In Depth

Countries that are still socialist today

Debate over the pros and cons of the centuries-old economic system has seen its definition get lost in translation

Is socialism an effective or desirable way of running a sovereign nation? It’s a question that provokes impassioned debate, but arguments over the advantages and drawbacks of theory are often complicated by an inability or unwillingness on the part of the participants to understand the true meaning of the term.

Last month, President Donald Trump became the latest in a long line of US politicians to declare that “America will never be a socialist country”, a term often used by the right wing to conjure up a caricatured vision of socialism defined either by Soviet-style gulags and brutal authoritarianism, or Venezuela-style shortages and social breakdown. 

Although there are many strands of the ideology, socialism generally refers to any economic and political system based on public ownership of the means of production.

Early proponents of socialist thought, particularly in the first half of the 19th century, put forward ideas such as a “more egalitarian distribution of wealth, a sense of solidarity among the working class, better working conditions, and common ownership of productive resources such as land and manufacturing equipment”, Investopedia says. Some also believe in total state control of the means of production.

According to the writings of Karl Marx, socialism is merely an effective transitional ideology on the road from capitalism to communism, The Balance says, with state ownership acting as a valid stepping stone to community control of production and policy-making.

But even some so-called socialists continue to misrepresent the tenets of the ideology. Forbes notes that the American left increasingly embraces a progressive platform, which it defends with the well-worn trope that socialism “works just fine in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

“It is certainly true that Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark are notable economic successes,” the site says. “What is false is that these countries are particularly socialist.”

Indeed, even the then Danish PM Lars Lokke Rasmussen told students in the US in 2015 that while “some people in the US associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism”, Denmark is “far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.

“The Nordic model is an expanded welfare state which provides a high level of security for its citizens, but it is also a successful market economy with much freedom to pursue your dreams and live your life as you wish,” he added.

So which countries are actually socialist? The list is surprisingly small:

China

The People’s Republic of China under Chairman Mao Zedong flew the flag of communism, promoting political goals over common sense, Big Think reports. But after incompetence and mismanagement caused a famine that killed millions from 1959 to 1961, Deng Xiaoping took over in the 1970s and implemented what he called “socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

The news site reports that for the first time in decades, farmers were allowed to sell the crops they grew, entrepreneurs were allowed to start businesses and foreigners were allowed to invest in China. To many, this was seen as a betrayal of China’s communist and socialist ideals, but Deng demonstrated how his actions were in line with accepted communist theory.

China news digest Inkstone News suggests that the Chinese government’s strong hand in the economy “qualifies it somewhat as socialist”, but adds that the country is “obviously much less socialist when it comes to providing public goods and services”.

Cuba

Cuba is perhaps the most undiluted example of a socialist system in action, with Reuters describing it as a “one-party socialist republic, in which political power is vested solely in the Cuban Communist Party (PCC)”.

The socialist system is enshrined in the Cuban constitution approved by referendum in 1976, while another referendum in 2002 made socialism “irrevocable”. The constitution designates the PCC as the “vanguard of the Cuban nation … which organises and directs common efforts toward the higher goals of construction of socialism and the advance toward communist society”. The majority of Cubans are employed by the state, and receive government-subsidised food, healthcare and housing.

Laos

The southeast Asian nation of Laos was a French colony until 1953, and communist forces eventually overthrew the monarchy in 1975. It has technically remained communist ever since, but after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the BBC reports that “Laos began opening up to the world”.

Article 13 of the country’s constitution states that “all types of enterprises are equal before the law and operate according to the principle of the market economy, competing and co-operating with each other to expand production and business while regulated by the State in the direction of socialism”.

But despite economic reforms, the country remains poor and heavily dependent on foreign aid, the BBC says, adding that the communist state “exerts tight control over the media, owning all newspapers and broadcast media”.

Socialist Voice calls Laos “a country with much value for those eager to understand the complexities involved in the building of socialism in very difficult conditions”.

Vietnam

Next door to Laos, Vietnam describes itself as having a “socialist-oriented market economy”. It has been officially communist since the 1970s, but was forced to adopt elements of market capitalism “in order to build the necessary economic infrastructure to advance Vietnam’s capability to produce wealth/capital”, Otelo Carvalho writes on Medium.

The Communist Party of Vietnam does this “through allowing markets to exist in Vietnam, under strict state supervision or through state owned enterprises” allowing private capital to flourish “only to the degree in which it positively contributes to the economic development of the whole country and serves the greater class interests of the working class”.

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