Early Thoughts Towards a Theory of the Socialist State

Is there a theory of the socialist state? We can draw together a theory from a careful study of the experiences and statements of the Soviet Union and China, the two places where a socialist state has begun to emerge. Why? They are the two largest countries where socialism has been and is in power, after a successful revolution. Let me put the proposal in a series of theses, premised on the point that a socialist state is not a federation, not a nation-state, not an empire, not a colonising power, whether externally or internally, but an entirely new state formation.

  1. A socialist state is based on the international category of class, which enables a new approach to the ‘national question’. Only through a resolute focus on class is the recognition of and equality between nationalities fully achieved. To be clear: by ‘national question’ I mean not the ‘nation’ as it is understood now (as an imagined community) but the question of nationalities (minzu), which should not be translated as ‘ethnic minorities’. In each state a number of nationalities exist together. One may approach such a reality either by prioritising ‘cultural-national’ factors (what may be called ‘culturism’) or by focusing resolutely on class. Only with class does one enable the dialectical position in which class unity produces not merely recognition and equality, but a whole new level of diversity. In other words, a socialist state enables a new approach to the dialectic of the universal and particular.
  2. This dialectic is embodied in the dictatorship of the proletariat and peasants. This is a totalising unity based on class that produces new levels of diversity, and it requires a linking of liberation from class oppression with liberation from national oppression. When this link is made, the role of the dictatorship of the proletariat becomes clear: it is the necessary foundation for the equality between and indeed diversity of peoples of different nations, after liberation has been achieved. The dictatorship of the proletariat does so by guaranteeing the rights of national minorities.
  3. A socialist state is the source and embodiment of what may be called affirmative action (polozhitel’naia deiatel’not’). This was first enacted in the Soviet Union on a vast scale and has been followed, with modifications, by all socialist states since – especially China. The program involves a comprehensive effort at social, cultural and economic recreation. Nationalities, no matter how small, are identified, named and established in territories, where local language, culture, education and governance are fostered. Dispersed minorities with no territory are provided with strong legal protections. I use the term ‘recreation’ quite deliberately, for it is very much a creative act entailing the creation of groups, peoples and nations – to the point of creating new nationalities out of groups that had never dreamed of such an existence. The process involves the deliberate intervention by socialists into the process of producing and developing a new society, among which national groups play a central role.
  4. A socialist state undertakes cultural revolution. By this I mean the raising of the many people of the state to a new socialist level. In the Soviet Union ‘cultural revolution’ meant ‘the cultural development of the working class and of the masses of the working peasantry, not only the development of literacy, although literacy is the basis of all culture, but primarily the cultivation of the ability to take part in the administration of the country’. In China, we need to reclaim the meaning of cultural revolution in this sense, and not in terms of the period of the 1960s and 1970s. In other words, cultural revolution means Marxism’s influence on and infiltration into social and cultural assumptions. This is increasingly clear in China, where Marxism is becoming a cultural force, indeed a part of the long history of Chinese culture.
  5. A socialist state is anti-colonial. This crucial insight first appeared in the Soviet Union: the October Revolution and the affirmative action program of the Soviet Union functioned as a microcosm of the global struggle against colonialism. This insight is a logical extension of the argument I noted earlier, in which a focus on class provides a distinct, dialectical, approach to the national question that leads to the world’s first affirmative action program. Once this logic is applied to national minorities, it also may be applied to gender, religion, and then anti-colonial struggles. The logic is clear: socialism has led to a new approach to nationalities, liberating them and fostering them through the affirmative action program; further, socialism is opposed on a global scale to capitalist imperialism; therefore, global socialism engages in and fosters anti-colonial struggles throughout the world. No wonder the Soviet Union actively supported anti-colonial struggles around the world, so much so that what we call post-colonialism, as both an era and a theory, could not have happened without such anti-colonial action. This also applies to China, whose socialist revolution was also an anti-colonial revolution, finally throwing off European semi-colonialism (which dated from the nineteenth century) and Japanese colonialism. China’s involvement today in formerly colonised countries in the world is a continuation of this anti-colonial policy by the most powerful socialist state in history.
  6. A socialist state must deal with counter-revolutionary forces within and especially international efforts to undermine it (the two are often connected). Whenever a socialist revolution happens, we do not find international capitalist countries saying, ‘Wonderful! Go ahead, construct your socialist country. We will leave you in peace; indeed, we are enthusiastic bystanders’. Instead, historical reality reveals consistent efforts to undermine and overthrow socialist states, including the fostering of counter-revolutionary forces within. We need only recall the ‘civil’ wars in Russia and China, the international blockades, sabotage, efforts at destabilisation in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and the international pastime – found even among international Marxists – of ‘China bashing’.
  7. The communist party is integral to a socialist state. This is a relationship of transcendence and immanence: the party arises from and expresses the will of the masses of workers, farmers and intellectuals, while it also directs the masses. From the masses, to the masses – as Mao Zedong stated. If the relationship is broken, the party loses its legitimacy and the project is over. Thus, the party undergoes constant renewal and reform in order to maintain legitimacy. If a communist party accedes to a bourgeois or liberal democratic system, it is soon out of power, for bourgeois democracy is one of the most effective weapons against socialism.
  8. A socialist state develops socialist democracy. Integral to socialist democracy is the communist party in terms of transcendence and immanence in relation to the masses. In contrast to Greek democracy, liberal (or bourgeois) or illiberal democracy, socialist democracy includes the majority of the population – workers, peasants and intellectuals. Socialist democracy is a constantly evolving process and may, as Mao Zedong pointed out, include – among others – stages of new democracy, democratic dictatorship and democratic centralism. The latter is the reality in China today.
  9. In a socialist state we find the growth of socialist civil society. This is in contrast to bourgeois civil society, which entails a basic alienation between private individual and the state, as well as a systemic exclusion of the majority. Instead of this alienation, socialist civil society operates in a new way, in the dialectical space between official discourse and individual expression, in which the individual finds freedom through the collective. Indeed, socialist civil society is based on a redefinition of freedom, which provides a new universal based on the particularity of the majority, in an explicitly open way. This freedom is a freedom from bourgeois civil society and freedom for the socialist project. Eventually, the category of freedom itself will become an everyday habit.

A final question: will the socialist state ‘wither away’, as some elements of the Marxist tradition suggest? Perhaps, but only in a future situation in which the majority of countries are socialist. However, even in this situation is more realistic to see that the socialist state will take on new features so that it becomes a communist state.

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Soviet Affirmative Action: The Harvard Interview Project of 1950-51

I have commented a number of times on one of the deep paradoxes of Stalin’s era in the Soviet Union: he was in many respects the architect of the world’s first and – until now – most ambitious and far-reaching affirmative action program. I have now read carefully Terry Martin’s The Affirmative Action EmpireThis is a 500 page book, peerless in its use of archival material and chock full of insights. It has its shortcomings, especially in the theoretical area, thereby missing some of the complexities and dialectical tensions at work. All the same, he argues persuasively that the Soviet Union was not a nation-state, not a federation, nor indeed an empire (despite the title). Instead, its ‘imagined community’ was the friendship of the peoples, or ‘international nationalism’. (As someone suggested to me recently, China too is a new form of the state, developing further the experience of the Soviet Union.) What Martin does not do is use this to develop a Marxist theory of the state based on actual practice, but then he is not so interested in Marxist theory.

Let me return to the question of affirmative action, for not a few will be a little sceptical: sure, the Soviet government may have made many statements concerning affirmative action, and Stalin may have made many speeches to that effect and even shaped the 1936 constitution, but what about actual experiences? What happened on the ground? An extraordinary amount, as Martin shows. One small example comes from the Harvard Interview Project of 1950-51, which interviewed displaced persons – 250 Ukrainians, Belorussians and Russians – after the Second World War, from Smolensk and Leningrad.

The interviewers did not ask direct questions concerning ethnic conflict. Instead, they asked respondents to list the ‘distinguishing characteristics’ of Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, Georgians, Armenians, Kalmyks and Tatars. To the astonishment of the interviewers, many of the respondents replied that there were no ethnic differences whatsoever. The interviewers pressed their case, but the respondents (as Martin points out) determined that there were two very different issues at stake. First, did the Soviet government treat nationalities differently, even persecuting them as the Nazis did? The responses: ‘Politically and in living standards, no. In national customs, yes’; ‘Yes, the Jews have the first place in the Soviet Union’. Second, the respondents inferred an interest by the interviewers in popular prejudice in the Soviet Union. In response: ‘Yes, of course there are [national differences]. But the nationalities are not enemies because of that’; ‘But that does not mean there are necessarily antagonistic feelings between us’.

Even more, many of the respondents connected the absence of popular prejudice and conflict to state policy. In response to the question concerning ‘distinguishing characteristics’, a dozen respondents asserted that the absence of open national prejudice was due to the very severe punishments for racial-hate speech. The responses are worth noting:

No, that is impossible. Everyone must love everyone in the Soviet Union … It is against the law to have national animosities.

There is no chauvinism. You can get ten years for it.

In the army, a soldier got seven years for calling a Jew ‘Zhid.’

All are alike. You cannot tell somebody that he is a Ukrainian and brag that you are a Russian or you would be arrested.

It is strictly forbidden by law to offend any member of any nationality, regardless of whether he is a Russian, Ukrainian, White Russian, or anything else.

If you cussed out a member of a minority group, there was serious trouble.

If you call a Jew a ‘zhid’, he can go to the police and you will get a prison sentence.

A primary school teacher told a personal story of how she had used a Russian proverb, ‘An untimely guest is worse than a Tatar’, and almost lost her job.

Martin observes, ‘When one considers that the interviewers neither asked about national prejudice nor about state policy, these spontaneous responses are impressive testimony to the success of the Soviet campaigns against great power chauvinism and in favor of internationalism and friendship among the Soviet peoples’ (p. 390).

What about the 1936 ‘Stalin’ constitution’s guarantee of national equality for all peoples? How did respondents see it? They initially opined that it was a complete fraud and not worth the paper on which it was written, but then pointed out, ‘correct’, this guarantee is observed; ‘in this case there is no conflict between the text of the constitution and reality’; ‘all nations have the same rights’. What a contrast with Russia now.

Bear in mind that these positions were also voiced in the context of immediate memories of Nazi racial theory and practice. And that they arose from the same period as the extensive purges of the 1930s – part of my investigation of the practical contributions to a materialist doctrine of evil, if not a thorough revision of Marxist theories of human nature.

Cultural revolution as the pentecost of languages and peoples

We are perhaps most used to the Cultural Revolution in relation to China – the extraordinary decade of revolutionary upheaval that is still to be fully assessed for its drawbacks and benefits. However, the term ‘cultural revolution’ actually goes back to Lenin and Stalin, where it has a distinct meaning. For Stalin, cultural revolution is a Leninist slogan which designates raising the cultural level of workers and peasants:

Therefore, the cultural development of the working class and of the masses of the working peasantry, not only the development of literacy, although literacy is the basis of all culture, but primarily the cultivation of the ability to take part in the administration of the country, is the chief lever for improving the state and every other apparatus. This is the sense and significance of Lenin’s slogan about the cultural revolution (Works, vol. 10, pp. 330-31).

This approach to cultural revolution took on a whole new dimension when it became part of the affirmative action program of the USSR – or what was called the ‘national question’. In this case, cultural revolution meant raising and transformation the cultures of the many minorities in the USSR. Often this involved creating literate cultures where none existed before. Scripts were created, grammars written, people taught for the first time to read and write their own language, literature written, and a new intellectual and political leadership fostered. The affirmative action program also included strict punishments for racist statements and acts for scattered minorities – which included the Jews.

All of this was predicated on the core socialist idea that the party and then the government should foster rather than repress different languages and cultures. Indeed, the ‘national question’ was in many ways structured and determined by the issue of language.

Let me put it in terms of the biblical stories of Babel and Pentecost (Genesis 11 and Acts). For Babel, linguistic unity is desired and multiplicity a seeming curse; for Pentecost unity is the source of unexpected diversity.

Or in a little more detail: in Genesis, we find that initially ‘the whole earth had one language and the same words’ (Gen 11:1). Soon enough, the human effort to build a city with a tower into the heavens makes God realise the immense potential of human power. In response, God confuses human language and scatters people over the face of the earth (confusion and scattering are repeated time and again through the story, as though providing formal confirmation of the content). The account of Pentecost in Acts 2 may seem to provide a long-range resolution of this confusion of tongues. Here, the multiplicity of tongues, ‘as of fire’, appearing on the heads of the apostles, enables a united understanding of the new gospel of Christ. Multiplicity is therefore a way of understanding the same message, which may be spoken in many tongues. However, Acts has a dialectical kick: the unitary drive of the Holy Spirit, like the rush of a mighty wind, produces diversity. The result is ‘differentiated tongues’, ‘other languages’, people from ‘every nation under heaven’ hearing the apostles speak in their ‘native language’ – Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs (the care with the list manifests less comprehensiveness than sheer diversity).

With this outline of the main tensions between Genesis 11 and Acts 2 in mind, it becomes possible to map different language policies and proposals (and indeed discover some surprising alliances). One cluster of such policies may be described as Babelian, or rather pre-Babelian. The desire is for one language, which existed before the divinely instigated confusion of tongues and scattering of peoples. Such a desire is predicated on the assumption that multiple languages are signs of the Fall, with Genesis 11 understood as yet another Fall story, or at least another facet of the story of the Fall that begins in Genesis 3. Far better is a universal language that would overcome the strife and discord of many tongues. Those who have pursued variations on this approach make for some strange occupiers of the same bed: Walter Benjamin’s search for the perfect, Adamic language that does not seek to communicate; the proponents of Esperanto; tsarist policy makers afraid of native languages and their connections with separatism; the Nazi refusal to acknowledge minority languages in Germany and Austria – such as the Sorbians and Slovene Carinthians; and indeed ‘assimilation’ policies around the globe even today, in which immigrants are supposed to meld into the national culture through language.

So what is Stalin’s position? It is clearly a Pentecostal one. The socialist affirmative action program actually produced more languages:

Until now what has happened has been that the socialist revolution has not diminished but rather increased the number of languages; for, by stirring up the lowest sections of humanity and pushing them on to the political arena, it awakens to new life a number of hitherto unknown or little-known nationalities (Works, vol. 10, p. 141).

Indeed, it led to the creation of new ‘regenerated nations’, that is, ‘new, socialist nations, which have arisen on the ruins of the old nations and are led by the internationalist party of the labouring masses’ (Works, vol. 11, p. 369).

This is nothing less than a Pentecost of languages and peoples. Socialists are clearly Pentecostalists, in in favour of multiplicity and diversity.

But how did these languages, cultures and peoples achieve such a regenerated state? Through a cultural revolution:

In view of this, the Party considered it necessary to help the regenerated nations of our country to rise to their feet and attain their full stature, to revive and develop their national cultures, widely to develop schools, theatres and other cultural institutions functioning in the native languages (Works, vol. 11, p. 369).

Or in more detail, for anyone who is serious about cultural revolution:

What is needed is to cover the country with an extensive network of schools functioning in the native languages, and to supply them with staffs of teachers who know the native languages.

What is needed is to nationalise—that is, to staff with members of the given nation—all the administrative apparatus, from Party and trade-union to state and economic.

What is needed is widely to develop the press, the theatre, the cinema and other cultural institutions functioning in the native languages.

Why in the native languages?—it may be asked. Because only in their native, national languages can the vast masses of the people be successful in cultural, political and economic development (Works, vol 11, p. 370).

Cultural revolution is therefore the Pentecost of languages and peoples. The result is that the message may be heard in ‘differentiated tongues’, ‘other languages’, with people from ‘every nation under heaven’ hearing the message in their ‘native language’. As for how many languages Stalin knew, that is still a matter of debate.

Stalin and minorities 01a

Losurdo on Stalin: recreating the state, re-education (Gulags), and affirmative action

I am thoroughly enjoying Domenico Losurdo’s book on Stalin, not least because I am thrilled at being able to read the French text with relative ease. Plenty of food for thought, but three items struck me recently.

First, one of the great achievements of the Bolsheviks was to restore the Russian state, albeit in an entirely new way. For more than forty years, from the late nineteenth century, it had been unravelling. By the time of the Russian Revolution, it was well on the way to becoming a failed state. After the revolution, the ‘civil’ war was the time of the greatest danger, but with the victory of the Red Army against an array of international forces and the White Armies, the state began to be recreated. Losurdo points out that the brilliance and energy – and ‘foi furieuse’ – of the Bolsheviks played a huge role. By the 1930s and under Stalin’s leadership, that task had largely been achieved.

Second, Losurdo shoots down the common comparison between the Gulags, or re-education camps in the USSR, and the Nazi ‘concentration camps’. For the former, the purpose was to create potential ‘citizens’ and comrades’ and everything was geared in that direction. By contrast, the fascist concentration camps were fundamentally racist, setting out to destroy the Untermenschen. In that respect, the Nazi camps are of one with the treatment of African slaves in the USA, of indigenous peoples in Canada, and so on.

Third, Losurdo refers to Terry Martin’s Affirmative Action Empire (2001). Martin argues that the Soviet state was the world’s first state based on affirmative action. It fostered national consciousness among its many ethnic minorities, established institutions, encouraged locals to become involved in education,  government and industry, and mandated that local languages would be official. In some cases, the Soviet government had to create written languages where none existed. Immense resources were invested in the publication of books, journals and magazines in local languages, in film, theatre, art, and music. For Martin, ‘nothing comparable had been seen before’. It became standard socialist policy afterwards.