Communist state is a term used by many political scientists to describe a form of government in which the state operates under a one-party system and declares allegiance to Marxism-Leninism or a derivative thereof. Communist states may have several legal political parties, but the Communist Party is constitutionally guaranteed a dominant role in government. Consequently, the institutions of the state and of the Communist Party become intimately entwined.
What separates Communist states from other one-party systems is the fact that ruling authorities in a Communist state refer to Marxism-Leninism as their guiding ideology. For Marxist-Leninists, the state and the Communist Party claim to act in accordance with the wishes of the industrial working class; for Maoists, the state and party claim to act in accordance to the peasantry. Both systems claim to have implemented a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat, and both claim to be moving towards the gradual abolition of the state and the implementation of communism. These claims have been strongly disputed by opponents of the historical Communist states, including communists who do not subscribe to Marxism-Leninism or who regard these states as bastardizations of the ideology.
Most Communist states adopted centrally planned economies. For this reason, Communist states are often associated with economic planning in both popular thought and scholarship. However, there are exceptions. The Soviet Union during the 1920s and Yugoslavia after World War II allowed limited markets and a degree of worker self-management. More recently, China and Vietnam have introduced far-reaching market reforms since the 1980s.
The policies adopted by Communist Parties ruling over communist states have been a source of political debate for much of the 20th century. However, this article describes the political structure of communist states, not the specific policies implemented by their governments. See Criticisms of Communist party rule for more information on the arguments surrounding those policies.
The term "communist state" originated in the West during the Cold War. It was coined to describe the form of government adopted by several countries in Eastern Europe and East Asia who followed the political model of the Soviet Union. These countries were ruled by parties which typically used the name "Communist Party of [country]". Since the separation of Party and State became very blurred in those countries, it seemed logical to name them "communist states" by analogy with the communist parties that ruled them.
Communists however dispute the validity of the term "communist state". Within Marxist theory, world communism is the final phase of history at which time the state would have withered away and therefore "communist state" is a contradiction in terms under premises of this theory. Current states are either in the capitalist or socialist phase of history making the term "socialist state" preferable to Communists and the role of the communist party (i.e. the vanguard party) is to pull a nation toward the communist phase of history.
Heterodox Marxists have also opposed the usage of the term "communist state". Since the 1930s, anti-Stalinist Marxists have argued that the existing communist states did not actually adhere to Marxism, but rather to a perversion of it that was heavily influenced by Stalinism. This critique was based on a variety of arguments, but nearly all anti-Stalinist communists argued that the Soviet model did not represent the interests of the working class. As such, Trotskyists referred to the Soviet Union as a "degenerated workers' state" and called its satellites "deformed workers states".
Not every country ruled by a communist party is viewed as a communist state. As noted above, the term "communist state" has been created and used by Western political scientists to refer to a specific type of one-party state. Communist parties have won elections and governed in the context of multi-party democracies, without seeking to establish a one-party state. Examples include Republic of Nicaragua (in the 1980s), Republic of Moldova (presently), Cyprus (presently), and the Indian states of Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura. These countries and states do not fall under the definition of a communist state.
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 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. Thus, they recognize the sovereignty of the people as embodied in a series of representative parliamentary institutions. Communist states do not have a separation of powers; instead, they 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; 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 that is, most of the time its powers are transferred to a smaller council (often called a "presidium") which combines legislative and executive power, and, in some communist states, acts as a collective head of state. The presidium is usually composed of important communist party members and votes the resolutions of the communist party into law.
Another 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, etc.) which are integrated into the political system. In some communist states, representatives of these organizations are guaranteed a certain number of seats on the national legislative bodies. In all 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.
Communist states maintain their legitimacy by claiming to promote the long-term interests of the whole people, and communist parties justify their monopoly on political power by claiming to act in accordance with objective historical laws. Therefore, political opposition and dissent is regarded as counter-productive or even treasonous. Some communist states have more than one political party, but all minor parties are required to follow the leadership of the communist party. Criticism of proposed future policies is usually tolerated, as long as it does not turn into criticism of the political system itself. However, in accordance with the principles of democratic centralism, communist states usually do not tolerate criticism of policies that have already been implemented in the past or are being implemented in the present. However, communist states are widely seen as being de facto dictatorships by historians and sociologists, since the elections they held tended to be heavily rigged.
Communist states have been criticized for their one-party dictatorships; totalitarian control of the economy and society; repression of civil liberties; centralized economic planning resulting in enormous economic failures, including shortages of vital products, sometimes to the extent of famine; militarism; and propaganda to cover up the failures of the government. Communism itself does not necessarily advocate these actions and thus are some of the reasons for many communists regarding communist states as bastardizations of communism.
The following countries are one-party states in which the ruling party declares allegiance to Marxism-Leninism and in which the institutions of the party and of the state have become intertwined; hence they fall under the definition of Communist countries.
Countries where institutions of the communist party and state are intertwined:
Countries with democratically elected communist parties heading the government are:
The People's Republic of China is transiting toward a market economy. Laos has removed all the references to Marxism-Leninism, communism and socialism in the Constitution in 1991. Vietnam is "in transition toward socialism in the light of Marxism-Leninism" and Cuba is "a socialist state guided by ideas of Marx, Engels and Lenin and in transition to a communist society". While these countries share a similar system of government, they have adopted very different economic policies over the past 15 years.