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This article is about communism as a form of society and as a political movement. For issues regarding Communist organizations, see the Communist party article. For issues regarding Communist Party-run states, see Communist state.


History of communism

Schools of communism
Marxism · Leninism
Trotskyism · Maoism
Council Communism

Communist party
Communist International
World Communist Movement
Communist revolution
World revolution

Communist states
People's Republic of China
Cuba · Vietnam
Laos · North Korea

Related subjects
Planned economy
Left communism
New Left

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Communism refers to a theoretical system of social organization and a political movement based on common ownership of the means of production. As a political movement, communism seeks to overthrow capitalism through a workers' revolution and establish a classless society. A major force in world politics since the early 20th century, modern communism is generally associated with The Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, according to which the capitalist profit-based system of private ownership is replaced by a communist society in which the means of production are communally owned. This process, initiated by the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisie (see Marxism), passes through a transitional period marked by the preparatory stage of socialism (see Leninism). Purely theoretical communism has never actually existed: Communism is, in Marxist theory, the end-state, or the result of state-socialism. The word is now mainly understood to refer to the political, economic, and social theory of Marxist thinkers, or life in conditions of Communist party rule.

In the late 19th century, Marxist theories motivated socialist parties across Europe, although their policies later developed along the lines of reforming capitalism rather than overthrowing it. The exception was the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party. One branch of this party, commonly known as the Bolsheviks and headed by Vladimir Lenin, succeeded in taking control of the country after the toppling of the Provisional Government in the Russian Revolution of 1917. In 1918 this party changed its name to the Communist Party, thus establishing the contemporary distinction between communism and socialism.

After the success of the October Revolution in Russia, many socialist parties in other countries became communist parties, owing allegiance of varying degrees to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (see Communist International). After World War II, regimes calling themselves communist took power in Eastern Europe. In 1949 the Communists in China, led by Mao Zedong, came to power and established the People's Republic of China. Among the other countries in the Third World that adopted a Communist form of government at some point were Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Angola, and Mozambique. By the early 1980s, almost one-third of the world's population lived under Communist states.

Communism never became a popular ideology in the United States, whether before or after the establishment of the Communist Party USA in 1919. Since the early 1970s, the term "Eurocommunism" was used to refer to the policies of Communist Parties in Western Europe, which sought to break with the tradition of uncritical and unconditional support of the Soviet Union. Such parties were politically active and electorally significant in France and Italy. With the collapse of the Communist governments in Eastern Europe from the late 1980s and the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Communism's influence has decreased dramatically in Europe, but around a quarter of the world's population still lives under Communist Party rule.


Early Communism

The notion of communism has a long history in Western thought, long predating Marx and Engels. Already in ancient Greece the communism was connected to a myth about the "golden age" of humanity, when the society lived in full harmony, before a private property developed in it. Some have argued that Plato's The Republic and works by other ancient political theorists advocated communism in the form of communal living, and that various early Christian sects (and in particular the early Church, as recorded in Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2 vv 44-45; also ch 4 v32)) and indigenous tribes in the pre-Columbian Americas practiced communism in the form of communal living and common ownership (see "Christian communism"). Another attempts to establish communistic societies were done by the Essenes and by the Judean desert sect.

In the 16th century, English writer St. Thomas More, in his treatise Utopia, portrayed a society based on common ownership of property, whose leaders administered it through the application of reason. In the 17th century, communist thought arguably surfaced again in England. Eduard Bernstein, in his 1895 Cromwell and Communism argued that several groupings in the English Civil War, especially the Diggers (or "True Levellers") espoused clear communistic, agrarian ideals, and that Cromwell's attitude to these groups was at best ambivalent and often hostile. [1]

Criticism of the idea of private property continued into the Enlightenment era of the 18th century, through such thinkers as Jean Jacques Rousseau. "Utopian socialist" writers such as Robert Owen are also sometimes regarded as communists.

Karl Marx saw primitive communism as the original state of mankind from which it arose, through classical society, and then feudalism, to its current state of capitalism. He then proposed that the next step in social evolution would be a return to communism, but at a higher level than when mankind had originally practiced primitive communism.

In its contemporary form, communism grew out of the workers' movement of 19th century Europe. At that time, as the Industrial Revolution advanced, socialist critics saw that capitalist economics had brought about an unskilled working proletariat, urban factory workers who toiled under harsh conditions, and for widening the gulf between rich and poor.


Main article: Marxism

Like other socialists, Marx and Engels sought an end to capitalism and the exploitation of workers. But whereas earlier socialists often favored longer-term social reform, Marx and Engels believed that popular revolution was all but inevitable, and the only path to socialism.

According to the Marxist argument for communism, the main characteristic of human life in class society is alienation; and communism is desirable because it entails the full realization of human freedom. Marx here follows G.W.F. Hegel in conceiving freedom not merely as an absence of constraints but as action having moral content. Not only does communism allow people to do what they want but it puts humans in such conditions and such relations with one another that they would not wish to have need for exploitation. Whereas for Hegel, the unfolding of this ethnical life in history is mainly driven by the realm of ideas, for Marx, communism emerged from material, especially the development of the means of production.

Marxism holds that a process of class conflict and revolutionary struggle will result in victory for the proletariat and the establishment of a communist society in which private ownership is abolished over time and the means of production and subsistence belong to the community. Marx himself wrote little about life under communism, giving only the most general indication as to what constituted a communist society. It is clear that it entails abundance in which there is little limit to the projects that humans may undertake. In the popular slogan that was adopted by the communist movement, communism was a world in which 'each gave according to his abilities, and received according to his needs.' The German Ideology (1845) was one of Marx's few writings to elaborate on the communist future:

In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes 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, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. [2]

Marx's lasting vision was to add this vision to a positive scientific theory of how society was moving in a law-governed way toward communism, and, with some tension, a political theory that explained why revolutionary activity was required to bring it about.

In the last half of the nineteenth century the terms "socialism" and "communism" were often used interchangeably. However, Marx and Engels came to see socialism as an intermediate stage of society in which most productive property was owned in common, but with some class differences remaining. 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.

These later aspects, particularly as developed by Lenin, provided the underpinning for the mobilizing features of 20th century Communist parties. Later writers modified Marx's vision by allotting a central place to the state in the development of such societies, by arguing for a prolonged transition period of socialism prior to the attainment of full communism.

Some of Marx's contemporaries, such as Mikhail Bakunin, espoused similar ideas, but differed in their views of how to reach to a harmonic society with no classes. To this day there has been a split in the workers movement between Marxists (communists) and anarchists. The anarchists are against, and wish to abolish, every state organisation. Among them, anarchist-communists believe in an immediate transition to one society with no classes, while anarcho-syndicalists believe that labor unions, as opposed to Communist parties, are the organizations that can help usher this society.

The growth of modern Communism

Under the Comintern

Main article: Marxism-Leninism

In Russia, the modern world's first effort to build socialism on a large scale following the 1917 October Revolution, led by Lenin's Bolsheviks, raised significant theoretical and practical debates on communism among Marxists themselves. Marx's theory had presumed that revolutions would occur where capitalist development was the most advanced and where a large working class was already in place. Russia, however, was the poorest country in Europe with an enormous, illiterate peasantry and little industry. Under these circumstances, it was necessary for the communists, according to their ideological mission, to create a working class itself.

For this reason, the socialist Mensheviks had opposed Lenin's communist Bolsheviks in their demand for socialist revolution before capitalism had been established. In seizing power, the Bolsheviks found themselves without a program beyond their pragmatic and politically successful slogans "peace, bread, and land," which had tapped the massive public desire for an end to Russian involvement in the First World War and the peasants' demand for land reform.

The usage of the terms "communism" and "socialism" shifted after 1917, when the Bolsheviks changed their name to the Communist Party and installed a single-party regime devoted to the implementation of socialist policies. The revolutionary Bolsheviks broke completely with the moderate socialist movement, withdrew from the Second International, and formed the Third International, or Comintern, in 1919. Henceforth, the term "Communism" was applied to the ideology of the parties founded under the umbrella of the Comintern. Their program called for the uniting of workers of the world for revolution, which would be followed by the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat as well as the development of a socialist economy. Ultimately, their program held, there would develop a harmonious classless society, with the withering away of the state. In the early 1920s, the Soviet Communists formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or Soviet Union, from the former Russian Empire.

Following Lenin's democratic centralism, the Communist parties were organized on a hierarchical basis, with active cells of members as the broad base; they were made up only of elite cadres approved by higher members of the party as being reliable and completely subject to party discipline.

In 1918-1920, in the middle of the Russian Civil War, the new regime nationalized all productive property. When mutiny and peasant unrest resulted, Lenin declared the New Economic Policy (NEP). However, Joseph Stalin's personal fight for leadership spelled the end of the NEP, and he used his control over personnel to abandon the program.

The Soviet Union and other countries ruled by Communist Parties are often described as 'Communist states' with 'state socialist' economic bases. This usage indicates that they proclaim that they have realized part of the socialist program by abolishing private control of the means of production and establishing state control over the economy; however, they do not declare themselves truly communist, as they have not established communal ownership.


Main article: Stalinism

The Stalinist version of socialism, with some important modifications, shaped the Soviet Union and influenced Communist Parties worldwide. It was heralded as a possibility of building communism via a massive program of industrialization and collectivization. The rapid development of industry, and above all the victory of the Soviet Union in the Second World War, maintained that vision throughout the world, even around a decade following Stalin's death, when the party adopted a program in which it promised the establishment of communism within thirty years.

However, under Stalin's leadership, evidence emerged that dented faith in the possibility of achieving communism within the framework of the Soviet model. Stalin had created in the Soviet Union a repressive state that dominated every aspect of life. After Stalin's death, the Soviet Union's new leader, Nikita Khrushchev admitted the enormity of the repression that took place under Stalin. Later, growth declined, and rent-seeking and corruption by state officials increased, which dented the legitimacy of the Soviet system.

Despite the activity of the Comintern, the Soviet Communist Party adopted the Stalinist theory of "socialism in one country" and claimed that, due to the "aggravation of class struggle under socialism," it was possible, even necessary, to build socialism in one country alone. This departure from Marxist internationalism was challenged by Leon Trotsky, whose theory of "permanent revolution" stressed the necessity of world revolution.


Main article: Trotskyism

Trotsky and his supporters organized into the "Left Opposition," and their platform became known as Trotskyism. But Stalin eventually succeeded in gaining full control of the Soviet regime, and their attempts to remove Stalin from power resulted in Trotsky's exile from the Soviet Union in 1929. After Trotsky's exile, world communism fractured in two distinct branches: Stalinism and Trotskyism. Trotsky later founded the Fourth International, a Trotskyist rival to the Comintern, in 1938.

Though some follow Trotskyism today, the ideology was never reaccepted in Communist circles in the Soviet bloc, even after Stalin's death; and Trotsky's interpretation of communism has not been successful in leading a political revolution that would overthrow a state. However, Trotskyist ideas have occasionally found an echo among political movements in countries experiencing social upheavals (such is the case of Alan Woods' Trotskyist Committee for a Marxist International, which has had contact with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela), most parties are active in politically stable, developed countries (such as Great Britain, France, Spain and Germany). It is noteworthy that Trotskyists groups that contribute with pro-capitalist parties have not escaped criticism as opportunists from other Trotskyists which are loathe to do so (see Trotskyism).

Cold War years

As the Soviet Union won important allies by victory in the Second World War in Eastern Europe, communism as a movement spread to a number of new countries, and gave rise to a few different branches of its own, such as Maoism.

Communism had been vastly strengthened by the winning of many new nations into the sphere of Soviet influence and strength in Eastern Europe. Governments modeled on Soviet Communism were formed in Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland, Hungary and Romania. A Communist government was also created under Marshal Tito in Yugoslavia, but Tito's independent policies led to the expulsion of Yugoslavia from the Cominform, which had replaced the Comintern, and Titoism, a new branch in the world communist movement, was labeled "deviationist."

By 1950 the Chinese Communists held all of China except Taiwan, thus controlling the most populous nation in the world. Other areas where rising Communist strength provoked dissension and in some cases actual fighting include Laos, many nations of the Middle East and Africa, and, especially, Vietnam (see Vietnam War). With varying degrees of success, Communists attempted to unite with nationalist and socialist forces against Western imperialism in these poor countries.


Main article: Maoism

After the death of Stalin in 1953, the Soviet Union's new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, denounced Stalin's crimes and his cult of personality. He called for a return to the principles of Lenin, thus presaging some change in Communist methods. However, Khrushchev's reforms heightened ideological differences between China and the Soviet Union, which became increasingly apparent in the 1960s and 1970s. As the Sino-Soviet Split in the international Communist movement turned toward open hostility, Maoist China portrayed itself as a leader of the underdeveloped world against the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, with Maoism gaining recognition worldwide as a new branch of Marxism.

Collapse of the Soviet Union and Communism today

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union and relaxed central control, in accordance with reform policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). The Soviet Union did not intervene as Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary all abandoned Communist rule by 1990. In 1991, the Soviet Union itself dissolved.

By the beginning of the 21st century, Communist parties hold power in China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam. President Vladimir Voronin of Moldova is a member of the Communist Party of Moldova, but the country is not run under one-party leadership. However, China has reassessed many aspects of the Maoist legacy; and China, Laos, Vietnam, and, to a lesser degree, Cuba have reduced state control of the economy in order to stimulate growth. Communist parties, or their descendent parties, remain politically important in many European countries and throughout the Third World, particularly in India.

Theories within Marxism as to why communism in Eastern Europe was not achieved after socialist revolutions pointed to such elements as the pressure of external capitalist states, the relative backwardness of the societies in which the revolutions occurred, and the emergence of a bureaucratic stratum or class that arrested or diverted the transition press in its own in interests. Marxist critics of the Soviet Union referred to the Soviet system, along with other Communist states, as "state capitalism," arguing that Soviet system fell far short of Marx's communist ideal. They argued that the state and party bureaucratic elite acted as a surrogate capitalist class in the heavily centralized and repressive political apparatus.

Non-Marxists, in contrast, have often applied the term to any society ruled by a Communist Party and to any party aspiring to create a society similar to such existing nation-states. In the social sciences, societies ruled by Communist Parties are distinct for their single party control and their socialist economic bases. While anticommunists applied the concept of "totalitarianism" to these societies, many social scientists identified possibilities for independent political activity within them, and stressed their continued evolution up to the point of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Today, Marxist revolutionaries are active in India, Nepal, and Colombia.

"Communism" or "communism"?

According to the 1996 third edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage, communism and derived words are written with the lowercase "c" except when they refer to a political party of that name, a member of that party, or a government led by such a party, in which case the word "Communist" is written with the uppercase "C".

Criticism of communism

Main article: Criticisms of communism.

A diverse array of writers and political activists have published anticommunist work, such as Soviet bloc dissidents Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vaclav Havel; economists Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman; and historians and social scientists Hannah Arendt, Robert Conquest, Daniel Pipes and R. J. Rummel, to name a few. Some writers such as Conquest go beyond attributing large-scale human rights abuses to Communist regimes, presenting events occurring in these countries, particularly under Stalin, as an argument against the ideology of communism itself.

It is argued that these the criticisms of communism are valid arguments against certain communist parties, and that not all of them are valid against communism. And, the many communist parties outside of the Warsaw Pact (i.e. communist parties in Western Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa) differed greatly, therefore no single criticism fits all.

See also

Schools of communism

Organizations and people

Further reading

Fernando Claudin, The Communist Movement: From Comintern to Cominform (1975)

External links

Online resources for original communist literature

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