How Many Communist States in the Early 21st Century?

How Many Communist States in the Early 21st Century?

Tomasz Kamusella
University of St Andrews

The Cold War between the Western democracies and the communist Soviet bloc came to an end in 1989. Communism as a political and economic system collapsed. Two years later, the Soviet Union broke up. The communist superpower was gone into thin air. The subsequent systemic transition in economy and politics, in the span of one and a half decades, led the Soviet bloc’s former member states to NATO and the European Union. The polities democratized and joined the West. In the case of the post-Soviet polities, some followed the same path, while most became de facto autocracies, even if they stick to the pretense of parliamentary elections. But nowadays not a single postcommunist or post-Soviet state declares itself to be communist. The same is true of Mongolia, which used to be in the Soviet sphere of influence, as a kind of honorary member of the Soviet bloc.

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The world’s communist states today: An oponion[1]

Only five communist states survive

With the economic and political demise of the Soviet-style communism, most of the communist regimes supported by the Soviet Union across the world also collapsed, be it Ethiopia in Africa or Afghanistan and South Yemen in Asia. The lone exception is communist Cuba in the Caribbean, a permanent thorn in the United States’ southern underbelly since 1961. Are there any more communist states remaining on the globe nowadays? Obviously, the present-day communism’s proverbial 800-pound-gorilla is China. As the world’s second largest economy, Beijing is proudly communist and begins to take on the United States as the global leader of democracies. China’s population of 1.4 billion means that a fifth of all Humankind live under this communist regime. The other three self-declared communist states – Laos, North Korea and Vietnam – border on China. A new communist bloc, indeed.

However, at the face of it, at present only five communist states spot the globe. All of them are located in Asia, with the exception of Cuba. Asia’s four communist polities constitute a continuous swathe of territory with China at its center. But is that all to this story? Do we need to accept states’ denials or self-declaration of communism as the sole yardstick for ascertaining the number of the world’s communist states? A better insight may be offered by an analysis steeped in the succinct definition of communism, as proposed in 1875 by the ideology’s classic, Karl Marx: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to their needs.’

No communist states ever

This ideal of a socio-economic heaven on earth has never been achieved. Yet, the Soviet bloc countries officially aspired to it. In 1961 Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev promised communism would be achieved by 1980. His successor Leonid Brezhnev kept the course, but the economic realities on the ground compelled him to admit that by that year only the stage of ‘developed socialism’ had been reached in the Soviet Union. The definition of socialism is encapsulated in the early 19th-century slogan: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his contribution.’ While in communism the hallmarks of the traditional world – be it religion or socio-economic divisions (classes) – either disappeared or were abolished, in socialism classes persist and religions are tolerated.

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In accordance with this 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, which would be achieved in a distant and as yet unknown future. These states’ ideological attachment to socialism was announced by the adoption in their official names the sobriquet ‘people’s democracy.’ In the democratic West, during the Cold War, the difference between communism and socialism was flattened for the sake of propaganda. 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 ideals of socialism were introduced in the people’s democracies. For instance, no universal medical care or pension system has taken root in China to this day. Hence, Western scholars of the Soviet bloc (in their heyday known as sovietologists) chose to term the political and socio-economic system of these countries as ‘rally existing socialism,’ in a nutshell, a kind of imperfect socialism.

Only one communist state in the world

So what else, may characterize a communist state, besides 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 around the world. The hope was that rather sooner than later, all the globe’s Humankind 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 the Soviet Socialist Republics. Not a single ethnic or geographic reference features in this name. That is why, it would snugly fit any polity that would contain all of the world or numerous geographically and ethnically diverse parts across it.

In the Soviet bloc, the Soviet Union alone enjoyed such a reference-less universal name, because in this line of dogmatic thought, in the world there is place only for a single universal state. Other Soviet bloc and non-communist states would accede to or be absorbed by a hypothetical worldwide Soviet Union of the future. This prospect was not to the liking of Yugoslavia or China. In 1948 Belgrade had a fallout with the Kremlin, because Yugoslavia resigned from the Soviet-style universal (or internationalist) communism, in favor of communism attuned to the country’s geographic and ethnic specificities. In this way, the ideology of national communism was formulated.

The age of national communism

After the end of stalinism 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 the rift with the Soviet Union that took hold in the decade after 1956. In 1958 Mao Zedong conceded that China was at the initial stage of building socialism. Thus, Beijing’s own national path to socialism (and communism) barely commenced. In 1982 General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, Hu Yaobang, came up with the catchy label of socialism with Chinese characteristics for describing China’s political and socio-economic model. Other Asian communist states of Laos (founded in 1975), North Korea (founded in 1948) and Vietnam (founded in 1976) – emerged in the course of proxy wars between East and West. As products of such contingencies, for ensuring survival these new communist polities needed to follow the realities of local circumstances, and in addition 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.

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The same is true of Cuba, though in this case China was not involved. But unlike China and the Soviet bloc countries, Havana teamed up with the Kremlin for spreading communism worldwide in return for Soviet credits and supplies of essentials. Cuban soldiers were fighting for the sake of communism in the postcolonial wars 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, after having lost its Soviet protector and sponsor, Cuba still engages in the export of its medical professionals, but now in exchange for hard currency, oil, or other essentials. Famously, in the post-Soviet period, Havana struck a cordial rapport with Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela in 1999. Subsidized oil flowed from this country to Cuba then teetering on the brink of economic collapse. Meanwhile, Cuban medical doctors went to Bolivia to help with building a universal healthcare system for all the country’s population. Redistribution of wealth at the expense of the rich, or sending oil – sold at below market prices – to anti-Western countries appear to be present-day hallmarks of a Soviet-style communist state. The subsequent economic collapse suffered in Venezuela and the propping-up of the chávezian regime with totalitarian measures also belong to the same tool box of communist (mis-)governance. Hence, the regime’s official ideology of bolivarianism, is just a novel 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 the tumultuous half a decade of the systemic transition, including a near-collapse of the economy. Drawing on social discontent, in 1994, dictator Aljaksandar Łukašenka seized power on the promise of re-establishing a Soviet-style system in post-Soviet Belarus. The Soviet-time state symbols were duly reintroduced, alongside the classless Soviet people’s communist language of Russian. The hallmarks of Soviet-style economy, namely, full and compulsory employment, state farms (kolkhozes) and huge unprofitable heavy industry factories were rekindled. Russia keeps footing the deficit in Belarus that gapes between the de facto socialist economy’s meager output and the population’s increasing consumption.

The Russian Federation is a self-declared imperial power, but not a communist state. The Kremlin is silent on the issue of why Russia chooses to subsidize Belarus’s inefficient socialist-like economy. But the tacit understanding is that in this manner Moscow makes Belarus increasingly dependent on Russia, which eventually is expected to lead to the absorption or annexation of Belarus in line with the Russian neoimperial program. However, for the time being, Belarus is yet another undeclared communist state, alongside Venezuela. Actually, both countries’ dictators are good pals, buoyed by the single-party system, typical of all communist states. Censorship and repressions keep dissidents low or in prison. Civic or human rights are not a priority.

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Future: communism or democracy?

Hence, going by the loose Cold War definition of communism, nowadays the world sports at least seven – self-declared and de facto – communist states, that is, Belarus, China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, Venezuela and Vietnam. And like before 1989, all these countries’ ruling regimes are anti-Western in their official rhetoric, and often in their actions, too. This was another important defining feature of the communist states in the 20th century.

Will the number of such really existing communist states go up or down during the 21st century. After 1978 in the wake of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, a great discovery of applied politics was made in China, namely, that capitalism is not a prerequisite of democracy. That this economic system is ideologically neutral and can serve the needs of a communist regime, as well. Obviously, this development in part divorces the now really existing communist states from the classical definition and practice of socialism, which in the sphere of production proclaims state ownership and sticks tocentrally-planned economy.

However, the post-1956 shift from universal (internationalist) communism to national communism across the Soviet bloc and in China did not make the 20th-century world’s communist states any less communist in the eyes of Western and democratic observers. Likewise, the current marriage of capitalism and communism is a lesson for democrats not to trust in their wishful thinking but to put the hypothesis about capitalism’s democratizing effect to test. It is clear that this economic system does not make authoritarian or totalitarian Belarus, China, Laos or Vietnam any less authoritarian or more pro-democratic or pro-Western. Cuba, North Korea or Venezuela ditched capitalism for good and are reluctant to re-embrace it, but 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 communism 2.0, with capitalism as part of this ideology. Communist capitalism is not an oxymoron any more. What would be then the salient characteristics of a communist state? Perhaps, the self-declaration of being a communist state, the monoparty political system, collectivism, limited civic and human rights; alongside hi-tech total conditioning and surveillance for controling of the population, so that all toe the party’s line. This compliance will be effected by the now emerging military-surveillance-research industrial complex, which is going to be at the heart of successful communist capitalism.

Unless, the West, or more broadly, the world’s democracies, come up with a more attractive and effective socio-economic system, I am afraid, the number of communist states is bound to grow. The entailed mixing of welfare state policies with growing authoritarian tendencies and a single party’s aspiration to seize all power in a state has been observed in present-day Europe since 2015, be it in Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland or Serbia. Not surprisingly, these country’s pro-authoritarian leaders enamored of the Chinese success hope to establish privileged collaboration links with this communist superpower, which is also totalitarian and capitalist to the boot. To curry favor with Beijing, among others, Europe’s aspiring autocracies are busy dismantling democracy and putting curbs on political rights at home.

Is communism 2.0 going to be the world’s future?

September 2021

[1] https://www.worldatlas.com/which-countries-are-still-communist.html

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