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)


What do a naked pubescent boy, Trump and Putin have in common?

They all represent types of democracy.

Ancient Greek democracy (where it existed) worked as follows. A pubescent boy would stand naked in the middle of the assembly. If the other men could see evidence of puberty, then the boy was deemed to be a man and admitted to the assembly. Needless to say, such Greek democracy was limited to adult males who were not slaves or foreigners.

Donald Trump is an excellent example of liberal or bourgeois democracy. This type arose in Europe after the French revolution and it typically has a limited number of political parties that are much like one another. Occasional elections are held, while most of the actual governing is done by a parliament, which spends its time pandering to the rich and powerful. It is a system that can produce someone like Donald Trump, who embodies the truth of such a system.

Vladimir Putin represents illiberal democracy. It has many of the trappings of liberal democracy, with some political parties, elections and parliaments. But the system is geared to ensure one party stays in power.

What I tell my students in China (and what I learn from them)

I can say that while teaching in China I am enjoying the process of setting young and active minds on the correct path. To that end, I tell them:

1. The United States is a very strange country, unlike any other. For that reason, they should not generalise from the USA.

2. Europe is a very barbaric place, full of petty tribalisms.

3. Bourgeois (liberal) democracy is a dreadful system, best avoided (actually, they know this already).

4. Australia is neither a Western nor an Eastern country, since it is in the South.

5. Kangaroo meat is very good for you.

Since many of my students will be future government leaders and officials, I hope these items and more will have some effect.

However, I have also learnt a few things from them:

1. Communism is not a rational ideal that you then try to actualise.

2. Communism is not singular but multiple.

3. They work very hard and know much more about the rest of the world than the world knows about China.

4. One’s stomach is the best guide for travelling to different places.

5. Office hours mean I buy them lunch and we talk for more than four hours – about everything.

The failure of bourgeois democracies

Some interesting statistics concerning bourgeois democracies. In a Eurostat study of 2004, people in the EU’s original 15 countries – almost all bourgeois democracies – were asked to evaluate their level of satisfaction with their form of government. Only 54 percent responded with “very satisfied” or “fairly satisfied.” And in the 10 states of the former Eastern Bloc that entered the EU in 2004, only 29% gave the same answer. In a Latinobarometro study (2004), 18,643 citizens of 18 Latin American were polled, as well as 231 political, economic, social and cultural figures (41 former presidents and vice presidents included). A significant 55% said they would “support the replacement of a democratic government with an authoritarian one”; 58 % said that leaders should “go beyond the law” if needed; and 56 percent said economic development was more important than democracy. The widespread discontent is due to the fact that elected governments have spectacularly failed to provide stability, security, social equity, a fair legal system, and basic social services.

Further, since 1999, The Pew Research Center in the USA has been conducting global satisfaction surveys. In 2006, of the fifteen countries surveyed, China was way in front in terms of people being satisfied with their local conditions: 81% percent, up from 72 % in 2005. Only three other countries came close, with over 50% – Egypt at 55%, Jordan at 53% and Spain at 50% (lower now after Spain’s economic pain). The other countries were below 36%. On the scale of “optimism,” China was again in front, with 76%, followed closely by India at 75%. By contrast, people in the USA registered 48% and in Russia a dismal 45%.

From  Suzanne Ogden, “Don’t Judge a Country by its Cover: Governance in China,” 2007.

Sick of bourgeois democracy? Young people are

The farce that is known as an ‘election campaign’ is still upon us here in Australia. Two weeks to go before we are relieved from the inanities and mindless drivel. However, the most interesting item seems to have slipped by the notice of most: 25% of people aged under 24 have simply not bothered to register for voting (since we have compulsory voting, the way to avoid voting is not register). For those 18 and 19 it is higher still: only 3641 of the 624,539 new voters since 2010 are in that age bracket. Add to all this the fact that an increasing number of those who do vote make informal votes, that is, mess up the voting paper by putting extra names on it and ticking those boxes, and so on. At the last election, informal votes were 10%.

What should we make of this? It’s a phenomenon common across bourgeois democracies. Where voting is voluntary, young people are staying away in increasing numbers. Some of the commentariat (at least those who have noticed) make vacuous suggestions, such as political parties not engaging with the issues that affect young people, or that young people are too lazy and can’t get up in time, or that they think only of themselves. But might it be that they are actually sick of bourgeois democracy itself? They can see all too clearly how useless the whole system is at dealing with the real problems that face us.

In that light, I reckon it’s a good idea for those who live in the blessed absence of bourgeois democracy to be present in a country where an election campaign is under way (I’m thinking of my Chinese students, among others). That way they can see how useless bourgeois democracy really is.

Stalin and liberal democracy

While we’re on that theme – liberal democracy – it’s worth remembering that even Stalin toyed with the possibility. In 1946, in the aftermath of the Second World War and with eastern Europe moving rapidly to socialist systems through popular elections, Stalin opined:

Your democracy is special. You have no class of big capitalists. You have nationalised industry in a 100 days, while the English have been struggling to do that for the last 100 years. Don’t copy western democracy. Let them copy you. The democracy that you have established in Poland, in Yugoslavia and partly in Czechoslovakia is a democracy that is drawing you closer to socialism without the necessity of establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat or the Soviet system. Lenin never said that there was no path to socialism other than the dictatorship of the proletariat, he admitted that it was possible to arrive at the path to socialism utilising the foundations of the bourgeois democratic system such as Parliament (Roberts, Stalin’s Wars, pp. 246-7).

Similar statements can be found from the same period. Soon enough, however, Stalin learned again the wisdom of Lenin’s reflections in The State and Revolution: bourgeois democracy has a structural default in favour of capitalism, systematically excluding any viable alternative. That is, one cannot use the system for something it simply cannot handle. For that it needs to be smashed.