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collapse of communism

History of communism

This article intentionally focuses only on the history of communism as a self-contained, self-aware political movement.


The political movement of communism has been a worldwide social movement for centuries.

Karl Marx saw communism as the original, hunter-gatherer state of humankind, from which it arose. For Marx, only after humanity was capable of producing surplus, did private property develop. Communism is an idea of a society based on common ownership of property, and can be traced back to ancient times. Its modern form as a mass social movement grew out of the working class labor movement during the Industrial Revolution.

This rise of the working class was heralded by Karl Marx, who developed Marxism, and Friedrich Engels, who assisted Marx and who developed the modern account of communism as the outcome of a revolutionary class struggle between the proletariat and bourgeoisie. During the October Revolution in 1917, the communist Bolshevik Party was able to seize state power in Russia. Following that revolution, Marxism-Leninism emerged as the mainstream tendency of communism in world politics. After the Secret Speech of 1956 and the emergence of the New Left in the 1960s, a new form of Marxism-Leninism, pioneered by Mao Zedong and often known as Maoism outside China, spread worldwide; this ideology stresses the role of the peasant class and careful guerrilla warfare as important agents of the communist revolution.

Early Communism

Karl Marx saw primitive communism as the original, hunter-gatherer state of humankind from which it arose. For Marx, only after humanity was capable of producing surplus, did private property develop.

The idea of a classless, stateless society based on communal ownership of property and wealth stretches far back in Western thought long before The Communist Manifesto. Some have traced communist ideas back to ancient times, such as in Pythagoreanism and Plato's The Republic; or (perhaps with more justification) to the early Christian Church, as described in the Acts of the Apostles (see Christian communism). Other attempts to establish communistic societies were made by the Essenes and by the Judean desert sect. The medieval Roman Catholic church tried to end war by promoting communes (see Medieval commune#Medieval christianity).

In the 16th century, the English writer St. Thomas More portrayed a society based on common ownership of property in his treatise Utopia, whose leaders administered it through the application of reason.

Several groupings in the English Civil War, but especially the Diggers who espoused clear communistic but agrarian ideals. (Cromwell and the Grandees' attitude to these groups was at best ambivalent and often hostile see Bernstein's classic book Cromwell and Communism). Criticism of the idea of private property continued into the Enlightenment era of the 18th century, through such thinkers as the deeply religious Jean Jacques Rousseau. Raised a Calvinist, Rousseau was influenced by the jansenist movement within the Roman Catholic church. The jansenist movement originated from the most orthodox Roman Catholic bishops, who tried to reform the Roman Catholic church in the 17th century to stop secularization and Protestantism. One of the main jansenist aims was democratizing to stop the aristocratic corruption at the top of the church hierarchy. "Utopian socialist" writers such as Robert Owen are also sometimes regarded as communists.

Maximilien Robespierre and his reign of terror, aimed at exterminating the nobility and conservatives, was greatly admired among communists. Robespierre was in his turn a great admirer of Rousseau.1 The Shakers of the 18th century practiced communalism as a sort of religious communism.

Some believe that early communist-like utopias also existed outside of Europe, in Native American society, and other pre-Colonialism societies in the Western Hemisphere. Almost every member of a tribe had his or her own contribution to society, and land and natural resources would often be shared peacefully among the tribe. Some such tribes in North America and South America still existed well into the twentieth century.

Karl Marx saw communism as the original state of mankind from which it arose, through classical society, and then feudalism, to its current state of capitalism. He proposed that the next step in social evolution would be a return to communism.

In its contemporary form, the ideology of communism grew out of the workers' movement of 19th century Europe. As the Industrial Revolution advanced, socialist critics blamed capitalism for creating a class of poor, urban factory workers who toiled under harsh conditions, and for widening the gulf between rich and poor.

Marx, Engels, and The Communist Manifesto

Although Marx addressed many issues, he is most famous for his analysis of history in terms of class struggle, summed up in the famous line from the introduction to the Communist Manifesto: "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle".

The Communist Manifesto, also known as The Manifesto of the Communist Party, published on February 21, 1848 is one of the world's most historically influential political tracts. Commissioned by the Communist League and written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, it laid out the League's purposes and program. The Manifesto suggested a course of action for a proletarian revolution to overthrow capitalism and, eventually, to bring about a classless society.

The introduction begins with a call to arms:

A spectre is haunting Europe the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.

Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as communistic by its opponents in power? Where is the opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of communism, against the more advanced opposition parties, as well as against its reactionary adversaries?

The program described in the Manifesto is termed socialism or communism. The policies included the abolition of land ownership and the right to inheritance, the progressive income tax, and the nationalization of means of production and transport. These policies, which would be implemented by a revolutionary government (the dictatorship of the proletariat), would (the authors believed) be a precursor to the stateless and classless society. "Communism" is also used to refer to the beliefs and practices of the Communist Party, including that of the Soviet Union which differed substantially from Marx and Engels' conception.

It is this concept of the transition from socialism to communism which many critics of the Manifesto, particularly during and after the Soviet era, have alighted upon. Anarchists, liberals, and conservatives all asked how an organization such as the revolutionary state could ever (as Marx put it elsewhere) "wither away". Both traditional understandings of the attraction of political power and more recent theories of organizational behavior suggest instead that a group given political power will tend to preserve its privilege rather than to permit it to wither away even if that privilege is given in the name of revolution and of the establishment of equality.

When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organize itself as a class; if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.

The famous last lines of The Manifesto

The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.

Working men of all countries, unite!

The October Revolution

The October Revolution of 1917 took place in Russia. Led by Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov (also known as Lenin), leader of the Bolshevik Party, it was the first large scale attempt to put Marxist ideas about a workers' state into practice. From the outset, the new government faced counterrevolutionary resistance from a myriad of forces anarchists, scattered czarist resistance forces known as the White Guard, and Western imperialist powers all tried to snatch power away from the Bolsheviks. Lenin and his party began to centralize control of Russia, but Lenin always assured the people that it was necessary for the transition from a capitalist economy to communism. Lenin anticipated that after the October Revolution, other countries in Europe would have similar revolutions, but the revolutions in Germany, Hungary and Finland were crushed. The governance of Lenin, during the last years of his life, occurred in the midst of civil war. The politics of the communists during this period has become known as War Communism. Before his death in 1924, Lenin wrote a last testament, with advice for his successor. Lenin wanted a co-operative leadership, but Stalin gradually assumed control and centralised political power around his own persona.

Comintern

In March 1919 the Communist International (abbreviated 'Comintern', commonly known as the 'Third International') was founded. The leading force of the new international was the Russian Bolsheviks. Initially the following of the international was somewhat heterogeneous. Largely it consisted of leftist splinter-groups of the main European Social Democratic parties. Comintern set out to organize itself as a world party of socialist revolution. The national sections were instructed to reconstruct themselves along the Leninist principles. To maintain their membership, the section were imposed 21 conditions. Amongst these, the respective national section had to take the name 'Communist Party'.

The headquarters of Comintern were based in Moscow. The international set up an active work to build new sections around the world. Initially the international was primarily based in Europe, but gradually non-European sections were developed. After the Russian party, the main section was the Communist Party of Germany.

During the Comintern period, during which the modern communist movement took shape, there were intense conflicts over the leadership and the direction of the movement. After Lenin's death, Stalin began to purge his opponents. Roughly speaking, there were two major dissident groupings. The Left Opposition, led by Leon Trotsky and the Right Opposition, led by Bukharin. The divisions inside the Soviet party was reciprocsated by splits in various Comintern sections. Often splits were provoked by expulsions of real or perceived opponents of Stalin's leadership.

During the latter part of the 1920s the Comintern adopted a line which singled out the Social Democrats as 'Social Fascists'. The task of the Comintern sections was to combat the influence of the Social Democrats amongst the working class. Cooperation with the Social Democracy was categorically ruled out.

However, after the rise of Fascism in Europe, this policy was reversed. The 7th congress of the Comintern adopted the Popular Front line (which in some countries already had been in use). The communists were urged to build democratic alliances, including with Social Democrats and bourgeois parties, against Fascism. During the Second World War, communist parties took part in restistance activities against the Axis.

The changed political scenario of the war clearly changed the working conditions of the communist parties. As a goodwill gesture towards his Western allies, Stalin dissolved the Comintern 1943.

Communism in Europe during the Comintern period

The bulk of attendees at the first Comintern congress were from Europe. Largely, the new international had its roots in the leftwing opposition within the established European Social Democracy. In several cases, splits with the labour movement preceded the October Revolution. In the Netherlands the Social Democratic Party had been formed in 1909, as the leftist sectors broke away from the main SDAP. In Germany, the revolutionaries formed the Spartacist League in 1914, headed by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. In Sweden the split had occurred in the spring of 1917, with the formation of the Social Democratic Left Party, headed by Zeth Höglund of the Zimmerwald Left.

In other cases, the Communist Parties were born as groups left the Social Democracy after the October Revolution. In 1918 Finnish revolutionaries, in exile in Moscow following the defeat of the Reds in the Finnish Civil War, founded the Communist Party of Finland. On November 3 the same year, the Communist Party of Austria was founded. Austrian communists attempted to organize a Soviet republic, but the revolution did not spread outside the main industrial centres. Few weeks later the Communist Party of Hungary was founded. Under the leadership of Béla Kun, the Hungarian communists led a revolt and founded a Soviet republic. The republic was crushed by the intervention of the Romanian military.

In December 1918, the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania and the leftwing of the Polish Socialist Party merged to form the Communist Workers Party of Poland. Another party formed in 1918 was the Communist Party of Lithuania.

All these groups joined Comintern at its foundation in 1919 and would become the Communist Parties of their respective countries. In a notable case, the main labour party of a European country joined Comintern. The Norwegian Labour Party (DNA) had been founded in 1887. The party, under the leadership of Martin Tranmæl, was one of the founding parties of Comintern. By 1920 it had excepted most of the 21 theses of Comintern. The adaptation to Comintern caused division, as the moderate elements formed the Social Democratic Labour Party of Norway in 1921. But in the end Tranmæl and Comintern would part ways. In 1923 the party was expelled from the international, and the Communist Party of Norway was formed by the Comintern loyalists. It should however be noted that DNA remained committed to revolutionary communism in principle a few years after its expulsion, and strived to maintain cordial relations with the international.

In January 1919, the Serbian Social Democratic Party made an appeal for unity amongst the Yugoslav socialists. At a unification congress in Belgrade July 20-July 23 1919 the Serbian and Bosnian Social Democratic Parties and the leftist minority of the Croatian party merged to form the Socialist Workers Party of Yugoslavia (communists).

In 1920, the Socialist Workers Party of Greece (SEKE) decided to join Comintern. The French Section of the Workers International (SFIO) was divided, as the revolutionary elements created the French Section of the Communist International. The communist were able to wrest a major party of the SFIO membership, as well as the party publication L'Humanité. The Communist Party of Great Britain, also formed in 1920, did however not surge through any division in the Labour Party but through the merger of smaller leftwing groups.

On May 16, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia was founded by the Czechoslovak Social-Democratic Party (Left). In September the same year, the Communist Party of Belgium was founded, through the merger of the Young Socialist Guards and the Belgian Labour Party.

In January 1921, Amadeo Bordiga and Antonio Gramsci led the comunsti puri section of the Italian Socialist Party to form the Italian Communist Party. On March 6, 1921, the Portuguese Communist Party was founded. The PCP had a somewhat different background than other European communist parties, having developed out of the Anarcho-Syndicalist movement rather than the Social Democracy. On November 14, 1921 the Communist Party of Spain was founded, through the fusion of the Spanish Communist Party (which developed out of the Socialist Youth) and the Spanish Communist Workers Party (formed by the pro-Comintern faction of PSOE).

However, by the end of the 1920s the Comintern was faced with various problems. The revolutionary upsurge on the European continent was over. Communist parties were established in most countries, but in most cases the communists did not play the leading role in the labour movement. Divisions shattered the Comintern, as groups considered as disloyal to the Comintern leadership were expelled. In 1929, Bukharin was purged and subsequently purges were carried out in the Comintern sections. On December 28 the oppositional tendencies within the Communist Party of Germany had constituted a separate party, the Communist Party Opposition. In 1929 the major part of the Communist Party of Sweden, including most of the party leadership and all parliamentarians, were expelled. The expellees formed a parallel communist party, that developed into the Socialist Party. The following year, the Catalan-Balear Communist Federation broke away from the Communist Party of Spain. In France, the purged elements took part in the formation of the Party of Proletarian Unity.

Communist Party of Iceland was formed in 1930, but communists had been politically active there since the early 1920s.

The expansion of Fascism poses a grave challenge to the communist movement. In 1926 the Italian Communist Party had been banned by Mussolini. After Hitler's takeover of power in Germany, the Communist Party of Germany was banned. When the international convened its 7th congress in 1935, it decided to revert its former policy of rejection of cooperation with Social Democrats. By the initiative of the communist parties Popular Fronts were created in various countries. The Popular Front won elections in France and Spain. In France the communists did not, however, many any ministers of their own.

As the Spanish Civil War broke out, the communist parties mobilized support for the Spanish Republic. A 40 000 strong military contingent, the International Brigades, was formed with the active support from Comintern.

During the Second World War, communists mobilized resistance activities in territories occupied by the Axis. Communist-led guerrilla units, partisans, were active in Italy, France, Greece, Yugoslavia and Albania. In other places, communists organized sabotage activities.

Communism in Latin America during the Comintern period

The first Latin American communist party was the Mexican Communist Party. It had been founded as the Socialist Workers Party in 1911, but changed name to the communist party in 1919. The Indian revolutionary M.N. Roy was instrumental in linking the Mexican party with the Comintern. The party was forced underground in 1929, but was legalized in 1934 and developed good relations with president Lázaro Cárdenas.

Likewise the Socialist Workers Party of Chile, founded in 1912, changed its name to the Communist Party and joined the Comintern in 1922.

The Communist Party of Argentina was founded in 1918.

The Communist Party of Guatemala was founded in 1922.

On March 22, 1921 the Brazilian Communist Party was founded through the merger of various local groups.

In Ecuador, the Socialist Party was founded in 1925. It would develop into the Communist Party of Ecuador.

In 1928 José Carlos Mariátegui founded the Socialist Party of Peru, which two years later would become the Communist Party.

The Communist Party of Costa Rica was founded in 1931. Under the name Workers-Peasants Bloc the party obtained some influence in the national parliament and in major municipalities. Notably, by the early 1930s it was the only non-clandestine communist force in the Central American region.

The Puerto Rican Communist Party was founded in 1934.

Notably, the development of the communist movement in Latin America differed than that of Europe, as several communist parties developed out of the Anarcho-Syndicalist tradition rather than the Social Democracy.

Communism in the Middle East during the Comintern period

Communist ideas and activities reached the Middle East as Jewish immigrants in Palestine founded the Socialist Workers Party in 1919. Likewise, in the same year, French communists began organizing in the Magreb. In November 1919, the second Comintern congress issued a call for building communist parties in the Muslim world.

The formation of a Marxist movement in Palestine prompted formations other likeminded groups and parties in the rest of the region. In 1922 the Egyptian Communist Party was founded, by elements of the Egyptian Socialist Party. In 1923 the Palestine Communist Party was formed through the merger of splinter factions which developed out of the Socialist Workers Party. The Syrian-Lebanese Communist Party was founded in 1924. The Egyptian party was affiliated as a section of Comintern in 1923, the Palestinian party in 1924 and the Syrio-Lebanese in 1928. The Iraqi Communist Party was founded in 1934.

The growth of the Arab communist movement can be seen with backdrop of enthusiasm on the Middle East over the anti-colonial policies and support for the right of self-determination of the Bolsheviks. Particularly, the realising by the new Soviet government of secret deals (like Sykes-Picot Agreement) between the Western states. However, the cadres of the communist parties were largely limited to Western-educated intellectuals.

After the Popular Front policy was introduced by Comintern in 1935, Arab communits began cooperation with national bourgeoisie forces, with help the communists to break their isolation stemming from the instance of the 1928 decision of Comintern to avoid cooperation with the bourgeoise in spite of the limited strength of the industrial working class in the region.

Communism in Africa during the Comintern period

The only section of the Comintern in sub-Saharan Africa was the Communist Party of South Africa. The party was formed in 1921, through the merger of various local communist and socialist groups. CPSA gained prominence during the armed Rand Rebellion by white mineworkers in 1922. The dominance of the white minority of the party troubled the Comintern, which obligied the CPSA to adopt a 'Native Republic' thesis, implied that South Africa belonged to its original Black population. After the adoption by Comintern of the Popular Front line, the party began cooperation with the African National Congress.

Communism in Oceania during the Comintern period

The New Zealand Marxian Association was formed in 1918. In March 1921, the group behind it came to together to form the Communist Party of New Zealand. The party initiated work amonsgt trade unions, but remained a minor force in New Zealand politics.

The Communist Party of Australia was founded in Sydney on October 30, 1920 by a group of socialists inspired by reports of the Russian Revolution. Among the founders of the party were a prominent Sydney trade unionist, Jock Garden, Adela Pankhurst (daughter of the British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst) and most of the then illegal Australian section of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The IWW soon broke its relations the Communist Party, over disagreements with the direction of the Soviet Union and Bolshevism. In its early years, mainly through Garden's efforts, the party achieved some influence in the trade union movement in New South Wales, but by the mid 1920s the party had dwindled. The party was rebuilt by Jack Kavanagh and Esmonde Higgins. However, as the worldwide campaign of purges of the national Comintern sections party leadership was expelled by the international. A new grouping took over the leadership. After the adoption of the Popular Front line, the party started experience some growth through its trade union work. It did however not achieve any electoral success.

Post-war era

Following the end of the Second World War, the world communist movement faced a new scenario. Its centralized organizational body, the Comintern, had been dissolved and the respective sections were now independent entities. Cominform, the Communist Information Bureau, was founded as a substitute of the disbanded international.

The foreign relations of the Soviet Union had changed considerably. From being an international pariah, the Soviet Union was now credited with having defeated Germany. There was no longer any apparent risk of direct Western military action against the Soviet Union. Informally, the Western states acknowledged the dominance of the Soviet Union in its neighbouring countries whilst the Soviet Union did not actively encourage adventurism in the capitalist countries.

The victory over Fascism contributed to a global surge of popularity of communist parties, especially in Europe. In several countries communists achieved electoral progress. Emboldened by the potential of achieving influence through parliamentarian work as well as new Soviet policies of Peaceful co-existence, the political line of the communist movement changed.

Interestingly, relations between the People's Republic of China and Soviet Union quickly broke down during this period. This eventually lead to antagonism and near conflict between the two communist nations, somewhat comparable to the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States of America. See Sino-Soviet split.

Notable for the immediate post-war era was the formation of international organizations linked to the communist movement, like the World Federation of Trade Unions, World Federation of Democratic Youth, etc..

Communism in Eastern Europe during the post-war era

By the end of the Second World War, a robust Soviet military presence covered much of Eastern Europe, to ensure dictatorship of the proletariat, and for the security of the USSR including East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland.

Governments were formed by communist partisans with the help of the Soviet Union. The role communists played in the defeat of fascism gained them the sympathy of their citizens. In some cases fusions between the communist parties and other parties were carried out, like in the cases of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, the Hungarian Workers' Party, the Romanian Workers' Party and the Polish United Workers' Party.

In Yugoslavia and Albania, the communist partisans had liberated their countries without Soviet military aid, causing them to be largely independent of the will of the CPSU.

The new communist-ruled republics were People's Democracies, which is an intermediary phase in the progress towards building socialism. Non-communist parties were either banned or co-opted (in East Germany non-communist parties were allowed to exist.)

Communism today

Current communist states

After the fall of the Communist states in the Eastern Bloc, the world communist movement was arguably weakened. However, the political movement of communism survived the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. Of the five remaining communist states, China, Vietnam, and Laos have moved toward market economies but without major privatization of the state sector; see Socialism with Chinese characteristics and doi moi for more details. Cuba has recently emerged from the crisis sparked by the fall of the Soviet Union given the growth in its volume of trade with its new allies Venezuela and China; see the article Special Period for more on Cuba's crisis and re-emergence. North Korea, with its ideology of Juche, has had less success in coping with the collapse of the Soviet bloc than its counterparts, although there are no signs thus far of the North Korean government being particularly unstable.

Communists in democratic governance

In Nepal, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) leader Man Mohan Adhikari briefly became Prime Minister and national leader from 1994 to 1995, and the Maoist guerrilla leader Prachanda was elected Prime Minister by the Constituent Assembly of Nepal in 2008. In Moldova, the communist party won the 2001 and 2005 parliamentary elections. In Cyprus, the veteran communist Dimitris Christofias of AKEL won the 2008 presidential election. The national government of India depends on the parliamentary support of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and CPI(M) leds the state governments in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. In Ukraine and Russia, the communists came second in the 2002 and 2003 elections, respectively. In the Czech Republic, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia came third in the 2002 elections, and so did the Communist Party of Portugal in 2005. In Venezuela, the Communist Party of Venezuela is closely aligned with the government of Hugo Chávez, while in neighbouring Brazil the Communist Party of Brazil is a member of the governing leftwing coalition led by president Lula da Silva. In South Africa, the South African Communist Party (SACP) is a member of the Tripartite alliance alongside the African National Congress and the Congress of South African Trade Unions. Italy, Syria and Sri Lanka have communist ministers in their national governments. Spain, France, Japan and Greece among other countries were communist parties that enjoy a level of electoral success.

Current Communist insurgencies

Colombia is in the midst of a civil war which has been waged since 1966 between the Colombian government and aligned rightwing paramilitaries against two communist guerrilla groups; the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - People's Army (FARC-EP) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). In Nepal a brutal civil war was fought between the Nepal Royal Army and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). The war came to an end with a peace treaty in 2006 and the CPN(Maoist) joined an interim government (which it left in September 2007), which also included the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist). As of 2007, communists hold a majority of seats in the interim parliament. The Philippines is still experiencing a low scale guerrilla insurgency by the Maoist, New People's Army while the armed wing of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) is fighting a war against the government of India and is active in half the country.

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