DEFINITION: The term “communism” refers to a socioeconomic system in which private property is legally limited to personal effects, while everything else—from housing, farms, and shops of all descriptions to factories of all types and sizes—belongs to “society” at large.
In effect, ownership by “society” means ownership by the government, which—in nearly all known historical instances of communist rule—is equivalent to ownership by the Communist Party.
Note: Economically speaking, the term “socialism” is essentially a synonym for “communism,” as witnessed by the fact that the old USSR stood for the “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” While it is true that “democratic socialism” may be properly opposed to “revolutionary communism,” that is a purely political, not an economic, distinction.
ETYMOLOGY: The term “communism” derives from the concept of property being held “in common.”
The word “common” derives, via Middle English and Old French, from the Latin adjective communis, meaning “common,” “public,” “shared,” “general,” or “universal.”
USAGE: The word “communism” entered English, from the French word communisme, sometime around 1840. However, the concept and the practice of communism are much older.
The practice of holding a group’s property in common may be traced to early Christian communities, as well as to later monastic communities in the Christian and other traditions, many of which still exist today.
Indeed, monastic communities may be more stringently communistic than nation states with communist regimes on the Soviet model. While national communist regimes typically allow some private possession of clothing, household appliances, and similar things, in most monastic groups the possession of private property is even more severely restricted.
The roots of the modern communist movement may be traced to utopian writings, movements, and experimental communities growing out of the wars of religion of the sixteenth century, notably, the German Radical Pietists and the English Diggers during the seventeenth century, as well as many others during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Among the main intellectual influences on the modern founder of the international communist movement, Karl Marx, we may mention the writings of the troika of French socialist thinkers, Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.
Communism, in its modern sense, may be conveniently dated to 1848, the year of the publication of The Communist Manifesto, penned by Marx, together with his wealthy friend and benefactor Friedrich Engels.
For Marx’s economic thought and writings, see the glossary entry Karl Marx.
Revolutionary communism began to take power in countries whose political life had been shattered by World War I.
The most important of these coups-d’état, of course, was the takeover of Russia by the Bolshevik Party led by Vladimir Lenin on November 17, 1917 (October 25 by the Julian calendar—hence, the “October Revolution”).
However, communist putsches also occurred in Germany, where a Bavarian Soviet Republic was declared in Munich and a separate People’s State of Bavaria in Bamberg during the summer of 1919. These statelets reigned for about three months before clashing with each other and being put down by troops loyal to the Weimar Republic.
Similarly, a Hungarian Soviet Republic was established in Budapest the same year under the leadership of Béla Kun.
Rotes Wien [Red Vienna] refers to the government formed by the Social Democratic Workers Party of Austria, which controlled the Austrian capital between 1918 and 1934.
However, the USSR was the world’s only communist country until the end of World War II, when the Red Army spread Russia’s rule to eastern Europe.
In 1949, communist forces led by Mao Zedong won the civil war that had been raging in China for years, installing the first communist regime in Asia, the People’s Republic of China.
During the period of decolonization during the 1950s and 1960s, communist regimes came to power elsewhere in Asia, as well as in Latin America and Africa.
As a theory, communism has great emotional appeal to the young and inexperienced and to others who are naïve about economic matters. However, in practice, communism is hugely inefficient as an economic system and inherently unstable as a political system.
The reason why communism is economically inefficient was made plain by Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich A. Hayek in the 1930s, during the so-called “Socialist Calculation Debate.”
In a nutshell, the reason is that communist economies have no market mechanism for setting prices, and thus provide no reliable price signals regarding the true state of supply and demand in relation to any commodity.
For more discussion, see the glossary article on Austrian economics.
The inherent political instability of communist governments arises from their extreme economic inefficiency, but also—perhaps even more so—from their inherent need to employ violence to maintain their political control.
Why is that?
Because the fundamental aims of communism fly in the face of human nature, in at least two broad respects.
First, it asks of people to work as diligently for “societythat is, for strangersas they normally would for themselves and their own families.
Second, it proclaims that all people should be “equal” in the material sense, or as nearly so as possible.
In both cases, human nature simply recoils from being asked to perform tasks that violate its own nature: to treat strangers like family and to sever the intimate connection between material reward and skill, diligence, effort, and other personal qualities.
This repugnance elicited by the unnatural and unjust demands placed upon them causes people to revolt against the system which imposes such demands.
Therefore, the only way a communist regime can achieve its ultimate aims is by constantly inducing fear in its population. Whence the constant propaganda, the secret police, and the labor camps that have been the inevitable accoutrements of all communist regimes everywhere. For details, see Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s magisterial Gulag Archipelago.
As a result of these inherent defects, communism could not persist indefinitely.
The first cracks in the edifice of international communism occurred in China around 1979, when Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, began to push the Chinese Communist Party away from economic communism towards a form of state capitalism. Deng later famously proclaimed: “To get rich is glorious!”
In the fall of 1989, the communist regimes of Eastern Europe all crumbled, culminating in the symbolically charged demolition of the Berlin Wall by the cooperative efforts of the people of East and West Berlin.
The USSR ceased to exist in 1991 and, with a handful of exceptions, most other communist regimes around the world either collapsed outright or mutated into non-communist economic systems.
It must be stressed that some of the formerly communist regimes abandoned communism in the economic sense, while continuing to exert tyrannical political control by the communist party. The People’s Republic of China is a prime example of this phenomenon.