- This article is about communism as a form of society built around a gift economy, as an ideology advocating that form of society, and as a popular movement . For issues regarding the organization of the communist movement, see the Communist party article. For issues regarding one-party states ruled by Communist Parties (and everything associated with them), see Communist state.
Communism is a term that can refer to one of several things: a social and economic system, an ideology which supports that system, or a political movement that wishes to implement that system.
As a theoretical social and economic system, communism would be a type of egalitarian society with no state, no privately owned means of production and no social class. In communism, all property is owned by the community as a whole, and all people have equal social and economic status. Theoretically, human need or advancement is not left unsatisfied because of poverty, and is rather solved through distribution of property as needed. This is thus often the system proposed to solve the problem of the poverty cycle .
Perhaps the best known maxim of a communist society is "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." This economic model is also referred to as a gift economy.
As a political movement, communism is a branch of the broader socialist movement. The communist movement differentiates itself from other branches of the socialist movement through various things - such as, for example, the communist desire to establish a gift economy, and their commitment to revolutionary strategies for overthrowing capitalism.
A communist is someone who favors communism.
Marxism and Anarchism
A communist society in theoretical Marxist terms is no different from the kind of society that is advocated by Anarchism, (specifically Anarcho-communism), but traditionally, Marxists argue for a temporary socialist government to facilitate the transition. Both movements are defined by their agitation for the elimination of wage labor and capitalism in favour of a non-statist gift economy. Both Marxist communists and Anarcho-communists seek to abolish private as well as state ownership of the means of production and the state itself.
However, unlike many Marxists, anarchists do not believe that a stage where the state owns the means of production is needed or desirable between capitalism and communism. They wish to implement their libertarian system without going through a period of "state socialism" where the state acts as an "instrument" of the working class. Anarchists, with their distrust of rulers, argue that this ultimately risks the rise of a potentially tyrannous "red bureaucracy", that could hijack a revolution, seizing power, and thus leading to abuse.
This has resulted in a sometimes hostile relationship between many Marxists and Anarchists, though this hostility is generally not present amongst the autonomous and more libertarian Marxist traditions. Anarchists were involved in the October Revolution, and supported the idea of workers' councils or Soviets, but are fiercely opposed to the centralization of power away from them that occurred in later periods, especially under Stalin. They considered this, as well as the organization of a central army as opposed to workers' militias run directly by local soviets, to be treachery and leading away from communism.
The best-known form of communism is Marxism and its various derivatives. Among other things, Marxism proposes the materialist conception of history; there are stages of economic development: slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and communism. These stages are advanced through a dialectical process, progressing society as history progresses. This progress is driven by class struggle. Communism is the final form of class society as it results in one class, or conversely, no classes, as those divisions cannot exist if only one exists.
Although many small communist societies have existed throughout human history, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were the first to devise a rigorous theoretical basis for communism. The political theory they created, namely Marxism, became the chief advocate of communism in the modern world.
Marxism seeks to explain historical phenomena in terms of class struggle. According to Marxists, human society consists of a number of social classes, which are differentiated by their relationship to the means of production. For example, capitalist society consists of the bourgeoisie (the capitalists; those who own the means of production) and the proletariat (the workers; those who must work for wages in order to make a living, because they do not possess any means of production of their own). One social class is the ruling class, and it uses its wealth and power to exploit the other class(es). For example, in capitalism, the bourgeoisie exploits the proletariat by drawing a profit from the proletariat's work. According to the theory, a business owner's profit equals what the workers produce minus what the workers get paid - thus, in order for the owner to make a profit, the workers must get paid less than what they produce; see surplus value. Eventually, one of the exploited classes rises up to overthrow the ruling class and the existing system, establishing itself as the new ruling class of a new system (for example, capitalism was established when the bourgeoisie overthrew feudalism and the feudal ruling class - the aristocracy).
According to the theory, class struggle is the engine of a cycle in which socio-economic systems are created, destroyed and replaced. Marxism identifies several systems that have been created and destroyed by it since the beginning of human history. However, social classes - and therefore class struggle - have not always existed. They were created at the dawn of human civilization, when nomadic tribes first settled down and started practicing agriculture. Before that, human beings lived in a kind of classless society that can be described as primitive communism. Primitive communism ended when agriculture created the conditions for private ownership of the means of production (which, at that time, simply meant private ownership of cultivated land). This differentiated people into land owners and those who needed to work other people's land for a living, and this in turn resulted in the slavery-based system of the ancient world. That system eventually gave way to feudalism, which eventually gave way to capitalism.
According to Marxism, the class struggle within capitalism will eventually lead to the proletariat overthrowing the bourgeoisie and establishing socialism. Socialism, in turn, will result in the gradual fading of social classes (as the means of production are made public property), which will lead to the final stage of human society - communism.
And that is the Marxist foundation for communism. Communism cannot change into another system because class struggle - the mechanism that drives such changes - no longer exists.
Marxism and Leninism
Within Marxism, there are several different trends. The largest of these trends is Leninism, which was based on the writings and actions of Vladimir Lenin. According to Lenin, capitalism can only be overthrown by a Proletarian Revolution, not by parliamentary means. Furthermore, in opposition to Marx, Lenin argued that the revolution would occur first in the less developed nations, and that it would require a "vanguard of the proletariat" composed of a relatively small, tightly organized Communist Party of workers de-classed intellectuals (see the article on Leninism for an explanation of the differences between Lenin and Marx, and their basis).
Most (but by no means all) present-day communists are of the Leninist variety.
Leninism versus Democratic Socialism
As explained above, according to Marxism, the laws of class struggle would drive capitalism to evolve into socialism and then, eventually, into communism. The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and other overtly Marxist parties, were formed to fight the class war on the parliamentary front. However, Marx never claimed to know exactly how long this process would take, and Marxists have often made very different speculations on the subject. Some of the more optimistic ones believed that capitalism would begin to fall apart in coming decades.
As the years passed, and with capitalist society showing no signs of collapse, some Marxists began to search for an explanation. Some members of the SPD, such as Eduard Bernstein decided that class war had failed, that a socialist society would have to be created without revolution, and that it could be brought about through the process of reforming existing capitalist institutions. This ideology became known as democratic socialism (not to be confused with social democracy) and began to spread through existing socialist and/or "labourist " parties, such as the British Labour Party, although this particular party is perceived as moving into right wing in recent years.
Others, however — including Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxembourg — argued that Marx had failed to analyze capitalism as a global system (since he had concentrated on the issue of how capitalism works and develops inside a single country). They looked at the larger picture, and concluded that capitalism was entering a new stage (called "imperialism" by Lenin), in which rich countries colonized and exploited poorer ones (in much the same way as the rich exploited the poor within a single country). Therefore, a revolution in the poor countries - or a world revolution - was needed in order to begin the process of overthrowing capitalism and moving towards socialism (with the final aim of reaching communism). This ideology became known as Leninism, and formed the basis on which the political parties of the Communist International were founded.
Thus, by the 1920s, Marxism had split into three distinct branches: The "classical" Marxists (those who held the original 19th century Marxist views), the Democratic Socialists and the Leninists.
It was the Leninist branch of Marxism that used the terms "communism" and "communist" most extensively. All political parties calling themselves "The Communist Party of [country]" were/are Leninist parties.
Stalinism versus Trotskyism
In the early 1930's, Leninism itself fractured in two distinct branches: Stalinism and Trotskyism. The reasons for this split revolved around the controversial policies of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union. Previous to Stalin's rise to power, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union functioned on a democratic system (known as democratic centralism) and members were encouraged to form their own opinions. It was believed that freedom of speech and diversity helped strengthen the Party (and Soviet society in general). As such, a number of different currents of opinion formed within the Communist Party. The two most prominent of these were headed by Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky, respectively. Stalin argued for the consolidation of socialism in one country (even one as underdeveloped as Soviet Union was at that time) and claimed that, due to the aggravation of class struggle along with the development of socialism, it was necessary to enforce strict Party discipline. Trotsky argued that the fate of socialism in the Soviet Union depended on the fate of socialist and communist revolutions around the world (therefore supporting the thesis of Permanent Revolution), and claimed that Stalin's authoritarian practices were harmful and dangerous (therefore calling for more democracy, both inside the Party and throughout the Soviet Union in general).
Stalin eventually succeeded in gaining full control of the Party and the Soviet government. He went ahead with his policies, which became known as Stalinism. Trotsky and his supporters organized into the so-called Left Opposition, and their platform became known as Trotskyism. However, their attempts to remove Stalin from power failed. Stalin imprisoned, executed or exiled most dissenters - especially the Trotskyists. Trotsky himself was exiled, and eventually assassinated in Mexico in 1940 when an ice pick was driven into the back of his head.
After World War II and during the Cold War, Stalinism spread to a number of new countries, and gave rise to a few different branches of its own. No country was ever ruled by Trotskyists.
Other forms of communism
Many communist societies (communes) have existed throughout history, and many non-Marxist (or pre-Marxist) Western intellectuals advocated ideas quite similar to what is today known as communism.
Some historians beleive that one of the possible Jewish sects, the Essenes, from which Jesus Christ is thought to have come from, functioned in strikingly similar ways to communism. This similarity is not widely agreed upon and the evidence is too contradictory to make statements claiming this degree of similarity. There are similar theories about other groups in the same time period. These early groups shared some elements in common with communism but were not completely identical. Although contradicting, some of the evidence point to the notion that the individuals of these groups held no property of their own, thereby allowing the community as a whole to hold all property in common; in this way, a classless community was possible. (In the case of the Essenes classes did exist but were according to religious standards rather than socio-economic.) Along with this similarity, there also exist several key elements that differentiate many of these groups from communism. They did in fact possess a form of a state, or ruling authority with varying degrees of hierarchy. See religious communism for more information.
Thomas More's 16th-century work Utopia depicted a society organised along communist lines.
Ideas of communal ownership evolved during the Enlightenment, exerting varying amounts of influence on the philosophes. The greatest of these influences were on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the abbé de Mably , Morelly (whose thoughts extensively influenced the French Revolution, in particular the Jacobins) and other revolutionary egalitarian clubs embodied in persons like Jean Paul Marat.
Many 19th-century idealists, disgusted by the ongoing oppression and mass poverty created by the Industrial Revolution, broke away from society to form short-lived communal "utopias". An example was Robert Owen's New Harmony community in Indiana. People who believe that communism can be implemented in such a way are called utopian socialists by Marxists.
The French philosopher Étienne Cabet, in his book "Voyage et aventures de lord William Carisdall en Icarie" ("Travel and adventures of lord William Carisdall in Icaria") (1840), depicted an ideal society in which an elected government controlled all economic activity and supervised social affairs, the family remaining the only other independent unit. In 1848 he attempted to organize Icarian communities in the United States. His efforts were mostly in vain, but small Icarian communities existed even after his death, until 1898.
The short-lived Paris Commune (1871) was arguably the main example followed by revolutionaries of the early 20th Century, and also the largest historical example of a communist society. The Communards held Paris for two months against Prussian/German and French government soldiers. The Commune passed various laws reducing the power of property owners, such as canceling rents and debts, before being bloodily suppressed. Marx later criticized the Commune for being too timid to secure its own survival, but praised it as the first successful revolution of the working class.
Today, a small number of people, primarily from industrialized nations , have, like the Owenites , opted to "drop out" of the existing society, preferring to live on communes of their own design. This movement saw its zenith during the counter-culture phenomenon of the 1960s and 70s in the West, and such people have been characterized as new bohemians or hippies.
Also in the present day, the tradition of communism continues in the form of Israeli kibbutzim although these communes have moved away from the communistic ideal and now allow degrees of individual ownership and capitalist production.
See Criticisms of Socialism for critique of socialism in general. In addition, there is also specific critique against communism.
Main Article: Communist states
As communism entails the abolition of the state, a communist state is an impossibility according to communist theory. There have been, however, a large number of states ruled by self-declared Communist parties. Large scale human rights violations occurred in these states as documented in extensive historical research, particularly during the regimes of Stalin and Mao, but shown to have started immediately after the Russian revolution during the regime of Lenin and to have continued to occur in all communist states during their existence.
The many abuses that occurred under these regimes have often been used as an argument against the ideology of communism itself, especially by anti-communists, citing for instance Marx's "dictatorship of the proletariat". This is rejected by communists as a simplistic approach to historical events and ideas, noting that communism itself is stateless in theory and thus cannot be related to the actions of 20th century states. Many anti-communists consider this a dodge of criticism that could similarly justify dismissing human rights violations under capitalism as not representative of the capitalist theory. The response is usually that capitalism is inherently prone to certain abuses by defending property and profit.
Critics of communism say it would be impossible for a communist society to plan its own economy.
People who believe in the subjective theory of value (STV) think that theoretically, in a capitalist system, scarce skills and resources are rationed by prices that reflect relative scarcity of the resources and competing demands. In their view, in a Soviet-style planned economy prices can send the wrong signals to consumers and planners , resulting in decisions that don't reflect the choices they would make if they knew the actual costs and competing demands for those resources.
This is not how communists view the capitalist system. To communists, placing value in a commodity instead of in the labor necessary to create that commodity is commodity fetishism. Values do not reflect scarcity but the necessary and homogenous labor time embedded in a commodity. Prices do not "send signals", since they simply reflect an exchange of commodities with an equal amount of homogeneous and necessary labor time congealed in them. Markets do not simplify planning or improve quality or efficiency because such decisions are made in the production of a commodity, not the exchange of it.
To understand the STV objection to communism, it is necessary to unravel the ambiguities of the word "plan". Of course, people and institutions plan very elaborate and far-sighted projects within a capitalist context. For example, nobody questions that human beings possess the rationality necessary to plan a skyscraper.
But the critics of communism say that the planning of a skyscraper (the blueprints, sitting, delivery schedule for materials) all typically takes place within a capitalist/contractual context. In their view, investors contract to buy stock or bonds in a development company. That company hires sub-contractors . The terms for the raw materials are haggled out with suppliers, etc. -- in the STV view, all subject to the rise or fall of prices and alternative investment possibilities for various parties.
Critics of communism contend that the implementation of communism in the sense described above would involve supplanting precisely these market and contract conditions that make planning possible. In the STV view it would be planning instead of haggling, rather than planning within the context of haggling. That is what they contend is not practicable.
Communists would respond that nothing mentioned here would constitute any kind of roadblock in a communist society. While communists do not "write recipes for the cookshops of future" communist societies, they claim that open source projects such as Linux, Amish barn-raisings and societies of the sort Karl Marx called "primitive communist" are 'communist-like' examples of how communist planning might work, from a small to large scale. As far as the idea that prices rise and fall, communists would say that prices simply reflect necessary homogenous congealed labor time, and claim that absent innovations in production, prices generally remain stable relative to one another.
Critics of communism would respond that since communist prices do not reflect the scarcity of the raw materials or the consumer demand for the products, one could easily end up with a Stakhanovite drive to build as many skyscrapers as possible, with a consequent blotting out of the sky with empty buildings, and a shortage of steel and other resources that might have been very useful if market prices had allowed them to be redirected elsewhere.
The failure of the European experimental communist economies in 1980s, described by economists such as Janos Kornai in his shortage economy model, with the resulting wealth gap between capitalistic countries and former Soviet satellite states and Soviet Union republics marked the economical failure of the Soviet experiment with communism.
Objectivists and other critics of communism (such as laissez-faire capitalists) see self-interested behavior as a moral ideal. They claim that communism removes incentives necessary for human productivity. Indeed, they argue that workers have to be rewarded with currency according to their immediate contribution to production. They thus reject a gift economic view of work with respect to incentive, which is less immediate and more collective-based. Their view on "human nature" is, therefore, not shared by Communists, who take the view that self-interest is a function of the material conditions of society. Communists claim that if the material conditions change so that competition and greed would no longer be necessary, mass behavior would change accordingly.
Communists have a disdain for the concept of 'human nature' or an invariable 'human condition' which exists throughout all human beings. They usually take the view that it is the material conditions which surround a person, such as their environment, that shapes a persons character. Also, according to them, the 'nature' of human beings is not determined by an underlying, constant condition which is present in all humans, but instead by the social and economic factors which surround them.
Critics point out that 'human nature' is at least in part influenced by genetic factors, which make some characteristics of human nature indeed partly invariable. Some also point to the chimpanzees and other primates, which can also engage in selfish and greedy behaviour. The rebuttal to this criticism given by Communists is that natural selection favours the collective in the survival struggle, rather than the individual; This would constitute an "evolutionary incentive" for gift economics. However the so-called selfish gene view of evolution is that natural selection acts on genes rather than collectives, and so such cooperation can be mainly expected in genetically related societies. This, however fits the human species as the species is very young and highly related in itself.
Communists believe, however, that once capitalism has been destroyed, and socialism has been established, selfish desires and greed will recede from the forefront of societal conditioning. They foresee a society where the desire for personal gain is interconnected with the atmosphere of mutual assistance and co-operation, making self-interest and the interests of the collective one and the same. Capitalists reject this as far-fetched - from here the argument breaks down into elements of realism versus idealism.
It is also possible to argue from games theory such as Prisoner's Dilemma that in some cases the 'best course' for an individual may be to defect from such mutual assistance. In such a case the society might enforce the status quo by coercion, which may be provided by peer pressure, compatible with an egalitarian gift economy. This would produce a society with values dedicated to mutual benefit, in addition to a default ostracism of defectors in a gift economy that would discourage so called "freeloaders".
However, the minimal requirements of a communist society only require internal mutual benefit, and does not mean such a society is prevented from fighting and competing with other external societies, as long as the society itself remains communal and non-competitive. An example of this are societies of hunter-gatherers, which often have shared ownership of possessions and extremely high peer pressure, often have a very high degree of violence since it is often beneficial for the tribe to exploit other tribes. The issue among many communists of whether humanity should cooperate as one ultimate collective or not appears to be a further ideological splitting point. However, if the size of the society increases then peer pressure decreases and it becomes increasingly more tempting to defect from mutual assistance.
If capitalism is to be overthrown in a revolution, then a socialist revolution could be costly in terms of human lives. Communist revolutionaries argue that the violent or non-violent character of a revolution is not determined solely by the revolutionaries, but also, or even primarily, by the owners of the means of production who have a stake in capitalism, and the government tied to the ruling classes. Critics of communism, however, point out that the revolutionary way is by definition opposed to democracy.
The Future of Communism
As with all attempts to foresee the future, it is difficult to tell with any degree of confidence what is in store for communism. And, of course, any prediction depends on which "communism" we are talking about (the social system, the ideology, or the political movement).
As a political movement, made up of parties and individuals that consider themselves communist, communism is tied up practically and ideologically with the labor movement and the anti-globalization movement. The tide of the communist movement can generally be gauged by the success of the labor and anti-globalization movements.
Outside of the industrialized core of developed nations, the communist movement takes on legal and extra-legal dimensions. There are several dozen guerrilla groups in the world which identify themselves as communist in one form or another. In places like Peru, the Philippines, Nepal, and Southeast Asia, the success of communism can be gauged by the success of guerrilla wars. In countries with strong Communist Parties, such as India and Russia, the success of communism can be gauged by the success of those political parties.
As far as "communist states" are concerned, there are five countries still ruled by Communist Parties formally belonging to the Marxist-Leninist tradition: the People's Republic of China, Cuba, North Korea, Laos and Vietnam. However, the experiences of these five states have starkly diverged, especially since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. On the one hand, Cuba and North Korea were hit hard by the lack of Soviet economic assistance, trade and military support. On the other hand, the world's other three remaining communist states (all in East Asia) were far less dependent on Soviet subsidies (and in China's case, not at all, given the Sino-Soviet Split) at the time of the collapse of the Warsaw Pact.
Following the lead of China under Deng Xiaoping whose encouragement in rhetoric and policy of wealth creation was neatly summarized by his exhortation "poverty is not socialism, to get rich is glorious", Vietnam and Laos have moved away from Soviet-style centralized planning, in favour of a private market economy that (at least in China's case) is very difficult to distinguish from outright capitalism. China has been particularly aggressive in its pursuit of "socialism with Chinese characteristics," even to the point of admitting entrepreneurs to the Communist Party. Therefore, China today is generally regarded as being capitalist de facto, with just a little higher degree of government control than is seen in conventional capitalist countries. Many Marxists also regard the other four remaining "communist states" as being state-capitalist rather than socialist.
Writing "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".
- Rodney Carlisle and James H. Lide, Complete Idiot's Guide to Communism, Alpha Books, March, 2002, trade paperback, 362 pages, ISBN 0028643143
- Francois and Deborah Furet, Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century, University of Chicago Press, 1999, hardcover, 506 pages, ISBN 0226273407
Online resources for original Marxist literature
See List of Communist parties.
Che-Lives - a Web site dedicated to Che Guevara, aswell as featuring the internet's largest communistic forum. It also harbors a few socialists.