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

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

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

Research on State Theory

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

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

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

Research on State Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Ideology to Betrayal Narratives

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

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

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

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


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


Xinhua News interview

A few days before the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth, I did an interview with a correspondent from Xinhua News – China’s major national news provider (comparable to Australia’s ABC or the UK’s BBC, but with far greater resources).

If you are interested, you can find the text on Xinhua News.

A Marxist Trap? The Danger of Economics Imperialism, or, How to Understand a Socialist Market Economy

I am slowly thinking through a framework for understanding a socialist market economy. Earlier, I have outlined the results of historical work, especially relating to market economies in ancient Southwest Asia and the ancient Mediterranean. In these contexts there were market economies, but not capitalist market economies (or a capitalist mode of production, as Marx puts it). Instead, the Persians had what may be called a military market economy, while the Greeks and Romans had a slave market economy.

The obvious point from this historical work is a profound mistake in current debates, which is to equate ‘market economy’ with ‘capitalism’. Let me change the terms to indicate how serious the mistake is: it as though one were equating ‘mode of production’ with ‘capitalism’. In fact, the danger – especially for Marxists economists – is that if you make this equation, you end up with a version of economics imperialism.

To explain: this imperialism first arose from the context of neo-classical economics, in which the specific history of the emergence of this particular branch of economic analysis, if not the history of its topic (capitalist mode of production), was conveniently erased. The result was a universalisation of the specific assumptions of capitalist market economics so that you could apply these assumptions to human economic activity throughout history. Thus, if you have markets in the ancient world, they must be capitalist. Or if you have markets in a socialist economy, they must be capitalist.

I have encountered a number of Marxists who make a similar mistake. They assume that ‘marketisation’ and ‘market economy’ mean capitalism. They use this assumption to hypothesise that China is a capitalist economy because it has markets. By now the trap is obvious: it might be described as a Marxist version of economics imperialism.

While thinking through some the implications of this move, I decided to reread a crucial section of the third volume of Capital. In chapter 36, entitled ‘Precapitalist relationships’ (pages 588-605), Marx examines markets in their earlier forms. He writes of a range of features found in ancient markets, whether Greek or Roman or European feudalism. Here we find commodities, money, capital, merchants, industry and usury, but Marx is very careful to point out that all of these individual components did not make up a capitalist mode of production, or – as I am putting it – a capitalist market economy. Why? The relationship between these various items and their social determination meant that they may have comprised components of a slave or feudal mode of production, but certainly not a capitalist one – which requires a very different organisation.

Extrapolating from this historical work, this means that you may find some or more of these items under socialism in power, but this does not mean you have a capitalist market economy. It is a very different reality, for which ‘socialist market economy’ is the best name.

The next step in thinking through a socialist market economy is to analyse the distinction between a ‘planned economy’ and a ‘socialist market economy’ (a crucial change made in the Chinese constitution in 1982). Currently, my sense is that a planned economy is one phase of the wider reality of a socialist market economy, but I have more work to do on this question. The mistake in this case is to equate a planned economy with a socialist economy.

Engels and the revolutionary potato

Every now and then you say or write something you may well come to regret. Engels was a mortal like the rest of us. As I have been rereading his flawed gem, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, I came across this gem:

Iron came to be utilised by man, the last and most important of all raw materials to play a revolutionary role in history, the last—if we exclude the potato (MECW 26: 262).

Of course, in the context of brutal British imperialism, especially in Ireland, the potato might have loomed larger in 1884 than it does now. Even so, I suspect he may have laughed at this had we been discussing it this evening.

Report on United States human rights abuses in 2017

The Information Office of the State Council in China has published its annual report on human rights abuses in the United States. You can find a full copy of the report here, and a news summary at Xinhua News. While the report details abuses of civil rights, systemic racial discrimination, increasing flaws in US-style democracy, and flagrant abuse of human rights in other countries, an underlying theme concerns the right to economic wellbeing (a basic principle of Chinese Marxist approaches to human rights).

On this note, the following points are relevant:

In December 2017, 52.3 million Americans lived in “economically distressed communities” and 18.5 million were living in deep poverty.

Of those living in poverty in the United States, there were about 13.3 million children – 18 percent of those under the age of 18. The U.S. Urban Institute statistics revealed that nearly 9 million children in the United States (11.8 percent of American children) would grow up in persistently poor families.

The average wealth for white families is seven times higher than average wealth for black families and that median white wealth is twelve times higher than median black wealth. More than one in four black households had zero or negative net worth.

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.

A Dialectical Leap?

Is China undergoing a historical dialectical leap?

This question has been at the forefront my thoughts of late, for reasons I am still formulating. It comes from the experience, each time I arrive in China, of stepping into a future society. I have written of that feeling elsewhere, so here I want to analyse the question of the leap itself.

A common perception among many Chinese is that China needs to ‘catch up’ to other countries deemed more ‘advanced’. It matters little what the catching up might mean, whether technology, medicine, social security, scholarship, social morality and so on. The model may be the United States (for reasons that puzzle me), Germany, Scandinavia or even – believe it or not – Australia. True, the perception is less common today, but it used to be pervasive not so many years ago.

But as more and more Chinese go overseas, for travel, work or study, they are beginning to experience a dislocation. If it is one of countries I have mentioned, the bewilderment is due to the sense that the country they perceived as ‘advanced’ has in many respects slipped ‘behind’. Many of the daily realities to which they have become accustomed in China simply do not exist in such places, or if they do, they are piecemeal and disorganised.

As for my own experience, it is quite astonishing to find that so much has changed, so much has become the new normal, so much creativity has burst forth. The way I am beginning to describe it is in terms of a dialectical leap.

Let me make a few philosophical points. The initial idea of the ‘leap’ comes Lenin’s notebooks on Hegel (1914-1915). In response to the crisis of the Second International at the outbreak of the First World War, Lenin retreated to the library in Berne, Switzerland, to rediscover Marx’s dialectic. And where did he go? To Hegel! Lenin dug deep into Hegel’s The Science of Logic. He was wary at first, anticipating an idealist at work, where one would find theology at every turn. Instead, he found a materialist at the core, one that advocated a dialectic of ruptures, breaks and leaps. At one point, Lenin exclaims in his marginal notes: ‘Leaps! Breaks in gradualness. Leaps! Leaps’.

Mao Zedong would take up Hegel’s notes later, especially in developing his unique and creative intersection of Marxism and Chinese dialectics on his lectures in Yan’an in 1937, but especially in the essay drawn from the lectures, ‘On Contradiction’. In his own way, Mao saw what Lenin saw: the crucial role of the dialectical leap (bianzhengfa feiyue).

Now. both Lenin and Mao had in their sights a communist revolution, which is indeed such a leap. But can this central philosophical idea be applied to China today, especially since the ‘reform and opening up’ is being described as China’s second revolution? (I leave aside the point that after a communist revolution, reform is necessary, but always in light of revolution.)

Perhaps history can help us. In the nineteenth century in Europe, the German states were in many respects the most backward in Europe – economically, politically and culturally. It was precisely in this context that Marx and Engels grew up and developed what became Marxism. But what happened in the German states? Did they ‘catch up’ to the more ‘advanced’ states such as France, England and the Netherlands? Not at all, it was precisely the unique backwardness of the German states that enabled a dialectical leap. Germany became and remains the economic, political and, in many respects, intellectual powerhouse of Europe.

My sense is that an analogous process is happening in China today. Of course, the specificities of each situation are different, but my aim to discern a deeper pattern based on Marxist analysis. It seems to me that the dialectical leap is underway as I write. And this is not some leap into a capitalist system, with associated patterns of politics and culture. Not at all, for becoming a ‘strong modern socialist country’ by 2050 requires a dialectical leap of the sort happening now.