Communism: An Explanation

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The term's modern usage originated with Victor d'Hupay, an 18th-century French aristocrat who advocated living in "communes" in which all property would be shared and "all may benefit from everybody's work. Modern communist ideology began to develop during the French Revolution, and its seminal tract, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels' "Communist Manifesto," was published in That pamphlet rejected the Christian tenor of previous communist philosophies, laying out a materialist and — its proponents claim — scientific analysis of the history and future trajectory of human society.

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The Communist Manifesto presented the French Revolution as a major historical turning point, when the "bourgeoisie" — the merchant class that was in the process of consolidating control over the "means of production" — overturned the feudal power structure and ushered in the modern, capitalist era. That revolution replaced the medieval class struggle, which pitted the nobility against the serfs, with the modern one pitting the bourgeois owners of capital against the "proletariat," the working class who sell their labor for wages.

In the Communist Manifesto and later works, Marx, Engels and their followers advocated and predicted as historically inevitable a global proletarian revolution, which would usher in first an era of socialism, then of communism. This final stage of human development would mark the end of class struggle and therefore of history: all people would live in social equilibrium, without class distinctions, family structures, religion or property. The state, too, would "wither away. Marx and Engels' theories would not be tested in the real world until after their deaths.

In , during Word War I, an uprising in Russia toppled the czar and sparked a civil war that eventually saw a group of radical Marxists led by Vladimir Lenin gain power in The Bolsheviks, as this group was called, founded the Soviet Union on former Imperial Russian territory and attempted to put communist theory into practice.


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Prior to the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin had developed the Marxist theory of vanguardism, which argued that a close-knit group of politically enlightened elites was necessary to usher in the higher stages of economic and political evolution: socialism and finally communism.

Lenin died shortly after the civil war ended, but the "dictatorship of the proletariat," led by his successor Joseph Stalin, would pursue brutal ethnic and ideological purges as well as forced agricultural collectivization. Tens of millions died during Stalin's rule, from to , on top of the tens of millions who died as a result of the war with Nazi Germany.

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Rather than withering away, the Soviet state became a powerful one-party institution that prohibited dissent and occupied the "commanding heights" of the economy. This system of central planning enabled rapid industrialization, and from to growth in Soviet gross domestic product GDP outpaced that of the U.

In general, however, the Soviet economy grew at a much slower pace than its capitalist, democratic counterparts. Weak consumer spending was a particular drag on growth.


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Central planners' emphasis on heavy industry led to chronic underproduction of consumer goods, and long lines at understocked grocery stores were a fixture of Soviet life even during periods of relative prosperity. While these networks were illegal, they were essential to the party's functioning: they alleviated shortages that, left unchecked, threatened to spark another Bolshevik Revolution; they provided party propagandists with a scapegoat for shortages; and they lined the pockets of party officials, who would either take payoffs to look the other way or grow rich running black market operations themselves.

The Soviet Union collapsed in , following a push to reform the economic and politic system and provide greater room for private enterprise and free expression. Mao allied the country with the Soviet Union, but the Soviets' policies of de-Stalinization and "peaceful coexistence" with the capitalist West led to a diplomatic split with China in Mao's rule in China resembled Stalin's in its violence, deprivation, and insistence on ideological purity. During the Great Leap Forward from to , the Communist Party ordered the rural population to produce enormous quantities of steel in an effort to jumpstart an industrial revolution in China.

Families were coerced into building backyard furnaces, where they smelted scrap metal and household items into low-quality pig iron that offered little domestic utility and held no appeal for export markets. Since rural labor was unavailable to harvest crops, and Mao insisted on exporting grain to demonstrate his policies' success, food became scarce. In they wrote and published "The Communist Manifesto. The workers that were exploited would develop class consciousness.

Then there would be a fundamental process of class conflict that would be resolved through revolutionary struggle. In this conflict, the proletariat will rise up against the bourgeoisie and establish a communist society.

Communism: Karl Marx to Joseph Stalin

Marx and Engels thought of the proletariat as the individuals with labor power, and the bourgeoisie as those who own the means of production in a capitalist society. The state would pass through a phase, often thought of as a socialism, and eventually settle finally on a pure communist society. Communism is designed to allow the poor to rise up and attain financial and social status equal to that of the middle-class landowners. In order for everyone to achieve equality, wealth is redistributed so that the members of the upper class are brought down to the same financial and social level as the middle class.

Communism also requires that all means of production be controlled by the state.

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In other words, no one can own his or her own business or produce his or her own goods because the state owns everything. According to the philosopher Frederick Engels ' "Principles of Communism," the plan for ultimate financial and social equality is built on the principle that the system should spread around the world until all countries are on board [source: Engels ]. This central goal has caused capitalist nations to keep their guards up, fearing that communist economic practices might spread to their countries.

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