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This article is about communism as a form of society, 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.

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The hammer and sickle from the Soviet flag has become known as the international symbol of communism; it stands for the unity between urban workers (hammer) and rural workers (sickle).
The hammer and sickle from the Soviet flag has become known as the international symbol of communism; it stands for the unity between urban workers (hammer) and rural workers (sickle).

Communism is a term that can refer to one of several things: a certain social system, an ideology which supports that system, or a political movement that wishes to implement that system.

As a social system, communism is a type of egalitarian society with no state, no private property and no social classes. In communism, all property is owned by the community as a whole, and all people enjoy equal social and economic status. Perhaps the best known principle of a communist society is "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need".

As an ideology, the word communism is a synonym for Marxism and its various derivatives (most notably Marxism-Leninism). Among other things, Marxism proposes the Materialist Conception of History; there are four stages of economic development, Slavery, Feudalism, Capitalism, and Communism. These stages are advanced through a dialectical process, refining society as history progresses. This refinement is driven by class struggle. Communism is the final refinement as it will result in one class.

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 communists' desire to establish a communist system after the socialist one, and their commitment to revolutionary strategies for overthrowing capitalism.


"Communism" and other related terms

History of use of the word "communism"

The words "communism" and "communist" first came into use in France after the Revolution of 1830. They began to enter common speech in the 1840s. In particular, in 1840, the first "communist banquet" was held in Paris. The term was also used to refer to supporters of √Čtienne Cabet, a utopian socialist. In French, the root of the word "communism" could be interpreted to refer both to a commune, a self-governing village or community, and to communaut√©, common ownership. The later Marxist use of the word "communism" contains elements from both interpretations. "Communism" came into usage in England through the French exile community and had a connotation of militancy, as opposed to the milder connotation of "socialism". This is why Marx and Engels chose to use "communism" in the title of the Communist Manifesto.

"Communism" and "socialism"

Much confusion surrounds the words "communism" and "socialism", particularly in the United States. The aim of this paragraph is to dispel that confusion. In terms of ideology and politics, communism is a sub-category of socialism. Communist ideology is a specific branch of socialist ideology and the communist movement is a specific branch of the larger socialist movement. A person who calls himself or herself a "communist" is a certain kind of socialist; in other words, all communists are socialists but not all socialists are communists. In terms of socio-economic systems, communism and socialism are two different things. For example, socialism involves the existence of a state, while communism does not. Socialism involves public ownership of the means of production and private ownership of everything else, while communism abolishes private ownership altogether.

Communism and "communist states"

As noted several times above, a communist system does not involve the existence of a state. Thus, the term "communist state" is an oxymoron. No country ever called itself a "communist state" and no government ever claimed to have established a communist system (in fact, no government can ever claim to have established a communist system, since the very existence of that government shows that the system is not communist).

Nevertheless, there have been a number of countries ruled by Communist Parties, and those countries were often called "communist states" by people living in other parts of the world. They called themselves socialist countries, and their ruling Communist Parties claimed to have established a socialist, democratic system, with the aim of eventually reaching communism. However, these countries were generally not seen as democratic by anyone except their leadership, and were not seen as socialistic by any (non-communist) socialists living outside their borders. In fact, most socialists strongly opposed them. Due to these reasons (as well as a number of others), the term "communist states" was invented to refer to those countries.

However, the term "communist state" is itself quite inappropriate. Besides the problem noted above (the fact that "communist state" is technically an oxymoron), there is one further issue with this term: there were (and are) many communists who opposed the governments of those countries and who argued that their ruling parties were communist in name only. The best known of these dissenting communists are probably the Trotskyists.

A better term for "communist states" would be "states ruled by communist parties". But that name is generally considered too long to be practical. Another term could be "Stalinist states", since all of them were governed by communist parties that were either clearly Stalinist themselves or could trace their roots back to Stalinism.

Communism and Marxism

Today, the term "communism" is almost universally identified with its specifically Marxist meaning(s). However, the idea of a stateless, propertyless and classless society is not exclusively Marxist. In fact, the idea is much older (see for example religious communism). It is therefore possible to support communism without being a Marxist. Nevertheless, most people who support communism today are Marxists.

Communism and anarchism

A communist system is essentially identical to the kind of society that is advocated by anarchism. However, unlike communists, the anarchists do not believe that any other stage is needed between capitalism and the society they wish to establish. In other words, the anarchists wish to implement communism right away, without going through socialism first. This, as well as fundamental disagreements over how capitalism should be overthrown, has resulted in a very deep rift between communists and anarchists. Their ultimate goal is the same, but their proposed methods for reaching it are extremely different.

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".

Marxism and Leninism

Although many small communist societies have existed throughout human history, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were the first to write down a theoretical (and, according to them, scientific) basis for communism. The political ideology 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 posess 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 (a business owner'Surplus_value" title ="Surplus value">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).

As a result of the process described above, 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 property over the means of production (which, at that time, simply meant private property over cultivated land). This private ownership of land differentiated people into land owners and those who needed to work other people'Feudalism" title ="Feudalism">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.

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. 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 by the beginning of the 20th century. But as the years around 1900 came and went, with capitalist society showing no signs of collapse, these Marxists began to search for an explanation.

Some eventually concluded that a socialist society could be created without revolution, and 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 formed the basis on which a number of political parties were founded, including the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the British Labour Party.

Others, however - including people such as 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 1920's, 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'Stalinism" title ="Stalinism">Stalinism and Trotskyism. The reasons for this split revolved around the controversial policies of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union. Previous to Stalin'Communist_Party_of_the_Soviet_Union" title ="Communist Party of the Soviet Union">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 Russia 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 and eliminate all dissent. 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'Democracy" title ="Democracy">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 all dissenters - especially the Trotskyists. Trotsky himself was exiled, and eventually assasinated in Mexico in 1940 by a Stalinist agent.

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.

The first Christians, as well as many later groups of monks and nuns, lived in communities organized according to communist principles. See religious communism for more information.

Thomas More'16th_century" title ="16th century">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 √Čtienne 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 cancelling 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 Jewish kibbutzim although these communes have moved away from the communistic ideal and now allow degrees of individual ownership and capitalist production.


Critiques of "communist states" are to be found at: Communist state - Criticism and Advocacy.

Economic development

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, without a capitalist system, 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. They think markets simplify planning and improve the quality and macro-economic efficiency of the results.

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 congealed 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. Nobody questions that human beings possess the rationality necessary to plan a skyscraper, for example.

But the critics of communism say that the planning of a skyscraper (the blueprints, siting, 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 STVer 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 STVer 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"[1] communist societies, they claim that 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.

Human nature

One line of criticism of communism has always been that it ignores (or is wrong about) human nature — for example, that it would remove incentives necessary for productivity.

This raises the very multi-faceted issue of what it means to be self-interested, and in what sense all or most people are.

One can take the view, as do for example Objectivists that self-interested behavior (selfishness, for short) is itself a moral ideal and identical to rationality.

Or one can take the view that people simply are and will remain selfish, whether one likes it or not, and that any realistic social view must accomodate itself to this. But that breaks down into two possibilities: is this self-interested behavior observable, and does it relate to, for example, efforts to obtain ever-larger quantities of currency? Or does it take less tangible forms? Was Mother Theresa acting in a self-interested way because she was seeking heaven, or a warm inner glow, even while living a life of voluntary asceticism?

Furthermore, one can take the view that many people much of the time will be self-interested, and that when a universal medium of exchange is available this willoften mean the accumulation of the units of that exchange. This is a probabilistic claim, not a statement about what is inevitably or always the case. Is that claim enough, even if true, to show communism to be impossible or impracticable?

Or one could take the view that such self-interest as does exist is a function of the historical moment, and that communism will come about after that moment has passed. In such a case, one's political program will either amount to waiting for it to pass (a quietistic sort of communism) or trying to overcome that phase of history actively. The latter may, then, involve coercion and of course would meet resistance.

Or one could take the view that people are naturally interested in helping others, such as how a mother gives freely to her child, but that the capitalist system through various means try to discourage such behavior. A communist society would remove these constraints, and allow people to be their naturally helpful selves.

Or one could embrace the scientific hypothesis that altruism can evolve when those being helped have a strong likelyhood of sharing those same altruistic genes. Altruistic, non-individualistic, memes may gain their persuasive, replicative power by riding on these genes, in the way that humans have been convinced to sacrifice for nationalism even though large nation states did not exist during most of their evolution. Of course, that analogy itself may be seen as a condemnation of the project rather than a recommendation.

Related topics


Further reading

  • 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

External links

Online resources for original Marxist literature

Communist Parties

Communist parties are too numerous and diverse to list here. See List of Communist parties.


  • Che-Lives - a Web site dedicated to Che Guevara, featuring the Internet's largest leftist, and particularly communist, forum.

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