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Communism is a socialist government system in which the means of production are commonly owned, and which has no state, money, or social classes. It is also a political way of thinking and an idea of how to get to such a society. Communism says that the people of any and every place in the world should all own the factories and farms that are used to make goods and food. This social process is known as common ownership. The main differences between socialism and communism are that, in a Communist society, the state and money do not exist. Work is not something a person must do to stay alive but is rather something people can choose whether or not to do.
According to Communist writers and thinkers, the goal of communism is to create a classless society by eliminating the power of the bourgeoisie (the ruling class, who own the means of production) and creating a dictatorship of the proletariat (the working class). Communism is not anti-individualism, but they do believe that decisions should be made to benefit the collective population rather than to serve the greed of one or several individuals.
In a nutshell
Assume there are three men. One has two units of a specific good, one has one unit of the same good, and another has no units of the good. The Communist Party would take one of the units from the first man and give it to the third man.
Some socialists believed that socialists could take state power in democratic elections. They tried to make socialist parties in their own countries win elections. Others thought that the state was created to maintain capitalism and that capitalists would never allow communists to take power. They thought there needed to be a war or revolution in order to create a new workers' state.
Most of the countries that claimed to be workers states either had a violent revolution or were invaded by a country that left behind a government. Some democratic countries today have active communist parties, such as in India, Italy and France.
In some countries, especially those that used to be ruled by communist parties, the communist party is illegal or discouraged from holding power (like in Eastern Europe). They also have elections.
In 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto. It was a short book with the basic ideas of communism. Most socialists and communists today still use this book to help them understand politics and economics. Many non-communists read it too, even if they do not agree with everything in it.
Karl Marx said that for society to change into a communist way of living, there would have to be a transitional period. During this transitional period, the workers would govern society. Marx was very interested in the experience of the Paris Commune of 1870, when the workers of Paris ran the city following the defeat of the French Army by the Prussian Army. He thought that this practical experience was more important than the theoretical views of the various radical groups.
Many groups and individuals liked Marx's ideas. By the beginning of the twentieth century there was a world-wide socialist movement called Social Democracy. It was influenced by his ideas. They said that the workers in different countries had more in common with each other than the workers had in common with the bosses within their own nation. In 1917, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky led a Russian group called the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution. They got rid of the temporary government of Russia which was formed after the February Revolution against the Tsar (Emperor). They established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Also called the Soviet Union or USSR).
The Soviet Union was the first country claiming to have established a workers state. In reality the country never became communist in the way that Marx and Engels described.
During the 20th century, many people tried to establish workers states. In the late 1940's, China also had a revolution and created a new government with Mao Zedong as its leader. In the 1950's, the island of Cuba had a revolution and created a new government with Fidel Castro as its leader. At one time, there were many such countries and it seemed as though communism would win. But communist party governments forgot to use democracy, a very important part of socialism and communism. Because of this, the governments became separate from the people, making communism difficult. This also led to disagreements and splits between countries.
By the 1960's, one-third of the world had overthrown capitalism and were trying to build communism. Most of these countries followed the model of the Soviet Union. Some followed the model of China. The other two-thirds of the world still lived in capitalism, and this led to a world-wide divide between capitalist countries and countries that called themselves 'socialist.' This was called the "Cold War" because it was not fought with weapons or armies, but competing ideas. However, this could have turned into a large war. The USA and the Soviet Union were competing to have the biggest army and having the most dangerous weapons. This was called the "Arms Race".
Since 1989, when the Berlin Wall was torn down, most countries that used to call themselves workers states have returned to capitalism. Communism now has much less influence around the world. In 1991, the Soviet Union broke up. However, around a quarter of the world's people still live in states controlled by a communist party. Most of these are in China. The other countries include Cuba, Vietnam, and Laos. There are also communist movements in Latin America and South Africa.
Many people have written their own ideas about communism. Vladimir Lenin of Russia thought that there had to be a group of hard-working revolutionaries (called a vanguard) to lead a socialist revolution worldwide and create a communist society everywhere. Leon Trotsky, also from Russia, argued that socialism had to be international, and it was not important to make it happen first in Russia. He also did not like Joseph Stalin, who became the leader of the USSR after Lenin's death in 1924. Trotsky was made to leave the Soviet Union by Stalin in 1928, and then killed in 1940. This scared many people, and lots of communists argued about whether this was right and whose ideas should be followed.
Stalin thought that it was important to make the Soviet Union powerful first, then spread it around the world when it was stronger. Many communists (like Leon Trotsky) said that Stalin was not a real communist, because the original idea of communism needed small groups of workers voting and deciding on things together, and Stalin in no way supported voting or democracy. Yet there are communist schools of thought which agree with Stalin, mainly because of his rapid industrialization and victory over Germany.
Mao Zedong of China thought that other classes would be important to the revolution in China and other third world countries because the working classes in these countries were small. Mao's ideas on communism are usually called Maoism or Mao Zedong Thought. After the death of Stalin in 1953, Mao saw himself as the leader of worldwide communism until he died in 1976. Today the Chinese government is still ruled by the Communist Party, but they actually have what is called a mixed economy. They have borrowed many things from capitalism. The government in China today does not follow Maoism. Revolutionaries in other countries like India and Nepal still like his ideas and are trying to use them in their own countries.
The term communism is vague in describing political organisations of the left. Many political parties calling themselves "communist" may be in practice more reformist (supportive of reforms and slow pace of change rather than revolution) than some parties calling themselves "socialists". Many communist parties in Latin America have lost many members because these parties do different things than what they promised when they have gotten power. In Chile between 1970-1973 under the left-wing coalition (groups of parties) of Popular Unity, lead by Salvador Allende, the Communist Party of Chile was to the right of the Socialist Party of Chile - meaning that it was more reformist than the socialist party.
Many communist parties will use a reformist strategy. They say working class people are not organised enough to carry out big changes to their society. They put forward candidates that will be elected democratically. Once communists become elected to parliament or the senate they will then fight for the working class. This will allow working class people to transform their capitalist society into a socialist one.
Symbols and culture
The color red is a symbol of communism around the world. A red five-pointed star sometimes also stands for communism. The hammer and sickle is a well known symbol of communism. It was also on the flags of many communist countries (see top of article). Some communists also like to use pictures of famous communists from history, such as Marx, Lenin and Mao Zedong, as symbols of the whole philosophy of communism.
A song called The Internationale was the international song of communism. It has the same music everywhere, but the words to the song are translated into very many languages.
There is also a special kind of art and architecture found in many communist and former communist countries. Paintings done in the style of socialist realism are often done for propaganda to show an ideal version of a country's people and political leader. Art done in the socialist realism style, such as plays, movies, novels and paintings show hard-working, happy and well-fed factory workers and farmers. Movies, plays and novels in this style often tell stories about workers or soldiers who sacrifice themselves for the good of their country. Paintings often showed heroic portraits of the leader, or landscapes showing huge fields of wheat. Stalinist architecture was supposed to represent the power and glory of the state and its political leader. Some non-communists also enjoy this kind of art.
- Karl Marx
- Vladimir Lenin
- Joseph Stalin
- Nicolae Ceauşescu
- Mao Tse-Tung
- Erich Honecker
- Mikhail Gorbachev
- Che Guevara