During the time of the Soviet Union (1922-1991), communist countries could be found in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa. Some of these nations, like the People’s Republic of China, were (and still are) global players in their own right. Other communist countries, such as East Germany, were essentially satellites of the U.S.S.R. that played a significant role during the Cold War but no longer exist.
Communism is both a political system and an economic one. Communist parties have absolute power over governance, and elections are single-party affairs. The party controls the economic system as well, and private ownership is illegal, although this facet of communist rule has changed in some countries like China.
By contrast, socialist nations are generally democratic with multiparty political systems. The Socialist Party does not have to be in power for socialist principles, such as a strong social safety net and government ownership of key industries and infrastructure, to be part of a nation’s domestic agenda. Unlike communism, private ownership is encouraged in most socialist nations.
The basic principles of communism were articulated in the mid-1800s by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, two German economic and political philosophers. But it wasn’t until the Russian Revolution of 1917 that a communist nation — the Soviet Union — was born. By the middle of the 20th century, it appeared that communism could supersede democracy as the dominant political and economic ideology. Yet today, only five communist countries remain in the world.
China (People’s Republic of China)
Mao Zedong took control over China in 1949 and proclaimed the nation as the People’s Republic of China, a communist country. China has remained consistently communist since 1949 although economic reforms have been in place for several years. China has been called “Red China” due to the Communist Party’s control over the country.
China does have political parties other than the Communist Party of China (CPC), and open elections are held locally throughout the country. That said, however, the CPC has control over all political appointments, and little opposition typically exists for the ruling Communist Party.
As China has opened up to the rest of the world in recent decades, the resulting disparities of wealth have eroded some of the principles of communism, and in 2004 the country’s constitution was changed to recognize private property.
Cuba (Republic of Cuba)
A revolution in 1959 led to the takeover of the Cuban government by Fidel Castro and his associates. By 1961, Cuba became a fully communist country and developed close ties to the Soviet Union. At the same time, the United States imposed a ban on all trade with Cuba. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba was forced to find new sources for trade and financial subsidies, which the nation did, with countries including China, Bolivia, and Venezuela.
In 2008, Fidel Castro stepped down, and his brother, Raul Castro, became president; Fidel died in 2016. Under U.S. President Barack Obama, relations between the two nations were relaxed and travel restrictions loosened during Obama’s second term. In June 2017, however, President Donald Trump tightened travel restrictions on Cuba.
Laos (Lao People’s Democratic Republic)
North Korea (DPRK, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea)
Korea, which was occupied by Japan in World War II, was divided following the war into a Russian-dominated north and American-occupied south. At the time, no one thought the partition would be permanent.
North Korea did not become a communist country until 1948 when South Korea declared its independence from the North, which quickly declared its own sovereignty. Backed by Russia, Korean communist leader Kim Il-Sung was installed as leader of the new nation.
The North Korean government doesn’t consider itself communist, even if most world governments do. Instead, the Kim family has promoted its own brand of communism based on the concept of Juche (self-reliance).
First introduced in the mid-1950s, juche promotes Korean nationalism as embodied in the leadership of (and cultlike devotion to) the Kims. Juche became official state policy in the 1970s and was continued under the rule of Kim Jong-il, who succeeded his father in 1994, and Kim Jong-un, who rose to power in 2011.
In 2009, the country’s constitution was changed to remove all mention of the Marxist and Leninist ideals that are the foundation of communism, and the very word communism was also removed.
Vietnam (Socialist Republic of Vietnam)
Following two decades of war, the two parts of Vietnam were unified, and in 1976, Vietnam as a unified country became communist. Like other communist countries, Vietnam has in recent decades moved toward a market economy that has seen some of its socialist ideals supplanted by capitalism. The U.S. normalized relations with Vietnam in 1995 under then-President Bill Clinton.