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.


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

  1. The concept of democracy is one of the biggest traps in discussions about how this world can be governed. Democracy is both an achievement and a dead doornail. Every four years voting has nothing to do with democracy. On the contrary, it only makes it easy for the ruling elite to impose its will on the country. Democracy means that the people rule and the question is then what does that look like? If I remember correctly, Aristotle said that most people are too stupid to vote. And yet these people have a social contribution in a democracy, contribute to ruling the country. How do you organize that then? is just one of many questions. Thus, many questions have to be answered and cases to be resolved before we can speak of a real democracy. The Chinese concept of meritocracy is still closest to what is needed. And I trust that people in China are working on what will be a real democracy.

    Kind Regards, Ben

    1. We really need to get away from using ‘democracy’ as an absolute, when the term refers to bourgeois or liberal democracy. Socialist democracy is quite different: already outlined by Lenin and then developed under Stalin, it came to fuller expression with Mao’s ‘democratic dictatorship’. One aspect is – as Yiannis Kokosalakis has shown – is that socialist democratic processes strengthen the accountability and leadership of the communist party. In the much more developed socialist democracy in China, with its annual direct elections at local levels and indirect elections for higher levels (all the way to the NPC), the practice ensures active and vocal participation by people and strengthens the communist party. I am not so enamoured with the meritocracy argument, since it plays a minor role in the system.

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