In Depth

52 ideas that changed the world - 2. Communism

How a radical new ideology revolutionised both politics and wider society

In this new series, The Week looks at the ideas and innovations that permanently changed the way we see the world. This week, the focus is on communism:

Communism in 60 seconds

“Basically, communism proposes a society in which everyone shares the benefits of labour equally, and eliminates the class system through redistribution of income,” according to the University of North Carolina’s Center for European Studies.

In a perfect communist society, “the state owns the major resources… including property, means of production, education, agriculture and transportation”, for the benefit of the people as a whole rather than the profit of private owners, says the university’s website.

Communism first took shape as a political ideology in 1848, when German academics Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto.

The pamphlet theorised that the working class - the proletariat - would soon rise up all over the world and reject their capitalist overlords - the bourgeoisie - ultimately moving towards a communist society.

The manifesto ends with the famous aphorism: “The proletariat have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win... Working men of all countries, unite!”

Communism is often confused or conflated with socialism. Although the two ideologies share the goal of a classless society, socialists are generally open to working within the system and “bringing the free market under control [rather than] eliminating it completely”, says Encyclopaedia Britannica. Marxist philosophy views socialism as a transitional step on the path to pure communism.

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How did it develop?

In his three-volume tome Capital, Marx offered an in-depth economic and social critique of capitalism, rather than a blueprint for revolution. The practicalities of establishing and running a communist state would fall to the likes of Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, all of whom lend their name to different schools of communist thought.

In 1917, Russia became the first country to put the communist experiment into practice, when  Lenin’s Marxist Bolshevik movement overthrew the Tsarist regime. But initial idealism quickly turned into something darker, as Lenin unleashed the Red Terror, a campaign of mass repression designed to eliminate political opponents and crush dissent.

When Joseph Stalin came to power following Lenin’s death in 1924, he showed a similar ruthlessness in cementing his total control. Between 1936 and 1938, as many as 1.2 million Russians were executed in what became known as the Great Purge.

The development of a vast police state created a climate of oppression, paranoia and fear, with those suspected of opposing the regime at risk of execution or exile to slave labour camps known as gulags.

Following Stalin’s death, in 1953, no other Russian leader approached comparable levels of brutality, but state surveillance, censorship and repression continued until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Meanwhile, “what started in 1917 Russia became a global revolution, taking root in countries as far flung as China and Korea to Kenya and Sudan to Cuba and Nicaragua”, says

All were plagued by similar issues to those seen in Soviet Russia. In China, Chairman Mao Zedong’s attempt to force the agrarian Chinese economy into a “Great Leap Forward” resulted in tens of millions of deaths from starvation.

How did communism change the world?

At the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union turned its focus to expanding its influence over the rest of the world - setting the stage for the Cold War, an ideological battle between the capitalist US and the communist Soviet Union.

Although the much-feared nuclear armageddon between the two powers never occurred, they squared up indirectly by backing opposing sides in conflicts around the world.

The legacy of these so-called proxy wars - which include the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Algerian War of Independence - continues to shape geopolitics today. The Arab-Israeli conflict, China’s repression of its Uighur minority and the communist insurgency in the Philippines are just a few of the present-day conflicts that can be traced back to the earlier conflicts.

The collapse of the Soviet Union more than a quarter of a century ago marked the end of communism as a dominant political ideology. However, a handful of states - China, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos and North Korea - continue to adhere to some form of communism.

And even though the doctrine of communism has largely disappeared from mainstream discourse, its worst excesses are still inspiring modern-day dictators.

“Revolutionary and murderous in its early stages, the Soviet system evolved into a practical methodology for the control of human beings,” says Freedom House. Contemporary Russia and China are among the nations that still employ “soft” forms of repression.

“Thus the legacy of communism endures, not in its ideological tenets of socialism and human equality… but in its identification of democracy and individual freedom as the foes that the machinery of the state must be organised to suppress,” concludes the US-based international watchdog. 

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