The idea that human communities can and should be based on an “all for one and one for all” ethos of sharing and community and mutual aid goes back millennia. Plato’s theoretical state in his Republic; early Christians, Essenes, and other sects living communally; the way of life of many native American people in pre-Columbian days; perhaps even groups of hunter-gatherers in prehistoric times are all examples of communist-like alternatives to the capitalist war of “all against all” or the other ways that societies have organized themselves.
But modern communism-communism as most people think of the term today-is a doctrine that originated in 19th century Europe, developed by philosophers, social scientists, and politicians. Most notable among these was the German philosopher and political theorist Karl Marx, who is so closely associated with modern communism that “Marxism” is sometimes used as a synonym for communism.
Marx interpreted history as a series of exploitative class struggles, where these at the top used all means at their disposal-force of arms, propaganda, religious ideology, etc.-to maintain and augment their power, until the inevitable progression of history deposed and replaced them, as when the lords of capital had replaced the kings and nobles that had preceded them.
Capitalism, he contended, contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction in that the inability of the wealthy to refrain from using every possible device to become even wealthier (controlling legislation by dominating the state, pitting worker against worker in a hopeless “race to the bottom,” etc.) would widen the gap between rich and poor until the poor simply wouldn’t “play by the rules” and accept it any more. Thus would come the next stage of history, where the capitalist masters would be overthrown.
Those doing the overthrowing would not then be able to turn around and exploit the masses in some new way, for they would themselves be the masses. Marx envisioned that with the last oppressing class gone, and its ethos of greed and selfishness repudiated, society would be able to organize itself on a more cooperative basis, and ultimately even the state itself would wither away as there would no longer be a need to keep people under control.
Though by this theory the collapse of capitalism and the advent of communism is inevitable, communists believed they still could hasten the triumph of communism, and affect the details of how it came about and what form it took. Some worked on organizing for armed revolutions; some hoped to bring about a more peaceful transition through political means.
Working with fellow theorist Friedrich Engels, Marx published his Communist Manifesto call to action in 1848, and spelled out the theoretical underpinnings for his version of communism in greater detail in Capital, published in 1869.
Some consider the “Paris Commune” of 1871 to be the first occasion that these ideas were put into practice. In the chaotic aftermath of France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, the national government of Napoleon III lost control of Paris, where local authorities instituted a series of leftist initiatives such as the separation of church and state, forgiveness of certain debts, and greater rights for workers. Within two to three months, Paris was retaken, and tens of thousands of Parisians who had had anything whatsoever to do with the short-lived Commune were summarily slaughtered.
Later communist leaders such as Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong, and Marx himself to some extent at the time, took certain important lessons from the events of the Paris Commune. In their view, the leaders of the Commune had been far too idealistic. They had attempted limited reforms, were meticulous about establishing a participatory democracy from the bottom up, and tried to minimize the use of violence in achieving their ends. Critics of the Commune’s “soft” or “halfway” approach noted that the capitalists and their state allies certainly put themselves under no such constraints, and resorted to mass murder when their interests were threatened.
Even if ultimately the state and its violence were to “wither away” under communism, many communists now were convinced that in the transitional period to that society, the revolutionaries would have to be as ruthless in their methods of freeing the people as slave owners, feudal lords, and capitalists had always proven to be in keeping them unfree. As Lenin later put it, they would have to be willing to “break a few eggs” to make a revolution, and rather than rely solely on democratic means, they would have to temporarily institute a dictatorship in order to impose the new system.
The first sustained communist state was to come decades after the Paris Commune, in Russia, under Lenin. Just as defeat in war had given rise to the Commune, Russia’s disastrous participation in World War I led to a revolution that overthrew the Czar, and, after several months of jockeying for power amongst various factions, brought to power Lenin’s Bolshevik party in 1917.
Russia did not fit particularly well into Marx’s theory of how and where communism would come about. Communism was supposed to replace the most advanced capitalism, the capitalism that had worked its way through all the stages of industrial development and exploitation of the working class until it inevitably broke apart as it ran out of markets and people to squeeze dry in its obsessive maximizing of profits for those at the very top.
But this was not the Russia of 1917. Though Russia in certain respects was a modern European power, and it had developed capitalist institutions to some degree, it was in most ways closer to what we would now call a “Third World” nation. Its economy was largely an agricultural one, its population overwhelmingly peasants rather than urban employees of capitalist enterprises. Capitalism had barely started in Russia, let alone run its course.
According to theory at least, it would have made far more sense for the workers of a country like Germany, France, or Great Britain to overthrow capitalism first.
But through accidents of history or whatever, things happen where they happen, and Russia-which renamed itself the Soviet Union-became the first state run by the principles of modern communism.
Communism in name only
Or did it? Because it remains a hotly debated topic whether the Soviet Union, or any of the 20th century regimes that followed that called themselves communist, really instituted anything like what communism is supposed to be.
Those who approved of these regimes and believed they were moving in the direction of a classless society where people live cooperatively and non-exploitatively and the state shrinks away gradually, praised them as “communist.” On the other hand, they were also called “communist” by opponents who pointed to all the blood they were spilling, the lack of freedom of the populace, and the way the dictatorships showed no signs of being “temporary,” precisely in order to discredit communism (or socialism, Marxism, or any ideology of the Left).
Others simply saw vicious slave states where a minority of folks-upper level Party members mostly-lived quite well, while the masses suffered in misery, and deemed this not the slightest bit “communist,” but just another version of autocracy and exploitation that communists and anyone else of good will and good sense would want to have no truck with.
From that perspective, there never has been a truly communist society in the modern world, and communism has not been discredited by regimes such as Stalin’s and Mao’s that called themselves communist, any more than democracy and republican government have been discredited by all the dictatorships that have used terms like “democratic” and “republic” (or “free” or “people’s”) in their names.
But that matter of semantics aside, by most accounts of modern European history, the intellectual rise of communism began with the works of Marx and Engels, and the political manifestation of it began with the Bolshevik establishment of the Soviet Union in 1917, with the Paris Commune as a very brief forerunner.