The New Forms of Socialism in the Twenty-First Century

Pan Shiwei

Pan Shiwei (潘世伟) is the honorary president of the Institute of Chinese Marxism, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. His research focuses on Chinese socialism, party building, and political development. His published works include A Study of the Chinese Model and World Socialist Research Yearbook.

‘The New Forms of Twenty-First Century Socialism’ (新时代,新自觉——如何在当下重新思考社会主义) was originally published in Wenhua Zongheng (文化纵横), issue no. 3 (June 2023).

After three decades of expansion following the end of the Cold War, liberal capitalism is now facing a crisis. The world is enveloped in a fog of uncertainty amid significant challenges posed by economic recession, geopolitical conflicts, social rifts, and disruptive new technologies. At this historical juncture, it is necessary to revitalise socialism and further develop socialist theories suited to the new conditions of the twenty-first century, paving the way for a new future for humanity.

The world has come a long way since the mid-nineteenth century, when Marx and Engels completed the fundamental transformation of socialism from utopia to science, most famously synthesised in The Communist Manifesto. Over the past 175 years, generation after generation of socialists have followed in the footsteps of Marx and Engels, working tirelessly to elevate socialism from a mere ideological concept to class struggles, political organisations, social revolutions, governments, and civilisation forms. The historical development of socialism can be divided into three main forms.

Classical Socialism in the Centres of European Capitalism

The socialist movement originated in Europe and its transformation from utopia to science also took place there, which was not accidental. This region benefited from the development of capitalism, becoming the most developed area in the world. The major European countries, with the first-mover advantage of the Industrial Revolution, created a new and powerful productive force.

Internally, a new ruling class rose to prominence, the bourgeoisie. Through various forms of bourgeois revolution, this class seized power successively in a series of European countries, creating corresponding social, political, market, and cultural structures, including the modern nation-state. The advancements and transformations of early capitalist modernisation ultimately turned the page on Europe’s somewhat gloomy medieval era.

Externally, these European countries that led in modernisation, through continuous colonial expansion and comprehensive means such as military wars, religious propagation, and cultural aggression, opened the prelude to the subsequent centuries-long globalisation centred on Europe. It is worth noting that, during this period, the internal and external development of European capitalism was intertwined and mutually conditioned: the internal development of politics, economy, culture, and society propelled and led the external expansion; in turn, external expansion greatly supported and strengthened internal development.

Behind the dazzling achievements of European capitalism, however, a new socialist ideology was quietly gestating and breaking ground. The economic and political development of European capitalism created the social conditions for the emergence of Marxism; the growth of the working class and the rise of the labour movement to advocate for their own interests, provided the class foundation; and the flourishing of social sciences, philosophy, and economics provided the intellectual environment. Together these various elements culminated in the publication of The Communist Manifesto and the birth of scientific socialism.

The founders of scientific socialism – Marx, Engels, and their contemporaries – generously acknowledged and congratulated the achievements of capitalist development. However, what set them apart from the majority of their peers was their ruthless criticism of European capitalism and firm belief that the seemingly thriving capitalist system would usher in its own swan song. These socialist pioneers fearlessly pointed out that – despite capitalism’s development of the productive forces and material wealth, and the associated advancements in politics, society, and culture – the system had profound inherent contradictions and shortcomings that capitalism could only alleviate but not eradicate. As such, capitalism could never be considered the ultimate form of human social development. It emerged in history and will be negated by history.

The socialists of this period believed that the power to make change and transcend capitalism was held by the working class and other social forces that faced oppression. In their view, it was in the interests of the working class to pursue a revolution and shatter the old world and the declining capitalist system, rather than submit to continued exploitation and oppression at the hands of the bourgeoisie. Through political struggles and social revolutions, the oppressed classes would overthrow the bourgeoisie, become the ruling class, and build a more rational and humane system in place of capitalism. The ideal system was socialism, which would eventually move towards a more advanced form of development, communism. Although the precise details of this future ideal society could not be depicted, these thinkers contended that the working class and its political parties would inevitably progress toward it.

Most importantly, in the process of criticising capitalism and arguing for socialism, this generation of socialists distilled the general laws of human social development and formulated a worldview and methodology with historical materialism at its core. This has enabled successive generations to develop more accurate understandings of the world and the movement of human history.

The classical form of socialist thought that developed in Europe during this period consisted of three key elements:

1. Socialism can only emerge in those societies where capitalism is most developed. The productive forces, political forms, and ideological resources needed to build socialism are generated within advanced forms of capitalism.

2. Capitalism can and will inevitably be negated and transcended. No matter how long capitalism sustains itself, it will ultimately amount to a fragment of human history. Even if capitalism can make internal improvements as circumstances evolve, it will not be an eternal system due to its inherent contradictions. After fulfilling its historical mission, capitalism cannot avoid being relegated to history.

3. The end of capitalism is the starting point of socialism. Socialism will be built upon the productive forces, material wealth, intellectual development, and modernisation that humanity has already created. It is precisely on the basis of these resources accumulated under capitalism that socialism seeks to resolve the tensions and conflicts between the productive forces and relations of production, overcome the constraints of private ownership of the means of production, and address all of the contradictions that arise from this order. While socialism is indeed a critique and negation of capitalism, beyond this it aims to achieve a new transcendence and sublimation. The more capitalism develops, the more it prepares the material and other conditions for socialism. Similarly, as the productive forces of capitalism become more advanced, the relations of production become more complex, and state governance grows more sophisticated, in turn, it becomes increasingly challenging to attain higher productivity, develop greater productive forces, ensure genuine fairness, and build a harmonious society. In other words, the need to construct a new socialist society grows alongside capitalism. Humanity is capable of building this better society.

The socialist classics offer a sweeping narrative of immense vitality, illuminating the path for humanity to traverse through the jungle of capitalism and inspiring people to engage in the long historical struggle towards socialism.

Transformative Forms of Socialism in the Colonies and Semi-Colonies

During the twentieth century, socialism developed in a manner that differed significantly from the expectations of classical socialism. Rather than progress in a linear manner, socialist development took place in alternating peaks and valleys, including the reversal of successful revolutions and socialist developments in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Socialism failed to emerge in the areas it had been expected to, namely the developed capitalist countries of Europe. However, new areas of growth emerged beyond the vision of classical Marxist writers. Socialism emerged, not within global capitalism, but outside of it; not in the countries with the most advanced productive forces, but in the economically underdeveloped regions; not in the West, but in non-Western countries; not out of traditional, urban class struggles, but from national liberation movements in the colonies and semi-colonies under the grip of imperialism. The essential meaning and logic of socialism were redefined. The extraordinary breakthroughs of socialism in Russia, China, and elsewhere transcended classical Marxism and constituted a distinct form of transformative socialism.

From the perspective of socialist thought, one essential feature of capitalism is its conquest of the world. The invasion and plunder of vast non-Western regions is necessary to sustain the prosperity and comfort of the capitalist centres of Europe. The development of wealthy countries is built upon the underdevelopment of poor countries. In this way, capitalism not only creates internal inequality but also external inequality. Classical Marxist writers recognised the destructive impact of capitalist colonial expansion on the vast non-Western world, but due to various objective historical conditions, they did not develop a systematic and detailed understanding of this matter. It was not until Lenin and subsequent Marxist theorists that the national liberation struggles of colonies and semi-colonies against capitalist and imperialist aggression received more acute attention. Reflecting this greater emphasis, the classic proposition, ‘workers of the world, unite!’ was expanded to ‘workers of the world and oppressed peoples, unite!’. Although the focus of socialist theory and practice at that time still centred on the core capitalist countries, the influence of the European socialist movement in the vast colonies and semi-colonies continued to grow. Socialist criticisms of capitalism, the ideal and pursuit of a better future society, and the courage and determination of the working class and its parties to overthrow the old world, were important sources of inspiration in the colonised world. Socialism demonstrated that it was possible for the oppressed to make new choices and build new societies, and so it became an extremely important intellectual resource for these countries in their resistance against capitalist aggression and conquest.

In the colonies and semi-colonies, a new, transformative form of socialism developed. The development of socialism in China illustrates many of the significant changes between the classical and transformative forms. This new form emerged from the intersection and integration of the socialist development logic and China’s own development logic.

In the case of China, after being isolated in the East for thousands of years, the country’s doors were forcefully opened through warfare by Western powers that were superior economically, militarily, technologically, and in terms of governance. This upheaval was not merely the result of a Western expedition against an ancient Eastern country, but also a destructive blow from a rising capitalist system against a declining feudalist order. The humiliation of China, the suffering of its people, and the tarnishing of Chinese civilisation sparked national resistance. Those who pursued national liberation and rejuvenation were in dire need of new sources of intellectual enlightenment. Faced with the predicament of internal intellectual stagnation, many Chinese intellectuals turned their gaze outward, particularly towards the highly developed Western countries. A number of Western ideas were introduced into China, with socialism and Marxism being just one of them. However, socialism resonated most with the Chinese people.

China’s encounter with and integration of socialism was the outcome of specific political, temporal, and spatial conditions. In particular, three factors led the Chinese people to embrace socialism.

1. The world’s peripheral regions, including China, were inherently opposed to the aggression of the Western capitalist countries. As an ancient civilisation with a long history of its own, China rejected the notion that it needed to be discovered, enlightened, or civilised by the Western powers. Having been invaded and plundered by Western capitalist countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, China became more inclined towards socialism.

2. Socialism identified with and foregrounded the interests of the oppressed, namely,the working class within capitalist countries that resisted bourgeois rule as well as the colonies and semi-colonies that resisted conquest by capitalist countries. As an oppressed nation, the Chinese people were naturally inclined to identify with other oppressed peoples and, therefore, the Chinese people were attracted to socialism.

3. Socialism revealed the inherent sins and decay of capitalism. As the Chinese people’s understanding of Western capitalism deepened, the dark side behind its glamorous façade became increasingly apparent, including the evils of the slave trade, the global scramble for colonies, the plight of impoverished groups within capitalist countries, and, especially, the bloody slaughter between the imperialist countries during World War I. These injustices reflected the internal flaws and contradictions of the capitalist countries, thereby igniting the Chinese people’s yearning for a better society. Socialism represented the possibility of building an ideal society.

However, many colonies and semi-colonies around the world, beyond China, encountered socialist ideas but did not similarly integrate them. Why then did socialism take root in China? The entrance of socialism into China and the Chinese people’s choice of socialism merely demonstrated the potentiality of the historical movement. To transform this potential into reality and yield fruitful results, several other crucial conditions were undoubtedly necessary. These conditions included the presence of an exemplary vanguard organisation, a generation of youth willing to sacrifice everything, intellectuals who empathised with the toiling masses, and leaders who possessed a deep understanding both of China’s national conditions and the essence of Marxism. In the twentieth century, all of these conditions were met within China. Therefore, socialism was able to take root and blossom on Chinese soil.

The entrance of socialism into China changed the nature of social transformation in China. In the blueprint of world capitalism, China was situated on the periphery, subordinated to the capitalist core, and consigned to foreign domination. Whether China developed and overcame its semi-feudal and semi-colonial status was irrelevant to the core capitalist countries. These countries sought to define any social transformation within China and ensure that it was carried out by political agents that would direct it towards capitalist homogenisation and the interests of the core. This blueprint was terminated after socialism arrived in China as a different vision of social transformation emerged. The Communist Party of China (CPC) took the place of the country’s bourgeois political parties and became the leader of China’s social transformation. In this process, the working class, together with the peasantry and other classes, overthrew the bourgeoisie and became the driving force in China’s social transformation. The blueprint of China’s social transformation was fundamentally redrawn, and now pursued the following aims: opposition to the aggression, oppression, and exploitation of foreign capitalism in China; opposition to foreign capitalism’s support for reactionary forces in China; an end to the rule of feudalism, bureaucratic capitalism, and imperialism in China; and the achievement of national liberation and independence. Socialism outlined a revolutionary vision for China that completely overturned the content and methods that had been put forward by the bourgeoisie.

The socialist vision for social transformation also changed how China approached the building of a modern state. After the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded in 1949, the new state did not choose a capitalist development path, but rather, pursued a direct transition to socialism. Accordingly, the entire process of state construction followed this principle, shaping the construction of China’s basic political, economic, and social systems. Furthermore, the state and its institutions were built based on China’s specific conditions and aimed to ensure that the Chinese people were masters of the country. Key features included the leadership of the CPC, the system of a people’s congresses that extended from the local, village-level to the national-level, the system of multi-party cooperation and political consultation, the system of ethnic regional autonomy, and the system of community-level participatory governance. In this manner, China was able to construct a modern state and attain long-term political stability.

Finally, socialism reset China’s approach to modernisation. As humanity transitioned from agricultural to industrial societies, European countries led the initial process of modernisation thanks to the first-mover advantage that they gained from the industrial revolution. During their expansion, these countries imposed incomplete and subordinate forms of capitalist modernisation onto many developing countries, including China. This process was not smooth, but was characterised by setbacks, stagnation, and failures. After the Chinese Revolution, the PRC pursued a sovereign, non-capitalist path to modernisation. The CPC effectively mobilised and organised hundreds of millions of Chinese people to vigorously promote China’s industrialisation, striving to create the material foundation for socialism. This process took place in a hostile international environment and experienced a series of twists and turns during the initial decades after the revolution. By the late 1970s, a new path for China’s modernisation had opened up: the socialist market economy, active participation in the world economy, and the pursuit of common prosperity. Following the initiation of reform and opening up, China achieved a miracle of long-term rapid economic development, making great strides in industrialisation, urbanisation, technological advancement, developing the market economy, and pursuing international exchanges. These efforts have placed China at the forefront of the world’s modernisation tide.

The preceding paragraphs offer a general outline of how new forms of socialism and socialist development have emerged, with particular reference to the case of China. The emergence of a transformative form of socialism in China does not represent a general process of socialist development, although it may have implications that are relevant for other countries. Rather, the birth and growth of this new form vividly illustrates the diverse nature of socialist development.

Building a New Form of Socialism That Can Surpass Capitalism through Self-Improvement

In the mid-nineteenth century, socialism emerged in Europe and took its initial form, based on a starting point of advanced capitalist development. This original form has not disappeared and continues to slowly grow. It has mainly manifested in criticisms of capitalism at the ideological and cultural level, as well as social and political movements that strive to advocate for the interests of the oppressed classes. However, this form of socialism still has a long way to go before it can ascend to a dominant position and replace capitalism. Reasons for this include the divisions and variations within the socialist movement itself, as well as capitalism’s extraordinary resilience and capacity for adaptation. Fundamentally, however, socialism has not grown in the developed capitalist countries as it has in developing countries due to the absence of vanguard parties in the former. As a result, capitalism has been able to operate in a normal manner.

In the twentieth century, the socialist movement opened up new development opportunities in non-capitalist regions of the world. Developing countries, such as China, chose not to embrace the path offered by core capitalist countries and severed their ties with capitalism, becoming new areas of growth for socialism. Faced with pre-capitalist or semi-capitalist societies, and situated in historical positions of relative backwardness in terms of economic, political, cultural, and social development, these countries faced challenges that could not be answered by classical theories on the direct transition from capitalism to socialism. Fortunately, they demonstrated unprecedented historical initiative and creativity by pursuing socialist-oriented revolutions, socialist-oriented nation-building, and socialist-oriented modernisation. As a result, completely different theories and practices of socialist construction took shape in developing countries, along with new forms of socialist development.

How will socialism continue to develop and progress in the twenty-first century? This is a question of concern for all socialist thinkers and practitioners. Of course, the aforementioned forms of socialist development and late-starter modernisation remain important in developing countries and non-capitalist regions. At the same time, as socialism continues to develop in China, a further new form is emerging. Having attained socialist modernisation, China’s social productive forces, technological strength, overall national strength, and achievements in other aspects of development are demonstrating the possibility of socialism surpassing capitalism as well as the superiority and potential of socialism. For this new form of socialism to strengthen, China must advance beyond its current level of development to a higher level.

This new form cannot simply be an extension of the existing transformational form of socialism, but rather a meaningfully advanced form. In a certain sense, this new form entails a return to classical Marxism, as it must take up the question of how to transcend the capitalism of the core countries (although from the outside). The new form aims to surpass capitalism through the self-improvement of socialism.

Objectively speaking, this new form has just begun to emerge. We are not yet able to fully grasp its overall direction and inherent laws, but can only provide a rough outline of its basic contours. To strengthen this new form of socialism in China, the following areas of development are key.

1. Develop a deep and unified theoretical understanding of socialism and cultivate corresponding abilities to realise a higher level of development. The CPC, which leads the development of socialism in China, needs to engage in deep thinking, comprehensive planning, and long-term strategising, while adapting to the unfolding situation. It is important for the party to establish this foundation and build upon it for further learning, to unify its thinking, and to gradually establish an ongoing process of self-growth. In particular, it is crucial for the party to develop a comprehensive understanding of the country’s level of development, bottlenecks, favourable and unfavourable conditions, and operational mechanisms, along with an understanding of the practical experiences of capitalism in the United States and Europe.

2. Strengthen overall development. China’s level of development is not consistent across different fields. Economic, political, cultural, social, and ecological development varies in terms of progress, prioritisation, and imbalances. It is necessary to promote balanced and integrated development in these five fields.

3. Promote high-quality development of productivity and enhance the material foundation. Despite China’s large strides in catching up with and, in certain respects, surpassing the economic development of the core capitalist countries, the country still has a long way to go in terms of further developing productivity, productive efficiency, advanced technology, and material wealth. Without this, the inherent advantages of socialism cannot be fully realised.

4. Strengthen institutional maturity and unique governance advantages. Building on the consolidation of existing, unique institutional and governance advantages, concrete efforts should be undertaken to accelerate this process. Only by doing so can China develop institutional strength on par with the institutions of Western capitalism, which have been in place for hundreds of years.

5. Strengthen the inherent advantages of socialism. Compared to capitalism, socialism has many unique advantages, such as making the people the masters of the country; the people-centred approach of the ruling party, which is not guided by personal privileges and self-interest; the steadfast pursuit of common prosperity to prevent extreme wealth inequality; concerted efforts to maintain the party’s progressive nature, integrity, and strong leadership; and the emphasis on social harmony and avoiding fundamental conflicts or confrontations among the people. These advantages need to be valued and carefully nurtured. On top of this, a new system should be built to pool and mobilise resources nationwide for major issues.

6. Strengthen cultural and intellectual power. Being a civilisational nation and state is of utmost importance to China. Chinese civilisation has distinct characteristics in language, culture, and thought. The integration of Marxism and the emergence of a new form of socialism in China owes much to their compatibility with Chinese culture, which has always been deeply rooted in society and people’s daily lives. Efforts should be made to creatively transform China’s valuable cultural resources into more proactive cultural and intellectual strength. China should also work together with other cultures to highlight the value of human diversity.

7. Highlight the global comparative advantages of socialist development. China’s development has created global comparative advantages in some fields, even relative to developed capitalist countries. China has advanced the modernisation of a country of 1.4 billion people, surpassing the combined modernisation of the developed capitalist countries in scale and scope. Moreover, China’s modernisation has been achieved at a faster pace, with lower social costs and broader inclusivity, and using a more peaceful approach. This is the greatest experiment in modernisation in human history. China has also taken the lead in areas such as renewable energy, ecological protection, poverty alleviation, and technological development, with impressive achievements comparable to those of developed capitalist countries. Through the Belt and Road Initiative, China has embarked on an ambitious, cooperative developmental project with the countries of the Global South, encouraging their own pursuits of modernisation. To address the world’s common challenges, China has put forward the concept of building a ‘community with a shared future for humanity’ (人类命运共同体, rénlèi mìngyùn gòngtóngtǐ) and a range of proposals to promote global peace and development. China welcomes and embraces cooperation, competition, and different forms of modernisation and development around the world. As China’s own modernisation continues to advance, its international comparative advantages will become more prominent. As for hostile attempts by certain countries to contain China, China will respond with sufficient intelligence and capability.

The wheels of progress are racing forward, as we advance through the third decade of the twenty-first century. What excites all socialists is the emergence of new forms of socialism. Building off more than a century of socialist development, in a way, we seem to have returned to the era of Marx and Engels, who continuously pondered over how socialism would surpass capitalism and become its gravedigger. Today, we can see that socialism is better than capitalism at doing what the latter purportedly does best, while also successfully accomplishing many things that capitalism cannot. Socialism in China continues to grow stronger and strives to comprehensively surpass even the most advanced forms of contemporary capitalism, as Marx and Engels envisioned, and create a better society for humanity. Faced with this emerging new form of socialism, we need a new sense of consciousness.