhile, the United States is feeling somewhat left out of all this, so they are now begging to meet Kim Jong Un in June – although by then matters will have moved on. The declaration of course includes the removal of hostile US troops from the peninsula.

To add another twist, KCNA debunks the spin that the DPRK is desperate for ‘economic aid’ from the United States. Simply put, the DPRK does not need that kind of assistance, not least because it has China’s backing and has been doing quite well of late.

The article observes:

This is the nonsense of hack media on the payroll of power, ignorant of who is the rival …

Now that U.S. media are still building up public opinion that the DPRK comes to the negotiating table with the U.S. in a hope to get “economic aid” from it, we can not but make the fact clear.

It is the U.S. that asked for DPRK-U.S. talks first.

The U.S. has recently come to realise that the military strength, it regards as almighty, and the anti-DPRK sanctions, it pinned hope on, were all doomed to failure. After all, there could be no other way out for the U.S.

The international community contends that the world-startling dramatic change in the DPRK-U.S. ties was entirely thanks to the DPRK’s efforts for peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and the world.

As far as the “economic aid” advertised by the U.S. is concerned, the DPRK has never expected it.

U.S. media would be well advised to stop talking nonsense as hack media and deeply study what the strategic line advanced at the historic April Plenary Meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea means.

Finally, a useful piece in Rodong Sinmun called ‘Let Us Give Full Play to the Advantages of Socialism’.

Pictures from yesterday’s meeting:

K&M 01

K&M 02

The text by Moon Jae-in reads: ‘Peace and Prosperity of the Korean Peninsula, together with Chairman Kim Jong Un of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea! May 26, 2018. President of the Republic of Korea Moon Jae In’.

K&M 03

K&M 04


K&M 05

K&M 06

K&M 07

And here is a video report of the meeting:

Australia’s split identity

While I do not pay much attention to the sheer childishness of what passes for ‘politics’ in Australia, I am intrigued by its split identity.

Let me put it this way: about 60,000 years ago a planned migration took place. Those who became the first peoples in Australia came from south-east Asia, heading southward across a series of islands to the mainland. They were homo sapiens, while Neanderthals still roamed Europe. But their arrival made it clear that the country was part of south-east Asia.

Some 240 years ago – by comparison a very short period of time – some Europeans arrived, tried to wipe out the most ancient continuous culture in the world, and tried to shape this part of the world as a western European outpost. It worked for a while, when the immigrants were mostly from the UK. For example, after the Second World War, the total population was 7 million, of which the vast majority were from the UK.

Since then, the shift has been dramatic. Waves of wider European immigration took place, and after 1972, more and more people emigrated from the Middle East, Africa and especially Asia. At the time of writing, the population is almost 25 million. Now those of English ancestry are a clear minority, and in the not too distant future those of European ancestry (like me) will also be a minority.

Why? Each year almost 200,000 immigrants move to Australia – apart from those who come to Australia to study and work. Of these, more than half come from Asia. Indeed, as I write, more than 2 million people who are Australian citizens were born in Asia, let alone those born in Australia of Asian parents over the last few decades.

Anecdotally, earlier this year I attended one of many citizenship ceremonies held each year. About 500 people were present, of which perhaps ten percent were white and most likely of European extraction. The vast majority were from everywhere else in the world.

Some time soon, the country may well revert to its former identity, but in the meanwhile it faces a continuing problem of split identity. Is it a ‘western’ European country that somehow – by a quirk of geography – found itself in another part of the world? Or is it really part of Asia, or perhaps the Asia-Pacific?

Or as a rather insightful article in the Global Times put it, with more immediate relevance:

Canberra must pursue an independent policy toward China. The key issue is Australia’s self-positioning. On the one hand, Australia identities itself as an Asia-Pacific country because Asia is the fastest-growing economic region, so involving itself in Asia’s industrial chain will bring tangible benefits to Australia’s economy. If Australia wants to follow that strategy, it has to carefully deal with its relations with China to enhance bilateral ties.

On the other hand, Australia is used to seeing itself as a member of the Western camp, acting as a US ally over political issues. But politics is bound to affect economic ties and economic problems between the two countries are essentially a political issue. Rethinking its identity will help Australia adopt an appropriate policy to deal with Chinese issues.


This article puts it in economic and political terms, but I would add cultural identity in light of the rapidly changing demographics.

Why Is So Much Research on the State Inadequate for Analysing the Socialist State?

While researching my book on the socialist state, I have been digging into the literature. There is plenty of it, although I have been focusing on theoretical material and on research relating to specific features of the Chinese state. To my dismay, I have been struck by the inadequacy of most of this research.

Why? The philosophical assumptions are determined by the nature of the European liberal nation-state, or more accurately, the bourgeois state. In what follows, I deal with three topics: research on state theory; research on state practices; and the ways researchers dismiss work that comes from within socialist states.

Research on State Theory

Despite significant research on state theory, little deals with the philosophical question of the nature of the state when communist parties are in power.

A major reason is that most research focuses on the bourgeois state, especially those influenced by Weber’s definition of the state as ‘the form of human community [Gemeinschaft] that (successfully) lays claim to the monopoly of legitimate physical violence [Gewaltsamkeit] within a particular territory’ (Weber 2004, 33, 1919, 6).[1] While Weber speaks of the specific history of European nation-states, those who follow him are not always so careful and universalise, speaking of ‘the state’ in general (Corrigan and Sayer 1985, Tilly 1985, Giddens 1985, Tilly 1990, Elias 2000, Adams 2005, Bourdieu 2014, 4, Foucault 2014). The concern with the bourgeois state is also evident among Marxist scholars, who remain – perhaps surprisingly – relatively silent on what happens to the state under socialism (Sweezy 1942, Baran and Sweezy 1966, Miliband 1969, Poulantzas 1969, 1978, 1980, Offe 1974, Mandel 1975, Esping-Andersen, Friedland, and Wright 1976, Holloway and Picciotto 1978, Therborn 1978, Wright 1978, Domhoff 1979, Skocpol 1979, Block 1980, Jessop 1982, Carnoy 1984, Held and Krieger 1984, Offe 1984, Alford and Friedland 1985, Evans, Rueschemeyer, and Skocpol 1985, Przeworski 1985, Held 1989, Jessop 1990, Barrow 1993, Evans 1995, Jessop 2007).

The few who deal theoretically with the state under socialism restrict themselves to selective interpretations of Marx and Engels (Miliband 1965, Jessop 1978), try to locate the theoretical origins of a repressive regime (Harding 1984), or speak in negatives: not a federation, not a nation-state, not an empire, not a colonising power but an entirely new state formation (Suny 1993, 85, Martin 2001, 15, 19, 461, Weeks 2005, 567). But what type of state? A detailed analysis remains to be done.

Research on State Practice

In contrast with theoretical research, there is significant work concerning many socialist state practices, from parliamentary structures, through welfare and security, to minority policies. Since I have undertaken earlier research concerning the USSR (Boer 2013, 2017), the material analysed in this section focuses on China.

Research on socialist state practice is largely the preserve of political scientists and historians. While it has shed light on many aspects, with some useful overviews (Guo 2013), the underlying theoretical assumptions are inadequate. Scholars continue to deploy notions derived from the bourgeois state: separation of state and (civil) society, ‘intervention’ of the state in society and economics, ‘party-state’, authoritarianism and ‘totalitarianism’, nationalism, and universalising notions of ‘democratisation’ and ‘free-market capitalism’. The way such frameworks dominate may be also seen with longer histories of state formations, from the ancient Near East to the present. They inevitably end with the European nation-state without proper consideration of other contemporary state forms (Mann 1986-2013, Gill 2003).

Let me focus on four core assumptions. First is the distinction between state and society, with a number of consequences: a) deploying the category of ‘civil society’ (Yu and Guo 2012, Fu 2018) without considering its specific history as bürgerliche Gesellschaft (later back-translated as Zivilgesellschaft (Kocha 2004)), which arose only with the bourgeois state; b) assuming that a state involved in all layers of society must be authoritarian to some extent (Teiwes 1984, Harding 1987, Pei 2000, Shambaugh 2000, Weatherley 2006, Perry 2007, Blecher 2009, Wright 2010, Landry 2012, Hildebrandt 2013); c) the category of ‘developmental state’ in which the state drives economic activity (Deans 2004); d) the ‘intervention’ of the state in an ‘independent’ capitalist economy (Chen 2007, Dickson 2008, Huang 2008). The core problem is precisely the distinction between state and society/economy (Womack 1992, Saich 2004, Tsai 2007, Gries and Rosen 2010), without considering alternative models, especially socialist ones.

Second and closely related is the use of ‘party-state’ to indicate that political power is held exclusively by the communist party, entailing centralisation and bureaucracy (Lieberthal and Lampton 1992, Li 2014). While the concept has the benefit of indicating a focus of power, it neglects political structures. Thus, the multi-party system receives scant attention, the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference become ‘rubber stamps’, and ‘socialist rule of law’ remains a puzzle (Peerenboom 2007, deLisle 2014).

Third is the assumption that ‘democracy’ is a universally applicable concept and that China is not ‘democratic’, although may occasionally have made some moves towards ‘democratization’ (Friedman and McCormick 2000, Ogden 2007, Tsai 2007, Nathan, Diamond, and Plattner 2013, Huang 2013, Weatherley 2014). The problems are many: universalising from the particular form of liberal democracy that emerged in Europe; neglect of this specific history and location, with efforts to apply it to very different locations; a lack of effort, apart from some Chinese contributions (Yu 2008, Yang 2009, Li 2013, Li 2015, Ma 2015a, 2015b, Fang 2015), to understand what the different form of socialist democracy entails.

Fourth and underlying these misunderstandings is a core philosophical question: how does one deal with contradictions and tensions? Does one side cancel out the other, as is the tendency with European or ‘Western’ approaches to contradictions? Much of the work surveyed assumes that the state is alienated from and opposed to society, that dictatorship is opposed to democracy, centralised authoritarianism to freedom (Hayek 1960, Arendt 1976) – although there are occasional challenges to the framework (Losurdo 2011, Mulholland 2012). Or are there alternative approaches to contradictions, in which they can be both antagonistic and non-antagonistic, where they not only oppose one another but also complement one another (Mao 1937, Tian 2005)? We find this approach particularly in a Chinese context, where socialism became sinified with profound implications for understanding the state.

From Ideology to Betrayal Narratives

The previous material has identified key philosophical shortcomings in much research concerning the state under socialism in power. How does such research deal with viable alternatives, especially from within socialist states? The milder effort designates such analyses as ‘ideological’ rather than ‘scientific’, with an obvious favouring of the second (Joseph 2014). The distinction is convenient for justifying one’s own approach, but it neglects the interweaving of the two terms, as well as the ideological framework of the bourgeois state that determines what counts as ‘scientific’.

A stronger approach deploys the terminology of ‘myth’, ‘coded’ language and even ‘betrayal’. For example, ‘sinified Marxism’, ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, ‘socialist democracy’ and ‘socialist market economy’ are seen as codes for ‘authoritarian capitalism’ (Kluver 1996). Stronger still is a betrayal narrative that derives from the paradigmatic biblical story of the ‘Fall’. For example, in a Chinese context some hypothesise that Deng Xiaoping and the whole ‘reform and opening up’ have betrayed Mao and Marxism, abandoning socialism in the exercise of power and replacing it with capitalism, nationalism and even Confucianism (Misra 1998, Gregor 2000, Deans 2004, Zhao 2004, Gries 2005, Bell 2006, Huang 2008, Wang 2016). The problems are many, including the need to postulate a massive conspiracy, with ‘codes’ that need to be ‘deciphered’, ossification of the idea of socialism rather than seeing it as a living tradition, and a form of orientalism.

In sum, the almost untranscendable horizon of theoretical, political and historical research is that of the liberal state. It matters not whether one is influenced by the Weberian or Marxist traditions, or if one engages in specific analyses of functions and features (even with many of the Chinese scholars cited here, although most work outside China). Why? The disciplines deployed – especially political science and modern historiography – arose in the context of the bourgeois state, subsequently asserting its framework as universal and using this to analyse all forms of the state (Wallerstein 2011, 264). The upshot is that – with few qualified exceptions (Sun 1995, Wang 2004, Wang 2012, Lynch 2015) – many do not take the variety of Chinese arguments and statements seriously.

As Pan Chengxin observes, ‘China watching has had a lot to say about what China does, but very little about what China says or thinks’ (Pan 2012, 154). This is especially true of socialist China.


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[1] I leave aside the classical tradition, which saw the state in implicit (and at times explicit) theological terms as arising from a state of nature and entailing specific limits for the sake of the common good.

Second meeting between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un

In case the rest of the world missed the message of the first meeting between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un, they have just had a second at the beautiful port city of Dalian.

X&K 01

X&K 02

Addressing each other as comrades, they affirmed the four principles of close ties between China and the DPRK:

Xi stressed that he and Kim held their historic first meeting in Beijing in March this year, during which they had a long and in-depth communication, and reached principled consensus in four aspects on developing China-DPRK relations in the new era.

Firstly, the China-DPRK traditional friendship has been a treasure of both countries. It is an unswerving principle and the only correct choice for both countries to develop the friendly and cooperative China-DPRK relations.

Secondly, both China and the DPRK are socialist countries, and their bilateral relations are of major strategic significance. Both sides need to enhance unity, cooperation, exchanges and mutual learning.

Thirdly, high-level exchanges between the two parties play an irreplaceably significant role in guiding bilateral relations, Xi said. The two sides should maintain frequent exchanges, strengthen strategic communication, deepen understanding and mutual trust, and safeguard common interests.

Fourthly, cementing the people-to-people friendship foundation is an important channel to advance the development of China-DPRK relations, Xi said. The two sides should, by multiple means, enhance people-to-people communication and exchanges to create a sound foundation of popular will for the advancement of China-DPRK relations.

The full story is at Xinhua News.