There have been two major communist governments, the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. Some others, useful for analysis because they differ in some respect from the general pattern include Yugoslavia, Albania, North Korea, North Vietnam and Cuba. All European communist governments abandoned communism in the early 1990s. The People's Republic of China has significantly modified its system and now deviates from the general pattern. Cuba and Vietnam remain communist states, but differ somewhat from the general pattern. North Korea remains a traditional totalitarian communist country.
The history of communist governments since 1917 is varied and complex, but it is possible to make some valid generalizations which apply to most examples: communist governments have been characterized by public ownership of productive resources in a centrally planned economy of the Soviet-type, or a mixed economy like China's "socialism with Chinese characteristics"; and sweeping campaigns of economic restructuring such as nationalization of industry and land reform, in the forms of quasi-private agriculture in China, collective farming, or state farms. In some communist states, such as the Stalinist-era Soviet Union, a large secret police apparatus closely monitors the population. Autocratic methods are often employed to crush opposition.
Communist countries have sometimes leaped ahead of contempary capitalistic countries, offering guaranteed employment and health care and generous social and cultural programs, often administered by labor organizations. Universal education programs have been a strong point, as has the generous provision of universal health care. Central economic planning has in certain instances produced dramatic advances in selected areas, for example, rapid development of heavy industry during the 1930s in the Soviet Union and later in their space program. Another example is the development of the pharmaceutical industry in Cuba. Early advances in the status of women were also notable, especially in Islamic areas of the Soviet Union.
The nature of each example of the communist state differs widely both between countries and within each individual state. Policies which incorporate the policies and techniques of the orthodox Stalinist state of the 1930s are characteristically more totalitarian, impoverished, militaristic, and static as can be seen in the examples of North Korea and Albania. Attempts to incorporate democratic principles as in the case of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, socialist principles as in Yugoslavia, or capitalistic techniques as in China result in some mitigation of the negative features of the communist state but sometimes result in dynamic situations which may undermine the control of the party over the state or even lead to its collapse.
A communist government typically arises during a time of general international unrest as a result of a revolution led by a national communist party. Such a party may have operated illegally for a period prior to the revolution and have developed a disciplined and effective structure and a cadre of competent committed leaders marked by both idealism and great skill at organizing successfully among the disaffected classes of the preceding state, generally workerss intellectuals and, especially in the case of China, peasants. Following a successful revolution, a switch in orientation must be made from seizing power to building a new society.
The application of orthodox communist doctrine to development of a country and building of socialist institutions has historically proven to be inefficient and problematic. Over time, faced with practical difficulties, members of a communist government gradually lose faith in their system and eventually a communist state may collapse even with considerable public support among the general population simply because it is seen by its leadership to not work. See Collapse of the Soviet Union.
Communism as a form of government
In the 20th century, a number of Communist parties organized successful coups or revolutions and established governments in various countries; currently they are the only legal, governing parties in China, Cuba, North Korea, Laos, and Vietnam after the dismantlement of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.
Communist parties and Worker's in power draw on the writings of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin for inspiration and legitimacy. Towards the end of the 20th Century nearly one third of the world's population was ruled by Communist governments. Today, the figure is one quarter. Although they promote collective ownership of the means of production, they are also characterized by strong state apparatuses. Many have characterized the old Soviet command model as "state socialism" or "state capitalism".
The dominant form of communism today is based on Marxism and is sometimes called Marxism-Leninism, a theory of history in terms of class relations based on a political and economic philosophy derived from the teachings of Karl Marx. Various revolutionaries in the twentieth century have contributed to Marxist theory, especially Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Mao Zedong. In the twentieth century, a number of countries attempted to put Marx's ideas into practice, especially in the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China; at various times they have had to allow or even encourage certain forms of private property. China today is moving toward more market allocation, what they call "market socialism" or "socialism with Chinese characteristics". Communist China claims to have preserved socialism under this framework, sustaining the world's highest rate of per capita economic growth for over two decades.
Communist theory claims that capitalist systems exist through the exploitation of the working class by the ruling class and argues that this system is destined to be replaced by a classless communist stage of society, after the socialist state "withers away". However, critics have often claimed that as practiced in nations such as the former Soviet Union it created a new division of power (see nomenklatura). The term is also used to refer to historical instances of totalitarian socialism (as distinct from democratic socialism).
Regimes described as communistic have, according to most Western observers, generally been despotic and extremely abusive of human rights. Examples are the Soviet Union, the [[Peoples Republic of China|People's Republic of China]] and Cuba. Democratic movements that arose within a framework of communist theory, such as that instituted by Alexander Dubcek in Czechoslovakia's Prague Spring, have been forcibly put down.
In Marxist theory, communism is the final stage of social development, coming after socialism. Marx specified that the workers would rise up to destroy capitalism and replace it with socialism, but he did not explain how socialism would transform into communism, which anti-communists consider a serious theoretical flaw. In theory, prior to this final stage, the state holds the property on behalf of its citizens.
The term "communism" and ideology has a history that predates Marx, however, closely associated with libertarian socialism (also known as anarchism, though that term has come to be associated with other political philosophies). According to Marxist theory, the state will eventually wither away because the class divisions that underlie the existence of the state will have disappeared. Prior to this final stage, however, state ownership is supposed to exist during a what is ostensibly a transitional period that Marxist theory describes as socialist. No Marxist government actually claimed to have instituted a "communist" society; instead, the official doctrines of these regimes held that their governments were only transitional socialist regimes.
There are various kinds of communism or socialism; some kinds of communism are varieties of ideology, while others are terms for practices or styles of governance. Marxism holds--among other things--that human history has had and will have a developmental structure, alternating between slow development of technology/economy (and the according philosophy/religion) and a rapidly changing short period of technology/economy.
The short-lived Paris Commune of 1871, a brief revolutionary government after the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War, was an early attempt at instituting a socialist regime, and Marx wrote approvingly of it. Bolshevism and Menshevism were also two early forms of communism-in-practice, advocated by Russian (mainly ex-patriate) communists in the late 19th and early 20th century; the Mensheviks favored peaceful change, while Bolsheviks called for, and eventually organised, a revolution, putting power in the hands of the soviets of workers and peasants. Leninism is the name given to Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin's system of thought, which emphasises a type of governming structure known as democratic centralism, and the need to spread the revolution to other countries, and to exclude any compromise with the bourgeoisie.
Lenin's rule gave way to Joseph Stalin's and Stalin's style of communist dictatorship is known as Stalinism; Stalin's government was violently repressive of individual liberties and of political dissidents and featured more five-year plans as well as massive industrialization, as a means of constructing socialism in one country. Leon Trotsky opposed the doctrine of "socialism in one country", and criticized Stalin's regime as being a "bureaucratically deformed" worker's state. Followers of Trotsky are known as Trotskyists.