Communism: A theory and system of social and political organization that was a major force in world politics for much of the 20th century. As a political movement, communism sought to overthrow capitalism through a workers’ revolution and establish a system in which property is owned by the community as a whole rather than by individuals. In theory, communism would create a classless society of abundance and freedom, in which all people enjoy equal social and economic status. In practice, communist regimes have taken the form of coercive, authoritarian governments that cared little for the plight of the working class and sought above all else to preserve their own hold on power.
The idea of a society based on common ownership of property and wealth stretches far back in Western thought.
In its modern form, communism grew out of the socialist movement of 19th-century Europe. At that time, Europe was undergoing rapid industrialization and social change. As the Industrial Revolution advanced, socialist critics blamed capitalism for creating a new class of poor, urban factory workers who labored under harsh conditions, and for widening the gulf between rich and poor. Foremost among these critics were the German philosopher Karl Marx and his associate Friedrich Engels. Like other socialists, they sought an end to capitalism and the exploitation of workers. But whereas some reformers favored peaceful, longer-term social transformation, Marx and Engels believed that violent revolution was all but inevitable; in fact, they thought it was “predicted by the scientific laws of history.” They called their theory “scientific socialism,” or communism. In the last half of the 19th century the terms socialism and communism were often used interchangeably. However, Marx and Engels came to see socialism as merely an intermediate stage of society in which most industry and property were owned in common but some class differences remained. They reserved the term communism for a final stage of society in which class differences had disappeared, people lived in harmony, and government was no longer needed.
The meaning of the word communism shifted after 1917, when Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik Party seized power in Russia. The Bolsheviks changed their name to the Communist Party and installed a repressive, single-party regime devoted to the implementation of socialist policies. The Communists formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, or Soviet Union) from the former Russian Empire and tried to spark a worldwide revolution to overthrow capitalism. Lenin’s successor, Joseph Stalin, turned the Soviet Union into a dictatorship based on total state control of the economy and the suppression of any form of opposition. As a result of Lenin’s and Stalin’s policies, many people came to associate the term communism with undemocratic or totalitarian governments that claimed allegiance to Marxist-Leninist ideals. The term Marxism-Leninism refers to Marx’s theories as amended and put into practice by Lenin.
After World War II (1939-1945), regimes calling themselves communist took power in China, Eastern Europe, and other regions. The spread of communism marked the beginning of the Cold War, in which the Soviet Union and the United States, and their respective allies, competed for political and military supremacy. By the early 1980s, almost one-third of the world’s population lived under communist regimes. These regimes shared certain basic features: an embrace of Marxism-Leninism, a rejection of private property and capitalism, state domination of economic activity, and absolute control of the government by one party, the communist party. The party’s influence in society was pervasive and often repressive. It controlled and censored the mass media, restricted religious worship, and silenced political dissent.
Communist societies encountered dramatic change in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as political and economic upheavals in the USSR, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere led to the disintegration of numerous communist regimes and severely weakened the power and influence of communist parties throughout the world. The collapse of the USSR effectively ended the Cold War. Today, single-party communist states are rare, existing only in China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam. Elsewhere, communist parties accept the principles of democracy and operate as part of multiparty systems.
This article provides a broad survey of communism. It explores the philosophical roots of communism and explains how communism was practiced in the Soviet Union, China, Eastern Europe, and other regions. It also examines the influence of non-ruling communist parties. Finally, the article describes the common features of communist states and assesses the future of communism.
IIEarly Forms of Communism
Communist ideas can be traced back to ancient times. In his 4th-century BC work The Republic, Greek philosopher Plato maintained that minimizing social inequality would promote civil peace and good government. In Plato’s ideal republic, an elite class of intellectuals, known as guardians or philosopher-kings, would govern the state and moderate the greed of the producing classes, such as craftsmen and farmers. To cement their allegiance to the state instead of their own desires, the guardians would own no private property and would live communally, residing in barracks together and raising their children as a group instead of in small families.
In the medieval Christian church, the members of some monastic communities and religious orders shared their land and goods. Such groups believed that concern with private property takes away from service to God and neighbor. In the 16th century English writer Thomas More, in his treatise Utopia (1516), portrayed a society based on common ownership of property, whose rulers administered it through the application of pure reason. More evidently intended the work as a satire of perfectionist projects for human betterment, but the book was a stinging critique of the misgoverned European states of his time. In 17th-century England a Puritan religious group known as the Diggers advocated the abolition of private ownership of land.
Criticism of the idea of private property continued into the Enlightenment of the 18th century, through such thinkers as Immanuel Kant in Germany and Jean Jacques Rousseau in France. Philosophers of the Enlightenment maintained that it is the natural condition of human beings to share equally in political authority and the rewards of labor. The French Revolution (1789-1799), which overthrew the monarchy, developed from this philosophical basis. The upheaval of the Revolution brought forth a flurry of communistic ideas. Francois Noel Babeuf, a revolutionary firebrand, espoused the goals of common ownership of land and total economic and political equality among citizens.
Babeuf was executed in 1797 for conspiring against the government of France, but his philosophy, known as Babouvism, had a considerable influence on other communistic reformers in early 19th-century France and Italy. French socialist Louis Blanc advocated “social workshops,” or associations of workers funded by the state and controlled by the workers. These, he said, would promote the development of balanced human personalities, instead of the greedy competitiveness encouraged by capitalism. Blanc is perhaps best known for originating the social principle, later adopted by Karl Marx, of how labor and income should be distributed: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” Another French revolutionary of the 19th century, Louis Auguste Blanqui, made an important contribution to communist thought: the idea that a working-class revolution could not succeed without a small group of disciplined conspirators to lead the way. Both Blanc and Blanqui were influential in the Revolution of 1848, which overthrew the reestablished French monarchy. Communistic reformers participated in a number of unsuccessful revolutions against other monarchies.
A number of communist or socialist theorists of the early 19th century rejected political revolution in favor of longer-term social transformation. Charles Fourier, a French philosopher, condemned the disorder, waste, and alienation he believed were endemic to modern capitalism. He proposed the reorganization of society into phalansteries (also called phalanxes); self-governing communistic communities of about 1,600 people each. Another French theorist, Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon, blended socialist and Christian thought. He believed that the most trained and competent members of the industrial communitysuch as scientists, engineers, and industrialistsshould assume the leadership of society. He asserted that once this new elite realized that their own good was dependent on the good of the community, they would work to improve the lot of the working classes. A revival of Christian morality would guide the new society.
In Britain, Robert Owen, a philanthropic Welsh manufacturer, strove against the social problems brought about by the Industrial Revolution and sought to improve the welfare of workers. As manager of a cotton mill, he enhanced the environment of his workers by improving their housing, modernizing mill equipment for greater safety and sanitation, and establishing low-priced stores for the workers and schools for their children. Owen believed that workers, rather than governments, should create the institutions of a future communistic society. Motivated by mutual interest rather than profit, workers would band together in cooperative societies for the purchase and sale of commodities. In 1825 Owen took over a colony in Indiana, naming it New Harmony, and transformed it into a community modeled on his own socialist views; however, the community failed after three years. Similarly idealistic communities were initiated by Fourier or his followers (at several locations in France and the United States), by French socialist Etienne Cabet (at Nauvoo, Illinois), and by adherents of Saint-Simon (at the Menilmontant estate near Paris).
IIIThe Ideas of Marx and Engels
It was the ideas of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels that laid the conceptual foundation for the communist revolutions and regimes of the 20th century. Marx and Engels were German-born intellectuals who worked in various cities in Europe as teachers, journalists, and political activists. In 1847 Marx and Engels joined a small group of working-class leaders in the formation of the Communist League, and shortly thereafter the two men were asked to draw up its platform. In their Communist Manifesto (1848), Marx and Engels dismissed all of the reformers who had come before them as naive “utopian socialists,” claiming that their plans for communal property could not be achieved in capitalistic societies. Marx and Engels urged the workers of the world to unite to achieve “scientific socialism,” or communism. Branching out from the theories of German philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, they trumpeted communism as an unsentimental theory derived from immutable laws of history, and boasted that communism was already a “specter” haunting all of Europe and was “acknowledged by all European powers to be itself a power.”
In later works, the two writers further developed their sweeping theory of society and history. Marx and Engels asserted that the key to understanding human culture and history was the struggle between the classes. They used the term class to refer to a group of people within society who share the same social and economic status. According to Marx and Engels, class struggles have occurred in every form of society, no matter what its economic structure, or mode of production: slavery, feudalism, or capitalism. In each of these kinds of societies, a minority of people own or control the means of production, such as land, raw materials, tools and machines, labor, and money. This minority constitutes the ruling class. The vast majority of people own and control very little. They mainly own their own capacity to work. The ruling class uses its economic power to exploit workers by appropriating their surplus labor. In other words, workers are compelled to labor not merely to meet their own needs but also those of the exploiting ruling class. As a result, workers become alienated from the fruits of their labor.
Marx and Engels portrayed the grand sweep of Western history as a process of progressively evolving forms of society. The struggle between classes was the motor of social change, fueling revolutions and leading history from one epoch to the next. Just as primitive agrarian society had yielded centuries before to feudal society, and in Europe feudalism given way to industrial capitalism, so too would capitalism be overthrown. Analyzing 19th-century capitalistic society, Marx and Engels perceived a class struggle raging between the bourgeoisie, or capitalists who controlled the means of production, and the proletariat, or industrial workers. In their view, the bourgeoisie appropriated wealth from the proletariat by paying low wages and keeping the profits from sales and technological innovation for themselves. Marx and Engels were confident the conflict between the bourgeoisie and increasingly impoverished proletariat was coming to a head in the foremost societies of the West. The inevitable outcome would be a revolution in which the proletariat, taking advantage of strikes, elections, and, if necessary, violence, would displace the bourgeoisie as the ruling class. A political revolution was essential, in Marx’s view, because the state is the central instrument of capitalist society.
Marx and Engels were almost silent about what would happen after the proletarian revolution. They made provision for a brief transitional period during which workers would form a socialist society with the means of production owned in common. In this period, the working-class majority of the population would need to enact a temporary dictatorship of the proletariat in order to seize the property of the bourgeois minority and stifle attempts to sabotage the popular government. Unlike previous ruling classes, the working class would not seek to install a new system of domination and exploitation; its goal would be a system of cooperation in which the immense majority, the proletariat, ruled for the benefit of all. Eventually, society would evolve into full communism, characterized by affluence, the abolition of classes, and an end to the dehumanizing division of labor found in earlier forms of society. In this idyllic condition, Marx and Engels wrote, abundance and social harmony would make it possible “for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have in mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic.” Labor performed out of economic necessity would give way to truly voluntary activity.
Marxism increased in popularity in the late 19th century, particularly in countries whose urban population was impoverished and whose intellectuals were given no voice in government. Marx and Engels flung themselves into national and international political movements dedicated to promoting socialism and their end goal of communism. They were active in the International Workingmen’s Association (frequently called the First International), an alliance of trade-union groups founded in 1864. Internal feuding led to the association’s dissolution in 1876. A less disjointed union of socialist parties, the Socialist International (also known as the Second International), was formed in 1889 in Paris, France. The Second International represented national-level socialist parties and movements from all over Europe, the United States, Canada, and Japan. In 1912 its constituent political parties claimed to have 9 million members.
By the early 20th century, Marxists held a range of opinions on the main issues before them. Some were more militant than the mainstream, admonishing leftist parties to sharpen class conflict and therefore hasten the death of capitalism and the arrival of the workers’ revolution. Other Marxists rejected the revolutionary perspective, holding that public control of the economy could be achieved by peaceful means, such as by electing Marxists to government positions. Still others called into question Marx’s whole analysis of capitalism and sought to implement aspects of socialism within the capitalist system. These so-called Marxist revisionists noted stabilizing tendencies within capitalism and believed the debut of a welfare state would encourage social equality and give security to ordinary citizens. Eduard Bernstein, a German socialist, became the leading voice of Marxist revisionism. He rejected revolutionary action, instead suggesting that the socialist movement should forge political alliances and push for evolutionary reforms within the capitalist system.
The followers of Marx came to power in nations that lacked the preconditions he and Engels considered essential, namely capitalism and a mature industrial economy. The first of these countries was Russia, a huge, poor, relatively backward nation that was just beginning to acquire an industrial base.
IVCommunism in the Soviet Union
Communism as a concrete social and political system made its first appearance in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the state erected by the victors of the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. Soviet communism took some of the core notions of Marxism to an extreme, realizing them through a tyrannical political structure. Within a decade, the Soviet dictatorship, having eradicated all dissent, unleashed an industrialization drive premised on near-total state control of physical and human resources. Authoritarianism reached its zenith during the long reign of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. The limited reforms undertaken after his death in 1953 did not alter the essential character of communism in the Soviet Union. Destabilized by the far-reaching reforms initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, the Soviet system disintegrated in 1991.