An Effort to Understand the DPRK (North Korea) in Light of the Marxist Tradition

This year (2018) the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – or DPRK – celebrated 70 years. This is no mean feat, given the challenges it has faced. These include Japanese imperialism, United States imperialism, and what they call the ‘arduous march’ of the 1990s, when the web of connections with the Communist Bloc of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union collapsed. Through all this they have persevered through what they see as a struggle, for they define the transition period of socialism as a long process of struggle.

I was fortunate enough to visit the DPRK for the second time in early October of 2018, soon after the celebration of 70 years of struggle. We managed to catch a late episode of that unique creation, the ‘mass games’ which were in this year called ‘The Glorious Country’. It recounted through dance, music, song and gymnastics, the history of struggle and achievement. The experience, along with an intense week of in-depth engagement at many levels, has led to an effort to understand the DPRK within the longer Marxist tradition. It begins with the tension between old and new, in which a revolution is meant to usher in a qualitatively new society that at the same time stands in a complex relationship with what has gone before. This leads to the second topic, which concerns the relationship with the Marxist tradition, which may now be seen in its own way as an element of the old. In this case, the DPRK has been undergoing a process of claiming a distinct autochthony and gradually dispensing with reference to the tradition. Third, I investigate this development in light of anti-colonialism, which had an initial emergence within the Soviet Union but took on a whole new phase on the Korean Peninsula. Here the desire to rid this part of the world of foreign interference runs strong, so much so that Korean independence and sovereignty not only determine the nature of socialism in this part of the world, but also the drive towards reunification. At the same time, I remain intrigued by a unique feature of DPRK socialism, which is the role played by the leadership. It is very clear that the glue of the Korean project is the Kim family with its socialist succession and that the majority of people in the DPRK genuinely believe in the power and tradition of the family. How to understand this feature? I want to suggest that it ties in closely with the constituent feature of inheritance, according to which the actual figure of the revolutionary leader is embodied in the son and grandson of Kim Il Sung. Finally, I approach the whole situation in light of the ‘Western’ Marxist trope of the qualitatively different nature of socialist society.

Between Old and New

A constituent feature of revolutionary movements like Marxism is a tension between the old and the new. A revolutionary seizure of power is predicated on dispensing with the old and beginning the process of constructing a new society. The particular modulations of such a construction – the stages of socialism and communism, the use of contradiction analysis in the new situation, the development of new philosophical positions in light of circumstances, and so on – are merely part of this more fundamental question.

From the Russian Revolution inwards, this tension appears. Thus, in what became the Soviet Union, we find a significant push to discard all that had gone before, for it was part of the corrupt and exploitative old order of autocracy and nascent capitalism. Everything was to be destroyed and the new constructed from the ground up. On the other side were those – such as Lenin and Lunacharsky – who felt that this was impossible. It was not only that socialism had many precursors that it would be foolhardy to dismiss, but also that a dialectical relationship with what had gone before should be taken up and transformed in the context of the new. All that was best of the past should be appropriated and thoroughly sublated through the process of socialist construction. The second approach ended up becoming the basis of the Soviet Union’s construction of socialism, although it was always  in tension with the desire for creation ex nihilo.

Let us move forward to the second great communist revolution of the twentieth century. In China, the reality of a complex and very long pre-history was far greater than in Europe or Russia. How to deal with this old tradition? While Mao Zedong argued for the need to make Marxism concrete in Chinese conditions, running all the way from Confucius to Sun Yat-sen, and while he deployed much from this tradition in his own thinking and action, he tended towards a desire to begin anew. Perhaps the most significant manifestation of this tendency was during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, when the whole tradition that had gone before was to be wiped out. That the excessive trauma of this period runs deep in China even today is witness to the presence of a strong sense that one needs to engage dialectically with the past.

How is all this relevant for Korean socialism? In this case we find not so much a continuing tension, with now one and now the other approach coming to the fore in relation to constructing socialism. Instead, the DPRK is a qualitatively new society, unlike any other country on earth. The challenge is to understand this different in light of the Marxist tradition. This means that the old is understood at two levels. The first is in terms of imperialism and colonialism, which Korean experience has been and continues to be capitalist imperialism. At the same time, the ‘old’ is very much present through the internal tension with the south of the peninsula and the continued occupation of United States troops. In response, the DPRK has set itself in stark contrast to the capitalist south.

The second level in which the old operates is a rather unique development, for it concerns the Marxist tradition itself.

The Marxist Tradition

With its 200 year history, Marxism has developed a rich tradition, full of experiences in seeking power and exercising state power. On this road, the philosophical developments have become significant indeed. How does the DPRK relate to this tradition? Curiously, the Marxist tradition has come to be seen as part of the old. Thus, there has been a steady process of stressing the originality, if not the autochthonous nature, of Korean socialism. If we study the extensive writings of Kim Il Sung – a 50-volume ‘Works’ exists, but the ‘Complete Works’ is still under way, with who knows how many volumes – we find a clear identification with the Marxist-Leninist tradition. Texts are cited, names mentioned, core elements of the tradition are developed further. Indeed, on one of the earlier monuments in Pyongyang devoted to the construction of socialism, one can still find the inscription ‘Uphold Marxism-Leninism’.

However, Kim Il Sung also stressed other features and floated the beginnings of an alternative terminology. So we find the first mention of ‘Juche’, that human beings are masters of their destiny, as well as a core principles of reunification, which is to be undertaken independent of foreign powers. These and other ideas would provide the seeds for his successor, Kim Jong Il, to stress more and more the autochthonous nature of his father’s thought. ‘Juche’ began to replace Marxism-Leninism, and the new security policy of ‘Songun’ was seen as originating with Kim Il Sung. Gradually, more and more of the traditional Marxist vocabulary began to disappear. The latest casualty – I am told – is the term ‘dialectics’. To be sure, they still speak of the stage of constructing socialism as one of struggle, which will eventually lead to communism. And one notices many features that come from earlier experiences of constructing socialism, such the planned economy (although there is a careful shift underway to a socialist market economy), education, socialist culture, and the history of art. The latter is intriguing: after the revolution and liberation of Korea, one finds first a period of socialist realism that then becomes Juche art, or realism with social features.

At the same time, if one studies the literature from the late 1990s until now, one finds less and less of the conventional Marxist terminology. Indeed, one may gain the impression that the socialism in question was created by Kim Il Sung and elaborated later. Indeed, under Kim Jong Un (since 2011), there has been a further shift, speaking of Kimilsungism and Kimjongilism as the body of theory and practice.

So we find a gradual and studied move from the old to the new – to keep the terminology I have been deploying. Korean socialism may have begun with a clear awareness of its debts to the old, maintaining close links with countries in the Communist Bloc. But it has moved ever more clearly into the new, stressing the sheer autochthony of this socialism.

Anti-Colonialism

As I have elaborated elsewhere, I am not inclined the deploy a ‘betrayal narrative’, especially since such a narrative is a Western European product with heavy debts to the biblical story of ‘The Fall’. Instead, I seek to understand this relationship to the Marxist tradition.

An important factor in this shift to an autochthonous Korean socialism is the anti-colonial project. The connection between socialism and anti-colonialism was initially made – theoretically – in the Soviet Union. In the immensely creative 1930s, they began to realise that the internal affirmative action policy in relation to minority nationalities (sometimes erroneously called ‘ethnic groups’) had implications for anti-colonialism. If the internal policy was to foster such nationalities at all levels so that they gained autonomy within the Soviet Union, then the same applied to other places in the world seeking to throw off the colonial yoke.

The intrinsic connection between Marxism and resisting capitalist imperialism appeared again and again in Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere. Practically, this meant substantial support – albeit not without occasional friction – from the Soviet Union. Politically, it meant that some newly independent countries established themselves on a socialist basis. We see this situation clearly in China, where even today the anti-colonial project unfolds with extraordinary consequences. Think of the Belt and Road Initiative, the heavy investment of China in African infrastructure and economic development, as well as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank.

In Korea, the anti-colonial struggle was initially directed at Japan, which had unilaterally annexed the peninsula in 1910. Brutal was the regime and intense was the struggle. The effort to develop a united front against Japanese imperialism meant that ‘patriotism’ was often the key determining factor. For example, in Kim Il Sung’s writings, we encounter all manner of groups and individuals who were not necessarily communists. Some were of a religious background, others were not, but as long as they worked to overthrow Japanese domination, they were seen as part of the same project.

Soon after the defeat of Japan, with the crucial role of the Soviet Red Army after it had defeated Hitler, a new imperialist force appeared on the peninsula. Keen to get a foothold on the Asian landmass, United States troops scurried to occupy part of the peninsula. Ignoring Korean requests to determine their own future, the United States Commander installed the well-known anti-communist hitman, Syngman Rhee, as the ruler of the south. A state was quickly declared in the south (with the north reluctantly following with it sown declaration), tens of thousands of people were slaughtered in crackdowns on uprisings, and United States troops remain on the peninsula.

For the DPRK, the Korean War – or what they call the Fatherland Liberation War – was an effort by the United States to impose its imperialism on the whole peninsula. Resisting this effort was an extraordinary achievement at an extraordinary cost. Twenty percent of the population was slaughtered, every building and piece of infrastructure destroyed, with more napalm and biological weapons used on the north than in Vietnam. Everything one sees in the DPRK today had to be built again or, very often, anew. Pyongyang is perhaps the best example of a completely new city. One or two former buildings (such as Chilgol Church) might have been rebuilt, but the city as a whole has been built from scratch.

As they like to say in the DPRK, Kim Il Sung managed to defeat two imperialisms in his lifetime. Not a bad effort at all.

All of this means that independence from foreign forces is close to hearts of those in the DPRK, as well as a good number of those in the south. Sovereignty here has a distinct sense: no interference from outside forces. This understanding of sovereignty the DPRK shares with China and other formerly colonised countries. It also shapes the policy of reunification, which the north has consistently promulgated. The three principles for reunification are that it should be determined by Koreans and not outside powers, that it should be peaceful, and that it should result in a federated Republic of Koryo, with a socialist north and a capitalist south.

While these developments constitute a worthy topic in their own right, I am also interested in the implications for the autochthonous socialism that I discussed above. Given the strength of the desire for the sovereign independence of the whole peninsula, it should be no surprise that this desire also influences the relationship with the Marxist tradition. Marxism is, of course, originally a foreign and indeed Western European body of theory and practice. But it took root in what at first seemed to be unexpected places, such as Russia, China and Korea. However, instead of acknowledging this tradition and the specific form it has developed in Korea – socialism with Korean characteristics – the preference is to efface the tradition itself. If they did acknowledge it and see themselves as part of it, they would in some way undermine the sheer emphasis on independent sovereignty.

Lest I steer too much in this direction, let me add a caveat: I have found Korean students very knowledgeable about Marx, Engels, Lenin and others, so much so that I have been asked what Marx and Engels would think if they visited the DPRK today. At the same time, this remains at the level of education and discussion, not officially stated positions.

Inheritance and Leadership

Let me now shift my underlying framework of old and new to a slightly different register: the type of socialism found in the DPRK is the most qualitatively different I have found anywhere in the world. One can, of course, identify specific features that one recognises from the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China. But the way the pieces come together and how they have developed is quite distinct.

What holds them together? It is a feature that many foreigners find most difficult to understand: the leadership. President Kim Il Sung, General Kim Jong Il and Marshal Kim Jong Un provide the inescapable cohesion of the whole project. As one person put it me when were discussing the recent developments towards reunification: ‘as long as we have our marshal, everything will be fine’. The vast majority genuinely hold to this position. The respect and veneration given takes place every day. For example, at the Palace of the Sun (mausoleum), one shows absolute respect, bowing low at three points of each leader’s preserved body (not the head). Or whenever one comes before a statue, one bows low in respect. Images of the leaders are not to be reproduced for commercial purposes, and one always uses their titles when speaking of them.

The question is how this might be understood from a Marxist approach. Those foreign Marxists who are sympathetic to and even supportive of the DPRK project usually bracket out the leadership. Apart from the inherited leadership, they say, they can support what the DPRK is doing. Obviously, this approach will not work, for the leadership is absolutely central for understanding the DPRK.

Alternatively, one can draw on various non-Marxist examples to gain some perspective. It may be the reverence given to the Thai king, with prison sentences for any act that shows disrespect. Or it may be the development of absolute monarchy in Europe, during its transition from feudalism to capitalism. Or it may be due to the old Korean imperial tradition, with its dynasties and indeed representations of large rulers. These suggestions may help a little, but they do not get us very far.

Other approaches draw nearer to Marxism, at times arising from within as internal criticisms. These include the ‘cult of the personality’, especially surrounding the one who leads the party to power through a revolution, or the well-worn trope of a quasi-religion, with the rituals and reverence for the alternative communist tradition and its practices likened to religion. I have written enough about such dubious suggestions elsewhere, so will not repeat those points here, save to indicate that they are decidedly unhelpful in the DPRK.

I would like to suggest another approach, which arises from the complex laws of inheritance in the DPRK. In the statement on family law (published most recently in 2018), we find a very strong emphasis on family continuity. Someone in the family must inherit the property of the one who dies, even when no spouse, children, grandchildren, parents, brothers or sisters can be found. Even a will written by the testator can be declared invalid if it ‘prejudices the interests of one who has been supported by the testator’. In other words, anyone in the family who has even remotely been supported by the testator can apply to have a will overturned. On the other hand, an inheritor can lose the right to inheritance if they ill-treated the deceased, did not take of the deceased properly or even ‘created conditions for inheritance’. Both conditions are sweeping and reciprocal.

Two questions arise from this feature of family law. First, the document is clear that it refers primarily to property, but one may wander what private property is doing in a socialist country. Here the constitution (revised in 2016) can provide some insight. Articles 21 to 24 stipulate three types of property: state owned, cooperatively owned, and private property. The first two are familiar from other socialist systems and ideally work together. Private property, however, also clearly exists. It is ‘property owned and consumed by individual citizens’. It may arise from socialist distribution according to work (as developed by Stalin in the Soviet Union), from ‘sideline activities’ and ‘other legal economic activities’ – rather broad, to say the least. Crucially the state guarantees this private property and the right to inherit it. Is this an innovation in light of the thriving DPRK economy, which deftly manages to negate economic sanctions (as was abundantly clear on our recent visit)? Not at all, already in the Soviet Union it became clear that only under socialism can everyone enjoy full access to their private property.

The second question concerns what may be inherited beyond property, or indeed whether property includes items that are not material. Some may want to refer to the ‘songbun’ system, in which all families are classified – in many subcategories – as ‘core’, ‘wavering’ or ‘hostile’, depending on family history and loyalty. The catch with this analysis is that it has never been outlined by the DPRK, but rather by CIA operatives, lousy ‘evidence’ from defectors and creative interpretations of Kim Il Sung’s texts. So I prefer not to deploy it here. Instead, what is important is family history and tradition, with a distinct focus on those from anti-imperialist fighters, peasants and workers. The nature of a family continues through the generations, being embodied in each generation. This too, I suggest, counts as inheritance.

By now the implications for understanding the central role of the leadership should be clear. Marshal Kim Jong Un inherits the family tradition of being a revolutionary leader. Let me add one further ingredient: it has become clear by now that the revolutionary leader is crucial not merely for the success of the revolution, but even more so for the construction of socialism. This complex process of veneration first developed with Lenin, but has been repeated in each effort to construct socialism. Lenin died only a few years after the October Revolution, but he lived on in so many ways. Leaders like Mao Zedong and Kim Il Sung were fortunate enough to live long after the revolution, leaving their imprint on the new societies they led. In many respects, the leader embodied the revolution, so much so that the body itself was preserved and continues to be venerated (I, for one, have paid my respects to Lenin, Mao, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il).

If we connect this history of veneration of the revolutionary leader with the strong emphasis on inheritance in the DPRK, we are led to the following conclusion: Kim Jong Un today inherits the role of revolutionary leader from his father and grandfather. But he is not merely the descendent; he is the revolutionary leader. It is not for nothing that he is represented much like his grandfather at the same age, with similar clothing, bearing, and even hair.

Conclusion: A Qualitatively Different Society

In closing, I would like to return to the underlying tension between old and new. A visit or two to the DPRK can be a disconcerting experience, for it is simply like no other society on earth. Some of the elements I have outlined above, but let me use the example of Pyongyang. It has the advantage of having been thoroughly destroyed during the Korean War. In doing so, the United States did the city an unexpected favour. It could be planned and designed anew. And it has been.

Without going into detail concerning the city lines and unique architecture (a new building boom continues as I write), one way of putting it is that Pyongyang is what many cities in eastern Europe tried to become. Perhaps Minsk, also completely destroyed, comes closest, but Pyongyang is far beyond Minsk. What I mean is that Pyongyang is the world’s first truly socialist city. The very construction of space is different, a socialist space at once monumental and collective. The vast majority of the buildings are for the people – sport institutes, cultural venues, performance venues, reading houses, and so on. And now, with the economy moving along at a good clip the streets are full of people and traffic, although most prefer to use the trams, trolley buses and metro to get about – in the newly designed and manufactured vehicles from the DPRK. Many are the foreigners who find it disconcerting, unable to find a way to be in it. I find it one of the most amazing cities on earth.

But it is utterly and qualitatively different, as is the society of the DPRK. Here we may deploy an element of ‘Western’ Marxism. It has been the wont of some ‘Western’ Marxists to stress the qualitatively different nature of socialism, let alone communism. So different will it be, they suggest, that we can barely imagine what it will be like. This approach has many negative dimensions (idealism, romanticism, perpetual putting off of socialism, myopia regarding actual socialist states), but here it may provide an unwitting insight. If you want a qualitatively different socialist country, then the DPRK is it.

Do I like it? I admire it, I enjoy many elements within it, but I am not sure if I like it. This essay is one effort among a number to understand it and come to terms with this sense. Let me put it this way: I am not an admirer of much of ‘Western’ Marxism, especially its emphasis on the new and the qualitatively different. Too many are the negatives with this approach. Instead, I can say that of the socialist countries (past and present) in which I have lived or which I have visited, I prefer socialism with Chinese characteristics, with its complex dialectical relationship with the past – including a clear sense of the Marxist tradition.

The Socialist Welfare State: A Brief (and Intriguing) History

‘Do you think Europe – especially Scandinavia – is more socialist than China?’

This question used to be more common 7 or 8 years ago. But it came up recently while I was in Yunnan province, in the far southwest of China. It is of course connected with the impression that Scandinavia had a developed welfare system, which some seem to think indicates a socialist influence. And Scandinavians love to cite this one, although by now it is wearing quite thin.

The ‘Scandinavia had’ is quite deliberate in my earlier sentence, but to understand why requires a brief history.

The first country in human history to develop what I have elsewhere called a ‘domestic state’ was the Soviet Union. It happened under Stalin’s watch. In the 1920s, many regulations had been promulgated concerning education, healthcare, pregnancy preparation, maternity leave, childcare, divorce, guardianship and so on (although not unemployment benefits, since there soon was full employment) – the full gamut of matters that had been regarded until then as the domain of the ‘family’, no matter how extended it may have been. But it was only in the 1930s that they could be enacted in a realistic manner. Why? Only with the massive ‘socialist offensive’, with its twin programs of comprehensive industrialisation and agricultural collectivisation, did the Soviet Union have the economic resources to implement them in full. This is not to say that many problems did not happen, for the Soviet Union was making a tumultuous leap to becoming a superpower. As Mao put it later, ‘Progress and at the same time difficulties – this is a contradiction’ (1957). But the contradiction was a feature of a leap into the future.

What did some of the capitalist countries do? They realised that workers were increasingly drawn to the Soviet Union’s model. So the bourgeois governments borrowed some features and sought to institute what became known as the ‘welfare state’. But it was a warped version, predicated on the slogan, ‘from the cradle to the grave’. The state would take care of you, especially if matters beyond your control dealt you a bad hand.

Why warped? The way it was implemented in Europe (and even in the United States for a while with the ‘new deal’) was to neutralise any push by workers and peasants to alter the system itself. A bourgeois state would provide, so why bother with any revolutionary desires. Even more, it became a mechanism for ensuring that everyone in the state’s population remained – or could be retrained – to be productive, and thereby also remain consumers. Crucially, this altered form of the welfare state was restricted to full citizens, producing the framework for the xenophobic charge that ‘immigrants’ want to avail themselves of the benefits of a system to which they were not entitled.

This history has a further twist or two. After the symbolic ‘fall’ of the Berlin Wall in 1989, most countries that had a version of the bourgeois welfare state no longer felt the need to support it. The alternative model of the Soviet Union had imploded, so country after country systematically began to dismantle the ‘welfare state’. So-called ‘cheats’ became the target, such as the demonised ‘single mother’ with multiple offspring who ‘milked’ the system for her benefit. The rhetoric was relentless, ensuring that one plank after another of the bourgeois welfare state was removed. Even Scandinavia began to follow suit, albeit belatedly with the turn of the millennium.

Meanwhile, what was happening in China? Let us deal with the facts rather than mythology. After the communist revolution, a system had developed that may be called ‘Owenite’ (after Robert Owen’s model factories in the UK of the 19th century). Large conglomerates were established, around factories, publication houses, state-owned-enterprises (SOEs) and so on. In these conglomerates, people had everything: accommodation, jobs, dining halls, hospitals, shops, childcare facilities, funeral services … It was dubbed the ‘iron rice bowl’ – a term that originated outside China.

But they were grossly inefficient, sucking up resources, breeding familial corruption and giving little back to the overall system. In the 1980s and into the 1990s, Deng Xiaoping bit the bullet: the conglomerates would have to face the realities not of a ‘planned economy’ but of a ‘socialist market economy’ that has its own distinct Chinese articulation. Many went bankrupt, since they could not manage in the new order. Others thrived, like the Xinhua News Agency. In the process, mistakes were made: workers lost their jobs and were not compensated; farmers lost the healthcare to which they had become accustomed; retirees could no longer rely on the conglomerate to provide for them.

China first had to get its economic act together. As it did so and the resources became available, a whole new system began to be implemented. Farmers who had lost healthcare found a different model in its place. Retirees began to notice that the state was offering a leaner and more efficient system for their security. Workers who had lost their jobs were compensated. In short, a new model of the socialist welfare state was being systematically and carefully rolled out, with an eye on accountability and efficiency. But it goes much further, with a concentrated effort to lift the final 30 million people out of poverty. In short, it is clear that the socialist state has to ensure that it has the resources before implementing such policies.

The upshot: in the current situation we find ourselves at an important crossroads. As the neo-classical model of a capitalist market economy seeks to dismantle ever more vestiges of a bourgeois welfare state that was a response to the appeal of the Soviet Union (of increasingly distant memory), China is gradually and patiently implementing a whole new version of a socialist welfare state.

It should be no surprise that over 87 percent of people in China approve of the direction in which the most powerful socialist country in human history is headed, even while fully aware of the many problems they face.

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.

Enmeshment: An Effort to Understand Chinese Socialism

In the aftermath of a workshop on the Socialist State, I have been thinking about the category of enmeshment in order to understand Chinese socialism. It came up at various points in the workshop.

For example, in a discussion over the issue of public and private ‘ownership’ in economic matters, one of the Chinese participants pointed out that the opposition does not make sense in a Chinese context. Instead, the reality of a ‘socialist market economy’ is one way to think about the situation differently.

What does this mean? To begin with, it indicates that ‘market economy’ does not necessarily mean ‘capitalism’ or indeed a ‘capitalist market economy’. As I have pointed out earlier, most market economies throughout history have not been capitalist. So the possibility arises that a socialist market economy is different from a capitalist market economy – even in the context of a global dominance of a capitalist market economy.

One might point to the fact that most of the franchises for KFC in China are government owned. Or to the fact that many of the leaders of ‘private’ companies are members of the CPC. Or that the fostering of ‘start-ups’ have government backing. Or that the development of the internet in China is inescapably tied to governmental involvement. Or to Deng Xiaoping’s statement that there is no necessary contradiction between socialism and capitalism. Or indeed Mao’s quotation of an old Chinese proverb: ‘Things that oppose each other also complement one another’. The list goes on.

But this is only a beginning. Enmeshment has many other levels, well beyond economic matters. A key feature on a political level is the enmeshment between state and civil society. The problem here is that this is a rather perverse and very European way of putting it. Why? In a European – or, rather, North Atlantic – mode of understanding, the state is alienated from civil society, something ‘out there’ that imposes its will from time to time, intervening in society and the economy. On this understanding, civil society becomes the focus of new ideas and possible opposition to the state.

But what if you have a very different situation in which these features are enmeshed with one another in all manner of complex ways? This means that the very idea of ‘civil society’ is a very bourgeois invention. Indeed, the original German is ‘bourgeois society’ and not ‘civil society’. This would mean that civil society in this sense does not exist in China, which is a good thing.

A further feature of enmeshment is what is called non-antagonistic contradictions. The term originally arose in the Soviet Union, especially in the 1930s with the achievement of socialism, albeit in ways that were not expected. Mao for one found the idea extremely useful in the context of socialism in power (as we see in his crucial essay, ‘On Contradiction’). For example, classes will continue to exist under socialism, but now in a non-antagonistic fashion. In the Soviet Union, this meant workers, farmers and intellectuals. In China, this means workers, farmers and a ‘middle class’, although we need a new term here. Why? These are the vast number of people that have benefitted from the 40-year anti-poverty campaign. Their lives have become secure (anquan) in a way not imagined before. But they realise very well that their situation is due to the long project of the CPC.

The upshot: Deng Xiaoping’s category of the ‘people’s democratic dictatorship’ (one of his four Cardinal Principles) includes this new class. A very new interpretation of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat and peasants’ that includes everyone in what can only be called socialist democracy. Jiang Zemin’s ‘Three Represents’ (2002) is the clarification of this position.

My thoughts are only at their early stage of thinking about enmeshment, but let me add one more point. The appropriation of the idea of ‘the common’ in China now takes a distinct turn. In a North Atlantic situation, ‘the common’ is an effort to rethink communism, even though it comes from a very theological idea in which the world was created by God, with everything in common. In a Chinese situation, the common includes the crucial role of governance. The government is involved in and directs the common, not in the sense of censorship but in the sense that any function of the common is enmeshed with governance.

My perception is that all of this makes sense of the old Confucian category of datong, the Great Peace or Great Harmony, which has been reinterpreted in terms of communism. Datong is not an overcoming of contradictions but rather a form of existence in which contradictions function in a non-antagonistic fashion. Of course, a datong society lies in the distant future, perhaps 500 or 1000 years away. Meanwhile, the aim for 2021 is for a xiaokang shehui, a moderately prosperous, peaceful and secure society.