What is communism?


Karl Marx, German-born Jewish political philosopher and father of Marxism

There could never have been a Cold War without the ideology of communism and the existence of communist systems of government. Though history has contained similar ideas, communism as an ideological system was developed in the mid-1800s by philosopher Karl Marx. In the 1840s Marx, a German of Jewish origins, met fellow German Friedrich Engels. Like Marx, Engels was concerned about the impact of industrial capitalism on workers; he had just finished writing a book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, a scathing account of how workers in English cities were worse off than they had been before industrialisation. Engels observed alarmingly high rates of disease, malnutrition and injury in English factories; appalling cases of exploitation and mistreatment, particularly of women and children; and an almost complete lack of concern by factory-owners for the well-being of workers.Finding common ground, Marx and Engels began a lifelong collaboration. In 1848 they published their best-known work, The Communist Manifesto, at a time when continental Europe was afire with revolution and political instability. It was in this text that Marx outlined his radical views on history, economics and the future of mankind.


A memorial statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in Berlin

Both men then moved to London, where Marx became an active revolutionary. Two decades later he published another important book, Das Kapital, an investigation of the relationship between politics and property in capitalist systems. Both Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto became enormously popular with working-class radicals and formed the cornerstones of a new ideology: communism. Their ideas would inspire several left-wing uprisings across Europe; the formation and evolution of trade unions; the rise of new political parties; and laws to protect the rights, safety and welfare of workers. Since then, Marxism has been one of the most talked about political philosophies in Europe – yet it has also been one of the least understood. The following points are some of the fundamental principles of orthodox Marxism:

Economics shapes society. Marx argued that individuals and groups who possess wealth and capital also possess consider power, and they use this power to control other aspects of society. Economic power almost always translates as political, social and cultural influence. In capitalist nations, for example, politics and government is mostly the domain of the wealthy. Through their control of law, universities and the press, the property-owning classes also shape public debate, culture and social values. The property-less working classes have virtually no impact on politics, government, social issues, debate and so forth, even in a democratic system.

“Marx created the most influential theory of historical change to insist that deeply-rooted economic forces – shifts in ‘means of production’, to use Marx’s term – determine the structure of societies and the behaviour of states, driving them forward in ways that are inexorable and, therefore, largely predictable… Marx’s botched forecasts have by no means disproven the Marxist assumption that underlying historical processes do exist, and that they function rather in the way tectonic forces move continents around on the surface of the earth. These processes may operate very slowly with no visible consequences for long periods of time. But when their effects do appear, they can be as dramatic as the earthquakes that result from the build-up of strains along fault lines. And once such upheavals happen, they cannot be undone.”
John L. Gaddis, historian

A visual depiction of social classes

All history is the history of class struggle. Marx argued that most historical change is caused or driven by friction between classes – especially between those who own capital and those who do not. The working classes will always want to earn more or to obtain better conditions, so they strive to achieve this. Employers and business owners will always want to pay them less, in order to reduce labour costs and maximise their profits. The two classes are in a constant state of ‘class struggle’ against each other. This struggle manifests itself in most historical events: wars, revolutions, protests, political changes and so forth.

Human society has progressed through ‘phases of history’. Marx sought to develop a pseudo-scientific method for understanding history and historical change. He argued that human society can be considered to have passed through several phases of development, each of which was defined by control of resources and labour. During the ‘primitive tribalism’ phase, for instance, tribal groups pooled and shared their labour and resources, with very little centralised control. Under feudalism, powerful royals and nobles owned farmland which afforded them control over landless peasants. And under capitalism, those who own land, factories and resources use wages to control workers.

Human society is progressing. Marx predicted that capitalism would eventually become so corrupt, unfair and exploitative that workers would rise up and overthrow it. They would overthrow politicians and political systems; engage in ‘class war’ against the aristocracy and bourgeoisie (owners of capital); and seize control of land, factories and other resources. They would then enter into a new phase called socialism, or ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’, where the new leaders would govern on behalf of working-class interests. After this phase was complete, Marx claimed society would progress to communism: a state of utopia (near perfection) with no significant class inequality, no oppressive organs of government, no burdensome or exploitative labour, and goods provided to everyone based on their needs.

Marxism has become both an ideology and a workers' movement

Marxism has become both an ideology and a workers’ movement

Capitalism exploits workers. In capitalist systems, the worker toils hard but derives little benefit from his or her labours. Most business profit is collected by the business owners or shareholders; the workers receive comparatively little. Workers also have little or no say in how the business is run, what is produced, quotas or targets and production methods. Because they do not share equally in profit or decision-making, they become nothing more than ‘wage slaves’. Most forms of industrial work are repetitive, dreary and unrewarding; they offer no job satisfaction and alienate workers from their role. Workers cannot stand up to employers to protect their rights, without risk of dismissal or penalty. The nature of capitalism is to create strongly hierarchical workplaces with little or no equality, while encouraging abuses of power.

Religion is the ‘opiate of the masses’. Marxists are atheists: they do not accept the existence of God or other supernatural beings. They view religion both as a delusion and as a tool of the upper classes: it is used to ensure order, compliance and obedience among the dissatisfied lower classes. Impoverished and disgruntled workers are convinced to patiently endure the sufferings of this life, in order to receive the blessings of the next. Marxists argue that organised religion supports governments and powerful elites, justifying and legitimising their actions. Religions themselves are also avid accumulators of land, wealth and property.


Protestors march against capitalism in 2008

As well as providing a critical analysis of capitalism, Marxism also became a revolutionary ideology. Many radicals, who had long railed against the excesses of 19th century capitalism, found the writings of Marx and Engels to be a comprehensive account of what was wrong with capitalism. Marxist political groups emerged across Europe, from Britain to the states of eastern Europe. But its barbed criticisms of capitalism and Western governments, along with its talk of revolution and its calls of ‘workers of the world: unite!’, made Marxism a dangerous ideology. European state leaders dealt with Marxists as subversives, criminals and anarchists. Yet until the first decade of the 1900s there did not seem much to worry about: Marxism was a tiny speck, annoying but no serious threat to the status quo. The onset of World War I, the collapse of the tsarist government and the emergence of two new Russian leaders would change this attitude forever.



1. Marxist communism was a response to mistreatment and exploitation of workers in Europe in the 1800s.
2. Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto is the cornerstone text of this philosophy and political movement.
3. Marxists believe that history progresses through phases, as classes struggle to improve their position.
4. The ultimate goal of Marxists is a classless society where capital is shared and people are not exploited.
5. Marxism became a political movement in the late 1800s, seeking to initiate change through reform or revolution.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “What is communism?”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/coldwar/what-is-communism/.