Communism, simply put, is a socioeconomic political doctrine that advocates a classless and stateless society wherein there is collective ownership and control of property and all means of production. The term communism, however, means different things to differently situated people and as such might be a function of time and place. Some people associate the term with liberation from colonialism or other forms of oppression and a defense of lower-class working-class interests, while others equate it with an idealized state, a political movement, or a way of life. Still others regard it as a rejection of traditional European and North American sociopolitical values. Despite such variations in meaning, embedded in each is the notion of change. Change, however, is not always organic but is, instead, often orchestrated by those overseeing societal transformation.
A core aspect of the practical application of communism, then, has been a strong centralization of decisionmaking and state planning, especially in the economic sector. State planning, as practiced in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and the Third World, coupled with the need to effectively silence opposition to the imposition of the Communist political and economic order, has often hinged on the effective use of authoritarian practices and single-party rule. This does not mean, however, that authoritarianism is a necessary and sufficient condition for the flourishing of Communist practices. Moreover all political systems encompass a certain degree of authoritarianism and centralization.
The notion of communism dates back to ancient Greece, where it was associated with a myth concerning the golden age of humanity, when society lived in full harmony. Plato (in The Republic) and other ancient political theorists advocated a kind of communal living, which is viewed as a form of communism. It is Karl Marx, however, with the assistance of Friedrich Engels, who is most often credited with providing the most popularized expression of communism. As expressed in the Communist Manifesto (1848), their theory of communism is underpinned by antecedent philosophical arguments about the history of humankind that include the dialectical and historical materialism of Georg Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach and others who expressed views on socialism and communism prior to and during the beginning of the European socialist movements of the 1840s. Marx’s view of communism was influenced by a long and established tradition of “utopian” socialists, but he embraced a “scientific” approach that added a new twist to existing thought. Moreover Marx and Engels referred to communism as scientific socialism.
Socialism, as a political theory, developed during the European working-class rebellions, when the predicament of workers was viewed against the backdrop of the prevailing liberal logic of the day. Its point of departure, according to the political scientist Alfred Meyer, was the assertion that the ideals associated with the American and French Revolutions—namely liberty, equality, fraternity, and the right to a human existence—had been aborted. Thus the promise of these revolutions could be fulfilled only when political rights were consonant with social and economic equality, which necessitated wiping out the differences between rich and poor. Drawing from this and earlier philosophical arguments and movements, Marx and Engels embarked on an attempt to further develop the theory.
Marx viewed communism as the highest stage of socialism and the history of humankind as imbued with struggles between the capitalist class (the owners of capital) and the working class (proletariats). His theory, as articulated in the Communist Manifesto, viewed the movement of society toward communism as a scientific fact. This view holds that inherent contradictions of capitalism paved the road to revolution, which would be fueled in part by class consciousness. According to Marx, a socialist society, ruled by the working class, would emerge out of this revolution. Eventually the socialist society would evolve into communism—a classless society free of exploitation, poverty, and government coercion. Although Marx continued to view economic classes as engines for moving society to higher stages of historical development, his later works encompassed more detailed and refined arguments, including an emphasis on the polarization of the impoverished working class. The emergence of the Communist society envisioned by Marx has never come into fruition, and this failure has facilitated the rise of other schools of communism. Nevertheless, the terms communism, socialism, Marxism, and Marxism-Leninism are often used interchangeably.
The school of communism associated with Vladimir Lenin, like that associated with Marx, is informed by precursor philosophies and is grounded in the Russian reality of the 1900s. Lenin’s theoretical interpretations and practical application of doctrines espoused by Marx also contributed to the development of communism. Whereas Marx predicted that the proletarian revolution would occur in capitalist society, Lenin believed that revolution could occur in precapitalist colonial societies, no matter how primitive. His theory also holds that imperialism is the highest stage of monopoly capitalism, which results from the contradictions of capitalism that fuel the search for foreign outlets for surplus capital and production. The “dictatorship of the proletariat” would be implemented by a small, dedicated elite of the Communist Party, who would lead the revolution.
Lenin’s interpretation of Marxist doctrines was shaped by events associated with the Russian Revolution of 1917, which convinced him that a successful revolution in Russia could not occur as a spontaneous popular uprising. He concluded that the revolution would have to be the work of a well-organized group of professional revolutionaries. Thus he pulled together a group comprised of discontented intellectuals, workers, and peasants of different nationalities who happened to be in the right place at the right time to seize the levers of state control in Russia.
Although Marxist communism was implemented in other areas of the world outside the Soviet Union, its expansion did not occur until after World War II (1939–1945). Prior to that time many Communist parties existed in various countries, though none held the reins of governmental power. Communism, as developed by Lenin, facilitated the spread of Communist states in Eastern Europe and other parts of the world. In fact underdeveloped societies facing a crisis of modernization implemented Marxism or Marxism-Leninism at a greater rate than did capitalist societies. Thus it can be argued that Marxism-Leninism had a greater impact on the world than any other modern philosophy during the twentieth century.
According to Meyer, Third World Marxism originated in Asia in the early 1920s and gradually spread to Africa, Latin America, and other areas that were fighting traces of colonialism. This form of Marxism had the Leninist theory of imperialism as its base. The majority of states, however, were brought into the Communist sphere after World War II, fueled by the cold war rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Soviet communism was appealing because of its focus on expunging imperialist exploitation and domination from Third World states. And though the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had developed into an exportable model of success, communism, as practiced in the third world, took on a variety of forms. The Soviet model, like earlier concepts of Marxism, was altered by its application in other countries. Third world (non-Western) communism took on characteristic features of the Chinese brand of communism rather than that of the Soviet Union.
There were also conscious attempts to break free of the Soviet model of communism in Eastern Europe. The first successful attempt occurred in Yugoslavia, where the leader of the Communist Party, Josef Broz Tito, did not owe his position to Josef Stalin. James Ozinga, in Communism: The Story of the Idea and Its Implementation (1991), notes that Yugoslavia became a middle ground between Soviet communism and the West, owing to Tito’s abandonment of rural collectivization and implementation of free enterprise and real elections, among other non-Soviet practices. The second major attempt to loosen Soviet control occurred in Hungary in 1956, followed by Poland. A third attempt surfaced twelve years later in Czechoslovakia. Efforts to remove tight Soviet control began with these nations’ Communist parties and represented an expressed desire for greater liberty and a more national approach to the socialist goal (see Lerner 1993).
Communism officially came to power throughout China in 1949, following the defeat of the Nationalist (Kuomintang) forces by the Red Army. The early Chinese Communist ideology was heavily influenced by the thoughts of Mao Zedong, but Marxism-Leninism provided the theoretical foundation for the Chinese Communist ideology and served as the guiding principle for the party and state. Mao’s thoughts provided the principles for practical application.
Chinese communism, as articulated by Mao Zedong, viewed the peasantry as the class that had to be mobilized for the revolution. Unlike Lenin’s enlightened leadership elite, Mao advocated use of the peasantry as a major rather than a secondary force in the revolution. This meant a reliance on a rural-based group, rather than an urban proletariat, to bring about a socialist transformation. Suzanne Ogden, a Northeastern University professor who has written often on China, notes that an orthodox Marxist-led revolution against urban capitalism made no sense in China because few workers had been exploited by the capitalist class. Mao also believed that putting revolutionary theory into practice was critically significant in guiding expected social contradictions in the right direction. Thus dialectical confrontation did not end with the triumph of the political revolution but continued into socialism and communism, according to Mao’s theory. Jiwei Ci argues in Dialectic of the Chinese Revolution (1994) that the establishment of the Communist regime in 1949 marked the successful acquisition of Marxism as cultural self-identity, and China’s possession of it became monopolistic after its ideological break with the Soviet Union in 1960.
Similarly in Cuba traditional Communist doctrine (Soviet communism) was revised to reflect Cuba’s historical reality. During Fidel Castro’s 26th of July movement, the Communist Party played a secondary role. José Martí, not Marx, symbolized Cuban independence from Spain and inspired dramatic change. It was his ideas that were embraced by Castro. Thus the movement began with Castro and a group of dedicated nationalists. After the movement crushed the government forces, the new regime immediately committed to Marxism-Leninism and to Soviet patronage. This patronage was born more out of economic necessity than ideological congruence. By 1963 Castro realized that orthodox Communists were a threat to Cuba’s contact with regional revolutionary regimes, which compelled him to reinvigorate the revolutionary will. Thus his Communist Party exercised doctrinal independence and was charismatic rather than bureaucratic.
A cursory historical examination of Communist states, both in Eastern Europe and in the developing world, reveals a wide range of differences in ideologies and approaches to the practical application of communism. It is clear that the revolution, as envisioned by Marx, never swept Communists into power in any country. Historical evidence indicates that internal conflicts between the petit bourgeois and the ruling class, external relations, and other intervening variables had as much if not more relevance for the implementation and the nature of the Communist rule in Africa, Asia, and Latin America than did working-class consciousness and commitments to the Marxist-Leninist philosophy per se.
Many of the Communist states that developed in tandem with the cold war politics of the United States and the Soviet Union took on the character of the individuals who came to power rather than strict adherence to the Soviet model. The “revolutionaries” turned Communist state leaders understood the nature of their societies and knew exactly when to infuse their articulation of Communist doctrine with interpretations that were more relevant to national realities. One must then consider the intersection of historical events and personality as important variables in explaining variations in Communist states. Obviously different interpretations make it almost impossible to speak in terms of the “theory of communism.”
Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to power, which precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, contributed to the demise of Communist Party rule in Eastern Europe and other parts of the world. Gorbachev believed that a Soviet foreign policy based on military might was a luxury that could no longer be afforded. Thus he reversed the Brezhnev Doctrine, which for years had protected unpopular Communist regimes from their population. His message was simple: the Soviet Union would no longer intervene to save faltering Communist regimes. This, coupled with events in 1989 and 1990, signaled changes that were about to occur in the Soviet bloc. In the Soviet Union the constitutional monopoly of the Communist Party was repealed, and power gradually shifted to new, mostly elected institutions of government, while opposition parties in Eastern Europe defeated Communist candidates in many local and national elections in 1990.
By the early 1990s the only states in which communism was firmly entrenched were in East Asia and a few other regions, notably China and Cuba. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 rendered the United States the sole superpower, which had enormous implications for the collapse of Communist regimes in other parts of the world. By the mid- to late 1990s more and more Third World Marxist-Leninist regimes were replaced by regimes willing to play to the U.S. global political and economic agenda. This by no means resulted in the complete demise of Communist regimes, however, but it did motivate a substantial number of old-guard Communist leaders to present themselves as reformed or rehabilitated advocates for a different kind of democratic rule and free enterprise. In 2007, in parts of the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and other regions of the world, post-Communist states are led by former Communists who are authoritarian, dictatorial, and cloaked in corruption. This could create an environment conducive to the return of the Communist state.
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Kathie Stromile Golden