How Communism Works

By: Alia Hoyt  | 
mural of Marx, Engels, Lenin
A mural showing (from left) Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Lenin commemorates the 20th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, 1979. François LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

In a perfect world, everyone would have food and shelter, and a true utopian society would be devoid of sexism, racism and other forms of oppression. But for most of the world's population, this perfect society isn't possible. Communism is one proposed solution to these problems.

Most people know what communism is at its most basic level. Simply put, communism is the idea that everyone in a given society receives equal shares of the benefits derived from labor. Communism is designed to allow the poor to rise up and attain financial and social status equal to that of the middle-class landowners. In order for everyone to achieve this equality, all means of production must be controlled by the state. In other words, no one can own his or her own business or produce his or her own goods because the state owns everything. Wealth is redistributed so that the members of the upper class are brought down to the same financial and social level as the middle class.

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According to the philosopher Frederich Engels' "Principles of Communism," the plan for ultimate financial and social equality is built on the principle that the system should spread around the world until all countries are on board [source: Engels]. This central goal has caused capitalist nations to keep their guards up, fearing that communist economic practices might spread to their countries.

The political theory of socialism, which gave rise to communism, had been around for hundreds of years by the time a German philosopher named Karl Marx put pen to paper. Marx, also known as the father of communism, spent most of his life in exile in Great Britain and France. He and Engels wrote "The Communist Manifesto" in 1848, which later served as the inspiration for the formation of the Communist Party. Communism is sometimes known as Marxism, though there are differences. You might say that Marxism is the theory and communism is the implementation of Marxism.

Communist Theories and Principles

Marx believed that a truly utopian society must be classless and stateless. (It should be noted that Marx died well before any of his theories were put to the test.) Marx's main idea was simple: Free the lower class from poverty and give the poor a fighting chance. How he believed it should be accomplished, however, was another story. In order to liberate the lower class, Marx believed that the government would have to control all means of production so that no one could outdo anyone else by making more money. Unfortunately, that proves to this day to be more difficult than he might have realized.

Marx described three necessary phases toward achieving his idea of utopia.

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  • Phase 1: A revolution must take place in order to overthrow the existing government. Marx emphasized the need for total destruction of the existing system in order to move on to Phase 2.
  • Phase 2: A dictator or elite leader (or leaders) must gain absolute control over the proletariat. During this phase, the new government exerts absolute control over the common citizen's personal choices — including his or her education, religion, employment and even marriage. Collectivization of property and wealth must also take place.
  • Phase 3: Achievement of utopia. This phase has never been attained because it requires that all noncommunists be destroyed in order for the Communist Party to achieve supreme equality. In a Marxist utopia, everyone would happily share property and wealth, free from the restrictions that class-based systems require. The government would control all means of production so that the one-class system would remain constant, with no possibility of any middle-class citizens rising back to the top. (You can see the full text of the manifesto at this website.)

Marx also detailed the 10 essential tenets of communism, namely:

  • Total abolition of private property
  • Heavy progressive income tax on everyone
  • Elimination of rights of inheritance
  • Property rights confiscation
  • State-centralized banking system
  • Government ownership of transportation and communication vehicles
  • Government ownership of agricultural means and factories
  • Equal liability on all to work
  • Combining agriculture with manufacturing industries; eventual redistribution of population around the country so as to equalize it
  • Free education for children in public schools; combine education with industrial production

In the communist society that Marx described, the government has supreme authority through its total control of land and means of production. Because the government distributes land and property among the people, communism sets a standard of equality — both economically and socially — among its followers.

"When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character," Marx wrote. "In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all."

The system seems to work in theory, but how did communism work in practice? Read on to learn about the rise of the first communist nation.

Rise of the First Communist Nation

Lenin, Trotsky, October Revolution
Vladimir Lenin (center), Leon Trotsky (next to Lenin in glasses) and other Russian leaders gather for the third anniversary of the October Revolution, on Nov. 7, 1920. Roger Viollet/Getty Images

Russia was a czarist nation when the philosophies of communism started to take hold. For centuries, Russia was ruled by a monarchy that wielded absolute power over the people: the Romanov Dynasty. Czar Nicholas II and his wife resisted the shift toward democracy that much of the world was making. The members of Russia's lower classes had long suffered in poverty. These two factors, combined with the huge losses suffered during World War I, made the czar very unpopular. In addition, he and his family were living in luxury while their subjects struggled for basic necessities [source: First World War].

By February 1917, the war had taken a massive toll on Russia — both in the loss of human lives and in the form of a severe nationwide famine. When a metalworking plant closed, resulting in the loss of many jobs, strikes and protests broke out. Russia was in a state of chaos. The army was sent in to control the situation, but many of the soldiers sympathized with the workers and defected, choosing to support them instead. As many as 150,000 soldiers joined the massive protest — which is now known as the February Revolution.

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The situation went downhill so fast that the military lost control completely. With virtually no support from the military, Czar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate his throne. The Russian Provisional Government was set up to take his place, effectively ending the Romanov Dynasty. In July 1918, the Bolsheviks assassinated the czar and his family.

The Bolshevik Revolution

Vladimir Lenin was the founder of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party (the Bolsheviks, later renamed the Russian Communist Party) and the architect of the Russian Revolution. Unlike Marx, he didn't think that the proletariat would spontaneously rise up and overthrow the bourgeoisie, but rather that there needed to be an elite group of party intellectuals to guide the masses who were unlikely to start this revolution. That was because the proletariat, said Lenin, suffered from double consciousness and couldn't determine their own best interests [source: Encyclopedia Brittanica].

When Czar Nicholas was dethroned in 1917, Lenin was in exile in Switzerland for playing a part in some previous anti-czar plots. When he heard of the uprising, Lenin cut a deal with Germany. If the Germans could transport him home, he would get Russia to back out of World War I. The Germans agreed and snuck him back into Petrograd through a railway car.

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The Communist Party was about to gather more steam. Leon Trotsky, a Russian revolutionary who had escaped from prison and fled to America, returned to Russia to serve as Lenin's right-hand man. Trotsky is largely credited for engineering the Bolshevik Revolution.

Because the Russian Provisional Government supported the war effort, it didn't last very long. Many people shifted loyalties to the Bolsheviks, who opposed the war. When the revolution struck, the Bolsheviks used this momentum to overthrow the Provisional Government. Lenin's Red Guard took control of the Winter Palace (former home of the czar and later the Provisional Government's headquarters), effectively overturning the Provisional Government. And true to his word, Lenin pulled Russia out of the war.

But some Russians still weren't too sure about the Bolsheviks. Lenin endeavored to gain support by broadcasting slogans such as "Bread, Land, Peace and All Power to the Soviets." To people suffering from famine, this promise hit the spot. Yet in elections for the Russian Constituent Assembly in late November 1917, only a quarter of voters cast ballots for the Bolsheviks. Lenin overturned the results and sent armed guards to prevent meetings of the democratic assembly. This made it virtually impossible for the Russian people to voice their concerns in a democratic way.

The years from 1917 to 1920 became known as "war communism" due to the methods the Bolsheviks used to push their political agenda. In 1918, the party was renamed the Russian Communist Party. Lenin and his communist cohorts endeavored to put Marx's tenets of belief into practice. This marked the beginning of the Russian Civil War, which lasted from 1918 until 1922. When the war ended, the Soviet Union formed — also known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.). It included Russia and 15 bordering states.

Lenin was aware that the upper class wouldn't willingly give up land or wealth. Upholding the necessary phases that Marx outlined, Lenin initiated the Red Terror, a threatening fear campaign led by the Bolsheviks. His goal was mass murder. During the Red Terror, 100,000 detractors were put to death, by some estimates. Victims included members of the bourgeoisie, White Army prisoners of war, socialists, Czarist sympathizers and innocent civilians. [source: History.com].

Lenin also required peasants to sell their crops to him at virtually no profit, using the rationale that he needed the crops to support his army. The peasantry was so indignant that they reduced crop production drastically, leading to a full-scale civil war. The exact numbers vary, but tens of millions of people starved and millions died. Faced with so much rebellion, Lenin created the New Economic Policy to allow people to sell grain on the open market. This lasted until 1928 [source: Encyclopedia Brittanica].

Lenin also instituted slave labor camps, known as "gulags." Anyone who disagreed with Lenin's rule was sent to work at one of these camps. It's estimated that 1.2-1.7 million died between 1918 and 1956. The numbers expanded greatly under Lenin's successor Joseph Stalin [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica].

Stalin's Reign and Successive Dictators

Joseph Stalin
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin reports to the 8th All-Union Congress of Soviets on the draft constitution of the U.S.S.R. Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

When Lenin died in 1924, Josef Stalin came into power and managed to target one of the only groups that Lenin never did: fellow communists. In Stalin's eyes, anyone who didn't back him 100 percent was an enemy. He purged many members of the Communist Party for a range of crimes, including treason, political deviations and espionage. When all was said and done, Stalin ordered the deaths of nearly all of his Bolshevik comrades, including Trotsky. Trotsky went to live in exile in Mexico but was assassinated there by a Spanish communist [source: History.com].

Stalin took Lenin's methods of terrorizing the people a few steps further. Whereas Lenin let people starve to death, Stalin used famine to further his political goals. He took back the land that Lenin had turned over to the peasants through the New Economic Policy and forced collectivization of agriculture in the U.S.S.R. The peasants resisted and crop production diminished even more than during Lenin's reign. Widespread famine, known as Holodomor, continued to kill millions of people in the Soviet republic of Ukraine [source: Applebaum]. During the Great Terror of 1936-1939, Stalin ordered the executions of millions more.

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Stalin wanted to take communism worldwide. He knew that in order to do so, he would have to industrialize Russia. Stalin built factories in strategic places so they would not be vulnerable to outside enemies. He built so many so quickly that Russia soon surpassed many other major countries in industry. His legacy continued well after his death [source: National Archives].

Several other dictators came into power after Stalin's death, including Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev. The Soviet people continued to perish at an alarming rate. From 1953 to 1991, people were put to death for political offenses, and as recently as the 1980s, slave labor camps were still inhabited by detractors [source: History.com].

While communist theory and practice was alive and well in some parts of the world, other nations strived to contain the movement. And the Soviet Union eventually crumbled.

The Fall of the Soviet Union

statue of lenin destroyed
This statue of Lenin was destroyed Nov. 13, 1991, in Berlin after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Patrick PIEL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The Cold War ultimately brought the Soviet Union down, but it took nearly half a century to accomplish this goal. In 1945, around the end of World War II, the Soviet Union and United States waged this war of threatening words and fear. The Cold War was a top concern on the international affairs front. From communism opponents' perspective, its purpose was to contain communism and avoid nuclear conflict. But the Soviet Union aimed to spread communism to the United States, if not the rest of the world [source: History.com].

These two powerhouses disagreed over political, cultural and economic matters. The United States began developing retaliatory weapons, should the need to use them arise. These weapons were called the Strategic Triad and included long-range bombers, submarines and land-based missiles. This led to the first nuclear arms race, during which the two governments stockpiled as many nuclear weapons as they could in order to keep the other government in line. Luckily, nuclear war was avoided, in large part due to the scare tactics of the Cold War [source: Pifer].

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In the 1950s, the Soviet Union and the United States engaged in the space race. Both countries wanted to be the first in space for myriad reasons, particularly because their defense and military capabilities stood to benefit from a successful space program. The space race was fueled by the ever-intensifying rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union won that contest by launching the satellite Sputnik into orbit Oct. 4, 1957. But the U.S. was the first country to successfully land on the moon in 1969 [source: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum].

The tension between the United States and the Soviet Union wasn't just restricted to the nuclear arms race and space race. Many Cold War-related crises erupted over the years, including the Korean and Vietnam wars, the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The Soviet Union's arms race, space race and continued support of the communist regime (all of which cost a lot of money) resulted in a stagnant economy with virtually no growth. When Mikhail Gorbachev was appointed to the presidency of the Communist Party in 1985, he became an advocate of change. Gorbachev laid his goals out: rejuvenate the long-lagging economy and accelerate economic development. He also advocated a policy he called glasnost ("openness") to allow more freedom of expression and freedom of information in the country.

He worked with President Ronald Reagan and the United States government to come to terms with the arms and policy disagreements that had escalated over the years. Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union improved rapidly. In 1989, the Berlin Wall (which had divided East and West Germany) fell, signifying the end of communism in East Germany. The communist governments in Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria also fell in December 1989, without any Soviet intervention to prop them up. The Cold War was effectively over [source: Encyclopedia Britannica].

In 1990, Russia elected Boris Yeltsin to the presidency. The Soviet Union officially came to an end in 1991 and split into republics (a system of government in which an elected official leads): Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. These republics are self-governed, rather than ruled by the Soviet Union [source: U.S.-Russia Relations]. When Yeltsin resigned in 1999, he named Vladimir Putin acting president.

Since then, Putin has run the country for more than 20 years, mostly as president but also as prime minister. In 2021, he signed a law that allows him to serve two more six-year terms as president, thus changing Russia's constitution [source: Odynova]. He has shown increasingly authoritarian leadership, cracking down hard on political opponents and protesters. In 2005, he declared the collapse of the Soviet empire "was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century" and a "genuine tragedy" for the Russian people [source: Associated Press]. His invasion of Ukraine in 2022 is seen by some as a first step at reclaiming that empire.

The Spread of Communism

Xi Jinping, fallen heroes
Xi Jinping (center) and other leaders of the Communist Party of China and the state attend a ceremony offering a floral tribute to fallen national heroes on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, Sept. 30, 2021. Yan Yan/Xinhua via Getty Images

Communism wasn't contained inside the Soviet Union. As Marx's tenets had instructed, it had to spread worldwide to achieve utopia. Some countries had adopted communism to help realize that goal, including:

  • Warsaw Pact Nations: Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Poland and Hungary (communist from about 1945 to 1991). The Warsaw Pact was a military treaty signed by these countries and Russia. In short, it guaranteed that they would come to each other's aid if targeted by another country.
  • Yugoslavia (1945-1992)
  • North Vietnam (1954-1976, although still technically communist following the unification of Vietnam)
  • Yemen (1969-1990)
  • Somalia (1969-1991)
  • Cambodia (1975-1989)

It's interesting to note that the communist governments in all of these countries (except North Vietnam) collapsed right around the same time as the Soviet Union, which was a huge support to the smaller countries [source: Somin].

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If Stalin had his way, communism would have become much more widespread, especially in the West. In the 1930s, he enacted a plan to overtake this region with furious industrial development. His hope was that Russia would become such a military powerhouse that it would stand up to the other powerful nations, especially the United States. His efforts fell short, and as we've learned, the Soviet Union slowly fell apart due to these economic disadvantages.

However, communism does have a presence in the United States today. The Communist Party USA is a left-wing group with about 5,000 members nationwide. The group advocates the end of the working class's exploitation and oppression. Ultimately, the party hopes to implement a socialist society where all people will benefit from the wealth present in the United States. The party experienced something of a boost in the USA after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, likely because of the rise of democratic socialism peddled by candidates like Bernie Sanders [source: Gomez].

Communism also rose to power in the following nations, where it is still alive today:

  • China, since 1949
  • Cuba, since 1959
  • Vietnam, since 1976
  • North Korea, since 1948
  • Laos, since 1975

Although the governments of these countries continue to embrace communism, the results have been largely underwhelming. Cuba has suffered multiple economic crises and its people regularly deal with food and supply shortages. North Koreans are subject to food rationing and are often malnourished. They are also cut off from the rest of the world due to the country's severe isolationist policies. However, Vietnam and China are both hubs of manufacturing, and Vietnam's people, in particular, have seen rapid quality of life improvements in the last two decades [source: Casiano].

Home to more than 20 percent of the world's population (1.3 billion people), China is one of the world's most prominent communist governments. Mao Zedong, China's dictator, launched and raised the communist government in China, employing many of Stalin's tactics.

In addition to the death camps Mao instituted to combat Chinese counter-revolutionaries, he also developed a plan called the Great Leap Forward, which forced collectivization of agriculture. Peasants were ushered into communes when Mao seized their property. They were forced into slave labor, and personal ties they had to their families and former lives were severed. Mao also forced mass industrialization, which, coupled with the extremes of forced agricultural collectivization, killed somewhere around 16.5 million to 40 million Chinese from 1957 to 1961. He also ordered the executions of Communist Party members during his tenure [source: University of Chicago Chronicle].

Today, China's government encourages capitalist ventures, which has resulted in a greatly improved economy. China boasts a huge manufacturing industry, churning out toys, furniture, electronics and other products. Despite these gains, the government remains extremely dictatorial in nature, exerting authority over censorship and other basic civil liberties. Human rights activists are regularly harassed, prisoners are detained without a trial and censorship abounds [source: Amnesty International].

As of 2022, no other countries have taken the path toward communism since the 1970s.

Originally Published: Feb 25, 2008

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