At the end of the Cold War, most States under Communist rule shed their Marxist principles and scrambled to join a new international order. And yet Communism is not dead. In recent years, the Communist Party gained power through democratic elections in two countries, and Communist rule is holding firm across five other nations. What explains this ability to endure into the 21st century?

Communism as an ideology is difficult to pin down. Depending on the person asked, it is either the most murderous strain of totalitarianism or an ardent defense of social justice. When I first visited Nepal, the society was rigidly organized according to the caste system; one person in five was an “untouchable.” When Maoist rebels appeared on the scene, they claimed they would put an end to these injustices and to many others that bedevil the downtrodden and dispossessed. Nobody else was willing to step forward on behalf of Nepal’s poor. The rebels empowered people, encouraging them to stand up to their oppressors by forming unions, teaching slogans, distributing red flags, and orchestrating protests.


When an unjust society is brought down, will an egalitarian society rise from the ruins? Many compassionate intellectuals, artists, and ordinary people have thought so, cheering red revolutions across the world, from Pablo Picasso and Charlie Chaplin to Jean-Paul Sartre and Ernest Hemingway. But by the end of the 20th century, most had learned – often to their disadvantage, that Communism, when judged on its results, was given a very different verdict then when judged solely on its intentions.

The evidence is staggering. Communist revolutions, rather than ushering in people’s utopias, brought purges, deadly food crises, gulags, and massacres. Communist leadership is widely blamed for the death of at least 85 million human beings. No other political ideology comes anywhere near this grisly toll.

Despite such clear failings, certain Communist leaders stick rigidly to the model. The Kim dynasty in North Korea and Cuba’s Castro brothers continue to govern within a framework that combines a centrally planned economy, severe restrictions on private property, generous social services, and a powerful secret police force.

Elsewhere, Communist leaders have abandoned the planned economy and accepted the benefits and problematic inequalities of the private sector. In contemporary China and Vietnam, greed and economic pragmatism generally take precedence over ideological dogma. While both countries are flexible on economics, freedom of expression and political choice remain out of bounds for average citizens. So with the aim of classless society now abandoned, what is left to distinguish them from any other one-party State?

The human race, so it seems, has not fully digested the contradictions of Marxist ideology. The goal of an egalitarian society has never been achieved through Communism, and yet the dream refuses to die. Past atrocities are fading from memory, and globalization is pushing legions of new poor to the fringe of mainstream society. Exploitation, extreme inequalities and the absence of upward mobility continue to offer the hammer and sickle an opening, even now. The only question that remains is whether we should cheer or cringe at the sight of our comrades.

Tomas van Houtryve

Tomas van Houtryve

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