Communism is an economic and social policy that engages in mass, forced, social engineering with the aim to achieve a classless society characterized by collective ownership of capital and eradication of poverty.
It aims create a pro-peasant and anti-capitalist society based on the philosophy of Marxism.
Much of the story of the 20th Century was the struggle between capitalism and communism. With the Fall of the USSR and massive economic liberalization in China, the century closed with the triumph of the capitalism model.
Resultantly, every country that attempted to institute communist reforms such as agricultural collectivization and total nationalization of business and industry has failed.
Today, most of the communist nations of the 20th Century embrace private industry and ownership of capital and have either transitioned to democracy or remain authoritarian dictatorships with communism in name only.
Two interesting exceptions are North Korea and Nepal, which will be discussed below.
A note: We’re discussing communism here – the ideology of eradication of private ownership of capital and state collectivization. Social Democracies and mixed-market economies such as the Scandinavian nations are not communist, but do embrace elements of socialism.
1. Soviet Union (USSR)
Dates: 1922 – 1991
The Soviet Union was the world’s first communist state. It was established in 1922 following the Bolshevik Revolution, which overthrew the Russian Empire.
Throughout its lifetime, the Soviet Union was widely renowned for its oppressive authoritarian government, including some of the most horrendous acts of genocide against its own subjects, such as Stalin’s planned famine in the 1930s known as Holodomor.
Given its 70-year lifespan, the country went through a range of policies, but some core communist policies implemented in the USSR included:
- The Second Revolution: Stalin collectivized agriculture and placed it in the hands of peasant cooperatives
- Dictatorship of the Proletariat: A concept from Lenin that justifies state authoritarian rule arguing that either you can have a capitalist dictatorship or a communist dictatorship because democracy does not work.
- Forced Labor: Despite communism’s claim that it is capitalism that exploits labor, the USSR resorted to forced labor on several occasions, but most evidently in the 1930s.
- Forced Atheism: Under multiple communist dicatorships, we see atheism either forced or encouraged as it is seen as a threat to communist hegemony.
Dates: 1949 – Present
Communism in China was established in 1949 after the communists won the civil war under the leadership of Chairman Mao.
The nation remains ostensibly communist today. However, following the disaster of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, China instituted economic reforms in the late 1970s that were, clearly, capitalist-oriented.
Prior to China’s economic reformation, under the Cultural Revolution, many of the common hallmarks of communist rule could be seen, including:
- Collectivized Agriculture: Private ownership of agriculture was banned and “people’s communes” were established. Collectivization began in 1953 and, typically, by 1959, famine had spread throughout China.
- Forced resettlement of intellectuals and scholars: Between the 1950s and 1970s, over 17 million youths considered to be urban intellectuals were forced to work in farms under the Down to the Countryside Movement. Forced resettlement is a common feature of communist rule (as we will see in the Cambodia experience, as well).
- Indoctrination: To this day, China engages in indoctrination through complete control of the press and even re-education camps for Uyghur Muslims.
The failure of the Cultural Revolution led to economic reforms that gave us the China we know today – an ostensibly communist government that, nevertheless, allows for great concentration of wealth, extensive real estate investment, the growth of multinational corporations, one of the largest stock exchanges in the world, and freedom to start a business. In all but name, China is now an authoritarian state capitalist dictatorship after the failure of communism.
Dates: 1959 – Present
Communist Cuba began in 1959 with the victory of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s guerilla army against the ruling pro-USA puppet regime.
Cuba’s experience of communism (much like Vietnam’s) has a strong nationalist orientation, where the communists were able to draw-in nationalists who wanted to expel American imperialism.
After taking control, Cuba also collectivized agriculture and instituted a fully government-controlled command economy.
Many socialists claim that Cuba’s poverty and failed policies have been due to the American embargo which has, clearly, prevented Cuba from having markets to engage in trade with.
And clearly, there were some victories under Cuban communism. One, for example, was the fact Cuba is one of the few latin-American nations that has managed to keep out the dr*g growing and smuggling industry.
Nevertheless, consistent with nearly every other attempt at communism in the 20th Century, reforms came about that began to allow people to run their own businesses, effectively transitioning to an an authoritarian state dictatorship with elements of capitalism such as competition and entrepreneurship reluctantly tolerated.
Dates: 1975 – Present
Communism came to North Vietnam in the 1950s and, following their victory in the Vietnam War, The Communist Party of Vietnam united the nation in 1975.
One of the first policies implemented by the communists was (you guessed it) the collectivization of agriculture. During this period, the government dictated which crops should be grown where.
The farmers, with knowledge of which crops were best for the land, we overruled, leading to forced inefficient farming practices.
Many southern farmers resented the fact that they had to give up their land to cooperatives, grow the crops the farmers wanted, and sell their goods directly to the government at a set price – much lower than they were used to.
As with both the Chinese and USSR experiences, famine rapidly followed collectivization of farming. This exacerbated the mass exodus of refugees (many of whom were persecuted for collaborating with the Americans). These refugees came to be known as the boat people, and many died at sea trying to get to freedom.
Also similar to the Chinese and Cuban experiences, even the governments conceded that their policies were ineffective, and in the 1990s, Vietnam instituted the doi moi reforms that decollectivized agriculture and legalized private business practices.
Today, in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), where I am writing this article, I look out the window at skyscrapers plastered with advertising for multinational corporations, I can go out for a burger at McDonald’s. And I can purchase products from the many legal businesses lining the streets.
Like with Cuba and China, the Vietnamese attempt at communism failed.
New generations of leadership are more committed to entrenching their corrupt authoritarian power and prosecuting political dissent than they are to implementation of communist economic or social policies.
Dates: 1975 – 1979
Cambodia’s story of communism is tied in with Pol Pot – an avid communist who aggressively pursued a communist utopia.
Pol Pot came to power in 1975 following a civil war. After seizing power, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge immediately emptied the cities, forcing people into the countryside to work in forced labor camps on government-owned farms. Private commercial fishing was also banned.
Intellectuals and working professionals were seen as enemies of the working-class, leading to mass genocide of teachers, doctors, and people who wore glasses. During this period, many people were murd*red or starved, with up to 24% of society dying in the 4 years of Pol Pot’s communist rule.
Fear of a Vietnamese invasion caused Pol Pot to wage a preemptive invasion of Vietnam. Vietnam retaliated and flushed Pol Pot from power.
After Vietnam’s invasion in 1979, Cambodia maintained a watered-down version of a communist dicatorship that was a Vietnam puppet government.
After Vietnamese withdrawal in the 1990s, a new referendum was put in place, and by 1993, all references to socialism and communism were scrubbed from the constitution. Today, the nation has slipped into an authoritarian dictatorship operating a state capitalism system, with unfree elections, under former communist Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Dates: 1975 – Present
For the past 60 years, Lao’s destiny has largely been determined by Vietnam. After the communist victory in Vietnam in 1975, the Laotians knew that their own Civil War would also soon end.
By December 1975, the king had abdicated and one party communist rule began.
The communists in Laos followed a typical communist playbook: banning western decadence (including cinema, nightclubs, and Western music), restriction of freedom of movement, and collectivization of agriculture.
And just like the communist playbook, the economic reforms were devastating, and by 1979, agricultural collectivization was reversed and social policies were relaxed.
In 1990, when funding from the failing USSR dried up, Laos turned to Japan and France for emergency money. They insisted on economic liberalization in exchange for aid, leading to further market reforms.
In 2007, Laos finally lifted its ban on foreign investment and corporations, allowing international firms to flood into the country.
Laos remains a poor nation, but as with their communist and former-communist nations, economic liberalization has helped.
Nevertheless, traveling through Laos, you see the hammer and sickle flag lining the streets everywhere.
Symbolically, Laos remains committed to communism, but de facto, Laos is yet another authoritarian dictatorship that has through its policy reforms conceded that communism is a complete disaster.
7. North Korea
Dates: 1948 – Now
North Korea is perhaps the last case of a communist dictatorship that continues to enforce a hardline communist command economy.
To achieve their total government control over the economy, North Korea stands as one of the most oppressive dictatorships in history.
Officially, the North Korean government owns all industries and has enforced collective farming since 1964. Farmers must provide their produce to the government which is then redistributed via food stamps, known as the Public Distribution System (PDS).
This system dicates how much food people can consume. During the 1997 famine, the PDS allotment got as low as 30 grams per person per day.
8. East Germany
Dates: 1949 – 1990
After WWII, administration of Germany was split between the victors. East Germany was allotted to the USSR, which promptly set up a communist government dictatorship.
East Germany’s experience of communism was, predictably, disastrous. Farming was collectivized in 1959, farmers lost ownership of their own land to the government, and the government set the prices of all goods and services.
So many East Germans attempted to flee to the wealthier and freer Western-owned side of Berlin that the communists established a wall – the Berlin Wall – and soldiers were commanded to shoot anyone attempting to flee.
The fall of the Berlin wall in 1990 led to not only the fall of communism in Germany, but was also a domino in the fall of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe.
Dates: 1948 – 1989
Czechoslovakia was a socialist state that was a member of the Warsaw Pact until the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
During the period of communism, agriculture was collectivized under the 1960 constitution that banned private ownership. This was followed by the predicatable need for subsidization of agriculture in order for the farmers to continue to survive.
But the most memorial feature of communism in Czechoslovakia was the mass show trials that saw the execution of over 180 dissidents who spoke out against the repression of freedoms. Inevitably, under dictatorship, freedom of speech is extensively suppressed.
Fortunately, the Velvet Revolution was a mostly peaceful overhaul of communism, returning Czechoslovakia to democracy.
Dates: Various times from 1994 – Present
One of the most interesting case studies of communism, Nepal’s democratic society regularly voluntarily elects communist parties under free and fair elections.
There are several communist parties in Nepal, with all three main communist parties continuing to commit to multi-party democracy. However, the current Maoist government was part of a civil war in the early 2000s before deciding to enter the political mainstream.
This fragile multi-party democracy makes Nepalese communism vastly different to the practices in the other communism examples in this list, but also gives the communist governments enhanced legitimacy.
Nepal is a very closed-off nation that is undoubtedly dominantly leftist. Despite the nation’s constitution containing a commitment to transition to socialism, the nation still allows private businesses, private ownership of capital, and even a stock exchange for the trade of capital on an open market – all key features of capitalism, not communism.
Read Next: Pros and Cons of Socialism
While communism may sound good from a Marxist, Maoist, or Leninist theoretical perspective, in practice it leads to mass repression of dissent, authoritarian rule, and disastrous economic consequences. It is antithetical to freedom, economically inefficient, and tends to be incompatible with democracy (with, perhaps, the exception of the Nepalese experience which is at best a work-in-progress).
However, there are nations that have aimed for social equality and economic and political freedom. These nations – often labelled social democratic nations – tend to have positive social outcomes as well as positive economic outcomes. Here, I refer to nations from Northern Europe in particular. This is not to say they are perfect, but they incorporate elements of socialism for the protection of the needy as well as elements of capitalism to achieve wealth, productivity, and efficiency. This, I contest, is a far better aspiration that shaves the rough edges off capitalism without ruining economies.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]