”Communism” is both a principle of social organization advocated since at least the time of ancient Greece, and a modern political movement – associated with the works of Karl Marx (1818-83) and his disciples – that held state power in a number of countries during the twentieth century. The core proposition of communism is that private ownership of property must cease, because it is the fundamental cause of social evils, including egoism, excess, and conflict. The relationship between communism’s harmonious vision and its brutal implementation, however, is complex.
First systematically presented in Plato’s Republic, communist schemes thereafter appeared episodically, in works such as Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) and Morelly’s Code of Nature (1755). They were shadowed by thoughtful critics. Aristotle, for example, declared: ”that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it.” Even among thinkers concerned by the gulf between rich and poor communism is seen as creating its own social problems, including jealousy and hatred between equals. Many stress the practical difficulties of sustaining communist outcomes.
Communism’s moral vision has appeared in many different types of productive system, occasionally inspiring short-lived social experiments. The French Revolution of 1789-99 gave a fillip to many ideas, including communism, though there was a growing recognition that industry – with its potential to create vast amounts of wealth – signaled the dawn of a new age. Gracchus Babeuf’s abortive ”Conspiracy of the Equals” (1796) was an important historical link between communism and the socialism that emerged in the 1820s and 1830s.
The key difference between ”communism” and ”socialism” is that the abolition of private ownership to produce equal distribution was the central prescription of the former, while conscious and rational organization of economic activity to produce abundance is basic to the latter. There are clear affinities between the egalitarian and communitarian themes within pre-socialist communism, and the socialist critique of unrestrained individualism produced by the market. But socialism and communism interacted in unexpected ways: Marx’s 1848 Communist Manifesto was more radical and worker-oriented than the appeals of his socialist competitors.
Marx harnessed communism to the emerging industrial working class in a historical story of class struggle reaching its ultimate stage in the clash between proletarians and capitalists. Communism would create a genuinely human society, the details of which were sketchy, but the precondition of which was material abundance. Humans would move from the current realm of necessity to the realm of freedom, in which the principle of distribution would be: ”From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”
Marx’s disciple, V. I. Lenin (1870-1924) also used the title ”communist” to outmaneuver his socialist competitors. Lenin’s communism – with its unmistakable Russian stamp – stressed leadership of the working class by a communist elite, a commitment to revolution, and the creation of a ”dictatorship of the proletariat.” Beginning in 1917 this communism was eventually established in at least fourteen countries, encompassing perhaps one-third of the world’s population at its height. Most of these states collapsed near the end of the twentieth century.
Modern communism amounted to one-party states with central control over at least the major means of production, distribution, and exchange. Such control proved effectual for industrialization, despite its human costs. Soviet communism nevertheless played a crucial role in the defeat of Hitler and the subsequent, rapid creation of a Soviet ”superpower.”
If communism is not a serious model for an alternative social and political system, it remains a moral beacon for those frustrated by rampant individualism and disgusted by the increasing commodification of life in market societies.
Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1969) Manifesto of the Communist Party. In: Marx, K. & Engels, F. Selected Works, vol. 1. Progress Publishers, Moscow, pp. 98-137.
David W. Lovell