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Socialist state

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The term socialist state (or socialist republic) usually refers to any state that is constitutionally dedicated to the construction of a socialist society. It is closely related to the political ideology of state socialism, the view that socialism can be established through the existing state or by government policies. Alternatively, the term Workers' State is used to describe a state where the working class controls the machinery of government but has not yet established a socialist economic system. Both of these concepts are distinguished from a socialist government, which generally refers to a liberal democratic state governed by an elected majority socialist party or social democratic party which need not pursue the development of socialism - in any case, the distinguishing feature between a socialist state and a socialist government is that in the latter the state apparatus is not constitutionally bound to the construction of a socialist system.

A variety of non-state socialist positions, such as social anarchism, libertarian socialism, and council communism reject the concept of a "socialist state" altogether, believing that the modern state is a byproduct of capitalism and cannot be used for the establishment of a socialist system. They reason that a "socialist state" is antithetical to socialism, and that socialism will emerge spontaneously from the grass-roots level in an evolutionary manner, developing its own unique political and economic institutions for a highly organized stateless society.

The phrase Socialist state, or Communist state in the West, is widely used by Leninists and Marxist–Leninists in reference to a state under the control of a vanguard party that is organizing the economic, social, and political affairs of said state toward the construction of socialism. This often includes at least the "commanding heights" of the economy to be nationalised, usually operated according to a plan of production, at least in the major production and social spheres.[1] Under the Leninist definition, the socialist state presides over a state capitalist economy structured upon state-directed accumulation of capital, with the goal of building up the country's productive forces and promoting worldwide socialist revolution, with the eventual long-term goal of building a socialist economy.[2]

Most theories assume widespread democracy, and some assume workers' democratic participation at every level of economic and state administration, while varying in the degree to which economic planning decisions are delegated to public officials and administrative specialists. States where democracy is lacking, yet the economy is largely in the hands of the state, are termed by orthodox Trotskyist theories as "workers' states" but not socialist states,[3] using the terms "degenerated" or "deformed" workers' states.

Marxist concept of a socialist state

Henri de Saint-Simon, a pre-Marxian socialist, understood that the nature of the state would change under socialism from that of political rule (via coercion) over people to a scientific administration of things and a direction of processes of production; specifically, the state would become a coordinating entity for production as opposed to a mechanism for political control.[4][5]

Karl Marx understood the state to be an instrument of the class rule, dominated by the interests of the ruling class in any mode of production. Although Marx never referred to a "socialist state", he argued that the working-class would have to take control of the state apparatus and machinery of government in order to transition out of capitalism and to socialism. This transitional stage would involve working-class interests dominating the government policy (the "Dictatorship of the proletariat"), in the same manner that capitalist-class interests dominate government policy under capitalism. Fredrick Engels argued that the state under socialism is not a "government of people, but the administration of things", and thus would not be a state in the traditional sense of the term.

One of the most influential modern visions of a socialist state was based on the Paris Commune, in which the workers and poor took control of the city of Paris in 1871 in reaction to the Franco-Prussian War. Karl Marx described the Paris Commune as the prototype for a revolutionary government of the future, "the form at last discovered" for the emancipation of the proletariat.[6]

Friedrich Engels noted that "all officials, high or low, were paid only the wages received by other workers... In this way an effective barrier to place-hunting and careerism was set up".[7]

Commenting on the nature of the state, Engels continued: "From the outset the Commune was compelled to recognize that the working class, once come to power, could not manage with the old state machine".

In order not to be overthrown once having conquered power, Engels argues, the working class "must, on the one hand, do away with all the old repressive machinery previously used against it itself, and, on the other, safeguard itself against its own deputies and officials, by declaring them all, without exception, subject to recall at any moment." [8]

Such a state would be a temporary affair, Engels argued. A new generation, he suggested, brought up in "new and free social conditions", will be able to "throw the entire lumber of the state on the scrap-heap."

Leninist conception of a socialist state

The Leninist conception of a socialist state is tied to Vladimir Lenin's theory of the revolutionary party and democratic centralism. The objective of Marxism is to build a mass workers' movement which can smash the capitalist state, replace it with a revolutionary socialist workers' state based on workers councils, and bring production under control by the workers and peasants. According to Lenin's April Theses, the goal of the revolution and vanguard party is not the introduction of socialism, which could only be established on a worldwide scale, but to bring production and the state under the control of the Soviets of Workers' Deputies. Following the October revolution in Russia, the Bolsheviks consolidated their power and sought to control and direct the social and economic affairs of the state and broader Russian society in order to safeguard against counterrevolutionary insurrection, foreign invasion, and to promote socialist consciousness among the Russian population.

These ideas were adopted by Vladimir Lenin in 1917 just prior to the October Revolution in Russia and published in The State and Revolution, a central text for many Marxists. With the failure of the worldwide revolution envisaged by Lenin and Trotsky, the Civil War, and finally Lenin's death, war measures that were deemed to be temporary, such as forced requisition of food and the lack of democratic control, became permanent and a tool to boost Stalin's power[citation needed], leading to the emergence of Marxism–Leninism and Stalinism, as well as the notion that socialism can be created and exist in a single state.

Vladimir Lenin argued that as socialism is replaced by communism, the state would "wither away"[9] as strong centralized control progressively reduces as local communities gain more empowerment. As he put succinctly: "So long as the state exists there is no freedom. When there is freedom, there will be no state."

Marxist–Leninist states

Main article: Communist state
File:Symbolics onthe banknotes of socialist state.jpg
Symbolics on the banknotes of socialist states (V.I.Lenin in the Soviet note and "a worker with a female co-operative farmer" on the Czechoslovak one).

States run by Communist parties that adhere to Marxism–Leninism, or some variation thereof, refer to themselves as socialist states. The Soviet Union was the first to proclaim itself a "socialist state" in its 1936 Constitution and a subsequent 1977 Constitution. Another well-known example is the People's Republic of China, which proclaims itself to be a "socialist state" in its 1982 Constitution of the People's Republic of China. In the West, such states are commonly known as "communist states" (though they do not use this term to refer to themselves).

These "Communist states" often don't claim to have achieved socialism in their countries; rather, they claim to be building and working toward the establishment of socialism (and the development towards communism thereafter) in their countries. For example, the preamble to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam's constitution states that Vietnam only entered a transition stage between capitalism and socialism after the country was re-unified under the Communist party in 1976,[10] and the 1992 Constitution of the Republic of Cuba states that the role of the Communist Party is to "guide the common effort toward the goals and construction of socialism (and the progress toward a communist society)".[11]

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) used to be a Marxist–Leninist state. In 1972, the country adopted a new constitution, which changed the official state ideology to "Juche".[12]

Non-Leninist countries

Countries such as Portugal (which states that one of the primary roles of the Constituent Assembly is to open the way to socialist society),[13] India and Algeria have used the term "socialist" in their official name or constitution without claiming to follow Communism or any of its derivatives.

In such cases, the intended meaning of "socialism" can vary widely, and sometimes the constitutional references to socialism are left over from a previous period in the country's history. In the case of many Middle-Eastern states, "socialism" was often used in reference to an Arab-socialist/nationalist philosophy adopted by specific regimes, such as that of Gamal Abdel Nasser and that of the various Ba'ath Parties.

Examples of countries using the word "socialist" in a non-communist sense in their names include the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. Countries with non-Leninist/communist references to socialism in their constitutions include India[14] and Portugal.

Post-war European countries

In the post-war period, when nationalisation of large industries was relatively widespread, it was not uncommon for commentators to describe some European countries as socialist states seeking to move their countries toward a socialist economy.

In 1956, for example, leading British Labour Party politician and author Anthony Crosland claimed that capitalism had been abolished in Britain, although others, such as Welshman Aneurin Bevan, Minister of Health in the first post-war Labour government, disputed the claim that Britain was a socialist state.[15][16] For Crosland and others who supported his views, Britain was a socialist state. For Bevan, Britain had a socialist National Health Service which stood in opposition to the hedonism of Britain's capitalist society. He stated:

The National Health service and the Welfare State have come to be used as interchangeable terms, and in the mouths of some people as terms of reproach. Why this is so it is not difficult to understand, if you view everything from the angle of a strictly individualistic competitive society. A free health service is pure Socialism and as such it is opposed to the hedonism of capitalist society.
—Aneurin Bevan, In Place of Fear, p. 106

When the Socialist Party was in power in France in the post-war period, some commentators[who?] claimed that France was a socialist country, although, as in the rest of Europe, the laws of capitalism still operated fully and private enterprises dominated their economy. Mitterrand Government scheduled to nationalize all banks but this attempt faced opposition of the European Economic Community.

Establishing a socialist state by reformism or revolution

Reformist socialists and Marxists, exemplified by Eduard Bernstein, take the view that a socialist state will evolve out of political reforms won by the struggle of the socialists. "The socialist movement is everything to me while what people commonly call the goal of Socialism is nothing."[17] These views are considered a "revision" of Marxist thought.

Revolutionary Marxists, following Marx, take the view that, on the one hand, the working class grows stronger through its battle for reforms, (such as, in Marx's time, the ten-hours bill):

"Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers... it ever rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier. It compels legislative recognition of particular interests of the workers, by taking advantage of the divisions among the bourgeoisie itself. Thus, the ten-hours’ bill in England was carried."
—Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, Chapter I. Bourgeois and Proletarians

However, on the other hand, in the orthodox Marxist conception, these battles of the workers reach a point at which a revolutionary movement arises. A revolutionary movement is required, in the view of Marxists, to sweep away the capitalist state, which must be smashed, so as to begin to construct a socialist society:

"In depicting the most general phases of the development of the proletariat, we traced the more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society, up to the point where that war breaks out into open revolution, and where the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat."
—Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, Chapter I. Bourgeois and Proletarians

In this view, only in this way can a socialist state be established.

Controversy with the term

Within the socialist movement, a number of criticisms are maintained towards the use of the term "socialist states" in relation to countries such as China and previously of Soviet Union and Eastern and Central European states before what some term the 'collapse of Stalinism' in 1989. Democratic Socialists, left communists,[18] Anarchists and some Trotskyists[19] claim that the so-called "socialist states" or "people's states" actually presided over state capitalist economies and thus cannot be called "socialist".

Other Trotskyists, while agreeing that these states could not be described as socialist, deny that they were state capitalist.[20] They support Trotsky's analysis of (pre-restoration) USSR as a workers' state that had degenerated into a "monstrous" bureaucratic dictatorship which rested on a largely nationalised industry run according to a plan of production, and claimed that the former "Stalinist" states of Central and Eastern Europe were deformed workers' states based on the same relations of production as USSR.

See also


  1. C.J. Atkins, 'The Problem of Transition: Development, Socialism and Lenin's NEP', Political Affairs Magazine, April 2009, accessed 30/7/09
  2. Lenin's Collected Works Vol. 27, p. 293, quoted by Aufheben
  3. Leon Trotsky, The Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartism, (February 1935), New International (New York), Vol.2 No.4, July 1935, ppp.116-122. Trotsky argues that the Soviet Union was, at that time, a "deformed workers' state" or degenerated workers' state, and not a socialist republic or state, because the "bureaucracy wrested the power from the hands of mass organizations," thereby necessitating only political revolution rather than a completely new social revolution, for workers' political control (i.e. state democracy) to be reclaimed. He argued that it remained, at base, a workers' state because the capitalists and landlords had been expropriated. accessed 30/7/09
  4. Encyclopædia Britannica, Saint Simon; Socialism
  5. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, on "In 1816, he declares that politics is the science of production, and foretells the complete absorption of politics by economics. The knowledge that economic conditions are the basis of political institutions appears here only in embryo. Yet what is here already very plainly expressed is the idea of the future conversion of political rule over men into an administration of things and a direction of processes of production."
  6. Marx, The Civil War in France (1871)
  7. Marx, The Civil War in France (1871), 1891 Introduction by Frederick Engels, 'On the 20th Anniversary of the Paris Commune'
  9. Lenin, Vladimir, The State and Revolution, p70, cf, Chapter V, The economic basis for the withering away of the state.
  10. VN Embassy - Constitution of 1992 Full Text. From the Preamble: "On 2 July 1976, the National Assembly of reunified Vietnam decided to change the country's name to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam; the country entered a period of transition to socialism, strove for national construction, and unyieldingly defended its frontiers while fulfilling its internationalist duty."
  11. Cubanet - Constitution of the Republic of Cuba, 1992 Full Text. From Article 5: "The Communist Party of Cuba, a follower of Martí’s ideas and of Marxism–Leninism, and the organized vanguard of the Cuban nation, is the highest leading force of society and of the state, which organizes and guides the common effort toward the goals of the construction of socialism and the progress toward a communist society,"
  13. The Preamble to the 1976 Constitution of Portugal stated: "The Constituent Assembly affirms the Portuguese people's decision to defend their national independence, safeguard the fundamental rights of citizens, establish the basic principles of democracy, secure the primacy of the rule of law in a democratic state, and open the way to socialist society." [1]
  14. The Preamble of the Constitution of India reads : "We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic, republic..." See Preamble to the Constitution of India.
  15. "The Socialist Party of Great Britain". Retrieved 31 October 2013. 
  16. Crosland, Anthony, The Future of Socialism, pp.9, 89. Constable (2006); Bevan, Aneurin, In place of Fear.
  17. Steger, Manfred. Selected Writings Of Eduard Bernstein, 1920-1921. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1996.
  18. STATE CAPITALISM | International Communist Current
  19. Tony Cliff, for example. See: Tony Cliff's Internet Archive
  20. For instance, Peter Taaffe: "The Soviet bureaucracy and Western capitalism rested on mutually antagonistic social systems", The Rise of Militant, Chapter 34, Russia, Trotsky and the collapse of Stalinism