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The term socialist republic (or socialist state, or workers' state) can carry one of several different (but related) meanings.

The term socialist republic is used by those socialists who wish to emphasize that they favour a republican form of government. Furthermore, since many forms of socialism purport to represent the interests of the working class, many socialists refer to a state organized according to their principles as a workers' state. Other socialists, such as anarcho-socialists and some libertarian socialists reject the concept of a socialist state altogether, believing a state is not required to establish a socialist system.

The meanings of the terms 'socialist republic', 'socialist state' and 'workers' state' tend to vary according to the adherents of variants of Marxism, Marxism-Leninism, and non-Communist socialist theories. Most of these theories (but not all) require at least the "commanding heights" of the economy to be nationalised, usually operated according to a plan of production, so that capitalist and the procurement of wage labor for private profit is abolished at least in the major productive and social spheres, although there are some socialist economic theories promoting varying levels of market relations, in combination with public ownership and/or worker cooperatives.

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 "workers' states" but not socialist states using the terms "degenerated" or "deformed" workers' states.

Some commentators use the term "socialist state" to describe states which provide welfare provisions, such as healthcare and unemployment benefits, despite the economic basis of the state being privatized and clearly capitalist.

Marxist concept of a socialist state

According to many Marxists, socialism is a stage of social and economic development that will replace capitalism, and will in turn be replaced by communism. Thus, in Marxist terms, a socialist state is a state that has abolished capitalism and is moving towards communism. Vladimir Lenin argued that as socialism is replaced by communism, the state would "wither away".

Early Marxist conception of a socialist state

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 Parismarker in 1871. 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.

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".

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."

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."

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. After Lenin's death, and with the failure of the worldwide revolution envisaged by Lenin and Trotsky, these ideals were abandoned.

Marxist-Leninist or Communist states

Several past and present states have claimed to follow some form of Marxist ideology, usually Marxism-Leninism. They referred to themselves as socialist states. The Soviet Unionmarker was the first to proclaim itself a "socialist state" in its 1936 Constitution and a subsequent 1977 one. Another well-known example is the People's Republic of Chinamarker, 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).

Non-Communist countries

Some other countries use 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.

Examples of countries using the word "socialist" in a non-communist sense in their names include the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lankamarker and the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriyamarker. Countries with non-communist references to socialism in their constitutions include Indiamarker and Portugalmarker.

Post-war European countries

In the post-war period, when nationalisation was relatively widespread, it was not uncommon for commentators to describe some European countries as socialist states.

In 1956, for example, leading British Labour Party politician and author Anthony Crosland claimed that capitalism had been abolished in Britain and socialism established, 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. 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:

When the Socialist Partymarker was in power in France in the post-war period, some commentators claimed that France was a socialist country, although, as in the rest of Europe, the laws of capitalism still operated fully.

European countries today

Some political commentators term "socialist states" those European countries under the government of parties which have in the past been considered socialist, or which at least retain the word "Socialist" in their name, even though the countries remained capitalist economies.

For instance, when the Labour Party is in power in the UK, some commentators assert that Britain is run by a socialist government and argue that Britain is a socialist state while under that government.

These countries were led at times by parties affiliated to the Second International which are sometimes termed social democratic parties.

Welfare states and Economic Interventionism

Some commentators argue that states which support a policy of welfare state provision or which practice limited state intervention into financial activity are socialist states or republics. Some commentators term the 2008 bail-out of the banks, "Socialism", suggesting that the USA and the UK have become socialist, but these comments are dismissed by government spokespersons and socialists alike, as the bailouts are more indicative of protectionism.

In February 2009, Republican politician and political commentator for the Fox News channel Mike Huckabee, one of the Republican candidates in the Primaries of the USA presidential election campaigns of 2008, argued that, "The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics may be dead, but the Union of American Socialist Republics is being born." In May 2009, a Fox News commentator argued that Obama had accomplished "something that I never thought any American president would accomplish. He's literally taken us away from a capitalist economy to socialism." .

Although support for socialism has risen dramatically in the USA, Obama "claimed impeccable free market credentials" when questioned, and in June 2009 the Director of the White House's National Economic Council for the US President, Lawrence Summers, while defending state intervention to regulate speculators' activities, told reporters that the US was not in danger of becoming a socialist state.

Opponents, both economic liberal (pro-capitalist) and socialist, of the claim that improving welfare benefits or increasing state regulation of financial activity makes a state "socialist", argue that the continued operation of capitalist economics in free market states like the USA shows that a state with welfare reforms is still a capitalist state, pointing to numerous forms of welfare state capitalism such as the social market economy, Rhine capitalism and Keynesian economics.

While most socialists do not claim that welfare provision makes a state socialist, socialists nevertheless support welfare provision within the capitaist state. Ever since (and even before) the Communist Manifesto, written by Marx and Engels in 1848, called for "A heavy progressive or graduated income tax" and other reforms socialists have campaigned for the state to implement welfare reforms of various kinds, including for universal health care to alleviate the negative effects of capitalism on workers.

However, in Marx's time, some socialists, such as the German 'True Socialists' opposed calling on the state to implement welfare reforms. They considered welfare programs, regulation and progressive taxation to be policies initiated by capitalist states in an attempt to "patch up" the ineffective capitalist market economy, and are therefore seen as attempts to treat the symptoms but not the cause of the issues. The Communist Manifesto, however, declared that this 'True' socialism, unintentionally "directly represented a reactionary interest."

Marxists support both "positive" and "negative" welfare. Positive welfare is the provision by the state of opportunities for people to “help themselves”. Negative welfare is the provision by the state or other institutions of a “safety net” or the distribution of benefits according to some criteria, for those who, in the view of socialists, have been failed by the capitalist system. By implementing state or public ownership of the means of production and establishing socialist democracy, socialists believe the need for negative welfare - hand outs via redistribution - will disappear both because all individuals would receive enough compensation or resources from their workplace and because increasingly costs to the public at large, such as housing, healthcare and education, would pass into social provision at no cost to the individual.

However some Socialists and Marxists today criticize welfare state programs as concessions made by the capitalist class in order to divert the working and middle classes away from pursuing a completely new socialist organization of the economy and society. They argue that welfare reforms had historically been used for this purpose in Prussia by Otto von Bismarck to ameliorate the impact of his anti-socialist laws, while others, such as Frederick Engels argue that the campaigns of the Marxists in Germany forced Bismarck to carry out reforms. Socialists perceive social welfare states with modern social democratic policies, such as those in Sweden, to be capitalist states.

Some (but not all) social democratic Reformist Marxists, such as Aneurin Bevan, Minister of Health in the first post-war Labour government, who introduced the UK National Health Service (NHS), also take the view that welfare programmes, such as health care which is free at the point of use for all, are concessions forced on capitalism by the struggles of the working class and a "pure Socialism" embryo of the new socialist society gestating within capitalist society (see section 'Post-war European countries' above). In such conceptions (as in the example of the UK NHS), the taxation to pay for these services is intended to be taken largely if not entirely from the capitalist class, through a tax on corporation profits. Those earning less than £40,000 ($63,000) in today's money (£500 then) only paid 5.3% in tax the year after the NHS was introduced in the UK in 1948. These Marxists take the view that welfare programmes should be defended and improved with further nationalisations (such as, in the case of the health service, the drug companies) which would increase the income to the state, while at the same time campaigning for public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy to eliminate capitalism and establish a socialist society in which poverty will be eliminated.

Establishing the 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 welfare 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." 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):

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

Criticism of the term

Because there are several different branches of socialism, a country's claim to the label of "socialist state" or "socialist republic" is almost always disputed by some branch. Indeed, there are many socialists who strongly oppose certain (or all) self-proclaimed socialist republics. Trotskyists, for instance, are particularly known for their opposition to what they term Stalinist states.

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 Russia and Eastern European states before what some term the 'collapse of Stalinism' in 1989. Left communists, Anarchists and some Trotskyists claim that the so-called "socialist states" or "people's states" were actually state capitalist 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. They support Trotsky's analysis of (pre-restoration) Russia 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 eastern Europe were deformed workers' states based on the same relations of production as Russia.

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. 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 Russia was, at that time, a "distorted" 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. It remained at base a workers' state, he argued, because the capitalists and landlords had been expropriated. accessed 30/7/09
  3. Typical is, 'Choose happiness or misery in Obama's socialist state'. Cal Thomas, Glens Falls (New York) PostStar newspaper, Tuesday, February 10, 2009, accessed 30/7/09.
  4. Lenin, Vladimir, The State and Revolution, p70, cf, Chapter V, The economic basis for the withering away of the state.
  5. Marx, The Civil War in France (1871)
  6. Marx, The Civil War in France (1871), 1891 Introduction by Frederick Engels, 'On the 20th Anniversary of the Paris Commune'
  8. 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.
  9. The Preamble to the Constitution of Portugal states: "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]
  10. Crosland, Anthony, The Future of Socialism, pp.9, 89. Constable (2006); Bevan, Aneurin, In place of Fear.
  11. "Yet Gordon was not without purpose: relentless, unreconstructed state-socialist redistribution." Gerald Warner, The Telegraph (UK), 'Gordon Brown: socialist wrecker of Britain's economy', July 21st, 2008, accessed 29/7/09
  12. 'Barack Obama and Gordon Brown: a two-man socialist Comintern' Gerald Warner, The Telegraph (UK), March 3rd, 2009,
  13. Obama's No Socialist. I Should Know. Washington Post, Billy Wharton, Sunday, March 15, 2009; Page B01
  14. Hannity, Glick Debate Socialism, Fox News, Monday, May 04, 2009,2933,518853,00.html
  15. Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey, 9 April 2009. Most widely cited was the Rasmussen finding that: "Adults under 30 are essentially evenly divided: 37% prefer capitalism, 33% socialism, and 30% are undecided". Compared to the last survey on 29 December 2008, Rasmussen reported a significant change.
  16. Summers Says U.S. Not In Danger Of Becoming Socialist State, Washington Post, 12/6/09 accessed 31/7/09
  17. Manifesto of the Communist Party, Chapter II. Proletarians and Communists, Selected works, 1968, p52,
  18. Manifesto of the Communist Party, Chapter III. Socialist and Communist Literature, section 1, Reactionary Socialism, Selected works, 1968, p56
  19. "While this “True” Socialism thus served the government as a weapon for fighting the German bourgeoisie, it, at the same time, directly represented a reactionary interest, the interest of German Philistines." Manifesto of the Communist Party, Chapter III. Socialist and Communist Literature, section 1, Reactionary Socialism, Selected works, 1968, p57.
  21. Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, "[before] part of the total product [is] divided among the individuals, there has to be deducted again... that which is intended for the common satisfaction of needs, such as schools, health services, etc. From the outset, this part grows considerably in comparison with present-day society, and it grows in proportion as the new society develops. Third, funds for those unable to work, etc., in short, for what is included under so-called official poor relief today."
  23. "The Communist Manifesto had already proclaimed the winning of universal suffrage, of democracy, as one of the first and most important tasks of the militant proletariat, and Lassalle had again taken up this point. When Bismarck found himself compelled to introduce the franchise as the only means of interesting the mass of the people in his plans, our workers immediately took it in earnest and sent August Bebel to the first, constituent Reichstag." Engels, 1895 Introduction to republication of Marx, The Class Struggles In France, Marx and Engels Selected Works, p649,
  25. In 1949, after the intoduction of the NHS, Bevan reports (In Place of Fear, p. 146) that taxation for those earning less than £500 per annum (roughly £40,000 or $63,819 in wages in 2009 using the average earnings indicator), paid only 5.3% in tax, those earning half that paid only 1.1% tax, while those on less than £1000 (£80,000 in 2009, or $126,000) paid 14.8%. Most income for government spending was taken from corporate profits.
  26. Steger, Manfred. Selected Writings Of Eduard Bernstein, 1920-1921. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1996.
  27. STATE CAPITALISM | International Communist Current
  28. Tony Cliff, for example. See: Tony Cliff's Internet Archive
  29. 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

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