The writings of Karl Marx forever changed the way we discuss the interaction of economy and social class. Throughout human history, the classes in power used everything from force to religious superstition to hold the lower classes in subservience. Marx made the claim that it was the interactions of commerce that defined the ways in which people related to one another, meaning the so-called "divine right" of kings was nothing more than a myth. Simply put, the royal families that ruled countries from Great Britain in the west to Russia in the east had simply used their existing power to hold the people back.
The right response, according to Marx, was a worldwide uprising of the proletariat, the working masses. It was in the weakened, formerly Tsarist state of Russia where the socialist ideas of Marx first led to a Communist government. Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky led a movement that ultimately overthrew the post-Tsar provisional government in 1917. The ravages of the Great War, combined with a public that considered the monarch incompetent, cemented the downfall of the Romanovs and the ascendancy of the Communist state.
As Soviet influence grew throughout the rest of the twentieth century, many other countries turned to Communism, with 24 countries in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and North America joining the USSR in rejecting classist systems. The phenomenon was relatively short-lived. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, most of the countries that had installed Communist governments under Soviet pressure replaced their regimes with more pluralistic governments. However, there are still five major Communist countries left, surviving under the protection of the last Communist superpower, the People's Republic of China.
A look at these countries shows how the ideas of Karl Marx have changed when put into actual practice. While the remaining Communist countries hold to their ideologies as much as they can, the socialist vision of Marx has had to undergo significant transformation to stay relevant in today’s global economy. His original vision has long been abandoned, but these five countries still carry forward his legacy.
5 Vietnam (Est. 1976)
At the end of the First Indochina War, Vietnam was partitioned into two halves. This separation was meant to be temporary in nature, but North Vietnam quickly became Communist with support from the Soviet Union. South Vietnam remained democratic, receiving aid from the United States. War soon broke out, and after two decades of conflict, Vietnam reunited in 1976 as a Communist nation. For its first ten years as a Communist nation, Vietnam remained staunchly true to the principles of Marxist-Leninist governance. By 1986, its economic and political isolation made it clear that the country needed to reach out to the international community.
The ensuing political and economic reforms started Vietnam on a path toward acceptance within the global economy. Between 2000 and today, the economic growth of Vietnam has been among the developing world's highest, earning it an invitation into the World Trade Organization in 2007. In spite of these reforms, the nation still has significant income inequality, inequitable access to doctors, and considerable gender inequality. Its market reforms have made it significantly different than it would have been had it stayed true to Marxism. Had it chosen that route, it is likely that the country might have collapsed. Like most Communist countries, Vietnam had to adopt some capitalist principles to survive.
4 Laos (Est. 1975)
In 1975, Laos underwent an internal revolution that both the Soviet Union and Vietnam supported. The end result, predictably, was a Communist nation. Today, Laos is a one-party socialist republic that claims Marxism as its political ideology. Its governing body is a communist committee that is run by generals in the military. Both the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the Vietnam People's Army play a strong role in Laos, as Vietnam retains the right to station military forces and assign advisers to assist with the administration of the country. In 1979, Vietnam asked Laos to cut relations with the People's Republic of China, leaving Laos in isolation when it came to trade.
An ongoing rebellion by the Hmong minority in Laos has left the country in turmoil. Between 1975 and 1996, the United States resettled about 130,000 Hmong refugees who were fleeing the country's repression. The Laotian government has faced accusations of genocide, as well as religious freedom and human rights violations against the Hmong. The country's economic paralysis suggests that the Communist experiment has put the country in financial jeopardy.
3 Cuba (Est. 1965)
The only remaining Communist country outside of Asia, Cuba underwent revolution in 1959, leading to the installation of Fidel Castro as the nation's ruler. The country became fully Communist in 1961, with the downfall of former president Fulgencio Batista. Since 1965, the Communist Party has governed Cuba as a single-party state. Fidel Castro’s government was not greeted with open arms. From 1959 to 1966, Cubans fought against Castro's rule, until the government's use of the military eventually quelled the insurgency. Between 1959 and 1962, the American State Department estimates that the Cuban regime executed about 3,200 people for political crimes. Other estimates go as high as 33,000.
While the Communist revolution was first seen as good news in America, with people seeing it as a first attempt to bring harmony to Latin America, the parade of public trials and executions elevated tension between the two countries. Between 1960 and 1962, a series of attempts on the part of the United States to eliminate of Castro failed. In 1962, the Organization of American States (OAS) suspended Cuba, a move just shy of imposing sanctions. By 1963, though, Cuba was on the way to becoming a complete Communist system. Its later inclusion of market economics, however, takes it away from the vision of true Communism, even though it has meant longer success for the nation.
2 North Korea (Est. 1948)
Japan took over Korea in 1910, and in the aftermath of the war, Korea was split into an American-backed south and a Soviet-defended north, with North Korea turning to Communism in 1948. In 1950, the conflicts over sovereignty led to the Korean War, which raged until 1953, when an armistice brought about a cease-fire. Without a treaty, though, the countries are still technically at war. North Korea refers to itself as a socialist republic, meaning that it holds elections, however, the country acts more like a dictatorship, and has erected an elaborate cult of personality around the ruling Kim family.
The family became constitutionally placed into hereditary rulership in the country in 2013. While the Workers' Party of Korea holds nominal power within the country, it is the Kims who control the nation. The country claims to operate according to the ideals of Juche, who has more to do with self-reliance than with contributions to a collective society, rather than Marxism-Leninism. In 2009, all references to Communism were taken out of the nation's constitution. While the country remains under China's protection, it has more of a tin pot reputation than some of the other Communist nations still out there.
1 China (Est. 1921)
The Communist Party of China goes all the way back to 1921, when the party formed in Shanghai. Soon after the party was created, a civil war broke out in China, running all the way through to 1949. The Communists defeated the Republic of China Armed Forces, and assumed total control of the country. The Republic of China's government fled to Taiwan, where it remains to this day. Mao Zedong, who had led the initial Communist government in China, had fallen out of influence, but he roared back to power through the Cultural Revolution of 1966.
The movement sought to eliminate all cultural, traditional and capitalist influences from Chinese society. The resulting conflict between young Chinese Communist revolutionaries and the country’s upper classes paralyzed the nation both socially and economically. When it became clear that Mao's ideas would ruin the nation, late 70s leader Deng Xiaoping sought to incorporate market economics into the Communist ideology, an idea that led to the quick and sustained growth that has made China a modern superpower. These principles of market capitalism are what separate Chinese Communism from the original roots of the movement.