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There have been several instances of Communist states with functioning political participation processes involving several other non-party organisations, such as trade unions, factory committees and direct democratic participation. The term "Communist state" is used by Western historians, political scientists and media to refer to these countries. However, contrary to Western usage, these states do not describe themselves as "communist" nor do they claim to have achieved communism—they refer to themselves as Socialist or Workers' states that are in the process of constructing socialism.
Communist states are typically administered by a single, centralised party apparatus, although some provide the impression of multiple political parties but these are all solely in control by that centralised party. These parties usually are Marxist–Leninist or some variation thereof (including Maoism in China), with the official aim of achieving socialism and progressing toward a communist society. These states are usually termed by Marxists as dictatorships of the proletariat, or dictatorships of the working class, whereby the working class is the ruling class of the country in contrast to capitalism, whereby the bourgeoisie is the ruling class.
During the 20th century, the world's first constitutionally socialist state was in Russia in 1917. In 1922, it joined other former territories of the empire to become the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). After World War II, the Soviet Army occupied much of Eastern Europe and thus helped establish Communist states in these countries. Most Communist states in Eastern Europe were allied with the Soviet Union, except for Yugoslavia which declared itself non-aligned. In 1949, after a war against Japanese occupation and a civil war resulting in a Communist victory, the People's Republic of China (PRC) was established. Communist states were also established in Cambodia, Cuba, Laos and Vietnam. A Communist state was established in North Korea, although it later adopted its own ideology called Juche. In 1989, the Communist states in Eastern Europe collapsed under public pressure during a wave of non-violent movements which led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Today, the existing Communist states in the world are in China, Cuba, Laos and Vietnam.
These Communist states often do not claim to have achieved socialism or communism in their countries—rather, they claim to be building and working toward the establishment of socialism in their countries. For example, the preamble to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam's Constitution states that Vietnam only entered a transition stage between capitalism and socialism after the country was re-unified under the Communist Party in 1976 and the 1992 Constitution of the Republic of Cuba states that the role of the Communist Party is to "guide the common effort toward the goals and construction of socialism".
|Current communist states|
Current non-communist states|
with communist majority
|Previous communist states|
Communist states share similar institutions, which are organized on the premise that the Communist party is a vanguard of the proletariat and represents the long-term interests of the people. The doctrine of democratic centralism, which was developed by Vladimir Lenin as a set of principles to be used in the internal affairs of the Communist party, is extended to society at large.
According to democratic centralism, all leaders must be elected by the people and all proposals must be debated openly, but once a decision has been reached all people have a duty to obey that decision and all debate should end. When used within a political party, democratic centralism is meant to prevent factionalism and splits. When applied to an entire state, democratic centralism creates a one-party system.
The constitutions of most Communist states describe their political system as a form of democracy. They thus recognize the sovereignty of the people as embodied in a series of representative parliamentary institutions. Such states do not have a separation of powers and instead have one national legislative body (such as the Supreme Soviet in the Soviet Union) which is considered the highest organ of state power and which is legally superior to the executive and judicial branches of government.
Such national legislative politics in Communist states often have a similar structure to the parliaments that exist in liberal republics, with two significant differences: first, the deputies elected to these national legislative bodies are not expected to represent the interests of any particular constituency, but the long-term interests of the people as a whole; and second, against Marx's advice, the legislative bodies of Communist states are not in permanent session. Rather, they convene once or several times per year in sessions which usually last only a few days.
When the national legislative body is not in session, its powers are transferred to a smaller council (often called a presidium) which combines legislative and executive power and in some Communist states (such as the Soviet Union before 1990), acts as a collective head of state. In some systems, the presidium is composed of important Communist party members who vote the resolutions of the Communist party into law.
A feature of Communist states is the existence of numerous state-sponsored social organizations (trade unions, youth organizations, women's organizations, associations of teachers, writers, journalists and other professionals, consumer cooperatives, sports clubs and so on) which are integrated into the political system.
In Communist states, the social organizations are expected to promote social unity and cohesion, to serve as a link between the government and society and to provide a forum for recruitment of new Communist party members.
Historically, the political organization of many socialist states has been dominated by a one-party monopoly. Some Communist governments, such as those in China, East Germany or Czechoslovakia, have or had more than one political party, but all minor parties are or were required to follow the leadership of the Communist party. In Communist states, the government may not tolerate criticism of policies that have already been implemented in the past or are being implemented in the present.
Nevertheless, Communist parties have won elections and governed in the context of multi-party democracies without seeking to establish a one-party state and therefore these entities do not fall under the definition of Communist state. Examples include San Marino, Nicaragua (1979–1990), Moldova, Nepal (presently), Cyprus and the Indian states of Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura.
Countries such as the Soviet Union and China were criticized by Western authors and organisations on the basis of a lack of multi-party Western democracy, in addition to several other areas where socialist society and Western societies differed. For instance, socialist societies were commonly characterised by state ownership or social ownership of the means of production either through administration through party organisations, democratically elected councils and communes and co-operative structures—in opposition to the liberal democratic capitalist free market paradigm of management, ownership and control by corporations and private individuals. Communist states have also been criticised for the influence and outreach of their respective ruling parties on society, in addition to lack of recognition for some Western legal rights and liberties  such as the right to ownership of private property and the restriction of the right to free speech.
Soviet advocates and socialists responded to these criticisms by highlighting the ideological differences in the concept of "freedom". McFarland and Ageyev noted that "Marxist–Leninist norms disparaged laissez-faire individualism (as when housing is determined by one's ability to pay), also [condemning] wide variations in personal wealth as the West has not. Instead, Soviet ideals emphasized equality—free education and medical care, little disparity in housing or salaries, and so forth". When asked to comment on the claim that former citizens of Communist states enjoy increased freedoms, Heinz Kessler, former East German Minister of National Defence, replied: "Millions of people in Eastern Europe are now free from employment, free from safe streets, free from health care, free from social security". The early economic development policies of Communist states have been criticised for focusing primarily on the development of heavy industry.
In his critique of states run under Marxist–Leninist ideology, economist Michael Ellman of the University of Amsterdam notes that such states compared favorably with Western states in some health indicators such as infant mortality and life expectancy. Similarly, Amartya Sen's own analysis of international comparisons of life expectancy found that several Marxist–Leninist states made significant gains and commented "one thought that is bound to occur is that communism is good for poverty removal". The dissolution of the Soviet Union was followed by a rapid increase in poverty, crime, corruption, unemployment, homelessness, rates of disease and income inequality, along with decreases in calorie intake, life expectancy, adult literacy and income.
The following countries are one-party states in which the institutions of the ruling Communist party and the state have become intertwined. They are generally adherents of Marxism–Leninism in particular. They are listed here together with the year of their founding and their respective ruling parties.
|Country||Local name||Since||Ruling party|
|People's Republic of China||In Chinese: 中华人民共和国
In Pinyin: Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó
|1 October 1949||Communist Party of China|
|Republic of Cuba||In Spanish: República de Cuba||1 July 1961||Communist Party of Cuba|
|Lao People's Democratic Republic||In Lao: Sathalanalat Paxathipatai Paxaxon Lao||2 December 1975||Lao People's Revolutionary Party|
|Socialist Republic of Vietnam||In Vietnamese: Cộng hòa xã hội chủ nghĩa Việt Nam||2 September 1945 (in the north)
30 April 1975 (in the south)
2 July 1976 (unified)
|Communist Party of Vietnam|
There are multi-party states with Communist parties leading the government. Such states are not considered to be Communist states as the countries themselves allow for multiple parties and do not provide a constitutional role for their Communist parties.
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In a modern sense of the word, communism refers to the ideology of Marxism-Leninism.
Contrary to Western usage, these countries describe themselves as 'Socialist' (not 'Communist'). The second stage (Marx's 'higher phase'), or 'Communism' is to be marked by an age of plenty, distribution according to needs (not work), the absence of money and the market mechanism, the disappearance of the last vestiges of capitalism and the ultimate 'whithering away' of the State.
Among Western journalists the term 'Communist' came to refer exclusively to regimes and movements associated with the Communist International and its offspring: regimes which insisted that they were not communist but socialist, and movements which were barely communist in any sense at all.
Ironically, the ideological father of communism, Karl Marx, claimed that communism entailed the withering away of the state. The dictatorship of the proletariat was to be a strictly temporary phenomenon. Well aware of this, the Soviet Communists never claimed to have achieved communism, always labeling their own system socialist rather than communist and viewing their system as in transition to communism.
The decisive distinction between socialist and communist, as in one sense these terms are now ordinarily used, came with the renaming, in 1918, of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks) as the All-Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks). From that time on, a distinction of socialist from communist, often with supporting definitions such as social democrat or democratic socialist, became widely current, although it is significant that all communist parties, in line with earlier usage, continued to describe themselves as socialist and dedicated to socialism.