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.


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.

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.

The benefits of lifting the presidential (and vice-presidential) term limits in China

Amidst all the uninformed opinions about the constitutional changes at China’s recent two sessions of parliament, this piece by Eric Li is the most balanced I have read (in the Global Times.). The only point with I disagree somewhat concerns the merging party and state. The reason is that Xi Jinping has been promoting China’s unique multi-party system more than ever before. The nine political parties all play a role.

Why Xi’s lifting of term limits is a good thing

SHANGHAI — Western media and the Chinese chattering classes have been in an uproar since China’s National People’s Congress approved constitutional changes that included lifting the two-term presidential limit. China approves “president for life,” proclaimed Western media.

But this misinterprets the nature of the development. And the world appears to be overlooking consequential political reforms taking place in China that will impact our collective future for the better.

The presidential term limit has no bearing on how long a top Chinese leader can stay in power and lifting it by no means allows anyone to rule for life. In fact, the position of real power — the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee — has never had term limits. The most recent draft of China’s constitution, written in 1982, set the presidency as a symbolic head of state, with no actual power. Although the two offices happened to have been occupied by the same person for more than 25 years since Jiang Zemin, the institutional mechanics of the offices are rather separate.

Formally unifying these two positions at the very top will transform the entire Chinese governance structure by institutionally fusing the party and the state. This reform is good for China simply because the party has developed into the most competent national political institution in the world today.

As to the issue of lifetime rule, the party does have institutional mechanisms, both mandatory and customary, that govern officials’ retirement. In fact, the party constitution specifically states that no position has lifetime tenure. This system has been developed over decades and covers the many tiers of the party’s organizational structure, from the Politburo to ministerial and provincial positions. Within this framework, it is possible for Xi to lead the country for longer than his recent predecessors. But not for life.

Age limits have varied over time and differ based on position. The custom for most senior leaders in recent years has been to retire at the age of 68, which is often extended to complete a term. Exceptions have been made for the position of general secretary (one served, successfully, through his late 70’s). But still, it’s always finite.

However, eliminating the presidential term limit is still significant. It is part and parcel of highly consequential and, in my view, constructive political reforms. These reforms were set in motion at the 18th party congress held in 2012 and were a particular focus at the third plenum in 2013. I wrote then that the fusing of party and state would be the most far-reaching political transformation in Chinese governance. The completion of the current constitutional reform is the culmination of that process.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, the leadership of the party has been central to China’s political DNA. However, institutionally the system has gone through significant growing pains. At first, China adopted the Soviet system that separated, at least on the institutional level, the party and government. The top organs — the party central committee, the National People’s Congress and the state council were parallel. But in reality, the party led everything. This produced significant conflicts that some have blamed as partially responsible for the disastrous Cultural Revolution.

When former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping began his reforms over 40 years ago, he pushed a policy of administrative separation between party and government. But that was due to the particular circumstances of post-Cultural Revolution China. At the time, many senior leaders who were purged by Mao Zedong were rehabilitated and returned to their previous positions.

The party was just emerging from a period of upheaval, and those officials all came from the era of the centrally planned economy. China needed market economics. Deng’s policy unleashed younger and more forward-looking governing forces to execute the reform agenda. But more importantly, he also focused great energy on rebuilding the party institution.

In the following decades, the party has developed into one of the most elaborate and effective governing institutions in the world and, I would argue, in history. It is responsible for achieving what’s known as the greatest improvement in standard of living for the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time.

The party has now stepped forward to the front and center of Chinese governance. This constitutional reform further enshrines the party’s political centrality by extending the wording of party leadership from the preamble to the body of the constitution. At the governing level, the reform creates a super agency, the National Supervisory Commission, to combat corruption. It is an extension of the party’s Central Disciplinary and Inspection Commission and will further institutionalize the tremendous anti-corruption drive executed by the party commission over the past five years.

It is in this context that the removal of a presidential term limit is so significant. While the party’s leadership has always been politically paramount, the administrative separation of party and government has produced institutional contradictions and confusion. As China increasingly becomes a major power in the world, the office of the president has assumed greater importance, especially in China’s interactions with the rest of the world.

Bringing the presidency’s institutional mechanics in line with the office of party general secretary, and for them to be occupied by the same person, will create a more efficient and coherent governing structure and more transparency and predictability in China’s dealings with the world. It lifts the veil of pretense that, somehow, the party and state governance are not one, which is untrue and wholly unnecessary and counterproductive at this stage of China’s development. It signals the maturing of the Chinese political system that shows the world clearly how decisions are made and who is in charge.

The current Chinese system is a good combination of principle and flexibility. The principle of no lifetime tenure, combined with collective leadership and retirement rules, prevent unchecked rule for life by the wrong person. But a degree of flexibility in the retirement mechanism allows the right leader to govern longer. Xi will retire someday. But as long as he continues to lead successfully, that day will be a long way off.

I dare say that Xi has done more for China in five years than Bill Clinton, George Bush and Barack Obama combined did for the United States in 25 years. On the watches of those three American leaders, with slow and incompetent reforms and major catastrophes such as the Iraq War and the financial crisis, the U.S. managed to squander what was arguably the greatest advantage any nation ever had in history at the end of the Cold War and is now mired in dysfunction and losing its leadership position in the world. Meanwhile, opinion surveys, such as this one by the Harvard Kennedy School, show Xi consistently receiving the highest domestic approval ratings of any world leader.

It would be a mistake to judge that Xi is putting himself above the party and the nation. On the contrary, a major theme of his governing philosophy has been the centrality of the party as an institution. And in today’s China, both society and the party are much more robust and pluralistic than the time when Deng came to power.

The feedback mechanisms and channels available to China’s leaders to effectively respond to the needs of society are much more abundant today. It was popular discontent with pollution that spurred Xi’s administration into action and achieved, in just three years, the extraordinary improvement in air quality that took London and Los Angeles decades to accomplish — and the latter went through major deindustrialization, while China remains a growing industrial power.

Xi is now beginning his second term. No one knows for sure how long he will serve. But with his impressive life track record, it is understandable that there are genuine sentiments for him to lead China for a long time. Sadly, liberal democracy in its current state seems incapable of producing a leader half as good.

Engels and the state

In my preparation for writing the second chapter of my book on the ‘socialist state’, I am rereading Engels very carefully. In the end, that is my method boiled down to its most basic: the old humanist adage to ‘go back to the texts’.

Given that there is always a tendency to jump to conclusions about someone’s position – especially if that person is Engels – I have been studying his many writings on the state from the 1880s, after Marx’s death. Plenty of themes here, including his efforts to construct full histories based on ‘historical materialism’ (Engels’s term) and the extraordinary work, ‘The Role of Force [Gewalt] in History’, where he offers a German companion to Marx’s ‘Eighteenth Brumaire’.

But for now, a couple of great quotations:

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 (1886, MECW 26: 359).

And in his preface to a revised edition of ‘The Housing Question’, where he analyses the bourgeois dream of ‘owning’ a home:

And with this the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois Utopia, which would give each worker the ownership of his little house and thus chain him in semi-feudal fashion to his particular capitalist … (1887, MECW 26: 433).

Tibet pulling its weight as part of China

In his book on China’s ethnic minorities, Colin Mackerras writes in regard to Tibet: ‘However, what strikes me most forcefully about the period since 1980 or so is not how much the Chinese have harmed Tibetan culture, but how much they have allowed, even encouraged it to revive; not how weak it is, but how strong’. But cultural realities can never be separated from economic questions, especially in light of the Chinese Marxist emphasis on the human right to economic wellbeing.

What do Tibetans themselves have to say about all this. An insight is provided by Tibetan delegates as the two sessions of parliament this year in Beijing. As the Global Times reports:

Kelsang Drolkar, a deputy of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and a village Communist Party chief in Chengguan district of Lhasa, told the Global Times on Monday that she was glad to see Tibet has not become a forgotten area when the country is moving forward to a moderately prosperous society.

National policies, as well as support from other regions across China, have helped the region achieve tremendous changes in the medical, economic and education sectors, and made local people “live a happier and safer life,” she said.

Tibet registered 10 percent GDP growth year-on-year last year, marking the 25th straight year of double-digit growth. Its GDP reached 131.06 billion yuan ($20.5 billion) in 2017.

In 2018, Tibet set a target to achieve GDP growth of about 10 percent, with an 18 percent increase in fixed-asset investment as well as increases of more than 10 percent and 13 percent for urban and rural per capita disposable incomes respectively, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

In 2013, the average yearly income in her village was 10,540 yuan per capita. That number almost doubled last year to 19,550 yuan, Drolkar said.

The Chengguan district has implemented a 15-year compulsory education system from kindergarten to high school. Last year, 93 students from the district were admitted by universities across China, with government covering most of their tuition, Drolkar said.

Bilingual education in schools also contributes to ethnic unity in the region, as learning Putonghua helps Tibetan people understand more about the country and its policies, she said.

Other NPC deputies from Tibet praised past legislative work on national security.

“Laws on national security, counter-espionage, anti-terrorism, activities of overseas NGOs, cybersecurity and national intelligence have provided significant legal support to safeguard national security and the country’s core interests,” Sodar, an NPC deputy and head of Tibet’s higher people’s court, said at a Monday group discussion during the ongoing session of the NPC.

The legislation also provided powerful legal support to combat separatists, terrorists and the Dalai Lama clique, said Sodar.

Tibet had a prospering economy in 2017, with about 44,000 new market entities established in the region, according to local authorities.

The figure brought the total number of registered businesses in the region to 227,000, a year-on-year growth of 19.1 percent, according to Xinhua.

Engels and the Socialist State

As part of my preparation for the second chapter of my book on the socialist state, I am following good Chinese practice: to work carefully through the work of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, before dealing with Chinese developments. Having completed my study of Marx – with some real surprises (summarised earlier) – I am working through all of the relevant material by Engels. Apart from the usual stuff people quote, from Anti-Dühring and Origin of the Family, on the ‘dying away’ or ‘withering away’ of the state (the term was coined by Engels only late in the piece), I have been drawn to his material from the late 1880s on the role of force. He broached this topic in Anti-Dühring, only to feel the need to return to it. The term is crucial for a number of reasons: Gewalt means force, power and violence; it becomes more central as Engels’s approach to the state develops; and it is borrowed (unacknowledged) by Weber in his definition of the modern bourgeois state.

What does Engels have to say about Gewalt. The most insightful work is ‘The Role of Force in History’ (1887), which is a worthy complement to Marx’s ‘Eighteenth Brumaire’. Engels gives the German side of the story, focused on Bismarck, whom he constantly compares to Napoléon III (Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte). Here we find analyses of sovereignty in the modern bourgeois state; how such a state attains a distinctly bourgeois form even when the bourgeoisie does not have direct political power (so the state is not merely a somewhat neutral weapon in the hands of the bourgeoisie); and indeed how military matters are important, drawing from his earlier and insightful military analysis.

But for now I am interested in his observations concerning the developments of bourgeois democracy, with all its constraints and limitations:

If this demanded that the Prussian constitution be treated a bit roughly, that the ideologists in and outside the Chamber be pushed aside according to their deserts, was it not possible to rely on universal suffrage, just as Louis Bonaparte had done? What could be more democratic than to introduce universal suffrage? Had not Louis Napoléon proved that it was absolutely safe – if properly handled? And did not precisely this universal suffrage offer the means to appeal to the broad mass of the people, to flirt a bit with the emerging social movement, should the bourgeoisie prove refractory? (MECW 26, p. 477)