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How many communist states exist in the early 21st century?

Today, it may seem like the idea of a communist state is nothing but a relic of the 20th century. Despite this, many countries are still officially communist, mixing rhetoric with market economics in a way that often proves attractive to other states.

November 23, 2021 - Tomasz Kamusella - Articles and Commentary

Collage of the coats-of-arms of Laos, Belarus, North Korea, Venezuela, China, Vietnam and Cuba. Source: Wikimedia

The Cold War between the western democracies and the communist Soviet bloc came to an end in 1989. During this time, communism as a political and economic system collapsed. Two years later, the Soviet Union broke up and the communist superpower was consigned to history. The subsequent political and economic transition experienced in the former communist states led many to join NATO and the European Union. These polities ultimately democratised and joined the West. In the case of the post-Soviet nations, some followed the same path as their neighbours. Others, however, became de facto autocracies that often simply offer the pretence of parliamentary elections. Nowadays, not a single post-communist or post-Soviet state describes itself as communist. The same is true of Mongolia, which used to be included within the Soviet sphere of influence as a kind of honorary member of the Soviet bloc.

Only five communist states survive

With the economic and political demise of Soviet-style communism, most of the communist regimes supported by Moscow across the world also collapsed. This included Afghanistan, Ethiopia and South Yemen. The lone exception was communist Cuba, a permanent thorn in the United States’ southern underbelly since 1961. Are there any other communist states in the world today? Perhaps the most obvious example is China. As the world’s second largest economy, Beijing remains proudly communist and is now taking on the United States for the position of global leader. China’s population of 1.4 billion means that a fifth of all people live under this communist regime. The other three self-declared communist states – Laos, North Korea and Vietnam – border on China. In some ways, this group could be viewed as a new communist bloc.

On the face of it, the observed political reality suggests that there are at present only five communist states on the globe. All of these countries are located in Asia, with the exception of Cuba. Asia’s four communist states make up a continuous swathe of territory with China at its centre. But is that all there is to this story? Do we simply use official state ideologies as a means of ascertaining the number of the world’s communist states? A better insight may be offered by analysis steeped in the succinct definition of communism proposed by Karl Marx in 1875: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

No communist states ever

This ideal of a socio-economic utopia has never been achieved. Yet, the Soviet bloc countries officially aspired to such conditions. In 1961, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev promised communism would be achieved by 1980. His successor Leonid Brezhnev also supported this claim. Despite this, the economic realities on the ground compelled him to admit that by 1980 the Soviet Union had only achieved “developed socialism”. The definition of socialism is encapsulated in the early 19th century slogan: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his contribution.” In a communist system the hallmarks of the traditional world, such as religion and socio-economic divisions (classes), were meant to disappear. In socialism, however, classes persist and religions are tolerated by the government.

In accordance with the aforementioned classical definition of communism, not a single state has ever been communist. The Soviet bloc countries saw themselves as socialist, still on the road to communism. This goal would finally be achieved in a distant and as yet unknown future. These states’ ideological attachment to socialism was made clear through the adoption of the ideologized collocation “people’s democracy” in their official names. In the democratic West, the difference between communism and socialism was blurred for the sake of propaganda during the Cold War. The term communism became a pejorative to be levelled against the Soviet bloc countries and other polities that dared to follow the Soviet path.

But not even all the ideals of socialism were introduced in the people’s democracies. For instance, no universal medical care or pension system has taken root in China. As a result, western scholars of the Soviet bloc (in their heyday known as sovietologists) chose to describe the political and socio-economic system of these countries as “really existing socialism”. In a nutshell, this referred to a kind of imperfect socialism.

Only one communist state in the world

So what else may characterise a communist state apart from socialism and (unrealistic?) aspirations for communism? During the Cold War, the leading communist powers – China and the Soviet Union – strove to export their communist ideology and system all over the world. The hope was that soon enough all of mankind would live in a single universal communist polity. This absolutist and universalist geopolitical plan is encoded in the very name of the Soviet Union, which in full is the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Not a single ethnic or geographic reference features in this name. Of course, such a name would be necessary for a state that would contain all of the world, or at least various geographically and ethnically diverse parts of it.

In the communist bloc, the Soviet Union alone possessed such a universal name. Other Soviet bloc and non-communist states would accede to or be absorbed by a hypothetical worldwide Soviet Union of the future. Of course, this prospect was not to the liking of Yugoslavia or China. In 1948, Belgrade rejected the Kremlin’s influence and chose to pursue a form of communism more attuned to the country’s geographic and ethnic peculiarities. In this way, the ideology of national communism began to form across the bloc.

The age of national communism

After the end of the Stalin era (officially announced by the Kremlin in 1956), national communism became the ideological norm across the Soviet bloc. In addition, China followed the same path, especially after its rift with the Soviet Union that occurred in the decade after 1956. In 1958, Mao Zedong conceded that China was at the initial stage of building socialism. Due to this, Beijing’s own national path to socialism (and communism) had barely started. In 1982, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Hu Yaobang came up with the catchy slogan “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. This was used to describe China’s political and socio-economic model. Other Asian communist states, such as Laos (founded in 1975), North Korea (founded in 1948) and Vietnam (founded in 1976) emerged as a result of proxy wars between East and West. In order to ensure their own survival, these new communist states needed to adapt to local realities and engage in a balancing act between the communist powers of China and Soviet Union. As a result, these states have followed their own national paths to communism.

A similar situation can be found in Cuba, though in this case there was little Chinese involvement. Havana teamed up with the Kremlin in order to spread communism worldwide. In return, the state received essential aid from Moscow. Cuban soldiers fought for the sake of communism in various anti-colonial wars, such as in Angola and Mozambique. Meanwhile, Cuban medical doctors and nurses were sent all around the world to establish and man fledgling medical systems in pro-Soviet countries across Latin America and Africa.

Unsung communist states

Interestingly, Cuba still sends many medical officials abroad even after having lost its Soviet protector and sponsor. Now, however, the state supports such programmes in a less ideological manner, seeking hard currency, oil and other essentials. Havana famously struck up a cordial relationship with Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela in 1999. Subsidised oil soon began to flow from this country to Cuba, which was then teetering on the brink of economic collapse. Meanwhile, Cuban medical doctors went to Venezuela to help build a universal healthcare system for the country’s population. Apart from redistributing wealth, the Venezuelan state used to send oil at below market prices to various anti-western countries. Venezuela’s recent economic collapse and subsequent government repression bears a strong resemblance to traditional communist (mis-)governance. Due to this, the regime’s official ideology of Bolivarianism is just a new name for “really existing socialism”, a kind of socialism with Venezuelan characteristics.

The same is true of the political and socio-economic system in Belarus. The breakup of the Soviet Union was followed by a tumultuous half decade of transition, including a near collapse of the economy. Drawing on social discontent, dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka (Aljaksandar Łukašenka) seized power in 1994 and promised to re-establish a Soviet-style system in Belarus. The republic’s Soviet era state symbols were duly reintroduced, alongside the classless Soviet people’s language of Russian. The hallmarks of a Soviet-style economy, including full and compulsory employment, state farms (kolkhozes) and huge unprofitable heavy industry factories, were also revived in the country. Russia continues to foot the bill for the gap that exists between the Belarusian socialist economy’s meagre output and the population’s increasing level of consumption.

The Russian Federation is a self-declared imperial power, but not a communist state. The Kremlin is silent on the issue of why it chooses to subsidise Belarus’s inefficient socialist-like economy. It is clear though that this understanding makes Belarus increasingly dependent on Russia. Such a situation may eventually lead to the absorption or annexation of Belarus in line with the Russian neo-imperial programme. However, for the time being, Belarus remains another undeclared communist state, much like Venezuela. Interestingly, both countries’ dictators are good friends, buoyed by a single-party system typical of all communist states. Censorship and repression keep dissidents largely out of the public eye or in prison. Of course, civic and human rights are not a priority in these countries.

The future: communism or democracy?

By adopting the loose Cold War definition of communism, it can be said that nowadays there are at least seven self-declared and de facto communist states. These countries are Belarus, China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, Venezuela and Vietnam. Much like before 1989, all these countries’ ruling regimes are anti-western in their official rhetoric. This is also often clear in their actions on the global stage.

Will the number of these “really existing” communist states go up or down during the 21st century? After 1978, in the wake of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, a great political discovery was made in China. This is namely the fact that capitalism is not a prerequisite for democracy. Ironically, it seems that this ideologically neutral economic system can serve the needs of an officially communist regime as well. Obviously, this development in part has caused a rift between today’s communist states and the classical definition and practice of socialism, which supports state ownership and a centrally planned economy.

However, the rise of national communism across the Soviet bloc and China did not make the communist states of the Cold War era any less communist in the eyes of western and democratic observers. Likewise, the current marriage of capitalism and communism in several countries should serve as a warning to democrats not to simply trust in their wishful thinking. It is clear that this economic system has not made Belarus, China, Laos or Vietnam any less authoritarian. Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela look like they have ditched capitalism for good. Despite this, China’s example, since 2004 known as the “Beijing Consensus” in the West, may compel them to follow suit.

The current economic success of China, if it lasts for several generations, may lead to the emergence of a “communism 2.0”, with capitalism as part of this ideology. It seems that “communist capitalism” is no longer an oxymoron. What would be then the most salient characteristics of a modern communist state? An official adherence to communism, a one party political system, collectivism, and limited civic and human rights would all be essential parts of this style of governance. Surveillance as a means of controlling the population in line with the wishes of the ruling party also looks set to be a defining feature.

Unless the West and the world’s democracies come up with a more attractive and effective socio-economic system, I am afraid that the number of illiberal states is bound to grow. A unique mix of welfare state policies, authoritarian tendencies and an aspiration to seize all vestiges of state power has been present in many European states since 2015. These countries include Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland or Serbia. Not surprisingly, these countries’ pro-authoritarian leaders are enamoured by China’s success and hope to establish privileged relations with this communist superpower, which is also totalitarian and capitalist. To curry favour with Beijing, Europe’s aspiring autocracies are busy dismantling democracy and curbing political rights at home. As a result, the question should be asked: is communism 2.0 the world’s future?

Tomasz Kamusella is Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

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