Communism, a theory and system of social and political organization that was a major force in world politics for much of the 20th century. As a political movement, communism sought to overthrow capitalism through a workers’ revolution and establish a system in which property is owned by the community as a whole rather than by individuals. In theory, communism would create a classless society of abundance and freedom, in which all people enjoy equal social and economic status. In practice, communist regimes have taken the form of coercive, authoritarian governments that cared little for the plight of the working class and sought above all else to preserve their own hold on power.

The idea of a society based on common ownership of property and wealth stretches far back in Western thought. In its modern form, communism grew out of the socialist movement of 19th-century Europe (see Socialism). At that time, Europe was undergoing rapid industrialization and social change. As the Industrial Revolution advanced, socialist critics blamed capitalism for creating a new class of poor, urban factory workers who labored under harsh conditions, and for widening the gulf between rich and poor. Foremost among these critics were the German philosopher Karl Marx and his associate Friedrich Engels. Like other socialists, they sought an end to capitalism and the exploitation of workers. But whereas some reformers favored peaceful, longer-term social transformation, Marx and Engels believed that violent revolution was all but inevitable; in fact, they thought it was predicted by the scientific laws of history. They called their theory “scientific socialism,” or communism. In the last half of the 19th century the terms socialism and communism were often used interchangeably. However, Marx and Engels came to see socialism as merely an intermediate stage of society in which most industry and property were owned in common but some class differences remained. They reserved the term communism for a final stage of society in which class differences had disappeared, people lived in harmony, and government was no longer needed.

The meaning of the word communism shifted after 1917, when Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik Party seized power in Russia. The Bolsheviks changed their name to the Communist Party and installed a repressive, single-party regime devoted to the implementation of socialist policies. The Communists formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, or Soviet Union) from the former Russian Empire and tried to spark a worldwide revolution to overthrow capitalism. Lenin’s successor, Joseph Stalin, turned the Soviet Union into a dictatorship based on total state control of the economy and the suppression of any form of opposition. As a result of Lenin’s and Stalin’s policies, many people came to associate the term communism with undemocratic or totalitarian governments that claimed allegiance to Marxist-Leninist ideals. The term Marxism-Leninism refers to Marx’s theories as amended and put into practice by Lenin.

After World War II (1939-1945), regimes calling themselves communist took power in China, Eastern Europe, and other regions. The spread of communism marked the beginning of the Cold War, in which the Soviet Union and the United States, and their respective allies, competed for political and military supremacy. By the early 1980s, almost one-third of the world’s population lived under communist regimes. These regimes shared certain basic features: an embrace of Marxism-Leninism, a rejection of private property and capitalism, state domination of economic activity, and absolute control of the government by one party, the communist party. The party’s influence in society was pervasive and often repressive. It controlled and censored the mass media, restricted religious worship, and silenced political dissent.

Communist societies encountered dramatic change in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as political and economic upheavals in the USSR, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere led to the disintegration of numerous communist regimes and severely weakened the power and influence of communist parties throughout the world. The collapse of the USSR effectively ended the Cold War. Today, single-party communist states are rare, existing only in China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam. Elsewhere, communist parties accept the principles of democracy and operate as part of multiparty systems.

This article provides a broad survey of communism. It explores the philosophical roots of communism and explains how communism was practiced in the Soviet Union, China, Eastern Europe, and other regions. It also examines the influence of nonruling communist parties. Finally, the article describes the common features of communist states and assesses the future of communism. (1)


See Also

  • Political Doctrine
  • Economic Doctrine
  • Fundamental Right
  • Doctrine


Notes and References

  1. Encarta Online Encyclopedia

See Also

Hierarchical Display of Communism

Politics > Political framework > Political ideology
Politics > Political framework > Political system > People’s democracy
Economics > Economic structure > Economic system > Economic reform > Transition economy > Post-communism
Politics > Political party > Political parties > Communist Party


Concept of Communism

See the dictionary definition of Communism.

Characteristics of Communism

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Translation of Communism

Thesaurus of Communism

Politics > Political framework > Political ideology > Communism
Politics > Political framework > Political system > People’s democracy > Communism
Economics > Economic structure > Economic system > Economic reform > Transition economy > Post-communism > Communism
Politics > Political party > Political parties > Communist Party > Communism

See also


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