There is quite possibly no more reviled word in American society today than Communism. This is the result of over fifty years of Cold War propaganda. The subject of Communism, Marxism, and how these ideologies have affected history and apply to modern society are overwhelmingly complex. Perhaps this is one reason that these subjects have been largely ignored in America, but there are other reasons as well.
Marxist Communism has been the one of the most influential ideological developments of the past 200 years, yet very few Americans actually know anything about Communist ideology. Americans do have many misconceptions about Communism however, which have been intentionally promoted by American leadership.
I say influential for a reason, because the 20th century was largely defined by the struggle between capitalism and communism. Communism is so influential because even capitalist countries like America were defined in the 20th century by their anti-Communist policies, and because communism was a critical factor in the development of the climate that led to World War II, as fascism itself developed in opposition to communism.
There are three basic major socialist ideologies: Socialism, Anarchism, and Communism. These are all regarded as forms of socialism.
Interestingly, socialism emerged as feudalism began to
breakdown. Communist movements originally developed among the conservative
feudal peasants and craftsmen. Many of the guilds from feudal times were
workers' organizations that lived communal lifestyles. As the industrial
revolutions began these communal lifestyles became jeopardized.
Anarchist and Communist ideology were very similar at this point. In the 1700s, both of these movements were dominated by peasant farmers and guilds.
More about the roots of Anarchism and Communism:
Socialist ideology was a little more elitist and was
more dominated by middle-class intellectuals and even some aristocrats.
The early Communists and Anarchists sought to preserve the communal lands and communal lifestyle, but also sought to overthrow the feudal aristocracy to establish democracy, this made them both progressive and conservative.
The early Socialists were a little more progressive and more into technological advance. The early communists were like the Amish in many ways. The Amish are an enduring holdover from the early communist movements.
For more on the Amish see:
Many of these groups opposed progress, and some participated in riots, the destruction of industrial machines, and the sabotage of factories. This was done because the new industrial forms of production were undermining rural life and were putting millions of craftsmen out of work by making their skills no longer valuable.
Then Karl Marx came along in the mid 1800s and Marx
denounced the "utopian socialism" and anti-progress communism of his day.
Marx pointed out that capitalism was progressive because it represented an improvement in production. Marx hailed capitalism's triumph as a victory over feudalism.
Marx said that industrialization was a good thing and that it should be embraced, that instead of opposing the progress of industrialization the goal should be to end wage-labor, and that the new industrial systems should be converted to communal property, much like the lands had been communal property just some 50 or 100 years prior.
This changed the communist movement from being anti-technology to pro-technology, and led to the development of what most people recognize today as "Communist ideology".
The Communist Manifesto was published in 1848 by Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, and can be found here:
It is important to distinguish the difference between Communism and Marxism.
Marxism is basically a system of analysis, and a way to view the world. Communism, on the other hand, is basically a political movement, a form of government, a condition of society.
It is also important to understand the difference between "communism" and the Communist Party.
No country has ever had a communist system of government. The countries that we call "Communist" are countries where the dominant political party was/is the Communist Party. Communist Parties are generally political parties who have working towards achieving "communism" as part of their party platform.
The difference between working towards communism and "communism" itself is like the difference between building a house and living in a house. The Soviet Union, for example, never claimed to have achieved communism. In theory, what was taking place in the Soviet Union was an attempt to do the work needed to construct a communist society. Just as building a house is hard work, that has to be done in order to have a house to live in, the Stalinist system of the Soviet Union was seen as the hard work that was being done by everyone to build a communist system. It was never seen by any of the Communists as "communism" itself, any more than a construction foreman would think that the act of building a home is the same as lounging on the couch inside a home. In truth, most Communists today recognize that the Soviet Union was mostly just a large, corrupt, top down bureaucracy that didn't represent the ideals of Marxism or Communism.
The "state of communism" is described by Marx and Engels as the condition in which "the State" no longer exists and people live and work together in harmony in a society based on equality where the fruits of labor are shared with all members of society and no one is exploited.
Contrary to popular misconception, the goal of Communists was ultimately to abolish the State altogether. Basic Communist ideology holds that the purpose of "the State" is to enforce social and economic disparity. According to Marxist thinking the State developed as a tool for a minority of people to oppress other people. Marxists contend that we are all naturally relatively equal, and that significant inequality among people can only exist through the use of State force. Historically the State has always been used as a means to support a wealthy and powerful minority. From the Sumerians and Egyptians to the British Empire and beyond, the traditional role of the State has been to protect the interests of the wealthy and facilitate wealth transfer from the working masses to the wealthy property owners, as Adam Smith noted:
It is in the age of shepherds, in the second period of society, that the inequality of fortune first begins to take place, and introduces among men a degree of authority and subordination which could not possibly exist before. It thereby introduces some degree of that civil government which is indispensably necessary for its own preservation: and it seems to do this naturally, and even independent of the consideration of that necessity. The consideration of that necessity comes no doubt afterwards to contribute very much to maintain and secure that authority and subordination. The rich, in particular, are necessarily interested to support that order of things which can alone secure them in the possession of their own advantages. Men of inferior wealth combine to defend those of superior wealth in the possession of their property, in order that men of superior wealth may combine to defend them in the possession of theirs. All the inferior shepherds and herdsmen feel that the security of their own herds and flocks depends upon the security of those of the great shepherd or herdsman; that the maintenance of their lesser authority depends upon that of his greater authority, and that upon their subordination to him depends his power of keeping their inferiors in subordination to them. They constitute a sort of little nobility, who feel themselves interested to defend the property and to support the authority of their own little sovereign in order that he may be able to defend their property and to support their authority. Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all
- Adam Smith; The Wealth of Nations - 1776
The State is the means through which property rights are enforced. Communists view the enforcement of property rights by the State as the root source of inequality, disparity, and exploitation. Communists also viewed the enforcement of property rights as the primary role of the State and the means through which the State used force to protect the interests of the minority over the majority. It has always been the case that the majority of property is owned by a minority of people and this condition tends to increase as a civilization becomes more advanced and governments gain strength.
The rationale of the Communists was that if inequality could be eliminated then there would no longer be any need to have a State. There were splits among the Communists though. Some thought that it would be impossible to ever eliminate the State, and others did not.
In The Origin of the Family Engels wrote that the State, "has not existed from all eternity. . . . The society that organizes production anew on the basis of free and equal association of the producers will put the whole State machine where it will then belong: in the museum of antiquities, side by side with the spinning wheel and the bronze axe."
So, contrary to all the popular misconception, "Communism" itself is not about the dominance of the State, in fact it is the opposite; Communism is ultimately about the abolition of the State.
Now we get to the issue of socialism.
Here again there are many misconceptions.
The Socialist movement, like the Anarchist movement, didn't have a lot of supporting theory behind it when it first came about. Socialism came to prominence as a moralistic movement by Christians who were opposed to the oppressive working conditions of the Industrial Revolution, and opposed the problems it was creating in society by the breakup of fundamental values of family, community, and small businesses.
Socialism grew from there to be a term that was embraced by many different types of groups, most of which sought to use the State to "protect society" from the forces of high finance. The Industrial Revolution was causing massive unemployment, major fluctuations in the economy, changing values, increased materialism, increases in prostitution, increases in child labor, increases in depression, and a very few people were becoming extremely wealthy, men like JP Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and John Rockefeller to name a few of the prominent American capitalists. Socialists basically wanted to protect the interests of society against the actions of extremely powerful individuals who, through economic means, basically controlled the world and were beholden to no one.
Among Communists there is also a view that there is a stage of "socialism" that a society would pass through prior to becoming a communist society.
This transitional stage of socialism, which could perhaps be referred to as Marxist socialism, was an ideology that was developed by Communists as a means to achieve communism. That does not mean that all forms of "socialism" have that objective, in fact only Marxist socialism does, and for the most part Marxists were opposed to all forms of socialism other than their own Marxist socialism.
Marxist socialism is, in theory, what was being practiced by all of the countries that we call "Communist". The objective of Marxist socialism is to use the State to prepare society for communism by communalizing all of the productive forces of the society, i.e. by making all of the means of production public property. The policies and procedures of the Soviet Union were not seen as policy of an "end result", but rather as part of a process. The policies of the Soviet Union were seen as steps in a plan to achieve an end result. According to basically all Communists, and to the leadership of the Soviet Union itself, that end result was never achieved.
As was said earlier, the countries that we call "Communist" were countries in which the Communist Party had become the dominant, or in many cases only, political party.
The Communist Party evolved out of The International Working Man's Association, which later became the Comintern, or Communist International. The Communist Party was the first truly international major political party. The goal of the Communists was ultimately to put an end to all exploitation, stop imperialism, bring working class people into political power all around the world, stop all war, and create a single unified global community where all people in the world were equal with equal rights in a global democratic society where everyone shared everything. In a nutshell, that's what it was all about.
Political cartoon of prominent Communist Revolutionary Leon Trotsky published in 1917
Communists were divided as to how this would be accomplished. Some believed that this could only be achieved through conflict and revolution by forcefully overthrowing the capitalists; Lenin and the Bolsheviks were of this school of thought. Others believed that progress towards communism should occur in a less revolutionary manner, by a gradual progress through established political systems. The Mensheviks and Fabian Socialists were more of this school of thought.
"I met the Menshevik leaders, and certain anarchists. Both sets denounced Bolshevik intolerance, the stubborn refusal to revolutionary dissenters of any right to exist, and the excesses of the Terror. The Mensheviks seemed to me to be admirably intelligent, honest and devoted to Socialism, but completely overtaken by events. They stood for a sound principle, that of working-class democracy, but in a situation fraught with such mortal danger that the stage of siege did not permit any functioning of democratic institutions."
- Victor Serge, 1945
Another thing that is critical to understand is that Marxists viewed capitalism as an essential and important part of the advancement of human society. The core of Communist doctrine stated that capitalism was absolutely essential to developing the tools that society would need in order to take the next step towards communism. The view was that without capitalism, communism could never be achieved. This, however, is where many of the 20th century "Communist" revolutionaries diverged from Marxist ideology and tried to establish a socialist collective through force as opposed to what Marx and Engels said, which was that society would have to collectivize as the means of production was developed through capitalism. So, the 20th century "Communists" were in many ways trying to force something that was originally understood to be part of a natural evolution in society. In short, the Communist revolutionaries weren't really adhering to the concepts which they were espousing. It is important to note that many of the biggest opponents to the Communist Revolutionaries of the early 20th century were in fact other Communists and Marxists.
Even though Lenin himself played a large role in the split between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks he himself did not desire this split and was deeply upset by it. Lenin was always very worried about his own actions, worried that he was pushing too hard and that things may get out of control. He knew very well that his actions could have grave and lasting effects on the future of Communism and he was also very apprehensive about the conduct of other Bolsheviks.
In regard to the split between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks Leon Trotsky wrote of Lenin:
"The split came unexpectedly for all the members of the congress. Lenin, the most active figure in the struggle, did not foresee it, nor had he ever desired it. Both sides were greatly upset by the course of events. After the Congress Lenin was sick for several weeks with a nervous illness."
Stalin is seen by many Communists, even revolutionaries, as a betrayer of the Socialist Revolution and an enemy of “true” Communism. Interestingly, while Communists see Stalin as an enemy of Communism, American leaders have pointed to Stalin as an example of the quintessential Communist ruler.
The Marxist Communists originally focused on a few major points:
They held that democracy as it existed only served the interests of the wealthy (keep in mind that Communism was developed while America still had slavery and women and non-property owners were not allowed to vote anywhere in the world) and they promoted the idea of the working classes forcefully taking control of the political machinery to allow equal access to democracy for people of all races, genders, and economic positions, as opposed to just wealthy white males.
They maintained that all religion was a form of deception and oppression that was used to control the masses and thus religion and superstition should be abolished and replaced with science, reason, philosophy, and ethics.
They believed in total equality of gender and race and that all people could and would positively contribute to society if given opportunity.
They viewed the world in terms of class struggle between minority capitalists (people who own the "means of production") and majority wage-laborers (people who do not own any part of the means of production and sell their labor to capitalists for wages), and believed that capitalists were in a position that was beneficial to themselves and therefore they would never freely give up their position of control so that the majority would have to forcefully impose their will upon the powerful and controlling capitalist minority in order to correct perceived exploitation of the laboring majority by the capitalist minority.
They believed that the class struggle was a universal struggle and they acted on an international level, seeking to eventually do away with all national boundaries and unite the world into a single cooperative community of people who shared freely among each other. The Communists were always strongly focused on internationalism and intended for a Communist Revolution to be international in scope.
There is much more to Communist ideology than this, but that is a brief outline of the most basic ideas.
The American approach of simply demonizing Marxism and Communism is highly problematic however. No matter what anyone’s opinion on the subject is, the fact is that it’s an ideology that has shaped the world in the 20th century, and as such it should be studied and understood by Americans. That doesn’t mean that anyone has to agree with it; at the very least the argument can be made that you should “know your enemy”. How can Americans as a society decide how to react to Communist ideas if they are not even aware of those ideas, and how can we as Americans understand international politics and economics if we aren’t even aware of the most important ideas that have shaped the geopolitical landscape of the 20th century? Quite obviously we can’t. American leaders have taken it upon themselves to keep the public ignorant on this subject and deal with it themselves.
Frederick Engles in his own words; the Preface to the 1888 English edition of The Communist Manifesto:
The Manifesto was published as the platform of the Communist League, a working men's association, first exclusively German, later on international, and under the political conditions of the Continent before 1848, unavoidably a secret society. At a Congress of the League, held in November 1847, Marx and Engels were commissioned to prepare a complete theoretical and practical party program. Drawn up in German, in January 1848, the manuscript was sent to the printer in London a few weeks before the French Revolution of February 24. A French translation was brought out in Paris shortly before the insurrection of June 1848. The first English translation, by Miss Helen Macfarlane, appeared in George Julian Harney's "Red Republican", London, 1850. A Danish and a Polish edition had also been published.
The defeat of the Parisian insurrection of June 1848 -- the first great battle between proletariat and bourgeoisie -- drove again into the background, for a time, the social and political aspirations of the European working class. Thenceforth, the struggle for supremacy was, again, as it had been before the Revolution of February, solely between different sections of the propertied class; the working class was reduced to a fight for political elbow-room, and to the position of extreme wing of the middle-class Radicals. Wherever independent proletarian movements continued to show signs of life, they were ruthlessly hunted down. Thus the Prussian police hunted out the Central Board of the Communist League, then located in Cologne. The members were arrested and, after eighteen months' imprisonment, they were tried in October 1852. This celebrated "Cologne Communist Trial" lasted from October 4 till November 12; seven of the prisoners were sentenced to terms of imprisonment in a fortress, varying from three to six years. Immediately after the sentence, the League was formally dissolved by the remaining members. As to the Manifesto, it seemed henceforth doomed to oblivion.
When the European workers had recovered sufficient strength for another attack on the ruling classes, the International Working Men's Association sprang up. But this association, formed with the express aim of welding into one body the whole militant proletariat of Europe and America, could not at once proclaim the principles laid down in the Manifesto. The International was bound to have a program broad enough to be acceptable to the English trade unions, to the followers of Proudhon in France, Belgium, Italy, and Spain, and to the Lassalleans in Germany.
[ENGEL'S FOOTNOTE: Lassalle personally, to us, always acknowledged himself to be a disciple of Marx, and, as such, stood on the ground of the Manifesto. But in his first public agitation, 1862-1864, he did not go beyond demanding co-operative workshops supported by state credit.]
Marx, who drew up this program to the satisfaction of all parties, entirely trusted to the intellectual development of the working class, which was sure to result from combined action and mutual discussion. The very events and vicissitudes in the struggle against capital, the defeats even more than the victories, could not help bringing home to men's minds the insufficiency of their various favorite nostrums, and preparing the way for a more complete insight into the true conditions for working-class emancipation. And Marx was right. The International, on its breaking in 1874, left the workers quite different men from what it found them in 1864. Proudhonism in France, Lassalleanism in Germany, were dying out, and even the conservative English trade unions, though most of them had long since severed their connection with the International, were gradually advancing towards that point at which, last year at Swansea, their president could say in their name: "Continental socialism has lost its terror for us." In fact, the principles of the Manifesto had made considerable headway among the working men of all countries.
The Manifesto itself came thus to the front again. Since 1850, the German text had been reprinted several times in Switzerland, England, and America. In 1872, it was translated into English in New York, where the translation was published in "Woorhull and Claflin's Weekly". From this English version, a French one was made in "Le Socialiste" of New York. Since then, at least two more English translations, more or less mutilated, have been brought out in America, and one of them has been reprinted in England. The first Russian translation, made by Bakunin, was published at Herzen's Kolokol office in Geneva, about 1863; a second one, by the heroic Vera Zasulich, also in Geneva, in 1882. A new Danish edition is to be found in "Socialdemokratisk Bibliothek", Copenhagen, 1885; a fresh French translation in "Le Socialiste", Paris, 1886. From this latter, a Spanish version was prepared and published in Madrid, 1886. The German reprints are not to be counted; there have been twelve altogether at the least. An Armenian translation, which was to be published in Constantinople some months ago, did not see the light, I am told, because the publisher was afraid of bringing out a book with the name of Marx on it, while the translator declined to call it his own production. Of further translations into other languages I have heard but had not seen. Thus the history of the Manifesto reflects the history of the modern working-class movement; at present, it is doubtless the most wide spread, the most international production of all socialist literature, the common platform acknowledged by millions of working men from Siberia to California.
Yet, when it was written, we could not have called it a "socialist" manifesto. By Socialists, in 1847, were understood, on the one hand the adherents of the various Utopian systems: Owenites in England, Fourierists in France, both of them already reduced to the position of mere sects, and gradually dying out; on the other hand, the most multifarious social quacks who, by all manner of tinkering, professed to redress, without any danger to capital and profit, all sorts of social grievances, in both cases men outside the working-class movement, and looking rather to the "educated" classes for support. Whatever portion of the working class had become convinced of the insufficiency of mere political revolutions, and had proclaimed the necessity of total social change, called itself Communist. It was a crude, rough-hewn, purely instinctive sort of communism; still, it touched the cardinal point and was powerful enough amongst the working class to produce the Utopian communism of Cabet in France, and of Weitling in Germany. Thus, in 1847, socialism was a middle-class movement, communism a working-class movement. Socialism was, on the Continent at least, "respectable"; communism was the very opposite. And as our notion, from the very beginning, was that "the emancipation of the workers must be the act of the working class itself," there could be no doubt as to which of the two names we must take. Moreover, we have, ever since, been far from repudiating it.
The Manifesto being our joint production, I consider myself bound to state that the fundamental proposition which forms the nucleus belongs to Marx. That proposition is: That in every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organization necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which it is built up, and from that which alone can be explained the political and intellectual history of that epoch; that consequently the whole history of mankind (since the dissolution of primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; That the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolutions in which, nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class -- the proletariat -- cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class -- the bourgeoisie -- without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinction, and class struggles.
This proposition, which, in my opinion, is destined to do for history what Darwin's theory has done for biology, we both of us, had been gradually approaching for some years before 1845. How far I had independently progressed towards it is best shown by my "Conditions of the Working Class in England". But when I again met Marx at Brussels, in spring 1845, he had it already worked out and put it before me in terms almost as clear as those in which I have stated it here.
From our joint preface to the German edition of 1872, I quote the following:
"However much that state of things may have altered during the last twenty-five years, the general principles laid down in the Manifesto are, on the whole, as correct today as ever. Here and there, some detail might be improved. The practical application of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto itself states, everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions for the time being existing, and, for that reason, no special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of Section II. That passage would, in many respects, be very differently worded today. In view of the gigantic strides of Modern Industry since 1848, and of the accompanying improved and extended organization of the working class, in view of the practical experience gained, first in the February Revolution, and then, still more, in the Paris Commune, where the proletariat for the first time held political power for two whole months, this program has in some details been antiquated. One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that "the working class cannot simply lay hold of ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes." (See "The Civil War in France: Address of the General Council of the International Working Men's Assocation" 1871, where this point is further developed.) Further, it is self-evident that the criticism of socialist literature is deficient in relation to the present time, because it comes down only to 1847; also that the remarks on the relation of the Communists to the various opposition parties (Section IV), although, in principle still correct, yet in practice are antiquated, because the political situation has been entirely changed, and the progress of history has swept from off the Earth the greater portion of the political parties there enumerated.
"But then, the Manifesto has become a historical document which we have no longer any right to alter."
The present translation is by Mr. Samuel Moore, the translator of the greater portion of Marx's "Capital". We have revised it in common, and I have added a few notes explanatory of historical allusions.
January 30, 1888
Communism from Wikipedia: