Communism is a socio-economic structure that promotes the establishment of a classless, stateless society based on common ownership of the means of production. It encourages the formation of a proletarian state in order to overcome the class structures and alienation of labor that characterize capitalistic societies, and their legacy of imperialism and nationalism. Communism holds that the only way to solve these problems is for the working class (or proletariat) to replace the wealthy ruling class (or bourgeoisie), through revolutionary action, in order to establish a peaceful, free society, without classes or government.
Communism, then, is the idea of a free society with no division or alienation, where humanity is free from oppression and scarcity, and where there is no need for governments or countries and no class divisions. It envisages a world in which each person gives according to their abilities, and receives according to their needs. Its proponents claim it to be the only means to the full realization of human freedom.
It is usually considered a branch of the broader Socialist movement. The dominant forms of Communism, such as Leninism, Trotskyism and Luxemburgism, are based on Marxism, but non-Marxist versions of Communism (such as Christian Communism and Anarchist Communism) also exist – see the section on Types of Communism below.
In the late 19th Century, the terms «socialism» and «communism» were often used interchangeably. However, Marxist theory argues that Communism would not emerge from Capitalism in a fully developed state, but would pass through a «first phase» (Socialism) in which most productive property was owned in common, but some class differences remained. This would eventually evolve into a «higher phase» (Communism) in which class differences were eliminated, and a state was no longer needed and would wither away. It further argued that revolutionary activity by the working classes was required to bring about these changes.
The early history of Communist thought is essentially the history of Socialism, which has been detailed elsewhere.
In its modern form, Communism grew out of the Socialist movements of 19th Century Europe and the critics of Capitalism during the Industrial Revolution. Foremost among these critics were the German philosopher Karl Marx and his associate Friedrich Engels (1820 – 1895), and their ground-breaking «Communist Manifesto» of 1848, the defining document of the movement, offered a new definition of Communism and popularized the term.
The usage of the terms «communism» and «socialism» shifted after the Russian Revolution of 1917, when the avowedly Marxist Bolshevik Party in Russia changed their name to the Communist Party and installed a single party regime devoted to the implementation of socialist policies under Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870 – 1924). Lenin created the Third International (or Communist International or Comintern) in 1919 and set the twenty-one conditions (including democratic centralism) for any European socialist parties willing to join. In the wake of the Russian Civil War, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR or Soviet Union) was created in 1922.
Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) lasted until 1928, when Joseph Stalin (1878 – 1953) became party leader under the banner of «socialism in one country» and proceeded down the road of isolationism and Totalitarianism with the first of many Five Year Plans. Marxist critics of the Soviet Union, most notably Leon Trotsky (1879 – 1940), referred to the Soviet system as a «degenerated» or «deformed» workers’ state, arguing that it fell far short of Marx’s communist ideal, and claiming that the working class was politically dispossessed.
After World War II, the Warsaw Pact saw Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland, Hungary and Romania join the Soviet Union in an economic and military alliance under strict Soviet Control. However, relations were never easy, and the Soviet Union was forced into military interventions to quell popular uprisings in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968), and Albania withdrew from the Pact (although not from Communism) in 1968 due to ideological differences.
In 1949, the Communist Party of China (CPC) led by Mao Zedong (1893 – 1976) established the People’s Republic of China, which would later follow its own ideological path of Communist development (Maoism). Communist states such as Soviet Union and China succeeded in becoming industrial and technological powers, challenging the Capitalist powers in the arms race, the space race and military conflicts, although both suffered significant setbacks and attracted much criticism (see the section on Criticisms of Communism below).
Although never formally unified as a single political entity, by the 1970s almost one-third of the world’s population lived in Communist states, including the People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe, as well Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Angola, and Mozambique.
However, the Warsaw Pact countries had all abandoned Communist rule by 1990, and in 1991 the Soviet Union itself dissolved, leaving China, Cuba and some isolated states in Asia and Africa as the remaining bastions of Communism, in most cases substantially watered down and adapted from its initial ideology.
Criticisms of Communism can be divided in two broad categories: those concerned with Communist or Marxist principles and theory, and those concerned with the practical aspects of 20th Century Communist states:
- Criticisms of Communist/Marxist Theory:
- The promise of a glorious, yet imaginary, future: Some have argued that, like Fascism, Nationalism and many religions, Communism offers a vision of an unachievable perfect future, and keeps its subjects in thrall to it by devaluing the past and the present. It claims to represent a universal truth which explains everything and can cure every ill, and any apparent deviations or under-performance are explained away by casuistry and emotional appeals.
- An incomplete ideology: Marx and Engels never dedicated much work to show how exactly a Communist economy would function in practice, leaving Socialism a «negative ideology» (having removed the market price system, but with nothing to take its place).
- The assumption that human nature is completely determined by the environment: Some Communists, including Trotsky, believed that all the social, political and intellectual life processes in general are conditioned by the socio-economic base and the mode of production of material life, which rather devalues humanity and the importance of the lives and rights of human beings.
- Anarchist criticisms: Many Anarchists and Libertarian Socialists reject the need for a transitory state phase and often criticize Marxism and Communism for being too authoritarian. Some Anarcho-Primitivists reject left wing politics in general, seeing it as corrupt and claiming that civilization is un-reformable.
- An attack on human rights and liberty: Some critics have argued that Marx’s concept of freedom is really just a defense of tyranny and oppression, and not an expansion of freedoms as he claimed.
- Alleged anti-Semitism: Some commentators have interpreted many of Marx’s pronouncements on Jews as being anti-Semitic, claiming that he saw Jews as the embodiment of Capitalism and the creators of all its evils. Others, however, hotly dispute this interpretation.
- The need for violent revolution: Many Socialist reformists (e.g. Democratic Socialists and Social Democrats) take issue with the Marxist requirement for a violent proletarian revolution, arguing that Capitalism can be reformed by gradual democratic changes.
- The theory of Historical Materialism is flawed: Some critics have argued that the concept of Historial Materialism which underlies much of Marxist theory is flawed, or that such a method can be twisted into trying to force the course of history in a particular direction, or that in practice it leads to Nihilism. Very briefly, Historical Materialism is the idea that for human beings to survive, they need to produce and reproduce the material requirements of life, and this production is carried out through a division of labor based on very definite production relations between people. These relations form the economic base of society, and are themselves determined by the mode of production which is in force (e.g. tribal society, ancient society, feudalism, capitalism, socialism), and societies, and their cultural and institutional superstructures, naturally move from stage to stage as the dominant class is displaced by a new emerging class in a social and political upheaval.
- Marxist class analysis is flawed: Some argue that class is not the most fundamental inequality in history, and that detailed analysis of many historical periods fails to find support for class or social evolution as used by Marxists.
- Unfulfilled predictions: Marx made numerous predictions in expounding his theories (e.g. increasing class polarization, proletarian revolutions occurring first in the most industrialized nations, increasing improvement of machinery making the livelihoods of workers more and more precarious, etc), some of which are debatable, while others have been clearly proven wrong. It is argued that this is further evidence that Historical Materialism is a flawed theory.
- The theory is not scientifically rigorous: The theory of Historical Materialism, although initially genuinely scientific, degenerated into pseudoscience and dogma when predictions were not borne out and ad hoc adaptations and revisions had to be made to fit the facts. Some critics have also argued that, if anything, the older utopian socialists were more scientific in their approach than Marx, in that at least their attempts to set up socialist communes followed the scientific method of experimentation, hypothesis and testing, whereas Marxism was just an untestable and hence unscientific prophecy.
- The evidence for the «end of history»: Some critics have argued that the growing spread of liberal democracy around the world, and the apparent lack of major revolutionary movements developing in them, suggest that Capitalism or social democracy is likely to be the final form of human government, rather than Marxism, which claims to be an «end of history» philosophy.
- Criticisms of Communist Party Rule:
- Totalitarianism: It is claimed that Communist parties have maintained themselves in power without the consent of the populations and have degenerated into Totalitarianism. They rule by means of secret police, propaganda disseminated through the state-controlled mass media, repression of free discussion and criticism, mass surveillance, and state terror.
- Political repression: Both political repression and censorship were practiced extensively by the Soviet Union under Stalin (from 1927 to 1953), by China under Mao (especially during the Cultural Revolution of 1966 – 76), and by the Communist regime in North Korea throughout its rule (from 1948 onwards).
- Personality cults: There has been much criticism of the personality cults of many Communist rulers, especially the cults of Stalin, Mao, Kim Il Sung, and Fidel Castro.
- Restrictions on freedom of movement: Many anticommunists have asserted that Communist regimes tend to impose harsh restrictions on the freedom of movement, which they argue are to stem the possibility of mass emigration due to widespread popular dissatisfaction with their rule.
- Imperialism: Although, as an ideology, Communism stresses its opposition to imperialism, which it sees as the highest stage of Capitalism, anti-Communist critics have accused the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China of practicing imperialism themselves. Examples include the Chinese annexation of Tibet, the creation of Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe after the end of World War II, and aggressive interventions in popular uprisings in Hungary, Poland and Afghanistan, and in various national liberation movements in African and Asia.
- Human rights: A number of Communist states have maintained forced labor as a legal form of punishment (often resulting in significant death tolls), as well as the involuntary deportations of entire ethnic groups and ethnic cleansing. Executions of people who had received the death penalty for various charges were common, as were deaths that occurred in prison, including those of political dissidents. Some have also argued that millions of deaths from famine, purges and internal wars in both the Soviet Union and China were directly attributable to Communist policies.
- Economic performance: Many critics of Communist rule make disparaging comparisons between the economic development and efficiency of Communist and non-Communist countries. Although the Soviet Union achieved rapid industrialization, especially during the 1930’s, it became a net importer of grain, unable to produce enough food to feed its own population. In general, the Communist economies of Eastern European had productivity far below the Western European average. Direct comparisons are difficult, however, and the reliability of some statistics are debatable. The unavailability of consumer goods common in the West has been asserted by some as evidence of the lower standard of living in the Soviet Union, although there was a deliberate policy of concentrating the country’s economic resources on heavy industry and defense rather than on consumer goods, and there was more emphasis on social and cultural programs as well as guaranteed employment, subsidized food and clothing, free health care, free child care, free education, etc.
- Cultural and artistic censorship: Some critics have argued that censorship of the arts in Communist countries, and particularly the wholesale destruction of older artifacts and architecture which did not demonstrate sufficient «proletarian content», represented an unjustifiable destruction of the cultural heritage of humanity. A certain amount of historical revision also took place, including the falsification of images and the re-writing of history.
- Ecological damage: Several environmental disasters have been blamed directly on Communist rule and policies and its obsession with heavy industry, military development and space projects at the expense of ecology. Air and water pollution in both the Soviet Union and its satellites and in the People’s Republic of China have been severe, and much of the agricultural land has been affected by salinization, erosion, acidity, waterlogging, or desertification.
Marxism is the theoretical-practical framework on which Socialism and Communism are based.
Leninism builds upon and elaborates the ideas of Marxism, and served as the philosophical basis for the ideology of Soviet Communism after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the establishment of the Soviet Union. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870 – 1924) argued in his pamphlet «What is to be Done?» of 1902 that the proletariat can only achieve a successful revolutionary consciousness through the efforts of a «vanguard party» composed of full-time professional revolutionaries and through a form of disciplined organization known as «democratic centralism» (whereby decisions are made with internal democracy but then all party members must externally support and actively promote that decision). It holds that Capitalism can only be overthrown by revolutionary means, and any attempts to reform Capitalism from within are doomed to fail. The goal of a Leninist party is to orchestrate the overthrow of the existing government by force and seize power on behalf of the proletariat, and then implement a dictatorship of the proletariat, a kind of direct democracy in which workers hold political power through local councils known as soviets.
Marxism-Leninism is the Communist ideological stream that emerged as the mainstream tendency amongst Communist parties in the 1920’s as it was adopted as the ideological foundation of the Communist International during the era of Joseph Stalin (1878 – 1953), with whom it is mainly associated. The term «Marxism-Leninism» is most often used by those who believe that Lenin‘s legacy was successfully carried forward by Stalin, although it is debatable to what extent it actually follows the principles of either Marx or Lenin.
- Stalinism is a more pejorative term for Joseph Stalin’s vision of Communism (which Stalin himself described as Marxism-Leninism). Proponents of the term argue that it includes an extensive use of propaganda to establish a personality cult around an absolute dictator, as well as extensive use of a secret police to maintain social submission and silence political dissent, all of which are trappings of Totalitarianism.
Trotskyism is the theory of Marxism advocated by Leon Trotsky (1879 – 1940), who considered himself an orthodox Marxist and Bolshevik-Leninist, and argued for the establishment of a vanguard party. Trotsky’s politics differed sharply from the Marxism-Leninism of Joseph Stalin, particularly in declaring the need for an international proletarian revolution (as opposed to Stalin’s «socialism in one country»), and unwavering support for a true dictatorship of the proletariat based on direct democratic principles. One of the defining characteristics of Trotskyism is the theory of permanent revolution to explain how socialist revolutions could occur in societies that had not yet achieved advanced Capitalism (which according to Marx was a prerequisite for socialist revolution).
Luxemburgism is a specific revolutionary theory within Communism, based on the writings of Rosa Luxemburg (1870 – 1919). Her politics diverged from those of Lenin and Trotsky mainly in her disagreement with their concept of «democratic centralism», which she saw as insufficiently democratic. Luxemburgism resembles Anarchism in its avoidance of an authoritarian society by relying on the people themselves as opposed to their leaders, However, it also sees the importance of a revolutionary party and the centrality of the working class in the revolutionary struggle. It resembles Trotskyism in its opposition to the Totalitarianism of Stalin and to the reformist politics of modern social democracy, but differs in arguing that Lenin and Trotsky also made undemocratic errors.
Maoism (or «Mao Zedong Thought») is a variant of Communism derived from the teachings of the Chinese leader Mao Zedong (or Mao Tse-tung) (1893 – 1976), and practiced in the People’s Republic of China after the Chinese Revolution of 1949. Maoism developed from the Marxism-Leninism of Stalin, but introduced new ideas such as Social-Imperialism (Mao accused the Soviet Union of dominating and exploiting the smaller countries in its sphere to the point of organising their economies around Soviet, not domestic, needs), the Mass Line (a method of leadership that seeks to learn from the masses and immerse the political leadership in the concerns and conditions of the masses – «from the masses, to the masses»), people’s war and new democracy. The «Great Leap Forward» of 1958, an attempt to industrialize and improve China’s economy proved to be disastrous and millions died from the resulting famine. The Cultural Revolution, begun in 1966 under the so-called «Gang of Four» in an attempt to rid the country of any remaining «liberal bourgeois» elements, resulted in further social, political and economic chaos, eventually bringing the entire country to the brink of civil war. Since Mao’s death in 1976, his original ideology has been radically altered, marginalized and reformed in China and has become known as «Socialism with Chinese Characteristics» (which is actually closer to Keynesian Capitalism than Communism). Maoist parties exist in Peru, Nepal, India and the Philippines.
Left Communism is a range of Communist viewpoints held by the Communist Left, which claims to be more authentically Marxist and proletarian than the views of Leninism and its successors. Left Communists supported the Russian Revolution, but did not accept the subsequent methods of the Bolsheviks. The Russian, Dutch-German and the Italian traditions of Left Communism all share an opposition to nationalism, all kinds of national liberation movements, frontism (uniting with anyone against a common enemy) and parliamentary systems.
Council Communism is a radical left movement, originating in Germany and the Netherlands in the 1920s, and continuing today as a theoretical and activist position within both left-wing Marxism and Libertarian Socialism. It sees workers’ councils, arising in factories and municipalities, as the natural form of working class organization and governmental power. It opposes the idea of a «revolutionary party» on the grounds that a revolution led by a party will necessarily produce a party dictatorship.
Anarchist Communism (or Anarcho-Communism or Libertarian Communism) advocates the complete abolition of the state and Capitalism in favor of a horizontal network of voluntary associations, workers’ councils and/or commons through which everyone will be free to satisfy their needs. The movement was led by the Russians Mikhail Bakunin (1814 – 1876) and Peter Kropotkin (1842 – 1921).
Eurocommunism was a trend in the 1970’s and 1980’s within various Western European Communist parties to develop a theory and practice of social transformation that was more relevant in a Western European democracy and less aligned to the party line of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Religious Communism is a form of Communism centered on religious principles, whether they be Christian, Taoist, Jain, Hindu or Buddhist. It usually refers to a number of egalitarian and utopian religious societies practicing the voluntary dissolution of private property, so that society’s benefits are distributed according to a person’s needs, and every person performs labor according to their abilities. Christian Communism, for example, takes the view that the teachings of Jesus Christ compel Christians to support Communism as the ideal social system.