Book Outline: Friedrich Engels and the Basis of Socialist Governance

This work began as a chapter in my book, The Socialist State: Philosophical Foundations, but it eventually became a monograph in its own right. Why? Engels provides some of the key bases for understanding later developments of socialist governance. This is the outline of the book:

Friedrich Engels and the Basis of Socialist Governance

The argument of this book is that Friedrich Engels (more than Marx) provides the philosophical seeds for understanding the later development of socialist governance, if not the socialist state as such. The process of discovering these insights moves from reasonably familiar texts concerning states as they have existed thus far to quite unfamiliar and unstudied texts – especially from Engels’s later writings. The book covers the following topics: the state as a ‘separated public power’; socialist force (Gewalt) and the dictatorship of the proletariat; from abolition to the dying away of the state; the enmeshed apparatus of socialist governance.

The proposed work is significant not only because it will assist in identifying the philosophical origins of the historical reality of socialist governance, but also because such a detailed analysis of all the relevant texts by Engels has not – surprisingly – been undertaken before now. The closest that one finds is Hal Draper’s somewhat biased and incomplete five-volume work, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution (1977-2005). While Draper’s work is the most thorough in relation to textual analysis (as such material was available at the time), it is driven by an agenda that not only dismisses actual historical socialist states, from the Soviet Union to China, but also by a studied avoidance of important features of the texts. It also has a tendency to downplay the contribution of Engels and thus material that actually provides the philosophical basis for such forms of governance.

Other works on Marxist approaches to the state not only focus on Marx and largely ignore Engels, but do so with an agenda that stresses the Paris commune and ignores material on dictatorship of the proletariat and the use of force. Further, many such works assume – based on partial and selective reading – that both Engels and Marx held to the view that immediately after a communist revolution, the state would wither or ‘die away’, with the consequent assumption that the historical development of socialist governance goes against the theoretical view of Marx and especially Engels. This book begins to show that such a view is partial and thus mistaken.

The method deployed is simple but profound: careful and close attention, in original languages and translation, of all the relevant texts. Only by this method is one able to develop a complete analysis.

Chapter Outline


The introduction has two main tasks. The first is to provide an overview of Marx’s reflections on the Paris Commune and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Based on an earlier study (Boer, ‘Marx’s Ambivalence: State, Proletarian Dictatorship and Commune’. International Critical Thought), it presents a tension in Marx’s thought between the two, a tension he began to resolve in terms of a narrative from the dictatorship of the proletariat to the commune. He began to do so, but never resolved it, so the task fell to Engels. The second task of the introduction outlines the argument of the four chapters of the book.

Chapter 1: From ‘Separated Public Power’ to Gewalt

The first chapter deals initially with Engels’s programmatic observations on hitherto existing states, which would set the subsequent agenda not only for Marxist studies of such states, but also the Weberian tradition (Weber’s definition of the state borrows heavily from Engels). Apart from noting the key features of this analysis, which involves the core idea of the state as a ‘separated public power’, the chapter focuses on Engels’s shifts between seeing such states state as semi-autonomous, as instruments of a particular class in power, or as shaped in their very nature by the class in question. Engels moves between these three overlapping approaches, depending on the point he seeks to make, but he tends in more detailed work to opt for the third: that the nature of the state is determined by the class in power. This position emerges particularly in a relatively ignored work, ‘The Role of Force in History’. Here Engels offers an analysis of Bismarck in Germany that is a close companion to Marx’s ‘Eighteenth Brumaire’, with the specific point that the bourgeoisie was able to shape the state in its image indirectly, even when it did not hold the reins of power. Even more important is the emergence of a core category, Gewalt. The word is difficult to translate, so a study of Engels’s texts reveals the senses of force, power and violence. This provides a rather new angle, not only on his proposal that hitherto existing states may be defined as a ‘separated public power [Gewalt]’, but that ‘The Role of Gewalt in History’ is vitally important.

Chapter 2: Socialist Gewalt and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

The key finding of this chapter is Engels’s emphasis on proletarian Gewalt, in both the revolutionary process and in the early stages of the construction of socialism when power is gained through a revolution. The concrete manifestation of this socialist Gewalt is the dictatorship of the proletariat, which Engels (like Marx) defines carefully not as an individual dictatorship (as with Bakunin) or by a small band (Blanquist), but as a collective dictatorship by the majority, the workers. On this basis, Engels’s important contribution was to go beyond Marx in identifying the Paris commune with the proletarian dictatorship. Although suggested in the early 1870s, he does so clearly in the 1890s. The context was a struggle with the moderates of the increasingly large German Social Democratic Party, which tried to dispense with the dictatorship of the proletariat in its program and work within bourgeois democracy. In light of later tendencies in European communism to downplay the proletarian dictatorship and idealise the Paris commune (for example, with ‘Eurocommunism’ and the tendency among some European Marxists), Engels explicit argument that the commune was the exercise of the proletarian dictatorship, even that it did not go far enough in exercising such a dictatorship, is a timely warning. The chapter concludes by analysing Engels’s explicit usage of ‘socialist Gewalt’ itself, both before and after a revolution. Crucially, Engels points out that political power also has economic influence and potency (Potenz).

Chapter 3: From Abolition to the Dying Away of the State

Engels is responsible – in the third edition of Anti-Dühring – for coining the phrase, ‘dying away’ of the state (often translated as ‘withering away’). This chapter analyses how this emphasis arose, an emphasis that is also described as the eventual dissolution or gradual disappearance of the state as a spearated public power. The chapter has three parts. To begin with, it examines how Engels (like Marx) shared the view of ‘primitive anti-statism’: the idea that the state would need to be actively ‘abolished [abschaffen]’ as one of the first acts after a revolutionary seizure of power. The second part analyses the life-and-death struggle with Bakunin and the Anarchists, whose position was clarified only in the 1870s. A key component of their platform was the abolition of the state as the first revolutionary act, which Bakunin attempted in Lyons in 1870. Indeed, the incident at Lyons – in which Bakunin decreed the abolition of the state only to be arrested shortly after and bundled out of town – was a key moment when both Engels and Marx realised that such abolition was futile. Thus, the third part of the chapter examines how the emphasis on the dying away of the state arose, with Engels clearly indicating that it would be one of the final outcomes of socialism in power, after the proletarian dictatorship had transformed economic and social structures. Only then – eventually and gradually – would the state as a separated public power dissolve as a natural process. This may take a long time indeed.

Chapter 4: The Enmeshed Apparatus

The final chapter analyses how Engels envisaged the construction of socialist governance – with the caveat that he had never experienced this process directly and could draw only from the brief experiment of the Paris commune. It begins by studying Engels’s extensive work on ‘pre-state’ formations, where he identifies complex structures of governance, elections, representative bodies, sovereignty and Gewalt. Further, the chapter offers a careful analysis of the important text, ‘The Mark’, which dealt with the German tradition of the Markgenossenschaft. This tradition influences German law today, in which common rights still apply to farmland. For Engels, this practice is a relic of ‘pre-state’ formations, in which land was held in common, although it was modified in light of subsequent developments. The important argument – directed at peasant farmers – is that the communism of the future would entail a dialectical transformation (Aufhebung) of what is sometimes called ‘primitive communism’. But what should this organisation of the future be called? Given Engels’s definition of the state as a ‘separated public power’, he cannot call it a ‘state’. Instead, he uses the terminology of ‘social organisation’ and ‘administrative functions’, which may also be called the ‘enmeshed apparatus’. In other words, many functions of governance would be needed, a situation that can be described as the need for the apparatus of governance without separation from society. Or, as Engels puts, the organs of social organisation and governance ‘stand in the midst of society [steht eben mitten in der Gesellschaft]’. This means that a socialist state would not be alienated from society but thoroughly enmeshed within it, so much so that one cannot speak of ‘state’ and ‘society’ as distinct elements. In this light, the term ‘socialist governance’, or perhaps ‘enmeshed state’, are to be preferred.


The conclusion to the book outlines the way Engels’s contribution provides the philosophical basis for future developments of socialist governance, or what is now called the ‘socialist state’. This process entails drawing out philosophical insights from historical and anthropological studies, which has been the concern of the book as a whole. These insights include: the need for socialist Gewalt (dictatorship of the proletariat, which is one with communist society) in constructing socialist society and economics; the dying away of the state as a long-term and gradual process; the enmeshment of the apparatus of governance within society, so that it is no longer possible to distinguish state from society or indeed from the economy. Implicit in these points is a progression, with a strong socialist Gewalt as the means for transforming economic and social realities, as well as providing the basis for beginning the process of the dying away of the state as a separated public power. This process is gradual and long-term, entailing that as hitherto known forms of the state fade away, new types of governance arise, types that are enmeshed within society rather than separated from it. This may be seen as a socialist Aufhebung of the state. Subsequent historical developments in actual constructions of socialism – from the Soviet Union to China – would be faced with new problems, for which new solutions were and are needed. But Engels’s contribution was to provide some important bases for such developments. Or, as Engels put it in 1890, ‘So-called “socialist society” is not, in my view, to be regarded as something that remains crystallised for all time, but rather being in process of constant change and transformation like all other social conditions’.

Important Texts by Engels

Note: For the sake of rapid identification, English titles are provided here, although the book works with original texts.

1872. ‘The Congress of Sonvillier and the International’. MECW 23: 64-70.

1872. ‘The General Council to All Members of the International Working Men’s Association’. MECW 23: 205-10.

1872. ‘The Congress at The Hague (Letter to Enrico Bignami)’, MECW 23: 271-76.

1872-1873. ‘The Housing Question’. MECW 23: 317-91.

1873. ‘On Authority’. MECW 23: 422-25.

1873. ‘The Bakuninists at Work: An Account of the Spanish Revolt in the Summer of 1873’. MECW 23: 581-94.

1873-1874. ‘Varia on Germany’. MECW 23: 599-610.

1877-1878. Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science. MECW 25: 3-309.

1880. ‘The Socialism of Mr. Bismarck’. MECW 24: 272-80.

1880. ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’. MECW 24: 281-325.

1882. ‘On the Early History of the Germans’. MECW 26: 6-57.

1882. ‘The Frankish Period’. MECW 26: 58-107.

1882. ‘The Mark’. MECW 24: 439-56.

1883. ‘Engels to Philipp Van Patten in New York (Draft). London, 18 April 1883’. MECW 47: 9-11.

1883. ‘On the Death of Karl Marx’. MECW 24: 473-81.

1884. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. In the Light of the Researches by Lewis H. Morgan. MECW 26: 129-276.

1884. ‘The Decline of Feudalism and the Emergence of National States’. MECW 26: 556-65.

1887-88. ‘The Role of Force in History’. MECW 26: 453-510.

1891. ‘Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Civil War in France’. MECW 27: 179-91.

1891. ‘A Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Programme of 1891’. MECW 27: 217-32.

1894. ‘On the Association of the Future’. MECW 26: 553.

1894. ‘The Peasant Question in France and Germany’. MECW 27: 481-502

1895. ‘Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Class Struggles in France’. MECW 27: 506-24.

Works by Marx and Engels:

1872.  ‘Preface to the 1972 German Edition of The Manifesto of the Communist Party’. MECW 23: 174-75.

1872. ‘Fictitious Splits in the International. Private Circular from the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association’. MECW 23: 79-123.

1872. ‘To the Spanish Sections of the International Working Men’s Association’. MECW 23: 211-13.

1872. ‘Resolutions of the General Congress held at the Hague from the 2nd to the 7th September, 1872’. MECW 23: 243-253.

1873. ‘The Alliance of Socialist Democracy and the International Working Men’s Association. Report and Documents Published by Decision of The Hague Congress of the International’. MECW 23: 454-580.


How to Deal with an Old Revolutionary: The Struggle over Engels’s 1895 Introduction to Marx’s ‘The Class Struggles in France’

A few months before Engels died a crucial struggle emerged in the communist movement. It had to do with Engels’s introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850 (Engels 1895 [1990], 1895 [2010]). Marx’s original text had been published as a series of articles in Neue Rheinische Zeitung over 1849-1850. In 1895 it was decided by the editorial board of the German Social-Democratic Party to gather the articles and publish them as a distinct book, so they approached Engels for advice and with a request to write an introduction. After some hesitation, Engels agreed, sending three articles that Marx had written and suggesting a fourth chapter that he had gathered from later material (some written by both Marx and Engels) to be entitled ‘The Abolition of Universal Suffrage in 1850’ (Engels 1895 [2004]-f, 444; 1895 [1973]-e, 410). The title of the whole work, by which it is now known, was also proposed by Engels. Soon afterwards, he also sent them the introduction.

This introduction includes a long assessment of the situation in the 1890s with regard to military action by insurgents, street fighting and barricades. With his long-standing military knowledge, Engels assesses the changing circumstances in terms of tactics, weaponry and perceptions of the public in response to revolutionaries. He also notes the rise of communist parties as electoral forces, urging caution and careful assessment of the new context before engaging in such actions. The risk of failure is even greater and the possibility of moral victory attained in earlier efforts has largely vanished. Yet he firmly holds to the need for revolutionary action in the future, which would have to carefully considered and revised: fewer skirmishes before a major revolution are more likely, but revolution is still required.

Before examining the fate of this introduction, let me set the context. It appeared at a time when the communist movement worldwide had made considerable progress. Political parties had established themselves and gained hundreds of thousands of members, especially in Germany, a situation that produced considerable debate over theory, policies and programs. The catch was that they now were able to operate largely within the structures of the bourgeois state and its form of democracy. Pressure grew to soften communism’s more radical edges, since some felt that these threatened the new-found legitimacy of the parties in question. The push for moderation was enhanced by the famous anti-socialist laws instigated by Bismarck from 1878 to 1890. Even though support for the German Social-Democratic Party grew during this period, questions arose. Should the party continue to advocate ‘illegal’ means, such as revolution and proletarian dictatorship? Or should it be content to work within the existing structures and pursue peaceful transition?

To return to the introduction.[1] Upon receiving the text for publication, the executive of the Social-Democratic party became decidedly anxious. They were torn between immense respect for Engels’s authority and their delicate political position in Germany. Not only were the anti-socialist laws still fresh in everyone’s memory and experience, but the Reichstag was also debating in the early months of 1895 yet another law aimed at preventing a ‘coup-d’état’. Thus, the editors were working at a feverish pace to complete all of the publications in case the law came into effect (Engels 1895 [2004]-a, 453), but they were also keen not to aggravate the situation. So they asked: would Engels please tone down the excessive revolutionary tenor of the piece so as not to incite the authorities? He was sent a copy-edited text in which all references to future revolutionary militancy were altered or excised. At times it was a phrase, at times a sentence and at times a whole paragraph. In his reply to Richard Fischer in March of 1895, Engels was clearly unhappy with the efforts to subscribe to absolute legality under any circumstances. Nothing can be gained, he writes, by ‘advocating complete abstention from force’; no person, no party would forfeit the right to resist ‘by force of arms [Waffen in der Hand]’ (Engels 1895 [2004]-e, 457; 1895 [1973]-d, 424). Yet, he understood the party’s position in Germany and so relented on some editorial changes but resisted five others that would have changed the meaning entirely. A couple of weeks later, he wrote to Kautsky that his text had suffered to some extent from the ‘apprehensive [umsturzvorlagenfurchtsamlichen] objections, inspired by the Subversion Bill, of our friends in Berlin’, but he also acknowledged that in light of circumstances he ‘could not but take account’ of these objections (Engels 1895 [2004]-c, 480; 1895 [1973]-b, 446). From the side of the editors, perhaps Bebel’s letter to Engels a few days later captures the tensions best: ‘We do not ask you to say something that you do not wish to say – or may not say – but we ask you not to say something which, if said at this time, would be embarrassing for us’ (Blumenberg 1965, 795).[2]

The story has further twists. Under Liebknecht’s guidance, the editors disregarded Engels’s reservations and pressed ahead with all of the changes they had made. They published selections from the introduction in the leading article of Vorwärts, number 76, on 30 March, 1895, under the title ‘Wie man heute Revolutionen macht’. The authorship was attributed to Engels. Upon receipt of the issue of Vorwärts, Engels was incensed. The next day he wrote to Kautsky: ‘I was amazed to see today in in the Vorwärts an excerpt from my “Introduction” that had been printed without my prior knowledge and tricked out in such a way as to present me as a peace-loving proponent [friedfertiger Anbete] of legality quand même’. He requested that the complete text should be published in Neue Zeit so that ‘this disgraceful impression [schmähliche Eindruck] may be erased’ (Engels 1895 [2004]-b, 486; 1895 [1973]-a, 452). And he promised to give Liebknecht and others involved a piece of his mind for disfiguring and ‘perverting [zu entstellen]’ his views.

Neither would eventuate. As for the letter to Liebknecht, perhaps it was the advancing throat cancer – from a life of enjoying tobacco and alcohol – that prevented him from castigating those involved. Perhaps the letter has been lost. As for the anticipated rectification in Neue Zeit, the journal published the introduction in the heavily edited form in numbers 27 and 28. And the book, The Class Struggles in France 1849-1850, appeared in the same year with the introduction in the form that the editors deemed fit. Only much later would the full original text be published.

What are we to make of this important moment? While Engels did not use ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in his introduction, Marx had deployed it for the first time in the very same text that was now being published in book form. Clearly, many were uncomfortable with the idea and its militancy. So we may resort to a betrayal narrative, in which the ‘revisionists’ – taking advantage of Engels’s failing health – betrayed the need for revolution for the sake of parliamentary reform.[3] Or we may follow the line of many at the time, who suggested that Engels had realised the need for peaceful parliamentary means within the structures of the bourgeois state (Hunt 2010, 238-39). Or we may invoke a line from Engels a few years earlier: ‘do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat [Das war die Diktatur des Proletariats]’ (Engels 1891 [1990]-b, 191; 1891 [2010]-a, 16). For some, the conflation of the commune and the dictatorship assists in softening the militant and violent import of the dictatorship in favour of comradely cooperation (Johnstone 1971; Balibar 1977, 58; Miliband 1991, 151; Van Ree 2015, 77, 115).

By contrast, I suggest that Engels may be the best guide here, as reflected in his observations to Paul Lafargue a couple of days after he became aware of what had happened. He accuses Liebknecht of playing a ‘fine trick [Streich]’ on him by taking from his introduction ‘everything that could serve his purpose in support of peaceful and anti-violent [Gewaltanwendung verwerfende] tactics at any price’, especially in light of the threat of new laws against the socialists. At this point, we can easily suggest that Engels had been betrayed, but then he writes: ‘I preach those tactics only for the Germany of today and even then with many reservations [mit erheblichen Vorbehalten]’. Despite his best instincts, Engels realises the need for such an approach in a particular situation. In certain circumstances, it is necessary to adapt for a time in order to advance the cause. Some may call this ‘opportunism’, but if so, it is a productive opportunism, a needed zigzag so that the project may continue. Liebknecht, Engels feels, lack this sense, seeing only black and white: ‘Shades don’t exit for him’ (Engels 1895 [2004]-d, 489-90; 1895 [1973]-c, 458). In other words, communism requires not one or the other, not revolution or reform, but appropriate tactics for specific circumstances. Engels’s legacy would come to fruition with subsequent communist leaders, especially those who actually experienced socialism in power such as Lenin, Mao, Deng and indeed Xi Jinping.


Balibar, Etienne. 1977. On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. London: NLB.

Bernstein, Eduard. 1899. Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie. Stuttgart: Dietz Nachfolger.

———. 1993. The Preconditions of Socialism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blumenberg, Werner. 1965. August Bebels Briefwechsel mit Friedrich Engels. The Hague: Mouton.

Engels, Friedrich. 1895 [1973]-a. ‘Engels an Karl Kautsky in Stuttgart, London, 1.April 1895’. In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 39, 452. Berlin: Dietz.

———. 1895 [1973]-b. ‘Engels an Karl Kautsky in Stuttgart, London, 25.März 1895’. In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 39, 446-48. Berlin: Dietz.

———. 1895 [1973]-c. ‘Engels an Paul Lafargue in Le Perreux, London, 3April 1895’. In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 39, 454-58. Berlin: Dietz.

———. 1895 [1973]-d. ‘Engels an Richard Fischer in Berlin, London, 8.März 1895’. In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 39, 424-26. Berlin: Dietz.

———. 1895 [1973]-e. ‘Engels an Richard Fischer in Berlin, London, 13.Febr. 1895’. In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 39, 410. Berlin: Dietz.

———. 1895 [1990]. ‘Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Class Struggles in France‘. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 27, 506-24. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1895 [2004]-a. ‘Engels to Eduard Vaillant in Paris, London, 5 March 1895’. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 50, 453-55. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1895 [2004]-b. ‘Engels to Karl Kautsky in Stuttgart, London, 1 April 1895’. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 50, 486. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1895 [2004]-c. ‘Engels to Karl Kautsky in Stuttgart, London, 25 March 1895’. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 50, 480-83. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1895 [2004]-d. ‘Engels to Paul Lafargue at Le Perreux, London, 3 April 1895’. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 50, 487-90. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1895 [2004]-e. ‘Engels to Richard Fischer in Berlin, London, 8 March 1895’. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 50, 457-59. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1895 [2004]-f. ‘Engels to Richard Fischer in Berlin, London, 13 February 1895’. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 50, 444-45. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1895 [2010]. ‘Einleitung (1895) zu Karl Marx’s “Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich 1848 bis 1850″‘. In Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe, Vol. I.32, 330-51. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

Hunt, Tristram. 2010. Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels. New York: Picador.

Johnstone, Monty. 1971. ‘The Paris Commune and Marx’s Conception of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’. The Massachusetts Review 12 (3):447-62.

Kautsky, Karl. 1899. Bernstein und das sozialdemokratische Programm: Eine Antikritik. Stuttgart: Dietz.

Lenin, V.I. 1918 [1965]. ‘The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky’. In Collected Works, Vol. 28, 227-325. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Miliband, Ralph. 1991. ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’. In A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, edited by Tom Bottomore, 151-52. Oxford: Blackwell.

Möser, Sandy. 1990. ‘Zur Weiterentwicklung der Revolutionstheorie in Friedrich Engels’ “Einleitung zu Karl Marx’ ‘Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich 1848 bis 1850′” und zur unmittelbaren Wirkung dieser Arbeit’. Beiträge zue Marx-Engels-Forschung 139:139-44.

Tudor, Henry, and J.M. Tudor. 1988. Marxism and Social Democracy: The Revisionist Debate, 1896-1898 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Van Ree, Erik. 2015. Boundaries of Utopia – Imagining Communism from Plato to Stalin. London: Routledge.

[1] For a useful overview of the events, see Möser (1990).

[2] Translation mine.

[3] But who are the revisionists? Is Liebknecht one of them? Engels obviously thought so in 1895, with his efforts to water down the militant emphasis upon which he and Marx had always insisted. Yet Liebknecht would become part of the Spartacus League, being a leader of the Spartacist Uprising on 1919 in which he (and Rosa Luxemburg) were murdered. How about Kautsky? Lenin identified Kautsky as a ‘renegade’ due to his advocacy of the ballot box and decrying of the Russian Revolution (Lenin 1918 [1965]). Was is Bernstein (1993, 1899) with his advocacy of peaceful transition once the bourgeoisie saw the benefits of socialism. Now Kautsky becomes a radical, for he opposed Bernstein as the chief theoretician of the second generation (Kautsky 1899; Tudor and Tudor 1988).

Friedrich Engels: The State as a ‘Separated Public Power’

A perfect society, a perfect ‘State [Staat]’, are things which can only exist in the imagination [Phantasie]. On the contrary, all successive historical states [Zustände] are only transitory stages in the endless course of development of human society (Engels 1886 [1990], 359, 1886 [2011], 126).

The following material comprises an initial draft concerning Engels’s thoughts on actually existing states. It will eventually form part of a chapter in a book called The Socialist State: Philosophical Foundations. Some of the material may be well-known, but other material I examine has often been ignored. Since what follows is a prolegomenon to Engels’s potential contribution to understanding the socialist state, I have shaped the analysis with this in mind.

Engels’s reflections on ‘the state’ can best be summarised as a series of theses, following which I provide analysis of the key points that are relevant for the focus on what might happen to the state after a communist revolution.[1]

1. Engels repeatedly asserts that the state is a ‘public power [öffentliche Gewalt]’ that is ‘separated [getrennte]’ from society (Engels 1884 [1990]-b, 201, 210, 213, 221, 269-70, 1884 [1962], 95, 103, 107, 115, 165-66). This definition is based on the assumption that political ideas and practices ‘in the final instance [in letzter Instanz]‘ (Engels and Kautsky 1887 [1973], 494) derive from economic conditions.[2] It determines all of his observations concerning the nature and history of the state, from the ancient Athenians to his own day, as well as his initial thoughts on the state under socialism.

2. Thus, it follows that the state is not imposed from without, but arises from a society riven with ‘irreconcilable opposites’, which are ‘classes with conflicting economic interests’.

3. So that society does not tear itself to pieces, a Gewalt is necessary to ‘alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of “order”’.

4. This Gewalt ‘alienates itself more and more’ from society, so that it becomes ‘separated’, ‘alienated’ and ‘above’ society.

5. While the initial manifestation of this Gewalt may be in terms of an armed force that is no longer coterminous with the people (as a militia), it is also comprised of ‘material adjuncts, prisons and institutions of coercion of all kinds’. In short, these are instruments of repression.

6. Alongside such institutions are what Engels calls ‘organs of society [Organe der Gesellschaft]’. These are not part of society, standing in its middle, but are ‘above’ and ‘alien [entfremdenden]’ and need to be asserted through a system of laws and sustained through taxes. Although he does not use the term ‘apparatus’, he here describes an apparatus that is both above society and mediates between state power and society.

7. Is the state an instrument of the ruling class, a structure determined by this class, or it is somewhat autonomous? The question arises from three different emphases in Engels’s text, emphases that set the boundaries of subsequent Marxist debate:

a. ‘As a rule’, Engels writes, the state provides the means whereby the economically dominant class also becomes the politically dominant class. Engels speaks of the state being a ‘means of keeping’ down the oppressed, an ‘instrument [Werkzeug]’ for exploitation.

b. At the same time, he speaks of the state as an ‘organisation of the possessing class [Organisation der besitzenden Klasse]’, so much so that we have the ‘state of slave owners’, the ‘feudal state [Feudalstaat]’ and the ‘modern representative state [Repräsentativstaat]’ or the ‘state of the capitalists’,[3] implying that specific states are imbued with and even determined by a specific nature.[4]

c. At times a state gains relative autonomy, especially when class conflict reaches a certain balance, with neither dominating. In this situation, the state acquires temporarily a ‘certain degree of independence of both’ classes. The pertinent example, in relation to Engels’s detailed study on the ‘The Role of Force’, is Bismarck’s Germany.

Since my concern with the state after a revolution and during the construction of socialism, I emphasise the following in relation to actually existing states. The crucial distinction is between separation and integration/ enmeshment. This distinction appears a few times in the points above, especially when Engels contrasts the nature of the military and the ‘organs of society’, which are different from the ‘organs of the gentile constitution [Organe der Gentilverfassung]’, or ‘organs of gentile society [Organe der Gentilgesellschaft]’ that stand ‘in the midst of society [eben mitten in der Gesellschaft]’ (Engels 1884 [1990]-b, 270, 1884 [1962], 166). Indeed, the definition of the state relies on this contrast, which runs through The Origin of the Family. Engels casts it primarily as a historical narrative, in which the unseparated or integrated nature of pre-state formations contrasts, but also provides the conditions for, the separated nature of the state that follows. While this is a rather standard narrative of differentiation,[5] moving from an undifferentiated state to one that is clearly differentiated (thus the Athenian state provides the pure form of this narrative[6]), it opens a theoretical possibility that is ultimately not reliant on the narrative: communism entails a de-differentiation, if I may put it that way. Or in terms of the distinction between separation and integration, communism is clearly closer to the integrated and enmeshed condition. The implications for understanding the state under socialism and indeed communism (to borrow Lenin’s distinction for a moment) are profound.

At the same time, the distinction produces some tensions in Engels’s presentation. He seeks to be sensitive to historical variations, which appear most obviously in the question I posed in place of thesis 7. Let me begin with the third answer to the question, concerning the autonomy of the state, even though Engels suggests that this situation is only temporary, found at certain moments when class conflict is evenly balanced. In some respects, this would seem to be the most logical outcome of his initial proposal that the state arises from irreconcilable class conflict and that a Gewalt is needed to ameliorate the conflict and keep it within bounds (so that the system is not torn apart).[7]

The first and second answers to the question are more intriguing. Is the separated state a relatively neutral ‘instrument [Werkzeug]’ in the hands of the dominant class? Engels tends in this direction with his comment, ‘as a rule [in der Regel]’.[8] Yet this position can slip into another: the ruling class may determine the nature of the state in question, shaping it into a particular form. One can see how the connection may be made, for an instrument may take on a distinct shape, having been constructed by its wielder. Yet an instrument and a distinct form are not necessarily the same: the former is more neutral – an instrument, means or tool – and the latter indicates a particular nature, determined by the ruling class in question.[9]

Engels’s text struggles with this distinction, at times seemingly connecting instrument and nature,[10] while at others suggesting that they are distinct. A notable example is the fascinating paragraph towards the close of The Origin of the Family,[11] where Engels explores the historical variations of distinct types of states. Here he writes of an ‘organisation of the possessing class [Organisation der besitzenden Klasse]’ for the sake of protection against the non-possessing class.[12] An organisation is already more than a mere instrument, suggesting structures, shaping and the nature of the state itself. It may take the form of property or wealth qualifications for the right to participate in the state (from Athens and Rome to the early parliamentary systems of his own day), or direct corruption of government officials, or an alliance between the government and stock exchange for the sake of building infrastructure. Tellingly, at each suggestion Engels notes that such mechanisms are actually not necessary for the ruling class to determine the state: neither property qualifications, nor corruption, nor alliances between government and stock exchange are needed. Why not? A crucial sentence indicates the direction of his thought, especially in light of the bourgeois state and its emerging practice of apparent universal suffrage. In this situation, how does wealth control the state? It ‘exercises its power indirectly, but all the more surely [seine Macht indirekt, aber um so sichrer aus]’. One may object that he writes only a few sentences later that the possessing class rules ‘directly by means of [direkt mittelst]’ universal suffrage. The initial impression is that he seems to slide back to an instrumental position. But he does not simply write direct, adding immediately afterwards mittelst, which indicates an intermediary, a ‘medium’ (as the MECW translation has it), through which direct rule must operate.

Let me press more heavily on the term ‘indirect’. To begin with, in a piece written with Kautsky called ‘Lawyers’ Socialism’, Engels observes that in the European transition from feudalism to capitalism, the Church was replaced by the state as the arbiter of all matters economic and social – or at least this was how people saw the situation. Crucially, it was the rise of a ‘legal world view’ that signalled such a shift. While we may quibble that the Church had developed its own complex legal system since the ‘lawyer popes’ of the eleventh century, the point I seek to draw out is that the bourgeoisie sought a legal system controlled not by the Church but by the state. The bourgeoisie’s battle cry was equality before the law, pressing more and more legal demands so that a new form of the state arose, the ‘classical one of bourgeoisie’ (Engels and Kautsky 1887 [1990], 598, 1887 [1973], 492). The clear implication is that this form developed without direct power held by the bourgeoisie, but rather as a process of transformation from without.

Further, in the paragraph I have been exegeting in the paragraphs preceding the last one, Engels mentions Bismarck as an example of the indirect rule of the bourgeoisie. Only a few years later, he would come to devote more attention to Bismarck in the extremely insightful (albeit largely ignored) work, ‘The Role of Force in History’.[13] This text is worthy of detailed study in its own right, not least because it offers a worthy complement to the myriad twists and turns of Marx’s ‘Eighteenth Brumaire’. While Marx deals with Louis Napoleon (III), Engels focuses on Bismarck’s rise to power and Germany’s dialectical leap into becoming a significant European power. Crucially, Engels argues that no matter how much Bismarck – like Louis Napoleon – may have sidelined the bourgeoisie from the reins of power, he enabled the very structures of a bourgeois state in political and economic terms. Since the bourgeoisie, especially since the 1848 revolutions, had expanded as never before the network of industry and international trade, it needed not the many individual states but a unified German state, with uniform laws and regulations and currency, to facilitate the process even further – including the easy mobility of labour.[14] Bismarck obliged, since he desperately needed for his own ‘Junker’ agenda all that the bourgeoise demanded, so much so that he shaped the new German state in their image. As Engels puts it, the ‘bourgeoisie triumphed without having to put up a serious fight’ (Engels 1887-88 [1990]-c, 472, 1887-88 [1973]-a, 423).[15]

While this argument reinforces Marx’s similar conclusion in ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire’, with the significant implication that the nature of a particular state is shaped and even determined by the dominant class even when it does not have direct political power, Engels also develops a unique insight of his own. It concerns Gewalt, a topic which I have belatedly left until now, since it will become important for Engels’s potential contribution to understanding the socialist state (and is central to the dictatorship of the proletariat in the work of both Marx and Engels). The semantic field of the term includes power, force and violence, although translators tend to shy away from the stronger senses. In analysing the term, I leave aside the vexed and well-nigh impossible task of determining what an author intended at a particular moment. Instead, I prefer to examine how Engels’s text elaborates on the term.

In the opening sentence of ‘The Role of Force’, Engels indicates that he seeks to analyse contemporary German history and its ‘Gewaltspraxis von Blut und Eisen’ (Engels 1887-88 [1973]-a, 407).[16] The practice of Gewalt entails ‘blood and iron’. It may be very well to speak in abstract terms of ‘power’ and even ‘force’, but the reality is clearly in the direction of the violence of weapons and blood spilled in conflict. The broader topic concerns Germany’s belated reunification under Bismarck, the class dimensions (see above) and ideological realities, let alone their dependence on the economic situation.[17] But the thread that weaves it all together is that of Gewalt in action. Let me backtrack a moment to set the context in terms of Engels’s writings. Already since 1842, military matters had been close to Engels’s thoughts and occasionally actions. In that year, he enlisted in the 12th Foot Company of the Guards Artillery Brigade in Berlin, to be followed by military action during the 1848 revolutions (at first in Elberfeld and Barmen and a little later with the militia in the Palatinate and Baden). These experiences, with their insights and disappointments, led him to deeply insightful articles as a military correspondent and then analyst of the history and present realities of all aspects of military forces, such as training, equipment, discipline, morale, fortifications, tactics and the first real contribution to the need for a good and decisive military force for any revolutionary movement.[18] Thus, it should be no surprise that, in his schematic depiction of the rise of the state as a ‘separated public power’, a military force distinct from the people should be the first sign of this development, or indeed in his reply to Dühring that he should dig into his knowledge of military matters (Engels 1877-78 [1987], 155-61, 1877-78 [1973], 155-61).

As for ‘The Role of Force’, military machinations constitute the line of blood that draws the many parts together,[19] defining the sense of Gewalt. While Engels invokes the full range of the term’s semantic field,[20] the weight of his usage falls on the hard edge of the term. It may be ‘forcible [gewaltsamen]’ Danification, or ‘forcibly [gewaltsam]’ dispelling liberal self-delusion, or keeping one’s subjects ‘forcibly [gewaltsam]’ in check, or Austria’s expulsion ‘with violent force [mit Gewalt]’, or doing ‘violence [Gewalt]’ with the truth, or simply ‘police power [Polizeigewalt]’ (Engels 1887-88 [1990]-c, 475, 477, 480, 495, 507, see also 476, 487, 1887-88 [1973]-a, 426, 429, 431, 432, 446, 459, see also 427, 438). Simply put, the emphasis is on ‘brute force [brutale Gewalt]’ as the guiding principle (Engels 1887-88 [1990]-c, 495, see also 494, 1887-88 [1973]-a, 447, see also 446). Thus, German political and economic unity had to be ‘won in struggle [erkämpft werden]’ against both external and internal enemies (Engels 1887-88 [1990]-c, 460, 1887-88 [1973]-a, 412). Externally, it required wars, realignment of alliances, temporary settlements and new wars.[21] The turning point – for Engels’s analysis – is when reunification takes the path of Prussian hegemony (in contrast to the two other possibilities of genuine abolition of differences between all the German states and Austrian hegemony). This process was kick-started by humiliation at the hands of Denmark in the mid-nineteenth century, which spurred Bismarck to undertake a wholesale reconfiguration of the armed forces, leading to decisive defeat of Denmark in a little over a decade. From there, the path led eventually to the conquest of France, at which point the new German empire became the ‘first power [erste Macht]’ in Europe, with all power (Macht) concentrated in the dictator Bismarck’s hands (Engels 1887-88 [1990]-c, 498, 1887-88 [1973]-a, 449). Internally, the first hint is provided by Engels’s use of ‘dictator’ to speak of Bismarck. In a crucial paragraph, he speaks of the tensions and collaboration between the bourgeoisie and Bismarck. The former demanded a revolutionary transformation of Germany, but this could be achieved ‘only by force [nur durch die Gewalt]’, which he immediately defines as ‘only by an actual dictatorship [nur durch eine tatsächliche Diktatur]’. Two types of Gewalt exist in the modern state, namely the ‘elemental power of the popular masses [elementare Gewalt der Volksmassen]’ and ‘organised state power [die organisierte Staatsgewalt]’. The latter is embodied in none other than the army. While the German bourgeoisie had grown deeply suspicious of the force of the masses, it also did not have the army at its disposal. ‘But’, Engels points out, ‘Bismarck had’ (Engels 1887-88 [1990]-c, 479, 1887-88 [1973]-a, 431).

The implications for insights into possible forms of the socialist state should be obvious. To begin with, the revolutionary process itself and the dictatorship of the proletariat entail the use of Gewalt – the meaning of which should be in no doubt. Further, if we assume Engels’s emphasis on the state as a ‘separated public power’, then the forms of governance – or apparatus – under socialism and communism will be of an unseparated or enmeshed form. To understand how this might work, I will in later parts of this study focus on Engels’s extensive work on ‘pre-state’ or ‘primitive communist’ formations. This task remains to be done, but we should also keep in mind Marx’s point that concrete research on these matters requires evidence and experience, for it can be done ‘only scientifically’.


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[1] The best summary may be found in The Origin of the Family (Engels 1884 [1990]-b, 268-72, 1884 [1962], 164-68), from which the quotations in the following theses are drawn.

[2] Engels stresses the economic determination of the state in his piece on Feuerbach (Engels 1886 [1990], 391-93, 1886 [1973]-b, 302-3).

[3] The final quotation comes from Anti-Dühring, where he adds by way of clarification, ‘the ideal personification of the total national capital [der ideelle Gesamtkapitalist]’ (Engels 1877-78 [1987], 266, 1877-78 [1973], 260).

[4] This tendency is expressed well in his comment in the introduction to Borkheim’s pamphlet concerning the 1848 revolutions: ‘the state is becoming more and more estranged from the masses of the people and is now well on the way to transforming itself into a consortium of landowners, stockbrokers and big industrialists for the exploitation of the people’ (Engels 1887 [1990], 450, 1887 [1973]-a, 350).

[5] The most sustained example of such a narrative of differentiation appears in the final section of The Origin of the Family, but this section also summarises the whole treatment of the state in this work (Engels 1884 [1990]-b, 256-76, 1884 [1962], 152-73, see also Engels 1877-78 [1987], 166-69, 1877-78 [1973], 166-69).

[6] With the rise of the Athenian state Engels finds various commercial, money and property relations that develop class relations and thereby the state, with the constitutions articulating the new conditions (Engels 1884 [1990]-b, 213-22, 1884 [1962], 107-16). While he is guilty of a classicist narrative in such a position, finding the Roman and especially the German situations less ‘pure’ (the latter taking full state forms only with Charlemagne and the rise of feudalism (Engels 1884 [1990]-b, 252-54, 1884 [1962], 147-49)), my focus is on the theoretical potential of Engels’s texts in relation to the socialist state. For this reason, it is beyond my remit to delve into Engels’s fascinating studies of the rise of the feudal state, both in his study on the Frankish period and Charlemagne and in his draft concerning the decline of feudalism (Engels 1882 [1990], 1882 [1987], 1884 [1990]-a, 1884 [1973]).

[7] Many subsequent Marxist analyses of the bourgeois state follow this line, offering a range of variations (Carnoy 1984, 50, Esping-Andersen, Friedland, and Wright 1976, Holloway and Picciotto 1978, Evans 1995, Offe 1984, 1974, Skocpol 1979, Evans, Rueschemeyer, and Skocpol 1985, Block 1980, Mann 1986-2013).

[8] A number of later Marxist analyses of the (bourgeois) state agree, suggesting that the concentration of capital in relatively few hands enables the ruling class to have material and ideological control over the levers of power (Sweezy 1942, Miliband 1969, Baran and Sweezy 1966, Domhoff 1979).

[9] I would also locate Lenin’s proposals in the tension between instrument and determined nature (Lenin 1917 [1964], 392-94, 1917 [1969], 7-9), but since a subsequent study will deal carefully with Lenin, I leave this analysis for later.

[10] So also Engels’s comment in Anti-Dühring, where he speaks of state-ownership (the example given in a footnote is to Bismarck’s nationalisation of the railways). He writes that the state is ‘the organisation that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the general external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists. The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine [kapitalistische Maschine], the state of  the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital’ (Engels 1877-78 [1987], 266, 1877-78 [1973], 260).

[11] The quotations that follow are drawn from this paragraph (Engels 1884 [1990]-b, 271-72, 1884 [1962], 167-68).

[12] In Anti-Dühring Engels sides more strongly with this position: the state is ‘an organisation of the particular

class which was pro tempore the exploiting class’ (Engels 1877-78 [1987], 267, 1877-78 [1973], 261).

[13] ‘The Role of Force in History’ was written in draft in 1887-1888 and was initially planned as the fourth and final chapter to a work with the same name (Engels 1887-88 [1990]-d, 1887-88 [1973]-b, 1887-88 [1990]-a, 1887-88 [1973]-d, 1887-88 [1990]-b, 1887-88 [1973]-c, see also Engels 1886 [1995], 529, 1886 [1973]-a, 574-75, 1887 [2001], 126, 1887 [1973]-b, 730, 1888 [2001]-a, 142, 1888 [1973]-a, 15, 1888 [2001]-e, 1888 [1973]-e, 1888 [2001]-b, 1888 [1973]-b, 1888 [2001]-d, 1888 [1973]-d, 1888 [2001]-c, 1888 [1973]-c). The preceding part was to include three chapters from Anti-Dühring on the theory of force (Engels 1877-78 [1987], 146-71, 1877-78 [1973], 147-71). As with a number of works in the 1880s dealing with the state and German history, ‘The Role of Force in History’ remained unfinished, with the draft chapter published as a stand-alone piece in 1894-1895.

[14] We may identify here the seeds of Wallerstein’s (2011 [1974]) later argument that capitalism needed strong states with unified economic and legal frameworks to ensure the passage of goods across borders.

[15] Or more dialectically, Engels later speaks of carrying out ‘the will of the bourgeoisie against its will’ (Engels 1887-88 [1990]-c, 480, 1887-88 [1973]-a, 431). In his draft on the decline of feudalism, Engels’s insightfully connects the rise of absolute monarchies with the rise of the bourgeoisie (Engels 1884 [1990]-a, 1884 [1973]) – a point I have argued in my own way (Boer In press). Perhaps the closest that subsequent Marxist analyses come to this approach to the bourgeois state is the proposal that such a state is a structure – divided between apparatus and power – that is shaped to provide a relatively stable environment for capital, which it does so by ameliorating and regulating class struggle, as well as the inherent crises of capitalist economics and its uneven development (Mandel 1975, Poulantzas 1978, 1980 [1978], Therborn 1978, Wright 1978, Jessop 1982, Przeworski 1985).

[16] Or, as Engels puts it in Anti-Dühring, ‘Force [Gewalt ], nowadays, is the army and navy’ (Engels 1877-78 [1987], 154, 1877-78 [1973], 154).

[17] In his polemic against Dühring, Engels stresses the importance of economic might (Macht) as a determining feature of political Gewalt. In this case, he sets out to undermine Dühring’s hypothesis that political Gewalt is primary and economic realities secondary (Engels 1877-78 [1987], 146-71, 1877-78 [1973], 147-71). ‘The Role of Force in History’ may therefore be seen as Engels’s answer at a more comprehensive level: this is what Gewalt really entails (and not the mythical tale of Robinson Crusoe and Friday, beloved by Dühring).

[18] This material is rarely appreciated, even though it forms a substantial amount of Engels’s published work. The items are too many to cite here, but an interested reader may consult frequent items on military correspondence from MECW 11 and MEW 11 onwards (from the 1948 revolutions to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71), as well as analyses of military forces in MECW 18-19 and MEW 14-15. In these cases, MEW generally has less articles than MECW.

[19] In his draft treatment of the decline of feudalism, Engels traces – among other elements – the changes in military technology and strategy (Engels 1884 [1990]-a, 562-64, 1884 [1973], 398-400).

[20] On a few occasions, he speaks of ‘executive power [Exekutivgewalt]’ and the strengthening of ‘state power [Staatsgewalt] (Engels 1887-88 [1990]-c, 499, 507, 1887-88 [1973]-a, 451, 459).

[21] Albeit not determinative, as Tilly’s selective approach would have it (Tilly 1985, 1990).

Flesh of Flesh and Bone of Bone: Engels on the First Bourgeois Statesman

I am thoroughly enjoying the study of Engels’s many important – but often ignored – works on the state from the 1880s. The most insightful is ‘The Role of Force in History’, which offers a worthy companion to Marx’s ‘Eighteenth Brumaire’. While Marx focused on France and Louis Napoleon, Engels deals with Bismarck and Germany’s belated dialectical leap. But Engels also has some wonderful insights into Louis Napoleon, such as the following:

Louis Napoleon was now the idol of the European bourgeoisie. Not only because he had ‘saved society’ on December 2, 1851, when he destroyed the political rule of the bourgeoisie, it is true, but only to save its social rule. Not only because he showed that, under favourable circumstances, universal suffrage could be turned into an instrument for the oppression of the masses. Not only because, under his rule, industry and trade and notably speculation and stock exchange machinations advanced to a degree previously unknown. But, first and foremost, because the bourgeoisie saw in him the first ‘great statesman’, who was flesh of their flesh, and bone of their bone. He was an upstart like every true bourgeois. ‘A dyed in the wool’ Carbonari conspirator in Italy, an artillery officer in Switzerland, a debt-burdened tramp of distinction and special constable in England, yet constantly and everywhere a pretender to the throne, he had prepared himself by his adventurous past and moral failings in all countries for the role of Emperor of the French and ruler of the destinies of Europe, as the exemplary bourgeois, the American, prepares himself by a series of bankruptcies, genuine and fraudulent, for the role of millionaire.

‘The Role of Force in History’ (MECW 26: 461-62).

Engels and the Secret of the Socialist State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narratives of Betrayal: A ‘Western’ Trope

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).

Different ways to interpret the Marxist tradition

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.