In single-party states like the former eastern bloc (Soviet Union, East Germany, ...), there is only one dominant party. One thing that has always bothered me is that this is a contradiction in itself: a party is a part of the whole, it is by definition partisan or partial. If there is one organisation for everybody, then it is no longer a faction or a party, it is just an institution of the society.

Why do they bother keeping around the legal "machinery" for having multiple parties, when the ideology or even the constitution of the country says that other parties can't be registered (or are marginalized)? Wouldn't it make more sense to say, OK, we won the revolution, now we merge the party with the state? Or we rename it to, say, "politicians guild": Everybody who wants to take part in politics joins the official guild, and then you just ban all political parties and factions altogether?

This question is distinct from Why do one party states hold elections? , as you can have elections in a one-party state, and you can have elections without parties. I'm not so much interested in why there is sometimes a charade of elections, but rather why they keep the paradoxical "fraction that represents all". Is it e.g. for tradition, or is the party thought of not as universal, but as a fraction against the class enemy, etc.. A justification from the communists / socialists themselves would be most interesting.

  • 5
    Are you asking about the Soviet Union specifically or more generally? There are plenty of one-party states that aren’t communist
    – divibisan
    Sep 13 at 20:41
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    Because you can limit party membership to those that are loyal?
    – Joe W
    Sep 13 at 20:42
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    Add to Joe W's comment, to select and gather the "elites" under one roof, and to reward those considered loyal and demonstrate excellence in handling party affairs.
    – r13
    Sep 13 at 21:20
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    In the DDR (GRD in English) there certainly where parties besides the SED (Merkel was a leader of the opposition CDU). In theory, they were endowed with equal rights, in practice they were almost powerless.
    – vonbrand
    Sep 14 at 1:49
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    @vonbrand According to the German wiki article on Merkel, the timing does not support your statement regarding her. She did not join the CDU until October '90 (after the first free election in the GDR), but worked for an associated party. More importantly, she does not seem to have been politically active in the common sense (except technically for the Youth organization, which probably came with her job at the time) before the wall came down. The rest of your comment seems accurate to me.
    – TAR86
    Sep 15 at 6:15

While it needn't be this way, per se, political parties and the government are often separate institutions as a matter of having different operational objectives.

The job of the government is to run the state. The job of the party is to recruit, evaluate, groom, and train future officers for the government, as well as make decisions about political agendas.

For one-party states, you can view the political party as the Human Resources department of the government, but it operates more like a staffing agency.

There may also be traditional, historical, and cultural reasons for the existence of a party and scholarship into political institutions tells us that they are loathe to be dismantled once established - and if they rise to power they are extremely likely to carry on existing.

Essentially these parties perform the same function as parties in other states, except perhaps doing oppo-research. Having those functions separated (at least somewhat) from the day to day operations of the government allows for both organizations to focus on their specialization.

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    Yup, party can be an antechamber to power: After being rejected seven times, Xi joined the Communist Youth League of China in 1971 by befriending a local official. Sep 13 at 21:48
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    @FaitoDayo For those of us that don't read Chinese, what are you linking to? Sep 14 at 3:42
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    @Relaxed In those cases I challenge the distinction between the two. The OP was asking why the party institutions exist in states where they have no competition, I can't speak to specifics in answer to a question like that. That the party is deeply involved in day-to-day operations is not dispositive of the reasons I give for keeping the party around. Sep 14 at 12:02
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    @AzorAhai-him- don't have time to do a proper translation now, but it's a Chinese wiki article about the recognized practice of organizations having two separate names and identities--one as government branch, one as Party organization--even though they're the exact same org. So basically a 'doing business as'/dba situation. In fact the article doesn't even say it's limited to Party/State functionality; imagine a small town with two administrators, who call themselves 'Dept of Transit' when they repair roads and 'Dept of Parks' when they pick up litter, even though it's the same people.
    – Tiercelet
    Sep 14 at 14:07
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    They absolutely have to and do sell their beliefs and programs to the population. Usually through massive propaganda, school children brainwashing, young pioneers clubs, through political officers in the army and so on. Mybe you will argue that it is not technically "selling", that they don't need the population to buy it, but they actually do need that. They really need to indoctrinate as many people as possible. It is not that easy to live just through power against the will of too many, that's why the communist systems collapsed in Europe around 1990.
    – Vladimir F
    Sep 15 at 7:07

In addition to William's spot-on answer, a cynical person might say that, instead of holding elections, a single-party state uses hidden top-of-party infighting to run purges and determine who is going to be in power, all the while ignoring the rest of the country's citizens' opinions. This activity might be a bit unsightly and dysfunctional if carried out within a government.

Quoting Churchill

“Kremlin political intrigues are comparable to a bulldog fight under a rug. An outsider only hears the growling, and when he sees the bones fly out from beneath it is obvious who won.”

Also, party memberships can in some countries be a prerequisite, or at least major boost, to holding high positions in non-government organizations such military, health care, large companies, etc... Think of as a badge of trust or vetting. Something the US disastrously failed to understand when they undertook De-Ba'athification - people might be party members because of convenience or because they had to be for their jobs, not necessarily because were enthused about the ideology. Another rationale for party existence next to the government proper.


One point worth remembering is that many one-party states such as the former GDR (East Germany) were/are in theory multiparty democracies which just don't allow parties that campaign to do unacceptable things. That's not entirely unknown in countries generally classified as democracies, such as FRG (West Germany, and modern reunified Germany) where they use it to ban fascist and communist parties and those which want to alter unalterable sections of the constitution (which AfD has to dance around very carefully).

Where they differ is that in those effective one party states, the criteria keep getting narrower until there's either no other parties or they're all indistinguishable.

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    A little known fact in support of your argument is that present-day China has multiple political parties.
    – dbkk
    Sep 14 at 14:54
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    "Multiparty democracies" sounds as if there was something to choose from during elections. East Germany only had one entry on its ballots, the "National Front" which was a coalition of all legal parties and some other organizations (under the leadership of the Socialist Unity Party). Is China any different?
    – Jan
    Sep 14 at 20:46
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    @Jan: That’s exactly the point. In practice they are one-party states as you say — but in theory (particularly, in the official terms of their own laws and institutions) they are democracies which could potentially have other parties; and so that’s why the single party still has to exist as a party. Sep 16 at 11:21
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    @Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine Not all communist states had multiple parties, e.g. I think the Soviet Union (though they had one communist party per SSR), Romania, Hungary, Mongolia or Cuba only had one party each. This answer makes it seem as if the difference between East Germany and West Germany was the width of the party spectrum. While in reality East Germany had no party spectrum at all - at least not where it mattered, on the election ballots. Only one option on your ballot = not a multi-party democracy.
    – Jan
    Sep 16 at 14:29

To understand the situation in socialist one-party states, I think it is important to understand the meaning and significance that "the Party" has in communist/Marxist theory and ideology. Communist theory doesn't just prescribe an ideal society, but has very much to say about the means and strategies to reach it. One of the most influential ideas to the formation of Eastern block socialist states is the Marxist-Leninst vanguardism. It posits the communist party as a vanguard leading the working class in a revolution to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat. The one-party socialist state is (at least originally) thought of as transitional phase on the path towards communism, where supposedly neither the state nor the party is needed anymore. The communist party is the agent of the communist revolution, the state is just a tool for it to achieve communism. To turn the title of the question into a Russian reversal: Socialist one-party states don't have a party, the party has a state.

The question assumes that party should be understood to have the same meaning as it has in multi-party liberal democracies, where the party only serves a purpose within the political framework set up by the state. But this is quite different from how a communist party view its role in a socialist state.


@user1567459 is quite right that a lot of single-party states are technically a multi-party democracies.

In Bulgria, along with the Bulgarian Communist Party, we used to have 2 other parties - the Bulgarian Agricultural People's union and the Patriotic Front (itself started as a coalition dominated by BCP). Not that everyone was aware of their existence.

@William answer is excellent. One could not really get any significant management position without an approval from the Party and generally being a member. And of course, becoming a member was not trivial.

There is one more thing about this single party:

Even if there is only one party, there is a profound difference in regard to both representation and a wide array of privileges between a Party member and a non-member.

A party member was entitled for higher salary and out-of-order buying of deficit goods (there was a separate order for the Party members that had an absolute priority).

In general, it was a caste system as well.


The question and some of the existing answers are based on a fundamental misconception of the role of the main party in a socialist/Marxist-Leninist regime. In the Soviet Union and its satellite states, the party is not there to compete to gain control of some other institutions where the power lies, the party is - among other things - where decisions are made. In some cases (e.g. the German Democratic Republic), other parties and institutions including a parliament, cabinet, president (at the beginning of the GDR), etc. are allowed to exist but the real center of power has always been the party itself and especially its central committee (and power struggles happen inside the party rather than between the party and other parties/institutions).

The line is blurry because many people were member of both sets of institutions and it was difficult or impossible to have any professional career without party membership but the duality was always present. Continuing with the GDR, the office of the president was abolished in the 1960 and replaced by a “State Council” whose membership always included some people who weren't members of the main party. Throughout, the most important position however always was that of “General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party”. The “National Defense Council” was also fully in the hand of Central Committee members.

When Honecker pushed Ulbricht out in 1971, he didn't immediately become Chairman of the State Council but he assumed control of the Central Committee. Prior to that, he was already influential and a full member of the Politbüro of the Central Committee but not a member of the State Council or Parliament. Importantly, Erich Mielke (head of the Ministerium für Staatsichereit, the Stasi) immediately started giving Honecker weekly briefings, even though the latter wouldn't formally become head of state for another five years.

This structure repeats itself, with some variation, at the local level and provides a check on the loyalty of the leadership in all important organisations. Thus a military unit will have a commanding officer accountable to a traditional military chain of command but also a “political commissar” or political officer who can overrule the CO's decisions. A nationalised business will have a hierarchical management structure and a director accountable to the state planning commission but also a company-specific party group (Betriebsparteiorganisation in the GDR) reporting to the party's sectional directorate and having a great influence on management and personnel decisions inside the business.

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    One might compare this with China, where the Xinjiang party secretary is considered relevant enough to put sanctions on him, while the government chairman is not.
    – Jan
    Sep 14 at 21:00

A political party an ideological organization: it develops, curates, regulates, and ultimately expresses an assortment of political ideals, principles, convictions, agendas, and other assertions about how the social, political, and economic aspects of the nation ought to be. With that in mind:

  • In multi-party nations, different parties form to represent different ideals and principles for and within the population. These differentiated parties contest with each other through elections to gain political power, because political power allows them to implement aspects of their own worldview.
  • In single-party nations, the party represents the ideals and principles that the citizens (or at least some group thereof) have chosen for the nation to follow, and the party persists to ensure that leadership conforms to those ideals and principles. There is no competition between divergent ideals, and so there is no place for other parties.

Often single-party states arise as a consequence of a successful revolution, where the newly empowered revolutionary group sees the old governmental systems as corrupt. They distrust putatively 'democratic' systems which might allow corrupt officials to retake political leadership through popularity, as this would undercut the political reforms the new leaders have in mind. And even if the revolutionary group has no idealistic agenda of reforms (i.e., if it is merely interested in power for power's sake), power still needs to be wielded through a set of functionaries within bureaucratic departments. Those functionaries need to be vetted, selected, or indoctrinated to conform to the ideology of leadership, and a political party is the best mechanism for accomplishing that.


A historical/practical reason for the party/state duality is that after winning a revolution, the party has people with political and (some) military skills but not the skills needed to run the government and industry: finance, diplomacy, technology, a big army. So they leave in place many of the existing managers, but for each one there is a party member to watch them and sometimes overrule them. The party member reports up the party hierarchy. The party member's key qualification is loyalty to the party, though hopefully they know or learn some of the technical skills of their department.

It's a way of dealing with the problem democracies have of "the bureaucracy resisting the political leadership". The downside is that the party member may be ignorant of the area he is supervising and force bad decisions.

Later on in the Soviet Union and China, all the managers in the government and industry would be party members, but the dual hierarchies persisted.

  • 1
    How is that different from many democratic states? In the UK, for example, when there is a change of government, the actual number of people who change jobs is very small - maybe 100-200. All members of the government are party members (and also members of the legislature). Sep 15 at 14:28

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