Socialism in Power

This project seeks to provide the philosophical and historical framework for understanding the realities of socialism in power. Taking China, Cuba and the former Soviet Union as the principal case studies, it focuses on the crucial questions of the nature of the socialist state, socialist democracy, the role of the communist party and socialist market economy. It also elaborates on the more abstract theoretical issues of contradiction, human rights and justice – issues that have significant practical implications. Since these topics remain relatively unexamined at a philosophical level, the task of this project is to take the first steps in a rigorous theoretical analysis.

The method is as follows: theoretical reflection on practice. The actual practice of socialism in power is rich in a century’s worth of primary material: from the 1917 October Revolution, through ‘Socialism for the 21st Century’ to ‘Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’. Much of this material arises from specific problems, which have resulted in policies and pronouncements, but this material also requires systematic philosophical and historical reflection.

1. Contradiction Analysis

In many ways, contradiction analysis (Mao’s term) shapes the whole project. The question here is how contradictions continue to exist under socialism. Pre-revolutionary Marxist theory at times held that the contradictions of capitalism would be overcome with communism. However, the actual experience of constructing socialism indicates otherwise. This situation became apparent in the Soviet Union, where the category of ‘non-antagonistic contradictions’ was first proposed – such as in relation to classes and the tensions between forces and relations of production during the period of socialism. Mao Zedong developed contradiction analysis much further, reshaping Chinese philosophical understandings in light of a Marxist framework. Stressing the ubiquity of contradictions, their complexity, the need for careful analysis to determine the most important contradiction in any situation, and the significance of non-antagonistic contradictions, this contradiction analysis has become a core feature of the state, economy, politics and cultural consciousness. A further interest is in how a Marxist dialectical approach to contradiction enables a reshaping of mode of production theory, in which the contradictions of former modes of production are both abolished and transformed in a new mode of production.

2. Socialist State

Despite a century of the reality of the socialist state in different parts of the world, relatively little attention has been given to philosophical and historical analysis of the nature of such a state. Indeed, while it easier to say what this state is not (federation, empire, colonising power, or bourgeois nation-state), the question remains as to what form of the state it might be. Analysis will move from the works of Marx and Engels, dealing with they thought would happen after a communist revolution, to the works of Lenin, Stalin, Mao and others in relation to the actual practice of the state and its attendant theory. Central to this analysis is the state-society relation, particularly whether the two parts remain separated or become enmeshed with one another. In this light, analysis many include the following features: the role of class in the state; the move from dictatorship of the proletariat to the people’s democratic dictatorship; the role of the communist party in governance; the agency of a strong state; the relationship between power and apparatus, as well as the specific structures of governance; specific policies, such as those relating to nationalities (or ‘preferential policies’, youhui zhengce), anti-colonial struggles, education, and so on.

3. Socialist Democracy

Crucial to a socialist state is socialist democracy, which should be understood in a very different way from other forms of democracy. It stands in contrast to organic democracy in pre-state forms, ancient Greek democracy, liberal-bourgeois democracy, or illiberal democracy. By contrast, socialist democracy includes the majority of the population – workers, peasants, intellectuals and even a socialist ‘middle class’ (although a new term is really needed). It is a constantly evolving process and may include, but is not restricted to, stages of new democracy, democratic dictatorship, democratic centralism and consultative multi-party democracy. The history of socialism in power provides ample material for analysing these forms of socialist democracy, although the project also seeks to delineate the possibilities of yet other forms.

4. The Communist Party

Integral to the socialist state and indeed socialist democracy is the communist party, which historically has been in power in all socialist states for the purpose of constructing socialism. In some cases, the communist party has been the only political party, while in other cases (as in China), it is one of a number of parties. In the latter case, we may speak of a consultative multi-party system, which is quite distinct from liberal-bourgeois systems. While distinct philosophical traditions – for example, in Western Europe, Russia and China – influence the shape of thought concerning political parties, a number of core issues require examination: the relations between party and people; the role of socialist consciousness and Marxist theory; the relations between the communist party and parliaments (such as the National People’s Congress); the constant need for reform in light of the long period of communist party leadership and the consequent need to maintain legitimacy; discipline and unity; intra-party democracy.

5. Socialist Market Economy

Instead of the assumption that a ‘market economy’ is inherently capitalist and thereby universal, this topic begins by examining the different forms of market economies. While its focus is a socialist market economy, it situates such an economy within the history of markets. This historical examination reveals that market economies throughout history have been of different types, often generated by states to solve specific logistical problems. In these cases, profit is at best a secondary phenomenon. Analysis of a socialist market economy itself focuses on the following areas: the differences with the ‘market socialism’ of Yugoslavia; the nature of a preliminary socialist market economy in the Soviet Union; the realities of working alongside capitalist market economies; developing the category of ‘enmeshment’ as a way to overcome the old bifurcation of ‘public’ and ‘private’ ownership and as a way to understand the detailed structures of a socialist market economy in China.

6. Core Socialist Values and Human Rights

Can one speak of socialist values? If so, what are they? We may speak of public, party and individual virtues, which entail an honest life devoted to the cause of the people. Or we may speak of the ‘Ruijin ethos’ (arising from the first Fujian-Jiangxi soviet in the early 1930s) with its focus on providing food, housing and clothing for people, before mentioning politics, let alone the party. Above, these matters relate to the pressing international question of human rights, especially the relative lack of international awareness of a (Chinese) Marxist approach to human rights. Key features of this analysis include the following points.

First, the need for rooted universals, which are always conscious of the specific contexts in which they arise (and thus their limitations and possibilities). This is in contrast to false universals, which efface their contexts and assert their applicability to all. In terms of human rights, we find that different traditions may indeed make a contribution. For example, the Euro-American context has led to an emphasis on political and civic rights at the expense of economic rights. By contrast, countries with different histories and Marxist influences have found that economic rights are paramount – the right to economic wellbeing.

Second, for former colonised countries, sovereignty is the foundation of human rights. By sovereignty is meant control over one’s own path and being free from foreign interference. Yet, sovereignty is not determinative, for it provides the basis for the development of human rights.

Third, each particular situation offers a different approach to the complex relations between collective and individual. In a European context, the individual tends to be paramount, although the collective is by no means absent even if is mediated through the individual. In other situations, such as China, the relation is different and exceedingly complex. One may initially suggest that the individual (and indeed the issue of privacy) finds expression through the collective, but this is merely the first step in analysis.

Fourth, in our time human rights are inextricably connected with the question of justice. This topic includes but is not limited to the gap between rich and poor (in the context of unleashing the forces of production), access to education and medicine, and environmental factors. However, the approach draws not so much on European liberal traditions, but on Marxist thought and China’s specific historical experience – in which justice and equality are major concerns. As a result, such a theory of justice will seek to make a new contribution to China’s current situation and to international Marxist theory.

7. Socialism with ‘National’ Characteristics

In order to make best use of the rich history of socialism in power, the project includes an important comparative dimension. This we call an examination of socialism with ‘national’ characteristics, which draws its inspiration from the Chinese characteristics of Marxism. Such comparison draws upon the theories and practices of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia. Obviously, it will require collaboration with specialists in these areas. This area of research raises two types of distinctions. The first concerns the differences between socialism seeking power, socialism in power, and socialism after power. Thus, some forms of socialism fall into only one category, such as in Western Europe and North America. Others have experienced socialism both seeking and in power, especially in Asia. And some have experienced all three, as we find in Eastern Europe. These differences will be able to produce distinct insights into the particular varieties of socialism. The second distinction concerns unity and diversity. Marxism may have core theoretical principles and topics, but the actual experiences of socialism in power have produced new developments.


To sum up, the concern of this long project is with the theoretical implications of socialism in power. This means the complexities, developments and changing conditions of socialism after it has achieved power in a revolution. As both Lenin and Chairman Mao pointed out repeatedly, it is one thing to win power through a revolution; it is a much more difficult and complex task to construct socialism in a global context. Today, we have a century full of rich examples of this process, so it is the task of philosophers, historians, political theorists and social scientists to develop theories by examining the realities and facts and perhaps point the way forward for Marxist theory in the context of socialism in power.