Communist state

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This article is about one-party states governed by Communist parties. For information regarding communism as a form of society, as an ideology advocating that form of society, or as a popular movement, see the main Communism article.


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A Communist state is a term for a state governed by a single political party which declares its allegiance to the principles of Marxism-Leninism. Although the stated aim of a Communist system is the abolition of the state into a classless society, Marxist-Leninists consider these, which they call "socialist states," a necessary, transitional phase.

The term "Communist state" originated from the fact that most of such states are or were run by Communist parties. However most of these states called themselves socialist (such as in the name Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), since in Marxist political theory, socialism is the intermediate stage in reaching communism.


Definition of a "Communist state"

See also: Socialist republic

A "Communist State" is defined as a state ruled by a Communist Party. But the term Communism as defined by Marx is a classless and stateless utopian society where the resources and means of production are owned by communities rather than by individuals and provides for equal sharing of all freedoms, all work and all benefits. The intermediate stage of Socialism is meant to create a 'new man' who voluntarily acts in the best interest of the community.

Certain socialists and social democrats reject historical "Communist states", viewing them as representing a distortion or rejection of socialist values. Trotskyists, communists who follow the ideology of Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, became especially opposed to the official ideology of the Soviet Union following Joseph Stalin's consolidation of power. Trotsky criticized the Soviet Union under Stalin as a degenerated workers state and, following World War II, Trotskyists coined the term deformed workers state to refer to the governments in Eastern Europe as well as other Communist states that arose. Other communists went even further; anarchist communists and left- / council communists went very far in their critique of marxism-leninism and the communist (pseudo-)parties and they were often a driving part in uprisings against the communist states, for example the Hungarian revolution.

Alternative terms for a "Communist state" include Communist Party-run state and Marxist-Leninist state. These terms are not used by Marxist-Leninists, who describe them as Socialist states, or societies in the transition of the dictatorship of the proletariat. They consider the term Communist state an oxymoron. Libertarian socialists and communists, left communists and anarchists often use terms such as "state socialism" or "state capitalism".

Historical examples

As noted in the introduction, a "Communist state" is a state where a Communist Party holds power within the context of a single-party system of government. Thus, a country where a Communist party is part of the government is not automatically a "Communist state."

Furthermore, the historical states of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, Slovak Soviet Republic and Bavarian Soviet Republic were short-lived revolutionary entities that are difficult to define as Communist states, because the status of non-Communist political parties and movements within them remained unclear.

Communist governments have typically arisen during times of general political instability. Most have come to power through revolutions led by Communist parties. Several of these parties operated illegally for a long period of time before the revolution, and developed disciplined and effective structures, together with a cadre of committed leaders able to mobilize elements of society dissatisfied with the current government. The support base of the communists typically consisted of poor laborers, intellectuals, and, especially in the case of China, peasants. Following a successful revolution, the Communist Party took on the goal of building a new society.

Early examples of communist societies

See also: Communism: Other forms of communism

Societies based on communism and ideologies similar to communism have existed throughout history, and many exist today, but it was not until the 20th century that highly organized Communist Parties based on Marxist-Leninist ideology gave rise to Communist states. Information regarding early, traditional and/or religious forms of communism (as well as information on other socialist societies in the Marxist meaning of the word, such as the Paris Commune) is to be found in the Communism article. Many researchers prefer to use term communalism to distinguish various communal societies from communism, which is generally associated with Marxism.

20th century

Global expansion of Communist states by date of establishment. Dark red: 1920s-1930sBright red: 1940s-1950sSalmon: 1960s-1980s.
Global expansion of Communist states by date of establishment.
Dark red: 1920s-1930s
Bright red: 1940s-1950s
Salmon: 1960s-1980s.

In the 20th century, a number of Communist Parties based on Marxist-Leninist ideology established governments in various countries. In those countries, the aforementioned Communist parties made themselves the only legal political parties.

The history of Communist states is often closely related to the history of non-Communist governments, and to the history of the Communist movement in general. As such, the following historical account is not restricted to Communist states:

Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, which established what later became the Soviet Union, there was a revolutionary wave throughout Europe. Communist revolutions, uprisings or attempted uprisings took place in many European countries. However, Russian Communists, engaged in the Russian Civil War, were unable to provide any significant support to communist movements outside Russia. Eventually only five revolutions outside Russia were able to take power, and these for short periods of time. They resulted in the Finnish Socialist Workers' Republic in 1918, the Bavarian Soviet Republic from November 1918 until May 3, 1919, the Slovak Soviet Republic in 1919, the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919, and the Persian Soviet Socialist Republic from 1920 to 1921. All of them were soon abolished, and with the defeat of the Red Army in the Polish-Soviet War in 1920, the Russian Communists were forced to abandon any plans of military aid to Communist movements in Europe. On the other side of the world, Mongolia had been a protectorate of the Russian Empire from 1912 until 1919, when the Chinese took control during the Russian Civil War. The Russian monarchist White Army took control in 1921, but was driven out by the Red Army that same year. Mongolia was not absorbed into the Soviet Union, but was renamed the People's Republic of Mongolia and became the Soviet Union's first satellite state in 1924.

From 1924 until World War II, there were no successful Communist revolutions, and no more Communist states were established.

Most of the Communist states in the world were established in the aftermath of World War II in Eastern Europe, either in countries which were liberated from the Nazis by the Soviet Red Army and subsequently occupied by Soviet troops, or in countries where Communist-led partisans succeeded in driving out the Nazis and taking power themselves. The Red Army arranged for the establishment of Communist governments in Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania, which became Soviet satellites. Communist partisans established Communist governments which were initially pro-Soviet in Albania and Yugoslavia. Furthermore, in East Asia, the Red Army joined the war against Japan and established a Communist state in North Korea.

With extensive Soviet military aid, Mao Zedong's Communist Party of China emerged victorious in the Chinese Civil War and established the People's Republic of China in 1949. The First Indochina War led to the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in northern Vietnam in 1954. Later, the Vietnam War ended with the takeover of South Vietnam by the North Vietnamese Army and the establishment of a unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1975. The broader Indochina conflict also saw Communist states established in Laos and Cambodia in 1975, though the latter government (known as Democratic Kampuchea) was toppled in a Vietnamese invasion and denounced by Vietnam and its Communist allies.

In 1959, the Cuban Revolution eventually led to the first Communist state being established in the Western Hemisphere, the Republic of Cuba. Some also call Nicaragua under the Sandinista National Liberation Front and Grenada under the New Jewel Movement "Communist States" as both nations came under Marxist military junta control in 1979.

A civil war led to the establishment of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen in southern Yemen in 1969.

For several years, Communist states also existed in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, Benin, Somalia, and the Republic of the Congo, although these were short-lived.

By the early 1980s, nearly one third of the world's population in 25 nations was ruled by Communist governments (due largely to the size of Russia and China).

There have been several wars or military conflicts between Communist states: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Prague spring, the Ogaden War, the Cambodian-Vietnamese War, the Sino-Soviet border conflict, and the Sino-Vietnamese War.

However, due to internal economic problems, foreign entanglements, and pressures for reform, the Soviet Union itself was growing increasingly unstable. In the late 1980s, Eastern Europe grew increasingly unstable as people rose up against their governments, and in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. None of the Eastern European Communist governments survived these events.

As of 2005, there are five Communist states in the world: China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam. Despite a common Communist ideology, they possess certain distinct characteristics, both politically and economically.

Communist theories and ideologies of government

See also the articles on Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism, Stalinism and Maoism.

Communist states base themselves on a form of Marxist-Leninist ideology. All historical Communist states that existed for significant periods of time during the 20th century had their roots in either Soviet-inspired Marxism-Leninism or Maoism. Whether these states were faithful to Marxism is a matter of dispute. Trotskyists have been vocal communist opponents of the Stalinist and post-Stalinist Soviet Union, and Maoism on the grounds that they were perversions of Marxism-Leninism and communist ideals.

Marxism holds — among other things — that human history has had and will have a developmental structure, alternating between slow development of technology/economy (and the according philosophy/religion) and short periods of rapid change in technology and economy (as well as philosophy and, sometimes, religion.) The short periods of rapid change take place immediately after revolutions of one kind or another.

Marx envisioned communism as the final evolutionary phase of society at which time the state would have withered away. He specified that the workers should rise up to destroy capitalism and replace it with socialism, a transitional stage during which the state is to gain control over all means of production on behalf of the proletariat. Marx theorized that socialism would give way to communism, a classless society in which full collective ownership has been attained and the state no longer plays a role.

Communist states have never actually claimed to have reached communism. They described themselves as socialist states in which the working people's will was represented through the Communist Party and affiliated mass organizations. This is because Marxist theory says a society cannot advance from capitalism to communism overnight. A transitional stage is needed. (see dictatorship of the proletariat).

Leninist theory, developed by Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, emphasises the role of a well-organized group of revolutionaries in planning and carrying out the transition to socialism. According to Leninism, a Communist party must be organized along the principles of democratic centralism in order to maximize efficiency. Leninism departs from original Marxist theory in arguing that the revolution will not begin in the most advanced capitalist countries, but in poor, underdeveloped countries where the capitalist ruling class is weakest. From there, the revolution would need to spread quickly to the advanced industrialized nations, who would provide the underdeveloped country with the resources necessary to build socialism.

With these principles in mind, right after the Russian Revolution, Lenin argued that the success of socialism in Russia depended on the victory of socialist revolutions in other countries (most notably the German Revolution.) However, all the socialist revolutions that flared up across Europe in the years 1918-1922 were crushed. Russia found itself alone in its attempt to build socialism.

Lenin did not live long enough to formulate a solution to this problem. Instead, the role fell on his successors, the most notable of whom were Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin. Trotsky proposed his thesis of the "permanent revolution," while Stalin proposed "socialism in one country." Over the following years, Stalin gradually succeeded in eliminating his ideological opponents (including Trotsky) and taking over the Soviet government. He upheld and implemented the idea of "socialism in one country," which argued that socialism could and should be built in the Soviet Union without the help of other nations.

Throughout the 1930s, Stalin created the State and Party structure on which all subsequent Communist states were to be based. Power was centralized in his hands, and democratic centralism was gradually removed from the decision-making process of the Communist Party (a process which culminated in the Great Purge.)

Later, the ideology of Mao Zedong in the People's Republic of China (Maoism) diverged from traditional Stalinism by emphasizing the peasantry over the urban proletariat in both the revolution and post-revolutionary development.

Communist governments have historically been characterized by state ownership of productive resources in a planned economy and sweeping campaigns of economic restructuring such as nationalization of industry and land reform (often focusing on collective farming or state farms.) While they promote collective ownership of the means of production, Communist governments have been characterized by a strong state apparatus in which decisions are made by the ruling Communist Party. Dissident communists have characterized the Soviet model as state socialism or state capitalism.

Further, critics have often claimed that a Stalinist or Maoist system of government creates a new ruling class, usually called the nomenklatura.

Relationship between party and state

Political scientists have developed the concept of the Communist state to reflect claims made by Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and others that the revolutionary state must be led by the dictatorship of the proletariat, in which the working class is represented by the Communist Party. In practice, according to this theory, state and the party are effectively identical, and govern all aspects of the society.

In the Soviet Union for example, the General Secretary of the Communist Party did not necessarily hold a state office. Instead party members answerable to or controlled by the party held these posts, often as honorific posts as a reward for their long years of service to the party. On other occasions, having governed as General Secretary, the party leader might assume a state office in addition. For example, Mikhail Gorbachev initially did not hold the presidency of the Soviet Union, that office being given as an honor to a former Soviet Foreign Minister.

Within Communist states there have rarely been restrictions on state power, resulting in state structures which are either totalitarian or authoritarian. Marxist-Leninist ideology views restrictions on state power to be an unnecessary interference in the goal of reaching communism. Dissident communists have argued that a state with absolute power naturally becomes corrupt and is thus incapable of moving society toward communism.

Communist states have maintained a large secret police apparatus to closely monitor the population and silence those deemed "enemies of the state." Arrest, torture, "reeducation," and summary execution are all methods that have been employed. Some political scientists have argued that there are deep similarities between Communist states and fascist ones and that both are examples of totalitarian states.

The nature of each individual Communist state differs widely both between countries and within each individual state. States that incorporate the policies and techniques of the orthodox Stalinist state of the 1930s are characteristically more totalitarian, impoverished, militaristic, and static, as can be seen in North Korea and Communist Albania. States such as China have benefitted from market reforms introduced by the Communist Party, but attempts to dramatically reform the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev contributed to its collapse as the Communist Party was unable to maintain its grip on power.

The People's Republic of China and to a lesser extent Vietnam and Laos have all moved toward market reforms after the command economy failed to produce necessary development.

Criticism and advocacy

See also: Criticisms of communism

Advocates of Communism praise Communist parties for running countries that have sometimes leapt ahead of contemporary "capitalist" countries, offering guaranteed employment, health care and housing to their citizens. Critics of communism typically condemn Communist states by the same criteria, claiming that all lag far behind the industrialized West in terms of economic development and living standards.

Central economic planning has in certain instances produced dramatic advances, including rapid development of heavy industry during the 1930s in the Soviet Union and later in their space program. Another example touted by Communists is the development of the pharmaceutical industry in Cuba. Early advances in the status of women were also notable, especially in Islamic areas of the Soviet Union. See Gregory J. Massell, The Surrogate Proletariat: Moslem Women and Revolutionary Strategies in Soviet Central Asia: 1919–1929, Princeton University Press, 1974, hardcover, 451 pages, ISBN 069107562X. Critics however cite counter-examples: the failure of the Soviet Union to achieve the same kind of development in agriculture (forcing the Soviet Union to become a net importer of cereals after the Second World War), as well as the continued poverty of other Communist states such as Laos, Vietnam or Maoist China. Indeed, they point out that China only achieved high rates of growth after introducing Capitalist economic reforms — a sign, claim the critics, of the superiority of Capitalism.

Other claims include generous social and cultural programs, often administered by labor organizations. Universal education programs have been a strong point, as has the generous provision of universal health care. They point out to the high levels of literacy enjoyed by Eastern Europeans (in comparison, for instance, with Southern Europe), Cubans or Chinese. Western critics charge that Communist compulsory education was replete with pro-Communist propaganda and censored opposing views. Critics also note that the Communist states do not compare favourable when comparing states with similar culture and economic development before the Communist takeover. Examples include North Korea vs. South Korea; China vs. Hong Kong and Taiwan; and East Germany vs. West Germany.

Critics also point out that some Communist states have been involved in the destruction of cultural heritage: Romania (planned destruction of historical centres of most towns — partially achieved in Bucarest), China (repression of Tibetan culture, destructions during the Cultural Revolution) and the Soviet Union (destruction, abandon or reconversion of religious buildings) are the most cited examples.

Also pointed out is environmental disasters which, the critics claim, were due to the Communist governments in place. The most cited example is the disappearance of the Aral Sea in today's Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, which is believed to have been caused by the diversion of the waters of its two affluent rivers for cotton production.

The Soviet practice of making it illegal to quit one's job, to hire a dissident, or to hire relatives, is regarded by the critics as tantamount to slavery.

Critics also argue that the Communist states corrupted science. One example is censorship and revisionism of history. Others are Lysenkoism and Japhetic theory.

Many of the Communist states used an extensive network of civilian informants to spy on their own population. Critics argue that this created a society where no one could trust other citizens, who might report real or fabricated criticism of the Communist system to the secret police.

Another objection is the practice in some Communist states of classifying internal critics of the system as having a mental disease and incarcerating them in mental hospitals.

The personality cults of many of the leaders of Communist states and the fact that in some cases the leadership of the state has become inherited has also been criticized.

Critics argue that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Prague spring, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution were imperialistic wars where military force crushed popular uprisings against the Communist system.

Extensive historical research has documented large scale human rights violations that occurred in these states, particularly during the regimes of Stalin and Mao, but shown to have started immediately after the Russian revolution during the regime of Lenin and to have continued to occur in all communist states during their existence. Most prominent being deaths due to executions, forced labor camps, genocides of certain ethnic minorities, and mass starvations caused by either government mismanagement or deliberately. The exact number of deaths caused by these regimes is somewhat disputed, but extensive historical research shows at least tens of millions (see, e.g., the estimates reached in The Black Book of Communism and the references below). Other widespread criticism concern the documented lack of freedom of speech in Communist Party regimes, religious and ethnic persecutions, lack of democracy and systematic use of torture.

The restriction of emigration has also been criticized, the most prominent example being the Berlin Wall.

Others find this approach simplistic, noting that executions, forced labor camps, the repression of ethnic minorities, and mass starvation were patterns in both Russian and Chinese history before their respective Communist takeovers. Critics argue that past evils in an old regime cannot be used to justify new ones; otherwise supporters of Hitler could justify his deeds by pointing to past human rights crimes by the German Empire in Africa.

Many Marxists and some Marxist-Leninists argue that most Communist states do not actually adhere to Marxism but rather to a version heavily influenced by Leninism and Stalinism, which sharply diverges in practice from the humanistic philosophy of Marxist revolutionaries. This critique is common, for example, amongst social democrats and some critical theorists who hold that Marxism is correct as a social and historical theory, but that it can only be implemented within a multiparty democracy. Trotskyites similarly argue that the bureaucratic and repressive nature of Communist states differs from Lenin's vision of the socialist state. Some Marxists (for example Milovan Djilas, James Burnham) described Communist states as systems in which a new powerful class of party bureaucrats emerged, exercised complete control over the means of production, and exploited the working class. This new ruling class is usually called the nomenklatura.

As a defense of communism, it is sometimes claimed that so-called "communist states" are unrelated (or only distantly related) to an ideal communist society. Therefore, it is argued, the failings of these states should not be taken as failings of communism per se.

Critics of Communism find fault with this reasoning, noting that this argument cannot be falsified and is therefore not scientific. Were it valid, they argue, it could similarly be applied to capitalism, fascism or other ideologies.

List of current Communist states

The following countries are generally considered to be "Communist states" according to the way the term has been generally used since World War II as they are states in which a ruling Communist Party has a monopoly on political power. The degree to which these states are socialist is a matter of contention due to differing definitions of socialism but it is generally acknowledged that they are Soviet-style systems emulating the former Soviet Union. Even so, there is a wide degree of variation from the People's Republic of China, on one end, which follows market socialism, to North Korea, which follows a system similar to Stalinism and practices a rigid command economy.

Current Communist states and their ruling parties are:

See also: List of Communist parties

Defunct Communist states

Defunct Communist states and their ruling parties (where applicable):

Sometimes the Paris Commune (1870–1871) is also classified as a Communist state, since Karl Marx described it as a living example of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

See also

References and further reading

  • Andrew G. Walder (ed.) Waning of the Communist State: Economic Origins of the Political Decline in China & Hungary (University of California Press, 1995) hardback. (ISBN 0520088514)
  • Nicolas Werth, Karel Bartosek, Jean-Louis Panne, Jean-Louis Margolin, Andrzej Paczkowski, Stephane Courtois, Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, Harvard University Press, September, 1999, hardcover, 858 pages, ISBN 0674076087
  • Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History, Broadway Books, 2003, hardcover, 720 pages, ISBN 0767900561
  • Slavenka Drakulic, How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, W. W. Norton (1992), hardcover, ISBN 0393030768; trade paperback, Harpercollins (1993), ISBN 0060975407 Women of communist Yugoslavia.

References on human rights violations by Communist states

  • Becker, Jasper (1998) Hungry Ghosts : Mao's Secret Famine. Owl Books. ISBN 0805056688.
  • Conquest, Robert (1991) The Great Terror: A Reassessment. Oxford University Press ISBN 0195071328.
  • Conquest, Robert (1987) The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195051807.
  • Courtois,Stephane; Werth, Nicolas; Panne, Jean-Louis; Paczkowski, Andrzej; Bartosek, Karel; Margolin, Jean-Louis & Kramer, Mark (1999). The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674076087.
  • Hamilton-Merritt, Jane (1999) Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942-1992 Indiana University Press. ISBN 0253207568.
  • Jackson, Karl D. (1992) Cambodia, 1975–1978 Princeton University Press ISBN 069102541X.
  • Kakar, M. Hassan (1997)Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion and the Afghan Response, 1979-1982 University of California Press. ISBN 0520208935.
  • Khlevniuk, Oleg & Kozlov, Vladimir (2004) The History of the Gulag : From Collectivization to the Great Terror (Annals of Communism Series) Yale University Pres. ISBN 0300092849.
  • Natsios, Andrew S. (2002) The Great North Korean Famine. Institute of Peace Press. ISBN 1929223331.
  • Nghia M. Vo (2004) The Bamboo Gulag: Political Imprisonment in Communist Vietnam McFarland & Company ISBN 0786417145.
  • Pipes, Richard (1995) Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime. Vintage. ISBN 0679761845.
  • Rummel, R.J. (1997). Death by Government. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 1560009276.
  • Rummel, R.J. (1996). Lethal Politics: Soviet Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1917. Transaction Publishers ISBN 1560008873.
  • Rummel, R.J. & Rummel, Rudolph J. (1999). Statistics of Democide: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900. Lit Verlag ISBN 3825840107.
  • Todorov, Tzvetan & Zaretsky, Robert (1999). Voices from the Gulag: Life and Death in Communist Bulgaria. Pennsylvania State University Press. ISBN 0271019611.
  • Yakovlev, Alexander (2004). A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia. Yale University Press. ISBN 0300103220.

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