Socialist countries are states that have aligned themselves with socialism. There is no criteria or official process for being named a socialist state. All that is required is that a country identifies itself as socialist. This includes nations that claim to be socialists or have constitutions that state that they are based on socialism, even if they do not rigidly follow the economic or political systems associated with socialism, because socialism is still the foundation of their political and economic policy.
Similarly, countries that appear to follow at least some socialist principles, but do not openly declare themselves socialist countries are not regarded as socialist. This is because elements of socialism are compatible with many other forms of government as well, so the presence of even a large number of socialist elements does not mean that socialism is the foundational philosophy of that country's government and/or economy. For example, many clearly non-socialist countries have instituted "socialized" programs such as universal health care or free college/university tuition.
It can be difficult to accurately define a socialist country because the term has come to have many meanings and interpretations. Broadly speaking, socialism is a political and economic theory that seeks to close the gap between a nation's rich and poor by ensuring that the means of production, distribution, and exchange of goods and services are publicly owned, not privately owned, so that the profits are shared by all, not hoarded by a few rich owners. However, that basic definition encompasses a wide range of real-world variations on socialism. In its purest form, socialism is decidedly progressive. In practice, socialist countries can run the gamut from impressively progressive to staunchly conservative, often hinging upon the level of corruption in the government.
Many socialist countries base their politics on the Marxist-Leninist model created by the Soviet Union. Because of this, some of these states are erroneously thought to be communist states by the world at large. However, communism is a more specific and intense form of socialism that seeks to eliminate private ownership entirely, resulting in an all-for-one, utterly equal system in which classes disappear and even the government itself fades away. To muddy the waters between the two systems even further, many political scientists agree that no country has ever succeeded in implementing a purely socialist or communist government, because some degree of capitalism and/or governmental overstepping always manifests. Moreover, there exist hybrid democratic socialist countries, which combine democratic governments with socialist economies in which production and wealth are collectively owned. The end result of all this theological hair-splitting is that many nations are socialist, but only five countries in the world are currently considered communist countries by the world at large—and even these countries often refer to themselves as socialist, but not communist.
Despite communism's theoretical vision of equality so pure that governments themselves are unnecessary, real-world communist countries typically have overbearing, oppressive governments that maintain tight control over their citizens. For instance, North Korea's official name might lead one to believe its people are free and empowered. But in actuality, the country is a secretive dictatorship in which the government controls nearly every aspect of its citizens' lives and has been accused of massive human rights violations.
Countries that have constitutional references to socialism and are thus considered to be socialist states include: Bangladesh (The People's Republic of Bangladesh), Eritrea (State of Eritrea), Guyana (Co-operative Republic of Guyana), India (Republic of India), Nepal (Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal), Nicaragua (Republic of Nicaragua), Portugal (Portuguese Republic), Sri Lanka (Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka), and Tanzania (United Republic of Tanzania). This list was actually much longer in years past, with nations such as Yugoslavia and the U.S.S.R. ruled by governments built around socialist and even communist principles. However, many formerly socialist economies have evolved to embrace more elements of capitalism over the past half-century, and have begun deleting socialism from their constitutions as well as their economies. For example, Algeria removed all references to socialism from its constitution in 1989.
The following countries are former socialist countries: Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Angola, Belarus, Benin, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Cape Verde, Chad, Congo (Democratic Republic of), Congo (Republic of), Czechoslovakia (dissolved), Djibouti, East Germany (reunited with West Germany), Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Ghana, GRenada, Guinea, Hungary, Iraq, Libya, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Mongolia, Mozambique, Myanmar, North Korea, North Vietnam, Poland, Romania, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Yemen, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Ukraine, Union of Soviet Socialis Republics (USSR), Yugoslavia, and Zambia.
In many cases, while a country may have become more democratic and/or capitalist and removed references to socialism/communism from their constitution, the ruling political party still operates based upon socialist/communist principles: Algeria, Angola, Argentina, Bangladesh, Barbados, Bolivia, Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Mauritius, Mexico, Moldova, Mozambique, Namibia, Mepal, Nicaragua, Peru, Portugal, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Syria, Tanzania, Venezuela, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
Finally, there exist at least a few territories that are not fully recognized countries, but are self-declared socialist systems: Freetown Christiania (Denmark territory), Rebel Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities (Mexico territory), Rojava (Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria) (Syria Territory), Wa State (Myanmar territory), and Western Sahara (Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic) (Morocco territory).
China, North Korea, Laos, Cuba, and Vietnam are Communist countries. Bangladesh, Guyana, Eritrea, India, Nicaragua, Nepal, Portugal, Tanzania, and Sri Lanka are all considered socialist countries.