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

The method is as follows: theoretical reflection on practice. The actual practice of socialism in power is rich in a century’s worth of primary material: from the 1917 October Revolution to ‘Socialism for the 21st Century’. This material arises from specific problems, which have resulted in policies, pronouncements and laws. However, the task of systematic philosophical and historical reflection concerning socialism in power remains to be done.

This is very much an international project, with key Marxist critics in China, Europe, Russia and Australia engaged for the long term.

CORE TOPICS

Part A: Political Realities

1. Socialist State

While there has been considerable practice in relation to such a state, relatively little attention has been paid to philosophical, historical, scientific and literary analysis. Indeed, while it easier to say what this state is not (federation, empire, colonising power, or bourgeois nation-state), the question remains as to what form of the state it might be. Some have suggested they may be characterised as a developmental or contender state, but this neglects the distinctive socialist dimension. The experience and practice of the state in China, the Soviet Union and Latin America provide ample material for constructing a theory of such a state – well beyond the initial formulations of Engels and Lenin. The major features of this analysis may include: whether the state is an instrument used by one or more classes, or whether the state changes its deeper structures in light of capitalism or socialism; the role of class in analysing the state; the agency of a strong state; the relationship between power and apparatus, as well as the specific structures of governance; the role of the communist party in governance; specific policies, such as those relating to nationalities (or ‘preferential policies’, youhui zhengce), anti-colonial struggles, education, and so on.

2. Socialist Democracy

Crucial to a socialist state is socialist democracy, which must be understood in a very different way from other forms of democracy. It stands in contrast to Greek democracy, liberal (bourgeois or – as it sometimes called – ‘deliberative’) democracy, illiberal democracy, or indeed a warmed over bourgeois democracy championed by Social-Democrats and indeed some Marxists. By contrast, socialist democracy includes the majority of the population – workers, peasants and intellectuals. It is a constantly evolving process and may include, but is not restricted to, stages of new democracy, authoritarian communism, democratic dictatorship and democratic centralism. The history of socialism in power provides ample material for analysing these forms of socialist democracy, although the project also seeks to delineate the possibilities of yet other forms.

3. Socialist Civil Society

In a socialist state we examine whether a socialist civil society arises. 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. The constant danger of bourgeois civil society is that it easily becomes a lynch mob. Instead of this type of civil society, socialist civil society operates in a different way. This takes place in terms of a recalibrated dialectic of collective and individual. In alternative terms, this civil society appears in the space between official communist policy and individual expression. Indeed, socialist civil society is based on a redefinition of freedom, which provides a new universal based on the open particularity of the majority. In sum, this freedom is a freedom from bourgeois civil society and freedom for the socialist project.

4. The Communist Party

Integral to the socialist state and indeed socialist democracy is the communist party, which the project examines in light of a thoroughly reshaped dialectic of immanence and transcendence. This dialectic has both ontological and temporal dimensions. Ontologically, it suggests that the focus on immanence in the development of European modernity misses the way transcendence has been reworked in the political sphere. Further, the project draws upon Chinese philosophical reflections on transcendence and immanence, understood in light of Marxist contributions. All of this leads to a reconsideration of the relations between ‘from above’ and ‘from below’ in relation to socialist consciousness and the relations between the party and the people. Temporally, transcendence becomes the goal of communism itself, with the resultant distinction between socialism and communism. Such transcendence in turn has a proleptic effect on the immanence of the presence, being creatively active and yet awaiting fulfilment.

5. Socialist Market Economy

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

Part B: Theoretical Considerations

1. Contradiction

The crucial question here is whether contradictions continue to exist under socialism, and, if so, how. Pre-revolutionary Marxist theory tended to hold that the contradictions of capitalism would be overcome with communism. However, the actual experience of the exercise of power by communist parties indicates otherwise. This situation first became apparent in the Soviet Union, although the preference was to restrict contradictions – such as between the forces and relations of production – to the period of socialism. They would disappear, it was held, in the era of communism (which was now a distinct period). It fell to Mao Zedong to argue that contradictions would indeed by a constituent feature of socialism, if not communism (see ‘On Contradiction’, from 1937, and ‘On Correctly Handling Contradictions Among the People’, from 1957). Contradiction and the dialectic are, of course, constituent features of Marxist analysis and practice, but the step forward was to apply them to the long period of socialist construction. However, this is not merely a historical question, for one may argue (following Ernst Bloch) that contradictions are actually exacerbated under socialism, especially today. So this project seeks to identify the main contradiction today in China, with a view to explicating its features and proposing a possible solution. A major feature of this analysis is to draw upon Chinese philosophical approaches to contradiction, which have remoulded the question in a Chinese situation.

2. Justice

Contradictions in China, especially between socialism and capitalism, have increased in the context of the all-important reform and opening (gaige kaifeng). This period has also raised the urgent philosophical problem of justice (and equality). Debate continues as to whether the reform and opening up has created the conditions under which such considerations are necessary, or whether the problems faced are due to the incomplete nature of the reform process. The problems include, in the context of the unleashing of the forces of production, the gap between rich and poor, access to education and medicine, and environmental factors. In this context, the question of justice is crucial. However, our approach draws not so much on European liberal traditions, but on Marxist thought and China’s specific historical experience – in which justice and equality are major concerns. As a result, such a theory of justice will seek to make a new contribution to China’s current situation and to international Marxist theory.

3. Human Rights

The third area of theoretical deliberation concerns human rights. Key features of this analysis include the following points. First, the origins of the plural ‘rights’ in European thought with Hugo Grotius (sixteenth century), who first proposed plural ‘rights’ in contrast to the medieval singular of ‘Right’. Grotius clearly saw such rights as commodities and private property. Second, the tension between universal and particular, in which one may – with qualifications – agree to a universal category of human rights, but be wary of universalising from a particular situation. Further, the particular historical situations of different countries indicate specific emphases. For example, European and indeed Atlantic history has led to an emphasis on political rights at the expense of economic rights. By contrast, countries with different histories and Marxist influences have found that economic rights are paramount – the right to economic wellbeing. Third, each particular situation offers a different approach to the complex relations between collective and individual. In a European context, the individual tends to be paramount, although the collective is by no means absent even if is mediated through the individual. In other situations, such as China, the relation is different and exceedingly complex. One may initially suggest that the individual (and indeed the issue of privacy) finds expression through the collective, but this is merely the first step in analysis. Once again, a Marxist approach to human rights is crucial.

Part C: Comparison: Socialism with ‘National’ Characteristics

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

 

Conclusion

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

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While doing the final (studio) filming for the MOOC on Chinese Marxism, we got talking about the role of criticism in relation to socialist democracy. The widespread and mistaken international image is that criticism is ruthlessly censored in China.

This is far from the case. In fact, three points are worth noting:

  1. The long socialist tradition of criticism and self-criticism, which the Chinese both inherit and to which they add their own cultural approach. As my Chinese friends tell me, ‘we Chinese are very good at self-criticism’.
  2. The basic difference between constructive and destructive criticism. The Chinese government encourages the former, with constant projects and research focusing on problems and how they might be solved. Take Xinjiang, for instance, where many problems may be found. The efforts to identify the problems and proposed solutions are myriad. But as long as they are constructive. Suggest a destructive solution, such as the secession of Xinjiang as a country, and that will be seen as destructive.
  3. An even more basic distinction is between disdain and friendship. The Chinese are very good at picking up the difference. A foreigner does not have to say anything explicit, but Chinese people will pick up very quickly if aforesaid foreigner looks down on and disrespects China, and they will react accordingly. But if people get the message that you are a friend, the whole situation changes, people open up, and the possibilities for constructive engagement are far, far greater.

With these thoughts in mind, I filmed a segment of the MOOC on the role of criticism in Chinese socialist democracy.

I am developing a sustained research project with some leading Marxist scholars in China – at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Renmin University and Fudan University. It is simply called ‘Socialism in Power’ and reflects a major development of my recent work. We seek to provide the philosophical framework for some underdeveloped categories of Marxist analysis in the crucial period of socialism in power, or what may be called ‘After October’. This is very much an international project, with key Marxist critics in China, Europe, Russia and Australia engaged for the long term.

The project also arises from an initial project called ‘The International Discourse on Chinese Marxism’. The conference in April 2016 gained major news coverage in China in the leading newspapers.

At this early stage of our thought, the project involves the following topics.

1. Contradiction

Chairman Mao’s works, ‘On Contradiction’ (1937) and ‘On Correctly Handling Contradictions Among the People’ (1957) remain very relevant, if not more relevant for today. Contradiction theory is a central feature of Marxism, running through the thought of Marx and Engels, Lenin, Mao and beyond. In particular, Chairman Mao’s contribution was to show how contradictions would continue under socialism. Reinterpreted for today, this has profound implications for understandings the contradictions between socialism and capitalism, as well as with other modes of production. (Note: in March-April of 2017 I will be running a postgraduate seminar at Renmin University on contradiction.)

2. Justice

The period of the reform and opening (gaige kaifeng) in China has has not only intensified the contradictions between socialism and capitalism, but it has also raised the crucial question of justice (and equality) for China today. This should be understood in light of both Marxist thought and China’s specific historical experience – in which justice and equality are major concerns. As a result, such a theory of justice will make a new contribution to China’s current situation and to international Marxist theory.

3. Socialist State

Relatively little systematic work has been undertaken on the theory of the socialist state, which differs significantly from the bourgeois nation-state, or indeed any other form of the state. The experience of the socialist state in China provides ample material for constructing a theory of such a state – well beyond Lenin’s The State and Revolution (1917). The major features of this analysis will include: whether the state is a neutral tool used by one or more classes, or whether the state changes its deeper structures in light of capitalism or socialism; the primacy of class in analysing the state; reinterpreting the category of ‘dictatorship of proletariat and peasants’; nationalities policies (here the question of justice is central); reconsidering the cultural effect of Marxism; the role of a socialist state in anti-colonial struggles; the need to deal with the ever-changing nature of anti-socialist forces; the integral role of the communist party in governing a socialist state; the need for a strong state.

4. Socialist Civil Society

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. The constant danger of bourgeois civil society is that it easily becomes a lynch mob. Instead of this type of civil society, 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.

5. Socialist Democracy

A socialist state develops socialist democracy, which must be understood in a very different way from other forms of democracy. It stands in contrast to Greek democracy, liberal (or bourgeois) or illiberal democracy, or indeed a warmed over bourgeois democracy championed by Social-Democrats and indeed some Marxists. By contrast, socialist democracy includes the majority of the population – workers, peasants and intellectuals. It is a constantly evolving process and may, as Mao Zedong pointed out, include – among others – stages of new democracy, authoritarian communism, democratic dictatorship and democratic centralism.

6. The Party

Integral to socialist democracy is the communist party, which should be understood in light of the dialectic of immanence and transcendence. Against a common Marxist (and indeed liberal) tendency to focus on immanence in the modern era, this project investigates the role of transcendence within the dialectic. At the same time, we also distinguish between ontological and temporal transcendence in seeking to reconfigure the importance of the party.

7. Need for Comparison

It will become necessary to undertake historical comparisons between different types of Marxist socialist theory. While the core principles of Marxism remain the same, their expression, language and practice develop different types of Marxism with national characteristics. Thus, comparison with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe will be helpful, as also comparison with Latin American socialism. This will require specialists in these areas. We envisage that the first step in comparison will be to include specialists in Soviet-Chinese studies, who will form a distinct part of the larger project.

Conclusion

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

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.

The usual material you find trotted out in the corporate media is that China is an authoritarian state that suppresses any form of ‘democracy’. For some reason, they fail to explain what actually happens here, which is the gradual development of socialist democracy. For instance, how are delegates elected for the annual parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), and the advisory body, the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC)? By elections. Yes, they have elections. As a recent report in the People’s Daily points out, this is complex process:

Under China’s current Electoral Law, deputies to people’s congresses at the level of townships and counties, who account for more than 90 percent of lawmakers at all levels nationwide, are elected directly by voters.

They in turn elect deputies to people’s congresses of cities who then elect deputies at the provincial level.

NPC deputies are elected by people’s congresses of provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities.

This process involves no less than 900 million people voting directly to elect more than 2.5 million lawmakers in county or township-level elections.

Quoting the person responsible for the process, Zhang Dejiang, ‘Adhering to the (Chinese Communist) Party’s leadership, we will fully promote democracy, follow procedures in strict accordance with the law, and strengthen guidance and monitoring of the election work, in order to ensure that elections are held honestly and election results meet public expectations’.

 

The indefatigable Dialectical Materialist Collective from Kosovo has just published the first – and bumper – issue of the new journal, Crisis and Critique. As you will see, I follow on the heels of none other than Slavoj Žižek. My contribution concerns ‘Socialist Democracy with Chinese Characteristics‘.