Socialism may be something of a far-off concept as an existing thing for younger readers. The Soviet Bloc collapsed at the end of the 80s through to the start of the 90s and everything else seemed to fall with it. When it seemed that socialism was poised to seize the majority of the world, it simply disappeared. But did it really? It’s no secret that we here at YPT have some interest in socialist history (see also our logo), but it may be worth running through exactly where socialism stands in the world today.
Buckle up, this is gonna be a long one!
What is a Socialist Country?
First of all, we need to lay some ground rules though! What is a socialist country exactly? From a Marxist-Leninist (the most influential Marxist movement) conception, the one we shall be using for the purpose of this article, a socialist state requires at least three key aspects. Firstly, it must be led by a ‘vanguard party’, this being theorized as a party of the revolutionary proletariat operating under democratic centralism (that is, internal party democracy where decisions are upheld by the entire movement).
Secondly, private property must be limited. Private property is distinct from personal property, I should note. Private property is owned for the purpose of generating profit from its use for exchange while personal property exists only for personal use. Under advanced communism, all private property would disappear, while socialism is the stage whereby this private property is greatly diminished, particularly from the bourgeoisie (major capitalists) mainly through the collectivization of major industry and agriculture. There is however a fine line that Marxists often differ on, where limited free enterprise among individuals or collectives, without a capitalist property owner, is allowed.
Thirdly, production must primarily be for use, not exchange, essentially an end to commodity production. This links closely with the previous point, but it is possible to have ‘state capitalism’, where the property is held largely by state organs but is still used just to generate profit for its own sake and for the benefit of a bureaucratic class. In Chapter 4 of Capital, Marx explained the difference between worker and capitalist exchange as a formula of M-C-M versus C-M-C. M is for ‘Money’ and C is for ‘Commodity. The capitalist inputs money and generates a commodity which is sold for profit, which begins a cycle. (M-C-M) The worker produces a commodity or sells their labour AS a commodity, generates money from this transaction and uses this to buy a commodity for their own personal use. (C-M-C). Socialism would aim to limit the need for money, end M-C-M production and aim towards communism, a whole different topic for a whole different day.
Existing Socialist Countries
Party Foundation Monument, Pyongyang
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea/ North KoreaNo sense being coy about it, of course the DPRK is up there. It’s where we spend most of our time! It’s a big part of what makes it so fascinating! While there’s definitely a lot of debate over whether the DPRK is truly heading towards communism, it’s hard to deny the socialist credentials of the DPRK, even if they have certainly deviated in some ways.
So what is the DPRK exactly? We have discussed this matter before, but let’s address it again anyway. The DPRK abides by a philosophy known as Juche. Juche has variously been described as Socialism with Korean characteristics, Confucian socialism and a few other names by foreign observers. These don’t really get into the nitty-gritty details, so I’ll have a stab at it. Juche differs from classical Marxism-Leninism (which it is originally derived from) by moving somewhat away from Marx’s historical materialism to produce a ‘human centric’ view of socialism. To get an idea of this, we may have to look at the base/superstructure dialectic.
Basic description of Marx’s base-superstructure model
To unpack this difficult concept, the Marxist concept of ‘dialectics’ is drawn from the Hegelian dialectic, an idea that competing ideas can ultimately work to develop each-other by what can be called a ‘unity of opposites’. While Hegel applied this concept to ideas, Marx ‘turned Hegel on his head’ and developed historical materialism, later synthesized as ‘dialectical materialism’, which attempts to explain the history of world development through applying concepts of dialectical relations to material conditions. In this model, the ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ form a dialectical relationship of shaping and maintaining one-another, with the base remaining dominant. This is the logic that socialist countries need to have strong heavy industry to be successful and is a part of why the global socialist movement collapsed following the loss of the USSR, because their material conditions were theoretically not good enough for socialism anymore.
Juche (and to a degree some other ideologies like Maoism) would assert that the superstructure can override the base. While the DPRK’s industry was badly harmed during the 90s with the loss of the Soviet Union, ideological education was prioritized to unify the country and ensure the socialist project continued, albeit with some market compromises to try and prevent hardship during the arduous march. This was followed up with Songun policy, which attempted to advance a prior Marxist ideal that the proletariat was the most revolutionary class, instead pushing the military as the most unified and ideologically capable element of the working class, thereby being the most fit to carry the revolution forward. This was a way of leaning on the superstructure to circumvent the damage of the base, so to speak, with the unity of the military then used to develop industry and repair the base! This is the theory anyways.
But how does Korea line up with our three rules? Well, the Workers Party of Korea is unquestionably a vanguard party. It is the sole party, it focuses on ideological education and there is at least, to the best of our knowledge, democratic centralism. Property is massively controlled by the state or in collectives. While limited private enterprise exists, it’s largely on the individual level or through co-operatives, so it’s unlikely that there are actual capitalists in the traditional sense. (Outside of Rason Special Economic Zone, which is part of where the lines become blurred.) Lastly, what is their production? Well, it’s hard to really view what is going on within the country, but commodity production certainly doesn’t seem to be on the agenda. Trade with foreign countries is generally quite limited and is quite often more in the form of raw materials, as well as trading commodities for commodities which can be considered for use. Currency within the country is non-transferable on the international market and mostly exists to facilitate an internal flow of goods into the right hands, so not exactly generating massive profits for any capitalist. Production could be said to be, predominantly, for use and not for exchange. So that sums it all up nicely!
Cuban May Day parade
Republic of CubaCuba is the other major one everyone tends to think of. Having become already rather self-sufficient due to necessity, being so isolated from other socialist states and being embargoed by the US already, there was no need for a significant ideological change to justify the maintaining of socialism. Hardship ensued, but the country endured no major famine or other urgent need to begin reforms. All the same, reforms did begin on a certain scale into the latter years of Fidel Castro’s leadership.
Cuba maintains the old line of Marxism-Leninism, with its own particular Cuban flair of course. Unlike the DPRK, they were content to place their trust in the old ideology imported from the USSR. There’s less focus on ideological education (though it does exist) as the base of the model is still considered to be predominant, albeit with government leaning on the superstructure to keep things in line.
How does Cuba fare in our model? Well, the Communist Party of Cuba is absolutely a vanguard party, albeit there is a stronger degree of community participatory democracy in Cuba which is outside of the vanguard party’s direct control. This is natural according to Lenin’s theories of the role of the vanguard party moving into latter-stages of socialism. Private property has returned, but only to a limited degree, which is another area where the lines are getting rather close. Individuals and families often run B&Bs or restaurants to draw in some more money, while a small degree of private development from foreign countries has also been allowed to help boost the tourist sector. Despite this, outright capitalists in Cuba are largely nonexistent. The petty bourgeoisie maintains a present but the main bourgeoisie are marginalized. Lastly, we have the question of production. Cuba trades extensively with some other countries and people do produce certain commodities on an individual scale to generate a profit. On the whole, the means of production run by the state sector is still used for use, not commodities. Money in Cuba is primarily designed only to circulate internally, much like Korea. Overall, Cuba maintains a primarily socialist economy, though some may say that it skirts the line on this matter.
Market/Revisionist Socialist Countries
People’s Republic of ChinaLet’s get the big one out of the way quick. China, as led by Mao Zedong, was unquestionably (according to our metric) a socialist country for a very long period. This changed when General Secretary of the Communist Party of China changed to Deng Xiaoping and China began to develop a model of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. This theory is variously regarded as a progressive development in accordance with Chinese material conditions or a perverse rightist deviation from Marxism-Leninism as an attempt to return to capitalism under the cloak of socialism… Socialists have a flair for the dramatic, you may find.
The justification for this shift from the CPC itself is that the ‘base’ of China was not sufficiently developed for socialism. China emerged out of semi-feudalism to advance towards socialism, largely skipping an intermediate capitalist stage which is something Marx considered inadvisable. Deng and other likeminded Chinese leaders felt it was necessary to guide a capitalist process under the vanguard party with intentions of ‘developing productive forces’ until such a time as socialism can be practically returned to. They call this the ‘preliminary stage of socialism.’
Under our model, we can see where this places China. They absolutely have a vanguard party, the structure of the CPC is largely unchanged from the early socialist days. Private property however is quite a major stumbling block. Much of the property in China is in private hands, as well as being owned by foreign companies and used for the purpose of commodity production. Further, capitalists are abound in China, with many of the world’s billionaires residing within its borders. While it’s true that the Chinese government often cracks down on such figures if they break the laws set forth by the government, this does not fundamentally change their position as capitalists under CPC control. As for the nature of production in China, profit is absolutely the goal. The rich/poor divide grows larger all the time and private enterprises are enriched at the expense of non-profit state bodies, albeit often with more funneled towards those bodies. This would put China more towards a ‘social democratic’ structure, with high government spending and some control of private enterprise, but they largely have not interfered with the capitalist institution. By this metric, China does not qualify as a socialist state in full.
Vietnam Communist Party mural
Socialist Republic of Vietnam/Lao People’s Democratic RepublicI put these two together because they fall under the same kind of banner really. Influence was primarily drawn from the Chinese development of a kind of ‘market socialism’ for lack of a better term. Collectivization was gradually disbanded and capitalists set up shop within their borders, albeit with heavy state interference and the guiding hand of a vanguard party ever-present.
Both countries maintain their vanguard parties, the Communist Party of Vietnam and the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party are the sole leading parties of their respective nations and they hold considerable sway. Meanwhile capitalist enterprise operates heavily within their borders and production for exchange is the dominant mode, under the ideal of developing productive forces. These ideals were additionally stemmed from the policy of Mikhail Gorbachev known as ‘perestroika’ or ‘restructuring’, which many would argue was the prerequisite for the former Soviet states returning to capitalism. While perestroika facilitated economic reform away from socialism, Vietnam and Laos never followed the policy of ‘glasnost’ or ‘openness’ which greatly facilitated the rise of anti-party movements in Soviet bloc states. This maintained the vanguard structure while still retaining economic reform.
In most respects, the economic structures of these economies can be more closely compared to China. Laos has a lower industrial level but still allows heavy privatization and works closely with China in developing its economic model. Vietnam is much the same, with a stronger industrial core to back it up. Whether they return to traditional socialism and continue the Marxist-Leninist ideals of ending private property entirely is up for debate outside the scope of this blog post, but at this stage they are unquestionably not socialist states. States with socialist parties perhaps, but not states with existing socialism.
Bolivarian Republic of VenezuelaDoes Venezuela have socialism? No, is the quick answer, but that’s not particularly thorough. There’s a lot to get into when it comes to Venezuela, often being the posterchild of socialism from the American camp, as a way of showing the claimed desolation and poverty it brings. For this, we’ll have to dig into some history.
Venezuela does not have a vanguard party, which should be made clear. Rather than having a party that seizes control of the state and guides it on the socialist path, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela is an electoral party that lives or dies on the people’s vote, although there have been claims of election rigging. Even if this is true, it does not meet the criteria of a true vanguard party and has a legitimate opposition movement within the country. This is strike one.
Property in Venezuela is quite a mixture. The government has established collectives and ‘communes’ of a sort, where production is oriented towards use and where infrastructure is kept out of private hands. On the other hand, there is a massive amount of private property in Venezuela as well, with a wealthy capitalist class that controls a great deal of production and distribution. Some have said that it’s the conflict between socialist aims of the Venezuelan government and their inability, as a non-vanguard party, to bring the hammer down on such capitalist groupings that has resulted in a disrupted resource supply chain. Because of course, capitalists do not work without being paid, this is the simple law of M-C-M being messed with. This can lead to Venezuelan capitalists hoarding merchandise from government stores to sell on the black market instead, or simply refusing to deliver out of protest for low state-mandated prices. This contradiction can be seen to fuel many of the issues in Venezuela. There’s a strong argument to be made that this is the PSUV’s fault ultimately, while still others would accuse CIA meddling as being a major part of it, making the PSUV simply a victim of foreign intervention and unfair sanctions. The debate on this matter is long and seemingly unending, though it does not change the fact that this is unquestionably strike two.
As for production itself… Well, with capitalists overwhelmingly influential within the country, the lack of a vanguard party and other such things, it’s hard to deny that the primary mode of production is capitalist in nature. The PSUV has perhaps pushed for an alternative, but it clearly fails to be the dominant system. Certain things have seen amazing successes, such as the public housing missions, but most consumer products exist as commodities produced under M-C-M and obtained under C-M-C. This is strike three, ultimately disqualifying Venezuela from being a socialist country. Granted, Venezuela themselves have not called their country socialist. They may claim to be greatly inspired by socialism or working towards socialism, but their path is reformism rather than revolution. Much as China has stepped back towards capitalism with intents of obtaining socialism, Venezuela see’s it as necessary to transition away from capitalism rather than seizing the reins of power by force of arms.
Republic of NicaraguaNicaragua followed a rather similar trend to China, Vietnam and Laos but ultimately took a few steps further in reformism. After the Sandinista movement took power in Nicaragua as a Marxist-Leninist party along the lines of Cuba, there was ultimately a desire to begin a gradual reform towards socialism rather than pursuing the immediate collectivization of other socialist states. This soon transitioned into a move towards multi-party democracy, relinquishing vanguard status but still acquiring overwhelming control of the Nicaraguan government through democratic vote for a significant part of their post-revolution history, with some periods spent as opposition.
So how does Nicaragua fare in our earlier model? Well, they had a vanguard and lost it, so there’s our first strike. The reformist model saw great success in developing education, housing and healthcare as rights rather than commodities, but significant amounts of all three remain in for-profit private hands, while even more besides is developed entirely as part of commodity production. That covers strikes two and three quite neatly. While the Sandinista movement may be heading towards socialism, there are arguments even against this, with riots in the streets of Nicaragua over Sandinista government attempts to increase taxes while decreasing benefits, a seemingly rather state-capitalist move. Unquestionably, Nicaragua is not in of itself a socialist country.
Federal Democratic Republic of NepalNepal is often overlooked as a country ostensibly aiming towards socialism, which is strange considering just how big of a deal it’s been for their recent history. Nepalese Maoists began a protracted people’s war in 1996, long after the fall of socialism in much of the rest of the world, managing to nearly reach total victory before agreeing to peace accords in 2006. After a period in a transitional government, Nepal became a secular republic with a parliament almost overwhelmingly led by various communist parties, particularly Maoists under the banner of ‘Prachanda Path’, with even more still existing outside the government and wanting to continue people’s war until final military victory.
Ultimately, a series of party mergers led to the Nepal Communist Party becoming by far the largest party in Nepal’s government, holding an eclectic range of ideals which attempt to reconcile a Marxist-Leninist (Maoist) ideal and democratic centralism with multi-party democracy and a general respect for private property. The unique conditions of Nepal are naturally controversial in the Marxist sphere and constantly changing. There have been many schisms and mergers in the Nepali communist movement, attempting to find common ground between disappointment with their limited outcome and wishing to make the most of what they do have.
For our model of what makes a socialist country, despite having a Maoist party in power, arguably one of the most far-left communist ideologies there is, the Communist Party of Nepal is not a vanguard party, private property has not been relinquished and production has not shifted to being for use rather than for exchange. It thus fulfills none of the criteria and largely would fit alongside the China/Vietnam/Laos camp in terms of ideology, were it not for the lack of a vanguard party status. Though this is less to do with inherent ideology and more to do with the failure of the people’s war to achieve complete control of the country, instead reaching compromise through peace accord.
Syrian Arab RepublicA curious feature of Arab politics during the 20th century was the rise of the ‘non-aligned’ socialist movement. Many Arab nations were unwilling to directly align themselves with the likes of the Soviet Union or China, but they still felt they could take some left-wing influence. This could be seen in Libya’s Jamahiriya system, Egypt’s Nasserist politics and indeed, in the ‘Arab Socialism’ espoused by the Ba’athist movement throughout the region. Out of all these movements, including the rather different ‘Saddamist’ Ba’athism of pre-2003 Iraq, only Syrian Ba’athism remains from this curious trend. Emphasizing secularism, something of a vanguard party status and indeed some aspects of socialism itself, the Syrian Ba’ath party exists in coalition with many other far-left Syrian parties and could certainly be regarded as a reformist socialist movement. Granted, there’s a strong argument that the party has changed greatly since its inception. Hafez al-Assad is a very different man from his son Bashar al-Assad, the current (at time of writing) president.
Going by our model, it’s fairly unquestionable that Syria is not a socialist country. There may perhaps be some potential, but much of the earlier Arab Socialist rhetoric of Ba’athism has been lost in ruthless pragmatism to reconcile Islamic extremism, religious pluralism and strong Arab nationalism.
Non-Governing Socialist Parties
Plurinational State of Bolivia – Movement for SocialismBolivia would have been on the list of reformist states were it not for the 2019 military coup, ousting the ruling Movement for Socialism party led by president Evo Morales. The party spent a long period as the leading party in Bolivia, albeit not as a vanguard party and with a focus more on government expenditure for social services and protection of indigenous rights as opposed to a concerted effort towards a socialist economy. All the same, the MAS (Movement for Socialism) party was quite a significant force in its heyday and warrants particular mention.
Republic of Colombia – FARCWhile the conflict in Colombia has largely petered out at the time of writing, mass discontent within the ranks of decommissioned FARC members makes the possibility of return to civil war likely. Assassinations on Marxist leaders in the country have led to fears that FARC’s decision to enter into democratic elections was a mistake and that rather than channeling the ‘will of the people’, they will instead be wiped out. The guerrilla war waged by the Marxist-Leninist movement lasted decades and caused deaths in the hundreds of thousands. While it’s unclear if they have the potential to return to war again, the precedent has already been set.
Republic of India – Naxalite Movement AND KeralaIndia is often overlooked when people discuss socialism in the modern day, despite holding not one but two of the most significant socialist movements in the world today. Kerala is a state within India which has, for decades, been primarily led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) which, while not making this state a socialist one in the formula we described so very long ago, has achieved higher living standards than the majority of the rest of India.
On the other hand, there is the Communist Party of India (Maoist) otherwise known as the Naxalites, along with a group of other Maoist movements without formal connection. The CPI (Maoist) is an overtly revolutionary group with aims on overthrowing the Indian state through protracted people’s war and creating a socialist republic. There are preliminary stages such as ‘New Democracy’ which is unique to Maoist theory, but it is likely safe to say that what the Naxals intend is approximate to what our model would describe as a socialist country. The exact specifics and the success of their implementation is, however, a question for a whether or not they ever succeed. With their revolutionary bases seemingly in decline, it does not seem particularly likely.
Republic of the Philippines – Communist Party of the Philippines/New People’s ArmyMuch like with India, there is a protracted people’s war ongoing in the Philippines and there has been one ongoing for many, many decades now. While major gains by the Filipino communists have not been seen in quite a while, there are revolutionary bases in the jungles and an active conflict is ongoing with the state. Again, much like the Indian communists, the CPP is Maoist, seeing a need to fight by means of protracted people’s war, choke off the state and seize control. According to their ideology at the very least, their success would mean a fulfillment of our socialist criteria. Granted… It’s hard to say how well they would do with this. After all, the fulfillment of a certain criteria does not mean the fulfillment of a utopia.
Republic of Peru – Communist Party of Peru (Shining Path)Last but not least, we have the Shining Path. Much diminished now, they are nonetheless vital to mention due to their near-success. Once again, we have a Maoist party, though the PCP (Partido Comunista del Perú, so as to differentiate from the Filipino CPP which would share an acronym in English) would describe itself as Marxist-Leninist-Maoist Gonzalo-Thought. Much like Nepal with their ideological leader Prachanda, the Peruvian communists had a leader in Abimael Guzman, otherwise known as Presidente Gonzalo, an ideological figurehead intended to place alongside Lenin and Mao.
Unlike the Naxalites and the Filipino Maoists, the PCP came very close to winning their people’s war, while unlike the Nepali Maoists, there was no intention to ever capitulate to government peace talks. In 1992, the countryside was nearly controlled by Maoist guerrillas and the party had moved into the shantytowns of the capital of Lima, Peru, ready to begin the final offensive and create a new socialist state right as the old ones were disappearing to nothing behind them. Ultimately, Gonzalo was captured and the war began to fizzle out, with the guerrillas now isolated in only a few jungle hotspots.
What the PCP represents is a new stage in the revolutionary Marxist movement, having completely disassociated themselves with the socialists of the past (regarding every existing socialist movement at the time as revisionist, unworthy of the socialist label and essentially an enemy) while nearly securing victory in their home country. Of course, they failed. Their legacy however seems to live on, with the majority of militant Marxist movements having picked up the banner of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism that was first theorized by the PCP in the mid-1980s. Will this mean a new Cold War stage is on the cusp of appearing? …Maybe not. But you can never be quite sure, can you?
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