The Socialist State: Philosophical Foundations

This book outline deals with the socialist state, examining an alternative path through the Marxist tradition in order to understand the realities of the socialist state, with a focus on China. These realities include a many-layered enmeshment of state and society, the nature of the multi-party system, the practices of socialist democracy, and future directions, all in light of distinct emphasis that Marxism – as a guide for action – is front and centre in China. The method is simply working very closely with the texts in their original languages, especially texts or aspects of texts that have been sidelined or even forgotten.

Chapter 1: Marx’s Ambivalence: State, Proletarian Dictatorship and Commune

I begin with Marx, who struggled with a tension concerning what happens after a communist revolution: between the proletarian dictatorship, with its force and violence (Gewalt), and the commune, based on the Paris experiment (1871). One entails strengthening the state and the other its breaking down – a tension bequeathed to the tradition. Marx also begins to offer a possible resolution, in terms of a narrative from one to the other, and in his struggle to delineate the forms of governance under communism. But he is reticent to speculate, aware that without the experience of constructing socialism, he could not undertake a ‘scientific’ study of what might happen.

Chapter 2: Engels: Enmeshed Governance

While Engels set the agenda for subsequent approaches – Weberian and Marxist – to theories of the bourgeois state, his real contribution is in the ‘enmeshed apparatus’. This arises from a contrast: while the state is a separated ‘public power (Gewalt)’ that – in this form – will in theory ‘die away’ with communism, non-state societies have complex patterns of organisation and governance that are not separated but enmeshed within society. This ‘enmeshed apparatus’ (my term) provides a potential theoretical model for understanding the state under socialism in power, although it also entails redefining ‘state’.

Chapter 3: Lenin and the Early Socialist State

In The State and Revolution (1917) Lenin tackled the tension bequeathed by Marx and Engels, between the strong state of the proletarian dictatorship and its ‘dying away’ under communism. His solution was to introduce the crucial distinction between socialism and communism. Socialism was the ‘transition period’ with many relics of earlier state forms and potentially lasting a very long time. Only after communism had become a global reality would conditions arise for the natural ‘withering away’ of the state.

Chapter 4: Stalin and the Socialist State

Since Lenin’s work remained incomplete, it fell to Stalin to develop a fuller theory. His texts (and debates at the time) reveal the importance of a strong state, for the purpose of establishing a comprehensive welfare system, the world’s first ‘affirmative action’ program for minority nationalities, fostering international anti-colonial struggles, and dealing with internal and especially external enemies. But what is this state? It is not a ‘nation’, but a redefined ‘Soviet people’ constituted by workers, collective farmers and intellectuals. Philosophically, this required the breakthrough of non-antagonistic contradictions – classes and tensions continue, but in a non-antagonistic manner. Stalin concludes: ‘We now have an entirely new, Socialist state [sotsialisticheskoe gosudarstvo], without precedent in history’ (1939, 336).

Chapter 5: Mao Zedong’s Contradiction Analysis

The second part of the monograph focuses on the Chinese situation. It begins with Mao’s ‘On Contradiction’ (1937, see also 1957), which is inescapable for understanding the philosophical basis of Chinese political forms. The main insight for my purposes is reframing non-antagonistic contradictions in light of the Chinese idea that contradictions not only oppose but also complement one another (xiangfan xiangcheng), that continuity is enabled through change (biantong). This approach enables a unique development of Marx’s problem – proletarian dictatorship versus commune – and Engels’s enmeshed apparatus, in terms of state-society envelopment, cooperative multi-party system, and socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics. Today, ‘contradiction analysis’ continues at the heart of government policy: a new primary contradiction was announced at the CPC’s 19th congress in 2017.

Chapter 6: State-Society Envelopment

This chapter investigates the envelopment or enmeshment of state and society (and economy), beginning with the proposal that the origins of civilisation and society in China are inseparable from the emergence of that state (Yi 2012). I take seriously the position that China is in the first, or long transitional stage, of socialism. Thus, the state is in some respects separate, as a relic of earlier forms, but also deeply enmeshed within society in all manner of complex ways. Ridding ourselves of the notions of ‘intervention’, the approach – drawing on both Engels and Mao – enables a new understanding of how this envelopment takes place.

Chapter 7: Consultative Multi-Party System

Here I set aside the notion of ‘party-state’ and investigate the philosophical implications of ‘consultative governance’ of the multi-party system (Wang and Wei 2017). Based on the reality of nine political parties, I examine the philosophical implications: political parties operating in a context of differences based on a complementary common ground; robust ‘criticism and self-criticism’ (at the intersection of Chinese and Marxist traditions) in contrast to agonistic models; the nature of the supreme decision-making National People’s Congress (NPC) and the consultative Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC); the separation and enmeshment of powers.

Chapter 8: Theory and Practice of Socialist Democracy

Does China practice democracy, and if so, how? In contrast to a universal notion of ‘democracy’, I begin by distinguishing between ancient Greek, liberal, illiberal and socialist democracies. Focusing on ‘socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics’ (Yu 2008, Yang 2009, Li 2013, Li 2015, Ma 2015a, 2015b, Fang 2015), I examine how ‘democratic centralism’ and indeed ‘democratic dictatorship’ are possible (contradiction analysis) and how they can be mutually reinforcing – as already seen in the Soviet Union (Kokosalakis 2018). This also requires analysis of the permanence of the communist party, feedback mechanisms, and wide-ranging direct and indirect elections.

Chapter 9: The Governance of China

The most recent development is found in Xi Jinping’s The Governance of China (Xi 2014, 2017), core texts in increasing number of works that now comprise ‘Xi Jinping Thought’. Xi carries on a communist tradition of the leader as philosopher, but also the Chinese tradition in which the leader is also tutor. Critical analysis reveals elaborations on the themes already discussed, but also a distinct future focus. Important here are the two centenary goals of a ‘moderately prosperous society (xiaokang shehui)’ by 2020 and a ‘great modern socialist country’ by 2049, as well as the new primary contradiction between uneven and unbalanced development and people’s desire for a ‘better life (meihua shenghuo)’. This 4-character saying has deep resonances in Chinese tradition, which is now being elaborated in light of Xi Jinping’s sustained emphasis on Marxism as the guiding principle of China’s transition into a ‘new era’.

Conclusion: The Socialist State with Chinese Characteristics

The conclusion draws together the themes of the book and delineates what is meant by a socialist state, especially with Chinese characteristics. Here I also broach issues for potential future work, concerning the socialist market economy and international relations. While the former entails further development of the category of enmeshment, historical analysis and distinguishing it from a capitalist market economy, the matter of international relations raises important questions. For example, is the Belt and Road Initiative another form of imperialism, or does it spring from Chinese tradition and older socialist practices of anti-colonialism? Does the ‘community of shared destiny for humankind [renlei mingyun gongtongti]’ – which underlies the BRI (Fu 2017) – really enable moving past geo-political zero-sum rivalry for the sake of ‘win-win’ solutions?


7 thoughts on “The Socialist State: Philosophical Foundations

  1. So far in my readings of Marx I don’t see any sort of confusion about his view of the state. Marxists of various stripes certainly differ in their view of the state, but Marx seemed clearly apposed to the state in all forms and the Paris Commune was the model he pointed to for decentralized self governance by the proletariat (99% of the population at that time?). Chadophaday does a good job pulling together some of Marx’s views on this subject here: Also, a useful read on the use of the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat” and how it doesn’t mean dictatorship as we now understand the word can be found here:

    Anyway, I enjoy reading your blog and hope sharing my thought is well received. I have yet to find a mind as fearless as the mind of Karl Marx.

    1. I have a full article appearing soon that explicates Marx’s tension between the forceful violence of the proletarian dictatorship and the idealisation of (Paris) commune, along with his preliminary efforts to delineate a narrative relationship between the two. It was a struggle for him, leading to the late reflection that he did not have the evidence to deal further with the state under socialism. Isolating the (Paris) commune is a tendency among some commentators, ignoring his strong statements on the violent force needed by the proletarian dictatorship. He bequeathed this tension to the subsequent tradition.

      1. Thanks for your thoughtful feedback. I read in his works the need for violent revolution and the role the proletariat will play in this. My point of departure is in my interpretation/understanding of Marx’s views on how the proletarians would internally operate before during and after the revolution. Decentralized, full consensus democracy (versus bourgeoise democracy) is my takeaway so far from his writings. But I could be way off and I look forward to reading your thoughts in the forthcoming blog.

  2. The full article will appear in International Critical Thought (edited by the Academy of Marxism in Beijing), but earlier draft sections appeared in two places:;

    I will take them down soon, since the article will be published in a next few months.

    It is clear that Marx realised he had a tension between the proletarian dictatorship and the commune and in his late work he tried to resolve the tension. Important here are his notes on Bakunin, where he stresses the violent and forceful (gewaltsam) nature of the proletarian dictatorship, and the Critique of the Gotha Programme, where he indicates that the first stage of communism is the proletarian dictatorship – which clearly is a period well beyond actual revolution. Lenin would later introduce the crucial distinction between socialism and communism through his interpretation of these brief notes by Marx.

    However, connecting the first stage of communism with the proletarian dictatorship is resisted by some. They introduce a third stage: proletarian dictatorship, first stage of communism (=socialism), higher stage of communism (=communism). I understand why, but this is a perverse reading of the text – attempting to exonerate Marx from the realities of the exercise of power.

    That said, Marx’s reticence to say much about what the construction of socialism entails, and the possibility of what he at one point calls the ‘workers’ state’, is due – as he puts it – to the fact that he simply does not have the experience and evidence to elaborate any robust theory for such a process.

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