A characteristic feature of European-derived, or North Atlantic[1] approaches to communism is the narrative of betrayal: at some point, a communist revolution was betrayed by someone, betrayed itself, ran into the mud, ‘failed’.

I was first struck by this narrative some years ago when I was working intensely on Lenin.[2] And it was inescapable in much of the secondary literature when I was engaging deeply with Stalin.[3] Recently, it has struck me once again while delving into the theory and practice of the socialist state. Let me be clear: the betrayal narrative is one found mostly in European-derived traditions. Although Marxists in these parts are fond of the narrative, it is also common among liberals and conservatives. One can find stray examples other parts of the world too, in the mouths of one or two who have been unduly influenced by this narrative. In what follows, I outline some examples of the narrative, before turning to consider the closely related dimension of pristine origins.

Betrayals, Betrayals Everywhere

If you hold to this type of story, a betrayal can be found almost everywhere you look. The initial example is that Engels betrayed Marx. Being of lesser intellect and not adequately trained – or so the story goes – Engels did not understand Marx. So Engels ‘glossed’ and ‘distorted’ what Marx said, especially in work that he produced on his own or after Marx’s death. It may have been Engels’s immense efforts in editing the second and third volumes of Capital, or his Dialectics of Nature (1873-82) and Anti-Dühring (1877-78) from which Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880) was drawn. Thus, the editing efforts botched Marx’s work, while the effort to extend dialectical materialism into the natural sciences was fatally flawed. Given the profound influence of Anti-Dühring on the subsequent tradition – every Marxist of the second and third generations studied this text closely – that tradition was impossibly betrayed at the hand of Engels. It is relatively easy to refute this narrative, but this is not my task here.

Lenin’s putative betrayal is more contested ground, with some seeing Lenin as a purveyor of distorted Marxism from the beginning, others that Lenin betrayed the revolution after October 1917, or that Stalin was responsible for the betrayal. But what is meant by ‘betrayal’ in this case? Let me take the example of Lenin’s betrayal of himself, for this is consistent with the role of Stalin in this case. According to this story, Lenin held to some form of ‘democratic’ position, envisaging the soviets as versions of the Paris commune. The model may have been updated and reshaped a little in light of circumstances, but it held to ‘democratic participation’ by workers and peasants at local and national levels, open and free-wheeling debate within the communist party, and would form the basis of socialism after the revolution. However, what happened very rapidly was an authoritarian move, hollowing out the soviets in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat, if not replacing the proletarian dictatorship with the dictatorship of the party. In short, Lenin moved from a ‘democratic’ commune model to an authoritarian approach. Stalin merely carried this through to its logical conclusion. The examples could be multiplied: economically, ‘state capitalism’ was gradually introduced, a global revolution was abandoned for the sake of socialism in one country, the ‘withering away of the state’ was replaced with an authoritarian state characterised by the secret police, the self-determination of minority nationalities turned into their forced assimilation, and so on. The only difference is where one draws the line, whether within Lenin’s own thought and practice or between Lenin and Stalin. The latter is, of course, the one who began to be systematically demonised not long after he died.[4]

These days, I am most interested in the way a betrayal narrative has been constructed and is now assumed by many in the case of Chinese socialism. I am less interested in the hypothesis that Mao betrayed Marxism himself, whether because he took over unreconstructed Soviet Marxism of the 1930s or whether he did so of his own initiative. I am more interested in how the betrayal narrative has been deployed by self-confessed ‘Maoists’ and how this has influenced a wider misperception from conservatives to radicals.

According to this version, Mao was indeed a true communist, developing a breath-taking version adapted for Chinese conditions. The culmination of Mao’s vision was the ‘Great Cultural Revolution’ in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Here was full collectivisation, public property, equality in pay and even clothes, idealism, the beginnings of socialist culture …. However, waiting in the wings was Deng Xiaoping, the ‘capitalist roader’. Rising high, deposed, then returning on Mao’s death and dispensing with the ‘Gang of Four’, Deng began – so it is asserted – the process of turning China from a socialist country into a capitalist one. All of this is embodied in the ‘reform and opening up’ from 1979. And Deng began the process of using coded language to indicate the shift: ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ was and is a code for rampant capitalism; a ‘socialist market economy’ does equal service; ‘core socialist values’ means liberalism. All this was extremely clever, it is suggested, since the CPC could not give up on the rhetoric of Marxism, so it emptied Marxism of any meaning (perhaps replacing it with nationalism. The purpose: to keep the CPC firmly in power.

This story continues: subsequent presidents – Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao – played the same game. Now we find the destruction of the ‘iron rice bowl’ (Chinese welfare state), the rise of a ‘middle class’, the ‘suppression’ of the working class – all with a nod and wink while speaking of Marxism. And Xi Jinping has produced his own collection of terms: the ‘Chinese Dream’, the ‘two centenary goals’ and revitalised the term ‘moderately prosperous’ society, all the while clamping down on ‘dissent’ and ‘freedom of speech’ to enhance his hold on power. A communist party has – according to this spectacular story – enabled the transition not from capitalism to socialism, but from socialism to capitalism.

The pieces of this narrative have been laid carefully for two or three decades, trading on half-truths, wilful ignorance and sheer twisting of the facts. Apart from the fact that it faces enormous difficulties in understanding the role of Marxism in Chinese socialism, all the way from culture and education, through society and politics, to economics, it usually entails a pre-judgement that means one does not even need to bother with Marxism as such in China. After all, no-one ‘believes’ in it anymore, do they?

As a final sample of this narrative of betrayal, let me return to Marx. In this case, it is the younger humanistic Marx who betrays the older scientific one. How so? It begins with the late publication of some key materials from the young Marx, such as ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law’ in 1927, ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts’ in 1932, and The German Ideology, co-authored with Engels, in 1932. Here is a younger, more ‘humanistic’ Marx, which led and continues to lead some to emphasise this dimension of his thought as a counter to ‘Scientific Socialism’ (whether of the Soviet Union or in other forms). In response, Althusser in particular has argued that this earlier material – published later – was not the true Marx, who is to be found in his later, scientific works. This would have to be the most intriguing betrayal narrative of all, since it operates in reverse.

Pristine Origins

As I have already indicated, I focus here neither on how these specific accounts face immense hurdles on closer scrutiny, nor the motivation for them, but on the nature of the narrative of betrayal itself. Two points are relevant.

First, the story has profound resonances with the biblical story of the ‘Fall’ of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. Here a ‘paradise’ – if somewhat flawed due to the forbidden tree(s) – is lost due to the wilful disobedience of the first human beings. Initially, it was a southwest Asian story that has overlaps with others from the same part of the world, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, but it eventually became a crucial story in European culture. The story in its biblical form has a distinct political setting, providing the eventual justification for a form of governance (monarchy) and control of wayward human beings (Thomas Hobbes comes to mind as an influential later version of this account). But it has come to be seen in much wider terms, speaking of the human condition, characterised by a mythical account of disobedience, sin and betrayal of an original ideal impulse. In this form, it became part of the wider foundations for European-derived cultures, shaping cultural assumptions, the nature of thought processes, if not historical reconstructions even of the modern variety. Thus, the narrative of Genesis, European assumptions concerning human nature, the way history is so often reconstructed, as well as narratives concerning Marxism seem to have a remarkably similar pattern.

Second and related, the account of betrayal trades on a notion of pristine origins. Time and again, I have found that a purveyor of one or another version of the story assumes a distinct idea of what socialism should be (never what actually exists). They base this idea on some texts of Marx. I write ‘some’ deliberately, for the texts selected form a ‘canon within the canon’: favoured texts that are meant to express the core of Marx’s position. Thus, socialism (which Marx did not distinguish from communism) appears in the Paris commune, concerning which Marx waxed lyrical in ‘The Civil War in France’ (1871). Here workers devolved the functions of parliament, army, police and judiciary to workers’ bodies that were directly elected and subject to recall. The commune was decentralised, removed repression and did away with the ‘state’. Or one may invoke parts of ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, especially in the higher stage of communism, when economic exploitation is removed, classes disappear, even divisions between town and country, if not between mental and physical labour, so that the biblically-derived communist slogan applies: ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’.

Once you have these original and authentic definitions of socialism and/or communism, you can make an easy connection with a betrayal narrative.[5] Before a revolution, or perhaps for a while afterwards, the revolutionaries held to the ideal – think of Lenin in particular, but also Mao. But soon enough, they gave up on the ideal. It may have been force of circumstances, or a turn in the face of imminent failure, or simply a weakness of will. And if Lenin or Mao did not do so themselves, then Stalin or Deng were responsible for overturning the socialist ideal and destroying it. The outcome: socialism has never been realised as yet, for the true moment still awaits us.

Once again, this search for and latching onto a notion of pristine origins has resonances with Christian thought and practice. In this case, the authentic moment may be found somewhere in the biblical texts, preferably in the words of Jesus himself (the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ is a favoured location). Soon enough, these words and the community they envisaged was adulterated and betrayed. Here the line can be drawn at almost any point: between Jesus and the early church (the Apostle Paul); between the form of the early Christian community and the later betrayal by the institutional church; between the doctrine of justification by faith through grace and the doctrine of salvation by works …

The problem here is that one can find justification for a number of positions in the texts, for these texts are not uniform. So one has to choose some texts, downgrade or ignore the others that contradict one’s choice and then criticise those who latch onto precisely these downgraded texts. The history of Christianity reveals this process again and again. A group or a spokesperson emerges, argues that the institution as it exists has betrayed and sullied the original impulse, and begins a process of reform in the name of an authentic and original ideal based on a selection of texts. Sometimes, these movements were contained and channelled within the institution (think of the medieval orders in the Roman Catholic Church or monastic renewal in the Eastern Orthodox Church). At other times, they were brutally repressed and crushed, as many a radical religious movement in the European Middle Ages. And at other times, due to wider cultural, social and economic shifts, the reform effort became a whole new and enduring movement. The Protestant Reformation is the most notable example.

The analogies with European-derived Marxism should be obvious, if not the struggles between the varieties of socialist, communist and anarchist movements today (as Engels already noted in his ‘On the History of Early Christianity’ from 1895). But we can find it also among non-Marxists and even anti-Marxists. They too assume a certain definition of an ideal socialism, usually based on the very same texts used by Marxists, and then use those to dismiss the actual efforts to construct socialism.


I have focused on European-derived, or ‘Western’ Marxism due to its preference for betrayal narratives and ideas of pristine origins. It can also be found in Russian Marxism, given the comparable cultural dynamics of that part of the world (think of the long-running struggle between Stalin and Trotsky and what their names have come to signify).

Are there alternative approaches that may well do better than the one I have been analysing? Recently, I was having one of my many discussions with a Chinese comrade and we came to the topic in question. In fact, these reflections arose in part from that discussion. She is fully aware of the narrative of betrayal, having devoted much of her working life to studying ‘Western’ Marxism. But she also admitted to not understanding it; or rather, she finds it difficult to understand how it can make sense of actual tradition. Instead, she prefers a process of clarification of previously obscure or unresolved points in each subsequent development. Is that a more Chinese approach? I wondered. Yes, it is, she affirmed. How do mistakes arise, or is every statement a clarification? Mistakes do arise, such as when there is an effort to turn back the clock, to reassert an older and more obscure position that has subsequently been clarified. Or perhaps if someone moves to undermine and dispense with Marxism itself.

I am still working out the implications of this clarifying approach, particularly if it can also incorporate the following possibilities. One is to argue for interpretation in the spirit, rather than the letter of Marxism. Or: instead of invoking the letter of the original text and judging all in its light, one sees Marxism as a method for dealing with every new situation. As Lenin, Stalin and Mao were fond of saying, Marxism is not a dogma, but a guide to action.

The other approach is related but takes a different approach. Changing historical circumstances produce new problems that must be analysed and solved in new ways. These problems did not face Marx or Engels, while other problems did not face subsequent leaders. The circumstances have been and are many, ranging from unforeseen economic problems, through the development of policies in relation to minority nationalities, to what a socialist culture might actually be. Perhaps the two main changes in circumstances turn on the question of power. Marx and Engels were never in a position to exercise power after a successful communist revolution (as they well knew), so most of the developments in relation to socialism in power had to deal with issues that they simply had not experienced and could not foresee. And none of the previous experiences of socialism in power has prepared us for the moment when China becomes not merely the most powerful socialist country in human history (it already is), but the most powerful economic, political and cultural force in the world.

[1] Or ‘Western’, but this term is loose and impossible-to-pin-down. Chinese has an ideal term, meiou, using the first character for the USA (meiguo) and for Europe (ouzhou), but this is impossible to render into English, except perhaps as ‘Euro-American’. Even this term loses the specificity of the USA and replaces it with a term for the two continents of South and North America.

[2] See especially Roland Boer, “Before October: The Unbearable Romanticism of Western Marxism,”  Monthly Review Magazine(2011),; Roland Boer, “The ‘Failure’ of Communism: A ‘Fall’ Narrative,”  Philosophers for Change(2014),

[3] Roland Boer, Stalin: From Theology to the Philosophy of Socialism in Power  (Beijing: Springer, 2017).

[4] Domenico Losurdo, Stalin: Storia e critica di una leggenda nera  (Rome: Carocci editore, 2008).

[5] This search for origins can also be manifested in the whole dynamic of ‘revisionism’ in Marxism itself (I have heard the charge levelled at someone only recently and with some vigour).


Following the abridged draft of an article on Marx and the state (I have now revised the first section), I have been able to do further work on what Marx says about the form of the state after a communist revolution. Fascinating stuff, which usually does not get much exposure. So here is the final section (with references and footnotes removed):

In light of Marx’s proposals for the dictatorship of the proletariat and the commune (which are tension), what happens to the state?

Many would be tempted to read back into Marx’s works the phrase coined by Engels, the dying away – or ‘withering’ – of the state. I deal with this matter fully in another study of Engels, suffice to refer here to a careful study by Draper (1970). He points out that Marx (and Engels) inherited a ‘primitive anti-statism’ that has a long history indeed in the history of social dissent. Later it would congeal into anarchism, but before it did so, Marx’s early statements reflect this position – de rigueur for any radical. Only when he introduces a sense of delay or ultimacy (already in 1846), does he signal the possibility of a somewhat distinct position. Developing such a position would have to wait some two decades, until the events in Paris.

In this situation in the 1870s, we find Marx struggling to articulate a position on the state after a revolution. The dictatorship of the proletarian was a relatively straightforward question, given that the ultimate moment entails a long in-between period. The proletarian dictatorship clearly exercises the activities or functions of what would normally be connected with a strong state. I think less here of the way it should use the mechanisms of existing state structures to prosecute its self-abolishing agenda. But distinct implications arise in light of Marx’s historical arguments that the nature of the state is determined by the class in control: if the workers and peasants are in control during a transitional period of proletarian dictatorship, does not the state begin to change its nature?

The commune is another matter, for Marx equivocates. Or at least he does so between the earlier drafts and the final form of ‘The Civil War in France’. In the first draft, he writes that the commune was not a revolution ‘against this or that, legitimate, constitutional, republican or Imperialist form of State Power’. Instead, it was a revolution against ‘the State itself, this supernaturalist abortion of society, a resumption by the people for the people, of its own social life’. The ‘state’ per se is ‘separate and independent from society’, being the machinery of class domination by its very definition. In this light, it matters not which form of the state appears, for each is essentially the same, against which the commune becomes a Hegelian negation. This is the last outburst of the old and familiar anti-statist position in Marx’s texts. Notably, even in the second and especially the final version of the text Marx drops this sentence and his writing is more considered, specifying ‘state power’ and delineating clearly the commune’s exercise of certain functions of the state apparatus, which is directly responsible to the people. In fact, Marx also mentions in the first draft the ‘state functions reduced to a few functions for general national purposes’, but the point is muted. The final text would elaborate much further: the commune exercises not state power but the necessary aspects of its apparatus.

In two other works from the 1870s, Marx offers a few intriguing suggestions along a similar line. Here we find him struggling to articulate a position concerning the nature of administration, if not governance, under communism. In ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, Marx tackles the question of the ‘free state’ proposed by the German workers’ party. I would like to highlight three features of Marx’s response. To begin with, he reiterates the thesis – well-established in his work by now – that ‘existing society’ is the ‘basis [Grundlage]’ of the existing state and that the state in question is not an independent entity. Here he adds a crucial parenthetical comment: ‘or of the future state in the case of future society’. In other words, any form of the state in future society would also be shaped by that society. Next, he points out that while present states manifest significant variety they have in common the fact that they are ‘based on modern bourgeois society [der modernen bürgerlichen Gesellschaft stehn]’. But what is the reason for the variety? They are ‘more or less capitalistically developed’, by which he means that they are ‘more or less free from medieval admixture’ and influenced by particular historical developments. Thus, even capitalist society, depending on the complexities of local histories, is in various stages of transition between feudalism and capitalism (in a European context). And this is so after hundreds of years of capitalist development. Will this also be the case in any future society, until at last the ‘present root, bourgeois society, will have died off [abgestorben ist]’? The final point returns to the state of the future. Marx asks: ‘what transformation will the state undergo in communist society [kommunistischen Gesellschaft]?’ One might be inclined to offer an anti-statist answer of the kind that Marx tended to invoke in earlier works. To forestall such an answer, he clarifies: ‘In other words, what social functions [welche gesellschaftliche Funktionen] will remain in existence there that are analogous to present state functions [jetzigen Staatsfunktionen analog]?’ These reflections are obviously in a similar vein to those of ‘The Civil War in France’ of a few years before. Even in a communist society, distinct social functions will be required that are analogous to present state functions. Or rather, Marx raises the question without offering an answer. The reason seems to be that he does not have the actual data, the experience of constructing a communist society after a revolution. As he observes, the question can be answered ‘only scientifically [nur wissenschaftlich]’. Now some ambivalence creeps into Marx’s text. Having raised the questions (above) and having refused an answer, he then mentions the transition period and the dictatorship of the proletariat. We are left wondering: when he mentions ‘communist society’ earlier, with its social functions analogous to present-day state functions, even hinting at some qualitatively different form of the state that arises from communist society, does he mean this first and transitional stage, however long it may be. Or does he mean the full realisation of communism, when bourgeois society has disappeared?

The other text is comprised of Marx’s marginal notes on Bakunin, where he deploys both the strongest language yet in terms of the proletarian dictatorship and a dialectical approach in which aforesaid dictatorship enables full communism. But I am interested here in his struggle to find an adequate terminology concerning the nature of the society that is to follow. The text is still close in spirit to his deliberations on the commune, but he finds that he must consider forms of organisation. In a series of responses to Bakunin’s questions, Marx makes the following pertinent points. In order to achieve ‘self-government of the communities’, one still needs an executive. Take the example of a trades union, where an executive administers the ‘common interests’. Obviously, such a situation entails ‘division of labour’. This not to say that a worker ceases to be a worker when elected to an executive, in the same way that a ‘factory owner today ceases to be a capitalist when he becomes a municipal councillor’. But what is the function of elections? They are not progressive in and of themselves, for they depend on the ‘economic foundations’, if not the ‘economic interrelations of the voters’. Thus, as soon as the ‘functions’ are no longer political, ‘1) government functions no longer exist; 2) the distribution of general functions has become a routine matter which entails no domination; 3) elections lose their present political character’. Clearly, Marx is struggling at this point, since he still seeks to assert the absence of ‘government functions’ and ‘political character’. At the same time, he has to admit that there is a ‘distribution of general functions’, if not division of labour, executives and the need to administer the new forms.

So he finds himself using two significant phrases. The first: there will be ‘no state in the present political sense [keinen Staat im jetzigen politischen Sinne geben]’. I hardly need to point out that Marx is leaving open the possibility of a state in a rather different political sense. The second: ‘what forms could management functions [Verwaltungsfunktionen] assume within such a workers’ state [Arbeiterstaats], if he wants to call it that?’ Well, says Marx, if you want to call this new formation anything, then perhaps ‘workers’ state’ will do for now, a placeholder for a better term.

Yet, Marx was also profoundly reticent to offer much in the way of concrete prognostication. This was not so much due to a wariness of blueprints, but rather to the knowledge that he had not experienced a successful revolution – one that had seen off the counter-revolution and had found some peace and space to begin constructing socialism. After all, one needs concrete evidence to be able to elaborate and develop theories that arise from the evidence. As I mentioned earlier, Marx points out that such a question can be answered ‘only scientifically’ [nur wissenschaftlich]’. To others would fall the experience and the consequent evidence, as well as the philosophical reflection necessary to understand what was happening, if not offer possible guides for action. That there would be unexpected turns and developments hardly needs saying.

This engagement with Marx is part of a much longer study of what happens to the state under socialism in power. Initially, I did not give so much attention to Marx’s observations on the state, for I had been told that Marx does not have a systematic theory of the state. To some extent this is true, especially if one focuses on the forms of the bourgeois (capitalist) or even absolutist state. However, once I began to examine what Marx did say about states, I found much more than might be expected – especially concerning what may be the form of the state after a communist revolution. At the same time, I found very few adequate treatments of this material, treatments that engage carefully with Marx’s texts. Why? A major reason is that so many Marxist attempts focus on the bourgeois or capitalist state, neglecting to a large extent what might follow this state form. Obviously, this is a retreat from Marx’s texts, for various reasons (I have a sense as to why but will not elaborate here). So I undertake in what follows a relatively simple task: identifying Marx’s key points concerning the state, based on careful analyses of the texts. In presenting this material, I exercise a strict self-discipline: as far as possible, I avoid reading later positions (Lenin, Stalin and so on) back into earlier ones.

I have organised the material in sections. The first concerns his observations – usually brief and scattered – on the forms of the state that have hitherto existed, especially absolutist, bourgeois and imperialist forms (which he experienced directly in Prussia and England). The second part outlines his proposals for what may follow, focusing initially on the dictatorship of the proletariat. The third part deals with his thoughts on the commune, based on the experiment in Paris in 1871. The material on the proletarian dictatorship and the commune evinces not a few tensions, which Marx bequeathed to the subsequent tradition. But he also begins to offer a possible resolution. For the sake of clarity, I provide a schematic tabulation of the core ideas based on key texts: his critique of Hegel, sections of The German Ideology, ‘The Class Struggles in France’ along with a few texts from the same period, and a collection statements between 1871 and 1875, ending with ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’. Please note: since this a draft of an article that will be published, I have removed all references and footnotes and shortened some sections. I begin with his observations on the forms of the state that have existed thus far.

Hitherto Existing Forms of the State

  1. The state is produced out of the economic realities of mode of production, private property, division of labour and classes. Although Marx describes this ground as bürgerliche Gesellschaft (bourgeois society rather than ‘civil society’) in the critique of Hegel, already by the first rough outline of historical materialism in The German Ideology, a class-based economic analysis emerges.
  2. The dominant class determines the nature of the state in various ways. This determination may be more direct, as the manifesto puts it: the ‘executive of the modern State is but a committee [Ausschuß] for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’. Or the determination may be indirect, since the class in question may not be – due to internal contradictions and tensions – always in immediate control. Yet this class’s framework sets the terms for all actors. As The German Ideology observes, the ‘social power’ of a ruling class has ‘its practical-idealistic expression in each case in the form of the state’, meaning that ‘their power must be constituted as the state [als Staat konstituieren]’.
  3. The state is separated from and relates agonistically with society. This position already appears in the critique of Hegel: ‘In short, he [Hegel] presents everywhere the conflict between bürgerliche Gesellschaft and the state [Mit einem Wort: Er stellt überall den Konflikt der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft und des Staates dar]’.
  4. The state is semi-autonomous from social and economic forces, becoming the arena where class struggles can play out. The autonomy may be more or less, depending upon the particular situation. It is best encapsulated in two observations, one concerning the French absolute monarchy as an ‘executive power [Exekutivgewalt], with its enormous bureaucratic and military organisation’ that had complex forms of representation and transformation and the other concerning bourgeois or ‘vulgar democracy’ as precisely the ‘last form of state of bourgeois society [bürgerlichen Gesellschaft]’ in which ‘the class struggle has to be fought out to a conclusion’.
  5. Marx has a preference for historical narratives, which emphasise the increasing centralisation and repression of the bourgeoisie’s path to political and economic dominance. Even his more philosophical reflections tend to be historically situated.

Let me pause for a moment to highlight certain features. Of the few who have – some time ago now – actually engaged with Marx’s texts on the state, the overwhelming focus is on this material. It may be described as the period before October, before a communist revolution. If they do dare to explore what might happen after a revolution, they opt for the Paris commune (see below). Further, the points identified are not mutually exclusive. Thus, points 1-2 sit side by side, with one emphasising the production of the state from economic realities and the other the class-based determination of the nature of the state. And points 3-4 draw near to one another, for point 3 is an agonistic model while point 4 stresses the relative autonomy of the state. When Marx waxes philosophical, he assumes Hegel’s position of the conflict between bürgerliche Gesellschaft and the state (point 3), with the state thereby autonomous (point 4). At the same time, Marx is already keen to locate these reflections in specific historical contexts. Thus, he stresses that the state in question is the bourgeois state or – given the situation in Germany – the transitional context between absolutist and bourgeois states. Even bürgerliche Gesellschaft is not some universal ‘civil society’ but a distinct product connected with the rise of the European bourgeoisie and capitalism (so also in The German Ideology).

However, the historical narratives are more common, where we find modulations on each of the points noted above, depending on specific historical circumstances. I will not outline the historical arguments here (that is for the full article), although they appear in texts like ‘On the Jewish Question’, The German Ideology, the manifesto, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire’ and ‘The Civil War in France’. While these historical accounts move, with some variations, through each of the points identified earlier, the direction is clear: the bourgeoisie’s final ability to set the agenda for the state, thereby determining the state’s nature. This agenda is implicitly economic, securing the many dimensions of the state to ensure the dominance of capital, although Marx tends not to spell out the details. At the same time, this dominance is riven with contradictions, not only in terms of the bourgeoisie’s own tensions, but also in the sense that the bourgeoisie does not need to be in direct control at all times. What has happened to the state’s relative autonomy, if not alien nature? The narrative turns: the very nature of the bourgeois state is to exploit the working class, so much so that the latter ‘cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’.

Dictatorship of the Proletariat

How does one overcome these forms of the state after a revolution? On this matter, Marx offers two proposals that sit rather uncomfortably with one another. However, since he later hints as a narrative as to how they may be related, I begin with the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, as it appears in two groups of texts: one between 1850 and 1852 in relation to the 1848 revolutions, and the other group between 1871 to 1875.

  1. After a socialist revolution, a proletarian dictatorship should be established. This dictatorship is directly opposed to ‘bourgeois dictatorship’ or ‘bourgeois terrorism’, which perpetuates the ‘rule of capital’ and the ‘slavery of labour’. Hence the slogan: ‘Overthrow of the bourgeoisie! Dictatorship of the working class [Diktatur der Arbeiterklasse]!’ In other words, the proletarian dictatorship is the ‘revolt against the bourgeois dictatorship’ and thereby a ‘change of society’.
  2. The focus is both economic and political: the ‘appropriation of the means of production, their subjection to the associated working class’. This entails overcoming exploitation and ensuring the economic well-being for workers (and peasants), for the proletarian dictatorship is the means to achieve ‘the abolition of all the relations of production’ on which class distinctions rest, the ‘abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production, to the revolutionising of all the ideas that result from these social relations’.
  3. The dictatorship is repressive, ‘entailing the submission’ of the ‘privileged classes’ (and indeed the counter-revolution) to the ‘dictatorship of the proletarians by keeping the revolution in continual progress until the achievement of communism’. More sharply, the proletariat ‘as a ruling class violently abolishes the old conditions of production [als herrschende Klasse gewaltsam die alten Produktionsverhältnisse aufhebt]’.
  4. It is centralised. In a significant letter to the press from 1850, Marx connects his comments on the dictatorship of the proletariat with the measures outlined in the manifesto. Not only does the manifesto include repressive measures as a transition to removing the conditions for class society (see next point), but it also clearly stresses the need for centralised measures. Although all of its ten points require a strong government, I stress the centralisation and indeed monopoly of communication, transport and credit in a national bank, the abolition of private property in land and inheritance, the control and expansion of agriculture and industry as the instruments of production owned by the state, the ‘establishment of labour armies’ and the ‘equal liability’ of all adults to labour. In short, it entails the state’s centralised control over the means of production.
  5. This dictatorship is transitional: revolutionary socialism is ‘the declaration of the permanence of the revolution, the class dictatorship of the proletariat [Klassendiktatur des Proletariats] as the necessary transit point to the abolition of class distinctions generally’. Or as ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’ famously put it, between capitalist and communist society is also a ‘political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat [die revolutionäre Diktatur des Proletariats]’. This is the same as what Marx calls the first or initial stage of communism; no time is indicated.

Clearly, the dictatorship of the proletariat requires a strong, centralised and repressive mechanism for dealing with the counter-revolution, embodied in the ‘bourgeois dictatorship’. The latter will not disappear immediately, so the working class must seek to break it. The question arises, especially in light of Marx’s argument (noted earlier) that the nature of the state is determined by the class in power, as to whether the proletarian dictatorship can become a form of the state. Marx does not elaborate, but I will return to this question below. He also saw the proletarian dictatorship as transitional, albeit without specifying any time frame. This brings us to his observations on the Paris commune.

The Commune

  1. The very new form of the commune entails overcoming the old form of ‘state power’, which entails moving the functions or apparatus of governance from previous forms of the state to the communes. Marx repeatedly speaks of the ‘legitimate functions’, if not the ‘whole initiative hitherto exercised by the State’ being put in the hands of, ‘discharged by’ and ‘restored’ to the ‘responsible agents of society’.
  2. This appropriation has a number of levels, for example: a) moving from a misrepresentative (bourgeois) parliamentary system to a ‘working body, executive and legislative at the same time’, elected by local, direct and revocable universal suffrage; b) suppressing the standing army and substitution by the ‘institution’ of the National Guard; c) stripping the police of ‘political attributes’ and making them into responsible and revocable agents of the commune; d) divesting the judiciary of ‘sham independence’ and ensuring it is elected.
  3. Shifting such functions entails decentralisation: the old centralised government has to give way to the ‘self-government of the producers’ – a model to be replicated in even the smallest hamlet.
  4. It also entails breaking the mechanism of repression, whether police, army, judiciary or ‘spiritual force of repression’ (church and education).
  5. The economic element is muted, restricted to a general observation concerning a ‘working-class government’ for the sake of the ‘emancipation of Labour’, a ‘lever for uprooting the economical foundations upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule’. Since everyone becomes a worker (and the workers have the interests of peasants at heart), labour ‘ceases to be a class attribute’.

A significant distance separates the observations on the dictatorship of the proletariat and the commune: one draws together economic and political factors and is focused on appropriating the means of production, while the other treads lightly on economics; one is clearly centralised and repressive while the other seeks to overcome the centralisation and repression of ‘state power’. In short, one stipulates strong measures to overcome ‘bourgeois dictatorship’ and the expected counter-revolution while the other imagines a free association of equal workers (which was soon defeated by the counter-revolution). Apart from the fact that Marx would bequeath this tension to subsequent efforts to understand the socialist state, the question remains: was Marx aware of the tension, if not outright contradiction? He never equated the proletarian dictatorship with the commune, but a few hints suggest that he was aware of the problem and that he made some initial steps to develop a narrative as to how they might be related. The first appears in a reported speech – in paraphrase – at a celebration of the seventh anniversary of the International. Marx is reported as saying that while the commune sought to remove the conditions for oppression by transferring the means of production to the labourer (note the economic focus here) and thereby bring to an end class society, ‘before such a change could be effected a proletarian dictature would become necessary, and the first condition of that was a proletarian army’. Indeed, the ‘working c1asses would have to conquer the right to emancipate themselves on the battlefield’. While this text is a paraphrase of Marx’s speech, he seems to be suggesting here that the commune missed precisely this important step: a dictatorship of the proletariat is necessary before the aims of the commune could be achieved. A few months earlier, Marx had made a similar point in a letter to Ludwig Kugelmann. While full of praise for the initiative and bravery of the communards, he observes that it is no longer needed to ‘transfer the bureaucratic military machine from one hand to another, but to break [zerbrechen] it, and that is essential for every real people’s revolution on the Continent’. While this is what the commune was attempting to do, it made two mistakes: it did not march on Versailles immediately (and so deal with the counter-revolution) and the ‘Central Committee surrendered its power too soon, to make way for the Commune’. The hint in these pieces is that the commune forwent the necessity of the proletarian dictatorship. Indeed, I have organised the points above in terms of this narrative sequence, for it is suggested by Marx and is implicit in his idea that the proletarian dictatorship is a transitional phase. We may now understand Marx’s suggestions in his ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’ concerning a first and further stage of communism, without stipulating that it should be merely two. It seems that the dictatorship of the proletariat is coterminous with the first stage of communism and that the further stage would begin to see the unfolding of full communism.

A New State?

Further, what happens to the state in the proletarian dictatorship and the commune? Marx does not say explicitly that the former is a type of state, but it exercises the activities or functions of what would normally be connected with a strong state. And this point has implications in light of Marx’s assumption that the nature of the state is determined by the class in control. The commune is another matter, for Marx equivocates. Or at least he does so between the earlier drafts and the final form of ‘The Civil War in France’. In the first draft, he writes that the commune was not a revolution ‘against this or that, legitimate, constitutional, republican or Imperialist form of State Power’. Instead, it was a revolution against ‘the State itself, this supernaturalist abortion of society, a resumption by the people for the people, of its own social life’. The ‘state’ per se is ‘separate and independent from society’, the machinery of class domination by its very definition. In this light, it matters not which form of the state appears, for each is essentially the same, against which the commune becomes a Hegelian negation. However, even in the second and especially the final version of the text Marx drops this sentence and his writing is more considered, specifying ‘state power’ and delineating clearly the commune’s exercise of many functions of the state apparatus, which is directly responsible to the people. In fact, Marx also mentions in the first draft the ‘state functions reduced to a few functions for general national purposes’, but the point is muted. The final text would elaborate much further: the commune exercises not state power but the necessary aspects of its apparatus. To add to these intriguing possibilities, I add that the German word used when Marx discusses the transitional function of the dictatorship of the proletariat is none other than Aufhebung/aufheben (noun and verb). In the manifesto, he and Engels write that the old conditions of production, when the proletariat is the ruling class, are violently aufhebt, and in his letter to Weydemeyer of 1852 Marx writes that the proletarian dictatorship is a transition to the Aufhebung of all classes. This terminology is favoured by Marx at crucial turns in his argument in other contexts, with the distinctly Hegelian sense of sublation, of both abolishing what has gone before and transforming it into a rather different entity. The tantalising suggestion arises whether the conditions of production and classes will not simply be abolished and destroyed, but that they will be transformed and continue in hitherto unexpected forms. Does this also apply to the state, which would then continue in a way not seen before?

Finally, Marx stresses that both the proletarian dictatorship and the commune are very much works in progress. While one is transitional, he observes in relation to the commune that one should not ‘expect miracles’ or ‘ready-made utopias’, but rather be prepared to for long struggles, historical processes and the need to transform both circumstances and human beings. A crucial aspect of these struggles is dealing with counter-revolution. The proletarian dictatorship was geared to deal with such matters, but even with the commune Marx notes that it existed as a ‘besieged town’. The rest of the account of the commune, concerning the deception and savagery of the old order based at Versailles, shows how vicious the counter-revolution can be. It may well be the reason he began to consider a sequence of phases.

As mentioned at the beginning, I have restricted myself to Marx’s texts on the state, including those co-written with Engels. Above all, I have tried not to read later positions from a range of Marxist and indeed non-Marxist thinkers into Marx’s positions. Instead, I have sought to present Marx’s positions, exploring their tensions and – where appropriate – their implications. What others would do with approaches to the state, from Engels (after Marx’s death) onwards, is another question.

In recent discussion in China, I have become more aware of different ways the Marxist tradition can be interpreted. You can take any core feature, such as the dictatorship of the proletariat, the withering away of the state, the distinction between socialism and communism, the nature of the socialist state, and many more.

For example, Marx uses the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ 11 times, where he means a coercive force of the state that crushes class opponents. This is in tension with his treatments of the Paris commune, where he praises the diminishment of state power and its continuance only as apparatus. Engels, by contrast, does not use dictatorship of the proletariat, but coins the phrase (only in 1894), the dying or ‘withering away of the state’. Lenin develops the argument further, distinguishing between two phases, the dictatorship of the proletariat and then the state’s withering. He pushes this into a distant future, but Stalin argues that it would take place only after global communism had been achieved and communism had become second nature – which may take 1000 years or more. And in Chinese Marxism, dictatorship of the proletariat becomes ‘democratic dictatorship’ in Mao’s hands and then ‘people’s democratic dictatorship’ with Deng Xiaoping, now as an inclusive category operating in terms of non-antagonistic contradictions.

What about socialism and communism? This distinction is not in Marx and Engels. Only in the late notes, ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’, does Marx distinguish an initial stage of communism and a further stage. He leaves open the possibility of more. Lenin then distinguishes these as socialism and communism, with socialism still bearing many features, such as state, classes, law and so on. Only with communism will the earlier prescriptions of Marxism begin to appear. Stalin takes this further, pushing communism into a very distant future, while socialism has a strong multi-national state, tensions between forces and relations of production continue, people are rewarded according to work, equalisation (a petty-bourgeois idea) has no place, and the state’s domestic responsibilities, affirmative action and fostering of anti-colonial struggles play huge roles. In a Chinese situation, they take an even longer view, with the preliminary stage of socialism lasting 100 years, after which a next stage emerges, the moderately prosperous, peaceful and stable society. During this process, a whole spate of new approaches emerge.

How do we interpret these developments? Here are some possibilities:

  1. A narrative of betrayal. Engels betrays Marx; Lenin betrays Marx and Engels; Stalin betrays all of the former; Mao betrays them; Deng betrays Mao … Pick your place, but betrayal of Marxism happens at some point. I find this approach quite common among ‘western’ Marxists.
  2. Continuity, sometimes radical. A smaller number take this line, arguing that all of the ideas found in Stalin, Mao or Deng have precursors in the Marxist tradition.
  3. Clarification. Each stage of the tradition and each of its different branches constitutes a clarification of some idea or practice that was not so clear before. This is a more common Chinese approach.
  4. Changing historical circumstances, which may be connected with the first or third approach. Obviously, specific circumstances, cultural histories, political realities and so on produce new problems, which require new solutions. This is what the Chinese call ‘seeking truth from facts’ (drawn from Mao).
  5. The differences between socialism seeking power and socialism in power. As Lenin and Mao pointed out repeatedly, winning a revolution is relatively easy; infinitely more complex is the effort to construct socialism. This is obviously connected with the fourth point, but plays a crucial role.

Yesterday, Liu Xiaobo died of liver cancer at the age of 61. He was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, but was in prison at the time. He also died while still serving his sentence.

Such a death is bound to spur the expected demonisation of China and Chinese responses. So let’s parse a number of statements made here, here, and here.

First, he was an activist for liberal or bourgeois democracy and an end to so-called “one party rule.” These comments make light of the fact that he was convicted for trying to overthrow the government (and socialist democracy) and replace it with a very different system. But this is actually what he did: attempt to overthrow the state. In most countries, this constitutes an act of treason.

Second, he is presented as having advocated, in the words of the Nobel Prize Committee “fundamental human rights in China.” What this means is European derived human rights, which typically play up political and civil rights of individuals and neglect the Chinese Marxist approach to human rights in which the collective right to economic wellbeing is basic. This approach is, not unexpectedly, conveniently ignored. The Nobel committee betrays its agenda here, advocating a form of European neo-colonialism.

Third, the corporate press typically speaks of “global condemnation.” But if you look closely, you can see the usual suspects: USA, UK, Taiwan, Germany. Hardly “global.”

Fourth, he was denied proper medical treatment. It is assumed with this comment that he should have been able to leave China for such treatment. The implied meaning is that China’s medical system is inadequate or – with the usual dog whistle – that he was denied treatment. What is not noted here is that a whole team of Chinese, US and German doctors were focused on the best treatment.

Fifth, the comparison is made with Carl von Ossietzky, who died in 1935 under the Nazi regime in Germany. This is a move first perfected in attacking the Soviet Union: the reductio ad Hitlerum. When all else fails, simply equate communism with fascism.

What is the Chinese position? I have already noted some of these implicitly. But the main point is that he had actually betrayed China and that his long-term effect will be negligible. The reason: none of China’s heroes and heroines were identified by foreign interests. Instead, “One’s position and value in history will be decided by whether one’s endeavors and persistence have value to the country’s development and historical trends.”

NB: A much sharper piece can be found hidden away in, of all places, the Guardian. Written by Barry Soutman and Yan Hairong, it reveals that Liu Xiaobo is not only ignored in China, but that he was a militant and reactionary colonialist, supporting United States attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan, and stating that China needs 300 years of more of ‘Western’ colonialism to become thoroughly ‘westernised’. Statements like this, as well as observations that the Chinese are ‘wimpy, spineless and fucked-up [weisuo, ruanruo, caodan]’ certainly hasn’t won him any friends in China.




Looks like it is the year of the state. I have written two articles, one on the nature of the socialist state, and another on the transition between bourgeois and socialist states. Currently, I am completing an article on the absolutist ‘Christian state’, which was the (Prussian) context in which Marx and Engels began their early work. I am taken with Marx’s argument that the secular, bourgeois state is the full (dialectical) realisation of the absolutist Christian state.

Meanwhile, a snippet of what life was like for an absolute monarch, with a focus on France:

The king of France was thoroughly, without residue, a “public” personage. His mother gave birth to him in public, and from that moment his existence, down to its most trivial moments, was acted out before the eyes of attendants who were holders of dignified offices. He ate in public, went to bed in public, woke up and was clothed and groomed in public, urinated and defecated in public. He did not much bathe in public; but then neither did he do so in private. I know of no evidence that he copulated in public; but he came near enough, considering the circumstances under which he was expected to deflower his august bride. When he died (in public), his body was promptly and messily chopped up in public, and its severed parts ceremoniously handed out to the more exalted among the personages who had been attending him throughout his mortal existence (Poggi, The Development of the Modern State, pp. 68-69).

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