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.


What did Lenin learn from Stalin?

The standard line on Stalin’s relationship to Lenin is that the man of steel borrowed and then developed or twisted (depending on your perspective) some of Lenin’s key concepts, which the latter had developed from Marx. A close reading of Stalin suggests otherwise. I have yet to determine whether Stalin’s advocacy of the dictatorship of the proletariat predates and thereby influenced Lenin. It is certainly a consistent theme in Stalin’s writings (in Georgian) from the early years of the first decade of the 1900s, and it seems more developed than Lenin’s effort from 1905, ‘The Revolutionary-Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Peasantry’.

But on the question of fostering a military wing, armed and trained, of the Party, Stalin is clearly earlier. Lenin seriously writes about arms after the Potemkim revolt of June 1905, the event obviously pressing upon him and other party comrades of the importance of red brigades. However, before that time, Stalin was already writing consistently and systematically of the need for arms, training, and red detachments. By the time Lenin comes around to think about such matters, Stalin and the Georgian wing of the party already had a clear program.

Lenin: The State and Revolution

A slightly more substantial piece, drawn from an article I have just completed called ‘Lenin, Class and Religion’:

Perhaps it is time Lenin’s The State and Revolution (1917) was back on the must-read list. Why? It reads as though it was written for our situation, especially with the economic crisis and depression that has laid low Western capitalism since 2008, with massive protests in Greece, with the ‘Occupy’ movement in the USA, and with the persistence of the anti-capitalist movement around the world, to name but a few.

The State and Revolution was written when Lenin was in hiding from the police, in a leaking straw hut in the Finnish countryside after the premature July revolt in 1917. Drawing upon notes he had gathered, Lenin characteristically found himself with some time to reconsider matters from the ground up. His work, as he famously writes, was ‘“interrupted” by a political crisis – the eve of the October revolution of 1917’. Although he was unable to write the crucial last part called ‘The Experience of the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917’, he points out: ‘It is more pleasant and useful to go through the “experience of revolution” than to write about it’ (Lenin 1917: 492).

In his characteristic fashion, Lenin asserts that he is undertaking a return to Marx and Engels in light of recent misinterpretations, yet as he critiques these positions he develops an argument that builds upon but also goes beyond the initial foundation. In the initial chapters of The State and Revolution we may identify the following crucial steps in his argument: 1) the state is the result of irreconcilable class antagonism; 2) it becomes a weapon in the hands of one class to oppress another; 3) since it is not neutral, the oppressed class cannot simply take over the existing apparatus but must smash it; 4) since the existing state functions as the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, the way it is to be overcome is through the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Class Conflict and the State

Lenin begins by reiterating the central Marxist argument that the state is the product of class antagonism and not, as is so often assumed, an imposition upon people from outside. Although this assumption may seem natural in light of the alienation of the state from everyday life – embodied in statements such as ‘the state will do it’ or ‘the state must intervene’ or ‘the nanny state’ – it is not the way the state emerges. Instead, the ‘state is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms’. The state is therefore not a reconciliation of such antagonism, a means of mediating and ameliorating conflict within acceptable limits. It is a signal that ‘antagonism objectively cannot be reconciled’ (Lenin 1917: 387). The converse is also true, for the very fact that a state exists indicates that class conflict is irreconcilable.

This is standard Marxist theory of the state, which Lenin draws immediately from Marx and Engels. Now he takes a crucial further step, although he does by criticising a misappropriation of this Marxist theory. Granting the point, theorists who followed Marx and Engels then argued that the state must involve a reconciliation of class conflict. We may fill in Lenin’s point here a little: since the state sets boundaries for the range of acceptable political positions by excluding ‘extremes’, it may appear that the state does indeed reconcile antagonism. The range of these positions, from a mild ‘left’ to a mild ‘right’, with each seeking to win the ‘middle ground’, gives the impression that they embody all conceivable and viable political options. One need only witness the process of parliamentary bourgeois ‘democracy’ for evidence of precisely such a phenomenon. Yet the implicit assumption of all those who play the game is that the system itself is not to be questioned, that capitalist economic structures and bourgeois culture must be sustained. Anyone or any group that questions the underlying structure is thereby marginalised from political participation. In this light, we may speak of the bourgeois parliamentary democracy as the manifestation of a one-party state, with all of the ‘parties’ merely factions within that one party, having slightly different policies that would make the system function more smoothly.

An Organ of Class Rule

To return to Lenin’s text: how does this situation emerge? Now Lenin introduces a crucial development beyond Marx and Engels. Given that the state is the outcome of irresolvable class antagonism, the next step is that the state becomes ‘an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another’ (Lenin 1917: 387). And that class is the bourgeoisie, the class that turns the state into an organ for its own purposes. The touchstone for this argument is the Marxist inversion of Hegel concerning the state. In Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law (1843) he argues that Hegel’s approach to the state is inverted. Hegel begins with categories such as the state, sovereignty and law and then attempts to fit the lives of flesh-and-blood people within these abstract categories. Instead, argues Marx, we must stand Hegel on his feet and begin with the everyday lives of human beings. In this light, the Hegelian categories become abstractions, alienated from human life and appearing to be entities greater than and determinative of our daily lives. So also with the state.

Lenin draws upon this argument via Engels’s (1884) point that the state is ‘a power which arose from society but places itself above and alienates itself more and more from it’ (Lenin 1917: 389). The trap now is that the state may appear neutral, an apparatus that is above class struggles. So its various mechanisms for imposing order also appear neutral, such as a standing army, police, prisons and so on (what Althusser would later call ‘repressive state apparatuses’ (1971: 121-73)). Yet both the state and its various mechanisms are very much a part of those struggles since they are crucial to the class rule by the bourgeoisie. That class imposes its own order on society, asserts the universality of its own values, cements a specific economic system in place, and sets limits for what positions are acceptable within political debate. Above all, it does so by curtailing the opportunities of its enemies, depriving them of the means and methods of struggle to overthrow the system itself, including the possibility of self-armament. Lenin’s analysis reads very much as though it were for today’s situation. Witness the way police are called upon to contain protests, whether the waves of anti-capitalist protests across the world or the Occupy movement in North America. Witness the way protesters are put under surveillance and dragged through interminable court proceedings, all for the sake of maintaining ‘order’. And his observations concerning the ‘domination of the trusts, the omnipotence of the big banks, a grand scale colonial policy’ (Lenin 1917: 391) are as relevant today as when they were written almost a century ago. The use of the state and its mechanisms may give the impression of maintaining order and reconciling class conflict, but that conceals the systemic violence of oppressing the class that seeks to dispense with the very system the bourgeoisie has put in place.

This situation has, argues Lenin, generated both a profound dilemma and clear demarcation among those who claim to be socialists. His immediate example was fresh in everyone’s experience when he wrote: the February Revolution of 1917, when the corrupt and decaying regime of the tsar finally collapsed. The outcome was the Provisional Assembly, itself an evolution from the limited Duma first granted by the tsar after the 1905 revolution. But that Provisional Assembly was a cross-party affair, including the liberal Kadets (Constitution Democrats), Mensheviks, Socialist-Revolutionaries and sundry smaller parties. Lenin castigates the other ‘socialist parties’ for their keen desire to be involved in the Assembly, for they deployed precisely the argument that the state functions as a reconciliation of class conflict. A crucial factor in this process was the Petrograd Soviet, dominated in the early months of 1917 by the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries. After the February Revolution, the Soviet was the real basis of power in Petrograd, and yet the Soviet refused to take that power in its full legal form. Instead, the Soviet sought to hand power to a reluctant bourgeoisie, helping them achieve a fully ‘democratic’ revolution (Cliff 2004: 93; Harding 2009, vol. 2: 144-9). For Lenin in the middle of 1917, this was sheer betrayal, a capitulation to the enemy that ceded to them the ground of conflict itself. The outcome clearly illustrates his point, for the Provisional Assembly, headed by Kerensky, the Socialist-Revolutionary, began to outlaw, arrest, imprison and execute the revolutionary proletariat and foster the capitalists and bourgeoisie. As Lenin writes:

A democratic republic is the best possible shell for capitalism, and, therefore, once capital has gained control of this very best shell … , it established its power so securely, so firmly, that no change of persons, institutions or parties in the bourgeois-democratic republic can shake it (Lenin 1917: 393).

Smashing the Bourgeois State

There is, however, a larger context within which Lenin develops his argument concerning the state as a weapon in the hands of the bourgeoisie, and that concerns the international debates between socialists concerning the state and participation within it. Karl Kautsky voiced most strongly the argument in favour of the ballot box for the advancement of socialism, arguing that with the growing strength of Social-Democracy, especially in Germany, it would be only a matter of time before they won parliamentary elections and would then able to undertake the transformation to socialism. In this light, his criticisms of the Bolsheviks became ever sharper.[1] Kautsky was to state these views succinctly soon after Lenin wrote The State and Revolution, although the former’s position was already clear (Kautsky 1918, 1919; Lenin 1918 ). For Lenin this is a more subtle position, for Kautsky recognises that the state is the product of class antagonism, but he then argues that the working class needs to gain power of this apparatus to forward its own program.

At this point Lenin develops the third step of his argument. In contrast to Kautsky’s argument that the existing form of the state may be taken over by the proletariat, Lenin points out: ‘if the state is the product of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms, if it is a power standing above society and ‘alienating itself more and more from it’, it is clear that the liberation of the oppressed class is impossible not only without a violent revolution, but also without the destruction of the apparatus of state power which was created by the ruling class and which is the embodiment of this ‘alienation’’ (Lenin 1917: 388). That is, the state is not neutral. Since it is the very means of bourgeois oppression of class opponents, one cannot simply take over the state, for its very structures are geared to that oppression. We need not a seizure of existing power, but the destruction of that power and its structural forms.

Dictatorship of the Proletariat

Thus far we have followed Lenin as he develops three key points: the state is the result of irresolvable class conflict; the state becomes a weapon in the hands of one class to oppress another; that state must therefore be destroyed through the proletarian revolution. But now he develops one of his most controversial arguments, sharpening his definitions as he does so: ‘The “special coercive force” for the suppression of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie, of millions of working people by handfuls of the rich, must be replaced by a “special coercive force” for the suppression of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat (the dictatorship of the proletariat)’ (Lenin 1917: 397). The state is now defined as a ‘special organisation of force’, which means that it is ‘an organisation of violence for the suppression of some class’ (Lenin 1917: 402-3). Therefore, the only way to overthrow the one-party state of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie is through the dictatorship of the proletariat. The argument is based on the premises that revolution is not a momentary affair but an ongoing process and that the old form of the state would not disappear overnight. Therefore, the proletariat must undertake a process of dismantling the bourgeois state and destroying its power. Only when that class and its form of the state had disappeared would it be possible to develop a new state and new form of democratic freedom.

This argument generated outrage not only among the liberal bourgeois parties but especially among milder socialists such as Kautsky. How dare one challenge the sacrosanct value of ‘democracy’! Established early, it soon became a standard Western criticism of what was to become the USSR. But Lenin was by no means unfamiliar with such criticisms, for had already castigated the formal (a category first used by Trotsky (1976: 113-14))and thereby limited nature of the much-vaunted bourgeois claims to ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, for they are always tied to the interests of that class and thereby constricted by a whole series of limiting conditions. Freedom of industry? That gives reign to predatory wars. Freedom of labour? It is merely another excuse to rob workers (Lenin 1902: 355). Freedom of the press? It is actually freedom for the rich to own the press and propagate their bourgeois views and befuddle the people (Lenin 1919: 370-1). Parliamentary freedom? That depends entirely on the bureaucrats deciding precisely which ‘freedoms’ might be exercised (Lenin 1906: 422; 1912). The ultimately determining instance is capitalism, which generates certain forms of political representation that further its own aims; that is, ‘democracy’ operates within strict parameters: ‘The facts of democracy must not make us lose sight of a circumstance, often overlooked by bourgeois democrats, that in the capitalist countries representative institutions inevitably give rise to specific forms in which capital exercises its influence on the state power’ (Lenin 1912: 129). Lenin sums up in characteristic fashion, replete with a biblical allusion (Matthew 23:27):

All your talk about freedom and democracy is sheer claptrap, parrot phrases, fashionable twaddle, or hypocrisy. It is just a painted signboard. And you yourselves are whited sepulchres. You are mean-spirited boors, and your education, culture, and enlightenment are only a species of thoroughgoing prostitution (Lenin 1907: 53).

Lenin’s almost utopian answer is his deployment of the Marxist theory of the withering away of the state. In contrast to many socialists at the time who took this to mean that the existing state would eventually wither away when the working class parties gained electoral victories, Lenin argues that such a process may take place only after a violent revolution. In other words, it is not the bourgeois state that will wither away but the proletarian state, after the latter has won power through revolution and then dismantled the ‘state machine created by the bourgeoisie for themselves’ (Lenin 1917: 405). With the abolition of the bourgeoisie, either through members of that class joining the proletariat or through being crushed, the class conflict that produced the state will no longer exist and the reason for the existence of the state in the first place will disappear.


Althusser, Louis. 1971. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Translated by B. Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Cliff, Tony. 2004 [1976]. All Power to the Soviets: Lenin 1914-1917. Chicago: Haymarket.

Engels, Friedrich. 1884 [1990]. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in Light of the Researches by Lewis H. Morgan. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 26. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 128-276.

Harding, Neil. 2009. Lenin’s Political Thought. Chicago: Haymarket.

Kautsky, Karl. 1918 [1964]. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

———. 1919 [2011]. Terrorism and Communism: A Contribution to the Natural History of Revolution. London: Routledge.

Lenin, V.I. 1902 [1961]. What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement. In Collected Works, Vol. 5. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 347-529.

———. 1906 [1962]. Neither Land Nor Freedom. In Collected Works, Vol. 10. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 421-2.

———. 1907 [1963]. In Memory of Count Heyden: What Are Our Non-Party “Democrats” Teaching the People? In Collected Works, Vol. 13. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 50-7.

———. 1912 [1963]. Capitalism and “Parliament”. In Collected Works, Vol. 18. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 129-31.

———. 1912 [1964]. Can the Slogan “Freedom of Association” Serve as a Basis for the Working-Class Movement Today? In Collected Works, Vol. 18. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 242-4.

———. 1917 [1964]. The State and Revolution. In Collected Works, Vol. 25. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 381-492.

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

———. 1919 [1965]. “Democracy” and Dictatorship. In Collected Works, Vol. 28. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 368-72.

Marx, Karl. 1843 [1975]. Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 3. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 3-129.

Trotsky, Leon. 1976. Lenin: Notes for a Biographer. Translated by T. Deutscher. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

[1] Or as Lenin puts it in response to the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries at home: ‘They themselves share, and instill into the minds of the people, the false notion that universal suffrage “in the present-day state” is really capable of revealing the will of the majority of the working people and of securing its realization’ (Lenin 1917: 393-4).

Lenten reflection: What did Jesus really say in the Garden of Gethsemane?

A thought for Lent:

I have recently come across the ipsissima verba of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, as they were passed on to Lenin:

Away, away! Let this cup of revolutionary-democratic dictatorship pass from me! (Collected Works, vol. 8, p. 288).

There you have it: the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is actually a christological doctrine.