What is communism?

Karl Marx, the founder of communism

For Western nations like the United States, the threat of communism and the potential for its expansion around the world underpinned the entire Cold War. But just what is communism and how did it come to be so feared and reviled?

What is communism?

Communism is a political and economic ideology developed in the mid-19th century by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Both Marx and Engels were political philosophers who were concerned about the social impact of industrial capitalism.

In the early 1840s, Engels authored a book called The Condition of the Working Class in England, a scathing account of English industrialism. In this work, Engels argued that English factory workers were worse off than before the Industrial Revolution.

In his research, Engels recorded alarmingly high rates of disease, malnutrition and injury in English factories. He also observed appalling cases of exploitation and mistreatment, particularly of women and children, and an almost complete disinterest in the well being of workers by factory owners.

Finding common ground, Marx and Engels began a lifelong collaboration. Their best-known work, The Communist Manifesto, was published in 1848, a time when continental Europe was ablaze with revolution and political instability.

Das Kapital

A memorial statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in Berlin

Marx and Engels moved to London and became active revolutionaries. Two decades later, Marx 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 popular with working-class radicals and reformists. These books became the cornerstones of a new ideology called communism. The ideas and theories of Marx inspired left-wing movements and uprisings across Europe. They also influenced the formation and evolution of trade unions and the rise of new political parties.

The activities of these groups and the pressures they exerted on governments led to laws protecting the rights, safety and welfare of workers. Marxism became one of the most talked about political movements in Europe. Some of its fundamental principles include:

Economics shapes society

Marx argued that individuals and groups who own wealth and capital also wield considerable power. They use this power to influence or control other aspects of society.

Economic power, Marx wrote, usually translates as political power and social and cultural influence. In capitalist nations, for instance, politics and government are largely the domain of the wealthy. Through their control of law, universities and the press, the property-owning classes shape public debate, culture and social values, defining what is ‘normal’ or acceptable.

The propertyless working classes, in contrast, have no significant impact on matters of government or politics.

A visual depiction of social classes, which are at the centre of Marxist theory

Class struggle

According to Marx, most historical change is caused or shaped by friction between economic classes – particularly the elite classes that own capital and the working classes that do not.

The working classes have always strived to earn more or obtain better conditions. The capitalist classes, such as business and factory owners, always strive to pay the workers less, which reduces labour costs and maximises their profits.

Capitalists and workers are therefore in a constant state of “class struggle” against each other. Evidence of this struggle has manifested in many historical events, such as wars, revolutions, protests and political changes.

Stages of history

Marx articulated what he claimed was a scientific method for understanding history and historical change. He argued that human society has passed and is passing through several phases of development. Each of these phases is defined by who owns or controls resources and labour.

During the ‘primitive tribalism’ phase, for example, tribal groups were responsible for sharing work and resources; there was very little centralised control. Under feudalism, which was prevalent in the Middle Ages, powerful royals and nobles owned land that allowed them to exert control over landless peasants.

Under capitalism, the next phase, those who own capital (land, factories and resources) use these things to control workers. Marx predicted that capitalism would be replaced by yet another phases, socialism, or the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

Human society is progressing

Marx predicted future changes for human civilisation. He argued that workers would eventually rise up and overthrow capitalism, bringing the capitalist phase of history to an end.

These revolutionaries 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. Capitalism would be replaced by a new phase called socialism, or ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’.

Under socialism, Marx claimed, leaders would govern on behalf of the workers. Socialism would eventually give way to a utopian system called communism. In a communist society, there would be no significant inequality, no oppressive organs of government and no burdensome or exploitative labour. Goods and services would be provided to every person according to their needs.

Marxism has become both an ideology and a workers’ movement

Capitalism exploits workers

In capitalist systems, Marx argued, the worker toils hard but obtains little benefit from his or her labours. Most profit is collected and accumulated by business owners or shareholders while the workers receive comparatively little. Workers also have little or no say in how the business is run, what is produced, quotas, targets and production methods.

Since they do not share equally in profit or decision-making, workers become nothing more than “wage slaves”. Most forms of industrial work are repetitive, dreary and unrewarding; it offers no job satisfaction and therefore leads to stress and alienation. Workers cannot stand up to employers to protect their rights without risk of dismissal or penalty.

The nature of capitalism, Marx argued, is to create hierarchical workplaces with little or no equality. It also encourages workplace bullying, inequality, harassment and other abuses of power.

Religion is the ‘opiate of the masses’

Marx was an atheist who rejected the existence of God and other supernatural beings. Marxism views religion as a tool of the upper classes: it is used to encourage order, compliance and obedience among the dissatisfied lower classes.

Religion teaches poor and disgruntled workers to patiently endure the sufferings of this life, in order to receive the blessings of the next. Marxists believe that organised religion bolsters governments and powerful elites, justifying and legitimising their actions.

Organised religions are also capitalists in their own right, accumulating large amounts of land, wealth and property.

Marxist movements

Protestors march against capitalism in 2008

Marxism was not just a critical analysis of capitalism, it also became a revolutionary movement.

Even before Marxist groups and movements began to take shape, critics and reformers had been railing against the excesses of industrialism. Many found the writings of Marx and Engels a comprehensive account of what was wrong with unrestrained capitalism.

In the late 1800s, Marxist political groups began to emerge across Europe, from Britain to the states of eastern Europe. This was a concerning development for ruling elites, who were endangered by Marx’s talk of revolution and calls for workers of the world to unite against them.

European state leaders viewed Marxists as subversives, criminals and anarchists. Even so, they did not seem to pose much of a threat. In most countries, Marxism was a small fringe movement that posed little threat to the status quo. There seemed little danger of communists winning control of a small nation, let alone a major power.

That situation was changed by World War I, the collapse of the tsarist government in Russia and the emergence of socialist leaders like Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. By the 1920s, it looked as if communism might change the world forever.

A historian’s view:
“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

what is communism

1. Communism is a radical political and economic philosophy. It was formed in the mid-1800s, in response to the mistreatment and exploitation of industrial workers in Europe.

2. Communism was developed by German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Their books The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital became its cornerstone texts.

3. Marxist communists believe that society is organised according to the ownership of capital, while historical change is largely the result of struggle between the various classes.

4. Marxists believe that capitalism will one day be overthrown by socialism, where the government passes to representatives of the workers and class inequality is stripped away.

5. Communism became a significant movement in the late 1800s, embraced by radicals seeking political reform and an end to poverty and inequality. While communism threatened the power of the wealthy elites, it remained a small fringe movement until the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Citation information
Title: “What is communism?”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
URL: https://alphahistory.com/coldwar/what-is-communism/
Date published: September 6, 2018
Date accessed: September 10, 2023
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