This contrasts with governments in multi-party systems, in which the governing elites, though they emerge from highly disciplined political parties, govern through state rather than party structures, and exercise less control over the state and economy. It also contrasts with those one-party states where the party is based on fundamentalist religious or on non-Leninist nationalistic principles, and states with military dictatorships.
In terms of English usage "communist state" needs to be distinguished from "Communist state". Whereas the former is a generic term applicable to political systems, style guides tend to restrict the use of latter to circumstances where a state is governed by a formally organized "Communist Party".
In the twentieth century, a number of countries were communist states, most notably the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. The twenty-first century communist states are the People's Republic of China, Cuba, North Korea, Laos and Vietnam, though all have evolved politically and economically from their original form (and arguably away from the definition of a communist state).
This article is an exposition of the formal and semi-formal mechanisms of government and constitutional workings in communist countries. For a more general discussion of the practical consequences of communist rule, see communist government.
Theory and practice
Communist states themselves do not use that name to describe themselves. Within Marxist theory, world communism is the final evolutionary phase of society at which time the state would have withered away. For them communism refers to the ideal stateless, propertyless, and classless society in which is no oppression or exploitation. Supporters of current Marxist-Leninist regimes consider these states to be practicing socialism, and not communism. In addition, current states are either in the capitalist or socialist phase of history, and the role of the Communist Party is to pull a nation toward the communist phase of history by first implementing socialism.
Political scientists, however, have developed the concept of communist state to reflect claims made by Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and others that the revolutionary state must be a "dictatorship of the proletariat," and that the working class is represented by the Communist Party. In practice, according to this theory, state and the party are effectively identical, and govern all aspects of the society -- economic and cultural, as well as political.
In the Soviet Union for example, the General Secretary of the Communist Party did not necessarily hold a state office like president or prime minister to effectively control the system of government. Instead party members answerable to or controlled by the party held these posts, often as honorific posts as a reward for their long years of service to the party. On other occasions, having governed as General Secretary, the party leader might assume a state office in addition. For example, Mikhail Gorbachev initially did not hold the presidency of the Soviet Union, that office being given as an honor to a former Soviet Foreign Minister.
Marxism-Leninism sees restrictions on state power to be an unnecessary interference in the goal of pulling the society toward communism. Within most communist states there are no restrictions in theory and few restrictions in practice on the power of the state, resulting in state structures which are either totalitarian or authoritarian. Some political scientists have argued that there are deep similarities between communist states and fascist ones and that both are examples of totalitarian states.
One controversial doctrine that was popular in the 1980s was the Kirkpatrick doctrine which argued that communist states were inherently "totalitarian" while right-wing dictatorships which the United States supported were "authoritarian".
Many Marxists and Marxist-Leninists argue that most communist states do not actually adhere to Marxism-Leninism but rather to a perversion heavily influenced by Stalinism. This critique is particularly strong among social democrats and some critical theorists who hold that Marxism is correct as a social and historical theory, but that it can only be implemented within a multiparty democracy. Trotskyistss argue that the bureaucratic and repressive nature of communist states differs from Lenin's vision of the socialist state.
Anti-Marxist one party states such as Nazi Germany and authoritarian regimes such as 1960s Republic of China (on Taiwan) do not adhere to Marxism-Leninism and are therefore not communist states. Conversely, the governments of the Indian states of Kerala and West Bengal, while ruled by communist parties, operate in a multiparty framework.
Communist states which have existed during the 20th century include the Soviet Union, (and its satellite states Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Mongolia), the People's Republic of China, Albania, Yugoslavia, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos and North Korea. For brief periods communist regimes existed in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique and in other developing countries.
The Soviet Union, its satellites (including Mongolia and Romania), Yugoslavia, (which under Josip Broz Tito consistently protected its independence from Moscow) and the hard-line Stalinist regime in Albania, abandoned communism in the early 1990s. The People's Republic of China has modified its system and now significantly deviates from the general pattern. Cuba, Vietnam and Laos remain communist states, but differ somewhat from the general pattern. North Korea remains a traditional totalitarian communist state.
People's Republic of China
In Mainland China, it has been firmly established that the party is subordinate to the state and the state has the power to regulate the party. This and the receding of the Chinese state from the economy has caused some political scientists to question the applicability of the term communist to the Chinese governing elite, and thus whether the term communist state remains an accurate description of the Chinese governmental system.
However, Marxism-Leninism constitutionally remains the basis of the Chinese state and the Communist Party of China retains extensive influence over the state. Furthermore, although the Marxism-Leninism has been reinterpreted to allow extensive debate on some economic and political issues, the validity of Marxism-Leninism is still not subject to open debate. As a result, the term communist state is used by many, though not all, political scientists to describe China's current system of government.
For a complete discussion, see Politics of the People's Republic of China.