Communism has two meanings. It is a political ideology, and also a system of government. In the second sense it means political rule of all aspects of society and economy by a Communist Party, which is organized in totalitarian fashion from top down. The most important Communist states were the Soviet Union (1918-1991), its satellites in Eastern Europe (1945-1989), as well as China (1949 to present). Besides China, Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea have Communist governments.
Communism as an economic and political ideology that argues capitalism is an evil and must be overthrown by the workers; the Communist party is the leader of the workers in this endeavor. Modern Communism grew out of the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels after 1848. Marx developed the theory of what was later called dialectical materialism, which saw the material conditions of existence as determining the values of a society, and argued that the entirety of history was the history of struggle between social classes. Marx argued that the dialectic of history required the workers to overthrow the capitalist class, which would result in the emergence of a "classless society".
Marx's ideas were first put into practice in the wake of Russia's October revolution of 1917, where the Communist Party, under the leadership of V. I. Lenin, overthrew the unstable democratic government which had replaced the Tsar. The country was renamed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Other countries which came under Communist rule were the nations of Europe which the U.S.S.R. conquered in World War II (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria), those taken over by Communist partisans during the retreat of the Nazis, Yugoslavia and Albania, and Cambodia, which became Communist during the Vietnam War. Countries which became Communist-ruled and remain so include the People's Republic of China (though the Communist Party there no longer adheres to socialist economic policy), North Korea, Vietnam (which is also moving away from socialism), Laos, and Cuba. In Africa, Ethiopia, Somalia, Angola and Mozambique had governments which claimed to be Communist, and which were supported by the U.S.S.R., but those governments were more similar to non-Communist African dictatorships than to European or Asian communist governments.
Communist rule has frequently been accompanied by large scale starvation as a tool of policy, concentration camps for political opponents of the Communist government, genocide of minority groups, and mass executions. The Black Book of Communism estimates that over one hundred million people were killed by Communist governments in the 20th Century.
History of Communist Ideology
Communism as a political ideology is derived from the works of Karl Marx, who with Friedrich Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848, setting forth a program for a revolutionary socialist movement. Marxian communism drew on an established school of socialist thought as well as a somewhat inchoate collection of revolutionary thinkers, many of whom had no specific program other than overthrow of existing social order. Marx's synthesis of these strains of thought quickly became the guiding philosophy for most of Europe's radical agitators. Marx considered his theory to be a scientific theory of politics and economics, based on dialectical materialism, derived from the dialectic of Hegel.
An international organization of Communist parties was formed, with Marx and Engels in leading roles.
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, a Russian Communist, was a significant theoretician of Communism. One of his earlier theoretical contributions included the concept of a "vanguard" party, which would hold all political power, replacing or refining Marx's idea of the "dictatorship of the proletariat", where the working classes would assume political power collectively. Lenin successfully led his faction to take over Russia's main socialist party in 1905, then, in October 1917, led a putsch against the disorganized democratic government which had replaced the Tsarist government in February of that year. Lenin wrote a number of books on the theory and practice of establishing and running of Communist government, some based on his practical experience in Russia. Lenin's contributions were important enough to the ultimate history of Communism that Communist theory is known as Marxism-Leninism, to distinguish it from earlier Marxist thought, which had branched into several ideologies, some of which held that peaceful transitions to socialism were possible.
After Lenin's death, Joseph Stalin succeeded to power after a power struggle in the top ranks of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Stalin wrote further theoretical works, and as a part of his cult of personality, claimed to have advanced Marxist theory to Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism, but since his death in 1953, the term Stalinism has come to refer to the brutal executions, famines, deportations and Gulag of Stalin's rule.
Mao Zedong, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party also wrote a number of theoretical and practical works, and claimed that Marxism-Leninism-Maoism was the true dialectical expression of Marxism.
Leon Trotsky, who had led the Red (Communist) Army to victory in the Russian civil war, fled to exile after being displaced in the leadership after Lenin's death. While in exile, he wrote many works critical of Stalin's practices and theories of Communism. Trotsky's development of the theory of Communism has inspired Trotskyism, an ideology adopted by many Communist splinter parties in non-communist countries.
The first Communist parties arose in the mid-19th century, inspired by The Communist Manifesto. Communist parties from several European countries joined the first International Workingmen's Association, along with other socialist parties and labor unions. The First International fell apart, but the IWA was revived, in a "Second International", in 1889. Throughout the 19th century, Communist parties spread to most European countries and the United States. Some communists joined larger, more popular socialist parties and labor movements.
During World War I, the socialist and communist parties split over the issue of supporting the war. After the success of the Communists in Russia, they created a Communist International (Comintern), also called the Third International. The Comintern was used by the Soviet government as a way of funding Communist parties in other countries, and to ensure those parties' continued support of Soviet foreign-policy goals. The Comintern was quite successful at this latter task, as most of its member parties rapidly switched from denunciations of Nazi Germany to denunciations of the so-called imperialist opponents of Nazi Germany after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, and as rapidly switched to denunciations of Nazi Germany and support for the war effort of the Allies after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Communist parties were a significant part of partisan resistance to the Nazis in countries and areas which fell to Nazi advances.
After World War II, the Red (Soviet) Army had conquered most of central Europe, and installed local Communists to run governments in the countries the Red Army occupied. In 1949, Mao Zedong's Chinese Communist Party completed the conquest of the mainland of China, and established the People's Republic of China. Mao had survived a long civil war against the Chinese Nationalist government, and the three-cornered war between the Communists, Nationalists, and Japanese, all without significant Soviet support. As a result, Mao did not feel compelled to follow the dictates of the Comintern, and would occasionally criticize Soviet foreign policy, and "Red" China began to follow a foreign policy which occasionally put it in conflict with the Soviet Union. In some non-communist countries, the Chinese Communist Party vied with the CPSU for the allegiance of the local Communists.
History of Communist states
The first and most prominent Communist state was the Soviet Union, founded in 1922 (and the RSFSR, existent from 1917, which was incorporated into it). The Soviet Union's first leader, Vladimir Lenin, was to become an icon of Communism in the states of the Warsaw Pact, the organization of European Soviet allies. Lenin's death in 1924 precipitated a power struggle that led to the rise of Joseph Stalin as the dictator of the Soviet Union up to 1937.
According to Trotskyist theory, the Soviet Union from here onwards became a "deformed workers' state": that is, it was supported not through the revolutionary action of the masses, but the action of the Soviet bureaucracy.
The apparent desertation of Stalin from the communist ideology in the signing of the Molotov-von Ribbentropp Pact in 1939 caused consternation amongst communists across Europe. This was to cause a general deviation away from the Soviet Union that would later be amplified in 1956 following the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution.
The short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic under Béla Kun was the second Communist state to exist. However, with support primarily from Romania, the Republic was overthrown by a White Revolution and Admiral Miklós Horthy was installed in power. Another unsuccessful attempt to establish a Communist state shortly after the Hungarian Soviet Republic was in the form of the Bavarian Soviet Republic. Both were formed and collapsed in 1919.
The proliferation of Soviet-style Communism began in Europe only to a marked extent after the Second World War. Soviet puppet regimes were installed across a territory now known as the "Iron Curtain", as well as the independent communist regime in Yugoslavia of Marshall Tito. Soon afterwards Communism also took a hold in Asia, where the People's Republic of China was established, followed by North Korea in the 50s.
The Korean War established North Korea and South Korea as independent states, an arrangement which causes schism to this day.
Starting from 1959, the Vietnam War against the North Vietnam and the Viet Cong was waged by America to attempt to displace the Communist presence in Asia.
Cold War tensions were mainly caused by the Soviet buffer zone which the Communist states in Eastern Europe acted as. The perceived need for a buffer zone was shown clearly after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, where Nikita Khrushchev invaded Hungary, which had formed a democratic regime and overthrown the Communist government, and re-installed Soviet control. This was followed in 1964 by the Prague Spring, where much the same event happened in Czechoslovakia - an anti-Communist cultural tendency was removed by the Soviets forcibly.
However, the situation in Europe would not last. Starting from 1989, the Communist governments of Europe fell in quick succession as revolution spread across the countries, finally precipitating in the overthrow of the Soviet Union after the August coup attempt in 1991.
Collapse of Communism
- Walsh, B. (2001) Modern World History