What Is Communism? Definition and Examples

Symbols of communism: the hand wielding the hammer and sickle, in the background the rising sun and the red star.
Symbols of communism: the hand wielding the hammer and sickle, in the background the rising sun and the red star. Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images

Communism is a political, social, and economic ideology that advocates the replacement of private ownership and profit-based economies with a classless economic system under which the means of production—buildings, machinery, tools, and labor—are communally owned, with private ownership of property either prohibited or severely limited by the state. Because of its opposition to both democracy and capitalism, communism is considered by its advocates to be an advanced form of socialism.

Key Takeaways: Communism

  • Communism is a social and political ideology that strives to create a classless society in which all property and wealth are communally-owned, instead of by individuals.
  • The ideology of communism was developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848.
  • A true communist society is the opposite of a capitalist society, which relies on democracy, innovation, and the production of goods for profit.
  • The Soviet Union and China were prominent examples of communist systems.
  • While the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, China has drastically reformed its economic system to include many free-market elements of capitalism.


History of Communism

While the term communism was not widely used until the 1840s, societies that could be considered communist were described as early as the 4th century BCE by the Greek philosopher Plato. In his Socratic dialogue Republic, Plato describes an ideal state in which a ruling class of guardians—mainly philosophers and soldiers—serves the needs of the whole community. Because private ownership of property would make them self-seeking, indulgent, greedy, and corrupt, the ruling guardians, Plato argued, had to function as a large communal family that ownership of all material goods, as well as spouses and children.

Religion inspired other early visions of communism. In the Bible’s Book of Acts, for example, the first Christians practiced a simple kind of communism as both a way of maintaining solidarity and of avoiding the evils associated with the private ownership of worldly possessions. In many early monastic orders, the monks took vows of poverty requiring them to share their few worldly goods only with each other and with the poor. In his visionary 1516 work Utopia, English statesman Sir Thomas More describes an imaginary perfect society in which money is abolished and the people share food, houses, and other goods.

Contemporary communism was inspired in Western Europe by the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The revolution, which allowed some to attain great wealth at the expense of an increasingly impoverished working class, encouraged Prussian political activist, Karl Marx, to conclude that class struggles resulting from income inequality would inevitably give rise to a society in common ownership of the means of production would allow prosperity to be shared by all.   

Propaganda poster: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Lenin and Stalin.
Propaganda poster: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Lenin and Stalin. Apic/Getty Images


In 1848, Marx, along with German economist Friedrich Engels, wrote The Communist Manifesto, in which they concluded that the problems of poverty, disease, and shortened lives that afflicted the proletariat—the working class—could be resolved only by replacing capitalism with communism. Under communism, as envisioned by Marx and Engels, the major means of industrial production—factories, mills, mines, and railroads—would be publicly owned and operated for the benefit of all.

Marx predicted that a fully realized form of communism following the overthrow of capitalism would result in a communal society free of class divisions or government, in which the production and distribution of goods would be based upon the principle “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Of his many followers, especially Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin adopted Marx’s visions of a communist society.

During World War II, the Soviet Union joined with other European communist and socialist regimes in fighting the fascist threat posed by Nazi Germany. However, the end of the war also ended the always shaky alliance between the Soviet Union and its more politically moderate Warsaw Pact satellite countries, allowing the USSR to establish communist regimes across Eastern Europe. 

The Russian Revolution of 1917 led to the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) under Vladimir Lenin in 1922. By the 1930s, Lenin’s brand of moderate communism had been replaced by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which under Joseph Stalin, exerted absolute government control over all aspects of the Russian society. Despite the incalculable human cost of his iron-fisted, authoritarian application of communism, Stalin transformed the Soviet Union from a backward country into a world superpower.

After the Second World War, the political tensions of the Cold War and the economic drain of maintaining its status as a global military superpower slowly weakened the Soviet Union’s grip over its Eastern Bloc communist satellite nations, such as East Germany and Poland. By the 1990s, the prevalence of communism as a global political force quickly diminished. Today, only the nations of China, Cuba, North Korea, Laos, and Vietnam continue to function as communist states.

Key Principles

While the most widely recognized communist countries, such as the Soviet Union, China, and Yugoslavia, developed their own models which varied from each other over time, six defining characteristics of pure communist ideology are often identified. 

Collective ownership of the means of production: All means of production such as factories, farms, land, mines, and transportation, and communication systems are owned and controlled by the state.

Abolition of Private Property: As collective ownership implies, private ownership of means of production is prohibited. In a purely communist state, individual citizens are allowed to own nothing except the necessities of life. The operation of privately owned businesses is similarly prohibited.

Democratic centralism: The official organizing and decision‐making principle of Communist Parties, democratic centralism is a practice in which political decisions, while reached by a nominally democratic voting process, are binding on all members of the party—effectively all citizens. As conceived by Lenin, democratic centralism allows party members to participate in political discussion and state opinions but compels them to follow the Communist Party “line” once a decision has been made.

Centrally planned economy:  Also known as a command economy, a centrally planned economy is an economic system in which a single central authority, typically the government in communist states, makes all decisions regarding the manufacturing and the distribution of products. Centrally planned economies are different from free-market economies, such as those in capitalist countries, in which such decisions are made by businesses and consumers according to the factors of supply and demand.

Elimination of income inequality: In theory, by compensating each individual according to their need, gaps in income are eliminated. By abolishing revenue, interest income, profit, income inequality, and socioeconomic class friction is eliminated, and the distribution of wealth is accomplished on a just and fair basis.

Repression: In keeping with the principle of democratic centralism, political opposition and economic freedom are prohibited or repressed. Other basic individual rights and freedoms may also be repressed. Historically, communist states, such as the Soviet Union, were characterized by government control of most aspects of life. “Correct thinking” in adherence with the party line was encouraged by coercive, often threatening propaganda produced by stare owned and controlled media.  

Communism vs. Socialism

The exact difference between communism and socialism has long been debated. Even Karl Marx used the terms interchangeably. Marx viewed socialism as the first step in the transition from capitalism to communism. Today, communism is often identified with socialism. However, while they share several characteristics, the two doctrines differ significantly in their goal and how it is achieved.

The goal of communism is the establishment of absolute social equality and the elimination of socioeconomic classes. Achieving this goal requires that private ownership of the means of production be eliminated. All aspects of economic production are controlled by the central government.

In contrast, socialism assumes that social classes will inevitably exist and strives to minimize the differences between them. The government’s power over the means of production under socialism is regulated by democratic citizen participation. Contrary to a common misconception, socialism allows the private ownership of property.

Unlike communism, socialism rewards individual effort and innovation. The most common form of modern socialism, social democracy, works to achieve equal distribution of wealth and other social reforms through democratic processes and typically co-exists alongside a free-market capitalist economy.

Examples

Notable examples of communist regimes throughout history include the former Soviet Union, and the modern-day nations of Communist China, Cuba, and North Korea.

Soviet Union

Today, the former Soviet Union is still widely considered as the prototypical example of communism in action. Under Joseph Stalin from 1927 to1953, and his successor Nikita Khrushchev from 1953 to 1964, the Soviet Communist Party prohibited all forms of dissent and took control of the “commanding heights” of the Soviet economy, including agriculture, banking, and all means of industrial production. The communist system of central planning enabled rapid industrialization. In 1953, the Soviet Union shocked the world by exploding its first hydrogen bomb. From 1950 to 1965, the Soviet Union’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew at a faster rate than that of the United States. Overall, however, the Soviet economy grew at a rate much slower than those of its capitalist, democratic counterparts.

During the Cold War, Soviet central economic “Five Year Plans” overemphasized industrial and military production, leading to chronic underproduction of consumer goods. As long lines at understocked grocery stores became a fixture of Soviet life, weak consumer spending became a drag on economic growth. The shortages led to black markets, which while illegal, were allowed and even supported by corrupt leaders within the Communist Party. Growingly dissatisfied with six decades of shortages, corruption, and oppression, the Soviet people demanded reforms to the economic, social, and political system. Undertaken by Mikhail Gorbachev starting in 1985, these reform efforts known as perestroika and glasnost, not only failed to halt the economic decline, they likely hastened the end of the Communist Party by loosening its grip on sources of public dissent. By 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and by 1991, the Soviet Union disintegrated into 15 separate republics.

Communist China

Chinese Communist Poster with Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong
Chinese Communist Poster with Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong. swim ink 2/Corbis via Getty Images

In 1949, Mao Zedong's Communist Party gained control of China, joining the Soviet Union as the world's second major Marxist-Leninist state. In its violence, deprivation, and steel-fisted insistence on unquestioned adherence to the Communist Party line, Mao’s rule in China resembled that of Joseph Stalin. Hoping to spark an industrial revolution in China, Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” plan of 1958 ordered the rural population to produce impossible quantities of steel by 1962. Instead of useable steel, the plan produce the Great Chinese Famine killed between 15 and 45 million people. In 1966, Mao and his infamous “Gang of Four” launched the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Intended to purge China of the “Four Olds”—old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas—the “purge” resulted in the deaths of at least another 400,000 people by the time of Mao’s death in 1976.

Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping introduced a series of successful market reforms. Tempted by these reforms, the United Stated began normalizing diplomatic relations with China when President Richard Nixon visited in 1972. Today, though state-owned enterprises continue to form a large part of the economy, the Chinese Communist Party presides over a largely capitalist system. Freedom of expression is greatly restricted. Elections are banned, except in the former British colony of Hong Kong, where only candidates approved by the Communist Party are allowed to appear on the ballot. 

Cuba

Formally organized by Fidel Castro in 1965, the Communist Party of Cuba remains the only political party permitted to function in Cuba. In the latest revised Cuban constitution of 1992, the party was defined as the “organized vanguard of the Cuban nation.” By most accounts, communism has left Cuba as one of the world’s least free countries. According to the independent Heritage Foundation, Cuba now ranks 175th in the world for economic freedom—one spot above Venezuela. Before Castro’s takeover, however, Cuba was one of the wealthiest countries in the Western Hemisphere.

In July 2021, the failures of Cuban communism boiled over as thousands of angry Cubans marched in protest to shortages of food, medicine, and energy, and the Cuban government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to what were the largest demonstrations the nation had witnessed in decades, the government killed at least one protester, arrested journalists, and cut off access to social-media internet sites that protesters had been using to communicate. Many analysts agreed that while the protests will result in few immediate changes to Cuba’s one-party communist rule, they put an unprecedented level of pressure on the government to speed up economic and social reforms.

North Korea

Millions suffer from malnourishment in North Korea.
Millions suffer from malnourishment in North Korea. Gerald Bourke/WFP via Getty Images

Oxford University scholar Robert Service has called North Korea the modern country that most closely follows the communist principles established by Karl Marx. The country adheres to an indigenous ideology of communism known as Juche, first formulated by Kim Il-sung, the founder of modern North Korea. Juche promotes self-reliance and complete independence from the rest of the world. As a result, North Korea is regarded as one of the most isolative and secretive countries in the world. Also in keeping with Juche, the government, ostensibly on the behalf of the people, has complete control over the country’s economy.

People watch a TV showing a file image of a North Korean missile launch.
People watch a TV showing a file image of a North Korean missile launch. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

In the 1990s, a series of natural disasters, combined with poor agricultural policies, and general economic mismanagement led to a famine that left between 240,000 and 3,500,000 North Koreans dead from starvation. Rather than addressing the obvious needs of its people, the ruling regime continued to invest heavily in its military, now believed to have developed or otherwise obtained nuclear weapons. Today, North Korea functions as a totalitarian dictatorship under its flamboyant current leader Kim Jong-un. Like his ancestral predecessors, the people are trained to revere Kim as a quasi-deity. The news media is under strict government control. With internet access is not generally available to the people, ordinary North Koreans have almost no way of connecting to the outside world. Any hint of political dissent is quickly and punitively crushed, with human rights violations commonplace. While Kim has instituted some minor reforms, North Korea’s economy remains under the tight control of the ruling communist regime.

Communism in Practice

For all the worries and wars it has caused, true communism as envisioned by Marx and Lenin no longer exists as a serious political force—and may never have.

By 1985, at the height of the Cold War, nearly one-third of the world’s population lived under communism, mostly in the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellite republics. However, modern scholars doubt that any of these countries were ever truly communist at all since they significantly strayed from many of the basic components of a Marxist system. Indeed, scholars argue that the failure of these Cold War governments to adhere to the true ideals of communism combined with their trend toward left-wing authoritarianism contributed directly to the decline of communism in the late 20th century.

A young woman, accompanied by her boyfriend, stands precariously near the top of the Berlin Wall to talk to her mother on the East Berlin side.
A young woman, accompanied by her boyfriend, stands precariously near the top of the Berlin Wall to talk to her mother on the East Berlin side. Bettmann/Getty Images

Today, only five countries—China, North Korea, Laos, Cuba, and Vietnam—list communism as their official form of government. They can be classified as communist only because in all of them, the central government controls all aspects of the economic and political system. However, none of them have eliminated elements of capitalism such as personal property, money, or socioeconomic class systems as required by true communist ideology.  

In their 2002 book Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the USSR, professors Stephen A. Resnick and Richard D. Wolff, both specialists in Marxian economics, argue that the gut-wrenching tensions of the Cold War were, in fact, an ideological struggle between the private capitalism of the West and the “state-controlled capitalism” of the Soviet Union. Resnick and Wolff conclude that the war between pure communism and pure capitalism never happened. “The Soviets didn’t establish communism,” they wrote. “They thought about it, but never did it.”

Why Communism Failed

Even as pure Marxist communism created opportunities for human rights atrocities by authoritarian leaders, researchers have identified two common factors that contributed to its ultimate failure.

First, under pure communism, the citizens have no incentive to work for a profit. In capitalistic societies, the incentive to produce for profit spurs competition and innovation. In communist societies, however, “ideal” citizens are expected to selflessly devote themselves exclusively to societal causes without regard to their welfare. As Liu Shaoqi, the first Vice-Chairman of the Communist Party of China wrote in 1984, “At all times and all questions a party member should give first consideration to the interests of the Party as a whole and put them in the foremost and place personal matters and interests second.”

In the Soviet Union, for example, in the absence of free legal markets, workers had little incentive to either be productive or to focus on making goods that might be useful to consumers. As result, many workers tried to do as little work as possible on their official government-assigned jobs, devoting their real effort to more profitable black market activity. As many Soviet workers used to say of their relationship with the government, “We pretend to work for them, and they pretend to pay us.”

The second reason for the failure of communism was its inherent inefficiencies. For example, the overly complex centralized planning system required the collection and analysis of enormous amounts of detailed economic data. In many cases, this data was error-prone and manipulated by party-chosen economic planners to create an illusion of progress. Placing so much power in the hands of so few, encouraged inefficiency and corruption. Corruption, laziness, and intense government surveillance left little incentive for industrious and hard-working people. As a result, the centrally planned economy suffered, leaving the people, poor, disillusioned, and dissatisfied with the communist system.

Sources

  • Service, Robert. “Comrades! A History of World Communism.” Harvard University Press, 2010, ISBN 9780674046993.
  • “Index of Economic Freedom.” The Heritage Foundation, 2021, https://www.heritage.org/index/about.
  • Bremmer, Ian. “What the Protests in Cuba Mean for the Future of Communism and U.S. Relations.” Time, July 2021, https://time.com/6080934/cuba-protests-future-communism-u-s-relations/.
  • Pop-Eleches, Grigore. “Communist Legacies and Left-Authoritarianism.” Princeton University, 2019, https://scholar.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/gpop/files/communist_leagacies.pdf.
  • Stone, William F. “Authoritarianism: Right and Left.” Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1954. Online ISBN 978-1-4613-9180-7.
  • Lansford, Thomas. “Communism.” Cavendish Square Publishing, 2007, ISBN 978-0761426288.
  • MacFarlane, S. Neil. “The USSR and Marxist Revolutions in the Third World.” Cambridge University Press, 1990, ISBN 978-081221620.
  • Resnick, Stephen A. and Wolff, Richard D. “Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the USSR.” Routledge (July 12, 2002), ISBN-10: ‎0415933188.
  • Costello, T. H., Bowes, S. “Clarifying the Structure and Nature of Left-Wing Authoritarianism.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2001, https://psyarxiv.com/3nprq/.
  • Shaoqi, Liu. “Selected Works of Liu Shaoqi.” Foreign Languages Press, 1984, ISBN 0-8351-1180-6.
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Longley, Robert. "What Is Communism? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-communism-1779968. Longley, Robert. (2021, August 26). What Is Communism? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-communism-1779968 Longley, Robert. "What Is Communism? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-communism-1779968 (accessed October 28, 2021).