Book Outline: Friedrich Engels and the Basis of Socialist Governance

This work began as a chapter in my book, The Socialist State: Philosophical Foundations, but it eventually became a monograph in its own right. Why? Engels provides some of the key bases for understanding later developments of socialist governance. This is the outline of the book:

Friedrich Engels and the Basis of Socialist Governance

The argument of this book is that Friedrich Engels (more than Marx) provides the philosophical seeds for understanding the later development of socialist governance, if not the socialist state as such. The process of discovering these insights moves from reasonably familiar texts concerning states as they have existed thus far to quite unfamiliar and unstudied texts – especially from Engels’s later writings. The book covers the following topics: the state as a ‘separated public power’; socialist force (Gewalt) and the dictatorship of the proletariat; from abolition to the dying away of the state; the enmeshed apparatus of socialist governance.

The proposed work is significant not only because it will assist in identifying the philosophical origins of the historical reality of socialist governance, but also because such a detailed analysis of all the relevant texts by Engels has not – surprisingly – been undertaken before now. The closest that one finds is Hal Draper’s somewhat biased and incomplete five-volume work, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution (1977-2005). While Draper’s work is the most thorough in relation to textual analysis (as such material was available at the time), it is driven by an agenda that not only dismisses actual historical socialist states, from the Soviet Union to China, but also by a studied avoidance of important features of the texts. It also has a tendency to downplay the contribution of Engels and thus material that actually provides the philosophical basis for such forms of governance.

Other works on Marxist approaches to the state not only focus on Marx and largely ignore Engels, but do so with an agenda that stresses the Paris commune and ignores material on dictatorship of the proletariat and the use of force. Further, many such works assume – based on partial and selective reading – that both Engels and Marx held to the view that immediately after a communist revolution, the state would wither or ‘die away’, with the consequent assumption that the historical development of socialist governance goes against the theoretical view of Marx and especially Engels. This book begins to show that such a view is partial and thus mistaken.

The method deployed is simple but profound: careful and close attention, in original languages and translation, of all the relevant texts. Only by this method is one able to develop a complete analysis.

Chapter Outline


The introduction has two main tasks. The first is to provide an overview of Marx’s reflections on the Paris Commune and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Based on an earlier study (Boer, ‘Marx’s Ambivalence: State, Proletarian Dictatorship and Commune’. International Critical Thought), it presents a tension in Marx’s thought between the two, a tension he began to resolve in terms of a narrative from the dictatorship of the proletariat to the commune. He began to do so, but never resolved it, so the task fell to Engels. The second task of the introduction outlines the argument of the four chapters of the book.

Chapter 1: From ‘Separated Public Power’ to Gewalt

The first chapter deals initially with Engels’s programmatic observations on hitherto existing states, which would set the subsequent agenda not only for Marxist studies of such states, but also the Weberian tradition (Weber’s definition of the state borrows heavily from Engels). Apart from noting the key features of this analysis, which involves the core idea of the state as a ‘separated public power’, the chapter focuses on Engels’s shifts between seeing such states state as semi-autonomous, as instruments of a particular class in power, or as shaped in their very nature by the class in question. Engels moves between these three overlapping approaches, depending on the point he seeks to make, but he tends in more detailed work to opt for the third: that the nature of the state is determined by the class in power. This position emerges particularly in a relatively ignored work, ‘The Role of Force in History’. Here Engels offers an analysis of Bismarck in Germany that is a close companion to Marx’s ‘Eighteenth Brumaire’, with the specific point that the bourgeoisie was able to shape the state in its image indirectly, even when it did not hold the reins of power. Even more important is the emergence of a core category, Gewalt. The word is difficult to translate, so a study of Engels’s texts reveals the senses of force, power and violence. This provides a rather new angle, not only on his proposal that hitherto existing states may be defined as a ‘separated public power [Gewalt]’, but that ‘The Role of Gewalt in History’ is vitally important.

Chapter 2: Socialist Gewalt and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

The key finding of this chapter is Engels’s emphasis on proletarian Gewalt, in both the revolutionary process and in the early stages of the construction of socialism when power is gained through a revolution. The concrete manifestation of this socialist Gewalt is the dictatorship of the proletariat, which Engels (like Marx) defines carefully not as an individual dictatorship (as with Bakunin) or by a small band (Blanquist), but as a collective dictatorship by the majority, the workers. On this basis, Engels’s important contribution was to go beyond Marx in identifying the Paris commune with the proletarian dictatorship. Although suggested in the early 1870s, he does so clearly in the 1890s. The context was a struggle with the moderates of the increasingly large German Social Democratic Party, which tried to dispense with the dictatorship of the proletariat in its program and work within bourgeois democracy. In light of later tendencies in European communism to downplay the proletarian dictatorship and idealise the Paris commune (for example, with ‘Eurocommunism’ and the tendency among some European Marxists), Engels explicit argument that the commune was the exercise of the proletarian dictatorship, even that it did not go far enough in exercising such a dictatorship, is a timely warning. The chapter concludes by analysing Engels’s explicit usage of ‘socialist Gewalt’ itself, both before and after a revolution. Crucially, Engels points out that political power also has economic influence and potency (Potenz).

Chapter 3: From Abolition to the Dying Away of the State

Engels is responsible – in the third edition of Anti-Dühring – for coining the phrase, ‘dying away’ of the state (often translated as ‘withering away’). This chapter analyses how this emphasis arose, an emphasis that is also described as the eventual dissolution or gradual disappearance of the state as a spearated public power. The chapter has three parts. To begin with, it examines how Engels (like Marx) shared the view of ‘primitive anti-statism’: the idea that the state would need to be actively ‘abolished [abschaffen]’ as one of the first acts after a revolutionary seizure of power. The second part analyses the life-and-death struggle with Bakunin and the Anarchists, whose position was clarified only in the 1870s. A key component of their platform was the abolition of the state as the first revolutionary act, which Bakunin attempted in Lyons in 1870. Indeed, the incident at Lyons – in which Bakunin decreed the abolition of the state only to be arrested shortly after and bundled out of town – was a key moment when both Engels and Marx realised that such abolition was futile. Thus, the third part of the chapter examines how the emphasis on the dying away of the state arose, with Engels clearly indicating that it would be one of the final outcomes of socialism in power, after the proletarian dictatorship had transformed economic and social structures. Only then – eventually and gradually – would the state as a separated public power dissolve as a natural process. This may take a long time indeed.

Chapter 4: The Enmeshed Apparatus

The final chapter analyses how Engels envisaged the construction of socialist governance – with the caveat that he had never experienced this process directly and could draw only from the brief experiment of the Paris commune. It begins by studying Engels’s extensive work on ‘pre-state’ formations, where he identifies complex structures of governance, elections, representative bodies, sovereignty and Gewalt. Further, the chapter offers a careful analysis of the important text, ‘The Mark’, which dealt with the German tradition of the Markgenossenschaft. This tradition influences German law today, in which common rights still apply to farmland. For Engels, this practice is a relic of ‘pre-state’ formations, in which land was held in common, although it was modified in light of subsequent developments. The important argument – directed at peasant farmers – is that the communism of the future would entail a dialectical transformation (Aufhebung) of what is sometimes called ‘primitive communism’. But what should this organisation of the future be called? Given Engels’s definition of the state as a ‘separated public power’, he cannot call it a ‘state’. Instead, he uses the terminology of ‘social organisation’ and ‘administrative functions’, which may also be called the ‘enmeshed apparatus’. In other words, many functions of governance would be needed, a situation that can be described as the need for the apparatus of governance without separation from society. Or, as Engels puts, the organs of social organisation and governance ‘stand in the midst of society [steht eben mitten in der Gesellschaft]’. This means that a socialist state would not be alienated from society but thoroughly enmeshed within it, so much so that one cannot speak of ‘state’ and ‘society’ as distinct elements. In this light, the term ‘socialist governance’, or perhaps ‘enmeshed state’, are to be preferred.


The conclusion to the book outlines the way Engels’s contribution provides the philosophical basis for future developments of socialist governance, or what is now called the ‘socialist state’. This process entails drawing out philosophical insights from historical and anthropological studies, which has been the concern of the book as a whole. These insights include: the need for socialist Gewalt (dictatorship of the proletariat, which is one with communist society) in constructing socialist society and economics; the dying away of the state as a long-term and gradual process; the enmeshment of the apparatus of governance within society, so that it is no longer possible to distinguish state from society or indeed from the economy. Implicit in these points is a progression, with a strong socialist Gewalt as the means for transforming economic and social realities, as well as providing the basis for beginning the process of the dying away of the state as a separated public power. This process is gradual and long-term, entailing that as hitherto known forms of the state fade away, new types of governance arise, types that are enmeshed within society rather than separated from it. This may be seen as a socialist Aufhebung of the state. Subsequent historical developments in actual constructions of socialism – from the Soviet Union to China – would be faced with new problems, for which new solutions were and are needed. But Engels’s contribution was to provide some important bases for such developments. Or, as Engels put it in 1890, ‘So-called “socialist society” is not, in my view, to be regarded as something that remains crystallised for all time, but rather being in process of constant change and transformation like all other social conditions’.

Important Texts by Engels

Note: For the sake of rapid identification, English titles are provided here, although the book works with original texts.

1872. ‘The Congress of Sonvillier and the International’. MECW 23: 64-70.

1872. ‘The General Council to All Members of the International Working Men’s Association’. MECW 23: 205-10.

1872. ‘The Congress at The Hague (Letter to Enrico Bignami)’, MECW 23: 271-76.

1872-1873. ‘The Housing Question’. MECW 23: 317-91.

1873. ‘On Authority’. MECW 23: 422-25.

1873. ‘The Bakuninists at Work: An Account of the Spanish Revolt in the Summer of 1873’. MECW 23: 581-94.

1873-1874. ‘Varia on Germany’. MECW 23: 599-610.

1877-1878. Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science. MECW 25: 3-309.

1880. ‘The Socialism of Mr. Bismarck’. MECW 24: 272-80.

1880. ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’. MECW 24: 281-325.

1882. ‘On the Early History of the Germans’. MECW 26: 6-57.

1882. ‘The Frankish Period’. MECW 26: 58-107.

1882. ‘The Mark’. MECW 24: 439-56.

1883. ‘Engels to Philipp Van Patten in New York (Draft). London, 18 April 1883’. MECW 47: 9-11.

1883. ‘On the Death of Karl Marx’. MECW 24: 473-81.

1884. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. In the Light of the Researches by Lewis H. Morgan. MECW 26: 129-276.

1884. ‘The Decline of Feudalism and the Emergence of National States’. MECW 26: 556-65.

1887-88. ‘The Role of Force in History’. MECW 26: 453-510.

1891. ‘Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Civil War in France’. MECW 27: 179-91.

1891. ‘A Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Programme of 1891’. MECW 27: 217-32.

1894. ‘On the Association of the Future’. MECW 26: 553.

1894. ‘The Peasant Question in France and Germany’. MECW 27: 481-502

1895. ‘Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Class Struggles in France’. MECW 27: 506-24.

Works by Marx and Engels:

1872.  ‘Preface to the 1972 German Edition of The Manifesto of the Communist Party’. MECW 23: 174-75.

1872. ‘Fictitious Splits in the International. Private Circular from the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association’. MECW 23: 79-123.

1872. ‘To the Spanish Sections of the International Working Men’s Association’. MECW 23: 211-13.

1872. ‘Resolutions of the General Congress held at the Hague from the 2nd to the 7th September, 1872’. MECW 23: 243-253.

1873. ‘The Alliance of Socialist Democracy and the International Working Men’s Association. Report and Documents Published by Decision of The Hague Congress of the International’. MECW 23: 454-580.


How to Deal with an Old Revolutionary: The Struggle over Engels’s 1895 Introduction to Marx’s ‘The Class Struggles in France’

A few months before Engels died a crucial struggle emerged in the communist movement. It had to do with Engels’s introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850 (Engels 1895 [1990], 1895 [2010]). Marx’s original text had been published as a series of articles in Neue Rheinische Zeitung over 1849-1850. In 1895 it was decided by the editorial board of the German Social-Democratic Party to gather the articles and publish them as a distinct book, so they approached Engels for advice and with a request to write an introduction. After some hesitation, Engels agreed, sending three articles that Marx had written and suggesting a fourth chapter that he had gathered from later material (some written by both Marx and Engels) to be entitled ‘The Abolition of Universal Suffrage in 1850’ (Engels 1895 [2004]-f, 444; 1895 [1973]-e, 410). The title of the whole work, by which it is now known, was also proposed by Engels. Soon afterwards, he also sent them the introduction.

This introduction includes a long assessment of the situation in the 1890s with regard to military action by insurgents, street fighting and barricades. With his long-standing military knowledge, Engels assesses the changing circumstances in terms of tactics, weaponry and perceptions of the public in response to revolutionaries. He also notes the rise of communist parties as electoral forces, urging caution and careful assessment of the new context before engaging in such actions. The risk of failure is even greater and the possibility of moral victory attained in earlier efforts has largely vanished. Yet he firmly holds to the need for revolutionary action in the future, which would have to carefully considered and revised: fewer skirmishes before a major revolution are more likely, but revolution is still required.

Before examining the fate of this introduction, let me set the context. It appeared at a time when the communist movement worldwide had made considerable progress. Political parties had established themselves and gained hundreds of thousands of members, especially in Germany, a situation that produced considerable debate over theory, policies and programs. The catch was that they now were able to operate largely within the structures of the bourgeois state and its form of democracy. Pressure grew to soften communism’s more radical edges, since some felt that these threatened the new-found legitimacy of the parties in question. The push for moderation was enhanced by the famous anti-socialist laws instigated by Bismarck from 1878 to 1890. Even though support for the German Social-Democratic Party grew during this period, questions arose. Should the party continue to advocate ‘illegal’ means, such as revolution and proletarian dictatorship? Or should it be content to work within the existing structures and pursue peaceful transition?

To return to the introduction.[1] Upon receiving the text for publication, the executive of the Social-Democratic party became decidedly anxious. They were torn between immense respect for Engels’s authority and their delicate political position in Germany. Not only were the anti-socialist laws still fresh in everyone’s memory and experience, but the Reichstag was also debating in the early months of 1895 yet another law aimed at preventing a ‘coup-d’état’. Thus, the editors were working at a feverish pace to complete all of the publications in case the law came into effect (Engels 1895 [2004]-a, 453), but they were also keen not to aggravate the situation. So they asked: would Engels please tone down the excessive revolutionary tenor of the piece so as not to incite the authorities? He was sent a copy-edited text in which all references to future revolutionary militancy were altered or excised. At times it was a phrase, at times a sentence and at times a whole paragraph. In his reply to Richard Fischer in March of 1895, Engels was clearly unhappy with the efforts to subscribe to absolute legality under any circumstances. Nothing can be gained, he writes, by ‘advocating complete abstention from force’; no person, no party would forfeit the right to resist ‘by force of arms [Waffen in der Hand]’ (Engels 1895 [2004]-e, 457; 1895 [1973]-d, 424). Yet, he understood the party’s position in Germany and so relented on some editorial changes but resisted five others that would have changed the meaning entirely. A couple of weeks later, he wrote to Kautsky that his text had suffered to some extent from the ‘apprehensive [umsturzvorlagenfurchtsamlichen] objections, inspired by the Subversion Bill, of our friends in Berlin’, but he also acknowledged that in light of circumstances he ‘could not but take account’ of these objections (Engels 1895 [2004]-c, 480; 1895 [1973]-b, 446). From the side of the editors, perhaps Bebel’s letter to Engels a few days later captures the tensions best: ‘We do not ask you to say something that you do not wish to say – or may not say – but we ask you not to say something which, if said at this time, would be embarrassing for us’ (Blumenberg 1965, 795).[2]

The story has further twists. Under Liebknecht’s guidance, the editors disregarded Engels’s reservations and pressed ahead with all of the changes they had made. They published selections from the introduction in the leading article of Vorwärts, number 76, on 30 March, 1895, under the title ‘Wie man heute Revolutionen macht’. The authorship was attributed to Engels. Upon receipt of the issue of Vorwärts, Engels was incensed. The next day he wrote to Kautsky: ‘I was amazed to see today in in the Vorwärts an excerpt from my “Introduction” that had been printed without my prior knowledge and tricked out in such a way as to present me as a peace-loving proponent [friedfertiger Anbete] of legality quand même’. He requested that the complete text should be published in Neue Zeit so that ‘this disgraceful impression [schmähliche Eindruck] may be erased’ (Engels 1895 [2004]-b, 486; 1895 [1973]-a, 452). And he promised to give Liebknecht and others involved a piece of his mind for disfiguring and ‘perverting [zu entstellen]’ his views.

Neither would eventuate. As for the letter to Liebknecht, perhaps it was the advancing throat cancer – from a life of enjoying tobacco and alcohol – that prevented him from castigating those involved. Perhaps the letter has been lost. As for the anticipated rectification in Neue Zeit, the journal published the introduction in the heavily edited form in numbers 27 and 28. And the book, The Class Struggles in France 1849-1850, appeared in the same year with the introduction in the form that the editors deemed fit. Only much later would the full original text be published.

What are we to make of this important moment? While Engels did not use ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in his introduction, Marx had deployed it for the first time in the very same text that was now being published in book form. Clearly, many were uncomfortable with the idea and its militancy. So we may resort to a betrayal narrative, in which the ‘revisionists’ – taking advantage of Engels’s failing health – betrayed the need for revolution for the sake of parliamentary reform.[3] Or we may follow the line of many at the time, who suggested that Engels had realised the need for peaceful parliamentary means within the structures of the bourgeois state (Hunt 2010, 238-39). Or we may invoke a line from Engels a few years earlier: ‘do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat [Das war die Diktatur des Proletariats]’ (Engels 1891 [1990]-b, 191; 1891 [2010]-a, 16). For some, the conflation of the commune and the dictatorship assists in softening the militant and violent import of the dictatorship in favour of comradely cooperation (Johnstone 1971; Balibar 1977, 58; Miliband 1991, 151; Van Ree 2015, 77, 115).

By contrast, I suggest that Engels may be the best guide here, as reflected in his observations to Paul Lafargue a couple of days after he became aware of what had happened. He accuses Liebknecht of playing a ‘fine trick [Streich]’ on him by taking from his introduction ‘everything that could serve his purpose in support of peaceful and anti-violent [Gewaltanwendung verwerfende] tactics at any price’, especially in light of the threat of new laws against the socialists. At this point, we can easily suggest that Engels had been betrayed, but then he writes: ‘I preach those tactics only for the Germany of today and even then with many reservations [mit erheblichen Vorbehalten]’. Despite his best instincts, Engels realises the need for such an approach in a particular situation. In certain circumstances, it is necessary to adapt for a time in order to advance the cause. Some may call this ‘opportunism’, but if so, it is a productive opportunism, a needed zigzag so that the project may continue. Liebknecht, Engels feels, lack this sense, seeing only black and white: ‘Shades don’t exit for him’ (Engels 1895 [2004]-d, 489-90; 1895 [1973]-c, 458). In other words, communism requires not one or the other, not revolution or reform, but appropriate tactics for specific circumstances. Engels’s legacy would come to fruition with subsequent communist leaders, especially those who actually experienced socialism in power such as Lenin, Mao, Deng and indeed Xi Jinping.


Balibar, Etienne. 1977. On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. London: NLB.

Bernstein, Eduard. 1899. Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie. Stuttgart: Dietz Nachfolger.

———. 1993. The Preconditions of Socialism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blumenberg, Werner. 1965. August Bebels Briefwechsel mit Friedrich Engels. The Hague: Mouton.

Engels, Friedrich. 1895 [1973]-a. ‘Engels an Karl Kautsky in Stuttgart, London, 1.April 1895’. In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 39, 452. Berlin: Dietz.

———. 1895 [1973]-b. ‘Engels an Karl Kautsky in Stuttgart, London, 25.März 1895’. In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 39, 446-48. Berlin: Dietz.

———. 1895 [1973]-c. ‘Engels an Paul Lafargue in Le Perreux, London, 3April 1895’. In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 39, 454-58. Berlin: Dietz.

———. 1895 [1973]-d. ‘Engels an Richard Fischer in Berlin, London, 8.März 1895’. In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 39, 424-26. Berlin: Dietz.

———. 1895 [1973]-e. ‘Engels an Richard Fischer in Berlin, London, 13.Febr. 1895’. In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 39, 410. Berlin: Dietz.

———. 1895 [1990]. ‘Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Class Struggles in France‘. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 27, 506-24. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1895 [2004]-a. ‘Engels to Eduard Vaillant in Paris, London, 5 March 1895’. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 50, 453-55. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1895 [2004]-b. ‘Engels to Karl Kautsky in Stuttgart, London, 1 April 1895’. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 50, 486. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1895 [2004]-c. ‘Engels to Karl Kautsky in Stuttgart, London, 25 March 1895’. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 50, 480-83. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1895 [2004]-d. ‘Engels to Paul Lafargue at Le Perreux, London, 3 April 1895’. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 50, 487-90. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1895 [2004]-e. ‘Engels to Richard Fischer in Berlin, London, 8 March 1895’. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 50, 457-59. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1895 [2004]-f. ‘Engels to Richard Fischer in Berlin, London, 13 February 1895’. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 50, 444-45. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1895 [2010]. ‘Einleitung (1895) zu Karl Marx’s “Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich 1848 bis 1850″‘. In Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe, Vol. I.32, 330-51. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

Hunt, Tristram. 2010. Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels. New York: Picador.

Johnstone, Monty. 1971. ‘The Paris Commune and Marx’s Conception of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’. The Massachusetts Review 12 (3):447-62.

Kautsky, Karl. 1899. Bernstein und das sozialdemokratische Programm: Eine Antikritik. Stuttgart: Dietz.

Lenin, V.I. 1918 [1965]. ‘The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky’. In Collected Works, Vol. 28, 227-325. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Miliband, Ralph. 1991. ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’. In A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, edited by Tom Bottomore, 151-52. Oxford: Blackwell.

Möser, Sandy. 1990. ‘Zur Weiterentwicklung der Revolutionstheorie in Friedrich Engels’ “Einleitung zu Karl Marx’ ‘Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich 1848 bis 1850′” und zur unmittelbaren Wirkung dieser Arbeit’. Beiträge zue Marx-Engels-Forschung 139:139-44.

Tudor, Henry, and J.M. Tudor. 1988. Marxism and Social Democracy: The Revisionist Debate, 1896-1898 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Van Ree, Erik. 2015. Boundaries of Utopia – Imagining Communism from Plato to Stalin. London: Routledge.

[1] For a useful overview of the events, see Möser (1990).

[2] Translation mine.

[3] But who are the revisionists? Is Liebknecht one of them? Engels obviously thought so in 1895, with his efforts to water down the militant emphasis upon which he and Marx had always insisted. Yet Liebknecht would become part of the Spartacus League, being a leader of the Spartacist Uprising on 1919 in which he (and Rosa Luxemburg) were murdered. How about Kautsky? Lenin identified Kautsky as a ‘renegade’ due to his advocacy of the ballot box and decrying of the Russian Revolution (Lenin 1918 [1965]). Was is Bernstein (1993, 1899) with his advocacy of peaceful transition once the bourgeoisie saw the benefits of socialism. Now Kautsky becomes a radical, for he opposed Bernstein as the chief theoretician of the second generation (Kautsky 1899; Tudor and Tudor 1988).

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. Does a form of socialist civil society develop under socialism in power? This question remains unclear. On the one hand, it is clear that ‘civil’ society, which was originally called ‘bourgeois society’ develops only with the bourgeois state – as Marx and Engels indicate. It entails a separation between state and society, with the bourgeoisie arising in the towns and eventually reshaping the whole nature of the state. Historical experience of socialist states indicates that what may very loosely be called a socialist middle class does not appear in this fashion. Instead, it is the result of systemic poverty alleviation, as we see in China today. They are the product of socialism in power and do not arise in opposition to it. It follows that ‘civil’ society as so far understood does not function in this environment. On the other hand, it may be that a socialist form of civil society arises, although we need to be wary of using such a term. Perhaps it is the conrete expression of Lenin’s approach to freedom. 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.

Towards a more dialectical understanding of modes of production

I realise that the question of socialist exploitation may seem like an oxymoron, since socialism is supposed to abolish exploitation of one person or group by another. But I am interested in whether socialist exploitation is possible and perhaps necessary at certain times. The question arises from my examination of Ernst Bloch’s synchronicity of non-synchronicity, which I will not relate now, except to point out that it is exacerbated after a socialist revolution. It may provide the conditions for such a revolution – thereby providing a philosophical understanding of why socialist revolutions happened first in economically ‘backward’ places – but it also explains the profound dislocations of socialism in a context of emergent capitalism. I dealt with this issue at some length in a recent lecture at Fudan University in Shanghai, so the section that follows comes from that lecture.

The question of the synchronicity of non-synchronicity leads to the question of modes of production. I speak here of what is called the ‘narrative’ of modes of production: tribal society and hunter-gatherer existence are replaced by slavery, or perhaps by the ‘Asiatic mode of production’, which are in turn replaced by feudalism, which is replaced by capitalism, which is then overcome by socialism and communism. Each mode of production is both enabled by internal contradictions (which are thereby constitutive contradictions), but those same contradictions lead to its undoing. Thus, a subsequent mode of production overcomes those contradictions only to produce new ones that are simultaneously constitutive and disabling.

By contrast, I would like to pick up some new developments in Marxist theory (first suggested to me by Ken Surin), which challenge this narrative of successive modes of production. Instead of a narrative succession, determined by patterns of contradictions, this new approach – with seeds in Marx’s thought – argue that each new mode of production absorbs all those that have come before (this is really a different and perhaps more sophisticated form of dialectical understanding). Thus, we find that the earlier contradictions are now included within the new mode of production, creating multiple contradictions that remain unresolved. At the same time, the functions of those earlier modes of production are altered, so that they work within the new mode of production. I have found this approach very helpful in a recently completed study of the economies of ancient Southwest Asia, but here I would like to give the example of capitalism.

Capitalism may have its dynamics of financialised markets, with stock exchanges devising ever new ways to generate money from money (Marx’s ultimate formula for capitalism, M-M’). Large financial hubs provide the foci of such activities, such as New York, London, Singapore and Hong Kong. It may also have its bulk commodities production, where labour is cheap and for which shipping provides the means of moving about large amounts of ‘junk’ – as a ship’s engineer once said to me. At the same time, capitalism also includes forms of feudalism, with landlords (or oligarchs as they are called in Russia, or warlords in Africa and the Middle East) and indentured labourers. Further afield we find types of slavery, especially child slavery, in the production of goods for capitalist markets. We do not need to consider the slave states of the southern USA as the only example of such slavery within capitalism. Yet further afield, in areas of South America, the Pacific, Africa or Asia, there exist hunter-gatherer and tribal societies, who produce cultural trinkets for tourists who may happen to visit such areas. And it is also quiet feasible for socialism – in one or more countries – to be part of a global capitalist system. Indeed, it is perhaps necessary for socialist countries in a dominantly capitalist world to engage with capitalist countries in order to survive, if not thrive. The Soviet Union was the first but by no means the last to do so.

But now it becomes interesting, for the question is whether socialism and communism too may operate in this way. The usual understanding of socialism is a system diametrically opposed to capitalism, or indeed to any other mode of production. The ownership of the means of production passes from capitalists to workers and farmers. But is it possible that socialism may absorb all of the previous modes of production at yet a higher level of complexity. This suggestion has both significant potential, yet also profound dangers. Indeed, within socialist theory we find the argument that communism unleashes the forces of production hindered by capitalism. That is, capitalism fetters and binds the real potential of such forces. Yet, if they are unleashed – as happened in the Soviet Union during the 1930s – they must make use of capitalist mechanisms, refining them even further: technological innovation, modes of management and organisation for production, industrialised techniques, forms of agriculture and so on.

But what about other modes of production? Here lie the dangers. At a theoretical level, is it possible for feudal, slave-based, tribal and hunter-gatherer modes of production also to find altered roles in within a socialist framework? For example, in the border areas of Soviet Union, traditional landlord-style social and economic systems still functioned, although the government did its best to replace and modernise them. More significantly, with the massive process of industrialisation and collectivisation in the 1930s, the majority enthusiastically embraced the stunning changes taking place – think of Stakhanovism and the desire emulation the high achievers. However, many were not so enthusiastic, either dragging their feet or actively opposing the process. In this context, the labour camps played a significant role, especially in Siberia. To be sure, they were designed for rehabilitating the people sent to the labour camps, but they also functioned as a reshaped form of labour slavery. And in the areas of northern Russia, above the Arctic Circle, the native peoples still lived in forms of hunter-gatherer and tribal existence. All of this took place during the construction of socialism.

However, the Soviet Union was one state – a large one, it is true, which had the resources for its own internal development. The situation would change once again if socialism were the dominant global form of social and economic life. How would the earlier modes of production be reshaped in such a context? Indeed, how would a minority of capitalist countries relate to the majority of socialist ones? And would a dominant socialist framework alter the patterns of exploitation found within those modes of production, or would new forms of exploitation arise in order to enable socialism? I raise this proposal as a genuine question, although I have not yet thought through how it might work.