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WHY COMMUNISM DIDN\u2019T COLLAPSE:
EXPLORING REGIME RESILIENCE IN CHINA, VIETNAM, LAOS,
NORTH KOREA AND CUBA
Assistant Professor of Government, Dartmouth College
An Wang Post-Doctoral Fellow, Fairbank Center, Harvard University
answers to a key question: why Communism collapsed in some countries but survived in others. Of the 15
Communist countries that existed prior to 1989, 10 experienced regime collapse. However, China,
Vietnam, Laos, North Korea, and Cuba managed to maintain regime stability. While numerous studies of
individual cases of both collapse and survival exist, currently we do not possess a unified theory of the
factors that lead to Communist regime collapse and resilience. This paper argues that two variables explain
the collapse of Communism: lack of economic growth and ideological vacuum. In turn, Communist
regimes that survived were able to do so by providing either high economic growth or by appealing to the
masses with a coherent ideology (or both). As Marxism-Leninism became bankrupt in the mid-1980s, the
only regime-sustaining ideology Communist countries could develop was externally-oriented nationalism.
This paper explains why this type of nationalism was not available to the countries that collapsed but was
successfully mobilized by the countries that survived. On a theoretical level this paper argues that in
Communist countries both economic conditions and ideas contribute to regime stability. The paper also
argues against theories that stress that Communism fell due to contagion, leadership unwillingness to
repress opponents, or inherent flaws in communist institutions.
I would like to thank Lisa Baldez, Mark Beissinger, John Carey, Jorge Dom\u00ednguez, Linda Fowler, Yoshiko
Herrera, Nahomi Ichino, Nelson Kasfir, Ned Lebow, Misagh Parsa, Elizabeth Perry, Philip Roeder, Robert
Ross, Anne Sa\u2019adah, and William Wohlforth for useful conversations about this project. Participants in a
joint Davis Center-Fairbank Center seminar and a Post-Communist Politics and Economics Workshop
seminar (both at Harvard) provided helpful comments on earlier versions of this argument. All errors are
Almost two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, social scientists have not provided
satisfactory answers to the question why Communism collapsed in some countries but
survived in others. In 1988, there were 15 Communist regimes in the world. Over the
next couple of years, 10 of them collapsed, yet 5 remain in power until the current day.1
In terms of population size, the 5 surviving communist countries constituted 74% of the
former Communist world.2 Even if the remaining 5 Communist regimes were all to
collapse tomorrow, it would still be important to understand why they have survived
when 10 other regimes of the same type collapsed. The answer to this question can shed
more light on the conditions that enhance the durability of different regime types. In
addition, a comprehensive explanation of the collapse and non-collapse of Communist
regimes has implications for our approach to theory building in comparative politics.
The literature on the collapse of communism is immense. One might expect, then, that it will have already answered the question that motivates this paper. Yet, despite the presence of some excellent studies of collapse and non-collapse, prior research does not help us to understand what accounts for the resilience of Communist regimes. Most of the literature is devoted to single-country studies, usually of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia or of one of four well-known Eastern European countries (the German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland).3 Single-country studies of collapse in more obscure places like Bulgaria, Romania, and Albania are much rarer.4
Czechoslovakia, Romania, Mongolia, Albania, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia. The resilient communist
regimes include China, Vietnam, Laos, North Korea, and Cuba. There are some borderline cases which I
have decided do not merit inclusion in the group: Cambodia, Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-
Bissau, Tanzania, Benin, and Nicaragua (more on definitions and case selection in Section I below).
University Press, 1993); Mark Beissinger, Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State
(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Symposium in the Slavic Review 63: 3 (Fall 2004): 459-
554; Yoshiko Herrera, Imagined Economies: The Sources of Russian Regionalism (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 2005); b) on the GDR: Timur Kuran, \u201cNow Out of Never: The Element of Surprise in the
East European Revolution of 1989\u201d, World Politics 44: 1 (October 1991), 7-48; Suzanne Lohmann, \u201cThe
Dynamics of Informational Cascades: The Monday Demonstrations in Leipzig, East Germany, 1989-1991\u201d,
World Politics 47: 1 (October 1994), 42-101; Charles Maier, Dissolution: The Crisis of Communism and
the End of East Germany (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1997); Anne Sa\u2019adah, Germany\u2019s
Second Chance: Trust, Justice, and Democratization (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); c)
pp. 21-68; d) on Hungary: O\u2019Neil, Patrick, \u201cRevolutions from Within: Institutional Analysis, Transitions
from Authoritarianism, and the Case of Hungary\u201d, World Politics 48:4 (July 1996): 579-603, Andr\u00e1s Saj\u00f3,
\u201cThe Roundtable Talks in Hungary\u201d in Elster, ed. (op. cit.), pp. 68-98; d) on Czechoslovakia: Bernard
Wheater and Zden\u011bk Kavan, The Velvet Revolution: Czechoslovakia, 1988-1991 (Boulder, CO: Westview
Press, 1992); Milo\u0161 Calda, \u201cThe Roundtable Talks in Czechoslovakia\u201d in Elster, ed. (op. cit.), pp. 135-177.
Finally, the reasons for regime collapse in faraway Mongolia are virtually ignored.5
When it comes to cases of non-collapse, while scholars have explored the reasons for the
durability of Communism in China, North Korea, or Cuba, the cases of Vietnam and
especially Laos have received much less attention. In short, important lacunae exist in
those single-country studies. Similarly, the small number of explicitly comparative
studies that exist examine a few cases of communist regime collapse6 or, much less often,
compare two cases of regime resilience,7 but they never examine all 10 cases of collapse
or all 5 cases of non-collapse. Moreover, there is as yet no comprehensive theory that can
account for both collapse and non-collapse in all 15 communist countries.
What explanations for the collapse of communism are provided by the existing
theories? The extensive literature centers around two different questions. A number of
studies explainhow Communism collapsed. Those explanations usually focus on the
period immediately preceding the collapse of the regime and outline three different
dynamics: the regime can fall due to elite splits and pacts, because of a push from below,
Bulgaria and Albania exist in English, though some monographs and edited volumes devote individual
chapters to them. On Albania, see Elez Biberaj, Albania in Transition: The Rocky Road to Democracy
(Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998) and Nicholas J. Costa, Albania: A European Enigma (Boulder: East
European Monographs, 1995). On Bulgaria, see Emil Giatzidis, An Introduction to post-Communist
Bulgaria: Political, Economic, and Social Transformation (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002)
and R. J. Crampton, A Concise History of Bulgaria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
California Press, 2005) is the first book by an established Mongolia specialist that devotes a chapter to the transition in 1989-1990. Prior studies in English have been confined to journal articles: Richard Pomfret, \u201cTransition and Democracy in Mongolia\u201d, Europe-Asia Studies 52:1 (January 2000), 149-160, Verena Fritz, \u201cMongolia: Dependent Democratization\u201d, Journal of Communist Studies & Transition Politics 18:4 (2002), 75-100.
Liberation of Eastern Europe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), Vladimir Tismaneanu, The Revolutions of 1989 (New York: Routledge, 1999), and Valerie Bunce, Subversive Institutions: The Design and the Destruction of Socialism and the State (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999). See also
Glenny\u2019s The Rebirth of History: Eastern Europe in the Age of Democracy (New York: Viking, 1990), and Robert Kaplan\u2019s Balkan Ghosts: A Journey through History (New York: St. Martin\u2019s Press, 1993) have not lost their value as the finest examples of journalistic writing on the subject.
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