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. 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).