Communism is a political and economic system in which the government owns land and goods. Everybody must share their wealth with others. A few of the most totalitarian regimes in the world have evolved around Communism. In the 20th century millions of people on all continents lived under Communist rule. In 1917 Russia became the first country to turn Communist. In 1922 its name was changed to the Soviet Union, for decades one of the most powerful countries in the world.
Marxism as a basis of communism
Communism is based on the theories of Karl Marx, a German philosopher and revolutionary. He was an enemy of capitalism, a system that was spreading rapidly throughout the Industrial Revolution and the 19th century. Marx was angry to see that some capitalists became rich while other people had nothing. Factory workers were paid poorly and had to work under extreme conditions.
Marx started spreading socialist ideas in which he demanded that the government take over property and factories and divide wealth more evenly among the population. He wrote down his ideas in the publication Communist Manifesto.
Karl Marx believed that one day the workers would one day take control of government and the economy. That would be the start of a Communist society in which there were no classes and everyone had the same.
Karl Marx - Founder of Communism
Economic principles of Communism
A drastic change in economy is the most important principal of communism. The government controls economy and businesses. They nationalize all industries and factories. Government planning organizations decide what kind of products should be produced and how they are to be distributed. Prices are defined by the government and do not depend on supply and demand, as in Capitalist societies.
Workers earn the same, regardless of their position. There are not very many differences between the highest and lowest wages.
In the early years of Communism, planned economy was successful. The government could concentrate on building up different sections of the economy, like energy or industries. It also helped societies build a strong army. For ordinary people prices for everyday articles, like food and clothing, are kept low, so that everybody can afford them. Luxury articles are either very expensive or not available at all.
There are many disadvantages of centrally planned economies,. They do not produce what consumers really want. The government cannot react quickly to shortages in production. Citizens have to wait for months or years before they can get a new car or an apartment. Farms are run by the state and in many cases there is not enough food for the population. Motivation of workers is low because there are no financial rewards for working hard.
It turned out that the economy is not fair towards everyone. While most people barely get the basics that they need, party bosses and high-ranking officials can shop in special stores that are full of western goods. They own better cars and have a higher standard of living than the normal citizen.
Life in a communist society
In Communism the government controls all aspects of a person’s life. Society as a whole is more important than the individual.
The Communist party, as the only party allowed, selects its members and controls all branches of government. People who disagree with the party or who have other ideas are punished. Dissenters are thrown out of the country and, in the early days, were sent to work in to labor camps.
Party congresses meet at regular intervals to elect a party chairman. The most powerful organ is the Central Committee. The Politburo is a group of 10 to 20 officials who set government policies. The head is the Secretary General, the most powerful person in the country.
Almost all liberties are banned in such states. Press, radio and television are state controlled. Communist societies are police states in which ordinary citizens are constantly watched They are also atheist societies in which religion has no room.
Communism in the Soviet Union
In 1917 Vladimir Lenin and his revolutionary Bolsheviks took over Russian government after the czar was removed from power. Lenin introduced a number of communist ideas to Russia and led the country until he died in 1924. Farmers had to give up their land, factories were put under government control. In 1922 Russia became the Soviet Union. The Bolsheviks were the only party; all other parties had been banned.
After Lenin died Joseph Stalin took over the country. He became one of the world’s most brutal dictators. With the help of his secret police thousands of those opposed to Stalin’s policies, including many former party friends, were either sent to prison or executed. During World War II Stalin concentrated on foreign enemies, but after the war Stalin ruled over the Soviet Union with an iron fist.
The leaders that succeeded Stalin maintained the principles of Communism but did not rule in terror as Stalin did. When Mikhail Gorbachev took over the country in 1985 he introduced reforms which led to the collapse of Communism.
Spread of Communism
The Soviet Union expanded its influence after World War II. Communist controlled governments were installed in Eastern Europe. An Iron Curtain divided Europe into the free, democratic west and the communist east.
Communist influence grew in Asia as well. In China a civil war broke out between Nationalists and Communists. Under Mao Zedong Communism gained more and more influence in China and eventually the Nationalists were driven out of the country to and settled in Taiwan.
Image of Mao Zedong at the Entrance of the Forbidden City in Bejing
In 1950 Communists in North Korea invaded the south and started a three-year long war that ended in a stalemate. In 1959 the Soviets helped overthrow the Cuban government and installed communist revolutionary Fidel Castro.
In the 1950s the French were forced to leave Indochina. Nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh and his forces, which were supported by China and the Soviet Union, invaded the southern part of Vietnam. In the 1960s the United States entered the conflict because they feared that if the North Vietnamese were not stopped the Communists would take control of all of Indochina. In 1975 the defeated Americans pulled out of Vietnam and a year later North and South Vietnam were united under Communist control.
From the 1960s to the 1990s Communist influence increased in African countries after many of them had become independent. In the 80s Soviet troops led a war to secure Communist power in Afghanistan.
After World War II, tense relationships developed between the free western countries, led by the US, and the Soviet Union and its allies. A few years after the end of the war two military alliances were formed: NATO promised to help Western Europe in the case of a Soviet attack, the Warsaw Pact was its counterpart in Eastern Europe. This period, which lasted until 1990, was called the Cold War. It was marked by an arms race and dangerous conflicts that almost triggered a nuclear war.
The decline of communism
In the 1980s Communism was starting to have many problems. The Soviet Union suffered from lack of food and bad harvests. The middle class was angry with the Communist system, which failed to give them a better life. In many countries growth was slow and leaders saw that the west was overtaking them.
Michael Gorbachev began a program of many reforms in the Soviet Union. The country also stopped helping its Communist allies. In a policy that became known as Glasnost Gorbachev introduced reforms that let people and the press speak out freely. Between 1989 and 1991 Communist governments collapsed across all of Eastern Europe. A symbol of the division of Europe, the Berlin Wall, was torn down. In 1991 Communist hardliners attempted to overthrow Gorbachev but they were defeated. Later that year most former republics of the Soviet Union declared their independence and Russia was left alone.
In China, Deng Xiaoping came to power after Mao had died in 1976. He introduced a series of economic reforms and led China to its own capitalist society. People could produce for themselves and even run their own businesses. Today, China has a unique system in which politics are still determined by the Communist party but citizens enjoy all the aspects of capitalism.
Tank in Moscow during the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991
Communism in its previous form does not exist in many countries. Many of the former communist countries have either turned completely democratic (as in Eastern Europe) or are on their way to change. Many communists turned to socialists after Communism collapsed.
Only North Korea and Cuba have resisted democratic influences and are still led by authoritarian governments.
- The Russian Revolution
- The Cold War
- The Soviet Union
- Mao Zedong - China's Communist Leader
- Communist Cuba - 50 Years After the Revolution
- North Korea
- The Berlin Wall - 20 Years Later
- Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe
- The Vietnam War
- Karl Marx - An Important Thinker of the 19th Century
- China's Communist Party Ninety Years Old
- How China is Ruled
- Joseph Stalin - Powerful Communist Leader of the Soviet Union
- afford = to have the money to buy something
- ally = friend
- arms race = when two or more countries try to have the most weapons
- atheist = the belief that God does not exist
- attempt = try
- authoritarian = strict, dictatorial
- available = to be had
- ban = forbid
- barely = hardly
- based on = where something starts, foundation
- basics = the most important things
- branch = department , section
- century = a hundred years
- chairman = leader
- citizen = a person who lives in a country and has rights there
- civil war = war in which two groups of people in the same country fight against each other
- collapse = break down
- consumer = a person who buys something
- counterpart = matching part, the same
- czar = ruler of Russia before 1917
- decade = a period of ten years
- declare independence = to become free
- defeat = win against
- define = set
- demand = order
- depend on = need
- disadvantage = bad side of something
- disagree = not have the same opinion as someone else
- dissenter = a person who does not agree with the government
- distribute = give to the people
- divide = share
- drastic = radical, strong
- economic =relating to economy, industry, trade, goods and the value of money
- elect = choose
- enter = get into
- eventually = as time goes on, slowly
- evolve = grow
- execute = the legal killing of someone
- expand = grow
- factory = place where goods are produced
- fail = not succeed
- fair = right, acceptable
- fear = to be afraid of
- financial reward = extra money if you do something well
- force = have to
- foreign = from another country
- former = earlier
- government = people who rule a country
- hardliner = politician who wants something to be done in a strong and extreme way
- high-ranking = in a top position
- including = also
- increase = to become bigger
- independent = free
- Indochina = southeast Asian countries that were ruled by France
- influence = power
- install = put in control
- invade = to move into a country with an army and control it
- iron fist = very strictly
- labor camp = place where people are forced to work
- lack = not enough
- liberty = freedom
- maintain = keep
- mark = characterize
- military alliance = group of countries that promise to help each other if they are attacked
- nationalist = person who tries to get independence for their country
- nationalize = the government takes over from a private person or company
- nuclear war = war which is fought with atomic bombs
- official = person in a high position in government
- oppose = to be against
- ordinary = normal
- overtake = to become better than someone else
- overthrow = defeat, bring down
- own = possess, have
- planned economy = when the government plans everything in advance , for the next few years
- policy = the way of doing something that has been agreed upon by the highest leaders of a country
- politics = ideas and activities that deal with using power in a country
- poorly = not very much
- previous = earlier, original
- principle = rule, law, belief
- property = land
- pull out = get soldiers out of a country
- regardless = in any case, it doesn’t matter
- regular interval = after the same period of time
- remove = get rid of, take away
- resist = do not accept
- revolutionary = radical, new
- rule = law
- secret = not known by very many people
- section = part
- secure = to keep in position
- settle = to go to a place in order to live there
- share = divide
- shortage = not enough of something
- society = people , living together, in general
- spread = reach to other places
- stalemate = without a winner
- succeed = here: to come after
- suffer = go through a bad situation
- supply and demand = the relationship between what consumers need and what is produced
- tense = nervous, edgy, stressed, dangerous
- totalitarian = when people have no power and are completely controlled by the government
- trigger = start
- turn = change
- wage = pay; the money you get for your work
- wealth = riches, capital, money