Checked content


Related subjects: Systems of government

About this schools Wikipedia selection

SOS Children made this Wikipedia selection alongside other schools resources. Do you want to know about sponsoring? See

Distinguish from Communalism.

Communism is a socioeconomic structure that promotes the establishment of a classless, stateless society based on common ownership of the means of production. It is usually considered a branch of the broader socialist movement that draws on the various political and intellectual movements that trace their origins back to the work of Karl Marx. Opponents say that communism is an ideology, whereas promoters say that it is the only political system without ideology, because it is the consequence of historical materialism and the revolution of the proletariat.

The Communists... are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the lines of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.

The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois State, conquest of political power by the proletariat. - Karl Marx, Communist Manifesto, 1848

Although many forms of communism, such as Leninism, Trotskyism and Luxemburgism, are based on Marxism and Karl Marx is sometimes known as the "father of Communism", non-Marxist versions of communism (such as Christian communism and anarchist communism) also exist.


A tableaux in a communist rally in Kerala, India showing two farmers forming the hammer and sickle, the most famous communist symbol.

Communism as a political goal is a form of future social organization, although Marxists have described early forms of human social organization as " primitive communism". Self-identified communists hold a variety of views, including Marxism-Leninism, Trotskyism, council communism, Luxemburgism, anarchist communism, Christian communism, and various currents of left communism. However, the offshoots of the Marxist-Leninist interpretations of Marxism are the most well-known of these and have been a driving force in international relations during most of the 20th century.

Karl Marx held that society could not be transformed from the capitalist mode of production to the advanced communist mode of production all at once, but required a transitional period which Marx described as the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat, the first stage of communism. The communist society Marx envisioned emerging from capitalism has never been implemented, and it remains theoretical; Marx, in fact, commented very little on what communist society would actually look like. However, the term "Communism", especially when it is capitalized, is often used to refer to the political and economic regimes under Communist parties that claimed to embody the dictatorship of the proletariat.

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. One exception was the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party 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 other trends of socialism.

After the success of the October Revolution in Russia, many socialist parties in other countries became Communist parties, signaling varying degrees of allegiance to the new Communist Party of the Soviet Union. After World War II, Communists consolidated power in Eastern Europe, and in 1949, the Communist Party of China (CPC) led by Mao Zedong established the People's Republic of China, which would later follow its own ideological path of Communist development. Among the other countries in the Third World that adopted a pro-Communist government at some point were Cuba, North Korea, North Vietnam, Laos, Angola, and Mozambique. By the early 1980s almost one-third of the world's population lived in Communist states.

Communists themselves repudiate the usage of the term "communist state", as a communist society by their definition is a state-less society. The terms used by the communist movement to describe these states are either socialist states or 'people's democracies'.

Since the early 1970s, the term Eurocommunism was used to refer to the policies of reformist Communist parties in western Europe, break with the tradition of uncritical and unconditional support of the Soviet Union. Such parties were politically active and electorally significant in Italy ( PCI), France ( PCF), and Spain ( PCE).

There is a history of anti-communism in the United States, which manifested itself in the Sedition Act of 1918, the subsequent Palmer Raids, and the later period of McCarthyism.

With the decline of the Communist governments in Eastern Europe from the late 1980s and the breakup of the Soviet Union on December 9, 1991, Communism's influence has decreased dramatically in Europe. However, around a quarter of the world's population still lives in Communist states, mostly in the People's Republic of China. There are also communist movements in Latin America and South Asia that have significant popular support. However, even single-party Communist states like China and Vietnam have adopted capitalist economic mechanisms in certain limited ways, which some observers say is at odds with the original socialist ideals of communism.

Early communism

Karl Marx saw primitive communism as the original, hunter-gatherer state of humankind from which it arose. For Marx, only after humanity was capable of producing surplus, did private property develop.

In the history of Western thought, certain elements of the idea of a society based on common ownership of property can be traced back to ancient times . Examples include the Spartacus slave revolt in Rome.

At one time or another, various small communist communities existed, generally under the inspiration of Scripture. In the medieval Christian church, for example, some monastic communities and religious orders shared their land and other property. (See religious communism and Christian communism) These groups often believed that concern with private property was a distraction from religious service to God and neighbour.

Communist thought has also been traced back to the work of 16th century English writer Thomas More. In his treatise Utopia (1516), More portrayed a society based on common ownership of property, whose rulers administered it through the application of reason. In the 17th century, communist thought arguably surfaced again in England. In 17th century England, a Puritan religious group known as the Diggers advocated the abolition of private ownership of land. Eduard Bernstein, in his 1895 Cromwell and Communism argued that several groupings in the English Civil War, especially the Diggers espoused clear communistic, agrarian ideals, and that Oliver Cromwell's attitude to these groups was at best ambivalent and often hostile.

Criticism of the idea of private property continued into the Age of Enlightenment of the 18th century, through such thinkers as Jean Jacques Rousseau in France. Later, following the upheaval of the French Revolution, communism emerged as a political doctrine. François Noël Babeuf, in particular, espoused the goals of common ownership of land and total economic and political equality among citizens.

Various social reformers in the early 19th century founded communities based on common ownership. But unlike many previous communist communities, they replaced the religious emphasis with a rational and philanthropic basis. Notable among them were Robert Owen, who founded New Harmony in Indiana (1825), and Charles Fourier, whose followers organized other settlements in the United States such as Brook Farm (1841–47). Later in the 19th century, Karl Marx described these social reformers as " utopian socialists" to contrast them with his program of " scientific socialism" (a term coined by Friedrich Engels). Other writers described by Marx as "utopian socialists" included Charles Fourier and Saint-Simon.

In its modern form, communism grew out of the socialist movement of 19th century Europe. (Encarta) As the Industrial Revolution advanced, socialist critics blamed capitalism for the misery of the proletariat — a new class of urban factory workers who labored under often-hazardous conditions. Foremost among these critics were the German philosopher Karl Marx and his associate Friedrich Engels. In 1848 Marx and Engels offered a new definition of communism and popularized the term in their famous pamphlet The Communist Manifesto. Engels, who lived in Manchester, observed the organization of the Chartist movement (see History of British socialism), while Marx departed from his university comrades to meet the proletariat in France and Germany.

Emergence of modern communism


Like other socialists, Marx and Engels sought an end to capitalism and the systems which they perceived to be responsible for 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 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in conceiving freedom not merely as an absence of restraints but as action with content. (McLean and McMillan, 2003) They believed that communism allowed people to do what they want, but also put humans in such conditions and such relations with one another that they would not wish to exploit, or have any need to. Whereas for Hegel the unfolding of this ethical life in history is mainly driven by the realm of ideas, for Marx, communism emerged from material forces, particularly the development of the means of production. (McLean and McMillan, 2003)

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 their abilities, and received according to their 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."

Marx's lasting vision was to add this vision to a 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. (McLean and McMillan, 2003)

In the late 19th century the terms "socialism" and "communism" were often used interchangeably. (Encarta) However, Marx and Engels argued that communism would not emerge from capitalism in a fully developed state, but would pass through a "first phase" in which most productive property was owned in common, but with some class differences remaining. The "first phase" would eventually give way to a "higher phase" in which class differences were eliminated, and a state was no longer needed. Lenin frequently used the term "socialism" to refer to Marx and Engels' supposed "first phase" of communism and used the term "communism" interchangeably with Marx and Engels' "higher phase" of communism.

These later aspects, particularly as developed by Lenin, provided the underpinning for the mobilizing features of 20th century Communist parties. Later writers such as Louis Althusser and Nicos Poulantzas 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.

Other currents

Some of Marx's contemporaries espoused similar ideas, but differed in their views of how to reach to a classless society. Following the split between those associated with Marx and Mikhail Bakunin at the First International, the anarchists formed the International Workers Association. Anarchists argued that capitalism and the state were inseparable and that one could not be abolished without the other. Anarchist-communists such as Peter Kropotkin theorized an immediate transition to one society with no classes. Anarcho-syndicalism became one of the dominant forms of anarchist organization, arguing that labor unions, as opposed to Communist parties, are the organizations that can change society. Consequently, many anarchists have been in opposition to Marxist communism to this day.

Growth of modern communism

Vladimir Lenin following his return to Petrograd

In the late 19th century Russian Marxism developed a distinct character. The first major figure of Russian Marxism was Georgi Plekhanov. Underlying the work of Plekhanov was the assumption that Russia, less urbanized and industrialized than Western Europe, had many years to go before society would be ready for proletarian revolution could occur, and a transitional period of a bourgeois democratic regime would be required to replace Tsarism with a socialist and later communist society. (EB)

In Russia, the 1917 October Revolution was the first time any party with an avowedly Marxist orientation, in this case the Bolshevik Party, seized state power. The assumption of state power by the Bolsheviks generated a great deal of practical and theoretical debate within the Marxist movement. Marx predicted that socialism and communism would be built upon foundations laid by the most advanced capitalist development. Russia, however, was one of the poorest countries in Europe with an enormous, largely illiterate peasantry and a minority of industrial workers. Marx had explicitly stated that Russia might be able to skip the stage of bourgeois capitalism. Other socialists also believed that a Russian revolution could be the precursor of workers' revolutions in the West.

The moderate Mensheviks opposed Lenin's Bolshevik plan for socialist revolution before capitalism was more fully developed. The Bolsheviks' successful rise to power was based upon the slogans "peace, bread, and land" and "All power to the Soviets", slogans which tapped the massive public desire for an end to Russian involvement in the First World War, the peasants' demand for land reform, and popular support for the Soviets.

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 under Leninism. The Second International had dissolved in 1916 over national divisions, as the separate national parties that composed it did not maintain a unified front against the war, instead generally supporting their respective nation's role. Lenin thus created the Third International (Comintern) in 1919 and sent the Twenty-one Conditions, which included democratic centralism, to all European socialist parties willing to adhere. In France, for example, the majority of the SFIO socialist party split in 1921 to form the SFIC (French Section of the Communist International). Henceforth, the term "Communism" was applied to the objective 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, if their program held, there would develop a harmonious classless society, with the withering away of the state.

During the Russian Civil War (1918-1922), the Bolsheviks nationalized all productive property and imposed a policy of war communism, which put factories and railroads under strict government control, collected and rationed food, and introduced some bourgeois management of industry. After three years of war and the 1921 Kronstadt rebellion, Lenin declared the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1921, which was to give a "limited place for a limited time to capitalism." The NEP lasted until 1928, when Joseph Stalin achieved party leadership, and the introduction of the first Five Year Plan spelled the end of it. Following the Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks formed in 1922 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), 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.

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 the 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 of property.


Marxist-Leninism is a version of socialism, with some important modifications, adopted by the Soviet Union under Stalin. It 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, some claimed that evidence emerged that dented faith in the possibility of achieving communism within the framework of the Soviet model. Later, growth declined, and rent-seeking and corruption by state officials increased.

Under Stalin, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union adopted the 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 alone in one country, the USSR.


Maoism is the Marxist Leninist trend associated with Mao Zedong. 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 the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union, which became increasingly apparent in the 1960s. As the Sino-Soviet Split in the international Communist movement turned toward open hostility, China portrayed itself as a leader of the underdeveloped world against the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union.

Parties and groups that supported the Communist Party of China (CPC) in their criticism against the new Soviet leadership proclaimed themselves as 'anti-revisionist' and denounced the CPSU and the parties aligned with it as revisionist "capitalist-roaders." The Sino-Soviet Split resulted in divisions amongst communist parties around the world. Notably, the Party of Labour of Albania sided with the People's Republic of China. Effectively, the CPC under Mao's leadership became the rallying forces of a parallel international Communist tendency. The ideology of CPC, Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought (generally referred to as 'Maoism'), was adopted by many of these groups.

After the death of Mao and the takeover of Deng Xiaoping, the international Maoist movement diverged. One sector accepted the new leadership in China, a second renounced the new leadership and reaffirmed their commitment to Mao's legacy, and a third renounced Maoism altogether and aligned with the Albanian Party of Labour.

Pro-Albanian Marxism-Leninism

Another variant of Marxism Leninism appeared after the ideological row between the Communist Party of China and the Party of Labour of Albania in 1978. The Albanians rallied a new separate international tendency. This tendency would demarcate itself by a strict defense of the legacy of Joseph Stalin and fierce criticism of virtually all other Communist groupings. The Albanians were able to win over a large share of the Maoists in Latin America, most notably the Communist Party of Brazil. This tendency has occasionally been labeled as 'Hoxhaism' after the Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha.

After the fall of the Communist government in Albania, the pro-Albanian parties are grouped around an international conference and the publication 'Unity and Struggle'. Another important institution for them is the biannual International Anti-Imperialist and Anti-Fascist Youth Camp, which was initiated in 1970s.


Trotsky reading The Militant.

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

Trotskyist ideas have continually found a modest echo among political movements in some countries in Latin America and Asia, especially in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Sri Lanka. Many Trotskyist organizations are also active in more stable, developed countries in North America and Western Europe. Today, Trotskyists are organized in various international organizations and tendencies.

However, as a whole, Trotsky's theories and attitudes were never accepted in worldwide mainstream Communist circles after Trotsky's expulsion, either within or outside of the Soviet bloc. This remained the case even after the Secret Speech and subsequent events critics claim exposed the fallibility of Stalin. Today there are areas of the world where Trotskyist movements are rather large. However, Trotskyist movements have never coalesced in a mass movement that has seized state power.

Some criticize Trotskyism as incapable of using concrete analysis on its theories, rather resorting to phrases and abstract notions.

Cold War years

By virtue of the Soviet Union's victory in the Second World War in 1945, the Soviet Army had occupied nations in both Eastern Europe and East Asia; as a result, communism as a movement spread to many new countries. This expansion of communism both in Europe and Asia 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 took power with Soviet assistance in 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. Titoism, a new branch in the world communist movement, was labeled deviationist. Albania also became an independent Communist nation after World War II.

By 1950 the Chinese Communists held all of Mainland China, thus controlling the most populous nation in the world. Other areas where rising Communist strength provoked dissension and in some cases led to actual fighting include the Korean Peninsula, 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 what they saw as Western imperialism in these poor countries.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union

Communists marching in France on May 1, 2007

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, states controlled by Communist parties under a single-party system include the People's Republic of China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam. Communist parties, or their descendant parties, remain politically important in many countries. President Vladimir Voronin of Moldova is a member of the Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova, but the country is not run under single-party rule. In South Africa, the Communist Party is a partner in the ANC-led government. In India, as of 2007, the national government relies on outside support from the communist parties and communists lead the governments of three states, with a combined population of more than 115 million. In Nepal, communists hold a majority in the interim parliament.

The People's Republic of China has reassessed many aspects of the Maoist legacy; and the People's Republic of China, Laos, Vietnam, and, to a far lesser degree, Cuba have reduced state control of the economy in order to stimulate growth. The People's Republic of China runs Special Economic Zones dedicated to market-oriented enterprise, free from central government control. Several other communist states have also attempted to implement market-based reforms, including Vietnam. Officially, the leadership of the People's Republic of China refers to its policies as " Socialism with Chinese characteristics."

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 interests. (Scott and Marshall, 2005) Marxist critics of the Soviet Union, most notably Trotsky, referred to the Soviet system, along with other Communist states, as " degenerated" or " deformed workers' states," arguing that the Soviet system fell far short of Marx's communist ideal and he claimed working class was politically dispossessed. The ruling stratum of the Soviet Union was held to be a bureaucratic caste, but not a new ruling class, despite their political control. They called for a political revolution in the USSR and defended the country against capitalist restoration. Others, like Tony Cliff, advocated the theory of state capitalism, which asserts that the 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 conducting armed insurgencies in India, Philippines, Iran, Turkey, and Colombia.

Criticism of communism

A diverse array of writers and political activists have published criticism of communism, such as:

  • Soviet bloc dissidents Lech Wałęsa, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Václav Havel;
  • Social theorists Hannah Arendt, Raymond Aron, Ralf Dahrendorf, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Karl Wittfogel;
  • Economists Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman;
  • Historians and social scientists Robert Conquest, Stéphane Courtois, Richard Pipes, and R. J. Rummel;
  • Anti-Stalinist leftists Ignazio Silone, George Orwell, Saul Alinsky, Richard Wright, Arthur Koestler, and Bernard-Henri Levy;
  • Novelist and Philosopher Ayn Rand; and
  • Philosophers Leszek Kołakowski and Karl Popper.

Most of this criticism is on the policies adopted by one-party states ruled by Communist parties (known as " Communist states"). Critics are specially focused on their economic performance and human rights records. Some writers, such as Courtois, argue that the actions of Communist states were the inevitable (though sometimes unintentional) result of Marxist principles; thus, these authors present the events occurring in those countries, particularly under Stalin and Mao, as an argument against Marxism itself. Some critics were former Marxists, such as Wittfogel, who applied Marx's concept of " Oriental despotism" to Communist states such as the Soviet Union, and Silone, Wright, Koestler (among other writers) who contributed essays to the book The God that Failed (the title refers not to the Christian God but to Marxism).

There have also been more direct criticisms of Marxism, such as criticisms of the labor theory of value or Marx's predictions. Nevertheless, Communist parties outside of the Warsaw Pact, such as the Communist parties in Western Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa, differed greatly. Thus a criticism that is applicable to one such party is not necessarily applicable to another.

Economic criticisms of communal property are described under criticisms of socialism.

Comparing Communism to communism

According to the 1996 third edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage, communism and derived words are written with the lower case 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 is written "Communist" (with an upper case C). Thus, one may be a communist (an advocate of communism) without being a Communist (a member of a Communist Party or another similar organization).

Other sources do not back up this claim in the change of the English language as few follow this rule in academic or scholarly sources.

Retrieved from ""