As a political movement, Communism was a powerful force in shaping the history of the 20th century. At one time, about one third of the world's people lived in nations governed by Communist parties. In the late 1980's and early 1990's, however, Communism suffered a blow from which it may never recover--the collapse of the Communist system in the Soviet Union (the world's first Communist state) and the Communist countries of Eastern Europe, followed by the breakup of the Soviet Union itself.

The term "communism" was first used to refer to any society in which property would be held in common (owned by everyone) rather than by individuals. This idea is very old. It was expressed, at least in part, by the Greek philosopher Plato in the 300's B.C. The modern theories of Communism, however, had their beginnings considerably later.


Beginnings. In the early 1800's the countries of Western Europe gradually began to change from an agricultural to an industrial way of life. Many people moved from the farms to the cities to work in the newly emerging factories, where they were forced to labor under very harsh conditions.

Critics of early industrial society thought that the hardships of workers would end if there was no private ownership of property. If property was owned by all the people, they believed, the burdens and benefits of society would then be shared equally by all. They called this system socialism or communism, using the terms interchangeably.


Karl Marx. The leading theorist of Communism was Karl Marx (1818-83), a German social scientist. Marx thought that the goals of equality, freedom, and economic security would be reached through a new social order. He saw society as having developed from primitive communal life through various forms of oppression. These included slavery in ancient times; serfdom in the Middle Ages, when the workers of the land (serfs) were bound to the soil; and the harsh treatment of factory workers in his own time. Marx believed that society passed through these stages as a result of conflict between the privileged classes and the underprivileged. At each stage, the oppressed overthrew the oppressors.

In the final stage, Marx predicted, the workers in an industrial society would overthrow their oppressors, the capitalists (owners of private property), and seize power. They would then work to create Communist societies in which all the people owned the means of production, such as farms and factories, and controlled the political and social institutions. When this ideal had been reached, there would no longer be a need for the use of force by government, because there would no longer be class conflict.

The Communist Manifesto, written by Marx and his associate Friedrich Engels in 1848, was a call for such a revolution during a troubled period in European history.


The Soviet Model: Lenin. The Communist movement as we know it today has its origins in the policies of Vladimir I. Lenin. In 1898, Lenin founded a workers' party in Russia that became known as the Bolshevik Party. Under Lenin's leadership, the Bolsheviks came to power in the course of the 1917 Russian revolutions and established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or Soviet Union. The term "soviet" referred to the councils of workers that formed the organizational basis of Lenin's party, which soon became the Communist Party. Lenin's theories on Communism are known as Marxism-Leninism.

At the time of the revolutions, Russia was mainly an agricultural country, not the industrial society in which Marx had predicted the workers would seize power. Lenin's theory that Communist rule would survive in the Soviet Union was based on his belief that the industrialized nations of Western Europe would themselves turn Communist at the end of World War I (1918). Lenin also believed that the Communist Party had to establish a one-party dictatorship to exercise total control over society during the long period before true Communism could come into being.

Stalin: Growth of Soviet Power. After Lenin died in 1924, leadership of the Soviet Union and the Communist movement passed to Joseph Stalin. By this time it was clear that Communists were not going to come to power in any other country in the foreseeable future. Stalin was thus forced to adopt a policy of "socialism in one country." This effort to apply Communist theories to a single country that was still relatively undeveloped economically was in direct opposition to Marx's ideas.

Under Stalin the Soviet Union was transformed from an agricultural society to the beginnings of an industrialized one. It became a major world power after the defeat of Germany in World War II (1939-45), during most of which the Soviet Union was allied with the United States and other Western democracies. These achievements, however, were won at great cost. The Russian people suffered severe economic hardships, especially in the agricultural regions, where there was widespread famine. Stalin's struggle for political power resulted in large-scale purges, in which many thousands of Soviet citizens were executed and vast numbers of them were imprisoned.

Communist Expansion. The end of European colonial rule in Asia and Africa after the war offered many new opportunities for the expansion of Communist rule. Some Communist governments were imposed by force on countries occupied by the victorious Soviet armies. This happened in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania in Europe, and in North Korea in Asia.

In other countries Communists came to power without direct intervention by the Soviet Union. These countries included Albania and Yugoslavia in Europe; Cuba in Latin America; China, Vietnam, Kampuchea (Cambodia), and Laos, among others. The Soviet Union also achieved great influence in a number of countries that were not formally under Communist rule. In addition, Communist parties existed in most of the non-Communist countries of Europe. (The small Communist party in the United States had little influence.)

To maintain their authority, Soviet leaders used force to suppress revolts in several of their Eastern European satellites: in East Germany (1953), Hungary (1956), and Czechoslovakia (1968). Soviet troops also fought a long war in Afghanistan during the 1980's to support an unpopular Communist government, which finally collapsed in 1992.

Communist expansion was strongly opposed by non-Communist nations, particularly the United States and its allies. The struggle between the two blocs for political and economic influence in the years after World War II was known as the Cold War.

Collapse of the Soviet System. In spite of some successes, the Soviet Communist model eventually proved a failure. In part this was due to conflicts among the Communist nations, who varied widely in their economic development and national interests and resented efforts by the Soviet Union to dominate them. Relations, for example, between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, the world's most populous Communist country, were extremely hostile for more than thirty years.

A major cause of the collapse, however, was the very nature of the Soviet Communist system. Based on a rigid, centrally planned economy controlled by the state and the absolute rule of the Communist Party, it neither provided its people with any more than their simplest needs nor gave them a voice in their own government.

In the late 1980's, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Communist Party leader and later Soviet president, attempted far-reaching economic and political reforms. These spread quickly to the Eastern European Communist states, where, between 1989 and 1992, Communist regimes and state-controlled economies were replaced by elected governments and a free-market system. In the Soviet Union, however, the failure of economic reforms and the surge of nationalism among its many different peoples led, at the end of 1991, to the breakup of the Soviet empire.

Cyril E. Black
Director, Center of International Studies, Princeton University
Author, Communism and Revolution