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Communist state

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This article is about one-party states ruled 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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In common speech in the Western World, a communist state is a state ruled by a single political party which declares its allegiance to the principles of Marxism-Leninism. The term "communist state" originated from the fact that most of the states in question were/are ruled by parties that called themselves "Communist Party of [country]". Thus, they became known as "Communist Party-ruled states", a term that was soon contracted to "communist states". However most of these states called themselves socialist.

Taken literally, the term "communist state" is an oxymoron. Communism, as a social system, involves the abolition of the state (along with the abolition of private property and social classes). In Marxist political theory, capitalism is to be replaced by socialism (not communism), and socialism is to be replaced at some point in the future with communism. Therefore, the so-called "communist states" actually claimed to be socialist (and democratic) states, working towards the final goal of replacing socialism with communism. However, their opponents held that those states were neither socialist nor democratic, so another term had to be invented to define them. Hence the phrase "communist state" was coined, based on the fact that their ruling parties called themselves Communist Parties.

Alternative terms for a "communist state" include "Communist Party-ruled state", "Marxist-Leninist state", "Stalinist state" (derived from the fact that all these states were governed by communist parties that were either clearly Stalinist themselves or could trace their roots back to Stalinism) or "Deformed workers state" (a term commonly used by Trotskyists).


What is or isn't a "communist state"

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 ruled by a Communist Party (or some other communist group) is not automatically a "communist state".

There have been (and are) a number of countries where Communist Parties came to power through democratic elections, and ruled in the context of a multi-party democracy. For example, such situations are to be found today in the Indian states of Kerala and West Bengal, the East European country of Moldova, and the French territory of Réunion. Communist Parties have also taken part in democratic coalition governments in places like France and Italy. None of those countries fit the definition of "communist states" (as it is used in this article), because they are have multi-party political systems.

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. Also, the Paris Commune is often cited as an example of a communist society (in the proper sense of the word "communism"), but it was certainly not a communist state.

See also: socialist republic

Historical examples of Communist governments

Communist governments (in the sense of "governments that were - or claimed to be - in the process of moving towards a communist society") typically arose during times of general international unrest. Also, they generally arose as a result of revolutions led by communist parties. Such parties often operated illegally for a long period of time before the revolution, and developed disciplined and effective structures, together with a cadre of committed leaders marked by both idealism and skill at organizing successfully among the disaffected classes of the capitalist system. The support base of the communists usually consisted of workers, intellectuals, and, especially in the case of China, peasants. Following a successful revolution, the Communist Party takes on the goal of building a new society.

Early examples of communist societies

See Communism: Other forms of communism

Communist societies 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 communist societies in the Marxist meaning of the word, such as the Paris Commune) is to be found in the Communism article. Many researhers prefer to use term communalism to distinguish various communal societies from "communism", which has largely become associated with Marxism.

20th century

In the 20th century, a number of Communist Parties based on the Stalinist development of Leninism (which is a branch of Marxism) established governments in various countries. In those countries, the aforementioned Communist Parties (and other parties allied with them) became the only legal political parties. Such countries are the ones known as "communist states".

The history of communist states is often closely related to the history of Communist-ruled countries that were not communist states, 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, outside Russia, only two of them were able to overthrow the government and take power. They resulted in the Munich Soviet Republic (which lasted from November 1918 until May 3 1919) and the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919. 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, and then was driven out by the Red Army that same year. Mongolia was not absorbed into the Soviet Union, but a Mongolian People's Republic - which was a communist state with a very close relationship with the Soviet Union - was established in 1924.

From 1924 until World War II, there were no further successful communist revolutions (although there were a number of unsuccessful ones), 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 supported the establishment of Communist governments in what became the Soviet Union's satellite states of Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania. 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.

Independent of the Soviet Union, the Chinese Revolution led to the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, and the First Indochina War led to the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in North Vietnam in 1954. Later, the Vietnam War resulted in the North Vietnamese ultimately conquering the rest of the country and establishing the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1975 (both the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam were communist states). The conflict also led to a communist state being established in Laos, and the related Cambodian Civil War resulted in the establishment of the quasi-communist state of Democratic Kampuchea in 1975.

In 1959, the Cuban revolution resulted in the first communist state being established in the Western Hemisphere - the Republic of Cuba.

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

For several years, communist regimes also existed in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique and in other developing countries, although these were short-lived.

By the early 1980s, nearly one third of the world's population was ruled by Communist Party-led governments, and the tide of the Cold War seemed to turn decisively in the Soviet Union's favor.

However, due to a complex combination of causes (which is still a matter of controversy to this day), the Soviet Union itself was growing increasingly unstable. By the late 1980s, Eastern Europe was in chaos - and by the early 1990s, the Soviet Union itself had collapsed. None of the European communist governments survived these events.

As of 2004, there are 5 communist states in the world: China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam. However, they have gone their separate ways, and despite a few common elements, each of them is now very different from the others.

The special case of China

One common feature of all communist states until very recently was the fact that they had centrally planned economies. This was the main reason, besides the political one, for putting "communist states" in a separate category of their own, rather than lumping them together with other one-party states (which had capitalist market economies). If the centrally planned economy dissappears, then there is arguably no difference between the "communist state" in question and a capitalist dictatorship (a category which includes most Third World countries during the Cold War, as well as many other examples).

Given these considerations, the recent pro-market reforms in China have given rise to unexpected questions. Can China still be considered a "communist state"? It is certainly ruled by a party that calls itself Communist, and it certainly refuses any label related to capitalism (preferring to call its economic system "socialism with Chinese characteristics"), but in many respects China's economy fits the definitions of capitalism.

For a complete discussion, see Politics of the People's Republic of China.

Communist theories and ideologies of government

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

Most communist states base themselves (at least in theory) on a form of Marxist-Leninist ideology. Historically speaking, all communist states that existed for significant periods of time during the 20th century had their roots in either Stalinism or Maoism. The relationship of these ideologies with the original form of Marxism (as well as their relationship with Leninism) is very disputed. In particular, Trotskyists are communist opponents of Stalinism and Maoism (and therefore they oppose most 20th century "communist states"), 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.

Also, in Marxist theory, communism is the final evolutionary phase of society (coming after socialism), at which time the state would have withered away. Marx specified that the workers should rise up to destroy capitalism and replace it with socialism, a transitional stage during which the state holds the property of the means of production (property over the objects used in economic activities, not over items meant for personal use) on behalf of its citizens. According to Marx, socialism is, in turn, destined to be replaced by a classless, stateless and propertyless stage of society, named communism. Communism is supposed to be achieved by the "withering away" of the socialist state. This "withering away" consists of the transfer of power from the state to the people themselves - to be more exact, the representative democracy of socialism is to be gradually replaced by the direct democracy of communism.

"Communist states" never actually claimed to have reached communism. They claimed to be in the process of building communism, and they claimed to be socialist and democratic states. While most people would strongly disagree with the claim that those states were actually democratic in any way, the same standard is usually not applied to their claims of being socialist.

Leninist theory, developed by Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, emphasises the role of a well-organized group of revolutionaries (usually called a Communist party) in planning and carrying out the revolution. According to Leninism, a Communist party must be organized along the principles of democratic centralism in order to maximize efficiency. Leninism departs from classical Marxism in arguing that the revolution will not begin in the most advanced capitalist countries, but in those where the capitalist ruling class is weakest - mostly poor, underdeveloped countries. From there, the revolution would need to spread quickly to the more advanced capitalist countries, because it is only with the help of an advanced technological and industrial base that socialism can be built.

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 all his 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 a single underdeveloped country - as the Soviet Union was at that time.

Stalin's policies went far beyond what had been anticipated, however. Throughout the 1930's, he created the State and Party structure on which all subsequent "communist states" were to be based. Power was centralized in his hands, and democracy was gradually removed from the decision-making process of the Communist Party (a process which culminated in the Great Purge).

Later, the practices of Mao Zedong in the People's Republic of China (generally known as Maoism) diverged from traditional Stalinism by putting the main emphasis on the peasantry (rather than the urban proletariat) as the engine of the revolution and subsequent post-revolutionary development.

The history of Communist Party-run governments is varied and complex, but it is possible to make some valid generalizations which apply to most examples: Communist Party-run governments have historically been characterized by state ownership of productive resources in a centrally planned economy and sweeping campaigns of economic restructuring such as nationalization of industry and land reform (often focusing on collective farming or state farms). However, although they promote collective ownership of the means of production, Communist Party-run governments are also characterized by strong state apparatuses, and decidedly non-collective decision making processes (power is often concentrated in the hands of a single individual). Many have characterized the old Soviet model as state socialism or state capitalism. At various times they have had to allow or even encourage certain forms of private property.

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, however, have developed the concept of communist state to reflect claims made by Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and others that the revolutionary state must be a "dictatorship of the proletariat," and that 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 -- economic and cultural, as well as political.

In the Soviet Union for example, the General Secretary of the Communist Party did not necessarily hold a state office like president or prime minister to effectively control the system of government. 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 most communist states there are no restrictions in theory and few restrictions in practice on the power of the state, resulting in state structures which are either totalitarian or authoritarian. The mainstream branch of Marxism-Leninism sees restrictions on state power to be an unnecessary interference in the goal of pulling the society toward communism. Other Marxist-Leninists have argued that a state with absolute power is incapable of moving society towards a democratic system such as communism.

In some communist party-run states, such as the Soviet Union, a large secret police apparatus closely monitors the population. Autocratic methods are often employed to crush opposition. 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 example of the communist party run state differs widely both between countries and within each individual state. Policies which 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 the examples of North Korea and Albania. Attempts to incorporate democratic principles as in the case of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, socialist principles as in Yugoslavia, or capitalistic techniques as in China result in some mitigation of the negative features of the communist party run state but sometimes result in dynamic situations which may undermine the control of the party over the state or even lead to its collapse.

The People's Republic of China and to a lesser extent Vietnam have both moved toward market economics.

Criticism and Advocacy

Advocates of communism praise Communist parties for running countries that have sometimes leaped ahead of contempary "capitalistic" countries, offering guaranteed employment. Critics of communism typically condemn Communist parties by the same criteria, claiming that communist-run countries all lag far behind the "Free World" in terms of industrialization and general prosperity. They regard the Communist practice of making it illegal to quit one's job, or to hire a dissident or his relatives, tantamount to slavery.

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. Western critics charge that Communist compulsory education is replete with pro-Communist and atheistic propaganda and that it severely punishes critical thinking.

Central economic planning has in certain instances produced dramatic advances, for example, rapid development of heavy industry during the 1930s in the Soviet Union and later in their space program. Yet other examples touted by advocates of Communism, such as the development of the pharmaceutical industry in Cuba, have according to Western critics produced few discoveries of note (it is rather the West, particularly the US, which has produced the bulk of new drugs and vaccines). 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

Many Marxists and Marxist-Leninists argue that most communist states do not actually adhere to Marxism-Leninism but rather to a perversion heavily influenced by Stalinism, a "Caliban state" which sharply diverges in practice from the humanistic philosophy of Marxist revolutionaries. This critique is particularly strong among 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. Trotskyists 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 where a new powerful class of party bureaucrats emerged, exercised complete control over the means of production and exploited the working class.

Regimes described as communist have, according to many observers, in practice been abusive of human rights. Democratic movements that arose within a framework of communist theory, such as that instituted by Alexander Dubček in Czechoslovakia's Prague Spring, have been forcibly put down (see also Hungarian Uprising).

One controversial doctrine that was popular in the 1980s was the Kirkpatrick doctrine which argued that communist states were inherently "totalitarian" while right-wing dictatorships which the United States supported were "authoritarian".

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 ex Soviet Union. Even so, there is a wide degree of variation from the People's Republic of China, on one end, which many would consider to be market socialist or even capitalist to North Korea whose system is closest to Stalinism and practices a rigid command economy.

Current one party Soviet style "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.

Last updated: 02-10-2005 18:46:46
Last updated: 05-06-2005 01:27:49