What Is Communism?

Picture of Karl Marx
Karl Marx, German political, social and economic theorist, 19th century. The father of modern communism, Marx (1818-1883) believed that the downfall of capitalism by revolution and its replacement with a society based on socialism was inevitable. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

What Is Communism?

Communism is a political ideology that believes that societies can achieve full social equality by eliminating private property. The concept of communism began with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the 1840s, but eventually spread around the world, being adapted for use in the Soviet Union, China, East Germany, North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, and elsewhere.

After World War II, this quick spread of communism threatened capitalist countries and led to the Cold War.

By the 1970s, almost a hundred years after Marx’s death, more than one third of the world’s population lived under some form of communism. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, however, communism has been on the decline.

Who Invented Communism?

Generally, it is the German philosopher and theorist Karl Marx (1818-1883) who is credited with founding the modern concept of communism. Marx and his friend, German socialist philosopher Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), first laid down the framework for the idea of communism in their seminal work, The Communist Manifesto (originally published in German in 1848).

The philosophy laid out by Marx and Engels has since been termed Marxism, as it differs fundamentally from the various forms of communism that succeeded it.


Karl Marx’s views came from his “materialist” view of history, meaning that he saw the unfolding of historical events as a product of the relationship between the differing classes of any given society.

The concept of “class,” in Marx’s view, was determined by whether any individual, or group of individuals, had access to property and to the wealth that such property could potentially generate.

Traditionally, this concept was defined along very basic lines. In medieval Europe, for example, society was clearly divided between those who owned land and those who worked for those who owned the land.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the class lines now fell between those who owned the factories and those who worked in the factories. Marx called these factory owners the bourgeoisie (French for “middle class”) and the workers the proletariat (from a Latin word that described a person with little or no property).

Marx believed that it was these basic class divisions, dependent on the concept of property, that lead to revolutions and conflicts in societies; thus ultimately determining the direction of historical outcomes. As he stated in the opening paragraph of the first part of The Communist Manifesto:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.*

Marx believed that it would be this type of opposition and tension—between the ruling and the working classes—that would eventually reach a boiling point and lead to a socialist revolution.

This, in turn, would lead to a system of government in which the large majority of the people, not just a small ruling elite, would dominate.

Unfortunately, Marx was vague about what type of political system would materialize after a socialist revolution. He imagined the gradual emergence of a type of egalitarian utopia—communism—that would witness the elimination of elitism and the homogenization of the masses along economic and political lines. Indeed, Marx believed that as this communism emerged, it would gradually eliminate the very need for a state, government, or economic system altogether.

In the interim, however, Marx felt there would be the need for a type of political system before communism could emerge out of the ashes of a socialist revolution—a temporary and transitional state that would have to be administered by the people themselves.

Marx termed this interim system the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Marx only mentioned the idea of this interim system a few times, and did not elaborate much further on it, which left the concept open to interpretation by subsequent communist revolutionaries and leaders.

Thus, while Marx may have provided the comprehensive framework for the philosophical idea of communism, the ideology changed in subsequent years as leaders like Vladimir Lenin (Leninism), Josef Stalin (Stalinism), Mao Zedong (Maoism), and others attempted to implement communism as a practical system of governance. Each of these leaders reshaped the fundamental elements of communism to meet their personal power interests or the interests and peculiarities of their respective societies and cultures.

Leninism in Russia

Russia was to become the first country to implement communism. However, it did not do so with an upsurge of the proletariat as Marx had predicted; instead, it was conducted by a small group of intellectuals led by Vladimir Lenin.

After the first Russian Revolution took place in February of 1917 and saw the overthrow of the last of Russia’s czars, the Provisional Government was established. However, the Provisional Government that ruled in the czar’s stead was unable to administer the state’s affairs successfully and came under strong fire from its opponents, among them a very vocal party known as the Bolsheviks (led by Lenin).

The Bolsheviks appealed to a large segment of the Russian population, most of them peasants, who had grown weary of World War I and the misery it had brought them. Lenin’s simple slogan of “Peace, Land, Bread” and the promise of an egalitarian society under the auspices of communism appealed to the population. In October of 1917—with popular support—the Bolsheviks managed to roust the Provisional Government and assume power, becoming the first communist party ever to rule.

Holding onto power, on the other hand, proved to be challenging. Between 1917 and 1921, the Bolsheviks lost considerable support amongst the peasantry and even faced heavy opposition from within their own ranks.

As a result, the new state clamped down heavily on free speech and political freedom. Opposition parties were banned from 1921 on and party members were not allowed to form opposing political factions amongst themselves.

Economically, however, the new regime turned out to be more liberal, at least for as long as Vladimir Lenin remained alive. Small-scale capitalism and private enterprise were encouraged to help the economy recover and thus offset the discontent felt by the population. 

Stalinism in the Soviet Union

When Lenin died in January of 1924, the ensuing power vacuum further destabilized the regime. The emerging victor of this power struggle was Joseph Stalin, considered by many in the Communist Party (the new name of the Bolsheviks) to be a reconciler—a conciliatory influence who could bring the opposing party factions together. Stalin managed to reignite the enthusiasm felt for the socialist revolution during its first days by appealing to the emotions and patriotism of his countrymen.

His style of governing, however, would tell a very different story. Stalin believed that the major powers of the world would try everything they could to oppose a communist regime in the Soviet Union (the new name of Russia). Indeed, the foreign investment needed to rebuild the economy was not forthcoming and Stalin believed he needed to generate the funds for the Soviet Union’s industrialization from within.

Stalin turned to collecting surpluses from the peasantry and to foment a more socialist consciousness amongst them by collectivizing farms, thus forcing any individualist farmers to become more collectively oriented. In this way, Stalin believed he could further the state’s success on an ideological level, while also organizing the peasants in a more efficient manner so as to generate the necessary wealth for the industrialization of Russia’s major cities.

Farmers had other ideas, however. They had originally supported the Bolsheviks due to the promise of land, which they would be able to run individually without interference. Stalin’s collectivization policies now seemed like a breaking of that promise. Furthermore, the new agrarian policies and the collection of surpluses had led to a famine in the countryside. By the 1930s, many of the Soviet Union’s peasants had become deeply anti-communist.

Stalin decided to respond to this opposition by using force to coerce farmers into collectives and to quell any political or ideological opposition. This unleashed years of bloodletting known as the “Great Terror,” during which an estimated 20 million people suffered and died.

In reality, Stalin led a totalitarian government, in which he was the dictator with absolute powers. His “communist” policies did not lead to the egalitarian utopia envisioned by Marx; instead, it led to the mass murder of his own people.

Maoism in China

Mao Zedong, already proudly nationalist and anti-Western, first became interested in Marxism-Leninism around 1919-20. Then, when Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek cracked down on Communism in China in 1927, Mao went into hiding. For 20 years, Mao worked on building up a guerrilla army.

Contrary to Leninism, which believed a communist revolution needed to be instigated by a small group of intellectuals, Mao believed that China’s huge class of peasants could rise up and start the communist revolution in China. In 1949, with the support of China’s peasants, Mao successfully took over China and made it a communist state.

At first, Mao tried to follow Stalinism, but after Stalin’s death, he took his own path. From 1958 to 1960, Mao instigated the highly unsuccessful Great Leap Forward, in which he tried to force the Chinese population into communes in an attempt to jump-start industrialization through such things as backyard furnaces. Mao believed in nationalism and the peasants.

Next, worried that China was going in the wrong direction ideologically, Mao ordered the Cultural Revolution in 1966, in which Mao advocated for anti-intellectualism and a return to the revolutionary spirit. The result was terror and anarchy.

Although Maoism proved different than Stalinism in many ways, both China and the Soviet Union ended up with dictators who were willing to do anything to stay in power and who held a complete disregard for human rights.

Communism Outside Russia

The global proliferation of communism was thought to be inevitable by its supporters, even though prior to the World War II, Mongolia was the only other nation under communist rule besides the Soviet Union. By the end of World War II, however, much of Eastern Europe had fallen under communist rule, primarily due to Stalin’s imposition of puppet regimes in those nations that had lain in the wake of the Soviet army’s advance towards Berlin.

Following its defeat in 1945, Germany itself was divided into four occupied zones, eventually being split into West Germany (capitalist) and East Germany (Communist). Even Germany’s capital was split in half, with the Berlin Wall that divided it becoming an icon of the Cold War.

East Germany wasn’t the only country that became Communist after World War II. Poland and Bulgaria became Communist in 1945 and 1946, respectively. This was followed shortly by Hungary in 1947 and Czechoslovakia in 1948.

Then North Korea became Communist in 1948, Cuba in 1961, Angola and Cambodia in 1975, Vietnam (after the Vietnam War) in 1976, and Ethiopia in 1987. There were others as well.

Despite the seeming success of communism, there were starting to be problems within many of these countries. Find out what caused the downfall of communism.


* Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist manifesto. (New York, NY: Signet Classic, 1998) 50.